Love is not love.
The slogan, “love is love,” stands at the heart of the cultural conflict over the notion of “same-sex marriage”. There is much to say about that specific topic, and a recently reported statement by Pope Francis about civil unions for same-sex couples has added fuel to the fire of that conversation. But whatever the exact meaning of the Holy Father’s words, neither he nor anyone else speaking with the teaching authority of the Church claims to change the meaning of love, the nature of marriage, or any other doctrine.
This article is not about same-sex “unions” or the Holy Father’s words on this topic. This article is about love. And not about just any kind of love—for not all loves are the same—but about love for God. A person can say he “loves” an ice cream cone, the game of football, his dog, his Aunt Daisy, and his wife. But he does not love them all in the same way, let alone to the same degree. And so it is that our love for God is different in both quality and degree from any other love.
Love is not love. We love differently according to the dispositions of our own hearts, the nature of the objects of our love, and the relationships we have with those people, places, animals, or things. Each of these factors alters what we mean by “love.” And our love for God remains more fundamental, more complete, and more elevated than all of our other loves.
In the ancient Roman Empire, at a time when it was forbidden to teach the Torah, there was a courageous rabbi who continued teaching the Torah despite the ban.
When the Romans discovered him, they arrested the rabbi and took him into custody. Then they condemned the rabbi to death, ordering that he be burned alive. While he was being burned, the rabbi began to sing the Jewish Shema’, the great commandment of God recorded in the Book of Deuteronomy (6:4), which the Jews considered to be a summary of the entire law: “Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the Lord alone! Therefore, you shall love the LORD, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength.”
Seeing this incredibly moving sight, a bystander asked the rabbi why he was singing this even as he was being burned alive. The rabbi replied, “Up to this point in my life, I have known what it meant to love the Lord with all of my heart and with all of my strength. Now I know what it means to love Him with all of my soul.”
Some of the most basic truths of our faith are also some of the easiest to ignore or to “water down.” This can be due to over-familiarity; it can also be due to our tendency to try to manipulate the truth so that it accommodates our weakness. Especially with a word like “love,” there are strong cultural temptations to water-down the truth. Shakespeare, though I do not accuse him of misunderstanding the true nature of love, describes romantic love in words that many others would take to be the only kind of love:
Love is a smoke raised with the fume of sighs;
Being purged, a fire sparkling in lovers’ eyes;
Being vexed, a sea nourished with loving tears.
What is it else? A madness most discreet,
A choking gall, and a preserving sweet.”
(Romeo and Juliet, act 1, sc. 1)
Here we see love as exciting, love as volatile, love as something one experiences and feels rather than something one receives and gives. Romantic love is a wonderful gift, but it is not the only nor the highest form of love. Anyone who has been married or stuck with any family relationships or friendships for a long time knows that love is about a lot more than feelings. Love is a gift—one we receive and one we give to others, often at great cost.
In no love is the cost clearer—and, quite frankly, higher—than in our exchange of love with God. Jesus comes to us as the fulfillment of the Law (Mt 5:17), the One Who tells us that the whole Law is summed-up in love of God and love of neighbor. He Himself is the perfect revelation of God’s love for us and the “ladder” upon which our love for God ascends. Jesus’ love for us cost Him his very life when He died upon the Cross for us. He not only told us what is the greatest form of love (Jn 15:13); He showed us.
Our love for God, then, is a response to the supernova of love that radiates from the Cross of Christ. We love because God has first loved us (I Jn 4:19). Whereas the world is tempted to think of love symbolized by Cupid piercing a human heart with his arrow, we know that the truest love is revealed when the Son of God allows His Heart to be pierced with a soldier’s lance. God has died for us, and blood and water pour out to show us the new life we have in Him, especially in Baptism (water) and the Holy Eucharist (blood).
When it comes to loving us, Christ has given everything, sacrificed all, to save us and to show us His love. But when it comes to loving God, we are easily and often tempted to negotiate—to say, “I’ll give you this much,” and silently say, “and keep this for myself.” There are plenty of ways this happens in the Church today. Some Catholics seem to think it’s okay to go to Mass some Sundays, and to skip on other Sundays. There are those who say they believe in some teachings of the Church, but not in others, especially when belief would entail great personal cost. Some Catholics are very good at loving those they find lovable, but refuse to love those they don’t find so attractive, or to forgive those who have hurt them. Some of us know we are called by God to a deeper friendship with Him, to a more radical form of discipleship, but we hold back out of fear of what we’ll lose if we surrender to Him, or even out of mere laziness.
In his book The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis presents the fictional stories of a number of people who have died, and whose entry into heaven depends upon their willingness to let go of some attachment to sin or earthly goods. Many of the characters choose not to enter heaven, making excuses and rationalizations for refusing to let go of these attachments. So it can be in our lives. Most of us would not say a resounding “no” to God, but have we said a completely wholehearted “yes”? Are there not ways in which we consciously or subconsciously rationalize and compromise in the way we love God?
One of my seminary professors has said that the question, “Do I want God in my life?” seems like a “yes” or “no” question. Why, then, do so many seem to say, “Maybe”? The darkness and difficulty of these days should help motivate us to say a wholehearted “yes” to God. The world needs the witness of Catholics who truly love God. And we also need this, to love God without holding anything back—loving Him as He has loved us.
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