In honor of Valentine’s Day, I thought I’d put up this brief post about Love. Its something that basically everyone agrees is a good thing, but not everyone means the same thing by it. Here are my two cents.
So the story goes back to almost 3 years ago– March 15th, 2009. Its a long story, but the short version involves a planned 14 hour drive in a Suburban from Alabama to Philadelphia, me and 6 of my siblings in the car. It was dark, and there on I-81 in Virginia (mile marker 125.6, outside of CHristiansburg), my mom had narcolepsy at the wheel and fell asleep, losing control of the Suburban. We were on cruise control 65 mph, so it fishtailed and swerved back and forth hitting the embankments and then rolled over completely twice.
We all lived. There were scratches, concussions, bruises, a cracked tooth, and sprains. My face was swollen fantastically, but no broken bones. I wasn’t seatbelted, the car was totaled, the window next to me smashed open and our stuff (oranges, candy, duffel bags) all over the side of the highway for a hundred yards. The hospital let us go after 4 hours, and we collapsed at a motel. I’d been strapped to a board and x-rayed, but not given any medications–I was running on adrenaline, and didn’t start to feel the pain till we’d checked into the motel. My father arrived at the motel later that night, driving a friend’s borrowed minivan to pick us up. The next day we all double buckled and drove on, my dad driving his bedraggled family.
Around 5:15 pm the next day, sitting double-buckled with my 6 year old sister, it suddenly hit me. My life had been given back to me. But it was like a third scoop of icecream—completely unasked for, unmerited, undeserved. It wasn’t that I thought I deserved death. No–it was that I had already been given so much.
No, it wasn’t that I thought I didn’t deserve to live. It was that I had, in those 20.9 years of my life, more joy, more happiness, more “LIFE!”, than most are given in a sixty-year lifespan. What I mean is–love. I had 2 parents who had pretty much succeeded in their pledge made before I was born, to give their kids unconditional love. And at college, I had a close-knit cadre of particularly kind and loyal girlfriends–a sisterhood really. And then I had 8 biological siblings, who love me as only siblings can, who have fought and made up with me thousands of times, who know me inside and out, who have wept/laughed/screamed for (or because of) me, and have mocked all my individual quirks that they know too well.
And I had the love of my little siblings, especially Mali (the 9 yr old), who just before the accident had been sitting in my lap and drawing pictures on her clipboard (of crosses and roses and praying maidens), letting me kiss the top of her head. Mali is another story (she bawled uncontrollably whenever I left for college, and when I returned she laughed and showed her joy by grabbing my braid and hanging off it, knocking me over completely, flat on my back in the front yard when I returned home. Her response to my “I love you!” on the phone is a gruff “You’d better!.” She is the kid that would trudge uncomplaining through miles in the rain, and sent me homemade cards from scratch-paper–later emoticon-filled emails–with such messages as “Do not be sad.Do not say bad words and do not be mean. I love you and God Does too!!! P.S. Do not show this card to ANYONE.”). And there were my grandparents, and my cousins, and countless friends….
Anyway, I had all this love, so much of it from so many. My cup had been filled and overflowing. I’d hiked mountains with my siblings, ran around shouting poetry into thunderstorms, curled up around the fire as my Dad read the whole family The Hobbit & The Lord of the Rings. I’d run singing down the road, skipped down the street with my siblings and my Dad at Dawn, and eaten so many chocolates and pieces of chocolates (that my parents had carefully cut into small pieces so that portions were the same for our “equal opportunity family). And I had been given the love of God.
Going to college, and meeting those who had been given so much less….I had more than my share. My portion had been overflowing. My life had been so full of joy and love, those 20.9 years. If I had died in that car wreck–it would not have been tragically cut short. I still had in those 20.9 years more than other have had in 80.
But I hadn’t died. Thrown about in that rolling Suburban, my neck hadn’t snapped or my skull shattered. I was alive. Life was being given back to me. It was so—much. Gratuitous. Superfluous. Like being given a 3rd scoop of icecream and a cherry atop it. This all dawned on me at 5:15pm on March 16th, as I sat in the minivan with the icepack on my face. And then I spoke to God, silently, thanking him and asking why.
