September 26, 2017 Jacob Bottom

Theological Virtue: Love

by Jonathan Clark

English is a beautiful, poetic, and strange language. Most people who care about such things say the English vocabulary is the largest in the world; and yet, despite this lingual depth, many of the commonest English words are imbued with inherent ambiguity. There is probably no better example of this than the word love. Case in point: I can, with equal passion and fervor, say in one breath that I love a good hamburger, with the next that I love my wife with all my heart, and be telling the absolute truth in both instances. And what an oddity it is that “love” should be so ambiguously defined, for it’s love that lies at the very heart of our civilization, both sacred and secular. But, as one might expect, while the same word is used, its meaning could not be more different.

Deus Caritas Est

The Roman Catholic Church defines love (or charity, as they would call it) as “the theological virtue by which we love God above all things for his own sake, and our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God.” Like the other theological virtues, love is a grace divinely imparted to us by God, and it requires an act of will on our part. In other words, God gives us love, but it’s incumbent on us to return it—not only to Him, but also to our fellow man. And like the love God bestows on us, there’s no upper limit to the love we’re to bestow on God and our neighbors. Indeed, as is and has been the case with so many of our brethren, the love we are called to give may require our lives.

As Christians, we have in Jesus Christ the perfect model of the theological virtue of love. While on this earth, he loved the Father by obeying Him and fulfilling His purpose; he loved us by dying on a cross. And his followers have been tracing his steps ever since. From St. Teresa of Calcutta, to volunteers at Our Daily Bread, to the brothers and sisters martyred by ISIS, our modern world is replete with examples of Christians living out the virtue of love and bestowing it upon both God and man.

From Jesus to John Lennon

Contrast the above to the more common, secular notion of love. The vast preponderance of secular thought devoted to love is relegated to the sphere of romance. It’s variously thought of as a gift from “the Universe”, the result of a chemical reaction in our brains, or the unfortunate by-product of a hookup. Apparently it’s all you need, but it’s also something to fear and an easy target for cynicism. Mostly, though, love is a very nice feeling, but one that inevitably fades with time.

Perhaps that analysis is a bit uncharitable. However, even if it is, a pattern emerges: love—in the general, secular conception—is a force that exerts influence upon people. The feeler feels love, they do not do love. Sure, feelings of love may prompt a lover to virtuous acts and romantic deeds, but that often holds only so long as the lover has feelings of love. After that, all bets are off.

I do not think it means what he thinks it means

To Hellboy and Back

In Hellboy II: The Golden Army, the titular hero says, when speaking about his significant other, “I would give my life for her…but she also wants me to do the dishes.” Many people, myself included, frequently find themselves in a similar conundrum. It’s easier to envision a heroic sacrifice—a last stand for love, often with explosions in the background—than actually pausing Netflix to take out the recycling. Sometimes the virtue of love requires the heroic sacrifice, but more often than not I suspect we practice the virtue of love through mundane acts of loving kindness and service.

So, use your gifts to God’s service. Pray daily and think on Him. Don’t blow off the people that exasperate you most. Be kind to the lowly and exalted alike. Take a moment to help someone if you see they need a hand. Be a good neighbor. It may be that love will require you to go to unimaginable lengths. But it’s just as likely love will ask you to do the dishes.