the penultimate WORD
Series 2006 -
The Irvine Tartan • My monthly column in The New Brunswick Anglican
could hardly contain myself. The excitement of my first Valentine’s exchange was electric. Wednesday, after supper, I had cut the Valentines out of the over-sized book purchased for the occasion. Cards were in the front pages while envelopes occupied the rest of the book. The envelopes needed assembly. I carefully followed the lines with the small scissors, biting the tip of my tongue to aid in my concentration. The collection ready, I listed my class-mates’ names on a sheet of paper, careful not to forget anyone. The penciled names were printed, as neatly as possible, on each envelope, held together with a drop of LePage’s mucilage. On each of the cards I printed my name, Jimmy. The last card I prepared was for my Teacher.
The principle was simple enough: a card for everyone. No one would be left out. I prepared a card for every boy and girl in my class – some even read this column. I prepared a card for all of my friends and playmates. I prepared a card regardless of how well I knew them or how much I liked them. None of the names on my list – and everyone in the Class has the same list – had done anything to deserve a card. And even the people I was jealous of or afraid of were not scratched off the list. I prepared a card for my classmates regardless where they lived and regardless how they faired under the academic challenge placed on us in Grade 1. I still have an eight by ten black and white photo of that Class and while I have forgotten some of their names, many of them I do remember, and all of them were remembered on that Thursday in February in 1952.
The gospel injunction of loving one another seemed disarmingly simple among the children that made up that Class. There was no sense of preference, no sense of exclusion. Oh, there was the cute little girl in the second seat in the third row – odd, but I can’t remember her name – but for all her beauty in the eyes of this six year old, she did not eclipse a single classmate. Our Valentines were neither libidinal nor carnal. Our remembering the other was disarming and heart-warming at once.
The anticipation of knowing that we belonged – I belonged – was enough. And none were disappointed. Before we heard Jesus’ admonition, we were obedient. I opened each card with glee, knowing there was a card from each one of my classmates. There was no surprise – my glee was in the overwhelming acceptance, knowing I was a Valentine!
In later years I discovered that Valentines took on a cosmetic dimension. The more complicated it got, the more selective and focused and exclusive it would become for each of us. It’s almost as though we took Paul’s words of maturity and gave them a turn of the screw. When we were children of course we acted like children: we did childish things; but when we grew up, we put childish things away, and became adult!
Al Pacino gives voice to that attitude: “Love is overrated,” he says, “biochemically no different than eating large quantities of chocolate.” The cardiac Ganong moment of the heart-shaped box has become the icon for our Valentine offering. And cynically, if we are rejected we can always devour the contents. We unconsciously heed Pacino’s depiction of Satan in The Devil’s Advocate rather than Jesus’ quiet demand of his disciples when he was at Table with them moments before his betrayal. The longer our arms have gown we no longer extend them in embrace to their full extend – and for that choose to dismiss others we never would have left out in our youth when our reach was shorter.
Scissors aren’t required anymore.
I noticed a box of Valentines in a local shop just the other day: “Jimmy Neutron, Boy Genius”. It provides sufficient cards for a class of 34 and one for the Teacher as well. It seems clear to me that children still begin with an assumption of inclusion for Valentines that many of us in our adulthood have chosen to disavow. Possibly the reason for this is our belief that there simply isn’t enough love to go around.
What difference would it have made if we had let ourselves believe that we are held in a wholly loving gaze?
What difference would it have made if we believed ourselves subject to a gaze which saw all our surface accidents and arrangements, all our inner habits and inheritances, all our anxieties and arrogances, all our history – and yet a gaze which nevertheless loved that whole tangled bundle which makes us the self we are, with an utterly free, utterly selfless love?
What difference would it have made if we let ourselves believe that we were held in a loving gaze that saw all the twists and distortions of our messy selves, all the harm that we can do and have done, but also saw all that we could become, all that we could give to others, and all that we could receive?
What difference would it have made if we had seen each face around us in the week we have just lived -- cleaners, businessmen, emigrants and immigrants, waitresses, nurses and teachers, those agéd and alone and those unemployed and retired – as individually held in the same overwhelming, loving gaze?
What difference would it have made if we believed each person around us to be loved with the same focus, by a love which saw each person’s unique history, unique problems, unique capacity, unique gift?
What difference would it have made if we believed that this love nevertheless made no distinctions between people more worthy and people less worthy of love, no distinctions of race, religion, age, innocence, strength, or beauty: a lavish and indiscriminate love?
Such unfettered acceptance would be utterly disarming; to believe such good news, such a Gospel, would have been very, very difficult.
Copyright © 2006 James T. Irvine
What can I give Him,
Christina Georgina Rossetti (1830-1894)