What does love look like?

What does love look like?

Some stories are worth repeating.  And here’s one heard me tell before:

“Once upon a time there were two brothers, one a bachelor, the other married, who owned a farm whose fertile soil yielded an abundance of grain.  Half the grain went to one brother and half to the other.

All went well at first.  Then, every now and then, the married man began to wake with a start from his sleep at night and think: “This isn’t fair.  My brother isn’t married and he gets half the produce of the farm.  Here I am with a wife and five kids, so I have all the security I need for my old age.  But who will care for my poor brother when he gets old?  He needs to save much more for the future than he does at present, so his need is obviously greater than mine”.  With that he would get out of bed, steal over to his brother’s place and pour a sackful of grain into his brother’s granary.

The bachelor too began to get these nightly attacks.  Every once in a while, he would wake from his sleep and say to himself: “This simply isn’t fair.  My brother has a wife and five kids and gets half the produce of the land.  Now I have no-one except myself to support.  So, is it just that my poor brother, whose need is obviously greater than mine, should receive exactly as much as I do?”  Then he would get out of bed and pour a sackful of grain into his brother’s granary.

One day they got out of bed at the same time and ran into each other, each with a sack of grain on his back!

Many years later, after their death, the story leaked out.  So, when the townsfolk wanted to build a new church, they chose the spot at which the two brothers met for they could not think of any other place in the town that was holier than that one.”

This week I’ve been musing on the question, “What does love look like?”  And this De Mello story answers it more succinctly than any biblical text I can think of.  Love is seeing the needs of the other.  Love is putting aside your own needs.  And love is giving freely of what is rightly yours to the other.  When such love is reciprocated, the result is indeed sacred.

When we think of Bible stories of such love, we just get glimpses.  There is Ruth pledging her future to her mother-in-law Naomi’s wellbeing.  Naomi being a penniless foreigner.  There is Joseph deciding, in the face of criticism and doubt, to companion Mary, supporting her in the birth of her illegitimate child.  There is Jesus, against the wishes of his disciples, touching and blessing children.  Scholars tell us that such touching and blessing would obligate Jesus to those children’s ongoing welfare and wellbeing.   

The first reading today is Richard Rohr’s story of a little boy questioning a rabbi.  I like this story not because it is invites us to consider what loving God means (which it does), but because it says some things important about love.

The rabbi begins his lesson by saying ‘Try to be present to the most simple and basic thing in reality so you can see its goodness and beauty.  Then let that goodness and beauty come into you.  Let it speak to you.’  And the rabbi starts with a stone.  Then a flower, a pet dog, the sky, mountains, and another person.  ‘Be present to them and let their beauty and their life come to you, and give yourself to them.’

Which is another way of saying love begins with listening.  It begins with stilling the noise in your own head and heart, your assumptions, expectations, and needs (your ‘baggage’ so to speak) so that you can listen and see the goodness, beauty, and life of the other on their own terms.  You can’t be truly present to another unless that noise is stilled.  I imagine this is what Ruth did.  And Joseph.  And Jesus too.

Then says this story, in being present to another, you can give yourself to that other.  You can enter their world, leaving your ‘baggage’ at the door. 

When a person enters another’s world, leaving for a while the baggage of their own needs, and gives and receives of the goodness, beauty, and life of the other, we have a glimpse of what love looks like.  When two people do this with each other, the result is something sacred and precious.  Like De Mello’s two brothers.

And it begins with listening to the other and quietening our own noise.  Which takes time and practice.  And the first thing 1st Corinthians 13 says about love is that it’s patient.  Love is patient.  So, let’s always be patient with each other as we’re all learning how to love.

It also really helps to have received the gift of someone listening to you, leaving their baggage, and loving you along your journey of life.  That love might be from a parent(s), or a grandparent(s), or an extraordinary friend or sibling.  Not that having received love is a guarantee that you’ll be able to love others.  There are destructive forces in our world that can damage us regardless of our upbringing.  And some people, though having received little love in their past, can deeply love others.  There are healing forces in our world that can give us all hope.

