We love the things we love for what they are. —Robert Frost, “Hyla Brook”
A couple of weeks ago I started a summer directed reading in the English Romantic poets with a somewhat shy but extraordinarily intelligent and kind professor. I’ve never done a directed reading by myself before–last semester plodding through Ovid in my slow and inexpert Latin I had a friend at my side to share translating, commentary, conversational duties–and being more than somewhat shy myself, I found our first meeting awkward. We both fumbled around trying to figure out how to talk about the Ancient Mariner and Tintern Abbey and the Lyrical Ballads. Partly because I came armed with a list of questions about the readings, our second meeting was smoother. At one point in our conversation, my professor started comparing Wordsworth and Blake, and I found myself suddenly bursting out with the question I always want to ask everyone, all the time: Why did you choose to study Blake? What is it about Blake that drew you on so irresistibly? Why do you love the things you love?
It’s a question to which, of course, there is no answer. There’s ultimately no accounting for what we love; what can we do but praise the things we love, and praise their dazzling, inexhaustible mysteries? But few pleasures equal the pleasure of hearing someone else praise the objects of her intellectual passions because such praise reveals whole vast and limitless worlds that we can never have alone. I love disagreeing with people about books because I long for someone who loves the books that I find dull or baffling to give me her eyes and ears, to unlock doors to which I myself have no key. I long to see something of what someone else sees, to know something of what he knows, that in some small measure I might come to love the things I do not yet know how to love. I have an indefensible, theologically flimsy theory that this is what a gift is in the spiritual and therefore truest sense: a passion, a deep capacity to love some aspect of the exquisite and infinite world, a form of, and therefore an invitation to, worship and adoration.
I love listening to my sister Kiskilili talk about the ancient world, about the unfathomable mystery of time, about the constant, inevitable loss of entire cultures and languages–that there are remains of such unimaginably old civilizations on this earth, that we actually have the tangible remains of their material cultures and their writings, that these human worlds once were and are no more. What could be more strange, more haunting? I love listening to Kiskilili talk about the pre-historic physical anthropology that borders her own field–the utterly mysterious advent of language, the early hominids, the extinct Neanderthals–those endlessly fascinating questions of who we are as humans and by what lost process we came to be. I love hearing her explicate the piercing hilarities of Donald Barthelme and Lorrie Moore because she has an infallible ear for the painful social observations of contemporary fiction that I lack, and she’s given me ways of seeing human relationships that I could never have come to on my own. I love Lynnette’s infectious enthusiasm for the theological and philosophical problems she works on, the nature of God, Christ, the Trinity, humans, the world, sin, the endless, fundamental mystery of atonement and salvation. I love hearing her explicate Augustine and Paul and Karl Rahner, considering the problems of works and grace, what it means to sin, to be saved, to create and alter the narrative of one’s own life, what it means to be in relation to God. Earlier this week I called my brother Ziff for his birthday, and he told me that his oldest son loves to play with numbers as Ziff himself does and is always inventing and solving math problems. I love the book reviews Ziff periodically does for the family–he’s constantly reading and writing about economics and politics and social policy, constantly, almost instinctively, it seems to me, building conceptual models in an attempt to account for and tease apart the complexities of social phenomena. Certainly these three of my siblings–and very likely all six of my siblings–have a passion for the sociological that I don’t share. I could never be a quantitative psychologist or anthropologist or social scientist of any kind; I wouldn’t make much of a theologian or an Assyriologist or a family and social historian or a medievalist or a film critic either, but through my siblings’ eyes I get to see something of what is endlessly fascinating about each these disciplines, something of the passion of these worlds.
Wanting to know why people love what they love is only one of several other questions I’m always dying to ask: I also want to know how they encounter and experience the divine. I want to know how they understand God and themselves and their own experience, by what process they make meaning of the pleasures and pains and irreperable losses of this world and this life. Sometimes I hold myself back from a truly intrusive and obnoxious inquisitiveness only by a thread.
Why do you love the things you love? How do you make sense of God, of the world, of your own experiences?
How do you live?
World–and worlds–without end.