Love's Question

Love’s Question       Doris Hunter     Belmont UU Church  Feb.12, 2012

Isn’t it amazing that here we are survivors of those cold winter blasts of January and then suddenly it is love’s Valentine Day!  Yes Valentine Day with its warm theme of love…yes to warm us up with those beautiful red roses, those little candy hearts with the words, “love me”,  those decorated  lacy loving cards,  and yes, romantic dinners by candlelight, and of course our Unitarian Universalist cry, “Standing on the side of love, love, love.”   We have been called by our Association for the past month to celebrate love…but what is love?  What is this thing called love?  Didn’t you enjoy that Cole Porter song sung to us so heartily by Chuck this morning?

“What is this thing called love

This funny thing called love

Just who can solve its mystery

Why should it make a fool of me?

I saw you there

One wonderful day

You took my heart

And threw it away

That’s why I ask the Lord in heaven above

What is this thing called love?”

     Cole Porter isn’t the first person who asked this question.  It is really love’s question.  One answer to the question came from the Greeks long ago who described love as having three expressions, first as friendship, philia, next as the love of lovers, eros, and finally agape, the self giving love that gives itself without counting the cost or wanting anything in return.  Many religious traditions have been inspired by this concept of agape.  Remember those remarkable savior gods, the bodhisattvas of Buddhism, that mysterious source of life in Taoism, the savior God of Christianity, the commitment to nonviolence in Hinduism followed by Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.  Love as agape is a familiar answer to love’s question but somehow on this day in February we realize in our own lives the appeal of this ideal but what of the real experience of love in this mundane world of ours…and we ask in moments of failure when we make a mess of love, “the lord in heaven above what is this thing called love?”   Yes, Lord in heaven above, it is agape, self-giving love…but what if we can’t always love without counting the cost, wanting to be loved in return and so we fail to live up to its wondrous ideal?   Doesn’t love’s question in our daily lives make us feel uncomfortable and very human?  And in addition, isn’t it asking too much of us, we frail human beings, to be genuine models of self-giving love?  Isn’t there some forgiveness for our lack of loving in the light of agape love?

     Valentine’s Day is not a time of despair so I want to tell you that I found one answer that gives hope to our mortal attempts to love.  It comes from a remarkable book written by Jeanne Foster titled “A Music of Grace; The Sacred in Contemporary American Poetry.”  She begins to give us a clue about “what is this thing called love’ by making a comparison between the poetry of the present, “the seething poetry of the incarnate Now,” as D.H. Lawrence describes it and the poetry of the eternities, those “unfading timeless gems, crystalline, pearl-hard jewels.”  Jeanne Foster then refers to a brief essay written by D.H. Lawrence where in poetic exuberance (what else?) he explains the difference between the poetry of the present and the poetry of the eternities.  Perhaps these two types of poems could tell us something about love’s question…love as it is lived each day and love as that ideal expression.

       Quoting fromLawrence’s essay, Jeanne Foster offers this comparison.  The poems of eternities echo the voices of the past and the future but not, asLawrencewrites, the immediate, vibrating present.  These poems aim for perfection in style, meter and seek the ideal, the absolute, the infinite.  This perfection is “conveyed in exquisite form: the perfect symmetry, the rhythm which returns upon itself like a dance where the hands link and loosen and link for the supreme moment—which is changeless and eternal.”  (p.73)  It is the voice of the memory, past and closed, or of wish, ideal and perfected, but not in the present with its vibrancy and immediacy of life (and love) as it is lived, as it unfolds in all its messy reality.  It is an abstraction, some Platonic ideal…it is agape; the ideal of love.                                                                  On the other hand, the “poetry of the present” speaks from the very midst of life, from the present in all its immediacy.  “This new, living poetry does not have perfection as its aim.  By its very nature “poetry of the present” can never be finished, can never be completed.  Like life itself it is always in transit.  Like blood, it is always flowing.  Its very nature is process, or as D. H. Lawrence puts it, ‘creative change, creative mutation.’”  (p.73)   It is that love that is lived by you and me.  The author then gives us a marvelous quote by D. H. Lawrence that leaves no question in our minds about his preference for the poetry of creative change, creative mutation.

“Let me feel them both in purest contact, the nakedness of sucking weight, nakedly passing radiance.  Give me nothing, fixed, set, static.  Don’t give me the infinite or the eternal: nothing of infinity, nothing of eternity.  Give me the still, white seething, the incandescence and the coldness of the incarnate moment: the moment, the immediate present, the Now.”  (p.73)  could that also be a description of love for us when it seems to coming tumbling out of nowhere and overwhelms our hearts?

