“Here one encounters ‘another self’ not only by seeing in the other a similarity but also because by associating with this other in his or her difference one now has oneself—one now has one’s ‘body’—all the more.”
We all think that we know what love is. Whether we refer to it casually or in earnest, we take what “love” means for granted. I love chocolate. God is love. She loves to dance. We ought to love our fellow man. Jennifer Lopez loves her husband. For that matter, I love my husband too! When, however, we have to say what love is, things are not so simple. Concerning the elusiveness of love’s meaning Paul Evdokimov wrote perceptively, “None of the great thinkers or poets have ever found an answer to the question, ‘What is love?’ . . . If one imprisons the light, it slips through the fingers.”1
If we look at all that we ascribe to love we notice that it is by no means easy to draw it all together. There is affection for things and persons we did not choose, and might not have chosen had we been given a choice: a brother, a great-aunt, or a hand-me-down sweater. On the other hand, we also say we love what is purely a matter of preference or “choice”: cheesecake, red wine, herring with sour cream. There is the emotion, or passion, of love, which arises in us when the sense of some affinity is kindled in us. Love is benevolence (wanting the good) towards one whom we regard as uniquely precious. There is also that vehement or passionate eros, which transports the lover beyond himself and toward Beauty itself (though this sort of love can turn in on itself, becoming a kind of vulgar—demonic—imitation of its elevated form). Finally, there is God’s love (Agape), the Love he is and the Love he has for his creatures, revealed to us in the Son’s Incarnation and Cross.2 And for all of this we insist on using one little word.
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1. The Sacrament of Love (Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1995), 105. Evdokimov echoes Socrates, who, after a long dialogue on friendship, says: “These fellows will say, as they go away, that we suppose we’re one another’s friends—for I also put myself among you—but what he who is a friend is we have not yet been able to discover” (Lysis, 223a).
2. One hardly has to be reminded of C. S. Lewis’ masterful presentations of the different meanings of love in his The Four Loves (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1960).