More than once I’ve been referred to as a modern-day Troubadour. I’ve always liked this designation because it has a romantic, archaic ring to it that sounds just a little bit more flattering than mere singer/songwriter, naturally appealing to my vanity. But it once occurred to me that I wasn’t entirely sure of its meaning and thought I should look it up.
Not surprisingly, I discovered the word to have various historical uses and nuances. But the definition that intrigued me most, and which I recognize as fairly accurate of my own sense of calling and vocation is this:
a lyric poet sent by one (usually of the King’s court)
with a message of chaste love to another.
Well … there you go. Just two weeks ago (on Valentines Day) I posted a song and message of chaste love in a blog. In it, I celebrated 30 years of marriage to my wife Nanci; a union that has resulted in three beloved (now adult) children, their own unions to beloved others, two grandchildren, and a deeply meaningful, long-term foster relationship with a young woman and her beautiful children who, in fact, are coming over for dinner tonight. I can’t wait.
Although not every chaste union strives to produce offspring, Fr. Gabrielle of St. Magdalen, in his meditative devotional Divine Intimacy, teaches that the highest glory of the chaste union is in it’s potential to become a willing “collaborator with God in the transmission of life.” That is: a relationship that is materially fecund; suggesting a dark, loamy richness capable of concealing and safeguarding a vulnerable seed, and providing a nutrient-rich soil from which it can spring to it’s own leafy uniqueness. It’s a lovely image.
Ironically, what struck me this morning is that Valentines Day is celebrated at the very onset of the season of Lent. And Lent, in contradistinction to Valentines, is essentially a season where the Christian “faithful” penitently consider the devastating disaster that is infidelity — particularly, infidelity to God, and by extension, to all that God is in faithful relationship to.
One of the scriptural texts the Church reflects on during Lent is the Old Testament book of Hosea, in which the author imaginatively portrays God as despair-raged lover whose beloved people have been unfaithful with “declarations of love that last no longer than morning mist and predawn dew” (6:4). If you read the text as a propositional description of God, it can be a rather disturbing image as God keens agonizingly one minute, and rages menacingly the next. It is almost a frightening glimpse of someone who, in their painful desperation, maniacally flops between pleading and reasoning on one hand, and threatening damnation on the other.
But, for those concerned with the violence of God, apparent in Old Testament Scriptures, please note how the story goes. Admittedly, the text allows for painful rage, resulting from betrayal, to be voiced. In short, the text is comfortable with the truth: “I’ll charge like a lion, like a leopard stalking in the brush. I’ll jump like a sow grizzly robbed of her cubs …” (13:7,8). But in the end, God cannot wield the vengeance he threatens. God eventually spends his rage and collapses in exhaustion back into his covenant character, admitting almost with a sheepish sigh:
“I will love … lavishly. My anger is played out.” (14:4)
From there, God puts his heart on the table, inviting a fresh start and promising that from the raw ugliness of infidelity, newness will “burst into bloom like a crocus in the spring … splendid, like a giant sequoia…with a fragrance like a grove of cedars.” And God recommits to his beloved, promising to be, for her, a“luxuriant fruit tree” (14:5-8).
What is significant to note at this point is the content of the alleged infidelity. In the grand narrative of God’s covenant relationship with his people, the expectation is of a commitment to love, “in justice” (12:6). In other words, there are broader social implications here that transcend (including but not limited to) the personal religious affections of individual piety. Rather than planting “wind seeds” of self indulgence that can only yield “tornadoes” (8:7), God’s faithful are expected to “harrow the soil” and “ready the earth” for seeds that will yield righteousness, from which they will harvest Love (10:12).
