Framcesco Vanni, Saint Catherine drinks from the Side of Christ, 1594 |On loan for the exhibition:

Francesco Vanni, Saint Catherine Drinks From the Side of Christ, 1594 | Convento di San Girolamo, Siena | On loan for the exhibition: “Nourished By Love”, Duomo di Siena, 2015


Stripped bare of its superficial adornments, love looks ephemeral: a fleeting feeling at worst, and an enduring, painful longing at best. We hear intoned the modern clarion call for happiness: being ‘in love’ seems the end goal of most lives, as though finding ‘the one’ will reshape one’s existential identity, fill the gaping wounds of the heart, and satisfy the often confused urges of the body.

Lyrics abound on this kind of love. Odes have been written. Hearts have been broken. We continue to rely on ourselves in the endless striving for satisfactions of the flesh, confusing them for the delights the soul is capable of. As we repeat lyrics on love without meaning them or knowing their meaning, as we chant slogans on what love is, as we seek meaning in relationships and clarity on commitment, as we yearn for loyalty and only find betrayal, we soon learn that what we presently call love merits pause and reflection. At a more fundamental level, love calls for a probing and difficult conversion of heart.

The parameters of love are drawn by our passions and by our will. Operating as though body and soul are constantly at odds with each other, we act on impulse and rarely pause to reflect on the meaning and unity of our thoughts and actions. When it comes to love, our thoughts often bear the imprint of desire, and our actions bear the battle scars of betrayal, dissatisfaction, delusion, more often than they bear the laurel wreaths of conquest. We are jaded and numbed to believe the minimum is true of love: every feeling is exalted and every desire must be fulfilled. So many consciences are lulled to sleep by this appeal to satisfaction, by the allure of sweet pleasure which soon turns to sour delusion. They awaken through searing suffering, and tragically despair as they struggle to believe true love is possible, or even real. Passions battle against the will, and the will against virtue. In a discord that is difficult to identify and remedy, we live divided lives and perennial discontent.

Wandering in an endless sea of the erotic and merely pleasurable dimensions of human affection, we have lost the understanding of the transcendent capacity and identity of love — its holiness, its unity, its loveliness and purity, its grace — and we despair of love itself. The primordial instinct for physical fulfillment guides our actions and clouds our thinking. Often, this instinct for pleasure is a misguided inclination of the body, of our wounded nature, which we read as a need of the soul. This instinct is a mirage, a veiled and feeble attempt at seeking, even fighting for the real orientation we have towards happiness — that redemption which wounded human nature longs for and seeks — a long-awaited freedom and beatitude.

Christ knew this to be the crux of the struggle he came to reorient. When body and soul are at odds with each other, man is divided against himself. “A house divided against itself cannot stand” (Cf. Mt. 12.25). The contingencies of human love often reveal themselves in the flesh. Christ, the Incarnate God came to redeem the flesh — to unify its desires, to elevate them. “I have come that they may be one” (Cf. Jn. 17.21): that we may be one in ourselves, so that we may then be one with each other.

The effect of grace on wounded love is one of reparation, or restoration. In reparation we mend what has been damaged. The first work of a love that aspires to the truth about itself and those it is directed towards, is a restoration of what has been lost through human frailty. The One who is Love came to do just that, taking upon Himself as very God and very man the full burden of the world’s division, of its sin, and offering the perfect sacrifice in expiation.

In human terms, we are given the power repair what we have damaged, and so participate in a divine mercy. The demands of love show us how this takes place. To love another is to consider them another self, to see them as our self. This form of friendship, true friendship, looks to the other not as an object that fulfills one’s need, but as the recipient of the full range of our human capacity for goodness, of our charity. In this offering the love we have for another becomes a communion. We are made for communion — that oneness which transcends the superficial oneness possible in the flesh and becomes an incarnate union of souls. The model for this kind of union is the union of the Holy Trinity: a communion of persons — One God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: a triune union of superabundant love made manifest.

The intuition of this mystery is inbuilt onto the transcendent reality of human love. It is revealed in the intensity of human love that captivates the fullness of our being, and elevates the soul to glimpse here and now what eternity holds in store. We can love in terms of the here and now, because we love here and now in terms of the eternity we are made for. No real, true human love accepts the finality of death as its endpoint: it transcends even death and grows deeper in the absence of its beloved; it hopes for reunion and eternity. For all the acuity of our judgment, our calculations, our fabricated relationships, we cannot create this kind of love. We can simply offer it and receive it, thereby participating in the mystery of Love itself: that love which is pure, holy, godly.

This is a disinterested love: a love that is love not simply for another in themselves, but for their well being — because they are good, and for the sake of the goodness they manifest, desire and offer; for the the image of God that they are. It is therefore a benevolent love — from bene and volere: to want the good — a love that desires not for oneself, but more and more fully desires and acts for the other. It is a love that manifests predilection — a love that precedes conditions, and stands in contrast to fleeting emotions rooted in concupiscence, in self-interest, in the powerful temptation to serve ourselves first, and selfishly delight in another’s response to that need.

From this standpoint, we marvel at the heights we are intended to scale. This standard of love — pure love, true love — makes it necessary to rediscover everything. We are given the singular privilege then to relearn modes of expression, and rethink the nature of what we actually do with our bodies and with our hearts when we love another. We are invited to enter into a sanctuary — there where we revere the delicate interweaving of desire and hope, of generous giving and necessary withholding, of lavish offering and heart rending sacrifice, of life unbounded and death to self. This sanctuary is no less than the Heart of Christ, throbbing in the flesh of every human heart that acts in the Truth. In this sanctuary a marriage of souls takes place, which unites flesh and divinity into a union of love.

