Love’s Work by Gillian Rose

(Vintage: London, 1997)

In the midst of an emotionally difficult period over Christmas, I read Gillian Rose’s astounding book, Love’s Work. Written in the final years of her life whilst she battled Ovarian Cancer, Rose seeks to describe what love is, and the meaningful place it has in any life worth living. Rose died aged 48 years.

There was a particular passage which startled me into cessation. I’d been ploughing towards Christmas, as most of us in the West do if we have friends and family and a pretence of importance, and I could do nothing from that moment but pause and feel all the feelings of life. Love catapults us into full engagement with life.

“However satisfying writing is – that mix of discipline and miracle, which leaves you in control, even when what appears on the page has emerged from regions beyond your control – it is a very poor substitute indeed for the joy and the agony of loving. Of there being someone who loves and desires you, and he glories in his love and desire, and you glory in his every-strange being, which comes up against you, and disappears, again and again, surprising you with difficulties and with bounty. To those this is the greatest loss, a loss for which there is no consolation. There can only be that twin passion – the passion of faith.”

Gillian Rose was God’s grace to me this Christmas. Sublime. Effusive. Wrapping me up in the safety of womanly love and care. All my questions about intimacy, betrayal and redemption were cradled in her exquisite writing about love of various kinds. But most movingly for me, is her chapter on ‘unhappy love.’

“In personal life, people have absolute power over each other, whereas in professional life, beyond the terms of the contract, people have authority, the power to make one another comply in ways which may be perceived as legitimate or illegitimate. In personal life, regardless of any covenant, one party may initiate a unilateral and fundamental change in terms of relating without renegotiating them, and further, refusing even to acknowledge the change. Imagine how a beloved child or dog would respond, if the Lover turned away. There is no democracy in any love relation: only mercy. To be at someone’s mercy is dialectical damage: they may be merciful and they may be merciless. Yet each party, woman, man, the child in each, and their child, is absolute power as well as absolute vulnerability. You may be less powerful than the whole world, but you are always more powerful than yourself… Love is the submission of power.” (pp. 54-55)

For Rose, unhappy love is the passion of loss. Each of us tends toward those relationships which repeat our experience of loss, pummelling into us the lessons of our earliest love formations. However, love is always birthed from Beloved-ness. Sebastian Moore describes this as the Love of God woven beautifully into all God’s creatures, a memory of knowing oneself divinely loved by our Creator, triggered by some look or word from whatever archetypal man, woman or child is required to grab our psychic attention. The archetypal Lover need not even be aware of bestowing such a gift upon us! But if the Lover withdraws the gift, knowingly or otherwise, the Beloved is bereft, she must generate that love within herself without the mediation of her muse. Hence ensues “the initiate of an investigation into lovelessness. A challenge to that deprecating self-assumption.” We come face to face with the epic journey to recover our sense of Beloved-ness.

To deny the inevitable messiness, to numb the unavoidable pain, is to turn away from love’s work. Rose observes this as an incessant protestantism. Love’s work is to stay in the harsh reality of living, the glacially slow movements towards maturity, the discovery and love of our selves. “To grow in love-ability is to accept the boundaries of oneself and others, while remaining vulnerable, woundable, around the bounds. Acknowledgement of conditionality is the only unconditionality of human love.”

“If the Lover retires too far, the light of love is extinguished and the Beloved dies; if the Lover approachers too near the Beloved, she is effaced by the love and ceases to have an independent existence. The Lovers must leave a distance, a boundary, for love: then they approach and retire so that love may suspire. This may be heard as the economics of Eros; but it may also be taken as the infinite passion of faith.”

It requires faith to stay in the game. Faith to believe that we are truly Beloved. Faith to sufficiently stand our ground as a Lover approaches. And faith to see the Face of God in it all.

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