I’ve been thinking about love recently.
Like so many of the words I may glibly speak or write about when talking among friends, family or in my professional role as priest and therapist, as I get older, I am less certain just what the words mean. I was more certain I understood love when I was young, but then I was certain about almost everything. It’s frankly embarrassing to write this now, but in truth, this what I’m trying to make sense of while living in world driven so by hate.
Let me say first I love my wife and my children. I love my grandchildren and my friends. I used to love sailing. I love writing. I love photography, sunny days at a beach, the pungent smell of marshes and I love black bean soup. For each of these loves, there is a distinctive quality. Some distinctions are more subtle while many differ quantitatively, say, like how loving my wife is much bigger deal than loving black bean soup. My wife is to die for; black bean soup is not.
I’ve noticed how popular music, and country music particularly, deal mostly with romantic love. Millions of these songs permeate the media daily, like a cloud of mosquitoes on hot summer nights.
Preachers talk regularly about love from the pulpit, God’s love. That’s often a hard sell in today’s social milieu where love is almost universally considered a feeling and, more often than not, a feeling with a significant erotic component. God is a kind of abstract notion for many. Then, too, a lot of country music seems exclusively concerned about the love one’s mother ––usually deceased. But who will not love mother who, in the best-case scenario, has tended our every need since the day we were born? To speak of love then is typically to associate it with an emotion, that warm and gratifying feeling that affords us incredible pleasure and delight. There is special love, however, when expressed, feels dreadful. This love can put us in terribly inhospitable places that ask of us what we in fact like least and at times even abhor.
I know people who have loved ones struggling with addictions. They not only suffer with the victims of the addiction, but often are forced to act in loving ways that do not look or feel like love at all: they must set limits on unreasonable demands. It is not easy being firm and strict when you really wish to embrace and to comfort. Loving like this feels heartbreaking and never heartwarming.
In religious spirituality, the ongoing challenge is to live out love as a part of the divine imperative: love my neighbor as myself.
Traditional religious practices frequently offer laws and commandments to follow that will hopefully increase one’s love of God and fellow beings. Other practices prescribe rituals – another way by which men and women can express love collectively. Such practices are designed to assure us that we remain in a right relationship with God and with others.
From the ancient story of Job’s struggle with suffering until today, the wild card in the matter is what role the heart plays in what we say is love.
If love is written on the heart, as spiritual guides have taught for centuries, does that mean it’s mostly a feeling? Or is loving just knowing enough in your head to get things right and so maintain the moral high ground?
For six months, now, we have been well into the pandemic. The country was deeply moved –– I certainly was ––by the outpouring of service to those in need by those who cared and were in a position to render help. I would call this real love, most obviously visible then in those individuals in the medical and other service communities, some people with only humble abilities and others highly skilled and trained. “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his/her friends.”
Medical personnel have been and remain at great risk to themselves and their families and yet they serve others selflessly. I am sure they are often scared. They must feel vulnerable. I have wondered whether they are enabled by a sense of duty or perhaps by some kind of moral prescription. I imagine it’s a combination of the mind and the heart. This selfless outpouring of essential goodness is being offered daily by people who combine moral sensitivity with a feeling of compassion, that peculiar feeling we can have for, as well as with, those around us who are vulnerable and suffering.
In a great Christian spiritual classic, St. Teresa of Avila writes about love. I was surprised in one writing to see the word, normally used as a noun, coined as a verb. She says we “compassionate” others; I believe this “compassionating” is what I have been witnessing during the pandemic as thousands of people have “compassionated” others during the pandemic. To observe it is uplifting, but for those “compassionating” it involves grueling and taxing moments. Love, the real thing, demands perseverance and endurance.
St. Paul, in his timeless description of love’s characteristics, writes how love is patient. It’s not envious, nor does it boast or is it prideful. Love isn’t easily angered and doesn’t keep score. Love likes truth. It’s instinctively protective, trusting, hopeful and persevering. Sounds wonderful to me. When I can actually see love like this played out in real life as I have in recent months –– even during this time of great suffering –– it makes everything that can get so bad seem more endurable.
My heart is often lifted these days, not by any surfeit of love I may have in my heart, but by the love that others have in theirs. Those are the people who, at the end of the day, will save us all.
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.