Interesting how two big holidays this time of year are named after saints. As we travel in time from St. Nicolas day to St. Valentines day it might serve us well to reflect on that mysterious and often elusive four letter word. You know, the L-word; the other four letter word in the English language so often repeated. But what really is love? What does it mean?
The problem we have here is that we speak English. Love means many things in English: You can love your wife, your dog, your shoes, oak trees, chocolate, the color red, etc.
In the ancient biblical Greek there were three words for what our word love encompasses: philia, eros, and agape. Philia means a friendship kind of love (hence Philadelphia is coined the city of brotherly love). Eros is an attraction type of love, named after the son of the Greek goddess Aphrodite and the Roman goddess Venus, both of whom were their cultures mythological goddesses of love. Agape is a selfless sacrificial love. Another Greek word, Pornea, was used in scripture when speaking of sexual sin. We find its root in Englishs pornography, for example.
This word did not mean love, but its opposite; the difference between agape and pornea is the difference between love and the other popular four letter word in English. So in Greek you can philia those you are close to, you can eros a lover, and you are called to agape everyone.
Eros conjures up the emotions and many popular songs and romance novels are centered around it. It also awakens the libido, and creates desire for the other. Agape is the love that Christ speaks of when He commands us to love our neighbor, and the love manifests on the cross as a sign of His agape to mankind. A mother waking up at three in the morning to change her babys diaper is also agape. A man giving up his seat on the bus to an elderly woman, and a soldier going to war for the purpose of protecting his country is agape. Mrs. Christopher Reeve publicly illustrated agape for years after her supermans accident.
NYCs firefighters who risked their lives on 9/11 did so too.
Philia and eros are to a certain degree conditional. If a friend deliberately and unrepentantly brings you serious harm, they often do not remain your friend. If one that you are head-over-heels in love with reveals their dark side, becomes fat, bald, or disfigured, often eros love begins to dissolve.
Yet, when philia and eros dissipate, even when they may be replaced with anger or hurt, agape, whose essence is good will, remains.
People that harm us do not conjure up in us good feelings, but agape goes beyond feelings to the higher part of human nature; it is an act of the will, an unconditional and permanent commitment to the good of the other. It is an attitude that also demands deeds when appropriate. Loving our enemy as Christ calls us to do would be impossible and make no sense without agape.
There is one constant about our fallen human nature, and that is that people will (now and then) let you down. While philia and eros have no room for other peoples faults and weaknesses, agape does. It is a constant and in its purest form has absolutely no self-interest. How many of us hope Osama bin Laden sincerely repents and ends up in heaven? How about the person who just harmed you or broke your heart? This is what agape allows us to do, possible only with Gods grace.
However, this good will can take on many forms, depending on the object of agape, and it doesnt necessarily exclude punishment. Tough agape (i.e. tough love) often demands that punishment be justly administered. At other times, such as with a chronic abuser, agape is best practiced at a distance. Agape doesnt eradicate justice, but rises above it.
It doesnt abrogate punishment, but hopes that through it a person will see their errant ways and repent. Agape isnt wimpy, but is strong and courageous in caring about (loving) the sinner while hating their sin. Agape never ignores evil, but confronts it. Agape cares about the destiny of every person, especially their eternal destiny.
Yet agape always respect the free will others. Ultimately the decision to seek the truth and achieve happiness is up to each individual to accept or reject. If that were not the case there would be no hell.
St. Valentine himself is said to be a 3rd century Christian martyr who died in a Roman prison. Theres nothing romantic about that. Today we celebrate his day with flowers, chocolates, and fluffy Hallmark cards.
We celebrate eros on Valentines Day when honoring St. Valentine would call for us celebrating agape. Todays divorce rate illustrates our societys over-emphasis on eros, the emotional dimension of love. When it fades so often does ones commitment.
The physical and emotional
aspects of love are good and natural, but only if they
are subjugated to the very essence of love which is
Unfortunately contemporary western culture has lost sight of this important truth and sells love as primarily the fulfillment of ones desires rather than a dying of the self for the sake of the other. This very common mistake of replacing agape with eros as the primary essence of love inevitably results in heartbreak, divorce, and a lifetime of psychological damage. Psychotherapists have made a good living from this tragic error of contemporary times.
If eros were loves primary value then dumping ones wife of 20 years to take up with the sexy young secretary would make perfect sense. It is of the higher nature of man, that which is meant to govern the emotions and desires according to the true and good, where agape operates.
On February 14th let us celebrate
love as the martyr St. Valentine lived it. Better yet,
Valentine would probably be happier to see us practice it
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|Proior Columns by Paul Murano|