Dear Friends in Christ,
Between the second lesson and the Gospel appointed for today (both written by the Apostle John), the word love appears seventeen times in sixteen sentences, so the message could not be clearer: the Gospel of Jesus Christ is about love. The centrality of love in Christian faith and life often comes as a surprise to those who do not share our faith because they regard the Church as merely an old scold intent on keeping people shrouded in the darkness and misery of superstition and priestcraft so that the Church can control their lives and behavior with an outdated moral code that should have been left behind with the bubonic plague and the Spanish Inquisition. But given the centrality of love in the Gospel, I think we need an explanation of the failure of so many people to see love in the Church, even allowing for the blinders of bigotry and the human inclination to hold in contempt those whose worldview we do not share. So what might that explanation be? I think one part of it might be the limitations of the English word love and the ways in which those limitations impoverish our imagination.
Think of the many ways in which we use the same word. I love pizza. I love New York City. I love the Lord of the Rings. I love bourbon. I love my mother. I love my wife. I love God. Languages other than English often have several words to carry the weight that we force upon one word, and this is especially odd given the comparatively vast size of the useful vocabulary of English which was cobbled together from Greek and Latin through Germanic and Romance languages alike. But for several reasons love has become a word that serves many disparate purposes, and the very multiplicity of its uses diminishes its effectiveness.
One way to sort through the fog of this field of meanings is to read a magnificent slim volume by C.S. Lewis called “The Four Loves.” Lewis explores affection, friendship, erotic love, and the love of God as they were understood in classical antiquity and in the Holy Scriptures and helps clarify these different meanings of love for a modern English speaker. If our culture today is marked by loneliness, that surely is a sign of our diminished capacity for friendship. And if marriage has been strained to the breaking point by infidelity and impermanence, that certainly is an indication of unrealistic expectations for what erotic love and sexual friendship can mean in our lives. And these deficits are, in turn, the result of our confused and diminished understanding of love in general. And if the lesser loves are misunderstood, then how can the higher loves possibly be attained, especially the love of God?
In addition to Lewis’s “The Four Loves,” I also recommend another slim volume called “Spiritual Friendship” by St Aelred of Rievaulx, who was a Cistercian abbot in the north of England in the 12th century. This little treatise by a master of the interior life is a splendid guide to living as a disciple in life-giving friendship with other disciples. Both of these little books can help us fulfill the command of Christ: love one another as I love you.