Monday, December 11, 2006

The Nature of Love

Charity Anderson placed a good comment on my post “Priest and Friend”:

On the note of favorites, I have long wondered in what sense John was Jesus’ “favorite.” Just a few weeks ago someone suggested to me that Jesus actually loved everyone to the same degree, but that what set John apart is that he accepted or understood that love more than the others. I would be interested to hear your thoughts on this suggestion.

I pondered that myself when I was writing that part of the blog. It’s an intriguing description. Whatever it means, I’m sure we can assume that it did not mean that Jesus loved John more than he loved the other disciples. As I said in the other post, We are nowhere told what that meant, but clearly it meant something within the perfect love that Jesus showed all of the Twelve, and there is no evidence that the other disciples believed that Jesus played favorites or that they themselves were loved any less.

Jesus actually loved everyone to the same degree.

Here is maybe where the notion of “favorites” gets off track. I think that people often fall short in their understanding of love by assuming that love can be quantified or measured or expressed in degrees. That leads to a lot of pain and misunderstanding, e.g. “You love so-and-so more than you love me,” etc. But love doesn’t work that way, and whenever someone tries to make it do so, love immediately ceases to be love. I think that love kind of flows into the openings that are made for it in both whoever loves and whoever is the beloved. And even those categories fall short because true love always gives and receives at the same time. “The more I give, the more I have,” said Juliet Capulet in the famous balcony scene.

True love puts each person in the right place, the place that is best for that individual. John had the “favored” position at the Last Supper—lying closest to Jesus. No one else seemed to have complained, and Peter even took advantage of it by urging John to ask Jesus quietly who was going to betray him. Having that favored place was obviously the right place for John and putting someone else there would have been a displacement of John and made that “someone else” uncomfortable. Jesus warned guests about seeking the highest places—the host was to decide where the place cards were to go, and the host who loves each guest perfectly will not make any errors.

Not everyone wants that favored place and it would be unloving to insist that someone take it if he didn’t want it. Remember the old joking observation about how few people want to sit in the front pew. If a person in authority puts someone in the “favored” position when he doesn’t want it, it is not loving—it is exploitation by abuse of authority. Or it might be saying, “I don’t trust you—you stay close by me where I can keep an eye on you.” And if someone seeks the “favored” position in order to be put ahead of others, that is not loving—that is selfishness. John may have been the “beloved” disciple, yet when he and his brother asked for the “favored” places when Jesus came into his kingdom, they were rebuked. At that point, James and John were asking to be set above the others, and that was not love.

If I were a guest at someone’s house for dinner, and the host said to another guest, “Here, I’ve saved you the choicest bit of the broccoli,” I assure you that not only would I not feel slighted, I would feel relieved, blessed, and known! Had I been given the broccoli, both the person who loved it and I who didn’t would have lost out. It would have been made obvious that the host really did not know our preferences. Love loves each person individually according to need, each according to what is individually best. This is why “loving” and “knowing” are two sides of the same thing.

How did Jesus love Peter and demonstrate that love for him? Or Andrew? Or Judas Iscariot, for that matter? By loving each in the right way, the way that was best for each one. Not only was John the “beloved” disciple among the Twelve, but Jesus also chose the Twelve out of a larger group of followers (he sent 70 of them out two-by-two, recall), and from within the Twelve he occasionally took “Peter, James, and John” apart for special experiences and teaching, and more than once it was Peter alone. Each according to what was best.

Love is neither only given nor only received—it is, rather, something in which we immerse ourselves. It is like an ocean that at the same time fills the entire ocean bottom and also flows into bays and the contours of the shore. It fully matches each place where it is, and to do anything other would be to do damage—like a tsunami. Love, by its own nature, must always want and do what is best for the beloved. What is best for one person will not be best for another. Trying to treat everyone equally is not love at all. But love cannot be hierarchical, either—rather, it has infinite variety, and the appearance of hierarchy is really just a part of the variety.

Love is multiplied in all of its variety with each loving encounter and relationship we have, so that loving one’s spouse, for example, drives other loves forward. Love cannot be competitive. Agape (charity), philia (friendship), storge (affection), and eros (male-female love) all overlap and support one another like colors on a palette, and in holy loving, each love goes into its right place, continually enriching the others.

Each person we love, we love in the way that is best and most fitting for that person. For a spouse that’s one way. For friends it’s another, for children and parents it’s another, for strangers it’s still another, etc. And in the circles of our acquaintance one can have “favorites” or even “hierarchies” depending on a number of circumstances, all without any other love being threatened or weakened. And it all applies in real life situations. It must, or it wouldn’t really be true love. It is so even with objects: I “love” both books and hamburgers, but I don’t eat my treasured copy of The Hobbit and I don’t flip over the top bun of my hamburger to see if there are any words inside it.

So what about our own human “favorites”? When a priest, pastor, teacher, etc. truly loves all the students, parishioners, etc., there are some who stand out in a certain way. The love that is shared between the two people is unique to those two without in the least diminishing or threatening the love shared with others. This is because love matches each individual, and every love is unique.

Of course, no human being loves in the way God does without flaw or error or sin, so the best we can do is to grow in the knowledge of love. We do so through the gift of the Spirit and growing in sanctity in the framework of Scripture and traditional Christian doctrine and morality. And from that knowledge comes our understanding of how one can love freely and powerfully without worrying about the cost or how one love will affect another.

Sadly, in this life we always fall short, and that is one reason why loving always includes pain in even the best of our earthly loves. True love works that pain into itself so that true love includes patience, mercy, penitence, and forgiveness. Probably that is why the truest love of all led to a cross. The One on the cross had been told twice, “This is my Son, whom I love.”


Anonymous said...

So is it wrong that I want to be the "favorite" of those I most admire?

Father David said...

Anonymous asked, "So is it wrong that I want to be the 'favorite' of those I most admire?"

There are many reasons why you may have that wish, some better than others. I suspect there is probably very little harm in your desire and much good that can grow into something better and better.

Hannah Jolene said...

I love loving and I love being loved. Love is so powerful and healing. I praise God for love...without it, life would be very lonely, discouraging and depressing. Thank you for your love Father is a priceless and uplifting gift. May the Lord bless you for blessing me.