Emmitsburg Council of Churches

Love Divine/Love Excelling Part 2

Father John J. Lombardi

You have choice in love matters, and films in particular, between the examples of "Titanic" and "The Passion of the Christ." The blockbuster movie "Titanic" represents eros and, well, "steamy love," R-rated, mind you; while "The Passion" represents the agape-sacrificial love of the Savior Jesus Christ.

These films are perhaps "touchstones" for our times. Pope Benedict, in his new Encyclical-Letter (the highest teaching of a Pope) which we are reviewing these weeks, discusses and discerns both kinds of love-eros and agape-emotional and sacrificial love. We need both, the Pope says, but in the right balance. In essence, we may sum up the Encyclical-our hearts must be tempered by our heads, our passions by our intellect, our driving-emotions by virtue.

There is no shortage of love today, but perhaps there is a shortage of the right kind of love-passionate love tempered by sacrificial-selflessness--the heart balanced by the head, the passions harmonized by the intellect. This is one of Pope Benedict's' main points in his Encyclical Letter.

In our modern world there are, though, opposites of love, seeming "black holes" of "un-love," devoid of virtue and sacrifice. In Berlin, Germany, for instance, there is a movement to construct a "Topography of Terror," a museum where the Gestapo of Nazi Germany had its headquarters. It is proposed to be built to remind people of terror and hatred. We need the reminder, people there say. Also, last week saw an Islamic cleric in London convicted of spreading racial and religious hatred, leading to violence by some who heard his sermons. And perhaps you saw news of growing violence by some Muslims over the Danish political cartoons portraying the prophet Mohammed with a bomb. All these are instances of lack of love, of hatred, of passions unfiltered by virtue and truth--the opposite of God’s purposes for mankind, i.e., we can really go off track from love.

In the Gospel this Sunday (Mk 1:40-45) we see the compassionate Jesus Christ reaching out to a leper and healing him. This was a direct “crossing of the railroad tracks” of the Scribes’ and Pharisees’ desire to limit love and sequester souls into “untouchables” and thereby limit agape-love. Christ shows us True Love. It is sacrificial and sacred, giving of oneself and actually, a going-out-of-oneself to the “other”—a stretching of the comfortable containers of self to liberate the soul into sacrificial death. This, too, is Pope Benedict’s point: Love’s purpose is to help others, not treat them as objects or reject or neglect them. We often have to choose this form of love—it does not come naturally. Rather, agape-love is supernatural: “The way we came to know love is this, that He (Jesus) laid down His life for us and we ought to do the same for one another” (I Jn. 3:16). When we sacrifice we participate in God’s Love; we cannot invent love but rather partake of it.

We all have a choice, then, between True (selfless) Love and false, selfish love. Blessed Damien of Molokai, the “Leper Priest,” chose the Way of Christ–will you? Blessed Damien left his native Belgium and went to Hawaii to help the poor there, and then went further. He volunteered to live with and minister to the leprous persons on the Hawaiian island. He later contracted the dreaded disease of leprosy and died from it. Blessed Damien shows that True Love transcends time and space. Love was meant not only for Palestine and Jesus’ time, but for all places and times. When we imitate the Savior, we partake of, tap into, God’s Love which is always awaiting us to commune with and extend.
Let us now study Pope Benedict’s words on love from his Encyclical, a gift to the Church and all people. The Pope’s words below are in italics and quotes, and following the ellipsis (….) are this Chaplain’s comments.

"Song of Songs. In this context it is highly instructive to note that in the course of the book two different Hebrew words are used to indicate "love." First there is the word dodim, a plural form suggesting a love that is still insecure, indeterminate and searching. No longer is it self-seeking, a sinking in the intoxication of happiness; instead it seeks the good of the beloved: it becomes renunciation and it is ready, and even willing, for sacrifice."…Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati (1901-1925) who was born to unbelieving parents chose and embraced heroic Faith. Nonetheless, in Christ Jesus and His Church, Pier Girogio (a nice name, eh?) loved the sacraments, prayed the Rosary on his knees before bed, adored the Blessed Sacrament, and gave of his time, talent and treasure to the poor, sick and dying of Turin, Italy (joining a St Vincent DePaul group) and eventually died of polio early in life. He often gave his money to the poor and even, literally, the coat off his back. His father scolded him for giving away his coat in below-zero weather. Pier Girogio's no-brainer-saintly reply: "But papa, it was cold." Yes: love gives away. He gave his money away-what money he did have. Once he was asked why he traveled third class on trains. His reply: "Because there is no fourth class." He was a wise guy-in more ways than one! On his deathbed he scribbled a note to help a poor man receive his medical prescription. True Love thinks of the other. He was always thinking of others-willing to sacrifice for them. This is what saints do It is somewhat easy to love those who love us-our family and friends-but more difficult to love those we do not know. And still more difficult to love those who cannot repay us or who have diseases and who may "threaten" us in some way. The saint is one who imitates and partakes of Christ in sacrificial love. Will you follow Him-and the saints?

