I chose this topic long before anyone dreamed that we would be in the throes of a pandemic.
And perhaps it is just as well. Everywhere we look the news is full of news of the rising numbers
of infections. So, for the next few minutes, let us put all of that on hold. It will be there when
we get back. Let’s think about something else.
Tonight, I want to speak to you about the strange relationship between romantic love and
spirituality. It’s something we tend to keep pretty far apart, except at weddings in churches. But
I want to show that your love life can be strengthened by your sense of the sacred. And, I want
to show that the fact that we fall in love at all is because of how our faith has changed over the
Today, we take it for granted that most people will marry for love. But it wasn’t always that
way. In fact, for most of human history, marriages were considered far too important to risk
basing on love. Marriages were basically like a business that produced children, and insured
survival. Most people in history have been farmers, and for them, what mattered was survival.
That required lots of children to work the land, equipment, and land that could be handed
down to the next generation. You didn’t need to be in love to do any of that, and if a marriage
was arranged at birth, no one expected love to play any part in it.
Think of it this way – are you in love with your boss at work? No, and it would probably get
pretty messy if you were. Work is where goods and services are produced, there is no need for
love there, and sex should be kept out it, too. The work can get done without being in love. For
most of human history, people saw marriage as a business, so love wasn’t needed.
And that means that we are the odd ones out when it comes to love. We have based our entire
lives on an emotion which most people in history might never have experienced, or if they did,
they kept it quiet. So how did we get to be so in love with love?
If all you knew about romantic love was from the Old Testament, you would have to conclude it
was a really bad idea. There are numerous stories of people falling in love which end very badly.
Samson, the hero who was strong because of hishair, falls in love with Delilah. She seduces him,
bewitches him, and then betrays him to hisenemies by cutting off his hair.
King David has a very close relationship with God, isthe most pious Jew ever, until love and lust get the better of him. He is the one who killed Goliath. Hecreates the first Jewish empire. He is obedient and close to God, the role model for any Jew. But one day, as he stood on the roof of his palace, he saw a beautiful woman on a building below him.
She was having a bath, naked, on her roof. He fell for her instantly. He told his men to bring her
to him. She was married to one of his generals, and he knew it, but it didn’t matter. His desire
overwhelmed all of his piety. He had sex with her and got her pregnant. Then, to make matters
worse, he arranged to have her husband killed. Murder and adultery, possibly rape by our
God is incensed, and looks like divine favour will be withdrawn from the Jewish people because
of David’s crime. But David repents, realizes his sin, and God forgives him. The moral of the
story is that love and lust outside of marriage is dangerous, and can bring ruin not just to an
individual but to their entire family and even a kingdom.
The Christians add a new element to love when they come along. You have probably all heard
of the story where Jesus turns water into wine.
It is the first miracle Jesus performs in the gospel of John. Jesus and his disciples are attending a village wedding. Everybody in town has been invited. They are all having a great time, there’s a big feast, the wine is flowing. But then, the wine runs out. Mary tells her son Jesus to fix the problem, so he famously turns the water into wine.
The story is one of many in the New Testament where we are told that being with God is like being at a wedding. When God and the people are brought into relationship, it is a big party. In the story we just heard we are told about guests, the master of the banquet, who is probably the father or uncle of the groom, we meet the bride groom, but there’s one person missing: the bride. That’s because to Christians, believers are the bride. All Christians are invited to be the bride of God, the bride of Christ. This is old language for our relationship with God, and it survives mostly among nuns, who are still thought of as brides of Christ. But in the New testament, the church is the bride of Christ.
This is a weird idea to us now, because we have a very different idea of marriage. To us, marriage is a relationship between two equals. We hope to pay each other equal respect, care and kindness. Even if only one of us works, the other will contribute to the relationship in other ways, perhaps as a parent, or taking care of the household. Ideally, equals marry and care for each other.
