February 14 2021

Valentine’s Day

Today is St Valentine’s Day, and the question I would like to begin with by asking is, is religion at the heart of your love, or is love at the heart of your religion?

They say that we are born to love. We say that “love is the doctrine of this church,” and that God is love: intangible, unreachable, never quite to be attained or properly understood, but still an ideal.

Our faith calls upon us to exemplify love; to love one another; to demonstrate love in all our doings: everyday acts of opening our hearts, using our patience and awareness, to see others for what they truly are; to accept them despite their imperfections, — just as we hope to be accepted in turn.

But while our faith certainly makes an unequivocal call upon us to love, sometimes we fall short, and find it a difficult thing to do. The late Rev Leslie Evans, my Minister Emeritus predecessor here at Great Meeting, once had occasion to remind me that we are not expected to like all the people we come into contact with, just to love them. With the greatest respect to Leslie, this is an instance of religion being at the heart of one’s love. It was the 16th century founder of the Unitarian denomination in Transylvania, Francis David, who famously wrote, “We do not have to think alike, to love alike,” an example of love being at the heart of our faith.

In the 19th century it was discovered that there were congregations of people in Hungary and Transylvania who believed the same things we do. Communication between the two communities began initially, as no-one could speak or write Hungarian, in Latin,- think about it as an enormous Valentine’s Card,- and so contact was made, and our warm fellowship endures to this day.

We do not all believe alike, but we come together with the understanding that our religious community invites us to take the risk of love; it asks us to consider  love, to give love a chance, to become familiar with it, to become students of love.

A notable Unitarian theologian, James Luther Adams, once said, “church is where we practice to be human…” Our congregational life is the ideal setting to practice how to love each other, and to forgive one another too.

When we gather together like this, on Zoom or at Chapel, we know that we are in a place where, for an hour, we can safely and quietly examine our own habits of thought and belief, — and this is what makes up our belonging together. In this way too we start to learn to love ourselves properly.

That is not quite as obvious as it may at first sound. Loving ourself properly requires a belief and a loyalty to something within ourself: something that nobody else really knows about. In other words, it concerns an understanding of our own self-worth. This may be an appreciation of the absolute uniqueness of our own experience. Having interior knowledge of this sort gives us confidence in ourself. It enables us to take care of ourself properly. It means self-acceptance according to our own standards,- no-one else’s -, and it means self-acceptance even when, in the eyes of the world, we are in the wrong…

In his Preface to his great long poem Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman describes this enlightened self-love:

This is what you should do:
Love the earth, and sun, and animals;
despise riches; give alms to everyone that asks;
stand up for the stupid and crazy;
devote your income and labour to others;
hate tyrants; argue not concerning God;
have patience and indulgence toward the people;
re-examine all you have been told in school or church or in any book,
dismiss what insults your very soul,
and your flesh shall become a great poem.”

Love is something we all need to both survive and flourish.

Mother Theresa noted that “the hunger for love is much more difficult to remove than the hunger for bread…” It was the belief of a predecessor of mine at college, Rev Frank Schulman, that “Love is an instinct planted in us by God” – and of course it was the entire thrust of the message of Jesus himself.

Faith in Love has been a belief, not only at the heart of the religion we are familiar with, but also restated time and time again by artists and poets over the centuries, and now often separated from the religious belief which once contained it. Matthew Arnold in the poem which I think most succinctly expresses the great 19th century disjunction which persists to this day between Love and Religion, wrote memorably,

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

And what is the answer or response to this cataclysmic and (Matthew Arnold is suggesting) universal loss of faith? He continues, “Ah, love, let us be true to one another.” The answer is deep, faithful human love.

Philip Larkin also expressed the identical sentiment in his great poem An Arundel Tomb, when he wrote, “What will survive of us is love.”

Love lasts, and is capable of transcending our lifetimes, as anyone who has ever lost someone very dear to them knows. We continue to love them, even after death.

Whether religion is at the heart of our love, or love at the heart of our religion, is perhaps ultimately a distinction which may be too hard to make.

Here are a few lines from a poem,  a sonnet of course as befits St Valentine’s Day,   by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, where the dichotomy we have been thinking about is beautifully described.

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…
I love with a passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints…

Let us finally refer to the humanist E.M. Forster, to whom three values were of central importance: tolerance, good temper and sympathy. As a humanist, Forster’s love was not at the heart of any religion or cause. It was entirely personal.

He wrote that “one must be fond of people and trust them, if one is not to make a mess of life.”

Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not love, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal…
Love suffereth long, and is kind; love envieth not; love vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up,
Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil;
Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth;
Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.
Love never faileth…   Amen.

Sunday Service homilies from the Minister during coronavirus period