And then he gave me a vision. No, I didn’t go into a trance, and no, I didn’t hear any celestial words. It was all in my mind’s eye, wordless, and lasted for only a moment. But it was a clear message nonetheless. To quote Till we Have Faces: “One may mistake the voice of a man for the voice of a god, but when one hears the voice of a god–you cannot mistake it for the voice of a man.” It was like that.
So here was the “vision” that came, as I sat in the borrowed minivan, with the icepack on my face, double-buckled to my 6-yr-old sister. It was four pictures, flashing through my mind’s eye in rapid succession, and a message without words.
The first picture was from a scene in a disaster film I had seen a couple years before. A middle-aged mother and a father had just forcibly put their (crying) two children on the last available spot to (possible) safety. There was no more room on the vehicle for them, so they were left behind–and they knew they were going to die within a few minutes (a giant tidal wave was coming). They turned and looked at eachother, very soberly, trying to stay calm, and then the wife’s face contorts in fear and grief, and they steady eachother, staring soberly into eachother’s faces (the people around them are panicking and screaming). The tidal wave hits.
The second picture was from a novel I’d read, where a man barricades himself into a room, to distract some irate soldiers for a quarter of an hour. It’s a desperate ruse in order to buy time for someone else to run for their life.
The third picture was from nothing I’d seen/read previously. It was a woman in her late fifties, a spinster, lying in a small upstairs room of an over-crowded multi-generational family tenement. She had some wasting disease (Tuberculosis?), invalid now, breathing heavily. She had lived the quiet life of an old maid, with no career and no accomplishments, beholden to her (not wealthy) relatives. You could hear the banging of feet on the stairs, the voices of sisters and cousins, the shouts of youthful grand-nieces and nephews and neighborhood kids arguing, the slamming of doors–life going on in the rooms above and below. She loved them, quietly, practically, in her own plain way, had lived for them, single day after day. And now her simple life wound to a close, with no achievements or experiences or possessions to show for it.
There was a unity behind all three images: Completion. The couple, the man, the spinster—they were being made complete. Finished. Full. They were pouring themselves out, had poured themselves out, in dramatic sacrifice or the grinding sacrifice of mundane tasks. And in this they were made complete.
Love, a kind that gathers together all of one’s being, and then pours it out for the good of another. A letting go, a self-emptying. A love like a spirit, a breath, as if pouring through them, and not stopping, pouring through them as they poured out themselves. Even as they emptied themselves, hollowing themselves out, they became a channel, a conduit, and this–love, this spirit, this be-ing, flowed through them and did not stop. It made them complete, and it made them beautiful. Uniting all in this flow, and yet distinct, each personhood still (even more so!) in its individual, beloved, worth–because of this self-emptying that opened to be filled.
And that Love! It was like a water flowing, a river, a wind. But a wind that was breath of a living thing. The most perfect, beautiful, complete Love that it made all human loves look like diseased and shrivelled things in comparison. Mighty and gentle, a sweetness and a fire, self-emptying and fulfilling—completing. A beauty in it that was more my mind could take in. My senses/perceptions were on overload, I started sobbing.
And the fourth picture–another film still, Christ on the cross (I think it was from the Passion), his head fallen on his chest after crying out “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do…into your hands I commend my spirit.”
There was a unity to it, the same water, the same stream, pouring in waterfalls through each and each, and then uniting into one whole. Each pours out self and becomes complete, in the losing–receiving, opening to that current of Love which is fire and spirit and God himself. Each, transforming into the likeness of that Beauty and yet themselves as they were meant to be, complete individual personhood. Glory.
Then the wordless message: this has been the desire of God from the beginning of time, this has been, is, and ever shall be. This is His sole desire for us. He longs for this for each human being born into this world, He longs for us to love others with that love, pouring out ourselves in that love so that He can pour that love into us and through us.
There. That was March 2009. The next week I arrived back at my college dorm room, typed up several drafts….and stared dismayed as this overwhelming vision had become nothing but a string of platitudes: “God is love“, “Love your neighbor“, “Be holy“, “Be sanctified“, “The one who loses his life will gain it,” etc. I gave up, procrastinating, hoping for better words to come to me. No change in three years, so here goes now.
So…the secret of the universe….is no secret. It’s what we have been told again and again since we were toddlers. And yet–it really is true, those words just carry more meaning than we can comprehend.
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. Love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commands hang all the laws of the prophets.”