The Penalty of Love or Vivo, iam non ego, vivit vero in me Christus: Whitterings, September 2005

The Penalty of Love

If love should count you worthy, and should deign
One day and seek your door and be your guest,
Pause! ere you draw the bolt and bid him rest,
If in your old content you would remain.
For not alone he enters; in his train
Are angels in the mist, the lonely guest,
Dreams of the unfulfilled and unposessed,
And sorrow, and life's immortal pain.
He wakes desires you may never forget,
He shows you stars you never saw before,
He makes you share with him, for evermore,
The burden of the world’s divine regret.
How wise you were to open not! And yet
How poor if you should turn him from the door.

Sydney Royse Lysaght

The Christianity I was raised in has a distinct emphasis on the theology of the Passion and the Crucifixion. The basis for my earliest understanding of ordained ministry was certainly that of sacrificial love. The duality of the abandonment of the world for that of the spirit was ever present. The concept was that of a door keeper of Christ, one that was called to be “in the world but not of it”. As Thomas Merton said in New Seeds of Contemplation:

“There is only one true flight from the world; it is not the escape from conflict, anguish and suffering, but the flight from disunity and separation, to unity and peace in the love of other men. What is the ‘world’ that Christ would not pray for, and of which he said that His disciples were in but not of it? The world is the unquiet city of those who live for themselves and are therefore divided against one another in a struggle that cannot end, for it will go on eternally in hell. It is the city of those who are fighting for possessions of limited things and for the monopoly of goods and pleasures that cannot be shared by all. But if you try to escape from this world by leaving the city and hiding yourself in solitude, you will only take the city with you into solitude, and yet you can be entirely out of the world while remaining in the midst of it, if you let God set you free from your own selfishness and if you live for love alone.”

I was reflecting upon this when I went to Whithorn last month to visit St Ninian’s cave in Dumfrieshire in Scotland. In 496 St Ninian arrived on the bleak isolated shore of Whithorn to bring Christianity to the Scots. While I sat in his cave upon the shore and looked out on the dark, choppy waters of the Irish Sea, I tried to imagine what it could possibly have been like to go into lifelong exile, alone to a foreign land in the isolated north of the world. As you may know, he did not succeed. He converted isolated Pictish Chieftains but they reverted to paganism shortly thereafter. It was not until St Columba arrived on Iona in 636 that Christianity began to spread amongst the Scots. What was it all for? Did he waste his life? We honour him today for his courage and the glory of his action. His life though knew loneliness and failure. What strength of Love enabled it?

There is another kind of Christianity that seems rather at home with the world and seems very much to mimic the dominant cultures values. It seems to be comfortable ‘in the world’. From afar, it seems optimistic, joyful and content. It has certainties and does not seem plagued with doubt, and the knowledge of the good news and the promise of salvation give it a peace that I find troubling. It is not that I question the place of joy in the Christian life or that I dismiss the peace that comes from deep faith. It is personal. I simply find it alien to my own experience of life.

My experience of life, thus far, has been much more in the lines of the poem by Sydney Royse Lysaght, the Penalty of Love. I understand Christ as a Man of Sorrows to be truer for my own heart than say the Laughing Christ common in some circles. Thomas Merton again says:

“A faith that merely confirms us in opionatedness and self-complacency may well be an expression of theological doubt. True faith is never merely a source of spiritual comfort. It may indeed bring peace, but before it does it must involve us in struggle. A ‘Faith’ that avoids this struggle is really a temptation against true faith.”

I do not suggest that life is only dark, or only unfulfilled desires and pain. However life in all of its moments contains pathos. The reaction of Christ to the pain of the world, the reaction of the Saints and of many poets has been that of love. It is not the sentimental love of hallmark cards or popular culture. It is the love that is born of the awareness of pain and the inevitable mortality of man. It is the love that comes as the only response to the broken body of Christ in the world, the loving that is often the only thing we can do. It is the love that continually plagues, wounds, and pushes the soul away from the world and towards God. It is the love that calls us to die to self so that Christ may live in us. “Vivo, iam non ego, vivit vero in me Christus.” This is the love that “costs not less than everything” as T.S. Eliot says. I find the Penalty of Love to be truer in my experience of sufferings and love than much of the Christian spirituality that abounds in the modern Western world. I end with yet another quotation by Merton, who also was nourished by the theology of the Cross.

“His physical Body was crucified by Pilate and the Pharisees; His mystical Body is drawn and quartered from age to age by the devils in the agony of that disunion which is bred and vegetates in our souls, pone to selfishness and to sin. All over the face of the earth the avarice and lust of men breed unceasing divisions among them, and the wounds that tear men from union with one another widen and open out into huge wars. Murder, massacres, revolution, hatred, the slaughter and torture of the bodies and souls of men, the destruction of cities by fire, the starvation of millions, the annihilation of populations and finally the cosmic inhumanity of atomic war: Christ is massacred in His members, torn limb from limb; God is murdered in men. From such blood-drinking gods the human race was once liberated, with great toil and terrible sorrow, by the death of a God Who delivered Himself to the Cross and suffered the pathological cruelty of his own creatures out of pity for them. In conquering death He opened their eyes to the reality of a love which asks no questions about worthiness, a love which overcomes hatred and destroys death. But men have now come to reject this divine revelation of pardon, and they are consequently returning to the old war gods, the gods that insatiably drink blood and eat the flesh of men. It is easier to serve the hate-gods because they thrive on the worship of collective fanaticism. To serve the hate-gods, one has only to be blinded by collective passion. To serve the God of Love one must be free, one must face the terrible responsibility of the decision to love in spite of all unworthiness whether in oneself or in one’s neighbour.”