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I have a confession to make. I am most certainly a hopeless romantic. Actually, let me rephrase that. I am a hopeful romantic. Even in my darkest, most cynical and beaten down moments I find a spark of romanticism.  I don’t mean an unfounded optimism that looks at life through rose-tinted glasses or viewing life through privilege.  For me when I say I’m a hopeful romantic I mean that I really truly believe that love in all its forms really is all you need. That Love will lift and comfort and restore and heal and bind and teach you the songs you never thought were possible for you. And the hope for me is that kind of Love that does this isn’t just the kind between a romantic couple who are lovers & bound to each other through thick and thin. (Although part of my hope is that one day I will know the romantic love of that one special person *sigh*.)

It’s also the Love that lies between friends, between people who choose to be in community together; the Love that lies between family – and just as much family of choice as of blood; the Love that lies between two people who haven’t seen each other for years, but then they meet and their souls leap and rejoice in the other; the Love that lies between ex-lovers who can accept they can both move on but also accept the wonderful blessing they have been to each other while together; the Love that sees a need and fills it; the Love that sees a hurt and finds a balm for it; the Love that holds and comforts and brings Peace; the Love that will speak out loudly and vehemently when others are hurting; the Love that holds Hate and Bigotry accountable; the Love that holds on; the Love that can let go; the Love that welcomes and says “you are one of us”; the Love that sees beauty and admires it for its own sake; the Love that sees beauty and admires it for God’s sake; the Love that sees the Heart rather than the exterior; the Love that embraces questions and challenge and difference; the Love that stands with the outcast and the marginalised and the broken and says “I am with you”. It’s a love characterised by generosity, openness, hospitality and selflessness.

And the Hopeful Romantic in me says we are all capable of this kind of Love. That we all deserve this kind of Love. That one day, this kind of Love will hunt us and embrace us and we can stop running and melt into its warmth. And I know this because I see it. I see it in the wider world, in strangers and acquaintances I cross paths with every day. I see it fully enacted in my friends and in my chosen family (in my blood family too). And I’ve experienced it. I’ve felt it. My Companions of the Heart show it to me whenever they send an encouraging text, or flit me a smile, or give me a hug or the hundred other things they do that tell me without words I am loved and deserving of love.

And this kind of Love, this kind of Welcome and embrace is so woven into us that it of course it comes out in our stories (collective dreaming, remember). And in days like these of separation, division and exclusion we need more than ever a story about the Romantic idea that Love can save even the most beastly of us. A story that speaks to our souls of acceptance regardless of appearance; a story that holds a sometimes painful mirror to our own prejudices; a story that celebrates the wonder of knowledge, the wonder of acceptance and the wonder of friendship; a story that shows us how precious and glorious and integral hospitality is to our survival.

I didn’t know that when I first picked up that Ladybird book that said “Beauty and the Beast” with the dark foreboding picture on the front how much I needed that story. I didn’t know how much it would sit in my heart and burst into life again when I sat in a cinema in the Winter of 1991 and was awed by the majestic masterpiece in Disney’s crown. (You won’t sway me on this. It’s the best Animated Disney). And I needed it again at the beginning of this year when I saw the live action adaptation – adapted almost beat for beat.

I needed it because I most relate to the Beast. This angry, isolated, lonely young man cursed because of a lack of hospitality and generosity , yes it felt very much like me. And of course he’s got rage issues…. he’s been isolated and alone for years. His anger should not be excused, but I understand it. I too often feel it. One wonders whether the curse is isolation and exclusion itself – the beastly transformation is just a cover. And the “lesson” such a curse brings – is that it is only undone by acceptance, welcome and inclusion. But the Beast is not truly alone in his isolation. Yes, sounds contradictory doesn’t it – but even surrounded by the transmogrified servants he is isolated and alone and simultaneously shares this isolation and exclusion with them. And it is their rebellious act of welcome that ensures Belle stays just that little bit longer.

Oh and Belle. Yes, I fell in love with her (yes I know she was a CARTOON! it’s NOT weird! Okay, it’s a little bit weird) almost at first sight in that theatre in 1991. Just look at her though. She’s the most perfectly drawn heroine, completely human reactions and movement. She’s gorgeous (don’t judge me) but more importantly she’s whip smart, doesn’t even consider for a moment the toxic masculinity of Gaston is acceptable, loves her dad, likes animals, Loves reading, has a joy in life and knowledge, wants adventure, is brave and kind … *swoon*. Of course Beast (and the rest of the Castle) loves her… why wouldn’t you?! She is willing to sacrifice herself (and this echoes the original tale where she is the one willing to substitute herself for the father) and that almost perfect story beat where she simply cannot abandon Beast to the snow and his injuries after the wolf attack – you see it in her eyes. It’s something completely opposite to her nature. And so of course she helps him.

And yes, in the end she finds she loves him. In the animated version I’m not entirely sure it has to be a romantic love, but either way, it’s built on a friendship that looks beyond appearances, beyond judgement, beyond prejudices. And her love reminds him who he really is. It ends that exclusion and isolation and burns away his rage. Even after Gaston (urgh… Toxic, TOXIC masculinity) raises a mob by preying on fear and prejudice and hunts the beast down, because of her he gives Gaston a chance to live. He begins the process of forgiveness to even the man who not only wanted him dead, but the idea of him dead. Predictably the villain refuses to change. He cannot accept the Grace or Welcome and dies through his own actions.

So in watching, re-watching and re-experiencing I realise I’ve lived so much of this story. I’ve been the bookworm obsessed by new stories. I’ve been the knowledge-seeker thought odd for not just “accepting answers”. I have (to my shame) been The Fool giving legitimacy to the bully, hell I’ve on occasion been the bully 😦 . And I’ve been the cursed, lonely, excluded and isolated creature with a whipped up mob at my (metaphoric) door. I hear the words of anger and hurt from the Beast and understand them. I hear the words of Justice from Belle and their call to me. I hear God’s words throughout that He looks at the heart rather than outward appearance. I hear the fear of the villagers at something they don’t understand and that fear makes me terribly sad.

But the loudest voice in the story, the enduring words, the thing the story is about… is I am ultimately welcome.

The song that makes me cry, every single time, is “Be Our Guest”. Because it’s the Song I hear in the love from friends. It’s the Song I’m also called to sing to others. In it I hear the words of God. Welcome to this table. Put up your feet. You are safe here. And the welcome isn’t begrudged. It’s extravagant. Almost wasteful. Over the top. And I can do no less than offer the same welcome to all.

So yes, I’m a Hopeful Romantic. Hopeful this Welcome will be known by loved ones, acquaintances, associates, even (especially) enemies. Hopeful this extravagant, welcoming, all-encompassing Love can be known and experienced and that I can be part of that. Hopeful that we can all finally, maybe one day, get that the state of the heart by far over-rules whether someone wears a suit, or school uniform, or a hijab, or lipstick; over-rules fat and thin, professional or slovenly, rebel or conformist; over-rules appearances of sticking to the law, appearances of who you hang out with, appearances of what you believe. So, here you go. Let’s make a start. Be My Guest. x