The wonder and the horror of the greatest command
Annie Dillard asks a question about beauty in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek that nearly stops my beating heart. She frames the question with an Eskimo story told by Farley Mowat about a man, his young wife, and the girl’s mother at the top of the world. Jealous of her daughter’s love, the old woman strangles and skins her, stretching her daughter’s face upon her own while her son-in-law is out on the hunt. When he returns, he lies with her, thinking it’s his wife. But, wet from the hunt, the skin mask of his wife’s face shrivels on the old ugly’s wrinkled cheek and he runs away in horror, never to return.
It’s here that Dillard swings her club, driving home the sense of terror with the question: “is beauty itself an intricately fashioned lure, the cruelest hoax of all… could it be that if I climbed the dome of heaven and scrabbled and clutched at the beautiful cloth till I loaded my fists with a wrinkle to pull, that the mask would rip away to reveal a toothless old ugly, eyes glazed with delight?”
It’s a question about what’s underneath, under what we see. If all the beauty of the world were a hoax, wool pulled over our widened eyes, then how terrible that beauty. Often things we think beautiful wear a veil of deception and cover the true nature of things we want to be so pleasant, so good, and so beautiful.
What then of love? What masks does it sometimes wear? What smiles toothlessly underneath? The world and each human heart might need it, but is true love what it gets? It seems to me that what many call love really is not. To modify the idiom, there’s more than one way to skin a true love.
What’s offered by people often seems easy and cheap, a sly and skillful work that appears as love but isn’t. The world’s view of love, romantic and other, is explained almost as magic, something that appears without explanation or cause and cannot be wielded or controlled. If this kind of love is magic, it is dark magic, the kind displayed by an illusionist or at a freak show.
That’s why I’m stopped in my tracks as I consider a statement Christ makes in Mark’s gospel. When asked by a lawyer what he thought the greatest command was, Jesus responded by saying what righteous Jews had said for centuries, “Hear O Israel; the Lord your God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength.”
In Christ’s view, there was no greater thing. No higher or nobler purpose. Giving all the heart to God means giving all one’s passions and emotion; all the soul means giving one’s entire will and purpose; all strength is the whole output of one’s person. And upon offering these things to God, one must love one’s neighbour as one’s own self. It is an involved command, focused not on the self, but on God and then on everybody else.
And in Christ we have an incomparable example of such self-giving love: a man, the Son of God, who was crushed because of his love for God and God’s love for everybody else. His own flesh was skinned and cut, striped and speared when he hung upon a Roman cross. His flesh was marked not to dress up a deception, but to expose the everlasting truth that through the sacrificial love of God all deception and false love could be removed; the wool pulled over us collectively could be unpulled to reveal to our suddenly widened eyes God himself.
Through the horror of Christ’s suffering, true love was undressed and totally exposed. Certainly this is troubling for some. It is surely troubling for me. Not only is it hard to stomach, it’s difficult to respond to. If this is love then what will love require of me? Everything. If so, what good is that? I have so little on my own to give! And yet this is God’s great command.
Like the hunter who came home and ran in horror when the truth was revealed, so to we might want to hit the road and not look back. However, upon reflection, it is clear that in the command itself there is great provision for grace. The love that is required of us is the same love that is given. As the scriptures further define, love is patient and it is kind, it isn’t selfish or rude, it is not angry and it doesn’t keep records of wrong. It always protects. It always hopes and trusts, and it does not and will never fail. It is the perfect love of God.
I’ve been acutely attentive through internet and other chatter lately about the real and perceived failures of the Church and of Christians to put love where the doctrine is, so to speak. Many have stretched out their hands to the so-called people of God only to pull away a facade and find ugliness underneath. Where is the beautiful bride scriptures promise? Instead of a spotless, faithful, gracious beauty, a whining and cunning wench often lies in her place. No wonder many run.
But even our ugliness can be redeemed. In our imperfection we can learn to better handle and wield this love. Our understanding might be limited, but it can grow. Our strength to some might seem only weakness, but it can increase. We might not even know we have a soul, but we can seek and find that too.
Like Christ who came in the flesh as a naked, helpless child, who was weaned from milk, not solid food, who found his feet and learned to run and jump, who learned compassion and love by seeing it in the faulted community of people who raised the Son of God, so too, can we grow in stature. We must.
No matter where we may stand on the continuum of knowledge, no matter how great our passion or strength, our capacities and abilities can grow. We can give all that we have now. And when we have more we can give that too. The fact is, wherever or however we might gauge the size and weight of our heart, soul, minds, and strength what we have now is what we’ve got. What we have now is our all, and we are asked to give it.
Our capacity to love God and others may not be where we prefer it to be or where it should be, but we must choose to pour the measure of that love out now. The good news for us all is that we have a perfect example in Christ of selfless love, given without reserve. It will be by looking to him that the measure of our love will increase.
For some, the Church is no bride, just an old hag with false teeth. For others Christ is only an object of horror, his death unveiling an unthinkable act that makes no human sense. And yet that self-giving act of love was the revelation of what is really underneath; the ultimate moment when man finally reached the dome of heaven and clutched at the veil. Hidden beneath all the ugliness was the astonishing heart that beats under the flesh of all that our eyes can see. A heart that can beat in us too.