"This in turn led us to consider two fundamental words: eros, as a term to indicate "worldly" love and agape, referring to love grounded in and shaped by faith. The two notions are often contrasted as "ascending" love and "descending" love. There are other, similar classifications, such as the distinction between possessive love and oblative love (amor concupiscentiae - amor benevolentiae), to which is sometimes also added love that seeks its own advantage."…In older Catholic rituals, when the priest put incense upon the burning coal, he used to pray that the incense be immolated by the burning fire-and thereby instill inspiration in the priest (and worshippers) to be annihilated into God-likeness-a losing of self-so as to become more like Christ Who is the Supreme Holocaust. This is called oblative love-the giving of one's very self, not just part, but all of one's being for "the other". You can do this in marriage, in helping others, in sacrificing time, or talent or treasure for your church or another person. Will you? Think of Blesseds Damien and Pier Giorgio. Let go of self into selflessness and imitate the Master!

"Yet eros and agape-ascending love and descending love-can never be completely separated. He (a holy author) tells us that the good pastor must be rooted in contemplation."…Contemplation may mean deep identification with Christ the Ultimate Lover (not superficial come-and-go emotionalism), thru more pure and pristine prayer. This giving of the soul into God's Love helps the disciple leave self-comforts and autonomous identity and enter into service to others-the poor, the community, the world. St Thomas Aquinas describes "containers of self" which imprison us but, when attracted by the Beloved-God-we are freed from these shackles of (false) self into Union with God-and others. We cannot do this by ourselves but, thru contemplation-God acting upon us-we can be freed. We must pray for this grace, i.e., Lots of prayer, Lots of liberating Love burning us away into selfless love of God and others. Are you praying?

"God loves, and his love may certainly be called eros, yet it is also totally agape" …Within God Himself, the Pope wisely says, are found both kinds of love, passionate and sacrificial love: they are in Him perfectly balanced-a kind of seeking love (eros) and selfless (agape) love. He is both the "Hound of Heaven" and Pierced Heart. Are you always seeking love in your life to the point of selfishness? How can you balance this with sacrificial love which is selfless and actually desires to help others?

"But this union is no mere fusion, a sinking in the nameless ocean of the Divine; it is a unity which creates love, a unity in which both God and man remain themselves and yet become fully one. As Saint Paul says: "He who is united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him" (1 Cor 6:17)…While we seek, and hopefully embrace, a Union with God, we do not become God Himself. He is, always remains, the Creator, and we, creatures. Pantheism is the false teaching that we actually become God (which is pervasive in the East and New Age spiritualities, which we should guard against). No, God remains God the Creator and we are His creatures, but we do become one spirit with God if we lose self and offer our whole soul to Him to be transformed. The mystics of our Catholic Faith-like Saints John of the Cross, Catherine of Siena, Augustine, etc. Teach this wisely and pervasively; explore your Faith to be led to Union with God and your brothers and sisters, just as the saints show us.

"While the biblical narrative does not speak of punishment, the idea is certainly present that man is somehow incomplete, driven by nature to seek in another the part that can make him whole, the idea that only in communion with the opposite sex can he become "complete"….We humans are "Driven by nature," i.e, it's in our blood to seek out a "mate" and "become one flesh" with that person. We can do this legitimately, purely-thru chaste love, or illegitimately, thru impure love (fornication, adultery, lust, etc). Today's world is neglecting or rejecting the "form" of love, that is, that love actually has an external shape and character in which it finds fulfillment and expresses itself. Marriage is the only form of expressed sexual, erotic love, because this is both the safe and sacred form of it given us by God (based upon Gn. ch's 1-3). Today though, people and groups are trying to change this sacred from by legitimizing same sex unions, pornography, and homosexual and heterosexual aberrations of various kinds. Just last year Spain legalized such unions, and recently Canada and Massachusetts. When man replaces God's Rule and Plan there will more harm and hurt. We all need to be aware of turning sexuality into what Pope Benedict calls a "commodification"-using another person for one's selfish whims: the heart overcomes the head; the passions derail the virtues. Cohabitation is also on the rise, and this threatens individuals, families and genuine sexuality. Catholics can do better! And all sinners can overcome any manipulation of passions by agape love-sacrificing and attuning human eros with God's Pathos. We Catholics must help those who may not know divine or authentic human love. This takes love: See two weeks for more commentary… Remember: Love is Divine, and Love excels…

Read other reflections by Father John J. Lombardi