N HER DUO OF POEMS FOR QUINQUAGESIMA SUNDAY (the first of them a sonnet), Christina Rossetti meditates on what she calls “the law of love,” in contrast to “all other laws”:
Love is alone the worthy law of love:
All other laws have presupposed a taint:
Love is the law from kindled saint to saint,
From lamb to lamb, from dove to answering dove.
Love is the motive of all things that move
Harmonious by free will without constraint:
Love learns and teaches: love shall man acquaint
With all he lacks, which all his lack is love.
Because Love is the fountain, I discern
The stream as love: for what but love should flow
From fountain Love? not bitter from the sweet!
I ignorant, have I laid claim to know?
Oh, teach me, Love, such knowledge as is meet
For one to know who is fain to love and learn.
Piteous my rhyme is
What while I muse of love and pain,
Of love misspent, of love in vain,
Of love that is not loved again:
And is this all then?
As long as time is,
Love loveth. Time is but a span,
The dalliance space of dying man:
And is this all immortals can?
The gain were small then.
Love loves for ever,
And finds a sort of joy in pain,
And gives with nought to take again,
And loves too well to end in vain:
Is the gain small then?
Love laughs at Never,
Outlives our life, exceeds the span
Appointed to mere mortal man:
All which love is and does and can
Is all in all then.
According to Peter Kreeft, in a talk he gave about C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, St. John the Apostle was often criticized by disciples of his for being “too simple.” “All you talk about is love,” they would say. His reply to them was, “That’s right. That’s all there is to talk about.” Christina Rossetti would agree. She is, in my estimation, the greatest Victorian poet; and I realize that that puts her ahead of Lord Tennyson, Robert Browning, and Matthew Arnold. Yet if you read her poems from cover to cover–all one thousand pages–you will soon discover that, like St. John, all she talks about is God and love. The final couplet of her Quinquagesima poems could be a fitting epitaph to her work: “All which love is and does and can / Is all in all then.”
But there is a very deceptive simplicity in that. “Love is alone the worthy law of love,” Rossetti begins; and here is why: “All other laws have presupposed a taint.” The entire history of God and man is written in that first couplet. St. Paul says that very thing when he tells the Galatians the the law “was added because of transgressions” (Gal. 3:19) It is only because we are sinners that we need the law; it “presuppose[s] a taint,” in this case, the taint of original sin. Paul continues: “If a law had been given which could make alive, then righteousness would indeed be by the law” (v. 21). In other words, the law can reveal to us our taint, but it can’t remove it. Only Christ can do that; “the law,” Paul concludes (in the KJV rendering), “was our schoolmaster to bring us to Christ” (v. 24). God, who is love (1 John 4:8), fulfills the law (Rom. 10:4) and so removes our taint (Rom. 5:17). “All our lack is love,” Rossetti puts it; all we lacked was Christ. What St. John and St. Paul say in the language of theology, Christina Rossetti says in the language of poetry: “Love is alone the worthy law of love, / All other laws have presupposed a taint.”
The reason that love is the fulfillment of the law is because all sin comes from a failure to love. Christ explains this to the lawyer who asks him, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?” Christ answers:
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And the second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets. (Matt. 22:36–40)
It is herein that we can understand the traditional Catholic division of the Ten Commandments into our duty toward God (the first of the two great commandments) and our duty toward our fellow man (the second of the two great commandments). Our duty is love, and we sin to the extent that we withhold any part of that love for what Fr. in his homily today called the original taint of Adam and Eve: pride and self-regard. Love is alone the worthy law of love.