But 2000 years ago, marriages were not based on equality. They were inherently unequal. The man had all the legal power. He controlled the money, owned the land, owned most of the household goods. He had most of the formal power, and the woman was expected to obey him, and let him set the rules of the house. This was true for Jews, for Romans, for Greeks. That may not be the kind of marriage we would want, but back then, it was normal. Marriage was about an unequal distribution of power, where the woman had her fertility, but the man had all the legal and economic power, so she had to depend on him for her welfare. And for that reason, marriage sounded like a good metaphor for humanity’s relationship to God.
This sounds really foreign and backwards to us, but it actually opens the door for romantic love.
Jewish stories had seen the sexual relationship between men and women as potentially dangerous to our relationship with God. It is sex that gets David and Samson in trouble, after all. But Christians suggested that the sexual union of marriage could be a model of the relationship we can have with God. It was meant as a metaphor, but as usual, metaphors have a way of becoming realities. In the Middle Ages, monks and nuns started to talk about their relationship to God as like a love affair. They lost their hearts to God. Here is what one famous monk, Anselm, wrote to God:
“What shall I say, what shall I do? Where shall I go?
Where shall I seek him? Where and when shall I find him?
Whom shall I ask? Who will tell me of my beloved?
For I am sick from love,
The joy of my heart fails me...
Who do I have in heaven but you,
And what do I desire upon Earth beside you?”1
Swap a few words, and that could be a modern love song. There’s been a big shift here – instead of saying that the whole church is Christ’s lover, now it is individuals who swoon over God.
A revolution of the heart is talking place in the 1100s, a seismic shift in how people feel. Our emotional life is changing in a way that will revolutionize our civilization. An emotion that was once rare and considered dangerous, has been validated by being aimed at God.
And what’s really strange is that this isn’t just happening among Christian nuns and monks. Over in what is now Turkey, Muslim mystics, known as Sufis, were also speaking of their relationship with God as a love affair. The most famous of them is a Sufi poet known as Rumi. His poetry is the best known cultural export from the Muslim world, and to this day, he is the best-selling poet in America. 2 He writes in the 1200s, and yet the passion of his words still entrances people to this day. One of his major themes is that human love for a lover is the best model we have for our proper relationship to God.
I would like to read you a portion of one of his poems:
When a man and a woman become one,
that "one" is You.
And when that one is obliterated, there You are.
Where is this "we" and this "I"?
By the side of the Beloved.
You made this "we" and this "I"
in order that you might play
this game of courtship with Yourself,
that all "you's" and "I's" might become one soul
and finally drown in the Beloved.
In Rumi, we find that the romantic love that people have for each other is a foretaste of the love which we should have for God. In loving each other, we swoon, we get drunk in the other’s loveliness. We lose ourselves by finding another. This loss of ego, this loss of self-concern which comes with the first blush of love is what Rumi saw as the best approximation of how he felt about God.
That feeling, which most of us have felt, only became allowed because of what happened in the Middle Ages. Around the same time as Rumi was writing his love poetry to God, poets and singers known as Troubadours in southern France took the next step in our story. They began to write love songs not about God, but about other human beings. They wrote about women usually, the Lady of the castle who was married to the king or duke. She, like God, was out of reach, but still worshipped as though she was a god. She was all that was good in creation, a living proof of God’s benevolence.
Here’s part of the song of the first troubadour, Guillaume, the 9th Duke of Aquitaine.
“Now, don't go thinking I must be drunk if I love my virtuous lady,
for without her I have no life,
I have caught such hunger for her love.
For you are whiter than ivory,
I worship no other woman.
If I do not get help soon
and my lady does not give me love,
by Saint Gregory's holy head I'll die
if she doesn't kiss me in the chamber or under a tree.”
Guillaume, the Ninth Duke of Aquitaine, Song 7 (early 1100s)
What you are hearing here is a major shift in the history of love. It starts out as an emotion which is considered dangerous – like anger, it can destroy marriages, and even tear apart empires. With the Christians, and Muslim mystics, people were encouraged to see their relationship with God as a love affair, where one should stay infatuated, worshipping from afar. Now, with the troubadours, that idea of love comes back to earth. Men are encouraged to worship not only God, but also a lady who embodies all that is beautiful in the world. The lady of the castle whom knights and troubadours will fall for is considered proof of God’s perfection.
