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Sermon for Raposa-Conway Wedding

from the “Sermons and Services” collection

Poem by Pablo Neruda
One Hundred Love Sonnets: XVII
1 Corinthians 13

July 11
Bethlehem, PA

I don’t love you as if you were a rose of salt, topaz,
or arrow of carnations that propagate fire:
I love you as one loves certain obscure things,
secretly, between the shadow and the soul.

I love you as the plant that doesn’t bloom but carries
the light of those flowers, hidden, within itself,
and thanks to your love the tight aroma that arose
from the earth lives dimly in my body.

I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where,
I love you directly without problems or pride:
I love you like this because I don’t know any other way to love,
except in this form in which I am not nor are you,
so close that your hand upon my chest is mine,
so close that your eyes close with my dreams.

You will have noticed, and find confirmed in what follows later, that this wedding ceremony is all about love. It occasions a new legal marriage, expansions of families, the likelihood of decades of mortgages, and joy in the tills of all the businesses providing flowers, food, facilities, and festivities. All these are good outcomes of this ceremony, but the theme of the ceremony itself is love. The words of the ceremony are crafted mostly by Liz and Chris, save for this sermon and the statements by parents; their words here make no mention of supernatural religious stuff, no divine blessing of the marriage, no supernatural judgment on how they keep their vows, no suggestion that the meaning of their marriage is defined by the theology of some church institution. But they have made love into a religious symbol of ultimacy, a very common thing in nearly every religion and a traditional safe home for people wanting to distance themselves from religions. Let me reflect briefly on the ultimacy their texts discern in love.

Love is worthwhile in a great many contexts besides marriage, but I want to focus on its nuptial meanings. The first clue to understanding love between spouses is to recall the first paragraph from Paul’s 1 Cor. 13 chapter: “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am nothing more than a noisy gong or a clanging symbol. And if I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and have all knowledge, and a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.” Notice that all these are symbolic activities, activities involving signs: rhetoric human and angelic, prophetic judgment, deep understanding, scientific knowing, faith that can accomplish what we would have thought impossible. These things are all good in themselves, important, and rare, both for Paul in the understanding of his time and for us. I admit that here in the scientific Lehigh Valley not much presumption of angelic speech is to be found, but Boston (where I’m from) harbors deep devotion to parking angels, with many prayers to hear them say such things as “turn left on Beacon Street and look in the next block.” Paul wants to say that these good, symbolically shaped activities also ought to have a symbolic underlayment of love. Yet often they do not, and that’s bad.

We take for granted, of course, that just about all our symbolic activities have many levels of symbolic underlayment and that they take shades of meaning from those underlayments. If you’re a physicist and someone asks you how the universe came to be, you can explain the Big Bang hypothesis, a high kind of knowledge. A symbolic underlayment to this is your education so that you got to know that stuff, and a related symbolic underlayment is whatever created the curiosity in the questioner. A deeper symbolic underlayment is the research activity of late modern science that would come up with that hypothesis. A yet deeper symbolic underlayment is the historical society that would support science of this sort, and so on down to our basic symbolic suppositions about space and time, and the basic symbolic constitution that makes us symbolizing creatures at all. All of these symbolic underlayments are in play in your simple attempt to describe the Big Bang, even though you don’t think of them.

But imagine that some presupposed symbolic underlayment is missing. Suppose your questioner does not come from a scientific culture that could grasp a scientific answer: college professors face this situation more often than you would think. Or suppose that you aren’t a physicist in the modern sense at all and explain the Big Bang in terms of the Hindu concept of the exploding Golden Egg. Then your answer to the question is not quite what it seems to be to us scientific denizens of the Lehigh Valley.

Now for Paul, if the high rhetoric he employs does not have the symbolic underlayment of love, that does not make it false nor does it take away from his accomplishments in learning to speak that way. But it reduces him in the instance to a vocal noisemaker. His prophetic judgment, deep understanding, science, and powerful faith are all good, important, and rare on their own with him as the individual who has them. But if he does not have love as a symbolic underlayment to those things, he himself is nothing in any ultimate sense.

I think Paul is drawing upon a distinction between proximate symbolic activities that give us good, important, and sometimes rare proximate identities, on the one hand, and the fundamental ultimate symbolic activity that is to love, on the other. In a deep sense, without loving, we are not ultimately present, only proximately present in what we do. A marriage can achieve cooperative living, a beautiful household, wonderful children, coordinated careers, public acclaim, and happiness in all these things. But without love, the partners are not really present in any ultimate sense, and all those proximate accomplishments can turn to noisy gongs and clanging symbols when the need for ultimate presence brutely intrudes.

