Every year without knowing it, I have passed the day

When the last fires will wave to me

And the silence will set out

Tireless traveler

Like the beam of a lightless star

Then I will no longer

Find myself in life as in a strange garment

Surprised at the earth

And the love of one woman

And the shamelessness of men

As today, writing after three days of rain

Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease

And bowing, not knowing to what.

W.S. Merwin

‘What does love mean?” 

The question popped out of the annual New Year’s letter from my favorite high school teacher, Alex Rakowski.

It’s just the kind of question he would have asked us back in the late 1960s. Al was a priest then, but he met a woman named Jude (a nun) at an “encounter group,” if you recall that term, at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, if you recall that once-upon-a-consciousness-raising icon. 

As with many of our seminary instructors, he left the priesthood after my class graduated in 1970. Al and Jude have been married for over 40 years. Half a lifetime. Two very interesting half-lifetimes.

We stayed in touch, and every January his letter accompanies Jude’s illustrated summary of the past year. Though, by his own admission, he has slowed down a lot on the brink of 88, Al still volunteers at Friendship Botanic Gardens in Michigan City, tending, cultivating, weeding, planting, and landscaping, as he and Jude have done together for 20 years. 

And he does his share of remembering. “I wonder whether you guys get together like you used to years ago. It was a delight to listen to your bull sessions. … And now? It’s 2018. Where are your thoughts these days … what does love mean?” 

What does love mean?

Back in high school, Al didn’t teach many conventional subjects and when he did, he taught them unconventionally. He fostered independent thinking and nudged us toward becoming more relational. We needed that. I needed that. We learned to speak to one another from the deeper, more honest and private core of our developing selves. It was transformative.

What does love mean? Back then we didn’t have an answer. We were just starting out. We had to love in order to learn what love means.

Now I can claim to have learned something about what it means, having loved in small ways and large, having experienced lesser loves and greater. Having felt love’s sting and its elation, having learned that it can end, that it can come alive again, and that it can last. That love ages and mellows and mutates and seems to have a life of its own. That we are somehow inside it, and it is somehow inside us, and somehow also between us — almost, but not quite, tangible. That it is something we long for and that seems to long for us. That it may very well be divine, or a function of the divine.

That love is even possible, that it is real, that it transcends circumstances which, by any reasonable expectation, should end it. That our capacity to love can grow. That it is something we must be worthy of, though often we aren’t. 

That it is possible to have a love affair with life itself, with all its attendant melodrama and reconciliations and breakthroughs. That love is both the means and the end, the power and the source, humbling and exalting. That it breaks through our defenses and breaks our hearts and takes our breath away. That our greatest successes and greatest failures involve love. That sin, as Msgr. Jack Egan once said, “is a failure of love.”

Love is the most powerful force on earth and the most vulnerable. Through it we bridge our respective subjectivities. Through it we come to own ourselves even as we lose ourselves completely in another. Or so it seems. A great paradox and mystery. Maybe the greatest.

But what does love mean?

It means, among so many meanings, that a loving high school teacher can open the door to a deeper understanding of love. That, almost a half century later, he can still inspire a reflection on love by a former student, now grown older himself. It means spending the first half of his life living out the Christian message of love through his priestly, institutional ministry and the second half in a loving partnership with his soulmate — and half of that second half tending his small corner of the earth, as lovingly as if it were Eden itself.

In each of these halves he provided a model of love’s meaning, helping that former student see the riches in his own treasure-laden life. 

Love has been an active yeast, a seed that germinated, a tree bearing fruit. When I was young and searching, I used to look for the meaning “of” life. At some point I realized I had my prepositions mixed up and started looking for — and finding — the meaning “in” life. 

We love to the extent we’re capable. We love as well as we can for as long as we can — until at long last we set out like the beam of a lightless star, or like a flower that has finished blooming and returns to the bulb, or like a gardener coming home to the garden.

This is what love means, as far as I can tell.

Happy New Year, beloved teacher.

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