by Peter Blood
This was an address given at Friends General Conference summer gathering on July 4, 2004, in Amherst, Massachusetts.
I stand before you with great hesitancy. Ordinarily people are asked to give speeches because they are experts in something. I feel led, however, to talk to you about love: something that I don’t feel I’m very good at. About my own journey of trying to learn to love, some things that have gotten in the way, and ways I am trying to clear away those barriers.
Matthew says that a lawyer asked Jesus which of the commandments is the greatest. He replied that we are to love God with all our heart and all our soul and all our mind. And to love our neighbor. He said everything in the laws and the prophets hangs on these two great commandments. So in other words: it’s all about love.
Let me begin by saying that I have come to experience the universe as fundamentally caring at its core. My mind rebels against the idea of a God at the heart of everything who cares personally about me (wondering, “How can that work?!”) – yet my heart says that there is such a God who cares about me and every other being on this planet, each animal, each growing thing, the earth underneath us, the seas and molecules of air. I know that many people do not experience the universe this way but I ask you to try and walk with me in my experience of this tonight.
I believe we begin to experience being loved before we’re born. Psalm 139 describes the psalmist’s experience of God loving him before birth, fashioning his inmost parts, knitting them together in his mother’s womb, secretly kneading him and shaping him in the depths of the earth, making sure each limb formed in its own time. We too can experience God’s love before birth as seeds planted deep within us by our parents’ loving thoughts towards us. I know I was loved by my mother in the womb. My wife, Annie, and I spoke and sang to our son, Nate, before he was born. I caressed her belly, knowing I was sending love to a new living being. I also did this with the two small beings she carried within her that did not make it to birth.
As an infant all we want to do is be loved, held and taken care of. We want to be surrounded by a sense of being cared for and safe. Our love for and trust in our mother is without bounds. We cannot distinguish between being surrounded by and held in God’s love and the love of our caretakers. Lullabies speak beautifully of the sense of being safe and protected – equally by our parents and by God.
Sometimes our sense of safety and trust in life is threatened by mistakes. When I was a baby my parents took me to an eye doctor who misdiagnosed a congenitally blind eye as being lazy eye. As a result they put an eye patch over my only seeing eye, effectively blinding me for nearly two years. I often had to have my arms splinted to keep me from taking off the eye patch. Although this upset my mother greatly, she thought she was doing the right thing – after all, it was what the doctor ordered. I was too little to have any understanding of why they were doing this. The lesson I learned was that I could not trust others to think well about me, and that I needed to be smart and forceful enough to make decisions on my own.
As we grow, we need to be allowed the freedom to begin taking steps towards doing things on our own. If those who care for us abuse us, physically, emotionally or sexually, this betrayal creates terrible seeds of mistrust. This barrier to trust extends to God and the universe as well as to one’s own parents. We need our parents to delight in our creativity and accomplishments. Then we can learn to begin to trust our own beauty and strength as well as our parents’.
I invite you to recall the joy and safety that you felt as a very small child in being loved by your parents. Even if they failed you at times, you can open your hearts to the times that someone did love you. Perhaps you can feel the ways that God was loving you and even grieving about the times you were not kept as safe as you should have been. Open your heart to God loving you as God formed you in the womb. Can you feel the love & care you received when you were small as a way God loved you at that time? I have been journeying towards reclaiming my sense of basic trust my whole life. With counseling, prayer and the support of my friends and faith community I can keep walking that path.
Sexual love and intimacy. How can we give our hearts to another without limits? The great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda wrote a book of love poetry called The Captain’s Verses to the woman he eventually married.
I have named you queen.
There are taller ones than you, taller.
There are purer ones than you, purer.
There are lovelier than you, lovelier
But you are the queen.
When yhou go through the streets
no one recognizes you.
No one sees your crystal crown, no one looks
at the carpet of red gold
that you tread as you pass,
the nonexistent carpet.
And when you appear
all the rivers sound
in my body, bells
shake the sky,
and a hymn fills the world.
Only you and I,
only you and I, my love,
listen to it.
“La Reina” by Pablo Neruda, from The Captain’s Verses (translated by Donald Walsh in 1972, originally published in 1957 as Los versos del capitán.)
Neruda opens his heart without holding back to his lover. As adolescents and young adults we open our hearts to others and hopefully find that love reciprocated. We need to be able to fall in love, to open our heart without bounds to a loved one, perhaps over and over again.