And how do we imagine that Love? Well … this is what interests me. If you look at the trajectory of the broader liturgical season of Eastertide – beginning with Lent and proceeding through Holy Week and Easter Sunday to Pentecost and Ascension Sunday – we arrive eventually at Trinity Sunday. Here at last, we begin to understand where this whole story is heading; that at the epicenter of God’s very nature is Divine Society; an eternal mutuality marked by, and held together by, a fundamental orientation toward “the other.” This relationship of self-donating, mutual-othering is what we are invited to apprehend and give/return ourselves to in the season of Lent. And it is by this Divine Society, that we measure all lesser apprehensions and allegiances to which we have given ourselves — indeed, illicit commitments that cause devastating repercussions for which the whole of creation is groaning:
“Because of all this, the very land itself weeps and everything in it is grief-stricken– animals in the fields and birds on the wing” (4:3).
Let’s consider for a moment some examples of what social infidelity might look like in our context. I’m displaying my own biases here for sure. Some will object most certainly, and some will counter with their own lists. But if nothing else, if there is any merit to the following charges, we do well to consider what hidden loyalties they betray:
- We are a people living off the spoils of a theo-colonial conquest which has decimated the Host Nations of North America. In the light of God’s covenant faithfulness to us, what do we make of the current state of our treaty relationships/obligations to First Nations peoples?
- We are a people committed to a consumptive lifestyle that outpaces the planet’s capacity to detox, rejuvenate, and restore. In the light of Covenant Love, how does the Church understand her responsibility to safeguard the fruitfulness of a future generation’s inheritance?
- Given the nature of the Divine Society that is God’s Trinitarian existence (into which we’ve been invited), how do we justify our often uncritical allegiances to polarizing political ideologies (left and right) which at best, Christianly speaking, are broken accommodations to a broken situation?
- We are a people mostly committed, through military threat, to “defend our interests” in lands that are not our own. Please understand, I’m not making a totalizing statement against the military – indeed, “the abuse of a thing does not negate it’s proper use” – but how does excessive militarism, fueled by expansionist ideologies, square with the content of divine-reciprocity described above?
- In the Canadian context, despite overwhelming evidence that much crime is linked to systemic poverty, how do we understand the Christian community’s relative silence as our national leadershiphas elected to address the situation by investing in more prisons rather than the communities most adversely affected by poverty?
Back to Fr. Gabriele of St. Magdalen: Recall his teaching, that the highest glory of the humanly chaste relationship is the willing “collaboration with God in the transmission of life.” He goes a step further when he teaches that those who willingly ”consecrate themselves to God … become God’s collaborators in the transmission of the life of grace to others.” In other words, the glory of the chaste, Divine-Human relationship is the new society-life of Grace. That is: relationships that are spiritually fecund giving birth to human flourishing. Indeed, another lovely image.
I think it can be fairly said that one of the challenges of Lent is this: Spiritual fecundity, of which Fr. Gabriel speaks, may well have incarnational implications which confront current commitments. For Christians at least, Lent is an opportunity to prepare and examine a “fearless inventory” of our current commitments in the light of the Divine Society to which we are betrothed.
Several years ago, my daughter Sarah and I recorded an album together called Sons and Daughters. On it, Sarah sings a plaintive song inspired by the book of Hosea, which leads us to the heart of the season of Lent. Feel free to download the song and listen repeatedly if it resonates.
Aside: When the recording came out, some folks complained about the wooziness of the time-signature in the song’s production. Trust me, the song remains in standard 4/4 time throughout, but the anticipatory pushes in the instrumental sections give a certain feeling of disorientation, which (although not intentional at the time) may be seasonally, and even theologically appropriate
And so, if I may play the Troubador for the moment, press the play button below and hear this:
HOSEA (Come Back to Me) – Gregory Norbet OSB
sung by Sarah Giardino (nee Bell) on Steve Bell’s CD “Sons and Daughters”
Come back to me with all your heart
Don’t let fear keep us apart
Trees do bend though straight and tall
So must we to others call
Long have I waited for
Your coming home to me
And living deeply our new life
The wilderness will lead you
To the place where I will speak
Integrity and justice
You shall know
Long have I waited for
Your coming home to me
And living deeply our new life
You shall sleep secure with peace
Faithfulness will be your joy
Long have I waited…
Steve Bell is is a Canadian singer-songwriter and guitarist based in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada.
Photo: Guitar player, Markku Vitikainen / Shutterstock.com