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Lenten Love & Lenten Lands

Troubadour: a lyric poet sent by one (usually of the king’s court) with a message of chaste love to another.

Lenten Love: The Stuff of Troubadours

I will love lavishly…

Hosea 14:4

More than once I’ve been referred to as a modern-day troubadour. I’ve always liked this designation because it has a romantic, archaic ring to it that sounds more intriguing than mere singer/songwriter. But it once occurred to me that I wasn’t entirely sure of its meaning. So I looked it up.

The word ‘troubadour’ has various historical uses and nuances. But the definition that intrigued me most, and which I recognize as fairly accurate of my own sense of calling and vocation, is this:

Troubadour: a lyric poet sent by one (usually of the king’s court) with a message of chaste love to another.

Well… there you go. A few years ago (on Valentine’s Day) I posted a song and message of chaste love in a blog. In it, I celebrated thirty years of marriage to Nanci – a union that has resulted in three beloved (now adult) children, their own unions to beloved others, two grandchildren, and a deeply meaningful, long-term foster parent/child relationship with a young woman that extends now to her beautiful children.

Although not every chaste union strives to produce offspring, Father Gabrielle of St. Magdalen, in his meditative devotional Divine Intimacy, teaches that the highest glory of the chaste union is in its potential to become a willing “collaborator with God in the transmission of life.” (Gabriel of Saint Mary Magdalen, Divine Intimacy (Ignatius Press, 1987), 260.) That is: a relationship that is materially fecund, suggesting a dark, loamy richness capable of concealing and safeguarding a vulnerable seed, and providing a nutrient-rich soil from which it can spring to its own leafy uniqueness. It’s a lovely image. Considering that, as already expressed in these pages, the word ‘Lent’ refers to the lengthening of days in spring that bring about a greening newness of life, this seems appropriate to reflect upon.

What struck me recently is that Valentine’s Day, traditionally a Christian festival celebrating covenant love, is celebrated at the onset of Lent. Lent, as distinguished from Valentine’s Day, is a season when the Christian faithful penitently consider the devastating disaster of infidelity – infidelity to God, but also infidelity to all that with which God has a faithful relationship.

One scriptural text the Church reflects on during Lent is the Book of Hosea, in which the author imaginatively portrays God as a despair-raged lover. God’s beloved has been unfaithful due to “declarations of love that last no longer than morning mist and predawn dew” (Hosea 6:4). Hosea can present a disturbing image as God keens agonizingly one minute, and rages menacingly the next. It is a realistic glimpse of someone who, in wounded desperation, maniacally flops between desperate pleading on one hand, and threatening violence on the other.

But for those concerned with the violence of God apparent in Old Testament scriptures, please note how the story goes. Admittedly, the text voices the pain-filled rage of betrayal. That is, the text is comfortable with the truth: “I’ll charge like a lion, like a leopard stalking in the brush. I’ll jump like a sow grizzly robbed of her cubs…” (13:7-8). But in the end, God cannot wield the vengeance he threatens. God eventually spends his pain-induced rage and collapses in exhaustion back into his covenant character, admitting almost with a sheepish sigh:

I will love…lavishly. My anger is played out.

Hosea 14:4

As we anticipate leaving Lent to enter the fifty days of Eastertide – all pointing to Trinity Sunday, the celebration of God’s nature as a loving com-unity – we would do well to consider deeply the content of this “lavish love” which, according to John’s Gospel, gave itself for the ton kosmon – the whole cosmos (John 3:16) – as a saving antidote to the devastating infidelity of us, her chief stewards. The entire Lent/Holy Week/Easter sequence is an epic love story flanked elegantly by Valentine’s Day and Trinity Sunday. This is the stuff of troubadours.

As such, my friend Malcolm Guite and I recently set out to write a pair of Lenten love songs. To do so, we took up another Old Testament story, the Exodus, as a paradigm for our own, and included the idea that when God calls his chosen people and leads them out of bondage through the desert to the Promised Land, he is like a bridegroom wooing his bride.

The first of these songs, “A Big Mistake,” is included below. It is narrated by Israel as one escaping an abusive relationship, as one who has eloped with her beloved and is now beginning her new life with him as they flee together across the Red Sea, through the desert to the Promised Land. But she, like so many, soon finds the demands of freedom to be daunting and wonders whether her lover has overestimated her – or she, him.  

The idea is that as much as we long for freedom from degrading intimacies, and as much as we long for the deepest, truest communion, we still have a hard time letting go of that which keeps us in bondage. Ask any prisoner being released from jail after decades of incarceration… freedom can be frightening. But, as this story suggests, God patiently accompanies us through the desert of our long letting-go with the assuring and redeeming confidence of One who knows love in their very being.

