Madonna House

How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count the Ways

by Fr. Pat McNulty

“How do I love Thee? Let me count the ways.” Did you know that famous poem?

Surprise, Reverend! Ah not only know that famous pome, but ah know who wrote it. Most people think it was that Shakespeare feller, but it weren’t.

Yes, I know they do, but it was actually Elizabeth…

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, that famous poet lady who married that famous Browning feller from England.

OK! So do you want to write this article or what?

I would if I could but ah don’t know what her famous love pome has ta do with Lent, and since that’s how you started out this conversation, ah guess ah’ll hafta let you finish. (Ho Hum.)

Incidentally it’s “p-o-e-m,” not “p-o-m-e,” but I didn’t say it has something specifically to do with Lent, I said I had a new insight once while reading a Lenten scripture in light of that famous poem.

What’s the biblical reference there, Reverend?

Isaiah 58: 1-9. It’s the Mass reading for the Friday after Ash Wednesday. It might be a good idea if everybody took a look at their Bible before we proceed.

Isaiah 58: 1-9? Are you sure? There’s nuthin’ here what dimly reminds me of Miss Elizabeth’s famous pome.

It’s Mrs. Elizabeth, my friend, and it’s … oh forget it. In any case there was nothing there which reminded me of that famous poem at first either, but one day after reading this celebrated selection from Isaiah, I found myself subconsciously “counting the ways” Isaiah gives for the kinds of fasting which please God,

“…release those bound unjustly, (1); set the oppressed free,(2); share your bread with the hungry,(3); shelter the oppressed and homeless,(4); cloth the naked,(5).”

And I don’t know why—it was probably the idea of counting that started it all—but the first verse of that poem came to mind, “How do I love Thee? Let me count the ways.” 

And then when I re-read Isaiah, it seemed as if his many ways of fasting were actually many ways of loving—Old Testament beatitudes, if you will. 

It was the beginning of a new insight about fasting for me—that it’s not an isolated seasonal discipline or a mere matter of atonement for sin, but part of a greater pattern of biblical love. And it made me wonder if sometimes we don’t have fasting too boxed in by the notions of sin and atonement.

Well we are taught to fast and pray and atone for our sins, Reverend. As a matter of fact, that would seem to be the primary idea of biblical fasting—though that wasn’t the reason Jesus fasted, of course.

I’m not denying that, my friend. I’m only saying that the whole notion of fasting as atonement for sin somehow had lost its lustre and was now mysteriously returning under the guise of Love.

So when seasons like Lent came along I didn’t try to figure out what I needed to fast from but I first asked myself, “How do I love Thee, Lord? Let me count the ways.”

It’s different for everyone: Do I love Thee with the same passion with which I crave that next cigarette, that cup of coffee with cream and sugar, those constant between-meal snacks?

Do I love Thee with the same passion as I have for waking up to the noise of music, watching TV, browsing the Net, checking my e-mail, texting on my iPad?

Do I love Thee with the same passion as I have for wanting to spread the latest gossip, for correcting everyone I live around until they’re just like me, for using my woundedness to be the center of attention all day long or for blaming everybody else for all my emotional tantrums? Do I?

Well, how about I fast from feeding some of those passions, those cravings, urges, attitudes as they come up during Lent just like I would fast from my favourite food?

How about I freely surrender some of those passions for those things of the Flesh and give the Spirit some emotional space to teach me something about the passion for being present to others instead of myself all the time? I think they call it Love!

And then, who knows, maybe one day my passion to love would outweigh some of those other passions. Now wouldn’t that blow your mind!

Well, ah can’t imagine that, Reverend, because ah’m not sure what you mean when you say things like, “let the Spirit turn my passion for this or that inta some new passion ta love.” Ah don’t find that kinda stuff about fasting in the Bible nowhere.

I understand, but all I can say is that something very profound happened to my whole sense of the Lenten fast when the Spirit brought Isaiah the prophet and Elizabeth the poet together for me that day in Lent not too long ago.

It was a very strange experience, but maybe that’s how the Spirit turns fleshy cravings into the passion of love. I don’t know.

In any case, when I first approached the Lenten fast that way, I just gave the Spirit permission to hint to me whenever he wanted to, any time during the day, to “absent” myself from any of my cravings, my needs, my wants so, at that very moment, I could be more present to those around me in simple ways, whether I was in the supermarket or the sacristy or the kitchen or the car.

It wasn’t long before I became aware that I wasn’t just fasting anymore. I was being present to people through fasting.

The Spirit didn’t beat me up all day every time I wanted something I shouldn’t have because it was Lent; there was just a gradual sense that I was being taught that fasting wasn’t an escapade of religious discipline but a simple episode of everyday presence, love in the flesh.

And so if by Ash Friday, I fell from that “perfect” Lenten fasting I had so religiously planned to follow on Ash Wednesday, as I often did, all I had to do was stop and ask myself, “How do I love Thee?” and the Spirit came and together we found new ways to start counting all over again. It was really very simple.

Ah’m not sure where ta go with all that, Reverend. It’s a little bit too much off the wall fer me, biblically. But ah do know ah love Isaiah ‘n’ ah love Miss Elizabeth’s pome, ‘specially that last verse, “I love thee with the breath, smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose, I shall but love thee better after death.”

Now there’s a lady who really knew what luvvv was all about!

Indeed she did, but Isaiah was the first one who knew how to unwrap something of the biblical mystery of love through the beatitude of fasting, for me. Till then I never realized how much of the adventure of everyday life was hidden in the simple sense of fasting, especially during Lent. I actually began to find it rather joyful!

That sounds like Easter a little early if ya ask me. Ah didn’t think joy was high on the list of priorities during Lent, Reverend?

Well, I know of a way you can find out if you’re really interested, my friend! (Smile.)