The Price of Ribs
(see pictures of the Wedding)
A sermon preached by Imogen de la Bere at Christchurch-St. Michael's, New Zealand, 16 April 2001, at the wedding of Cressida and Jon
There's a passage from Genesis with which you may not be very familiar. Let me read it to you. This is my own translation.
The Lord God said to Adam, it is not good for you to be alone, with only the beasts of the field to kick around with. We shall make you a helper rather more suitable for your needs.
'She will be called Woman, and she will be the other half of your self, sensitive to your moods, attentive to your every need, she will understand when you require love, when you want to be left alone. She will be your handmaid and your concubine, your inspiration and your comforter. She will cook up a storm but you will never grow fat. She will consider a field and suggest you buy it. She will never raise her voice, and her price will be above rubies because you will never dream of selling her.'
And Adam said to the Lord, 'O Lord, wilt thou you give me such a companion? Verily?'
And the Lord God said to the man, 'Adam, a creature such as this woman cannot be made without sacrifice. It will cost you. Dear.'
And the man said to the Lord God, 'Even unto death will I sacrifice myself for this wonder. What does God my God require of me?'
The Lord said unto Adam, 'We will cast you into a deep sleep and then, to make woman, take from you, one of your legs.'
And Adam said to the Lord, 'A leg? Oh Lord, isn't that rather steep? A whole leg? O Lord, God dost thou require a whole leg. Can we not do a deal? What can I get for a rib?'
Now I hesitated about sharing this joke with you because many people, myself included, are profoundly uncomfortable with the notion that woman was formed out of man, even though the Bible tells that this was to ensure that a man and woman were indeed able to form one flesh. As it says in the second chapter of Genesis (this is the genuine bit, and someone else's translation) "therefore shall a man leave his father and mother and cleave unto his wife, and they shall be one flesh." And somehow, glorious though this idea seems, there is something that many women find uncomfortable about the idea of being formed out of the spare rib, and therefore constitutionally inferior - as if man and woman are equal but men are more equal than women.
From the perspective of modern woman the phrase one flesh tends to smack too much of possession, for the story of Adam and Eve and the spare rib and the one flesh, has far too often been interpreted to mean: You are my flesh and therefore I own you.
It is ownership - possession that is one of the poisoners of marriage.
Possession - possessiveness - in relationships takes subtle forms - not these days, generally the form of 'I own you' but more often 'I love you and therefore you should do what I want' or its cousin 'If you loved me, you would - fix the bathroom cupboard, remember Valentine's Day, not argue with me….' And worse still - 'I love you, so you shouldn't need to spend time with those other people. Isn't my love enough?'
But love that expresses itself in these terms is not love at all but possession.
For the very nature of love is directly opposed to any idea of ownership. Any idea of exclusion. Any idea of limit.
A few days ago we were singing a hymn here at St Michael's which had a refrain which went like this: God is love and where true love is, God himself is there. This refrain was abbreviated between each verse as God is love etc
which struck me as a rather good summary of what people think about religious faith. God is love etc.
And actually it's not bad really, as potted theology goes.
If you can accept that God - interpreted in the widest possible terms you like - as Mind, Being, all that exists or might exists - that this Essence is made up of love, then it follows that love is as unlimited a substance as creation itself - is indeed more extensive than creation, since God, who is love (etc), is beyond creation.
I don't believe that we are issued with a standard supply of love, like council rubbish bags, you get so many and that's it. God is more generous than the council. Love is an endlessly self-replicating organism. The more of it you give away, the more of it you have to give.
This can easily be demonstrated. You do not seriously think that a woman who has one child loves that child six times as much as the women who has six children? You would not expect me to stop loving one friend when I make another one. When my friend tells me excitedly about a wonderful woman she met, I do not for one moment assume that she has stopped loving me. There is an unlimited supply of love, but you have to keep giving it away to get more of it. Hoarding love, trying to possess the beloved, trying to the precious one up in the treasure-house of your love, locks the door for both of you, cuts off the source of supply.