For all his deep speech about the metaphysics of love making us ultimately real, Paul himself was not married and says some surprisingly stupid things about love when applied to marriage. For instance, he says “love is patient; love is kind.” Yes, that, but it is also impatient and sometimes unkind. He says it is “never jealous, nor boastful, proud or rude. It is never selfish, resentful, or quick-tempered. It keeps no records of wrongs.” Well, if you believe that, you’ll think your marriage is loveless in a month and give it up. Even the most heartfelt love is ambiguous in performance. Love is sometimes impatient, sometimes cruel, sometimes jealous, sometimes boastful, sometimes proud, sometimes rude, sometimes selfish, sometimes resentful, sometimes quick-tempered, and sometimes won’t let go of bitterness. What’s worse, these are all sometimes ambiguous: what seems like being patient is in fact the subtle application of pressure, what seems like kindness is deep-down cruelty, and vice versa. Sometimes the real meaning of what we are doing with one another turns out to be something quite different from how it feels at the time. I’ve been married 52 years and am only beginning to see how complex this is. The dangers in love are not the big fights but the little betrayals.

What Paul should say about married love is that true love just accepts all this and goes on. You will be hurt and betrayed by your partner but that does not mean your partner does not love you. You will hurt and betray your partner but that does not mean your guilt has to cripple love. Expect imperfect love in your partner and yourself. Give each other sulking space and time. Make a ritual of hurt, sulk, and forgiveness. The symbolic underlayment of love in your marriage will weave a tapestry of those ritual habits of hurt, sulk, and forgiveness. Over fifty years ago I carried a potted rubber tree two miles on foot to my house as an appeasement gift for some significant hurt I’d caused my wife. I can’t remember at all what the hurt was, but the rubber tree as the symbol of imperfect true love is now on our third floor landing. Perhaps Paul did have some sense of this when he said “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

One last question: just what is this ultimate kind of love that is the symbolic underlayment making us truly real in everything else we do in marriage and life? At wedding times especially we express it in extravagant beauty, high-flown professions of devotion, gushy sentiments, and deep soul-stares into one another’s eyes. These are all good and appropriate but they are themselves symbols of love as the symbolic underlayment of life-giving reality that is much more hidden. We should follow Pablo Neruda’s advice, from our other reading, to understand the non-obviousness of love. Love is not gushing adoration, or, as he puts it, “I don’t love you as if you were a rose of salt, topaz, or arrow of carnations that propagate fire. I love you as one loves certain obscure things, secretly, between the shadow and the soul.” A shadow reveals things by obscuring light and what those things are can be grasped only by a hungry soul. The object of love is not obvious, says Neruda. Neruda’s lover is like a non-blooming plant that nevertheless bears the aroma of the earth when loved. For Neruda, love is simple, immediate, and non-calculated. He writes, “I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where, I love you directly without problems or pride: I love you like this because I don’t know any other way to love, except in this form in which I am not nor are you.”

“I am not nor are you.” Doesn’t this contradict Paul’s message that love is what makes us real in all the rest that we do? It depends on what is really real, doesn’t it, and on what makes a person “nothing” when love is missing. If you think that being a real person is being an individual agent who does things like rhetorical speaking, prophesying, understanding, knowing, moving mountains, that is only a half-truth, a proximate truth, not an ultimate one. The other half of the truth is that a person’s ultimate being lies in abandoning the circumscriptions of individual agency to live in the other, being the other’s hand on one’s chest, sleeping the other’s dreams. The virtues of individual agency are ultimately human only when they rest upon a symbolic underlayment of love that empties itself in participation and relation. You see why Paul says that love should be the symbolic underlayment of all those other activities of individual interpretive agency, even hope and faith. If you do those things without love, then you are only individual agents. Paul would agree with Pablo that, on the other hand, in love you lose yourself in that sense: “I am not nor are you.” This kind of identity in others, including self-abandonment in simplicity, is the ultimately human way to be. Marriage is one of its most important venues.

We should thank Chris and Liz for scrubbing the supernatural from this service and focusing on love. If in this marriage they can do the things required of them as individual agents while also resting on the underlayment of love in which they empty themselves of that individuality and live in and for one another, they will be blessed. The imperfections of love will be lived through with directness and simplicity. The joys of love will give ultimate meaning to all those other proximate things. Love itself is obscure, glimpsed from the corner of the eye. It is not a function of either person as an individual agent, but lies between the other as a shadow and oneself as soul emptied of itself. May I speak for us all when I hope that for long years you both can say to the other, “so close that your hand upon my chest in mine, so close that your eyes close with my dreams.”

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