"Loss" means that the original gift and salvation of love have been degraded: love's arrow poisoned and sent swiftly back to the heart. My time-worn remedy has been to pluck the arrow and to prove the wound, testing its resources with protestant concentration. This time I want to do it differently. You may be weaker than the whole world but you are always stronger than yourself. Let me send my power against my power. So what if I die. Let me discover what it is that I want and fear from love. Power and love, might and grace. That I may desire again. I would be the Lover, am barely the Beloved.
Gillian Rose, Love's Work
A couple of weeks ago I took Gillian Rose's The Broken Middle on retreat with me. Fortunately I had other books with me for in the end I only read one and a half chapters because it is such hard going. Every now and again you get some encouragement, but most of the time the strain of reading is immense. I've fought through Hegel, I didn't have the heart for Heidegger, but I feel I should continue with Rose, if only because she has influenced this generation of theologians so much. It's a bloody hard business though. I met up with my old tutor from theological college the other day who wrote her phd on Rose. She claims that Rose is playing with you. I didn't find this particularly encouraging.
She has written more accessible books though and Love's Work is deceptively accessible for the depth it contains. Similar in tone is her unfinished, posthumous Paradiso, in which she defines the philosopher's task as one of 'eros', 'attention' and 'acceptance'. Eros by which she means intellectual curiosity; attention as in careful concentration; and acceptance as a refusal to make an easy closed-off conclusion - to remain with the problems and conflicts without seeking a way out. The passage above shows how her attitude to love and sex bears the same marks. The eros is pronounced, the passion, the ululation, the shriek and sob; but so is the attention - the rapt concentration of feeling, the honesty of self-assessment, the awareness and analysis; but finally it is the 'acceptance' that is most striking. Refusing to call friends or sisters, staying with the pain, refusing distraction or lies of denial. The refusal of consolation - to 'prove the wound'. The reward is to discover what I want and fear from love, for love not to be diminished and cheapened.
Many years ago I spent several months with St John of the Cross, endlessly reading the poems and prose. The intention at the time was academic but I gained an interesting spiritual insight. St John teaches a sort of detachment. Not in a not caring way, what might be called indifference, but more like what Rose here calls 'acceptance' (T. S. Eliot takes this up in 'Little Gidding' in the hedgerow and St Julian: All shall be well, and/ All manner of thing shall be well.). The point is that if we can let things go we are freed from the anxiety, the weight of our fragility. Reading him this became I kind of prayer - I looked at what I was most terrified of - for me beginning with things like losing my job, my vocation, mobility, vision, the ability to read, to communicate, enduring unassailable discomfort. It was a sort of process of burning away, meditating upon fear until it dissolved; staying with pain and humiliation rather than running from it. Imaginatively I came to a place of assurance where I truly felt that whatever my conditions I could live in the simplicity of what remained of my mind and its relationship with God.
In a sense this is very close to a negative form of control. When I am on trains and planes I usually spend some time imagining they crash and thinking through my actions. This is of course an idle fantasy and a sort of anxiety displacement exercise. This is not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about acceptance - that whatever comes to be the case, it will be ok, or in Rose's celebrated borrowing: 'keep your mind in hell and despair not' (or as Jessie J profoundly reminds us: 'It's ok not to be ok'). This will be tested in greater depth of course. Most of us will endure the slow decline to the body's end, when our assurance is tested. Only time will tell the success of our preparations. Rose was struggling with the cancer that finally killed her as she wrote this work. The great success of it is that she articulates a theology, a spirituality, of suffering, of abiding with conflicts in love and friendship, of staying with the problems of philosophy and politics, and of bearing with the reality of suffering and not turning away:
[New age spiritualities] burden the individual soul with an inner predestination: you have eternal life only if you dissolve the difficulty of living, of love, of self and other, of the other in the self, if you are translucid, without inner or outer boundaries. If you lead a normally unhappy life, you are predestined to eternal damnation, you will not live.
This is the counsel of despair which would keep the mind out of hell. The tradition is far kinder in its understanding that to live, to love, is to be failed, to forgive, to have failed, to be forgiven, for ever and ever. Keep your mind in hell, and despair not.