The saying is true, “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.” It has been my habit to write about love in the weeks before Valentine’s Day because of the important role it plays in resiliency for military families. All romantic love at times includes self-denial and suppression of passion for a greater good. Although it’s unpopular to discuss abstinence and chastity, lovers have often undergone denial as a means of protecting the purity of the beloved, especially before marriage. For the service member, it can also mean separation and self-denial to serve the needs of the nation.
I was recently re-reading The Silver Stair, which was the first published work of Charles Williams in 1912. Williams was a member of the Inklings, the Oxford University literary group that included J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Many have called Williams the poet of the Inklings. Although other members of the group wrote and published poetry, Williams was the only one who at one time was known mainly for writing poetry and drama. His later cycle of modern poems about the Matter of Britain – Taliessin through Logres – was considered by Lewis, W.H. Auden, and many others as Williams at his best. As a cycle of sonnets written in traditional verse and antiquated language, The Silver Stair was not particularly innovative or popular at the time, yet it shows a brilliance of imagery and delivers a powerful conceptual framework for an idea that Williams considered central to his theology – the Ways of Negation and Affirmation.
Williams believed these were two ways of approaching God. In the Way of Negation, people draw close to God by withdrawing from the world and denying worldly pleasures. In the Way of Affirmation, people experience God through interaction with the world, at weddings, parties, and funerals, by connecting with other people. Both, he argued, are legitimate approaches to theology, as Jesus Himself attended weddings and was called a wine-bibber yet also sacrificed Himself for others. In this early imagery, Williams presented these two ways with regards to women as the silver stair and the golden stair. In the past, engagement rings were traditionally of silver representing purity, the cold light of the moon, and lovers making promises yet unfulfilled. Wedding rings were golden, representing joy, the warmth of the sun, and the consummation of love. The Silver Stair was thus a perfect metaphor of a life of faith according to the Way of Negation by denying pleasure before marriage. Williams presented these poems to his fiancée at the beginning of their engagement, so it also served as a statement of his intent to honor her and maintain purity until they wedded.
Although the book contains traditional love poems, it also includes many examples of William’s views of the importance of self-denial. He praises he “who lays life by, in search of greater things” (27:14). He hears the echo of the voice of Love singing, “Through me, by losing shall a man find love” (44:12). He praises renunciation of pleasure and her company, saying, “There shall be lost no thought of her, except / All love of God and of this world depart” (48:13-14). He praises those who “put off love for love’s sake” (57:14). He praises virginity under the name of Artemis: “Hands clear from touch and lips of any kiss / Hail her beneath the stars, upon the hills, / Vestal and Queen, celestial Artemis!” (69:12-14). He likewise compares his fiancée with the Virgin Mary, praising her as a “Queen, in a distant and forgotten land,” that they “In holy fear and mighty love toward thee / That they may follow thy virginity” (73:1, 6-7). In other words, he believed their holding out for their wedding day would help he and his fiancée draw closer to God and to each other.
We find a similar attitude among those who are deployed, who undergo a similar experience as Williams. Although the choice is not theirs to be away from home, they make the same sacrifice – they become separated from their spouse and deny themselves marital relations for a year for the purpose of serving nation and God. Seen in the same way, they walk the “silver stair” for a year. They lay life by to achieve a greater purpose. They lose their life to find love on their return. They put off love for love’s sake. As with Artemis and the Virgin Mary, their spouse appears no more beautiful or powerful as during that year of separation.
In the final sonnets of the sequence, Williams compares love to Christ, a theme he later expanded in his book Romantic Theology. Thus, he spoke of love being like Christ’s suffering: “Anguish of body…Wherein the holy flesh is perfected” (75:9-12); and he compares their separation with His death: “Keep yourselves yet for three days purified / With fasting: watch beside his sepulchre” (77:11-12). In short, “His Beloved so to gain, denied / His strength, Who could have won her with a nod. / He hath renounced—How else to win?—His bride” (81:11-14). Yet as the suffering of the lovers “to its end draws on the bridal night” (80, 1), they will be united with love in the end, as they will also be united with Christ in resurrection:
There was a light about us suddenly,
There was a Voice commanding us, which said:
“Why seek ye still the living with the dead?
He goes before you into Galilee.”
O dear land of green hills and breaking sea
In our far journeys well rememberéd
Thy fields once more our stumbling feet shall tread,
Our wandering ways have brought us back to thee!Charles Williams, The Silver Stair, 78:1-8
All of those who love must sometimes tread the silver stair. That is, we must sometimes deny our passions to achieve a greater purpose, whether protecting the purity of the bride, serving the nation, or because a higher calling separates us. Yet we should all remember that, like Christ, though we all undergo suffering and death of love during periods of separation, we will be reunited in the end.
© 2023 J.D. Manders