On this Valentine’s Day in this time of Duterte and Trump, with trolling and fake news trending and Jollibee advertisements invoking bittersweet romance in our hearts, a review of the basics of love might be helpful.
In her essay “Eros and Agape,” Alice von Hilderbrand summarized the traditional Catholic teaching about love, which distinguishes between natural” love (eros) and “supernatural” love (agape). For this philosopher and theologian, “Christian literature usually refers to natural loves, such as the love between spouses, love for one’s children, love for one’s parents, love between siblings, love between friends. Agape, that is supernatural love, is limited to love of God and love of neighbor.”
When we fall in love, explains von Hildebrand, we clearly perceive the beauty, charm, lovableness, and uniqueness of the person who touches our heart. There elicits in us a response of “enchantment,” explained this way: “The beloved one delights us, just as we are delighted by the perception of a grand sunset or of sublime music, with the crucial difference that in the latter cases, the beauty is impersonal. In spousal love, the loved one is a person and therefore does not only possess a much higher metaphysical dignity but can return our love.”
Another dimension of eros is reciprocity. As explained by von Hildebrand, natural love longs for this: “Our heart is touched by the beloved, and we wish and hope that he will reciprocate our love. If love is not reciprocated, we experience deep bitterness. Our love is accepted, but we are not loved in return.”
A reciprocated love elicits joy. For most people, a reciprocated human love is in fact identified with earthly happiness. Thus von Hildebrand cites the example of a lawyer who finds out that the girl he loves also loves him in return. The young man exclaims, “But from now on my law practice is no longer important!” Indeed, von Hildebrand observes, “Those of us not totally poisoned by the shallow materialism pervading our society know that earthly success will never satisfy the longing God has placed in our hearts. We are made for love.”
As beautiful though as earthly love is, to love, in the sense of eros, is not morally obligatory. For von Hildebrand, human beings have no obligation to fall in love despite its being one of the greatest experiences of human life.
This is what distinguishes eros from agape for this Catholic thinker. In “supernatural love, “we are not responding to a particular individuality of a person but to his dignity as a person, as imago Dei.” Each person is a child of God, “created by him, loved by him.” Christ is our Messiah who died for every one of us: “No one is excluded, even though man can choose to exclude himself.”
According to von Hildebrand “In agape, we need not perceive the beauty of the neighbor whom we embrace in our love, for we know in faith that he deserves our love, even though this lovableness can be totally hidden from our sight. When he kissed a leper, St. Francis of Assisi was kissing Christ in him. Leprosy is not lovable. This was physical leprosy. Spiritual leprosy is infinitely worse because one is responsible for it. Yet, the greatest criminal, be it a Stalin or a Hitler, as long as he is alive, deserves our prayers, which express our concern for his true welfare: to turn back to God.”
While eros, i.e. reciprocated natural love, is a condition for happiness, it is not the case with agape, the Christian love of neighbor. This is emphasized by von Hildebrandt: “There, my own earthly happiness does not depend on how or whether my neighbor responds to my love, but, instead, on whether he too will learn to share in Christ’s love for others. Further, in love of neighbor there is no self-revelation, no desire to open oneself up to him. This self-revelation is only justified when a true love between man and woman (eros) has been reciprocated.”
While eros is exclusive and limited to an individual person, this is the case in love of neighbor. The latter is not exclusive. Per von Hilderband, such love “can be directed to anybody, black or white, man or woman, stranger or acquaintance, old or young, born or unborn”, and finds “its sublime expression in Christ’s response to the man who said, ‘Who is my neighbor?’ in the parable of the Good Samaritan.”
Comparing eros and agape, von Hildebrand says that the latter is superior to the former: “The superiority of love of neighbor over natural love is to be explained by its supernatural quality, in its partaking in Christ’s love for our neighbor. Its virtue resides in its supernatural nature. By its very essence, this love is pure because it has its source in God’s love.” Thus it is essential for Christians to aim and work, with God’s grace of course, to transform all our natural loves into supernatural ones, “and then enabling them to exude the perfume of holiness”. “By so doing, spousal love would not only preserve its ardor and enchantment, but it would also fulfill all its potential purified of human faults and imperfections,” von Hildebrand concludes.
In sum, eros must also transform into agape for the former to become perfect and complete. This is why, according to a passage attributed to Venerable Fr. Padre Arruppe SJ, “Nothing is more practical than finding God, than falling in Love in a quite absolute, final way. What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination, will affect everything. It will decide what will get you out of bed in the morning, what you do with your evenings, how you spend your weekends, what you read, whom you know, what breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude. Fall in Love, stay in love, and it will decide everything.”
Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone!
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