06 July 2009

Love … a ‘many-splendoured thing’

Wedding flowers bedecking the door into the chapel at Sidney Sussex College … the view from my bedroom window (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

The Tenth Summer School of the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies (IOCS) opened in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, today with an array of presentations on the summer school topic, “Love,” drawing on music, poetry, literature, spiritual writings and music.

Over 40 people are taking part in the summer school, and we come from Iceland, Ireland, Greece, England, the Czech Republic, Russia, Romania, Ukraine, Canada, Australia, India, and even from Oxford … which may be further away from Cambridge than many of the countries represented here.

Dr Marcus Plested, Academic Director of IOCS, introduced the theme with his discussion of divine love, “A Many-Splendoured thing.”

Dr Plested, who has been a visiting scholar at Princeton in the past year, is the author of a major study of Macarius, and is now completing a book on relationships between the Orthodox Church and RC in late mediaeval era

He told us that the fundamental fact of our summer school is that God is love. We may speak of God in many ways, but love is first and is a theological reality. When we confess and experience God as love, we must then respond in the way we relate to and deal with others.

The Beatles may have told us that “Love is all you need,” But God is all we need. There is a danger of making an idol out of love. God is love, but the reverse does not apply: love is not God, and all our loves are not always rightly oriented towards God. Love can be destructive and consuming, and has an awe-inspiring power for good and evil.

Turning to the first Epistle of Saint John, he compared Saint John the Divine’s attitude to love with our current tendency to dive head and heart, to contrast reason and emotion, but said this is not biblical.

The Psalms speak of the steadfast love of God, as does the Song of Songs, and he prepared us for this as a liet motif or recurrent theme throughout the week.

The Church Fathers and patristic writers were not afraid of talking about eros, and even spoke about it as intense agape. Should our relationships be governed by passion?

Drawing on Socrates, Plato, and other classical philosophers, he went on to make the connection between love and knowledge. The person who loves God longs to know God. Love is not merely an affair of the heart, and it is devalued in society when we identify it with passion only on one hand, or on the other hand use the word casually when we say things such as “I love cake …”

Dr Alexander Lingas, senior lecturer at the City University London and an expert on Byzantine chant, drew on the music of Wagner, Mahler, Theodorakis and Tavener when he spoke later in the morning on “Music, Psalmody, and the Love of God: ancient traditions and modern challenges”

He reminded us that the connection between music and love has always been so, going back though Purcell and the troubadours to the ancient Greek lyricists and poets. The etymology of the word music shows how it has always been associated with the muses and linked with gods and demigods.

Plato too wrote about music in 4th century BC Athens, describing its components as harmony rhythm and text. Classical tragedy was largely sung, but music also included dance and in classical Greece, poetry was always sung. Even the Olympic Games had a musical component,

Even then, music was not just about portraying or describing emotions and feelings, but also about allowing them to enter us. Music is a divine gift that brings the soul into harmony with the wider cosmos.

He told us how Saint Basil described the Psalms as summing up the rest of Scripture, and it is how difficult to regard someone as an enemy when you have sung Psalms with them. The relationship between music and love was laid out by the early Church Fathers, who saw music as a way to express the love of God and to give him praise.

Classic texts and poems

In the afternoon, Professor David Frost introduced us to readings of a number of classic texts with his own reading from the Song of Songs.

Father Alexander Tefft of the Antiochian Orthodox Church read “Rococo” by Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1906):

Take hands and part with laughter;
Touch lips and part with tears;
Once more and no more after,
Whatever comes with years.
We twain shall not remeasure
The ways that left us twain;
Nor crush the lees of pleasure
From sanguine grapes of pain.

We twain once well in sunder,
What will the mad gods do
For hate with me, I wonder,
Or what for love with you?
Forget them till November,
And dream there’s April yet;
Forget that I remember,
And dream that I forget.

Time found our tired love sleeping,
And kissed away his breath;
But what should we do weeping,
Though light love sleep to death?
We have drained his lips at leisure,
Till there’s not left to drain
A single sob of pleasure,
A single pulse of pain.

Dream that the lips once breathless
Might quicken if they would;
Say that the soul is deathless;
Dream that the gods are good;
Say March may wed September,
And time divorce regret;
But not that you remember,
And not that I forget.

We have heard from hidden places
What love scarce lives and hears:
We have seen on fervent faces
The pallor of strange tears:
We have trod the wine-vat’s treasure,
Whence, ripe to steam and stain,
Foams round the feet of pleasure
The blood-red must of pain.

