a funny Valentine: love and fear and staying

“What made you stay?” 

The answer is so simple and yet so complex it would take time to explain to anyone’s satisfaction.

I’ve been asked so often lately — to the point that I should probably respond. So I will. This spring, starting now.

But before I do, I think I should explain why I hesitate to publish my thoughts:

First, people ask this question, most often, to find a rule, a principle, a plan. My answer is disappointing, I think. Like when you notice a co-worker’s amazing weight loss, ask their secret, and the answer boils down to “diet and exercise.”

Second, although we praise the result of endurance, we tend to call the process foolish. When I attempt to write my simple truths, I can hear mocking crows as they circle above my head. Anyone who would stay with an addict for so long is a sick co-dependent.

Third, the past casts a hint of a shadow across every sunny day. Last week, an addict clean for a decade ends up dead in the headlines. Five days ago, I write up a woman’s story — nine years clean, she relapsed after her brother’s tragic death, got clean again and was now in recovery. Two days ago, I’m told she quit the program. And, in addition to the millions of addicts thrown from the wagon by trauma, we lose a Philip Seymour Hoffman every 24 minutes in this country . . . 100 people a day die of an overdose.

Sometimes, I’m afraid if I feel too sure and secure, if I rest in this new life, I’ll jinx it and the six years of clean and good will be gone. There are no guarantees . . .

But the answer to the question is, and always is, in its purest form: love.

And here is a beginning:

Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous;
love does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly;
it does not seek its own, is not provoked,
does not take into account a wrong suffered,
does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth;
bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

I Corinthians 13:4-7

And here, an explanation:

In words which can still bring tears to the eyes, St. Augustine describes the desolation into which the death of his friend Nebridius plunged him. Then he draws a moral. This is what comes, he says, of giving one’s heart to anything but God. All human beings pass away. Do not let your happiness depend on something you may lose. If love is to be a blessing, not a misery, it must be for the only Beloved who will never pass away.

Of course this is excellent sense. Do not put your goods in a leaky vessel. Don’t spend too much on a house you may be turned out of. And there is no man alive who responds more naturally than I to such canny maxims. I am a safety-first creature. Of all arguments against love, none makes so strong an appeal to my nature as “Careful! This might lead you to suffering.”

To my nature, my temperament, yes. Not to my conscience. When I respond to this appeal, I seem to myself to be a thousand miles away from Christ. If I am sure of anything I am sure that His teaching was never meant to confirm my congenital preference for safe investments and limited liabilities. I doubt whether there is anything in me that pleases Him less. And who could conceivably begin to love God on such a prudential ground — because, so to speak, the security is better? Who could even include it among the grounds for loving? Would you choose a wife or a friend — if it comes to it, would you choose a dog — in that spirit? One must be outside the world of love, of all loves,  before one calculates. Eros, lawless Eros, preferring the Beloved to happiness, is more like Love Himself than this.

I think that this passage in the Confessions is less a part of St Augustine’s Christianity than a hangover from the high-minded Pagan philosophies in which he grew up. It is closer to Stoic “apathy” or neo-Platonic mysticism than to Charity. We follow One who wept over Jerusalem and at the grave of Lazarus, and who, loving all, yet had one disciple whom, in a special sense, he “loved”. St Paul has a higher authority with us than St Augustine — St Paul who shows no sign that he would not have suffered like a man, and no feeling that ought not so to have suffered, if Epaphroditus had died.

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket – safe, dark, motionless, airless – it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.

I believe that the most lawless and inordinate loves are less contrary to God’s will than a self-invited and self-protective lovelessness. It is like hiding the talent in a napkin and for much the same reason ‘I knew thee that thou wert a hard man.’  Christ did not teach and suffer that we might become, even in the natural loves, more careful of our own happiness. If a man is not uncalculating towards the earthly beloveds whom he has seen, he is none the more likely to be so towards God whom he has not. We shall draw nearer to God, not by trying to avoid the sufferings inherent in all loves, but by accepting them and offering them to Him; throwing away all defensive armour. If our hearts need to be broken, and if He chooses this as the way in which they should break, so be it.

CS Lewis, The Four Loves

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