She walks in Beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes:
Thus mellowed to that tender light
Which Heaven to gaudy day denies.
–She Walks in Beauty, Lord Byron
Sunday’s sermon stirred my thought on the idea of curse, particularly as touching the genderedness of humanity. Rick demonstrated that the way we are created is not an aberration of the carefully masculine image of God we have been taught to preserve (it is shameful that it needed to be demonstrated), but is the intentional portrayal of truth that crystallized when God breathed cognizant life into the dust of the earth. But that image like every other part of our being has been tarnished. What was meant to show the intimate unity that results when strength meets beauty is now a platform for abuse and sordid invention; what was to have been for our innocent delight now rules over us for our shame. And this came about because of the curse.
I would better say that it came about because of our sin. My son imagines that my unreasonable strictness is the cause of his sudden inconvenience, when in fact it was his choice to beat his sibling mercilessly about the head with a schoolbook that precipitated his untimely removal from the room and compelled him to deal with his iniquity. My discipline is a tool to help him a) understand what he did wrong, b) share in the pain that results from that wrongdoing, c) in future comprehend his propensity for that type of error, and d) avail himself of resources to help avert the infliction of this pain the next time, for everyone’s sake involved.
The one who handed down the sentence was neither a disinterested nor a disconnected party, however. By leveling the curse on us God established his authority over us and left no doubt about his right to speak Law into our lives. In so doing he also validated the reality of the image we were made in. If we had been created to glorify him in our ignorance, mutely declaring his glory like the heavens or blindly following his orders by instinct as the animals do, he would simply have done away with us when we flung off his yoke. But we were created not only to comprehend his will but to understand it, and understanding comes from relationship, and God does not cast off relationship lightly. He was therefore compelled, by the reflection of what he saw of himself in us, to react to our hatred and mutiny with the love and mercy we have come to expect of him. Those who come to Jesus will in no wise be cast off.
But if the fact that our spirits were modeled after his was a significant part of what obliged God to pity us, we may also deduce that the idea of leaving us in our current state of wreckage is as abhorrent to him as was the initial thought of our perishing (if from our point of view the two can truly be separated). The picture of God that may be seen in my mirror is often a frightening one, though, for it looks a lot more like a god I feel like worshiping at the moment than it does the Portion of Jacob. I am reluctant even to broach that topic on my own account until we hear this Sunday’s sermon, so that I may have more to readily repent of. But last Sunday’s treatment will be sufficient for this essay’s purposes.
What we saw last Sunday left me stunned and shaken. The picture of femininity as she who draws into relationship, giving and nurturing in an embrace that is so beautiful because she is not thinking of herself but of the one she loves, was precious beyond description. It made me want to experience that relationship even more with the person I am closer to than any other in this world, and it made me want to move in a Gospeled way into that relationship with the other women in my church. Most of all it made me want to protect my wife and my friends from the harm that could come from such a position of vulnerability – whether it be from others or from my own self – and the more so because they know full well what they are opening themselves up to, and are doing it anyway. And I have to believe that God feels the very same defensiveness for them. So when we entered into the reality of what the curse pronounced on the daughters of Eve, namely that pain would directly result from living the kind of life God asks them to, a great sadness came over me that could not be softened.
It is not fair. Why is it the fairest flowers that first begin to droop under the heat of the relentless sun? And I will not let myself off so easily here. I said “protection from my own self” and I meant it. Why does God call me into such beautiful relationships knowing that I am going to hurt them too, whether it be my wife or someone else I love? I could wish that I were cursed and cut off from Israel for the sake of my sisters, so that they would not be wounded by my sin and pride. It feels like God is putting a bouquet of delicate petals in my hands and sending me off across a barren wasteland, knowing that by the time I get to the oasis (if I get to the oasis) they will surely all be dead.
Fortunately it is not for us to cut ourselves off from Israel. It is precisely because of my ignorant pride that God put me into relationship with a church full of beautiful women of all ages; because he knew I could not make it across the desert without the joy and refreshment they are to me. God knew that they are an oasis to me. Remember what Rick said as he closed last week: Men and boys of Holy Cross, you need your sisters in Christ! Their place is not nearly as precarious as I imagine in the foolishness of my thought. If God called women to a life of tenderness accompanied by pain, has he not strengthened their hands to the task? If he gifted women to bind his Church together with their prayers and tears on our behalf, did he not give them his Spirit? And if he gave me female friends who love me in spite of the fact that they know me to be an arrogant self-centered ass, will he not guard their hearts far better than I ever could?
Curse, like every other decision God makes, is for our good. It affects that which we are closest to, and it turns life into death, but like fasting it is ultimately for the purpose of deemphasizing the necessity of our dwelling on the immediate while opening our eyes to something greater. It is meant to lend visibility to the effects of our disobedience by removing the barriers between the damage we have caused and the world to which that damage is done. The pain it causes grieves us, but that die was cast for our race in the Garden of Eden, and it will not be undone till the gates of Paradise are opened to us. Jesus calls us to walk in that pain, but not for pain’s sake; he calls us to look beyond it and to delight in what we see happening among us.
St. Paul said that the widow who is self-indulgent is dead even while she lives. She has avoided pain and sorrow at all costs, and has put up walls so that no one might possibly hurt her, and her beauty has been kept from its true purpose, and her wisdom is no more; her life went exactly the way she wanted it to, which is a curse far worse than any word of reproach God has ever spoken. But the apostle also said that she who is truly a widow has set her hope on God and continues in supplications and prayers night and day. In her life she has felt pain and sorrow keenly, and people have hurt her, and her beauty has been shared with others in the way it was meant to be, and her wisdom has been passed down to her daughters; these things have come about so that the life of Christ might be shown forth in her, which is a blessing such as we could never have imagined.
Contrary to the general direction of thought that is prevalent in our generation, gender is not a learned phenomenon or a social construct. We were made to reflect God’s glory, and Christ has redeemed that likeness. I rejoice and am greatly encouraged that such a glorious part of my calling is to love our older women like mothers and our younger women like sisters, in all purity. For in all their mystery and allure they rise above the petty assumptions of my intellect like the dark beauty of the starry sky, wonderful in its vast array of unpredictable loveliness. Something there calls out my name, and I know that it is the voice of God speaking to me through my sisters, drawing me into the community he is putting together, telling me the same story he has told his children for æons: Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them; so shall your offspring be. Brothers at Holy Cross, let us move willingly into that promise.