Remembrance may recover
And time bring back to time
The name of your first lover,
The ring of my first rhyme;
But rose-leaves of December
The frosts of June shall fret,
The day that you remember,
The day that I forget.

The snake that hides and hisses
In heaven we twain have known;
The grief of cruel kisses,
The joy whose mouth makes moan;
The pulse's pause and measure,
Where in one furtive vein
Throbs through the heart of pleasure
The purpler blood of pain.

We have done with tears and treasons
And love for treason’s sake;
Room for the swift new seasons,
The years that burn and break,
Dismantle and dismember
Men’s days and dreams, Juliette;
For love may not remember,
But time will not forget.

Life treads down love in flying,
Time withers him at root;
Bring all dead things and dying,
Reaped sheaf and ruined fruit,
Where, crushed by three days’ pressure,
Our three days’ love lies slain;
And earlier leaf of pleasure,
And latter flower of pain.

Breathe close upon the ashes,
It may be flame will leap;
Unclose the soft close lashes,
Lift up the lids, and weep.
Light love's extinguished ember,
Let one tear leave it wet
For one that you remember
And ten that you forget.

Father Tefft’s parish uses a Church of England Church in London, Saint Botolph’s Church, Bishopsgate, one of the two churches where the priest-in-charge is the Revd Dr Alan McCormack, former Dean of Residence in Trinity College Dublin and my former colleague in the Dublin University Far Eastern Mission.

David Frost read the Apostle Paul’s well-known commentary on love in I Corinthians 13: 1-13:

“If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

“Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly,* but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

We heard from Saint Bernard of Clairvaux on the four degrees of love.

David Frost then read one of the best-known poems by George Herbert, “Love (III).” He pointed to a buried pun in the poem where Christ is the host to the guest and the host in the Eucharist:

Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack’d anything.

“A guest,” I answer’d, “worthy to be here”;
Love said, “You shall be he.”
“I, the unkind, the ungrateful? ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee.”
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
“Who made the eyes but I?”

“Truth, Lord, but I have marr’d them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.”
“And know you not,” says Love, “who bore the blame?”
“My dear, then I will serve.”
“You must sit down,” says Love, “and taste my meat.”
So I did sit and eat.

Who’s afraid of the ‘Song of Songs’?

Dr Christine Mangala Frost read from both Rabindrinath Tagore and Saint John of the Cross. Later she spoke on: “Who’s afraid of the Song of Songs? Love in Christian and other traditions.”

She was born in South India in 1945, into a Brahmin family distinguished for five centuries as devotees of Shiva, as Sanskrit scholars, writers and composers. She was the first woman to win the Nehru Memorial Trust Scholarship. This took her to Cambridge and here she became a Christian. Her journey to Christian faith offers many deep insights for today.

She looked critically at the way the Song of Songs has been misinterpreted and marginalised in the Church in the past. She was comfortable telling us that genuine erotic love can be life-enhancing and life-changing experience, but many Church figures in the past were not comfortable with this when it came to reading the Song of Songs.

She compared past Christian attitudes to the Song of Songs with traditional and holistic Jewish interpretations of the eroticism of the Song of Songs, uninfluenced by the soul-body dichotomy found in Neo-Platonism. In addition, she drew on Sufi mystical attitudes to sexuality, and the intense, burning love described by the Sufi mystic and poet Rumi. The Sufi description of love for God is expressed in terms such as desire, yearning and grief at being separated. Similar themes were explored in Hindu mystical poetry and traditions in India.

Christianity keeps us firmly rooted in the world of sin, suffering and evil. She too quoted from Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, who speaks of the cup that Christ drank in Gethsemane as the loving cup. In Orthodox weddings, the loving cup is meant to be the Eucharistic cup. Christ heals and enriches the whole person through his whole body which is offered to us in the Eucharist. There is no limit to the extent and scope of this love.

The sharp distinction between eros and agape that developed in theology is simplistic, moralistic and unwarranted, she said. She spoke of the tension in the movement between desire and yearning and union and fulfilment. The bridegroom is already here. It’s time for celebration, not pining and yearning. Yet, the Kingdom has yet to come, and the “eros of repentance,” as George Capsanis describes it (1992), calls us back to God.

Too much cerebral and desk theology has dislocated theology from the heart, which is the ultimate rendezvous point for the human and the divine.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin

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