Thinking about love is a good spiritual discipline!
There is so much that could be said.
But maybe in another sense really engaging with this theme brings me to hold back. Really I should not say much at all, as I have so little of the reality of love, to back up my words.
But here I am going to offer ten things I think I can say about love. I’m not defining love, and some of what I have to say is about all love, including romantic love. There are different forms of love, but these things I suggest apply in the broad category of human experiences of love.
1. Love is redemptive. Love makes people and situations whole, or moves them towards healing. It is creative and re-creative. When I was a young person I had a poster in my student room, which read: Love is the only power which can make things one without destroying them.
Love can bring us to unity in relationship and unity within ourselves: wholeness, but it does so while retaining our individuality, our integrity, our self-worth.
2. Love makes a home. In my own experience, as well as in the world of nature, I’ve seen how young lovers seek to create a home, a shared life. Jesus spoke of faith growing like a tree, where the birds can make their home. Love is hospitable, it serves the well-being of life. It makes things comfortable, for the beloved, and and for others. People who make a household together invite others to come and share their place. Love is inviting, and serves the other. Mutual love makes a home. This, I believe, is the character of God’s creation: it is the out-working of God’s passion,God’s love. God makes a home and invites us to share in this home, with God.
3. Love is embodied. The young woman or man cannot keep their love for that special someone to themselves: it must be spoken, and expressed. Embodied love draws our whole being into the relationship. This is the fundamental meaning of our sexuality. Love expresses itself in wholeness, in embodied communion with the other. In other forms of love, between friends, within the family, and so forth, the embodiment of love is different from sexual expression, and yet has much in common. Embodied love reaches out to feed, to care for, and to help, or to play, have fun, or just ‘hang out’ together. Embodied love forms a community, a body of life together.
4. Love creates relationship — empathy where there was apathy. There is something about love which enables us to move beyond hurts, to a new level of relationship. Love is not a system of rights and wrongs, or rewards and punishments. Love allows us to see something more in that person, even the one who irritates the life out of us, or has let us down. It’s not immediate. It’s not easy. Sometimes it may take years. But something allows us to see that person is also, and in spite of what they may have done to us, a person like us: they too worry about their kids, or they too struggle to keep a job, or they too wrestle with self-doubt, or whatever it is: we sense something that is more than all the other stuff. This is empathy. It takes us beyond apathy, or antipathy. It draws out the best in us and may allow us to see the best in the other.
5. Love, as described in 1 Corinthians 13, is patient and kind and keeps no score of wrongs.
Here are the wonderful words of the text: 4 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
8 Love never ends.
This is not something to be explained. There is something here of gift and of task: that is, there are disciplines for us to strive for, but doing them and even wanting to do them is not something we can manufacture. To do so is to produce something horrible, the forced ‘love’ of charitable duty, which is in so many ways destructive, worse than apathy! No, this character of love is a gift, a gift of God’s Spirit.
6. We see this love in Jesus: a love that is not sucked into ideological scheming or manipulation.
I found the following wonderful quotation from the thoughts of Tolstoy in a letter to Gandhi, which puts it very clearly: ‘The longer I live, and especially now when I feel vividly the nearness of death, I want to tell others what I feel so particularly clearly and what to my mind is of great importance: namely that what is called ‘passive resistance’ is in reality nothing else than the teaching of love uncorrupted by false interpretations … I think this law was most clearly expressed by Christ, who plainly said: "In love alone is all the law and the prophets" .’
What Tolstoy is seeing in Jesus is a kind of ‘resistance’ which is not really passive, but is active. But it is active as love. It’s resistance is to refuse to be drawn into ideological manipulations. It will not see people as pawns is anyone’s grand schema. It is positive in its availability for love. All the things said above require this strong resistance to other impulses and drives, as well as the ever-present dangers of self-deception, making room for love.
7. Love requires work. As many people put it, we have to work at our relationships. But I think too that to love, in the ways I have been suggesting, requires most of all ‘self-work’.
I don’t think there is a lot more to say on this point. Jesus spoke of loving God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, making it very clear that effort is required. There is no romanticism here. Love takes effort, and sometimes hard work. But often the work is self-work, in the sense of self-examination, to ask whether we are engaging in the kinds of manipulations, or scheming, or conditional relations which so easily masquerade as love.
Yet, too, there is a point where the effort overflows, naturally and joyfully: so I feel the need to balance point 7 with point 8:
8. Love grows, and breaks forth. Again, this has perhaps already been expressed. Love cannot keep itself a secret, and it does not follow ‘straight lines’. Literature is filled with the stories of the children of sworn enemies who fall in love (Romeo and Juliet). Love is not predictable, but lives and grows.
9. Love is gift. Love is not an achievement, for all that we have said about needing to work at it, or pay attention respectfully to the other, and to ourselves. Though we do have this common expression, usually referring to ‘having sex’, in the broader sense we cannot manufacture love. Love happens to us and arises within us as a response to the love we receive. It is, as suggested in an earlier post, a response to the way we are looked at, or as older language would put it, the way we are regarded. Love is a gift we receive and give, mutually, in the respectful and nourishing look, the invitation to be ourselves and simply to rest in that.
10. God is love. By this, I mean to suggest that God is the source of all love and the enabling power of all that we have said about love. And God’s love is, in the words of Paul Tillich, ‘stronger than death’.
God is present in all love. This for me is a statement of faith, of hope, and of love. It is, I think, what it means to say that love is a fruit of the Spirit. The love of God—that is, the love which God gives into the life of the world, in a zillion different ways— and our love for God, become one love. The Spirit brings God’s love to us, and draws from us a responsive love, God’s love in us and through us. In this one love, this mutual love, love is a fruit of the Spirit.