It is the early spring of 1849. An English poet stands at the large window of his Casa Guidi, gazing at the illumined features of the San Felice church as the sun rises. He doesn't hear his wife as she steals in behind him, but feels her soft hand on his shoulder preventing him from turning around. At the same time, he notices a packet of papers gently pushed into his coat pocket. From behind she whispers, "Read this. If you don't like it, tear it up." She quickly turns and disappears back into her room. He remains by the window and holds the crumpled sheets open. His hands begin to tremble, and slowly, his face is softened by warm tears. He reads again the following words—words written by his wife's own delicate hands, words that would be forever etched on his heart.
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.
I love thee to the level of everyday's
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light....
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints,—I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life!—and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.
The English poet is Robert Browning. His wife—the author of the poem—is Elizabeth.
Perhaps what makes these words so stirring and precious is the knowledge of the circumstances that led up to their union. Just a few years previous to this, Elizabeth Barrett lay ill, pale, and alone, dwelling high in a darkened bedroom on her family estate in England. From her youth, she suffered from tuberculosis. For eight years she was confined to a small room with closed, ivy-covered windows and bleak interiors. Her invalid life was a sad one, spent year after year in physical weakness and destitute loneliness. However, she had one silent joy—her poetry. Though her body was caged by infirmity, as the quill brushed her paper, her soul was set free. It was her only escape, her only freedom, the only light in an otherwise forlorn existence.
On January 10, 1845, she received a letter in which the writer, knowing her only through her poetry, confessed: "I love your verses with all my heart...and I love you...." Although he had never met or seen her, he was smitten by her heartfelt verses and fell deeply in love with this unseen soul mate. He had been captivated by her heart, not her physical countenance. And this writer, this man, was not a mere admirer. He was a renowned poet rising in the literary circle, with a glorious future ahead of him. His name was Robert Browning, and he had fallen in love.
This letter began an intimate correspondence between the two poets by paper and pen. Four months after Robert's first letter, they finally met at the Barrett house. Upon seeing Elizabeth in her poor physical condition for the first time, he was not repulsed and was not ashamed to love her. Love's fire had already ignited his heart through her poetry—seeing her only increased its flame. She in turn was overcome by this brilliant, handsome poet who was full of passion though seven years younger. Yet despite her feelings for him, she thwarted his advances, claiming that her ill health and advancing age would only impede his burgeoning career. But Robert's love for her remained steadfast and unyielding, for his soul had already been won.
As a result of his unrelenting yet tender pursuit, on September 12, 1846, Elizabeth crept out of her house against the wishes of her protective and overbearing father. Robert was waiting for her at the Marylebone church. There they married in secret, and one week later fled to Italy. It was the beginning of a new life for her—a life free from the bondage of infirmity and dominance of her father. Hers was a life saved by love. It was here in Italy, in the idyllic city of Florence, that Elizabeth sprouted wings. It was here that she, once an invalid with no hope or joy, would taste her first days of true happiness. Her physical health was miraculously recovered and strengthened by love's ardor, and she even bore a son at the age of forty-three. The remaining fifteen years of her life were spent with her husband, writing poetry in Florence as a testimony of her renewed life.
The story ends in a chapter which is best told in Robert's own words. Elizabeth lies in bed—it seems her last days have come. While gazing on her countenance, he asks her for the last time how she feels. "Then came what my heart will keep till I see her again—the most perfect expression of her love to me within my whole knowledge of her" (Osbert Burdett, The Brownings). She answered, "Beautiful." It was the last word she ever spoke.
Elizabeth Browning was once an invalid, incurably confined to a life of loneliness and despair. Through the power of love, she was nursed to health, her poetry was set afire, and she lived fifteen years of happiness few have ever known. Love did what balm, medicine, or cure could never do—healed the soul and set it free.
As we read such poignant stories and hear their moving accounts, something within us echoes in response. Regardless of our class or our culture, we all desire true love. We long for the love that has been spoken of in poetry and prose throughout the centuries, which William Shakespeare deemed "unalterable," Thomas Mann called "stronger than death," and Saul Bellows named as "immortal longings." We yearn for the love that endures firm through passing time and circumstance. And each account of noble love we hear awakens anew the hope that one day such love will be ours.