One of the most extraordinary books of the Bible is the Song of Songs. It is basically a collection of love poetry. Scholars argue how it “made it” into our scripture. I like to think that the meeting of rabbis back around the time of Christ included it because they felt that when we open our hearts without limit to the love of our life, we also open our hearts to God.
Bob Franke’s wonderful song “Beggars to God” is rooted in the same theme. The gypsy we run off with and dance with is also the holy bridegroom of Jesus’ parable of the Wise & Foolish Virgins – the Messiah that all the Jewish people anxiously awaited to give their hearts to. Franke invites us to burn our candle out with passionate love for each other and for God – rather than cautiously hoarding our oil (or love) as we wait til love or the messiah arrives. Is Quakerism ready for faith that is this passionate and grounded in love without limits?
I had a pretty rough time myself learning to be a lover. I had to overcome the scars of being sexually abused by an uncle as a child. Even without of the terrible experience of sexual abuse it is often hard to learn to love. I was afraid if I opened my heart to another I would be rejected and hurt (and I was, of course, at times!) I was also afraid that if I let open the force of passionate feeling I would hurt others by my sexual energy. Often it feels safer not to love at all or to hold our love for others in careful check avoiding cautiously the abandon that Neruda, Franke and the writer of Song of Songs talk about.
When I was preparing for this talk I stumbled across a little book called The Book of Love by Daphne Kingma. It is full of wonderful lessons in how to think about and cherish the person we love. Some of it is definitely “over the top”. [I hoped to read a passage from “Lie in the Rose Petals”.] But why not love that way without boundaries?
The writer of 1st John says that when we love another we dwell in God. Open your heart to the beloved one in your life. You can practice loving her or him beyond what is comfortable or easy as a means of practicing loving God with all your heart and all your soul and all your strength. Why hold back?!
A spiritual family
Another way to give of one’s heart is to a group of people. My whole life I have held within me a deep recurring dream of spiritual community. This was planted in me by a wonderful fellowship of young people that met at Ann Arbor Meeting in my high school years and by a scattered community of Young Friends called New Swarthmoor that was based in upstate New York between 1969 and 1973. The dream I have dreamed a hundred times is that New Swarthmoor has been restarted and all of us who worshipped and loved together there are regathering to live again in joy and faith.
John McCandless was the keynote speaker at a consultation on membership held at Quaker Hill many years ago. Participants sent in hundreds of queries before the gathering on the subject. John said the only one that really interested him was “Why have membership?” I’ve had been carrying a concern about membership in my heart for years. The answer to John’s question that has always come to me has been – love. That God does not want us to go through this world spiritually as individuals but rather in a community of brothers and sisters who enter into God’s living presence together and who try to hear and follow his voice as a group.
It takes just as much courage to open our heart to a group as it does to an individual. The group can fail us, get trapped in conflict or decide to disband. But the bonds of love can also last long, well beyond the time when the group formally disbands The dear friends on this stage who have been some of my companions in spirit over the years are wonderful evidence of this.
Go out and find spiritual brothers and sisters in the Spirit and throw open your heart to them in trust and in love! And if you find them, treat them with great care, as this relationship may be one of the most precious ones you find in this life.
Loving the Stranger
Sam Keen wrote a great book on male spirituality called The Fire in the Belly. At one point he advises men to try practicing “empathy towards strangers” – to stand on the a street corner and try to imagine yourself living the life of people you see walking by, particularly types of people you usually have little contact with.
There is an enormous amount of suffering in this world today. It is hard to allow our hearts to be open to the pain of children suffering in Ramallah or Baghdad or in a nearby inner city. Come listen to Kevin Bales tomorrow night even though some of it will be hard to hear.
John Woolman is my best teacher in this: he opened his heart to slaves, to the working poor, even to overworked farm animals. At certain points in his life, like while he was sailing in steerage to London, it seemed as if the sorrow of the world nearly overwhelmed him and might sink him.
Having watched daily images on TV of the terrible suffering of people at our government’s hands in Vietnam, many of us found our draft cards to be weighing heavily in our pockets. Refusing to use my CO exemption was a great act of freedom for me, even though it might well have sent me to prison (as it did many of us who took this step). My father nearly died of cancer around that time. That experience opened his heart not only to make vocational choices that were “following his bliss” but also to refuse the proportion of his income taxes that went towards warmaking for the rest of his life.
