In 1981 Prince Charles was put on the spot during a television interview with Lady Diana Spencer, his new fiancee. The interviewer asked them if they were in love. Lady Diana’s instant response was , ‘Of course!,’ but Prince Charles replied, ‘Whatever “in love” means.’
Now in case you think Prince Charles is just a bit of a cold fish, on National Poetry Day 2015 he read a poem on Radio 4, ‘My love is like a red, red rose’ by Robbie Burns. I thought, ‘This is going to be a bit wooden,’ but I was wrong. He read the poem so movingly that Clarence House has made it available on YouTube and Twitter. Listening to him it was impossible to escape the conclusion that he now knows what being “in love” means.
O my Love is like a red, red rose,
That's newly sprung in June:
O my Love is like the melody,
That's sweetly played in tune.
As fair art thou, my bonnie lass,
So deep in love am I;
And I will love thee still, my dear,
Till a' the seas gang dry.
But what does being “in love” mean? It isn’t as simple as all that. So perhaps the young Prince Charles did have a point!
The ancient Greeks said that before we’re born each of us has a twin, another half who completes us and makes us whole. At birth we’re separated. We are born to one mother, they are born to someone else chosen at random by God, and we spend the rest of our lives searching for one another. If we listen carefully to God’s inner prompting, we might find our soulmate and be joined together again. So according to the ancient Greeks, God is challenging us to find the right partner who can fill in the gaps in our personality and make us complete.
It’s a bit like making the sort of simple jigsaw puzzle that’s given to very small children, where a police officer, perhaps, or a fire officer, or a baker, or a doctor, has been divided into two separate pieces, a bottom half and a top half. The puzzle is to take the jumbled up pieces and match the bottom half of each person with their missing top half. If we find our soulmate it’s like finding the other half of the traffic warden or the dentist in the puzzle.
It’s a charming idea and modern psychotherapists have borrowed it to explain why most people do in fact search for a soulmate. Instead of imagining that we have a twin, they talk about the loss small children feel when their mother is no longer able to feed them at the breast, or even cuddle them on her knee.
I still remember my own mother telling me that I was too heavy to be cuddled on her knee when I was six, whereas my brother - who was only four - was still light enough for her to bear his weight. I wasn’t too disappointed, but I haven’t forgotten! And psychotherapists say that all of us grow up looking for the same kind of emotional and physical bond that we once enjoyed with our parents.
The same idea crops up in the creation story in Genesis. Before The Fall Adam and Eve were perfectly matched, but after they tasted the forbidden fruit they fell out with one another. They began to blame one another for the toil they had to do all the days of their life and for the pains of childbirth, and so on. Since then all of us have been on a journey to rediscover the harmony which the original Adam and Eve enjoyed when the first human beings were perfectly matched with their partners.
It’s possible, of course, to see God or Jesus - as the Christian’s true soulmate, the other half that we need to make us complete, the missing piece of the jigsaw in our search for meaning and purpose, or the perfect partner who can bring harmony to our lives.
But the ancient Greeks also had another idea about what it means to be “in love”. They said that love is the desire or compulsion to seek out whatever is good and true.
At its most instinctive, this desire urges us to find the perfect mate with whom to have children, in the hope that they’ll grow up to be better people than we’ve managed to be. But in its highest form, this idea also means that when we meet someone who is truly good and true we cannot help falling “in love” with them. Christians believe that when people meet Jesus they feel this way about him. He’s so good and true that it’s hard to resist the impulse to love him.
Being “in love” with someone, even with Jesus, can’t be enjoyed in peace and tranquility. It involves risk. In a normal relationship there’s always the risk that we might lose the person we love/ Mary Magdalene feared that she was about to lose Jesus when she clung to him on the first Easter Day. Or there’s the risk that we might become obsessed with the person we love, or that our love might turn into something self-regarding or smothering, so that we care only about our own feelings and not about what the other person feels.
Whatever the poem may say, love isn’t like a delicate rose. Being “in love” requires us to be strong and supportive, to reach out to the other person when they need us. It means holding their hand when they’re lying in a hospital bed, or supporting them when they’re sad or under-pressure, or holding them close when they need comfort, and being prepared to let them go when that’s the right thing to do.
Down the centuries, following the example of Jesus, Christians have made a positive virtue out of the risks involved in being “in love”. They’ve been prepared to risk everything just as Jesus did when he went to the cross to bring in a new Kingdom of God based on this kind of self-giving love. And he asks us to take up our crosses, too.
He asks us to put love for him before love for our own family. Imagine what that means. When your father is alone in hospital, do you devote all your spare time to visiting him or do you still go to church services? When your mother has collapsed at home on the floor, and your sister isn’t answering her mobile phone, do you give back word for a church meeting or leave a neighbour to look after her? When your daughter is unwell, do you devote more time to supporting her or more time to church work? We’ve all faced choices like that.
