With Valentine’s Day fast approaching, I’d like to share some thoughts on love. Patient, kind, keeping no record of wrongs, rejoicing in the truth, always protecting, trusting, hoping, and persevering. Neither envious, boastful, proud, nor self-seeking. Not dishonoring of others nor delighting in evil. Not easily angered.
Thanks to St. Paul, we’ve heard this description numerous times at weddings and at Sunday Mass, but do we recognize it as blessed truth, take it with a grain of salt, or scoff when we think nobody is looking? Admittedly, it may be impossible for any interpersonal relationship to measure up to this standard 100% of the time. When we fail to respond to somebody in this way though, is it more correct to redefine love to match our weaknesses, or rather to recognize in ourselves a failure to love? Think of all the supposed acts of love that are actually expressions of possessiveness, jealousy, obsession, or lust. To paraphrase Tina Turner, “What’s love got to do with it that?” (Yes, I fit an additional song into this post---you’re welcome!)
Christian teaching understands charity to be the virtue by which our love of God should lead us to love everybody in God’s Creation. That may not be wrong, but doesn’t it seem a bit abstract? And do we really believe that God would be satisfied with our loving others only for God’s sake? Isn’t the Christian challenge instead to see enough of God’s goodness reflected in even the most reprehensible criminal, that we should love such a person inherently? After all, the greatest mystery of love is that it cannot be earned, only given and shared. As such, either none of us deserves love (as it is fully grace) or we all do (as we are all made in God’s adorable image and likeness)---to me, it seems it would be very un-Christian indeed to believe that only some deserve love while others don’t. The question becomes how to love.
Thanks to St. Thomas Aquinas, Catholic theology understands love to not primarily be a feeling, but rather an act of will oriented toward the desire for the good of another. While this love is a gift both to lover and beloved, it does not exist for the sake of ego fulfillment or personal gratification. Instead, it exists only when the desire for the other’s good is strong enough that it competes with and perhaps even overwhelms healthy self-interest.
After the Resurrection, the Gospel of John recalls a touching exchange between Jesus and Peter, the best friend who turned and ran when times got tough. Jesus asks Peter three times, “Do you love me?” Each time, Peter answers in the affirmative, and each time, Jesus says, “Feed my sheep.” Ok, clear enough. Christian charity, love God by loving others, check.
But why does Jesus ask three times?
Peter tries to take the easy way out by answering with a fact (“You know that I love you”), when Jesus really wants an answer from his heart. So Jesus calls him out. By the third time, Peter may not be changing the words of his response much, but he has been rattled enough so that his emotion comes through. I think Peter here provides a great lesson for anybody who is tempted to be satisfied by allegedly loving in the abstract. It is true that we cannot reduce love to a feeling, because true love will motivate us even when we don’t feel like loving. However, love does demand feeling at some point.
Jesus didn’t die on the cross for us because he was a nice guy who was obedient to the Father. Instead, Jesus’ love for each of us is unique, passionate, and effective. He loves us all individually, for our own sake. Yes he died for all of us, but he also died for each of us. If I were the only person whose well-being was at stake, he still would have offered his life for me. And the same goes for you, and also for that guy who cut you off in traffic. Loving others out of a dutiful desire to follow the example of Jesus Christ may sound nice to some, but it will never be enough. We need reminders of what love actually is.
Thus, the experience of falling in love is a great gift for us all of us, insofar as it reminds us that love cannot be a purely abstract charity. Being overcome with genuine care for a specific person at a specific time can remind me of all the others toward whom I could be more loving as well: friends, family members, community members, colleagues, but also anybody whom I meet as an individual. Exploring the particular love I have for one person can help me to deepen the different particular loves I should have for others. How can I legitimately try to love everybody if I can’t even love one person well? If I can’t love my neighbor, how can I pretend to love the person down the block?
This line of thinking may seem to pose a challenge to the vow of celibate chastity that we vowed religious take---indeed, this vow is frequently challenging. When authentically lived though, celibate love though can be greatly rewarding and just as powerful. In an interview I recently read, a member of the Focolare movement shared an image that their founder, Chiara Lubich, used when speaking of chaste celibates. She compared us to a fountain in a public square where anybody can come and find rest and refreshment for a while, as opposed to a married person who must focus on how to direct the flow of water into their private homes to first support their own family. Married couples focusing on their particular love within their family will hopefully encourage each other to further spread that love outward. Consecrated religious may be asked more explicitly to focus on the love of all, but in order for that love to remain meaningful and potent, we also need to love individual people and feel loved by them as well. Christians in both forms of life are asked to love all, but in different ways… in both forms of life we are asked to love individuals as well, but in different ways. Inward out, and outward in.
To truly love all, at some point we must try to love each. Otherwise, our allegedly universal love risks turning into an unconvincing charade.
The “ear candy” this week deals with the love that should guide our actions in general, and how they affect both those we know as well as those we don’t. The “brain food” for this week is truly more like “heart food”. A short prayer/poem by the former superior general of the Jesuits, Father Pedro Arrupe, it speaks to the passion that guides any meaningful life, whether for a person, place, idea, or cause.
Ear Candy: “Where Is the Love?” by the Black Eyed Peas
Brain Heart Food: “Falling in Love” by Fr. Pedro Arrupe, SJ
Come back next Saturday for a new post!