Join John Woolman in opening the doors of your heart towards those who are suffering in the world around us – and let the pain that you experience spur you into spirited, spirit-led action against injustice, war, and violence towards the earth.
Special male barriers to vulnerability
In my experience it is very hard to stay open-hearted as a man in this culture, to feel, to be tender, to be vulnerable, to lean on others. My own family roots have not helped me either: I am the oldest son of at least 4 generations of oldest sons from hardy New England stock. Each generation we learned that duty and hard work and self-reliance are all-important.
A couple of examples of dutiful hard-heartedness: As a young man my father was working on some sort of Quakerly service project in the Midwest when the younger sister he deeply loved died. He at first was not going to return to the funeral believing he served her best by “staying at his job” – until someone convinced him that his parents needed him to return home. When Annie was scheduled for surgery a few years ago I was reluctant to miss an “important meeting” at work, so I told her I would come see her later in the day. As I drove towards work I was suddenly overwhelmed with the awareness of how “off” my priorities were, so I turned the car around, called my boss, and drove to the hospital to keep vigil outside her surgery.
It is hard to give up my heart to others – or to God – if I believe that I am the “master of my own domain” and responsible for carrying single-handedly the burdens of the family, my meeting, my workplace and even the world on my own shoulders. The wonderful Christian psychiatrist Gerry May hit the nail on the head in his book Addiction and Grace: the great sin of addiction is that it is idolatry – it is creating a god in place of the God that comes to earn our ultimate loyalty and love in place of family, friends or the one true Heart of life. Work and duty can play the role of the idol that that claims our love and loyalty – just as surely as alcohol or gambling or sexual addictions can.
Hardness of heart led my great grandfather to work my grandfather so hard on his farm that my grandfather seriously injured his back. My great grandfather begrudged and resented his son going to medical school because it took him away from his duties on the farm. My grandfather never forgave his father for this.
My grandfather loved his patients tenderly and strode long hours for the civic and political causes that mattered to him but he was blocked from showing the same tenderness and passion with his own family. When his daughter died he was overwhelmed with his grief. My grandmother was a music teacher and loved classical music. But whenever he heard music it reminded my grandfather of his lost daughter and he would weep, so he forbade my grandmother from playing it when he was around. He always talked gruffly and curtly around my grandmother, I sense out of his fear of his own vulnerability and pain. But then when she died, my granddaddy was filled with remorse at the way he had mistreated her and failed to show his love for her over so many years. He wept for a year and died of a broken heart. (I believe the tenderness he felt for his love and sorrow about what he did may well have reached my grandmother after death. That she forgave him and reassured him of this in some mysterious way. Certainly his broken-hearted tenderness was a gift to me.)
Hard-heartedness is a hard lesson to unlearn! My grandfather resented his father for his excessive focus on work and duty but ended up unconsciously taking this approach to work and family himself. Similarly, my father and I both felt a lot of anger at our fathers for what we saw as our fathers’ hard heartedness towards our mothers – yet I think we too have found ourselves unconsciously carrying on our fathers’ legacy into the next generation.
The “easy yoke”
I’d like to sing you a song the Shakers wrote about this that has meant a lot to me.
I will bow and simple
I will bow and be free
I will bow and be humble
Yea, bow like the willow tree.
I will bow this is the token
I will wear the easy yoke
I will bow and be broken
Yea, I’ll fall upon the rock.
(“I Will Bow & Be Simple”, written 1847, New Lebanon, Kentucky)
Some Friends have told me that this song is hard for them to appreciate: they have no interest in taking on a yoke – easy or otherwise – having felt all too yoked in the past! But as a straight male middle-class oldest son it is great grace for me to resign the role of being in charge, of carrying all the burdens on my own – to learn to bow to God and let God be in charge of my life. I find it deeply comforting to imagine myself as “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms”, to be kept within the wings of the King of Kings, or to feel myself (in the words of Carol Johnson’s round “I Am an Acorn”) as “carved in the palm of God’s hands”.
Ironically, becoming dependent on God feels like a great gift of freedom to me. Being in charge on the time can get really tiring after awhile and begin to feel like slavery. Is it any mystery that men die so much younger than women in this country? Again, the schoolhouse for learning to be taken care of by God is to practice being more dependent on friends, on family, on our faith community and on our beloved.
