I recently had the unique opportunity to hear recordings made on cassette tape over thirty years ago, recordings that my mother carefully preserved until she recently transferred them to CD. These included tape recordings that my family and I sent back and forth to each other during my two-year mission in Venezuela in 1985 and 1986. It is a bit surreal, not to mention highly sentimental, to hear your mother’s voice speaking with love and concern for you when you are hundreds of miles away with no direct or immediate communication possible. To hear your grandfather and grandmother’s voices, now long deceased, expressing their love and telling you stories about their own past, and it is certainly strange to hear your own voice, barely twenty years old, telling your parents how much more you appreciate them now that you are far away from them.
But what was perhaps the most powerful recording was that of my brother’s funeral of December 1982 after his tragic suicide. I wrote some reflections about his death here. I listened as my father gave a powerful and articulate tribute to the person Kenny was before his personality and well-being were ravaged by severe mental illness, the boy of quick intelligence, exuberance, and intense compassion and understanding for people. I was stunned by my father’s steely nerves, his emotional control, and his verbal clarity. Until I also listened to myself speaking at this funeral, which happened just one week after he had died, I had forgotten too just how straightforward I had been. I remember feeling out of control emotionally, at least on the inside, but my voice was steady.
But what was particularly important for me was to remember, and what I want to highlight in this post, was how important love was in being able to overcome that experience. In our talks, my father, my brother Bill, and I paid tribute to Kenny’s great love for people of all walks of life. I had forgotten that when I was twelve years old and had spent a month at a boys ranch in Idaho, I was with a group of boys in the woods on a Sunday afternoon, holding a sacred meeting in which we shared our most personal feelings. The question posed to us was: who did we particularly admire and want to be like? I told this story at the funeral because the person I chose was my brother and what I said that I admired in him was his humility, his intelligence, and his compassion. I was always eager for my friends to meet him because I knew that he would take genuine interest in them. My father quoted friends who all described his remarkable ability to take interest in people of any age or in all walks of life, to discern their needs, and to help them describe their feelings. I thought as I listened that he would have made a fantastic counselor. I was surprised that in all these years, I had let his illness overshadow this memory of him. He was a loving person who was easily moved to intense joy by music and great ideas and the enjoyment of friends and family.
I felt at the time, as apparently did my brother Bill, that what love we can sustain for each other in times of need is far more important than understanding the reason why terrible things happen. Without consulting with one another, my father, my brother, and I had each wanted to urge upon those who had come to mourn with us an appreciation for what love does and how important it is to shed it widely. We had, after all, experienced that love in the most profound way imaginable. We were in great suffering and yet everyone was reaching out, people had showed up in droves to the funeral, and we had calls, letters, and words of solace, and an newborn appreciation for one another, for life as a gift, and for the miracle of friendship and family. This was, of course, what characterized Kenny himself. So despite his painful death, love was what outshone his own and our pain.
In the great novel, The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky raises one of the most painful and difficult questions of life. Why does suffering happen, especially to the innocent? I am not claiming Kenny was without blemish, but certainly we all felt he had been victim to a terrible illness and it left us perplexed. Dostoevsky doesn’t offer an intellectual answer. His answer is to allow his reader to understand the profound experience of deep and abiding love, what Paul calls charity. Because love comes, even and especially in the midst of sorrow. And at its most powerful, it causes a release of expectation, a patience with life that is beyond our natural capacity. It is best described in this moment when the protagonist Alyosha hears the life story of his spiritual mentor, Zosima. This is what we read:
“Night, fresh and quiet, almost unstirring, enveloped the earth. The white towers and golden domes of the church gleamed in the sapphire sky. The luxuriant autumn flowers in the flowerbeds near the house had fallen asleep until morning. The silence of the earth seemed to merge with the silence of the heavens, the mystery of the earth touched the mystery of the stars… Alyosha stood gazing and suddenly as if he had been cut down, threw himself to the earth. He did not know why he was embracing it, he did not try to understand why he longed so irresistibly to kiss it, to kiss all of it, but he was kissing it, weeping, sobbing, and watering it with his tears, and he vowed ecstatically to love it, to love it unto ages of ages. “Water the earth with the tears of your joy, and love those tears…,” rang in his soul.” (362)”
There was a similar moment in the life of the poet Derek Walcott, when he was a young man. He describes himself falling to his knees on a hill above his small town on the island of St. Lucia, weeping for the earth, for the houses of his people, for everything. And wanting to honor what he felt for the rest of his life by means of his devotion to his art. I believe this is Love and it is what gives birth to our desire for service, for art, for worship, and for devotion.
If it is true that God is Love, then we have overcomplicated the question of God. We debate God, we intellectualize God, and we dispute and argue over how to follow him, but love is the one law that should govern all others. When we give and receive profound love–for God, for humankind, and for the earth–we are in God, with God. This is the one thing without which all else–all right thinking, right acting, and all knowledge and power–amounts to nothing.
I know I am not saying anything new. But listening to these tapes from three decades ago, I am just surprised at how rarely I have remembered or recognized the fullness of God’s glory around me everywhere and what profoundly spiritual experiences the most common forms of human love afford. I was suffering, but in a newfound love for others, for God, and for the fact of existence, I was also experiencing true love, and deep inside it was the cause of the most ecstatic joy, a joy that started to come then and has deepened ever since as a privilege of that terrible loss.
So what can be done? How not to squander this rare chance to love? We can start by paying more reverent and compassionate attention to each other and to this earth, by learning to see with the eyes of love and acknowledging the fundamental and beautiful mystery that is every person and is this life. Religious people and nonreligious people alike could stand to pay more attention to the quality of love we feel for strangers, for enemies, for those different than we are. Nothing defines us more essentially nor provides better opportunities for joy than the love we bear for the world.