Spirituality of Love #3 – ‘Wild Geese’ by Mary Oliver

a snapshot of material presented at solace ‘tuesday stuff’ may-june 2012 

see spirituality of love #1 (20 June) for more details

spirituality of love #3: 

‘glass half full’ love overflows from a fullness of love in our body/being in order to become a blessing to others and to ourselves

‘glass half empty’ love grasps at love in others in order to fulfil our own needs and too easily becomes a burden to others and a disappointment to ourselves

WILD GEESE by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
call to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Spirituality of Love #2 – ‘I loved what I could love’ by St Theresa of Avilla

a snapshot of material presented at solace ‘tuesday stuff’ may-june 2012

see spirituality of love #1 (20 June)  for more details

spirituality of love #2: 

if I can face others without controlling or withdrawing from the space between us, love will (eventually) come to me


I LOVED WHAT I COULD LOVE by St Theresa of Avila

I had a natural passion for fine clothes, excellent food, and lively conversation about all matters that concern the heart still alive.

And even a passion about my own looks.

Vanities: they do not exist.

Have you ever walked across a stream stepping on rocks so not to spoil a pair of shoes?

All we can touch, swallow, or say aids in our crossing to God and helps unveil the soul.

Life smooths us, rounds, perfects, as does the river the stone, and
there is no place our Beloved is not flowing through the current’s
force you may not always like.

Our passions help to lift us.

I loved what I could love until I held Him, for then – all things – every world disappeared.

‘Wisdom’ by Sebastian Moore

In Sebastian Moore and Kevin Maguire, The Experience of Prayer(London: Darton, Longman & Todd; 1969)

The blog has suffered of late as I’ve been busy with other stuff:  at the start of June I presented my PhD proposal to the postgraduate seminar at St Marks Canberra.  I informally introduced my proposal with a couple of personal stories of love and the first two stanzas of this poem from Sebastian Moore.  It’s a gem.


We have lived too long without wisdom

on which alone the soul feeds:

wisdom is the structure of loving:

without it the heart is wild.

So a community without wisdom

is a collection of private wildernesses

growing more slowly with age

waiting for the full stop.


The heart, when young, is wild:

absolutely requiring the lover’s hand

it may not deny this requirement

in any of its details

and every detail is pain,

and the heart’s pain will either create hell around

or it will be denied

unless there comes the ordering

from within the heart

which is the heart becoming beautiful:

and a community whose commitment

precludes (I suppose) the lover’s hand

and ‘the sweet disorder of her dress’

is desperately in need of wisdom.


A community that has no word

for one tortured on the detail of loving,

a community without the detailed word of wisdom ,

is coarse and unschooled

whatever its spiritual pretensions,

its God an old colour-sergeant

for all the spiritual reading.


Wisdom is born in love

making the heart a city,

every movement of heart anguish

becoming a straight way.


Wisdom is born of God,

makes the heart the City of God.


Those who inhabit the city

have discovered love’s secret

which love by itself can hardly impart,

and indeed wisdom is of God

for whence on earth can a man learn

that a man’s love is himself,

that the difference between two loves

is precisely the difference between two people

whose love is to be to each other

without tyranny,

whose love is to be, together,

whose love is to be the polis:

whence on earth is learned

this courtesy without polish

consenting to the humble?

Why not Love? by Alison Sampson

Alison Sampson is a talented Melbourne writer who articulates so beautifully the call to be a Christian (or even just a human being) in the daily grind of life.  The rss feeds from her blog, the idea of home, are always a breath of fresh air in my inbox!  I particularly appreciated this recent piece on Love which was published in The Sunday Age Faith column on 26.2.12.

Why not love?

Some people are naturally loving. I’m not one of them. For as long as I can remember, my first impulse has been to dislike, to feel angry, and to judge. I have fought and hurt many people unnecessarily; and I have often needed to apologise, even go through mediation, to restore a relationship damaged by my anger.

It’s not something I’m proud of.

But one day five or six years ago, as I felt myself growing furious over nothing in particular, three words dropped into mind: ‘Why not love?’

Three simple words, one little invitation. Why not love?

