I'm sitting here in one of the chapels of that post-modern sanctuary, the ever-present local Starbucks, sipping on my mint tea. No post-Thanksgiving blues here, no sir, and no Black Friday anxiety, either. Just me and my tea in a leather back chair trying to sort out the mysteries of life.
What always manages to vex me on days like this are the outlines of what counts for love. You see people here sitting as young couples, or grandmothers with their grandsons, or middle-aged women sitting alone, all of them looking for the same thing: love. And I don't mean to sound trite in saying that, but aren't we all, in the end, looking for the same thing? Whatever it is we're doing, whether catching up or drilling down, blissfully alone or just plain lonely, "in love" or broken up, aren't we all looking for a love that saves us? And it does, doesn't it? Saves us from the boredom of mere existence, from the anxiety of trying to breathe in the midst of Capitalism's constant taps on the shoulder for attention in the form of Black Friday sales, or the omnipresent notifications of our social media accounts, or the existential dread beneath it all that we've chosen to domesticate. Whatever it is, it all begins and ends in love, which is probably what Jesus meant when he said, "I am the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end," that he is Love, and that Love had the First word and will also have the Last.
But what exactly counts for such a love? And I don't mean the arbitrary and counterfeit loves of secular culture but the love embodied in the life of the Crucified One, in that forbidding realm, in the severities of a life lived at the margins, the trenches, the many valleys of the shadow of death? I'm thinking here of Eavan Boland's haunting poem, Quarantine (and in particular of the last two stanzas), which has been an existential place setting for me these last 20 years:
In the worst hour of the worst season of the worst year of a whole people a man set out from the workhouse with his wife. He was walking—they were both walking—north.
She was sick with famine fever and could not keep up. He lifted her and put her on his back. He walked like that west and west and north. Until at nightfall under freezing stars they arrived.
In the morning they were both found dead. Of cold. Of hunger. Of the toxins of a whole history. But her feet were held against his breastbone. The last heat of his flesh was his last gift to her.
Let no love poem ever come to this threshold.
There is no place here for the inexact
praise of the easy graces and sensuality of the body.
There is only time for this merciless inventory:
Their death together in the winter of 1847. And also what they suffered. How they lived.
And what there is between a man and a woman. And in which darkness it can best be proved.
If Boland is correct, and I think she is, then here's what I think of that severest of realities of life:
That love isn't about how you feel but about what you do.
That love isn't accessible to the proud but only to the meek.
That love eschews power and control in favor of servitude and sacrifice.
That love isn't sentimental but clear-eyed.
That love isn't rewarded for its own sake but is, in itself, the reward.
That love does not focus on the self but on the other.
That in focusing on the other, the self is enlarged.
That love is not immediate but patient.
That love burns and does not satisfy.
That love works out for the long run, not the short return.
That love is the hardest thing in life, not the easiest thing in life.
In coming up with such a list, if indeed it is correct, I'm left to conclude that this life, made in love and redeemed by it, is supposed to be hard; that the suffering so present in the world in all its myriad and tortured forms is not ultimately a rebuke of God's love but the inevitable effect of a perfect love in a sinful and broken world where love and brokenness, grace and sin collide; that suffering is not a challenge to God's reality but a sign of its necessity. And what is the alternative? A meaningless suffering, a dystopian existence of chaos and futility, a life in which survival of the fittest is the only law, a life bereft of love and virtue.
Take your pick because you can't have both. And make no mistake: the stakes are high, so choose wisely. And then hold on, because either choice guarantees one thing: hardship. But your choice also poses perhaps the most consequential contrast of existence: that in the midst of such hardship, endemic to this earthly life, lie two roads, one instinctive and offering ephemeral happiness and the occasional pangs of ecstasy, the other counter-intuitive and offering joy in all its fullness, a joy that does not preclude sadness and suffering (or ecstasy) by the way, but depends on them (else it would not be joy). The first road is wide and many take it. The second road is narrow and few choose it, for reasons already stated and obvious. We are a people, of course, that prefer the immediate to the eventual, the obvious to the hidden, the easy to the hard. Why else would we struggle with our debts, our weight, our addictions, our resplendent but ultimately indolent indulgences? Why else would we love money, which we've been warned is the root of all evil? Why else, indeed.
The Road Not Taken
by Robert Frost
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.