Many Quakers like to sing old gospel songs like “In the Garden.” Many liberal Friends do not feel personally cared for by Jesus in the way described in this song. But many, many people around this world do and derive enormous freedom and grace from that sense of being cared about. I honestly am not very clear about what I believe about Jesus (probably one of those mind vs. heart battles I alluded to earlier!) But even if you do not believe that Jesus loves you in this way, you can fee; cared for and held by God in a similar personal way.
I invite all of you guys out there to give up control and enslavement to whatever addictive defenses may protect you from vulnerability and begin learning how to rest in uncertainty, vulnerability, and dependence on others. To receive the gift of freedom that comes from leaning on others – and on God.
Facing dependence on others and death
It is very hard as a man to give up this role of fierce independence. Men kill themselves at an increasing rate as they grow older and in especially large numbers after retirement. It is hard for us to give up our work roles and become less “useful”, to give up our health and autonomy and rely more on others to take care of us. If I felt a deep sense of trust and safety in the hands of my parents, of my partner in love and my community of faith, then I may be more willing to give up control at the end of life and free to move into a state of physical dependence on others. Needless to say this involves courage in willingness to let go gradually over time. We began life trusting others to care for us utterly. Many of will return to that place at the end of our lives.
Those facing life-threatening illness (such as my friend Betsy Balderston) may have to walk this journey earlier than they expected. My father battled against his second cancer with great determination and courage. It was very hard, however, for him to let go of old patterns including his fierce devotion to work and duty. I believe this may have made it harder for his body to heal from the cancer. George Lakey was originally going to speak tonight but made a wonderful decision to “let go” of his invitation for very thoughtful reasons. When he faced a similar very serious cancer some time ago, George was able to let go and make major changes in his style of life and work in a way that may have given his body the freedom to heal and go on living.
But part of facing a life-threatening illness like cancer is entering into the mystery of not really knowing whether the decisions and changes we make will lead to life and healing or to physical death. To a great extent we are in the hands of the universe in this in ways we cannot fully comprehend.
I wrote a paper when I was in a two year training program on spiritual direction called “Love, Sex and Death”. Americans are notoriously uptight about death and dying. If we open up our hearts to others we love, we risk opening ourselves to the most mysterious possibility of all – our own physical death. The French call orgasm “the little death” because it involves momentary letting go of control and loss of our sense of consciousness and separateness. I believe that many people close themselves off from feeling in general in part because of resistance to feeling their terror about dying. Addictions are one way to numb ourselves from facing our own mortality.
I have no idea what death brings us. I know that my mother and her mother faced it without any fear. This absence of fear was a blessing to them through out life. If I trust that there is a living God at the heart of the universe who cares personally about me and holds me in her/his loving hand, it is hard for me to imagine that this care does not extend beyond the death. I do not know whether that means I will “see God face to face” and be reunited in some conscious sense with my parents and grandparents and loved ones like my friend Eli Hochstedler – or if I will in some great sense be part of God in a way that lacks separation.
Bob Franke ends his song “Still Small Voice” with the line “When my lover comes to call me home, it will be in the a still small voice.” The lover he is referring to is God.
The important thing is that we do not have to fear death in this life. We will all be passing through it as surely as the door we passed through into this world. So let’s fling open our hearts to others, live life without limits, love with abandon and experience being held in the palm of God’s hand.
I would like to conclude by reading you a very special poem by my favorite Quaker poet Wini Rawlins who died a few years ago.
ARE WE HELD
Space-time in Einstein’s universe
Bends like a roof above our head,
And underneath our restless feet
Curves like runners on a sled.
It seems we cannot wholly fall
Through sudden rents in outer space;
Space-time would toss us lightly back
To bounce into our destined place.
The heart has inner solitudes
As vast as telescopes can scan;
The world beyond the Milky Way
Are not more lonely than a man.
Yet through this inner universe
Move constant stars with names we know,
And many suns and smaller moons
Within its darkness gently glow;
And is this inner space-time curved
Like circling arms below, above,
And are we held, and cannot fall
Through holes within the web of love?
by Winifred Rawlins, from Dreaming Is Now, Golden Quill Press, 1963
We are, each of us, held in a web of love.