There is a vast misunderstanding of the four-letter word St Paul writes about in his first letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor 13:4-8). He chooses to give the reader concrete examples to understand better. What is authentic love, and what does it require? The brilliant St. Thomas Aquinas tells us, “To love is to will the good of the other.” Love is an act of the will, a choice we make. We choose to love or not to love. We often get confused because we think love is simply an emotional feeling like “falling in love.” The error in that kind of thinking relies upon “feelings” as an indicator of the presence of love. Feelings change. The giddy emotions will fade, and we wrongly assume we are no longer in love. Sadly, this same excuse can end a marriage. One cannot “fall out of love,” instead, the choice is to no longer love. Even that language is misleading. “Falling” is something we try to avoid at all costs. I know this personally because my falls usually involve an ambulance and brain surgery to repair. St. John Paull II reminds us that the “opposite of love is not hate but use.”
If we truly understand what love is, we should also realize that it demands something.
We must understand love’s sacrificial nature; it always puts the other before the self. I once heard it said this way, “love is not give and take; it is just give.” This statement may seem utterly exhausting and unbearable. Yet we have examples all around us. Look at the mother who continues to pour out love for the life of her children with little sleep and negligible rewards. How about the father who works long, tiresome hours in a job he hates to provide for his family? The teacher, nurse, and priest give their best for the good of the people they serve daily amid complaining ungrateful hearts? I saw in my mother a woman who woke up one morning to a paralyzed husband who never walked the rest of his life ten years into her marriage. Her loving, devoted care grew significantly in the later years when she, too, was ill and aged. The tenderness in which she poured herself out daily for my father was heroic and exemplified love.
We are so accustomed to measuring and keeping the score of the little we do for one another. St. Paul reminds us that there is no room for that in authentic love. It appears nearly impossible to love one another selflessly and adequately, especially when we may not even like one another. Yet, God’s second greatest commandment is to “love our neighbor as ourselves.”
It requires heroic virtue to choose love. God commanded that loving our neighbor is the means whereby we grow in holiness and prove our love for Him. Love forgives because that is what Christ showed us on the Cross, “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.” (Lk23:24) Forgiveness, like love, is not a feeling but a necessity. It releases the other and ourselves and is conditional to God forgiving us. There must be generous, merciful compassion and forgiveness in love.
Love is patient. “Patience is not proved except in suffering, and patience is one with charity.” (Siena) Patience requires endurance. We must learn to endure the faults of others and pray for their conversion. God readily sent His Son because of His love for us. He willingly suffered for the sins he did not commit and paid the ransom due to our sinful choices. Why would God the Father ask something so seemingly cruel of His Beloved Son? His Infinite love and mercy. That is how much we matter to our Father in heaven. We choose sin instead of obedience and virtue. We do this to ourselves and could never be free from the punishment owed, nor make enough restitution for them to God who is ALL GOOD.
The visual par excellent is the Crucifix-after all, that is what love looks like and what our sins cost our Lord Jesus. We must try and emulate this level of forgiveness as we seek to love one another.
This generous love poured out on the Cross is given to us at every Mass in the Eucharist. It is supernatural food and the gift of Love Incarnate that has the power to transform our hearts and conform them to Love Itself. There is nothing else more powerful. Nothing else so necessary.
“You test the virtue of patience when your neighbor insults you. Your humility is tested by the proud, your faith by the unfaithful, your hope by the person with no hope, your justice is tried by the unjust, your compassion by the cruel, and your gentleness and kindness by the wrathful. Your neighbors are the channel through which all your virtues are tested and come to birth….” St Catherine of Siena