Yet sadly, so often when we ourselves become characters on love's stage, an all too different story emerges. Instead of a love that is enduring and strong, we find a love that is weak and frail. Instead of a love that is ever true and always faithful, we see a love that is changeable and unable to uphold what it promises. And we see countless others around us searching for this same love, only to be disillusioned by its lure again and again. It is a timeless paradox: the hope for true love, yet the realization that we may never find it. The desire to possess a noble love that endures, yet the inability to guarantee it will last. Like a mirage in a desert, true love always eludes us. And though we realize that our next endeavor may be destined to fail, we cannot help but continue to search.
So often it begins so strong and so sure. When love first begins to glow, our heart burns with unspeakable happiness. Each moment apart seems like a lifetime, and each hour together is as the blinking of an eye. It seems we have discovered heaven on earth—we have finally found our soul's companion. And we know in our heart that this will be a love that truly lasts.
Then time passes. And slowly, without our even realizing it, something begins to transpire—our love begins to fade. It usually does not happen overnight, and probably is not due to one particular crisis or argument. Instead, it cools gradually over time, falling degree by degree. Months and years of mistakes, frustrations, and disappointments slowly erode its strength. And eventually the fire that once kindled so brightly in our heart is now merely a cool remnant of what it once was. Though we cannot remember the single moment in time when things broke down, we echo the puzzling anguish of one of its witnesses: "Expectations of wedded bliss soared to impossible heights, and...the glow wore off" (Smithsonian, March 1998). The love that seemed impossible to be true proved to be impossible to maintain. So we are faced with reality—a love that once was, is no longer.
There are countless stories decrying love's inability to endure. Each year over two million couples enter into the sacred marriage union, from their hearts testifying, "Till death do us part." Yet each year more than half of this number sadly file for divorce—some after mere months, others after long decades. In the courts, reason after reason is cited, but in the heart, there is only one: love didn't last. "I had never felt more hopeless than on the day in counseling when I spoke of my yearning to be in love and to be loved, and my husband spoke of his own relief at having that phase of life behind him. 'I was in love once, and it was great,' he said. 'But that kind of feeling can't last forever. I want to get on to other things'" (McCall's, July 1995). Hope and ideal tell us that love is unbreakable. Reality and experience tell us a different story.
"Everyone starts out happy. Everyone wants to stay happy badly. But they still don't succeed..." (O.C. Register, January 27, 1998). Too often, love just seems to run dry, and eventually things just fall apart. Perhaps at such times, in the painful aftermath, we wonder deep in our heart: What happened? Where did all the feelings go? Why didn't the love last? As we look back, we consider solution after solution, but at the end of the road, it seems there really were none. The answer wasn't more money, a better job, nicer restaurants, better gifts. Love didn't break down because we needed more counseling, more sessions on positive thinking, more books on 'how to make love work.' It wouldn't have been fixed with more 'quality time' together, trying our best to 'make it work,' or finally, giving it 'just one more chance.'
All of these remedies are temporary at best. None of them addresses the real heart of the matter, our real need. For our need is not one that can be answered from without, with more advice and more counseling. And our need cannot be met from within, by our own resoluteness and willpower, for the wellspring of our self can only issue in a love that is weak and frail. In actuality, our need is a different source—one that will never fail. We need another supply—one that will never run dry. We need a new fountain of love.
"Love never falls away" (1 Corinthians 13:8). The love spoken of here is not our human love, but the divine love. The writer could say with such surety that it "never falls away" because it is the love which issues from God Himself. God's nature, substance, and essence is love. This is not merely to say that God loves, but that He is love itself (1 John 4:16). He is the unique fountain, origin, and source of love. Any other source, including our self, will eventually fail and run dry. Only God in Christ as the fountain streams forth the love that is real, unlimited, and inexhaustible.
Our sole need today is this Fountain. This need cannot be met merely by asking God for love or beseeching Him for the ability to love. Rather, it is met by receiving God Himself as the source of love into our heart. We need the fountain of love to be installed into our being. We need Christ as the origin of love to come inside of us. When we receive this inexhaustible Christ, we no longer need to struggle and strive to find a love that lasts. For we will possess the source, fountain, and author of love within our very being. And He is the love that never falls away.
To open yourself to receive the Lord Jesus Christ as your life and love, please pray the following prayer:
Lord Jesus, I open my heart to You. Lord, I believe into You as the reality of love. Lord Jesus, I need You. Forgive me of all my failures and sins. Come into me and fill me with Your life and Your love. Lord, I love You. Thank You for saving me.