The Rev. Becky Zartman
It’s easy to love the idea of a person. It’s much harder to love an actual person.
We love the idea of a person all the time. We love someone because we think we understand them, or we love them because they are a mystery. We love them because we think they love us; we love them because of what or who they represent. We love them for who they could be, or who they should be, or who they might be.
But our task is to learn how to love them for who they are.
And this task is no easy thing. In fact, learning to love someone for who they really are may be the hardest thing you will ever do.
So in the Christian tradition, we do the impossible. We stand up, in front of God and a community of people, and make a promise that we are going to love someone for who they are, no matter what. Sometimes we promise to love a particular person, as in a marriage, or a particular group of people, as in a monastic order, or through a particular role, as in ordained ministry. This promise to love is called a vow. When we make a vow, we promise to do the impossible.
Vows are impossible because when we make vows, we have no idea what we’re actually promising. We have a vague concept of what our promises mean, or could mean in the future, but we don’t actually know. And the scary part is, we can’t actually know what it is we’re really promising until we start to live out our promises day by day. And it is in the mind-numbingly impossible day after day after day when the warm and gauzy daydream of the person you promised to love disintegrates into cold hard truth. The ideal turns into the real; pleasant fictions become unpleasant facts. And for the first time ever, you find yourself truly understanding why God put “Thou shalt not murder” into the Ten Commandments. Vows are impossible.
Love in community is heartbreaking work. Our hearts will be broken. We will hurt the people we have promised to love, and they will hurt us. Pain is inevitable. We will discover that those whom we promised to love are not who we thought they were, and even worse, we will discover that we are not who we thought we were. Being in loving relationship means that the truth of our very selves will be revealed. When we have chosen to love, no matter what, there is no place for us to hide from ourselves. We learn that not only do we need to love others for who they are, we need to love our selves for who we are. Vows are impossible.
But vows are also a very specific and very special type of language. A vow is something philosophers of language call a “performative utterance.” A performative utterance is a speech act that changes the social reality the performative utterance is describing. When we make a vow, we will a new reality into being, we create a small pocket of the Kingdom of God, where love reigns supreme, no matter the cost to self. And if we persevere, what we discover is that by giving away our life, we are saving our life, because loving imbues our life with meaning. And when we make these promises in front of God, when we ask Jesus for help, when we petition the Holy Spirit to be among us, we don’t will this new reality into existence all by ourselves. We discover, even as we declare the impossible to be true, that with God, all things are possible. Even love.
Questions for Meditation
The SSJE Rule describes how “in silence we honor the mystery present in the hearts of our brothers and sisters, strangers and enemies. Only God knows them as they truly are.” Do you leave room for the mystery of others? Take note of distance, friction, and closeness.
Life in community requires a commitment to being fully present with others. Consider your interactions: How well do you listen? What distractions interfere?
In the Eucharist, we are invited bring our gifts to the altar, but before we do, we are called to make right with our neighbors during the Peace. Is there someone with whom you need to make right?
God calls us to community for the sake of conversion: our own conversion, the conversion of others, and the transformation of our world. Who is your community, and how are you being transformed?