This is where romantic love starts. With poets and songwriters who worship the untouchable
lady. They have a crush on her, they swoon and fall for her, just like many of our real-life relationships now start with an infatuation. Think of what your love life was like in high school, how many unrequited crushes you had. Think of all the people who knew who made your knees go weak. That kind of crush is allowed by society because it started out as a crush on God.
Today, we look for the thrill of infatuation and desire. The online dating scene is built on it. The hunt for a new partner on Tinder is often more fun than actually meeting them in person. The real person makes demands, has their own likes and dislikes. It is much easier to swipe for someone and imagine them as the perfect lover than it is to actually find a real lover and deal with their actual needs and expectations.
The crushes that the poets wrote about are exciting, enthralling, but ultimately, they have one big problem: they wear off. Most of us who have fallen in love have had to live with the truth that the person we’re with is not as perfect as the person we imagined when we first got infatuated. Our real partner has flaws, weaknesses, annoying habits, and can still be lovable, but is no longer as perfect and exciting as he or she was in the beginning.
At this stage, love changes. In a crush, we get high on getting exactly what we want – it is very egotistical. For real love to last and flourish, the ego needs to take more of a backseat, so we can care about our lover’s problems and needs. And we expect them to care about our needs and desires, too. It is supposed to be a two-way street, but it takes adult effort to put another person’s needs ahead of your own. To decide that it may be necessary to move to another city so they can get ahead in their career. Or that they may have to spend time away from you to see kids from another marriage a few nights a week. There are lots of ways in which a really loving relationship requires compromises and sacrifices that would seem impossible to
someone who was just looking for a sexual adventure, or who had a crush on someone.
This is where spirituality and romance meet. The world’s religious traditions teach us that to have a relationship with God, we need to dial down our egos to let the spirit in. Braggarts are rarely much devoted to the sacred. To have a meaningful relationship with the universe, you need to be able to listen to a voice that is very different than your own. So, Buddhists and Hindus meditate, so they can quiet the chatter of the ego. Christians and Jews pray and sing, asking for guidance. The meaning of the word Islam is submission or surrender to God. A serious relationship with the divine starts with the recognition that you do not have all the answers, and that you need to listen as much as you need to talk.
That sense of willing surrender is critical for healthy relationships. It is best if both partners are willing to listen and accommodate each other. There is a difference between mutual co=operation and domination. When both partners practice the love, they have of God with each other, then both peoples’ needs can be met, and the role of the ego is diminished, which is an important aspect of leading a richer life, spiritually and psychologically. This kind of love is deeper and richer because you are loving a real person, with all their faults, not just a figment of your ego’s imagination.
This kind of love can last a lifetime, and is critical when infirmity and old age set in. Many partners in later life find that their lover is no longer capable of being themselves anymore. It may be a physical disability. It may be a mental disability, like dementia or Alzheimer’s. In these situations, the person you love may not be able to love you back as they used to, because they are losing touch with reality. At this point, love is no longer a two-way street.
And it is here, when one person is disappearing, that our love enters a final spiritual phase. We love our faltering partners the way God loves us. None of us has ever been perfect. We make mistakes every day of our life, errors large and small, accidental and deliberate. Yet God loves us through all of it, from our earliest days as a clumsy babbling baby, to our last days when we are old. God does not love us because we are perfect, nor because we will love God back with the same force. We never can, and often we ignore God. But the love remains, nonetheless. Christians call it grace. That love is the kind of love we need to practice when our lovers fade.We need to gain our strength not from one lover, but from God, who is all around. God ispresent in all of our loving friends and family members, who can provide support as our lover declines. As age and disability undermine us, we would be well to remember that all love comes from God. Even as our lovers lose their ability to love us as they used to, we can love them as God loves all of us – a love that is present despite our infirmities. We humans have learnt about love from God – and now, in this time of crisis, we need to draw on that love more than ever.