When Jesus challenges us to leave mother and father, and brothers and sisters, and children for his sake and for the sake of the Gospel, is he talking about choosing between family and church, or is he talking about choosing between family values and wider values? Is he asking us to put being “in love” with God above the demands of romantic love, and family love and even love for our neighbours? Because he gave us two commandments, to love God with all our heart, and soul, and mind, and strength, and only then to love our neighbour as much as we love ourselves.
I don’t know the answers to these questions. I only know that Jesus said being “in love” with God makes absolute demands. We can’t love God with part of ourselves. It’s all or nothing.
Emmanuel Kant said that being “in love” with someone means loving them just for who they are, and not for any reward - even knowing that they love us back. So we called to love God just because there is a God.
Another German philosopher, Hegel, said that when we’re falling “in love” with someone there’s often a tension between wanting simply to enjoy loing them, and being guided in the way that we love them by moral principles such as Jesus’ commandment to ‘Love one another as I have loved you.’ The way to resolve this tension, Hegel said, is for two people who are “in love” to trust one another completely and face their destiny together.
That works for our relationship with God, too. True love is based on mutual trust. God loves us so much that he makes us his adoptive children, and in return we’re asked to trust completely in him no matter what happens to us.
I’ve already said that modern psychoanalysis sees our search for someone to love as a way of recapturing the relationship we once had with our parents. I think one of the reasons why Jesus asks us to leave behind our human family when we follow him is that he wants us to concentrate on an an even more deep-rooted relationship. All our loving is rooted ultimately in God’s love for us. That’s the thing we must recapture if we want to find love’s true meaning.
In the novels of D H Lawrence sexual union replaces romantic love as the ultimate expression of real togetherness. But even Lawrence had to concede that being “in love” still means caring about one another and being friends. The film ‘When Harry Met Sally’ tests Lawrence’s ideas to destruction. Harry and Sally have to decide whether they can be true friends without becoming lovers or, to look at the problem from a different angle, whether they can be true lovers to their marriage partners when someone else is already their best friend.
The Bible contains an erotic love poem, The Song of Songs, which has always been interpreted as a poem about the poet’s love for God. Like Lawrence, his feelings are so intense that he simply has to use erotic language to describe them.
Taking its cue from this tradition, a Methodist Conference report said that the only way to understand the relationship between the three persons of God in the Trinity is to compare it to the intensity of a loving sexual relationship. That’s not so surprising when we remember how some of Charles Wesley's hymns also borrow the language of eroticism to express his feelings: 'Jesu lover of my soul, let me to thy bosom fly.’
Some Christians haven’t been entirely comfortable with this intensity of feeling. Borrowing from that ancient Greek idea of being “in love” with goodness and truth, they’ve used the language of love to talk about abstract things like prayer or devotion. As the hymn writer James Montgomery put it,
Prayer is the soul's sincere desire,
unuttered or expressed,
the motion of a hidden fire
that trembles in the breast.
He’s using the language of love here, but prayer is his soul’s sincere desire, not love for a person, not even for Jesus.
It’s only a short step further to say that there’s a hierarchy of loving. Christians have often believed that physical love is the lowest form of desire and spiritual contemplation is the highest. And this idea finds echoes in wider society, where being “in love” is seen as something romantic and special that happens in the mind, whereas sex has been reduced to a matter of technique, which doesn’t have to be connected to love at all.
If being “in love” could really be separated from what it actually means to love someone in practice, it would be drained of its beauty and attractiveness. Loving someone means getting alongside them, helping them, making them happy, sharing the ups and downs of life with them, comforting and encouraging them. You can’t just love someone from a distance, or in an abstract way. You have to get involved with them.
The thing that makes Jesus special is that he turns God’s love for us from an abstract idea found in books, into something we can experience. In Jesus God doesn’t love us from a distance, from heaven. Instead he gets involved with us and on the cross he loves us with a kind of sacrificial altruism that goes far beyond enlightened self-interest, or the law of tit for tat - you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours. He goes beyond even the altruism of the wolfpack, or the herd, or the tribe or clan, or the regiment of soldiers, where people or animals do sacrifice themselves, but only for their own kith and kin or for comrades with whom they’ve already bonded.
Jesus encourages to reach out to, and if necessary, lay down our lives for complete strangers, and even for our enemies. This is love taken to extremes.
The evolutionary scientist George Price, who developed some of the science of altruism, decided that he needed to put this deeper understanding of altruism to the test. After his conversion to Christianity he gave away everything he had and becoming virtually down and out. Is our love for Jesus as deep as that?
We’ve seen that being “in love” with God makes us complete and unites us with all that is good and true. We’ve seen that it’s an unconditional kind of love which challenges us to reconsider all our other loving relationships as we put our whole trust in God and find our destiny in him. We’ve seen that God is the source of all loving and that people have sometimes loved him with a burning intensity. We’ve also seen that true love someone has to be put into practice. It can’t be just an idea, and that’s why Jesus had to come to share God’s love with us. And we have seen that, in the end, real love of this kind involves total self-giving.
The Anglican clergyman George Herbert wrote a poem about this sort of love:
Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back
Guilty of dust and sin.
But… know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:So I did sit and eat.