It is a haunting thought that for all the words love speaks, all its languages, the myriad manifestations of its desire for union, its bodily and spiritual components — none of these suffices to express the goodness, the exalted goodness, the true goodness of the thing, of the being it loves.
Purely human love can remain on the level of instinct, of the passions. If it does, it remains shallow. Though expressed with intensity, fervor, even supposed commitment, it lacks depth. But, as with all things that are subject to the transformation of grace, human love can also rise higher.
We speak often of “falling in love”, as though the descent we describe as the act of loving another deeply were something good. A contrast exists, however, for this incomplete vision of human love. What we are actually called to do in the very act of loving another intensely is to begin “rising in love”— the ascent being the ascent of human flesh and of the human will to the likeness of God it is created in, and meant for.
In his writing on the virtue of religion and the charity with which we ought to love God, St. Thomas Aquinas elucidates this reality by comparison and contrast
“The object of love is the good, but the object of honor and reverence is something excellent. Now God’s goodness is communicated to the creature, but the excellence of His goodness is not. Hence the charity whereby God is loved is not distinct from the charity whereby our neighbor is loved, whereas the religion whereby God is honored, is distinct from the virtues whereby we honor our neighbor.”
– St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica II.81.iv
It is here that we see both the difference between love of another person and the love we owe to God – a love distinct from latria, or worship, that constitutes the virtue of religion in its proper expression. Love of neighbor is analogous to what we must arise to: namely, the capacity to grow in what should be the exclusive love of every human heart: the love for God Himself, above all else.
In this distinction we also see the excellence human love is made for. Its capacity to love another, even to “fall in love” with another, is none other than the inroad to true worship of God, “For in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things subsist” (Col 1.16-17).
This is not a division. To love God exclusively — to love Him primarily above all else — is not to betray real human loves. And to love another, as is proper for human beings to do, as we are commanded to do by Christ Himself, is surely not to betray Him. The modern dualistic vision of the human person that divides soul and body has significant ramifications for the way we understand the human capacity to love God above all else and our neighbor as ourselves. But the commandment Christ left us remains a two-fold way to express one love. Christ states clearly “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ […] ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12.30-31).
It is not by accident that the greatest commandment, presented to us in the singular, calls us to love in two ways. Love of God requires the totality of our love. Only a full and undivided love of heart, soul, mind, and strength is the fitting offering, since God is the fullness of love itself. Arriving at this totality of love enables us, then, to love in particular ways, to love particular beings in ways proper to them, to love them in the right order. The capacity of human love for one’s spouse, for one’s family, for intimate friends, must stem from the individual’s capacity to love God unreservedly, for He alone is the origin of the goodness we can love in others, and in Him alone can human love find meaning and become selfless charity.
Remembering this reality simplifies the complexities of human love as it creates an order for often confusing human experiences — experiences both of love and of betrayal. When human relationships flourish, they do so because they are ordered. Charity calls forth in us the capacity to love the true good of the beloved, to desire what is both good for them, and what is true about their life.
This is the deeper sense of what is meant when we say we “love someone for who they are” — for in loving then as they truly are, we love who they are ontologically, with all of their dignity as well as their faults, but also in the truth of who they are called to be. Propelled in and by charity in this way, we realize that to love another as they are is to enter into the profound privilege of loving them into sanctity, thereby protecting what is most beautiful and precious about them, and becoming helpers to them in the pursuit of holiness – for ultimately we are made to be with God, even as presently we can also be truly united with Him.
The greatest commandment requires both dimensions of love from us: love of God above all things, and love of neighbor as another self — and we are capable of this. Whether individually, or through celibate religious consecration, or in the vowed life of holy matrimony, every person is called to love in both ways: to love God exclusively with the totality of mind, heart, soul, and strength, and to love the other as another self.
Often we are tempted to think of this as a theoretical vision that falls short of reality, or perhaps as a paradox that requires an impossible choice between goods. The day-to-day expressions of human love are fraught with struggle, insufficiency, frustration, weakness, doubt, delusion, and betrayal. We do not trust ourselves, and often trust others even less. There is the temptation to think that to love another intensely detracts from God what is firstly and properly His: our undivided heart. Intense love for another seems to cloud our capacity to realize that even the most profound human loves do not compare to the totality of love God lavishes upon us and also requires of us in return. We feel as though we short-change God in the process, we take away what is His.
