Love is not a transaction (and other lessons from dead poets)

Love[3]

Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,
               Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
               From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
               If I lacked anything.

“A guest,” I answered, “worthy to be here.”

               Love said, “You shall be he.”
“I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
               I cannot look on thee.”
Love took my hand, and smiling, did reply,
               “Who made the eyes but I?”

“Truth, Lord, but I have marred them; let my shame

               Go where it doth deserve.”
“And know you not,” says Love, “who bore the blame?”
               “My dear, then I will serve.”
“You must sit down,” says Love, “and taste my meat.”
               So I did sit and eat.

~ George Herbert  (1593–1633)
**********

As part of my undergrad degree in English Literature, I had to memorize poetry for several classes. That was over two decades ago, but I still can recite a few lines from Wordsworth’s “I wandered lonely as a cloud” and from the prologue to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. If I’m ever deprived of other means of entertainment, I can always snicker out a few lines of “whan that april with his shoures soote / The droghte of march hath perced to the roote…” (Dr. John Skillen, who taught Medieval Lit, always made us feel like we were reading something hilariously inappropriate. I will be forever grateful to him for that.)

Herbert’s Love [3] was part of 17th Century Brit Lit, also taught by Dr. Skillen. I forgot that I had committed this to memory until yesterday when I was browsing through that old green text book.  Reading “Love bade me welcome,” I felt an old ache, like a long unused muscle. Having memorized it, the poem was branded into my mind, yet in a place I seldom looked until recently.  It was filed somewhere under “Dead White Guy Poetry,” cross-referenced to “Stuff I learned in College.”

But this poem was always different than the other poems I was required to learn. It was not an academic exercise. It lived and breathed for me something of the dramatic dialog that was my relationship with God. This poem was easy to memorize because it so perfectly expressed for me how I felt about the love and grace available through God’s “meat.”

And so Love still bids me welcome, and my soul still draws back. Love is not interested in my worthiness, just in my presence. There is something in the human soul (or at least in mine and in George Herbert’s) that is repulsed by our lack of holiness, and in our utter lack of worthiness to be God’s guest. We want to somehow earn our way to the table.

So we go back and forth. “Quick-eyed Love” sees me pulling away, and says not so fast (or, more precisely, asks if I “lacked anything”). And then it’s the “I’m not worthy” moment of truth (“A guest… worthy to be here”). And Love: that would be you (“You shall be he”).

Love counters over and over my weak excuses (“Who made the eyes but I?” “Who bore the blame?”). I (and Herbert) finally give up. We sit and eat. There never was any other way it could end.  Herbert was a gentle genius, carefully and concisely explaining the argument we all must have (and will eventually lose) with Love.

While this primary reading remains, I now am struck by the further thought that even with human love, I am not good at receiving without some transactional give back. But isn’t the way I love others a way I show my love for God?  Isn’t the way I accept love from others an expression of my acceptance of God’s love?  “Sit down, have a drink,” says my dad.  “I made chicken soup, grab a bowl,” says my neighbor. When there is such a command to take from the selfless giver, I am flummoxed. I see that other people struggle with this as well, shifting uncomfortably under the weight of an unconditional gift.  Could someone really mean that there is no expectation of reciprocity? What would happen if we took them at their word?

Maybe, if we allowed Love its full expression, it would not be emptied of intent by our trying to even it out. Maybe if I got better at accepting unconditional Love, I would get better at giving it. But once again, even in considering the possibility, I am trying to even the score.  I still don’t get it.

Once again, Love must issue orders: Sit. Eat.

Reference

Seventeenth Century Prose and Poetry, Second Edition, Enlarged, Selected and Edited by Alexander M. Withersppon and Frank J. Warnke (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc, New York, 1982)

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