By S. Brent Plate
Love is not a shepherd’s crook.
I am not the great shepherd
Reaching out to pull you in.
You cannot be my valentine.
I cannot possess love
We can only be possessed by it.
Valentine’s Day approaches and I am sitting in a room in a Buddhist monastery in the Hudson River Valley of New York. I’ve come to jump start my dying contemplative life, revive a withering body in order to reproduce a spirit, physically giving birth to a soul. I feel a long way from red and pink hearts and sticky sweet treats. Not above it, just removed, somewhere off to the side. Like I’m off the holiday commercial grid.
Valentine’s Day operates through ritually commercialized (or is it commercially ritualized?) cards and candy, and the requisite query: “Will you be my Valentine?” It is about love, to be sure, and showing a variety of love through symbolic gestures, material objects, and appropriate foods. It is another manifestation of our deep human desire to be connected, to get beyond our self.
Yet I wonder about the notion of love that I have soaked up from my surrounding society and lived out in my personal life. I worry about its possessive qualities, its petty jealousies, its rants and raves when my love doesn’t get its own way. It is a love based on desire, on connection with another, but all too often the desire is to bring that other back to myself, to engulf the other, possess it. Will you be mine. This love is a great shepherd’s crook that reaches out and hooks the other and pulls it in to me. And I think I’m the great shepherd saving lost sheep.
At the sound of a clanging bell, I awoke at five this morning to sit in meditation for forty-five minutes, staring at a crack in the bamboo floor in front of me. My practice occurred along with two dozen others in this sangha, the community of people who have come together to take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and each other. Some have been here for years, others for months, others for hours. There is connection in this place as the communal relationship is bonded by efforts to eliminate desire, to get rid of attachments, to throw out the shepherd’s-crook love.
Love, I am learning, is not something I can give. I do not possess it, and I cannot possess another being through it. I can only enter into the ongoing energies of love that precede me and will flow long after I have ceased.
This is what I am learning here, in this Zen Buddhist practice, a learning that runs parallel to a kindred monastic spirit from a differing tradition. In the 1930s, Thomas Merton was teaching English Literature in another part of New York State, when he became entranced by the idea of monastic life after a visit to a Trappist monastery in Kentucky. In his journals of the time, all of 26 years old, he discussed the “religious life” and his interest in it. He stated that religious life “exists not as a ‘good feeling’ but as a constant purpose, an unending love that expresses itself now as patience, now as humility, now as courage, now as self-denial, now as justice, but always in a strong knot of faith and hope, and all of these are nothing but aspects of one constant deep desire, charity, love.” I’m not sure this is sellable to Hallmark.
As the snow covers everything outside the window, I breathe. Alone. But not disconnected. Can we be Valentines?
S. Brent Plate is visiting associate professor of religious studies at Hamilton College. His recent books include Religion and Film: Cinema and the Re-Creation of the World; and Blasphemy: Art that Offends. With Jolyon Mitchell he co-edited The Religion and Film Reader. He is co-founder and managing editor of Material Religion: The Journal of Objects, Art, and Belief.