On deeper reflection, however, this is an incomplete vision of love in which we, being limited beings, do not realize that what we lavish on another in charity is something we have first received ourselves in superabundant grace:“…Of his fullness we all have received, grace for grace” (John 1.16). To truly subsist in God is to realize that the most noble and the greatest acts of human cherishing, of tenderness, of intimate affection and devotion, find their very strength, and authenticity, and fidelity in the life of grace, wherefrom flows all purity, and goodness, and charity. We are required to live in this strong hope, certain that “Everyone who thus hopes in him, purifies himself as he is pure” (1 Jn 3.1).
St. Paul exhorts us clearly: “Seek the things that are above” (Col 3.1). If the grace of charity is received as an infused grace that enables us to love God as He ought to be loved: for His own sake, and to love others in Him, then what we have at our disposal is the limitless love of God Himself. “Falling in love” then takes on a completely different significance, for it is a descent of our humanity, of all of the ways we love as human beings — both physically and spiritually — into the ascent of divinity. Only in this way is human love purified and made whole, as it “falls” into the knowledge of the ascent it is intended for, as it deeply seeks God, and the things that are above, in truth and grace.
The proper flourishing of this kind of love is profound interior reverence. True reverence is reserved for the holy, for what is sacred. Human love must first and foremost revere deeply the truest identity of its beloved. In so doing it enters into the very depths of the sacred mystery of divine love for a fallen humanity. We set our sights on the great love expressed in the Canticle of Canticles: “My beloved is mine, and I am his” (cf. Song of Solomon 2.16)—an all transporting love that is Godly — a love that places us in the very bosom of the Father who sent his Son in the flesh to redeem us in the flesh, and enables us there to find rest from the weariness of the disappointing, unsatisfying loves we often experience in our own lives.
It is there, in the Heart of Christ the Bridegroom, immersed in divine love, that we are asked to stay a while in reverence, in adoration, in communion. Soon, we will know that the heart’s search for human love will not be sated. In this longing we discover that true Love is infinitely greater and infinitely captivating — and that it requires of us a constant pouring forth. In our rational capacity for authentic, selfless human love, we learn that the object of our love — the beloved — is himself or herself the object of God’s infinite love first — is His beloved — and that in loving them we share in this communion, we allow them a share in our own longing for the One who is infinite Love Himself, as we even permit them the privilege of leading us to Him.
Such is the fleshly material of grace — its incarnation. From this standpoint, human love offered and received is equalized, as it seeks the same goods, the same meaning, the same delight, and the same end: God Himself. If, as St. Augustine poignantly reveals, our hearts are restless, then only when they rest in Him will our love find completeness and peace; only in Him will we be able to be truly one body – to be one as He and the Father are one (cf. John 17.21).
We may choose either jealous, possessively selfish love, or transcending, selflessly pure love. In choosing to act in accord with our capacity for pure love, the carnal dimensions of human love-giving are reordered towards the sacred. They acknowledge the very reality of human flesh as created in the image of God, as beautiful and attractive, as redeemed in the Incarnation, and as made for beatitude. In this vision, sustained in faith, the human body takes on in this life a new attraction, a transformed appeal, a semblance of the glory it is made to possess forever in the life to come—the glory of risen life itself.
To love another with this cognizance and conviction is to approach the love of the Holy Trinity, where truest communion denotes the fullest integration of love and truth: selfless love poured out for another, and ascent to the truth of who the other is in and for God.
“In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence.”
Such is the plea of human love made holy. And it is not a far stretch to say that this is the way even Christ “fell in love”—that He offered his very flesh for love and reserved none of it, descending into our humanity, experiencing every agony we know and avoiding no sorrow, with the full knowledge of the redemption his own Body would purchase for us.
The consummation of divine love is Love Incarnate, which, as we pilgrimage through the weariness of our own corporeal affections, becomes the goal of every human heart, and the measure for every human love worthy of the name.
Arriving at this point, no less will satisfy. The loud cry and supplication of the soul that has finally “risen in love” becomes a truly Eucharistic one: “May He make of us a living sacrifice – one body, one spirit, in Him.”
He was heard because of His reverence. This reverence is a specific reverence: a proper ordering that models for us the truth of human love, its way to holiness, and the Life which gives it breath. There seems then to be no other way to truly “rise in love” than to be truly subsumed in Him, going to the altar of sacrifice and making the same living offering of ourselves, that as we live and breathe, we may partake of that reverence which saved the world.