Stand and face me, my love, and scatter the grace in your eyes

Given that today is Valentine's Day it really would be churlish to say the least if I were not to take as my theme "love". But "love" is a problematic theme because it is so easy to over simplify it. In religious circles this process nearly always begins and ends by citing 1 John 4:16 that "Since God is love, he who resides in love resides in God, and God resides in him" (trans. Willis Barnstone) and then leaving matters there as if that were sufficient.
    I don't doubt that most of us here respond in a generally positive way to this idea but in the face of such a claim I, at least, am always left with the practical question I learnt from Lenin - namely "Who? Whom?" which is to say "Who does what to whom for whose benefit?". From my seat in the congregation this translates into: "OK Mr. Preacher Man, you say 'God is love', but what kind of God, showing what kind of love to whom?" I know, and you know, that over its long history Christianity (and every other religion of course) has believed in some pretty unpleasant kinds of gods who have dispensed some pretty unpleasant kinds of love. So, "No, Mr Preacher Man, merely citing 'God is love' will not do - tell me more."
    But merely telling you more about "love" - analysing it more accurately - won't, I think, really help. In his "Confessions" St Augustine asks "What . . . is time? If no one asks of me, I know; if I wish to explain to him who asks, I know not." What is true of time seems to me to be true of "love". On the occasions I have tried better to describe and define it the more I'm forced to admit that down that route, at least, "I know not what is this thing called love"
    So today I'm not going to try and tell you something more but rather I'm going to share a 'telling' that encourages us to be alert to 'showings' of love which can for us serve as useful reminders and helpful objects of comparison in the task of coming better to know what love is. If we can do this regularly and together at least we will be better able to sense when we have come into the presence of love - a presencing which causes us to say to each other "Look, love!" and to respond when we agree we can see it there saying simply "Yes! I see". In this context such exchanges can have for us (who can no longer hold metaphysical religious beliefs) what I have called elsewhere (after James C. Edwards' example) the power of "inevitable knowledge" (I spoke a little about that a couple of weeks ago). Such a knowledge can encourage in us a change of attitude to the world and with this comes an improved chance that we will better learn how to show and receive love ourselves.
    It does seem to me that the closest thing to a definition of love we can get to is by sharing with each other expressions of love that we have gathered together as reminders and objects of comparison. So we can, together and in conversation over the years say things like - "Well we have come to feel that A, B and C show 'love' but let us also notice that, say, A is not like B but somewhat closer to C. These comparisons help us to see love in D, E, F and G and out beyond the twenty-six letters of the alphabet into the countless different expressions of love that are possible in our world. Together they help us see more quickly when it is that love begins to reveal its presence.
    No single expression of love can stand on its own as a final definition of love (not even Christ's) because as human-beings, and no matter how perfect we are, are only ever able to map small areas of love's presencing - a presence that is always moving, alive, beyond definition, and always deeper and larger than anything we can imagine, let alone capture in our aesthetic ideas and images - that is to say those poems, stories, songs, pictures and music that are our reminders of love and objects of comparison. For all their beauty and value alone the best they can do is give us approximations of what Love is.
    To paraphrase the philosopher Michael McGhee (in his "Transformations of Mind - Philosophy as Spiritual Practice", CUP, 2000) the expressions of love we see before us in our collection 'speak for, are correspondent with, the possibility of a state of mind and it is *that* which, if it achieves reality, becomes the object of further comparison . . . It beckons towards deeper experience which in turn resonates with the words: indeed we discover the source of the resonance that beckoned' (p. 126).
    But notice McGhee's caveat here - it is only *if* this possible state of mind expressed in the various reminders that form our collection achieves reality that we are pointed towards the source of the resonance itself. In the end our collection of reminders and objects of comparison about love are only worth anything in so far as they actually transform us and achieve reality in our own lives so our own actions and deeds join the collection of reminders and our lives can come to be for others "objects" of comparison. As an earlier verse in 1 John puts it: "My little children, let's not love in word or tongue, but in deeds and in our truth" (1 John 3:18 trans. Willis Barnstone). Love is not something to be defined but lived and experienced. It's a look, see, remember, act, compare, reflect, look, see, remember, act compare process. If you don't engage in it you won't know love - neither in word or speech, nor truth an action. 
    Now, lying hidden behind my attempt at showing something about love is this thought: if "God is love" then, grammatically we open ourselves open to the possibility of saying that "love is God". As long as we ensure that we keep this as an approximation and don't slip into a naive theological realism and make any one of our collected reminders and objects of comparison of "love" literally God, then the reminders we are gathering about love may possibly also serve as useful reminders of what we might be trying to say when we speak of God - in whom we live, move and have our being.
    With this thought I'll make my final gesture today. It helps to be reminded that love seems connected with "being" itself and it seems helpful to suggest that love can only be expressed and recognised in so far as "being" itself "remains open to the full appropriateness of its nature." Here are some words of the translator and philosopher Albert Hofstader which seem suggestive to me:

"To think being, Heidegger says, means to respond to the appeal of its presence, in a response that stems from and releases itself toward the appeal. But this means to exist as a human being in an authentic relationship as mortal to other mortals, to earth and sky, to the divinities present or absent, to things and plants and animals; it means, to let each of these be - to let it presence in openness, in the full appropriateness of its nature - and to hold oneself open to its being, recognising it and responding to it appropriately in one's own being, the way in which one goes on, lives; and then, perhaps, in this ongoing life one may hear the call of the language that speaks of the being of all these beings and responds to it in a mortal language that speaks of what it hears (Albert Hofstader's introduction to 'Poetry Language and Thought' by Martin Heidegger).

    On this Valentine's Day one way we may overhear and be reminded of the language that "speaks of being to all beings and responds to it in a mortal language that speaks of what it hears" is in witnessing love given and received between two people. Sensing the presence of love they may say to each other as Sappho once beautifully said:

"Stand and face me, my love,
and scatter the grace in your eyes"

(Sappho, Fragment 138 - trans. Willis Barnstone)

May the glimpses of love that we see together and gather as reminders be kept in our hearts so that love's grace may be scattered continually amongst us all.
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