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Anna Karenina first meets Count Vronsky at Moscow railway station where, at the end of the novel, in despair and shame at what unfolded from that first encounter she will end her life by throwing herself under a train. In that first moment of their relationship they feel reciprocally the overwhelming attraction that neither will be able to repress but at first their social conditioning allows them self-control. Tolstoy, their creator, also gives Anna a disturbing presentiment of a coming tragedy but the excitement and sweetness of their attraction naturally pushes it away. Later, when they meet at a ball the full force of their passion is released and unconcerned by what others are observing they discover and speak the unique language of love that lovers share.
The language of love has an unlimited spectrum of dialects, accents and vocabulary, not only in the form of Eros, as Anna and Vronsky discover theirs but also in friendship. We make many acquaintances in life, fleeting or longer-term. Each is unique but we may come to like or remember some more than others. The language of love shared is not unique in this way among everyone. Among future friends, however, there can also be this spark of instantaneous connection of sympathy and attraction which leads to a unique shared language of the love of true friendship. A journalist told me once how he met a political figure he was to interview and from the first moments of their exchange he recognised in the wit and outgoing humour something in common, the first sign of a shared unique language of love and they became friends for life.
The hope I was speaking of yesterday requires that we recognise the unique language of love of God: friend and lover but someone we never meet for the first time because we have never been outside the other’s company even if we did not recognise it. Gregory of Nazianzen in the 4th century describes the mystical awakening to this relationship when we become aware of God’s love-language of beauty everywhere around us: ‘the visible world around us’,
the beauty of the sky, the sun in its course, the circle of the moon, the countless number of stars, with the harmony and order that are theirs, like the music of a harp? Who has blessed you with rain, with the art of husbandry, with different kinds of food, with the arts, with houses, with laws, with sttes, with a life of humanity and culture, with friendship and the easy familiarity of kinship?
In an age of fear and pessimism this intoxication with the beauty of the world and humanity seems inaccessible. The 4th century, however, was not a golden age - the end of the security of an empire, the invasion of barbarians, the great divorce between eastern and western Christianity, the corrupting marriage of church and state and an environmental disaster, one of the most devastating natural earthquakes in history. As Jane Austen wrote in a letter to her sister, we don’t love a place less because we have suffered there. Etty Hillesum, running between groups of Jews awaiting transportation one day was stopped in her tracks by the sight of an early spring flower growing in a crack in the pavement.
Gregory also discovers a unique feature of this language of divine love which challenges all we think of as love and which we will look at tomorrow.

Laurence Freeman
Lenten Reflections 2024
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