And it is, as Christina Rossetti continues, “harmonious by free will without constraint.” It only has meaning to the extent that we choose it freely, unconstrained by necessity. Rossetti was no Calvinist. But still, the law of love is as absolute and strict as the Law of Moses; indeed, the demands are often more severe. When was the last time you read the Sermon on the Mount? If it has been some time, perhaps it might be a good practice this Lent to read it slowly and mediate upon its demands–possibly even to do so before the Blessed Sacrament in Eucharistic Adoration. Jesus reminds us that the law is to be fulfilled, not relaxed:
Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them. For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matt. 5:17–20)
Christ goes on to remind us that “thou shalt not kill” has a much stricter application than a mere surface-level reading would suggest. The prohibition against killing includes even a prohibition against anger and insults–even a prohibition against calling someone a fool. If there is discord between you and your brother, Christ says, the necessity of being reconciled is so important that you should even delay bringing your gift to the altar in order that you first make amends (Matt. 5:21–26).
The commandment “thou shalt not commit adultery” has a much stricter application than not having sex outside of marriage. It even includes “look[ing] at a woman lustfully”; even the desire is sinful. And the commandment is so strict that Christ tells us–no doubt with some hyperbole–“If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away” (adultery includes voyeurism); He tells us, “If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away” (adultery includes masturbation) (Matt. 5:27–30).
Christ continues in the same spirit for several chapters, defining with very strict boundaries the law concerning oath-taking, retaliation, love for your fellow-men (including enemies), almsgiving, prayer, fasting, anxiety, judging, and profanation. He makes them more, not less, strict. One could say that his point is not that we could possibly keep such strict watch over our own thoughts and behaviors, but rather to remind us of how helpless we are before the strictness of the law of love; and there is a point in that. But another point can be made, too, which is that Christ is showing us that the law is not merely a set of arbitrary prohibitions; it stems from a positive and absolute command to love both God and neighbor.
HESE ARE IMPORTANT THOUGHTS to consider for the last Sunday before Lent begins: Not just “what will I give up?” but “how have I failed?” Over the forty days to come, I will spend some time in meditation on all the ways in which I have failed the law of love. For the practices of fasting and almsgiving are, at their heart, meant to direct us away from self-love and toward love of God and love of neighbor. On Ash Wednesday, when we receive the sign of the cross in ashes on our head, the priest says, “Remember, O man, that thou art dust, and unto dust shalt thou return.” Christina Rossetti, in the second of her two poems for Quinquagesima, puts it this way: “Time is but a span / The dalliance space of dying man.”
There is only so much time, and then we stand at the particular judgment. The Psalmist writes, “As for man, his days are like grass; he flourishes like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more.” Then he adds: “But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting” (Psalm 103:15–17), a sentiment Rossetti also echoes when she says that love “exceeds the span / Appointed to mere mortal man.” In striving to keep the law of love, we reach toward our eternal life, our own resurrection day, and at our particular judgment hear the words, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant” (Matt. 25:23). Through the law of love, we step beyond what Rossetti calls our “piteous rhyme” into the very life of Christ.
My favorite line in these two poems–possibly my favorite line in all of Christina Rossetti; possibly my favorite line in all the poetry I have read–is the third line of the sonnet: “Love is the law from kindled saint to saint.” The imagery of being on fire appeals to me because of the allusion to the seraphim of Isaiah chapter 6, whose love for God is so complete that they are literally enkindled by it; the ministers of God, as David says elsewhere, are a “flaming fire” (Psalm 104:4). But it appeals to me more because of the–very purgatorial–concept of having one’s pride and self-love burned away for love of God. These are the saints: the ones who have overcome the self and its lusts and have given everything up for love of God, even to the point (as with Padre Pio, or St. Catherine of Siena) of receiving the mortification of the flesh in the stigmata; or even–as with St. Maximilian Kolbe–to the point of death.
As a lover of language and of poetry, I also love refrains; my refrain throughout Lent this year, as I strive to live more fully the “worthy law of love,” will be that one: “Love is the law from kindled saint to saint.”
Photo Credit: (1) Portrait of Christina Rossetti, by her brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Portrait with chalk, 1866. Public domain. (2) St. Catherine of Siena, by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. Oil on canvas, ca. 1746. Public domain.