Beyond the humanist mystique of self-fulfillment which settles for the limits of human pleasure and satisfaction, and permits the exaltation of these to godlike status, is the ineffable capacity to reject the mediocre waste of human affection and refuse that it settle for so little. On the other side of this paradigm is the possibility of love completely laden with grace: a powerful love, a holy love, that subsists in divine strength, and is so capable of giving selflessly, desiring purely, sustaining generously; a love that seeks salvation.

All we do and all we love then, is shrouded in the mystery and power of such grace, which permeates wounded human nature and transmutes it into its real identity, its godlike image

“For the glory of God is living man … and the life of man is the vision of God”

-St. IrenaeusAgainst the Heresies, Book 4

In her journal, Raïssa Maritain noted that “What must be suppressed, or rather surpassed, are the limits of the heart” (Journal, p. 239). The heart has its limits: selfishness, pride, lust. Once these are surpassed by the mercy and grace lavished on us, we begin to do what the saints have done, and give God permission to infuse the feeble capacity of our love with His purity and His strength. We begin to obey that primary commandant: “Love one another as I have loved you” (Cf. Jn. 13.34) — as He has loved, and as He loves. We obey it by loving with His love, poured out for us, awaiting entry into the boundaries of the heart, and transcending its limits.

This act of the will, this cooperation on our part sets in motion the full efficacy of grace for us. We persevere in love — in chaste love, pure love — because we persevere by grace in His love. Fundamentally, this is an act of faith through which every desire, every thought, every word, every expression of affection and tenderness, every act of love, takes on a radically different identity: a new identity refashioned in purity and in hope, reshaped by the One “Who makes all things new” (Cf. Rev. 21.5).

This is an identity that dispels fear: fear of our own inability to love purely, fear of our own feebleness, fear of betrayal of persons or promises, fear of division, fear of insufficiency, fear of dissatisfaction, fear of failure. It rejects the full allure of the world’s lust, its passionate outcry for pleasure, its standards of erotic extravagance, and offers instead something nobler, more satisfying, and fundamentally true: the kiss of Christ Himself on another soul, placed upon the lips of weary ones, tired of the strain of this world’s salacious demands, fatigued by the mediocrity of its desire, disillusioned by the insufficiency of its proposals, and lacking hope because of all it has taken away.

Through this tenderness, with this delicacy of affection, we restore in one we love the capacity to live according to “The glorious freedom of the children of God” (Cf. Rom. 8.21), free from the corruption of love, the decay of love, the death of love. Through this tenderness, with this delicacy of affection, we offer the very best of ourselves as a sublime offering: we give not what we have, but who we are — we progress in charity by giving another the boundless love that is in us in a habitual way, and so participate in the boundless love of God. Through this tenderness, with this delicacy of affection, we revere the wounds of Christ, manifested on a Cross as wellspring of grace and true love — the wounds of Christ that mark each of the ones refashioned in His image after the pattern of his suffering.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God”

-Matthew, 5.8

“…They shall see God!” This is the indescribable vision that sets the soul at rest as it is nourished by the One who is Love. This is the vision of grace that gives human love flight, and spurs it upwards in supernatural hope. This is the vision of grace which opens the horizon of purity, reveals it possible to live out, and unfolds its delights.

This is the vision of grace that changes a tumultuous search for pleasure and satisfaction into the joy of peace. This is the vision of grace that allows a weary soul enough respite from the exhaustion of wasted love to throw itself headlong into a sea of mercy — to believe enough to seek the consolation of true forgiveness and find real healing. This is the vision of grace that reveals the insufficiency of our love, and begs to suffice in God’s.

Thou hast said, “Seek ye my face.”
    My heart says to thee,
“Thy face, Lord, do I seek.”
  Hide not thy face from me.

-Psalm 27.8-9

Ultimately,  this is what it means to be ‘in love’: to dwell in love’s goodness, in its purity, in its serenity, in its consolation, in its unity, in its peace: to see Love’s face. This is what it means to behold another, and so see not only what rightly pleases — what is good about them in the body, and delight in it — but to behold them as well with purified eyes, to honor them, and see the marvel that God has made: the marvel of their soul.

When we do this, we exercise the fullness of our freedom: a freedom not limited by passion, but liberated by the fullness of our charity that is actualized as it is lavished on another. This is what it means to be fearlessly “in love”, undisturbed by lust or the temptations of the flesh — recurring and assailing as they may be — but relishing in the strength that is given to love fully: to love the goodness of the body and the goodness of the soul, while drawing on the wellspring of boundless hope from within the Heart of God to do so. This is what it means to beg as madly as a lovers would: “Hide not Thy face!” and to behold in another love itself in Love Himself.

We have ancient words for this kind of love and this kind of communion. They are the words of the Canticle of Solomon

“I am my Beloved’s, and my Beloved is mine”

-Canticle of Canticles, 6.3

To be another’s is a definition of our identity and of our existence in God, since “He is before all things, and in him all things subsist” (Col. 1.17). Such are words that tell not of a mere fleshly union of bodies, but reveal who we are as persons, what we can do as persons, what love we are capable of, what communion is possible by grace, what virtue we are called to by nature while we “Groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Cf. Rom. 8.23).

I am my Beloved’s, and my Beloved is mine.

Here is a sovereign harmony that rebels against the unchaste possessiveness of lust, and aspires to a love that is beautiful, pure and true.

Here is a love that begins in the created union between God and His creature, and subsists as communion in the lavish generosity of grace.

Here is a love that “Bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (Cf. 1 Cor. 13.7), and so becomes perfect offering; a love that is the mirror of God’s boundless love for His people.

Here is a cruciform love, received and freely given — love, undefiled.

…Blessed, indeed, are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.


You may reach Maria Grizzetti at IncarnationandModernity@gmail.com