True Love and Willing the Good: Is Love Kind and Patient?

An examination of the synonyms of love found in Roget’s Thesaurus provide an entry into today’s second reading, Saint Paul’s mini-treatise on love;[1]

appetite, favour, liking, partiality, preference, taste, craving, crush, desire, infatuation, longing, lust, yearning, ardour, eagerness, enthusiasm, fervour, zeal, esteem, regard, respect, adoration, idolatry, worship, allegiance, fealty, fidelity, loyalty.[2]

Which of these, would you say, best corresponds to Saint Paul’s depiction of love? Many of them can be immediately eliminated, such as crush, infatuation and lust; in fact, none of them quite fits, for the one thing Paul is not describing is romantic love.  Consequently, popular as it may be for reading at weddings, that text is not well suited to the ceremony. Think of an ideal marriage, such as the one described by Evelyn Waugh in his novel Men at Arms. The grandparents of the hero, Gervase and Hermione Crouchback, on their honeymoon are innocent, inexperienced, unsure, apprehensive and thrilled all at once. 1 Corinthians 13 does not describe them: “Love is patient,” but they are impatient; “Love is kind. It is not jealous, it is not pompous, it is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests. . . .” Of course it is none of those things for them, then; but these statements are irrelevant, describing characteristics that were, then, at least, well below the horizon for the young couple.

What Saint Paul is describing is another sort of love altogether, a disinterested, generous, love that spans all creation and includes even God the creator. Robert Frost, in The Death of the Hired Man, points to it when the farmwife tells her husband that the ne’er-do-well occasional worker has come home to them. “Home?”, her husband asks, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there,/They have to take you in.” She replies, “I should have called it/Something you somehow haven’t to deserve.’[3] Undeserved love: that is what Saint Paul is describing. And it is universal, including even, in some analogous sense, animals, as in the love of a dog for its master: “It does not brood over injury, bears all things, hopes all things, endures all things . . ..” An instance of such love occurs in the closing pages of Oliver Twist, in a passage that Dickens performed with electrifying results on his reading tours of Great Britain in the 1860s. The villainous Bill Sikes has a much-abused dog, Bull’s-eye, that is loyal literally to the death. To be fanciful, one could even find an indication of this love in plants. When I lived in Houston Texas, there was a lemon tree in the house garden. It was dying, but in its final year it produced a huge crop of lemons as a sort of parting gift, so that we need never be without lemons. All these reflect in their partial way God’s love for the unlovable: “But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.[4] Saint John goes on to say that God’s love is the model we should imitate. “Beloved, if God so loves us, we also ought to love one another.[5] In so speaking, he is echoing the Sermon on the Mount:

But I say to you, “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you,” so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? . . . You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.[6]

These are texts to ponder: we are able genuinely to love because God loved us first. Saint Paul is speaking of a religious love, what in older versions was termed “charity.” Hence, at the close of the passage, he puts love in its authentic, religious setting: “Love never ends; as for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away.”[7]

But how can we be expected to love the unlovable? It can be done only when love is recognized as being, not an emotion but an act of the will which is ordered to the good of the other person. Therefore, I love someone when I will what is good for him, as I love myself when I will what is good for me. The ultimate good is the beatific vision. Hence, I love my enemies by willing for them what I will for my parents, my friends, my benefactors – namely, eternal life. In wanting it for them and myself, I shall also want them, and me, to have the means to obtain it, which is primarily faith in Jesus Christ and its consequence—the practice of virtue. It follows that for us sinners the first step in the path of holiness will be repentance. This fact allows us to love even terrorists, serial killers, abortionists, et alii, in that we are called upon to pray for their repentance and ultimate salvation. Many saints have fostered a concern for such hard cases, Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, being one, who prayed for and won the soul of the murderer Henri Pranzini, executed on 31 August 1887. Carmelites take vicarious suffering as expiation for unrepentant sinners as an element of their vocation, translating into fact Saint Paul’s tremendous statement, “I make up in my body what is wanting to the sufferings of Christ.”[8] But I call a halt here, for to pursue the matter further would require another sermon.

[1] 1 Cor 12.31-13.13.

[2] Remarkable by their absence from the list are affection, friendship and, especially, charity.

[3] Robert Frost, The Death of the Hired Man.

[4] Rom 5.8. Cf. 1 Jn 4.10: “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins.”

[5] 1 Jn 4.11.

[6] Matt 5.44-48.

[7] 1 Cor 13.8.

[8] Col 1.24.