Love is in the air. It is February and the Feast of Saint Valentine is celebrated all over the world. It may have started in France, but most of the stories of its origin go all the way back to the Roman Empire. No one really knows the true beginnings, but we all know the meaning the feast has assumed over the centuries. It is about love.
People who have known love have a lot to say about it. Depending on the circumstances of their lives, it may bring back very sad memories, or it may set one to reminiscing about what might have been or what turned out to be happiness and fulfillment. The fiction shelves in every bookstore are filled with love stories. Arguably, I don’t think there is a more popular fiction theme for readers and novelists than romance. When someone has experienced true love, only then can they write about it with any sort of conviction and plausibility. Love is a best-seller.
However, there are categories, degrees, and various kinds of love. Few people in this world have not, at one time or another, experienced some kind of love. Love is not just . . . love. The one most commonly referred to, replete with hearts and flowers, is eros. That is what I have hinted at thus far.
Before I attempt to delve deeper into the subject of love, I must acknowledge that it is very complex, swampy with meaning, neither easily discussed nor defined. Love cannot be put into neat categories. It cannot be pigeonholed. What I speak of is my take on the subject after reading Scott Peck’s The Road Less Traveled and C. S. Lewis’s popular Christian perspective in The Four Loves.
According to both Peck and Lewis, agape is the epitome of love since it fosters mutual spiritual growth, responding to what is highest and most noble in our human nature. We could summon Saint Francis of Assisi and Saint Claire as exemplars of this kind of love. However, I believe that eros, or erotic love—which is not necessarily superficial and selfish—is the kind that most of us may have experienced, if we are fortunate enough to have known that legitimate dimension of human existence. We may strive for agape, but it demands a maturity that is not where a significant number of people really live their daily lives.
Philia, akin to friendship, is another way of love that Christians strive for in relation to all people, acknowledging the dignity and worth of every individual. Referring to Valentine’s Day, philia does not cut it. Valentine’s Day is definitely framed as a one-on-one thing. It is eros. What other type of love would a secular society build into a popular holiday?
There is a correlation between love and the spiritual life. I use the term “spiritual life” reluctantly. The phrase is overworked and has gotten a bad rap as a result. It smacks of saccharine otherworldliness and turns off too many people who may, in fact, be spiritual but don’t like to be labeled as such.
Perhaps we should talk instead in terms of the “fullness of humanity,” which is the only pathway to true love. Spirituality may be defined as making whole by actualizing potential, according to the mind of God, Creator, Savior, and Sanctifier. It is related to God and is a means to agape, a selfless, all-embracing love, but one that ultimately refers back to God. Think of it as horizontal and vertical, like the cross. (Shall I get bromidic and say it is “Jesus Love”?)
There is something of divinity in every type of love. Of course, agape is pronouncedly a vertical, overt reference to divinity, to God, but it does not stand in isolation. In fact, no kind of love ever stands in isolation. It is all a matter of overlapping and degree. To be overly categorical and academic in our definitions is to do an injustice to the human-divine quality of love.
A person is reaching toward their full potential as a human being according to how love is evolving in their lives. Defining love in terms of eros is, according to my thinking, too much inclined toward physical and personal satisfaction. There is nothing wrong with that. It is love, a legitimate love, but it is confining and not all-encompassing. It may embrace philia and it may also put one on the path toward agape. A deep, authentic love for a person can work miracles of transformation in a person’s life.
The road less traveled toward the divine milieu necessarily starts out with life on this plane, with people and the world all around us. Children are not yet other-centered, but in time and with our cultural adaptation and parental guidance, they gradually learn to see “the other” and are able and willing, eventually, to sacrifice the self for the other, the ultimate gift of self (cf. John 15:13). The less self-centered one becomes, the more actualized one is a person. The more actualized, aware, conscious one becomes, the more they might be called spiritual. It is to obtain a vision that sees through and beyond everything to a unity of all things in the One who is totally Other.
Does owning a religious faith have anything to do with growing into this unselfish and other-centered love? I answer yes, with reservations. I want to express those reservations in the context of the historical moment that the pandemic has imposed upon us. The events of the past year have been an unmitigated threat to our worship as a means of growing our spirits, and for many of us it has happened surreptitiously. With the Lenten season upon us, it is even more pressing that we do some introspection. An explanation is definitely in order.
Although we can be good without God, and acknowledge that grace is universal as many secular humanists believe, religion is the route that we Catholics and other Christians have chosen to find God and discover each other and our world in the process. It illuminates our path ultimately to the love of God, each other, and our environment. That is true agape.
With this in mind and accepted as a basic premise, the greatest threat to a truly spiritual life in the practice of religion is to fall into the trap of simply going through the motions of religion, the habit of religion which presents no challenge, no questioning, no effort, and therefore no growth toward an unselfish other-centeredness. Put simply, it is equivalent to a waste of time.
The virus that has decimated our society as we knew it has unwittingly brought to light the worst sense of religion and the life of worship. For the longest time we have not been able to go to our churches and celebrate the Eucharist and the sacraments as viable, visible, engaged, person-to-person, worshipping communities. True physical community is crushed and fragmented. Our virtual isolation has eviscerated the true intention of communal worship as a means to growing our spirits. It is a mere skeleton of true liturgical life.
A screen-based worship experience is static and lifeless. We have not been able to take part in true liturgical worship in our churches without constriction and restriction. We watch other people pray while we “attend” religious services on television or via Zoom. This, indisputably, is a poor substitute for the real thing, and many people realize that. But for too many Catholics, it has become a satisfying substitute for communal worship and the celebration of the Eucharist. That is a false attitude. What we have been enduring is what I might describe as a necessary negative experience, an unhappy substitute for Eucharistic celebration.
I have one admonition to all Catholics and Christians generally who break bread together: Be conscious of what you are missing and why you ought to be missing it. The sights, sounds, smells, environment, people gathered—the entire liturgy, the sitz im leben, literally translated as the “setting in life”—are all vitally important to growing our spirits and making us whole persons who live and love in the presence of God. They have all been subsumed into a virtual reality, a simulation of reality. The true worship experience cannot be simulated. Most of us know this, but it is worth a reminder as we find that sitting in our living rooms and watching religion on a screen concedes too much to human nature, a nature that tends to follow the path of least resistance.
The list of half-measures and stunted displays of piety and spirituality may go on, and we are not to blame unless we think they’re all okay, unless we find them a satisfying substitute for the real thing. Liturgical life sets us in the direction of all the signs and symbols of God and the spirit that surround us in true worship. We are men and women, human beings, who count mightily on our senses to experience the meaning of what surrounds us and what we aspire to in our worship. Unfortunately, we have been trained to think of our faith in terms of “me and God.” But that is too individuated. The communal aspect, the total environment that feeds our spirits—our fully awake, fully developed human spirits—must be embraced when we come to worship.
There is an irony to how Valentine’s Day and its summons to express love has led us to the altar, spiritual life, embracing the I-Thou bond. When you love someone there is a certain sadness to being apart, to being forced by circumstances to be apart. In wartime there is grief. In times of pandemic, it has been heartbreaking not to be present at the moment of deepest grief, heartrending sadness as a love slips away from earthly life. Love and presence, physical presence, are not meant to be apart. Eucharist, thanksgiving, is about us, together, and not to be apart. ♦
Gene Ciarlo is a priest no longer active in the ministry. Ordained from the American College, University of Louvain, Belgium, he spent most of his ministry in parish life. After receiving a master’s degree in liturgical studies from Notre Dame University he returned to his alma mater in Louvain as director of liturgy and homiletics. Gene lives in Vermont, where everything is gracefully green when it is not solemnly white.