The song below draws on the metaphor of lover and beloved in the Book of Hosea, as well as from the story of Israel’s escape from Egypt (Exodus 12:31) to her arrival at Mount Sinai (Exodus 19). The song requires a few leaps of imagination, but I trust the leaps are well founded.


music and lyrics by Malcolm Guite and Steve Bell

It was the night that brought me freedom
On the night you came for me
In the darkness you had kindled my desire
And your light pierced me through – and it drew me to you
I mistook you for a pillar made of fire

When we started in the morning
I was ready for the day
I loved you and I sang for you out loud
But as time passed I learned – how the desert sands burned
I mistook you for a pillar made of fire

You mistook me for the faithful
You mistook me for the true
You mistook me for the lover
Who would give her best to you
But you hurt me with your freedom
It’s a burden I can’t bear
And it’s all been a big mistake

When we came back to the mountain
Where our love had burned before
I remember how it felt like holy ground
When you drew me to the heights
With your darkness and your lights
I mistook you for the thunder all around

When my springs had turned all bitter
Then your love made them sweet
You were like a hidden river in the grass
But I sought my own will
And it poisons me still
I mistook you for a serpent made of brass

And you mistook me for the worthy
You mistook me for the free
You mistook me for the lover
That you wanted me to be
And I’m leaving your fold
On a calf made of gold
’Cause it’s all been a big mistake

Appears on the 2014 CD release: Steve Bell / Pilgrimage

Lenten Lands

It’s about fruitfulness, and plenitude.
It’s about fecundity and blessing.
It’s about generative love…

In the previous chapter I shared a song, “Big Mistake,” which retells the story of the Exodus in the first few weeks in the wilderness from the point of view of Israel as a bride eloping with her lover, and who begins to second guess her newfound freedom and pine for the familiar life of her prior bondage. It is a curious dynamic that we often prefer the things that imprison us to the ones that set us free.

Now we turn to the story again from the perspective of the loving liberator, Christ himself. With this turn, we come to the heart of Lent.

Again, parallel to the themes of infidelity, penitence and repentance, Lent (meaning ‘lengthen’) refers (at least in the northern hemisphere) to the coming of spring when “all things turn… toward their rich beginnings and their birth.” It’s about the lengthening of days, when the sun melts the winter freeze and penetrates the soil with light and warmth, bringing forth fresh greening. It’s about fruitfulness and plenitude. It’s about fecundity and blessing. It’s about generative love that will not let us go.

When Jesus went into the desert to fast for forty days, it was the same wilderness through which God led his people on their escape from Egypt. As such, Jesus identifies with our bewildered wanderings as we struggle to detach from the allure of those things that bind us, so we might attach to the One who frees. As one of us, Jesus suffers; as God, he rescues and offers his steadfast covenant love that will not be put off by even our most wounding betrayals. His is a love that beckons us to turn back and begin love anew.

Here we see God not as a wounded smiter, but rather as a smitten lover. Paradoxically, the depths of our betrayals reveal the depths of his love. (See the story of Hosea discussed in the previous chapter.)

In an unpublished reflection on the poem that inspired the song below, Malcolm Guite writes:

Love does not look down on the beloved from some lofty and well-fortified position, but comes down, gets alongside, and is open and woundable, not closed and invulnerable. So it is with God. God so loved the world that he sent his only son Jesus Christ; and in coming to us, Christ exposed himself to all the things that hurt and afflict us. He came alongside us and took the risk of rejection in order to show us his open love. And he was indeed despised and rejected, stripped of every power and dignity and finally nailed to a wooden cross on a rubbish heap.

The miracle of divine love turns every rejection into a sign and symbol of the widest embrace; the embrace of arms wide open on the cross; arms that woo us back to the open heart of a God totally smitten with us.


Lyrics by Malcolm Guite
Music by Steve Bell

My love is gone away in Lenten lands
Gone far away and clean forsaken me
And will she perish in those desert sands
Or will she turn again and come to me

I brought her out of Egypt in my youth
She clung to me when we were on the run
She tires of freedom now she tires of truth
And seeks for something new under the sun

The time of year has come when all things turn
The sun returns to warm the wintry earth
The land revives, the plants and seedlings yearn
Toward their rich beginnings and their birth

Will she turn? O will she turn again?
I hold my arms out wide upon the tree
And will she see me yearn to her through pain
And turn again, and turn again to me?

The time of year has come when all things turn
The sun returns to warm the wintery earth
The land revives, the plants and seedlings yearn
Toward their rich beginnings and their birth

The grapes are swelling on the fruitful vine
The figs are ripe and low upon the bow
I break the bread for her and pour the wine
And all I am is turned towards her now

Appears on the 2014 CD release: Steve Bell / Pilgrimage