If it had been an order, ‘Thou shalt love’, I would have rejected it out of hand. A reactive soul who has always deeply resented being told what to do, I would have pointed out the ways I had been offended. I would have explained exactly why it was reasonable for me to be angry; with arrogance and disdain, I would have wielded my brutal honesty like a weapon; and with sickening self-righteousness, I would have justified the ensuing destruction.

But I wasn’t given a command. I was asked a question; and because of this, I felt surprisingly free. I didn’t have to react. Instead, I could engage with the question, holding it gently and turning it to and fro as I looked at it from different angles. As I did so, I realised I had an option. I could choose to go with my usual motivators, anger and fear, and lash out yet again; or I could take a deep breath, count to ten, and find a way to love.

Which option I took depended on who I wanted to be. Did I pride myself on being an angry little girl, flailing about and striking at will; or did I want to try a new path, which might just lead to kindness?

The choice was obvious. I knew what sort of adult I wanted to become.

Why not love? I unclenched my hands, and slowly breathed out. I don’t remember exactly how that day ended so many years ago; but I can say that there were no fireworks or angry tears. Instead, I recall a sense of lush green growth, a sign of renewal and hope.

I have carried the question with me ever since. Of course, there still have been many times when I have chosen not to love – always a mistake, and always more harmful to me than to anyone else. But thanks to the question, there have been many more times when I have opted to try; and in so doing, I am awkwardly stumbling my way into the wide open spaces of freedom.

love is life itself

the sinful woman anointing jesus' feet with her tears

“I know who you are”

declared his gaze

and I fell over once again

stumbling like a cripple

paralysed by longing




If only love were rational

and could be brought into line by cognitive will.


love rises up from the depths

and until it is free

it is the leviathan of dark waters.


Love is but a made up word

and should not be expected to carry the weight

of the experience it is striving to name.

And yet I find I need to say those words ‘I love you’

and I need to hear those words ‘I love you’

and I need to know those words ‘I love you’

in power and in truth.


It is simple.

I am summed up by these four bless-ed letters

containing all life and meaning

and all I ever want ever again

is to love and be loved.



is life itself.

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.

Committed: A Love Story by Elizabeth Gilbert

(London: Bloomsbury, 2010) Different editions seem to have different subtitles! Weird!  I read the kindle edition.

A friend of mine had read this book and wanted to know what I thought of it.  Elizabeth Gilbert is famous for writing Eat, Pray, Love and this is kind of (in the broadest sense of the word) a sequel and has itself become a New York Times best seller.  In Eat, Pray, Love, Gilbert describes her quest for self-discovery post-divorce.  She recaptures life through Eating in Italy, Praying in India and Loving in Bali.  In Committed, Gilbert describes what happens to her Love Relationship when forced with the realities of life over the long haul.

Gilbert and her soulmate are confronted with the social necessity of marriage when Felipe is refused entry into the United States, where they had taken up residency as a couple.  Another year of soul-searching travel ensues as they submit to the bureaucratic requirements of visa by marriage.  Neither Elizabeth nor Felipe had any desire for (re)marriage and the book records Gilbert’s sometimes tortured attempts to find a cultural interpretation that works for them.  It’s mostly entertaining story telling, and I know enough of the original scholarship to see she’s done her research properly, so it’s actually a pretty good, accessible exploration into the social construction of marriage.  Best of all it has a happy ending!

The one thing I hadn’t come across before was the work of Ferdinand Mount, that Gilbert herself was surprised to unearth. ‘Sir William Robert Ferdinand Mount, 3rd Baronet,’ a proper English conservative by any stretch of the imagination, wrote a book called The Subversive Marriage (1992).  He points out that no totalitarian regime in history has ever fully conquered the privacy of the marriage bed.  Heres a quote:

“The family is a subversive organization.  In fact, it is the ultimate and only consistently subversive organization.  Only the family has continued throughout history, and still continues, to undermine the State.  The family is the enduring permanent enemy of all hierarchies churches and ideologies.  Not only dictators, bishops and commissars but also humble parish priests and cafe intellectuals find themselves repeatedly coming against the stony hostility of the family and its determination to resist interference to the last.”

So if you’re after a popular version of some of the reddress themes on sex, love and marriage, I’m happy to recommend Committed.

