19 February 2009

Why we love

this article was solicited by Fr. Ipe Sinco (Diocese of Jaro) for his parish paper. and i thought i was done with Valentines the moment the day passed...


It is February, which many people now calls the “love month”. This sociological itch to extend the celebration of certain events that people can’t get enough of – February 14 in this case – makes for an interesting study.

This heightened interest also provides an opportunity to reflect on the theme of love – beyond the mushiness, hopefully.

First, let's cover the basics.

Wikipedia, the iconic resource of knowledge of almost everything in the information age (which made our search for answers democratic, pluralistic, and, more than one cares to admit, oftentimes reliable) defines love as “any of a number of emotions and experiences related to a sense of strong affection and attachment. The word love can refer to a variety of different feelings, states, and attitudes, ranging from generic pleasure to intense interpersonal attraction.”

St. Thomas Aquinas describes love as a “concupiscible passion”, i.e., a feeling evoked by being drawn to a beloved, which does not only mean a romantic interest, but also extends to things, ideals and, of course, God.

Pope Benedict XVI’s first papal encyclical is an extended discourse on the centrality of love in Christianity, Deus caritas est, “God is love”. He sought to clarify and reconcile two Greek words and ideas on love: eros, which has a possessive nature expressed in the desire of the lover to possess the beloved, and agape, self-sacrificing love, in which the lover offers himself for the good of the beloved.

For Pope Benedict, genuine Christian love does not seek to eliminate eros, which is good in itself, but to complement and complete it with agape. The best model for agape is God Himself in Jesus Christ, who lay down His life on the cross to save humanity. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life” (John 3,16).

Elizabeth Barrett-Browning asked in her classic love poem, “How do I love thee?” Now, let us count some of the ways by which we love.

Love of God. The two great truths shared by Christianity, Judaism and Islam are (1) that we have only God, and (2) this God loves us. And so the most apt response for us humans is to love God back. Thus, to the question “What is the greatest commandment?”, Jesus replied, quoting the Jewish prayer Shema: “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Mt. 22,37).

Let me share with you what I consider the most stirring words ever written on the theme of loving God, words popularly attributed to have been written by the saintly Fr. Pedro Arrupe, SJ:

“Nothing is more practical than finding God, that is, than falling in a love in a quite absolute, final way. What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination will affect everything. It will decide what will get you out of bed in the mornings, what you will do with your evenings, how you spend your weekends, what you read, who you know, what breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude. Fall in love, stay in love, and it will decide everything.”

Love of Neighbor. The greatest commandment is not complete without the next verse: “The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mt. 22,38).

Apart from self-love, love of neighbor is peculiarly informed by yet another virtue: justice. The compassion of love is thus extended especially to the weak and disadvantaged, and to the assurance that fairness and equality should be given to everyone. Love of neighbor is also extended to the larger community, to nations and to the rest of creation.

Among the most sublime lines written on the love of neighbor via the aspirations for national unity and freedom is Andres Bonifacio’s exuberant nationalistic paean Pag-ibig sa Tinubuang Lupa:

“Áling pag-ibig pa ang hihigit kaya,
sa pagkadalisay at pagkadakila,
gaya ng pag-ibig sa tinubuang lupa?
Aling pag-ibig pa? Wala na nga, wala.”

Love of Family, Friends, Romantic Interest. There is a need to distinguish between the more universal love of neighbor and the love that governs special relationships. There are degrees to our relationship with people; some we love more than others. This is not being unfair. This reality actually refers to the very nature and logic of our being relational beings. Even God, in order to bring about universal salvation, elects first His “Chosen People”.

The virtue that informs this expression of love is fidelity. The virtue ethicist, Fr. James Keenan, SJ, describes fidelity as “the virtue that nurtures and sustains the bonds of those special relationships that we enjoy whether by blood, marriage, love, or sacrament. Fidelity requires that we treat with special care those who are closer to us.”

The drama and finality of fidelity is most profoundly expressed in the Christian marriage rite:

“I take you, for my wife/husband, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part.”

Love of Self or self-care is different from being selfish or self-centered. It is more than just possessing self-esteem or self-respect. Self-care is rooted in our genetic and natural predisposition for self-preservation and survival. Jesus Himself recognizes its importance when he taught about the second greatest commandment as based on one’s love for oneself. Indeed, a healthy love of self is the basis for all our loving relationships.

One of the most celebrated case of child abuse and survival is that of David James Pelzer. His story is chronicled in the three books he wrote: A Child Called It, The Lost Boy, and A Man Named Dave. As a child, Dave was abused by his mother, who thought of it as a game. Among other things, he was starved, forced to drink ammonia, and was once stabbed in the chest. His teachers finally stepped in when he was 12, and he was placed in foster care. Dave Pelzer narrates in his books his struggle to trust people and engage in loving relationships, seeing himself as broken and lacking in initial experience of loving affirming relationships.

The point is without a healthy sense of self-love, it is difficult to love others in a healthy affirming way as well. I remember a saying I learned in a high school Latin class: nemo dat quod non habet, “one cannot give what one doesn’t have”.

Why we love. So why do we love? Why do we embrace this complex beguiling and consuming emotion, sometimes with all the human energy that we can muster?

As the song says, “We are made for lovin'.” If God is love, and the Trinity is a communion of love, and if we are created in the image and likeness of God, then the way towards self-fulfillment and self-actualization, indeed, towards our destiny, is to love.

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