If Jonah Lehrer’s new book, A Book About Love, is any indication, true love is less about roses and romantic dinners and gazing into another’s eyes than it is about getting the chores done, showing up when you said you would, and learning to set aside your wants and finding pleasure in your partner’s wants. In the end, steadiness is what will carry the day, says Lehrer, keeping a relationship vital and bringing joy and satisfaction.
At first glance, Lehrer’s premise may sound good. But New York Times columnist David Brooks disagrees. In his review of Lehrer’s book, Brooks writes: “It could be the truth is actually just the opposite,” that “crazy” love rather than “steady” love will, in the end, carry the day.
George Eliot understood this. In “Middlemarch,” her heroine [Dorothea Brooke] does something crazy and marries the wrong guy. The marriage is miserable. But then when she has the chance to marry again, she doesn’t play it safe and settle for something conventional. She does something else crazy and marries the right guy this time.
I think Eliot understood that when it comes to love, there is safety in danger. That early mad passion – the craziness, the shocking and inexplicable sweep of emotion, the daring leap that defies convention, the love that takes everyone by surprise – can be the refiner’s fire that welds two people together into one thing.
When it comes to the book of Isaiah – from whom we are hearing this Advent season – the case could be made that Isaiah’s god is a “steady” love kind of god, whose kind of love is in support of Lehrer’s premise. Isaiah’s god is strong, faithful, holy, dependable, nurturing, giving and just – the ultimate “steady.” When the Assyrians menaced Jerusalem in the 8th century BC, it is this “steady” god to whom Isaiah pointed for hope: “Our god is consistent; he is safe. He is the steady one who can save us.”
But to see God in Isaiah as simply “steady” is to miss the bigger picture. For to read Isaiah – including the passage we heard this morning – is to read beautiful poetry about passionate love, about mad, crazy love. In a way Isaiah is about flowers and romantic dinners and gazing into another’s eyes. Listen to this:
The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water;
Or remember the passage from last week:
The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid. (11:6)
Or consider what Isaiah writes elsewhere:
Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard… (5:1)
Comfort, O comfort, my people… speak tenderly to Jerusalem… (40:1)
This isn’t “steady” love; this is “crazy” love! Given the number of these “crazy” love passages, I wonder if Isaiah knows what David Brooks knows:
…that when it comes to love, there is safety in danger. That early mad passion – the craziness, the… sweep of emotion, the daring leap… the love that takes… by surprise, can be the refiner’s fire that welds two… together into one.
God may be “steady,” but God is also one in whom, paradoxically, “there is safety in danger.” Isaiah’s god knows the power of mad passion – of the emotion, the leap, the surprise – and how it can weld two into one. Our god knows the safety in the danger of creating the world and making us human. God knows the safety in the danger of entering into covenant with Abraham and the people of Israel, of leading his people through the Red Sea, of giving them the Torah, of leading them into the Promised Land, of sending the prophets, of bringing his people back from exile. God knows, this is crazy! God knows, this is dangerous!
Above all, God knows the safety in the danger of sending us God’s only son, “born of the Virgin May, to be the Savior and Redeemer of the world.”
Which is what the season of Advent prepares us to celebrate. Nothing was more dangerous – more mad, more of a leap, more reckless, more of a surprise – than was God’s becoming a vulnerable infant in our hardened world, risking all God’s self in order to gain all ourselves. God risked all because God loves us, with a wild, passionate love! A love in which – because it is so crazy and daring and risky – there is, paradoxically, great safety. For the refiner’s fire of God’s passion has the power – indeed, is the only source of power – capable of reconciling our broken hearts, and our broken world, to God’s self.
I wonder if we this Advent can, like Dorothea Brooke (Eliot’s heroine in Middlemarch), refrain from playing it safe and settling for the conventional. I wonder if we might open ourselves to God’s crazy love – a mad, head-over-heels kind of love; for us! – and to know how safe this love is by virtue of its “danger.” And I wonder if we might return the gift of God’s self with the gift of ourselves. For there is nothing more joyful and satisfying for us human beings than to give ourselves to, and to live in intimacy with, our stable yet crazy, passionate, loving God.
I’m going to leave us with a poem of which I suspect Isaiah would have been proud. It is by Fr. Pedro Arrupe, the former Superior General of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits), who died in 1991. Though the poem speaks of the practical – the “steady” – it is really about passion:
Nothing is more practical than
finding God, than
falling in Love
in a quite absolute, final way.
What you are in love with,
what seizes your imagination, will affect everything.
It will decide
what will get you out of bed in the morning,
what you do with your evenings,
how you spend your weekends,
what you read, whom you know,
what breaks your heart,
and what amazes you with joy and gratitude.
Fall in Love, stay in love,
and it will decide everything.