I really enjoyed some of the ‘famous quotes’ she uses to start her chapters, here’s some of my favourites:

“Marriage is a friendship recognized by the police.”  – Robert Louis Stevenson

“be of love (a little)/ more careful/ than of everything” – e.e. cummings

“Today the problem that has no name is how to juggle work, love, home and children.” – Betty Friedan, The Second Stage

“Of all the actions of a man’s life, his marriage does least concern other people; yet of all the actions of our life, ’tis the most meddled with by other people.” – John Selden, 1689

‘The Future of Faith’ by Harvey Cox (and the future of reddresstheology)

(New York; Harper Collins; 2009)

My horoscope prediction tells me that my love life is likely to improve from this date!  How interesting… for today I am in Canberra chatting to St Mark’s faculty and refining my PhD abstract.   Yes, that’s right, I am taking a deep breath and diving into insanity: and what else would a reddresstheology PhD be about other than love?!?

Well it might have been about the global turn towards experiential expressions of truth, life and human Being in psychology, religion and culture… but Harvey Cox has already written that book, so now I can move on!  The Future of Faith was published by Cox to honour his retirement from the Chair of Divinity at Harvard University.  He argues that despite his predictions in the 60s that the world was going secular (The Secular City, 1965) there has in fact been a revival of religion and spirituality across the globe and religion has re-entered the public sphere as a cultural category to be reckoned with.  Think: rise of Islam in global geo-politics.

Cox thinks this is so much more than a fundamentalist response to a crumbling world – he actually thinks fundamentalism is on its way out.  In fact, he thinks that ‘dogma’ and ‘belief’ are on their way out as centralising principles for religion, including Christianity.  As a Christian, he sees this as a good thing: a return to the early church where christians were in fellowship with each other by virtue of the spirit and their faith in Jesus.

‘Do you believe in Jesus?  Great!  Let’s break bread together’

As opposed to the Christendom epoch in which fellow christians might say:

‘Do you believe in… substitutionary atonement? the infallibility of scripture? the subordination of women? the transfiguration of the bread into the corporal blood of jesus? the supreme authority of the pope? etc. etc.

And that’s where Tina Turner comes in.  I can’t help but start singing (a noble form of contemplation you must agree):  what’s love got to do with it

So, even though I don’t have the PhD topic even vaguely under control, I feel that I’m wandering around in this field of questions.  What does a theology conceived with/through/in/by Love look like when love is the object not just the subject?  What do the 2 commandments (foundational for christian ethics and morality) look like if we switch to a mystical and ‘expansive’ concept of Love rather than a platonic one?  If personal experience is the basis of our theology and spirituality, how can we create shared meaning together in church and society?  What about the problem of pluralism – we all have different experiences so is a shared meaning system even possible.  But most importantly, what a wonderful opportunity to recover the inspired teaching of Jesus who developed a ‘public contextual theology’ and religion based on love not law!

All suggestions for PhD title/topic gratefully received! What do you want to read about on reddress for the next 3 years???

Marriage Right Vs Rite, Compass on ABC TV

Compass Program: Marriage Right Vs Rite  (ABC TV, Sunday 10th July 2011)

Well done Geraldine Doogue for getting all the important issues in the ‘marriage debate’ out on the table.  The ‘informal dinner’ format didn’t fool anyone but she certainly managed her guest list well for scintillating conversation!  The voices include (Anglican) Bishop Rob Forsyth, the (Baptist) Rev. Nathan Nettleton, Geoff Thomas, (RC) Father Frank Brennan, Julie McCrossin and Dennis Altman.  You can read the transcript or watch the program via the ABC website.

When it comes to the Legislation of Marriage I want to ask:

  • what is the role of the State in intimate relationships?
  • how are social institutions such as marriage constructed and defined?
  • when social institutions change and adapt at what point does the State adapt – progressively or conservatively?
  • what is the relationships between religious communities and the State in a secular society?
  • is the law’s role in ‘protecting the weak’ different to ‘protecting the rights of free choice’?
  • what is the role of ritual in the establishment of personal and relationship identity?
  • how are ‘morality’ and ‘justice’ worked out within a religious framework?

