Inside a little book entitled, THE THOMAS MERTON POEMS, J.S. Porter writes this piece:
There’s too much of everything
books, stars, flowers.
How can one flower be precious
in a bed of thousands?
How can one book count
in a library of millions?
The universe is a junkyard
burnt out meteors, busted up stars
planetary cast-offs, throwaway galaxies
born and buried in an instant
Yet something remains
the dream of fewness
one woman, one man.
You can’t write it any better, the great romantic ideal – the dream of fewness, two persons being enough for each other, giving each other eternal significance.
There was a time in life when this piece would have burned holes into me, touched what I then-thought was my soul, stirred a fiery passion within me, and left me feeling restless. It still triggers some of those old aches, though other parts of me, more mature and jaded now, raise some questions.
Is this adolescent romanticism, Hollywood fantasy, Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep in THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY, or is it the real stuff of the heart? Is this some lonely narcissism looking for an equally self-centred soul to gang-up with against the world or is it a dream for what’s ultimately precious within the kingdom of God?
Good questions. However the questions themselves need some teasing out. Most of us tend to get more cynical about romance as we age and mature. That’s true as a fact, but is it a good thing? What changes in us as we give up our youthful romanticism for what we deem to be maturity? What prompts adult scepticism of romance, maturity or a fatigued soul? If I’ve lost my passion, is this a sign of wisdom or of a heart that’s lost its zip? I suspect it’s some of both.
The dream of fewness can be adolescent and can lead to a lot of unnecessary heartache and foolish decisions. It happens all the time. We torture ourselves and are dissatisfied with our intimate relationships because we nurse the dream that, out there, somewhere, there’s that perfect soulmate that we still need to find in order to be whole and healthy. Any other kind of love, no matter how much life and security it might be bringing, is judged second-best. That’s precisely what’s at issue for Edith Wharton’s tragic hero in THE AGE OF INNOCENCE. A stable marriage and a couple of wonderful children never quite seem to compensate for what he might have had – torrid, dark, passion. Her hero tortures himself with the ideal of a missed romance even as he is very loved inside of a good marriage. The emptiness he feels has a certain tragic poetry to it, but it has a certain adolescence as well. The dream of fewness and can make us very unhappy and boorishly unappreciative of the love within which we actually live.
Conversely, though, a heart that’s not at least a little tortured by unrequited romantic longing is usually too a heart that’s lost its passion and its proper fire for life. The dream of fewness is rooted in our wildest longings. It’s a dream of heaven really, of beatific vision as sweet embrace. Romantic love, in its very sweetness, intuits the kingdom. Whatever its down-side, it points us towards ecstasy and tries to lure us there. Nobody who still aches for romance needs to be reminded that we are meant to live by more “than bread alone” or that life is more than just its simple sweetening through comfort and security. The ache of romance, perhaps more than anything else, propels those of us who aren’t yet saints beyond ourselves, outwards, towards something beyond comfort and safety. It’s a fire that also says: “You have made us for yourself, Lord, and our hearts are restless until the rest in you.”
To lose the dream of fewness is to lose some health. To be jaded or cynical about romance is denigrate one of God’s good gifts. We may never, in the name of maturity or religion, be cynical about romance, first love, first fervour, and the tastes of ecstasy these hold out. Each of these plays its own part in the way God draws us towards himself and into the kingdom.
Several years ago, a former student of mine who was getting married wrote this to me: “Father, this isn’t naive passion. I know what I’m doing. I’m not looking for any Hollywood romance here!”
I wasn’t impressed by her effort to show this extra maturity. I sent her Porter’s poem on the dream of fewness, along with a note that said: “Enjoy young love, your honeymoon, the dream of fewness. It’s one of the better foretastes of heaven given you in this life. The accidents of life, soon enough, will deprive you of that. Taste and remember!”
God gave us romance for just that reason, as a tiny foretaste of the ecstasy of eternal life. Taste and remember!