Ah, but you object, married love is different. It's one of a kind, you say. Well, you know, after half a lifetime's observation and experience, I don't believe that. Of course it is different in some aspects - we do not normally have sex with our friends, and we do not make long-term commitments to our workmates - but surely we should like and enjoy our life partners every bit as much as we like our best friends, and we should have the same loyalty and fellow-feeling towards our spouse as we have towards members of our family. There is simply a continuum of love from the most selfless and celebratory to the simplest and most needy, but all loves are more alike than they are different. There is need in the purest love, and joy in the simplest.
The only limitation on love is not the amount of it we have to give, but the amount of attention we can give each person we love, for sadly our time and attention, unlike love, is a limited resource. You cannot realistically claim to love someone unless you are prepared to pay them attention, as the wonderfully wise writer Scott Peck teaches us. The strongest emotions weigh light against the willingness to listen and notice and bother about the details of the loved one's life, their hopes and fears and needs. Attention is finite, love infinite, but both require you to give and give and then give some more.
But, ah the reward!
Possession is one of the poisoners of marriage - I am not talking here about things that destroy marriages, because I scarcely think that's the issue here - I am concerned with those things which make operating marriages perennially uncomfortable, without causing them die, a sort of foot and mouth disease of the spirit.
Possession is one of the poisoners of marriage, and the other is possessions.
Now don't get me wrong, I am partial to the good things of life. I could not manage without my computer, and living in England, I could not endure to be without central heating. Possessions indubitably make life pleasanter, but unlike love, there is a limit to that pleasure - when the house is warm enough, any more heat would be uncomfortable, and if you have one notebook computer you really have no use for a second. I love my computer but it sure as hell doesn't love me, and next year I shall buy a new one and love that one better. I hope next year I shall not have jettisoned a single person whom I love.
Possessions make life comfortable but they do not make anybody love you. Your kids may very well rejoice that you have put in a swimming pool, but that will not of itself make them love you. Friends may cluster round to join you on the yacht, but if they only like you for the yacht they are not friends worth having.
The danger of possessions to a marriage is that they become, insidiously, the marriage itself. The joint projects - the house, the garden, the pool, the yacht, the second house, the newer, bigger house - couples do them together, with great pleasure, but what happens, if after the splendid house is built, and every whizz-bang thing installed, and you have worked so hard together to make the money and get the things and build the palace - what then? Is there anything left to talk about, except the next project, the next thing to buy?
I have a friend who drives a late-model Mercedes sportscar, worth about $300,000. I am very partial to a fast car, and sometimes I get taken for a spin, but do you know something extraordinary? something my friend with the Merc just cannot grasp? - the car doesn't improve the conversations at all! In fact, if anything, the conversations are worse than average, being constantly interrupted by the two on-board phones and by the latest German navigation aid, which every quarter of a mile commands the driver: "at the next intersection, turn right!"
There is more fun, more delight, more life-enhancement in the conversations held in another friend's rattly old Saab held together by string, even though we have raise our voices to swap allusions and witticisms above the noise of the engine. And even better are the conversations held in a dirty old English train carriage, when Jeremy and I are coming home late at night from a concert or an exhibition, and we're sitting opposite one another, sharing the carriage with a city financier who has passed out from drunkenness, a brown paper bag with the remains of someone's lunch, and some sticky stuff on the floor you don't care to examine, and one of us looks at the other and says 'You know, I had a thought…' and out pops the idea, and we bat it comfortably to and fro, the most enjoyable game of tennis in the world.
I'd like to leave you with a little Zen story, told to me by our friend Jonn Nicholson. It comes from this engaging book 'Zen Flesh Zen Bones', and in its crazy extremity sums up one of the great truths. If only we were brave enough to build our lives around it. I wish I was. Perhaps you are?