I think the discussion pretty much confirmed that we are no where near consensus, either in the Church or in Society, on these foundational matters of marriage as a social institution, regardless of what happens with marriage laws in Australia.  Lucky Jesus gave us one universal that remains no matter how we Christians resolve these big social issues:  ‘love the Lord your God and love your Neighbour as Yourself.’

Now there’s a good question:  How do we legislate love?

‘Romantic Love vs. Marriage: A Psychoanalytic Approach’ by Keelin Lord

(In Essai, vol 5, issue 1, article 30.)

Back on 4th April , when reflecting on Joseph Campbell‘s mythological wisdom on love, I voiced some questions and concerns about romance and marriage in western culture.  It’s always great to meet others on the same journey as ourselves, especially when they validate our own perspective!  This article articulates the same social concern about the disconnect between romance and marriage.

First, Lord references recent neuroscience research which has begun to map some of the brain activity associated with ‘being in love.’  Helen Fisher is primarily responsible for bringing this research into being, by sticking 40 people who were ‘in love’ under an MRI scan.  As a biological-anthropologist she proposes an evolutionary theory to explain the existence of different brain behaviour for the sex drive, romantic attraction, and long-term affection.  The human brain evolved a sex drive to get people out there looking to re-create themselves, the attraction drive to narrow down the field to a suitable mating partner, and the affection drive to keep the partnership together long enough to have children.  I think Fisher’s distinction between these three basic human drives that function in intimate relationships is particularly helpful – sexual arousal, romantic attraction and committed affection exist separately before they sometimes exist together and I recommend the TED lecture by Fisher if you interested to know more.

Lord then maps the evolution of marriage and romance as social constructs in the last 500 years, singling out the industrial revolution as the most influential development which shifted the need for a social and economic basis for marriage.  Taking contemporary American cinema as evidence for the current perpetuating myths of romance and marriage, Lord shows how the former is seen as the exclusive entry into the later.

This is where Lord turns back to neuro-psychology to explain why ‘falling in love’ is a particularly unstable grounds for the establishment of long term relationships.  Psychologists consider falling in love to be an addiction: it triggers the same chemical reactions as cocaine and stimulates the brain areas which stimulate obsession, craving, physical dependence, personality change, distorted perspective and loss of self-control!

Interestingly, Helen Fisher’s research included couples who were still in love after 30 years of marriage which revealed that some of this brain activity was still present, whilst the anxiety producing activity had been replaced by seratonin inducing calmness and security – so staying in love long term is possible – it just doesn’t happen very often.  (Dr. Earl Henslin reckons in about 8-9% of couples!)

Lord’s response is to suggest that we return to a story about love as an art form.  That loving well needs to be learn, practiced, discovered.  A bit like a 12 step program for transitioning from the addiction of romance to a healthy integration of sex, attraction and affection!  This sounds pretty much exactly where I ended up in my own musings, but with a bit of brain science thrown in with the social anthropology.  She writes:

In conclusion, Americans need to realize that although our country allows us more freedom for individual happiness, those freedoms do not necessarily serve a practical function. We are culturally free to marry for love, yet our highly demanding social structure weakens our opportunity to focus on and obtain that romance. While we no longer need extended family support systems, we still need to realize that only focusing on our individual selves can breed lack of self discipline, resulting in such things as romantic affairs. Our strongly individualistic country needs to regain the value of having utmost concern for those we love. Only then will we gain individual satisfaction.  This includes the ability and our own willingness to see our beloved as they are, imperfections and merit, rather than continuing a Hollywood romance based on fantasy. This flaw in our country’s values supports Harriet Hawkins idea that society is to blame for the failure of romance (Hawkins 115). While she speaks of Shakespeare’s lovers being situated in a conflict opposed by war and feudal impulses, Fromm speaks of lovers being situated in an economy too demanding for love’s
commitment. This social control, along with the ability of romance to cloud one’s judgment, explains why Othello took not only Desdemona’s life, but his own as well. They were in a situation with no extended support system and Othello’s obligation was to commit himself as a general, while Desdemona was put second. Considering his duty to the state was expected to come first, Othello had reason to put his trust in his men. This took precedence over his duty to Desdemona and her words. Othello’s service to the state caused strain and failure in his marriage. In short, our social system needs to change, while we need to grasp the knowledge and essentials for the success of romantic love, or marriage will continue to suffer.

You can read the whole article here.