the penultimate WORD

Series 2007 - February
If this be error and upon me proved


The Irvine Tartan  My monthly column in The New Brunswick Anglican







Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds...
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

William Shakespeare, Sonnet CXVI



Almost before the days began to lengthen, Valentines appeared in the stores. An optimistic harbinger of spring, when a young man’s thoughts turn to love, the ubiquitous icon reminds us all of our need of love. The message is perhaps more subtle, relying on the image for the most part. No nostalgic carols accompany the array of hearts. Each generation has its own special song.

Love is in the air.

There’s no disputing it: chocolates go a long way. Ganong chocolates and long-stem roses may well be a cliché. Maraschino morsels couched in paper doilies tempt the pallet and melt hearts. Cardiac themes infuse the month and our thoughts, spurred by endorphins turn to love.

For the cynic, the half-life of enduring love competes with the consumption of the treasury of the heart-shaped box. But there is more at play here than chemistry.

The sentiment can be shallow as experience demonstrates.

For the pressures of our age I am encouraged when couples seek out marriage. By the time they find me the box is empty, the flowers wilted.

Enduring love is a journey that begins with a step. A journey of a life-time knows more than the sweetness of melting milk chocolate. Hopes and fears, aspirations and disappointments add a dimension to cards and petals and discarded paper doilies. Poets have succeeded best at capturing the fulsomeness of love. Prose seldom achieves such heights, happy with the intoxication of chemistry.

I never learned to think much about poetry. But I had a reasonably good memory and I learned to remember what I should think about it. I came to Shakespeare with that view. Some people come to the Scriptures the same way.

What I knew was this: I didn’t like Shakespeare for what I had to think about what he wrote. Having been introduced to the Bard by someone who didn’t know him well, I found our association awkward. The sharp dialogues, the insightful soliloquies, even his Sonnets never came alive – they stayed in print, glued to the page. I learned how to survive an education. I came to discover insights of the Elizabethan poet later, on my own.

Much the same can be said of the Scriptures. Love as a metaphor for Divinity is too often spoken of out of hand and at a distance. We approach Love not with arms out-spread anticipating an embrace; less we seek the One who holds us as the apple of his eye with a caress.

The caution of our first Valentine is revisited as we hesitate in our approach to God. Our initial love is shallow for all of our blush and quickened pulse. Our risk and vulnerability remains hidden and we present less than ourselves, as a living sacrifice.

When I found Shakespeare – too late in life perhaps – and read him without a shadow bearing down, I found the words to leap from the page and stimulate my mind, and heart! “Love is not love,” he penned, “which alters when it alteration finds…” The gospel echoed here and the grace by which we are restored is given voice. Love allows for change and “alteration” and does not change for all that. Jesus’ Easter morning affection for Peter endured the alteration of denial. Jesus’ love for the Apostle remained constant through the storm that besought him. His alteration was not simply wiped away; it wasn’t as though Peter had not altered. Things did not simply return to the way they were. The character of Love enabled the relationship to weather the course and come through – the fuller for it.

Such loves are ignited this month, and every month. Iconoclasts act independently for most of the year. As the evangelical theme of love grows and quickens many will embark on a course that will lead to deep water, unknown and uncharted. In that journey our age is much less tolerant, and certainly far less willing to be vulnerable. Nonetheless we have cause to hope. Hands are still clasped and bound tight by a priest’s stole. Vows are still made and blessing pronounced. And all of this sought by hearts that have yet to encounter alteration. Then will love be found.

If this be error and upon me proved, I never writ and no man ever loved.

Copyright © 2007 James T. Irvine

Series 2007


Midi:  Kelvingrove