     Can you imagine the reaction of Ralph Waldo Emerson to such a statement with his ideal of the oversoul?  He may have had reservations about the seething, incandescence found in the poetry of his fellow American poet, Walt Whitman and yet his poetry was also filled with the immediate present.   Emerson’s oversoul is both immanent and transcendent but its appeal is to the Now.  “When it breaks through our intellect, it is genius; when it breathes through our will, it is virtue, when it flows through our affections, it is love.” (Hymnal 531)  Yes, certainly we can appreciate immanence, the now, this present reality of love but what about the transcendent?  Isn’t that where those “eternities” or ideal of love, agape,

comes in?  Perhaps one of our Valentine’s red rose would help us understand what is meant by the transcendent in the poetry of the present or in the present reality of love in our lives.  Remember the reading we shared this morning about Emerson’s roses?  Looking at the rose we see its unfolding, its never static, never finished existence even in its decay.  Remember the words, “There is no time to them.  There is simply the rose; it is perfect in every moment of its existence…Its nature is satisfied and it satisfies nature in all moments alike…We cannot be happy or strong until we too live with nature in the present, above time.”  (No. 556 in our hymnal)  The poetry and love of the present invites us to be aware, to be awake, to experience what D. H. Lawrence calls “transcendent loveliness” of the rose, of this moment.  We may be thinking, ah yes, isn’t that wonderful and yet like agape love, it seems so difficult to experience this transcendent loveliness of life.  Instead we stand on “tiptoe to foresee the future or lament the past.” 

     Here is the mystery…the mystery of the “pure present.”   What is this thing called the “pure present”…what is this thing called love?  We are, all of us, the incarnation of the “pure present.”  We are the mystery.  We are the immediate, instant selves living this moment unaware, asleep with eyes closed to the transcendent loveliness of rose. It is no wonder that D.H. Lawrence found Walt Whitman’s poetry the best example of the poetry of the present.  His “song of the self” was a wake-up call to feel the transcendent loveliness of the self.  There are no restrictions, no boundaries.  It is the poetry of free verse.  Away with the rules and themes of recollection and aspiration found in the poetry of the eternities and celebrate the immediate, instant self…the incarnate, carnal self!  “Free verse, Whitman. Now we know.” (p.77)

     But what do we know?  The author, Jeanne Foster, reminds us that the poetry of the present as the experience of mortal love is filled not only with the exuberance of the vibrating self but also with moments of alienation, loneliness, despair, helplessness, regret.  She mentions the poetry of Anne Sexton and her need for meaning, for the sacred in her life.  In her book, The Awful Rowing Toward God, she finds in a turning, a turning away from despair and frustration an answer, “Look to your heart.”  And then there is her poem “Welcome Morning,”

There is joy

In all:

In the hair I brush each morning,

In the Cannon towel, newly washed,

That I rub my body with each morning.


In the spoon and the chair

That cry “hello there, Anne”

Each morning



All this is God,

Right here in my pea-green house…

But we know that Anne Sexton ended her own life and that transcendent loveliness also ended for her.  So the poetry of the present and mortal love is filled not only with the loveliness of the moment but also with the sense of death, our mortality.  Our author, Jean Foster, confronts this paradox and asks the question, love’s question, where is the sacred dimension that sustains us in this ordinary world of love with its moments of failure and the reality of death?  Her answer is in itself a poetry of the present, love’s answer.                                                                                                                          The sacred is here and now.  All things, including you and me, are eligible (I like that word) to become “sacramentals”…that is outward signs of inward grace.  And the grace that we witness to in our love no matter how frail or inadequate is the awareness of the transcendent oneness which is the supportive ground and creative spark of all creation.  It is a gift of attentiveness and sheer appreciation of the present moment.  It is the full embrace of life.  “Never static, the sacred is a living force that brings into harmonious relationship all that is.  Another name for the dimension of the sacred is love.”  (p.89)

     So what is this thing called love?  The poetry of the present, and our human love tell us it is us!  We are love in all its beauty, all its moments of bliss, in all its failures, its despair, its turning around again from despair to hope, in all is messiness, in all its glory.  It is not agape for that would be the poetry of the eternities and goodness knows, that is a wonderful ideal but the real is the poetry of love in the present, that’s us!  We are the free verse, the vibrant rhythm, the freedom, the expression of gentle grace turning from despair to love. 

     There is another song about love’s question, words by Rida Johnson

 Young and music by Victor Herbert…


Ah! Sweet mystery of life, at

Last I’ve found thee;

Ah, I know at last the secret of

It all;

All the longing, striving,

Seeking, waiting, yearning,

The burning hopes, the joys and

Idle tears that fall!


For ‘tis love, and love alone, the

World is seeking;

And ‘tis love, and love alone

That can repay;

Tis the answer, ‘tis the end and

all of living,

For it is love alone that rules for



Yes, ah sweet mystery of life at last I’ve found thee….yes, it is you and me!

Yes, love’s question is answered by you and me.  Happy Valentine’s Day!