By Cardinal Justin Rigali

During the next few days, we will be hearing a great deal about the celebration of Valentine’s Day. Indeed, it seems that no sooner had Christmas passed than the retail world was reminding us that Valentine’s Day was approaching. Let us use this as an opportunity to reflect on the gift of human love, which God has implanted within our hearts.

It is unfortunate that, in common understanding, the gift of human love is sometimes separated from its true source: the God who made us in such a marvelous fashion. In some way, we think, or are tempted to think that love is a “human” characteristic that cannot possibly have anything to do with God. In this fashion, we create a dichotomy between the God who has placed the ability to love within our own hearts and minds as a part of our being made in His image and likeness and the love we all yearn to experience in this life. Nothing could be further from the truth. In the Psalms we read: “You formed my inmost being; you knit me in my mother’s womb. I praise you, so wonderfully you made me; wonderful are your works” (Psalm 139:13-14).

Pope Benedict’s Encyclical on love
A number of commentators were surprised when Pope Benedict XVI wrote his first Encyclical on the subject of love, Deus Caritas Est, “God is love.” It should have come as no surprise because love is the foundation of the Christian message: “God is love and he who abides in love abides in God and God abides in him” (1 John 4:16). These are the opening words of Pope Benedict’s Encyclical and they are the summary of the Christian faith. However, do we view human love as somehow being different from God’s love? Do we view our need for love and our ability to give love as being a human need which is somehow inferior to the concept of love Saint John describes in his first letter?

Although I have written about Pope Benedict’s Encyclical before, I would like to quote a basic concept from it this week, because it answers the question I have just posed. In putting the subject of love in its proper context and setting forth an explanation of it, the Holy Father describes the two kinds of love that philosophers speak of: eros and agape.

Eros was the Greek god of love and desire. This word was also used in mythology as a noun, referring to a passionate desire. When you see images of a winged figure with an arrow, especially common near Valentine’s Day, you are looking at a popular image of the pagan god Eros. The Romans adopted this false god and referred to him as Cupid, a name which you may be more familiar with. The concept of eros itself is not necessarily wrong but it can be understood in an incorrect manner. In fact, many of the popularized concepts of “love” that are presented to us, especially those portrayed in the modern forms of media, are presented as completely sensual and very often a particularly selfish form of eros.

The situation gets more troublesome if we content ourselves with this vision of love and not realize that we are called to something higher and much more intense than this momentary, passionate experience of love. Those aspects have their place but they do not include the entire vision of human love.

Someone once told me of a conversation he had with a friend about a mutual acquaintance of theirs. The topic was some of the unfortunate characteristics of this acquaintance. The friend, in a feeble effort to defend what was really indefensible said: “Well, that’s the way he is.” To which the other responded: “Well, that’s not the way he should be!” The point is that just because we are overwhelmed with this incomplete and distorted image of love doesn’t mean that it represents the truth and it doesn’t mean that we should surrender powerlessly to this inadequate understanding of how we are to view human love. Pope Benedict reminds us that the concept of eros needs to be purified by another, Christian concept of love which is called agape.

Purifying an inadequate view of human love
It is interesting to note that the New Testament does not make use of the word eros at all to describe love but instead uses the word agape, which is defined as being a purified, selfless love. This is yet another area in which the Gospel leads us into the deeper reality of a concept so that we may fully appreciate it as it was intended. Remember that Jesus says: “I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17). If we merely accept as the only reality the limited concept of love that is presented to us at every turn, we surrender to an inadequate and, ultimately unfulfilling definition of human love. We in effect say: “That’s just the way it is.” Jesus tells us: “That’s not the way it should be.”

Pope Benedict writes: “The contemporary way of exalting the body is deceptive. Eros, reduced to pure ‘sex,’ has become a commodity, a mere ‘thing’ to be bought and sold, or rather, man himself becomes a commodity. This is hardly man’s great ‘yes’ to the body. On the contrary, he now considers his body and his sexuality as the purely material part of himself, to be used and exploited at will. Nor does he see it as an arena for the exercise of his freedom, but as a mere object that he attempts, as he pleases, to make both enjoyable and harmless. Here we are actually dealing with a debasement of the human body: no longer is it integrated into our overall existential freedom; no longer is it a vital expression of our whole being, but it is more or less relegated to the purely biological sphere” (Deus Caritas Est, 5).

Pope John Paul II, in his extensive teaching on what is called the Theology of the Body, reminds us that true love can only be sustained and flourish when we master our selfishness and purify our love. This is the image found in the Gospels and it is the image Pope Benedict presented in his Encyclical. The intention is not to ignore or give no value to the concept of eros but to purify it with the profound understanding of the depth of the human person. Pope Benedict teaches: “Fundamentally, ‘love’ is a single reality, but with different dimensions; at different times, one or other dimension may emerge more clearly. Yet when the two dimensions are totally cut off from one another, the result is a caricature or at least an impoverished form of love. And we have also seen … that biblical faith does not set up a parallel universe, or one opposed to that primordial human phenomenon which is love, but rather accepts the whole man; it intervenes in his search for love in order to purify it and to reveal new dimensions of it. This newness of biblical faith is shown chiefly in two elements which deserve to be highlighted: the image of God and the image of man” (Deus Caritas Est, 8).

It would be most unfortunate for us to think that the Christian concept of love does not allow for pleasure and human happiness. The idea of a full understanding of love is to not stop at mere pleasure, which will always be fleeting and never bring a lasting happiness or fulfillment, but to purify our desires with a mastery over ourselves.

When love recognizes the dignity of the other, it will willingly sacrifice for that person and when love is seen as something beyond momentary pleasure, which certainly has its place, that love will be long-lasting and fulfilling. You may experience this in your own lives right now, or you may see it in the lives of people you admire.

On the other hand, empty “love,” which seeks only momentary pleasure and a fulfillment of a shallow sense of desire, ultimately leads to loneliness and a constant sense of searching for something that can never be found. We unfortunately see the tragic effects of this erroneous understanding of love all around us.

Jesus has paid us the compliment of leading us into the truth, not only about Himself but also about ourselves. He teaches us that love is to be turned outwards in a spirit of unselfish giving and not merely inwards in a constant search for momentary pleasure. In our understanding of this marvelous ability to love that has been placed within our hearts at our creation, let us ask Him for the gift of exercising this love in a purified, unselfish manner so that it may bring us the true fulfillment of our human yearnings.

12 February 2009