Christmas Love II
Bill Long 12/25/04
Browning's Other Loves
If the first idea she examines in lines 9-12 is the strength of love's intensity, the next thought she mentions is the suppleness of love's innocence. In Browning's words: [I love thee] with my childhood's faith (l. 10)." In contrast to the intense feelings associated with the old griefs is her childhood faith.
What, then, is characteristic of childhood faith? For most people the image that comes immediately to mind is Jesus gathering children in his arms and telling the disciples that in order to enter the kingdom of heaven one must have faith like a child. Thus, we most naturally think of childhood faith as children's implicit trust and simplicity. Though this has truth to it, I would like to stress that "my childhood's faith," with which Browning now loves, is the ability to imagine another reality that is simple, visual and practical.
A brief story will help bring this point into focus. I have a friend who has become increasingly disillusioned with the Bush Administration's prosecution of the War in Iraq. One day she said to me, "Well, the best thing to do in this situation is to go to talk to Abigail." When inquiring about Abigail, I found that she was not my friend's therapist; she was the 3 1/2 year old daughter of my friend's former co-worker. My friend plays with her and her 18 month-old brother for about three hours once a week. I readily confess that I admire my friend's energy, commitment and incredibly positive view of the specialness of all people.
When my friend came back from "talking" to Abigail and her brother, she was exhausted. I asked her about her time. She said it was wonderful. They made Christmas cards, exchanged presents, decorated the tree and sang songs together. Abigail was extremely generous: offering to give to my friend their tree, their decorations and even her brother's toys! Not once did the issues that bog down adults come up in their three hours of energetic engagement. The reality pervading the time was another reality: one created through the intergenerational play of beautiful people, filled with colors and shapes, with smells and sounds of the season, with unexpected and even laughable offers of gifts.
This childhood faith, this supple sign of sincerity, simplicity and innocence, is instructive to us as we try to understand Browning's line that she now loves "with my childhood's faith." The intensity devoted to the griefs is now supplemented with the ingenuous simplicity of new-reality-creating children.
The Lost Saints
But there is a third way in which Browning loves in these lines. "I love with the love I seemed to lose with the lost saints." If the first love picks up on her disappointments, and the second focuses on the different reality of children, the third relates love to her disillusionments. She loves with a love she seemed to lose. She lost her love when she lost her saints. Who might these be?
To me, these saints are those whom she consciously or unconsciously imitated when she was younger. The "saints" are the older people whom young people think have it all "together," who seemingly know everything about everything and act so calmly and maturely when problems confront. Many times these "saints" are parents or close relatives. Who has not experienced or heard stories about children who perceived their parents as towers of strength or possessors of all knowledge and insight? Yet, children eventually discover the "truth" of their elders.
The saints become "lost saints" when the children come back from college and look at their parents differently, when they see parents' lives collapse in grief or divorce, when they see parents' hypocrisy and easy accommodations when the pressures of life have multiplied. They so much wanted to love these saints, to commit themselves to the image of grace, strength and perfection that these modeled for them. But, these saints disappointed. The love directed toward these perfect saints had to change.
Many people who love this poem focus on it for the beauty of lines 2-3 or lines 12-14. They readily affirm Browning when she says, "I love thee to the depth and breadth and height/ My soul can reach (ll. 2-3)." They say "amen" when she says, "I love thee with the breath,/ Smiles, tears, of all my life!--and, if God choose,/ I shall but love thee better after death (ll. 12-14)."
These thoughts have rich biblical echoes (cf. Paul's reflection on the breath and depth and height of God's love in Ephesians 3). They also resonate in our hearts because they reflect love's glorious striving--to reach into every cranny of the heart and pull out from it our most sincere love and undimmed affection for the beloved. But, I find yet more glorious the way that the energy spent on numbing grief is now turned to the beloved; the way that childhood's wild creativity is transmuted into love; the means by which disillusionment becomes revisioned into the clear vision of love, even if some saints are lost in the process. While we resonate with the glorious striving of the heart alive in love, we are more stirred by the way that the energy expended on griefs and disillusionments is swallowed up now by affection for the beloved. Would that we would understand Browning's love and be able to make it our love.
That, then, is my Christmas wish for 2004--to learn to let the music of my past griefs become a symphonic tune of love directed toward another, to create a new space for love, to love despite the disillusionments of the past, to take the time to let love flower in my heart. May it be so also for you.
[Back to my exposition of I Cor. 13, First Essay]
[Back to my exposition of I Cor. 13, Second Essay]
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long