"The counsels are not only one state of life, they are in some sense the inner meaning of the whole Christian life made explicit. . . . Each state of life, and indeed the entire moral life, must ultimately look to them to see its 'inner form,' even while each retains its integrity as such."
In his The Christian State of Life, Hans Urs von Balthasar makes a crucial claim about the nature of love. After reminding us of the strict necessity of an account of love in arriving at any understanding of the meaning of human existence and activity, that is to say, of the fact that caritatis perfectionem is not only counseled but is strictly commanded, Balthasar goes on to state the following:
As soon as love is truly awakened, the moment of time is transformed for it into a form of eternity. Even erotic egoism cannot forebear swearing “eternal fidelity” and, for a fleeting moment, finding pleasure in actually believing in this eternity. How much more, then, does true love want [will] to outlast time and, for this purpose, to rid itself of its most dangerous enemy, its own freedom of choice. Hence every true love has the inner form of a vow [die innere Form des Gelöbnisses]: It binds itself to the beloved and does so out of motives and in the spirit of love.1
This passage might at first strike us as odd. Of course, we are accustomed to thinking of love in terms of eternity, both in popular and in theological literature.2 Love, it would seem, even love that is in reality all too ephemeral (“erotic egoism”)—precisely in its pretense of eternity and of giving itself entirely—would seem to disclose at least something of the infinite and timeless. We are also accustomed to the idea that love brings about union with another; love bespeaks a desire on the part of lovers to “bind” themselves to one another.3
However, the development of these ideas in the two further claims—viz. (1) that “love has the inner form of a vow,” and (2) that love wants to eliminate “its worst enemy,” freedom of choice—may strike us as more problematic.
The first claim seems to reverse our instinctive sense of the relation between love and vows. Doesn’t Balthasar have it backwards? Wouldn’t it be more accurate to say, after all, that a vow has the inner form of love, at least insofar as the cause of a vow is love? A man and a woman exchange marriage vows because they love each other; a religious takes vows because of his love. Moreover, it seems that a vow is only one possible expression of love. Even were we to grant that vows are the highest expression of love, they are not necessarily the only expression. Rather, love would seem to be the more fundamental (and therefore formative) reality, giving meaning to the possibility of a vow rather than vice versa. To say that something is the “inner form” of something else is to suggest that it makes that something else what it is, gives it its most fundamental character and nature. Thus, if a vow is only one possible expression of love, it cannot be love’s “inner form.” The question, then, is inevitable: Are vows really so very much at the root of love that we would want to call them love’s “inner form”?
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