Oh, love to some is like a cloud,
To some as strong as steel,
For some a way of living,
For some a way to feel,
And some say love is holding on
And some say letting go,
And some say love is everything
And some say they don’t know.
John Denver (Perhaps Love)
What is Love? Is it merely a feeling, something essentially fleeting and ultimately irrational, as ungraspable as a cloud and as subject to the winds of change? Or is it something altogether more substantial, something Divine, which holds the very secret of the meaning of life?
The problem is that “love,” as a word, is used to denote romantic feeling, which is rooted in emotion and is unrelated to reason, or even inimical to it, and also to denote passionate reason, rooted in the very essence of God and therefore inseparable from the rationality of truth of which God is the source and to which all true rationality leads. The word, as a label, is therefore affixed to two entirely different and mutually incompatible things.
Let’s look at the first of these definitions of “love.”
Romantic feeling, especially the romantic feeling attached to what is commonly called eros, is dangerous. Unless it is subject to virtue, it becomes a destructive power, a form of madness, which is both self-destructive and destructive of others. Literature is full of examples of this romantic “love.” In The Iliad the adulterous relationship between Paris and Helen leads to the destruction of Troy; the enmity between Agamemnon and Achilles, caused by their disordered feelings toward women who are not their wives, has destructive consequences for the entire Greek army, leading to the deaths of many. In The Aeneid the madness of the love of Aeneas and Dido leads to both rulers neglecting their respective responsibilities to their people and leads ultimately to Dido’s suicide. There are countless other examples. We think of Paolo and Francesca being blown around helplessly in the infernal maelstrom of hell, a consequence of their violent adulterous affair, or of Romeo and Juliet recklessly wrecking each other’s life, or of the heedless passion of Heathcliff and Catherine in Wuthering Heights. We could go on and on because literature is full of the chaos caused by romantic feeling; so is history.
In contradistinction to this romantic or irrational love is the passionate reason of what might be called self-sacrificial love. This is the sense in which Christ uses the word. This sort of love, often called caritas or agape, is both passionate and rational. It is passionate in the original sense of the word, insofar as it is inseparable from the willingness to suffer for the beloved, “passionate” having its etymological root in the Latin passionem, which means to suffer. No greater love has any man, says Our Lord, than to lay down his life for his friends. To love is to sacrifice ourselves for others. It is to choose freely to live selflessly. It is a rational choice, not an irrational feeling. It is passionate reason. It is the uniting of one’s reason to the necessity of suffering, the need for self-sacrifice.
Jesus Christ is of course the ultimate exemplar and archetype of this passionately rational love. His own Passion, His suffering on the Cross, is the very meaning of love itself. It is Love Himself showing us how to love each other. To love someone is not merely to take up our own cross, it is to take up their cross and to help them carry it. It is the willingness to be nailed to their cross and to die for them. In a truly reciprocal loving relationship, we help the beloved carry their cross, and the beloved helps us carry ours, gaining the strength to do so in the God-given grace which gives us Christ to help us shoulder our burden. This is true love because it is love which unites itself with all that is true. It is the marriage of sanity and sanctity; the heroism of holiness.
Since love is inseparable from suffering, it might be as well to end our discussion of love with a discussion of suffering. The fact is that suffering is unavoidable, whether we seek to avoid it or not. Indeed, and this is the heart of the paradox, those who accept and embrace suffering in a spirit of self-sacrifice tend to suffer less than those who spend their lives doing their damnedest to avoid suffering at all costs. Those who sacrifice themselves for others suffer less than those who sacrifice others to themselves. Think again of Paris and Helen, Paolo and Francesca, Romeo and Juliet, or Heathcliff and Catherine. Romantic feeling, in the absence of the sanity of passionate reason, tends to ruin the lives of all who succumb to it. The road to hell is paved with the jagged edges of the broken hearts of those we’ve abused, including our own battered and bruised and self-abused hearts. It is for this reason that Oscar Wilde insisted that it is only through the suffering of a broken heart that Lord Christ may enter in.
Republished with gracious permission from the St. Austin Review (February 2018).
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is “Lovers” , by Pál Szinyei Merse (1845-1920), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.