“He who will not bend to love, must be subdued by fear.” William Blake
What might it mean to “bend” to love, or as Blake wrote elsewhere, to “bear the beams” of love?
A persistent motif in the rhetoric of the Restoration is the injunction to “receive.” When taken in the cumulative, the many iterations of this term present us with a remarkable way of reconceiving what it means to be disciples.
The Holy Spirit is not given the newly baptized—they are told to “receive” it. We often think of that as a command: we are directed to “receive the Holy Ghost.” But what if those words betoken, rather, an invitation, even a plea; an entreaty from the Lord that we willingly and openly and gladly receive this ordinance that is explicitly called a “gift.”
Understood in that spirit, we can see how the theme is repeated and extended throughout the range of the Lord’s teachings. It can be no coincidence that Jesus uses the same term with his followers, imploring us to “receive the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:17). He laments that not all “receive” his word, or his emissaries, or his prophets. Ultimately, we detect a note of fatherly sorrow when a coming day is described: after judgment, his children disperse to their several inheritances (provisionally, we hope, not permanently), “to enjoy that which they are willing to receive.” The Lord’s bounty is not apportioned, in this scenario, by worth or merit, but by one criterion only. Those who come short of a fullness are simply those who “were not willing to enjoy that which they might have received.”
Few scriptures have occasioned more wonder, more incredulity, in my own life of study. We are so accustomed to a religious ethic of effort, or striving, of work. And yet, in this preview of judgment, it seems that all that was required was a life of acquiescence, passive receptivity, open-heartedness. The paradox may be resolved with a little reformulation. Our receptivity must be active. The process of opening our hearts requires effort. And with this slight shift of meaning, we may be prepared to understand the words of the mystic poet and artist William Blake. “Bending” and “bearing” are hardly passive endeavors. To “bend” to love is to yield, to defeat our own inclination to resist, to break down our interior barriers of pride, unbelief, or dubious stubbornness. To “learn to bear” is to strive for a capacity to sustain a love that can be daunting, overawing in its disarming scope.
Blake intuited that it is not God’s judgment or appraisal that is oftentimes the real problem. It is our own. Our culture oriented around the sovereign individual, our inherited work ethic, our need for affirmation that is always transactional, and our acute awareness of our failings and inadequacies: all these factors condition us to expect a love that is transactional as well. We are unprepared, literally, without the preparation—or the imaginative resources—to unclench our hearts to an absolute love and a forgiveness and acceptance that precedes any test of our moral worth.
As we learn to bend our pride or our self-doubt to those manifestations of God’s outpouring, as we train ourselves to brave its rays, we are choosing the hope he offers over the fear that always threatens in the recesses of our psyches. The practice of graciously receiving is to be found in that schoolhouse of Zion building that begins in our personal relationships (friends and family), and finds its most advanced training in the practice field of the collective (the ward, the community). We are in very deed “learning to bear the beams of love” as we allow ourselves to be served, ministered to, taught by “the least of these,” and train ourselves to reciprocate in kind.
I am convinced that this capacity to be open, receptive, tender-hearted and meek in the face of an often hostile and incomprehensible universe, is the peace of the “still waters” where Christ wants us to find repose. This is because a life of active faith, like a life more open to love, both rely upon a disposition to be vulnerable.
Faith, or trust, or the quiet hope that founds real peace, is not a blithe disregard for the hard contours of reality. We are enjoined to have faith, not as in some demeaning test where credulousness is counted virtue, but because our purview of an infinite Reality is shrunken and constrained and crippling if we consign our intelligence to the strictures of unaided logic, or a reductive scientism. To walk by faith means to live with an openness to ever expanding and unforeseen avenues of knowing, always vulnerable to error, always subject to recurrent doubt. But such nervousness is more than compensated if we are genuinely open, receptive, insatiable and determined to believe all that lends itself to belief, by its intimations of what is lovely, virtuous, of good report and praiseworthy.
In the great Mormon novel, A Little Lower than the Angels, a skeptical child is incredulous at her father’s simple faith: “‘But you believe it, Father, you really do?’ ‘I believe all I can, Mercy girl, all I can. Everywhere I go I’m looking for more good things to believe.’” Will I get some things wrong along the way? Undoubtedly. But I continue to grow in confidence that the basic contours of the outline are true—and good, and beautiful.
In my own personal odyssey my faith has become stronger, if more unfocused with the years. I am ever more confident of the essential goodness and beauty of an underlying purpose and trajectory. Though I claim no certainty in regard to its details, I have no doubt that Joseph Smith at his best provided the only rationally and morally coherent cosmic narrative out there. I have derived a kind of logical maxim behind my faith: I can infer a degree of love and light that transcends anything human, anything with roots in myself; so it must have a source in the Eternal. And since it surpasses any human categories, only imagination can provide a semblance of its fulness.
Anything we can conceive that is unfailingly benevolent and good, therefore, if not ultimate truth, is certainly a movement toward that Truth. Even the most beautiful future we can imaginatively construct, in other words, cannot possibly be too generous or hopeful.