The ability to love another is also interwoven with the ability to love yourself.  I’m not talking about some form of egotistical narcissism (which, by the way, is more often about self-loathing than self-loving).  I’m talking about the ability to deeply listen to yourself – past the demands and approvals of all those messages you’ve received about pleasing others, being successful, and fitting with others’ expectations.  To deeply listen to yourself in order to hear your inherent goodness, beauty, and worth.

The writer of 1st John 4 in the mid-2nd century puts his thoughts about love into religious language.  “Let us love one another, because love is from God…  8Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love”.  If, following the rabbi and child story, we define love as listening, and stilling, and giving oneself, then these transitive verbs point us 1st John’s understanding of the nature and essence of God. 

Then the writer of this passage, like the writer of James 2, infers that to follow the way of Jesus, that way into God, means to give oneself to the way of trying to love others.  Trying to listen to others.  Trying to still one’s own prejudices and assumptions (like dress, behaviour, gender, race).  And trying to open oneself to appreciate the beauty, goodness, and life of another.

Which can be hard work.  Hard work getting around our assumptions, expectations, and needs.  Like the James 2 example of fine clothes means a fine person, and dirty clothes a dirty person.  The Bible says a lot about not judging someone on their outward appearance.

But loving is hard work too because sometimes the other person is hard to like, let alone love.  Listening for the goodness and beauty in someone who has been nasty or destructive is difficult to say the least.

Louise Penny is an award-winning Canadian novelist and is well-known by many who read crime fiction.  Like most books in this genre, Penny’s Chief Inspector Gamache series offers the intrigue and puzzle of solving complicated crimes, as well as the intrigue and puzzles of relationships between the solvers of such crimes and their friends.  But unlike most books in this genre, Penny, as the series progresses, offers us something remarkable.  These books are actually about love and friendship.  About belonging and hope.  And finding kindness buried even in some of the most hurt or most damaged of people.  

In book 9, How the Light Gets In (and you will hear the Leonard Cohen reference), Penny writes that: “Armand Gamache had always held unfashionable beliefs.  He believed the light would banish the shadows.  That kindness was more powerful than cruelty, and that goodness existed, even in the most desperate places.”

These beliefs find substance in two key relationships in the series – that of Gamache and his second-in-command Jean-Guy, and of Gamache and his wife Reine-Marie.  These are relationships of deep love.  The type of love that suffers for and with.  The type of love that endures to the end and all the crises along the way.  The type of love that makes life worthwhile because it gives others worth, and gives you (the observer, the reader) hope in the future.

I have a theory that novelists who create complex characters often know something first-hand of those complexities either in their own life or in the lives of people who have been close to them.  Sure, a writer can research, say addiction, and weave their findings into a character.  But oftentimes for a character to ring true, the writer has either been in that world or entered vicariously and deeply into that world.  And so it is for Penny, who over an 18-year career as a journalist developed an addiction to alcohol.

Louise Penny’s books are also remarkable for the acknowledgements section.  In most books this section is usually a list of ‘thank yous’ and names of editors, friends, family, and other helpers and encouragers.  Penny though writes movingly about the love for her husband Michael, and his love for her.  She met and married Michael at the time she was withdrawing from alcohol. 

She shares with us glimpses of a beautiful love – of tenderness, of loyalty, of suffering, and of much joy.  Michael’s Alzheimer’s is diagnosed while she is writing, and it then progresses as the series progresses.  In time his physical health also deteriorates and he dies.  And through it all flows this precious love expressed by word, by touch, by inference.

And through the main characters in her novels flow the ways of love.  Forgiving when hurt.  Kind when criticized.  Patient when disbelieved.  And the four sayings, wise in any relationship: “I was wrong. I’m sorry.  I don’t know.  I need help.”

So, what does love look like?  Giving.  Seeing beauty beneath the grime.  Appreciating.  Being appreciated.  Going without because you’re going with, to wherever.  Resilient.  Patient.  Tenderness that you can offer others because you’ve been helped to find it in yourself.  Joy.  The gift of being trusted, giving trust, holding another, and being held… come what may.
Glynn Cardy, 24th July 2022