I guess love is sort of a banal idea. I discovered that in grad school, where it was the hip thing to find the “secret teaching” in the great books: of course Antony and Cleopatra could not possibly be about human passion! How very 2000 years ago. No, it must be about the need of the Republic for a leader who is willing to count down to line 15 and invert the central word and unite the kingdom, or something or other. At age 22 that sort of thing is thrilling because counting down to line 15 is not something in whch the hoi polloi like to indulge. Love, though? Bah, even peasants do that. So our lofty tomes could not possibly be about anything so simple.
But then you remember that even after thousands of years and thousands of books and thousands of broken hearts, love is still sort of a primary datum: it does not need to be reducible to anything else, it just is. History may have worn down its edges, but in every human heart it always comes about fresh. And that’s why stories still can be made about it: the same old thing, but cast as totally new, in a different time and place. Love is still one of the primary motive forces behind great or terrible actions. It is still something you can write a story about.
Counting down to line 15 and inverting the word, not so much.
I run into this same sort of snobbery when it comes to Christ’s commandment that we love one another. What does this commandment mean, we ask? Well, that seems fairly self-evident, I think. Again, love is a primary datum….when someone looks at you with love, acts towards you with love, you know it. Whether it is a case of someone stopping and asking “how are you?” and meaning it – or someone stopping by with a meal when you’ve just had a baby – or someone seeing that you’ve made a mistake, and that you are feeling shitty about it, and saying “hey, it’s okay.”
Oh, but that is all so soppy. It can’t be that easy, can it? I mean, if it is that easy then dumb people and atheists and drunks can do it too.
Why yes, yes they can. But it is not really easy. Being kind takes a lot of work; going out of one’s way to help someone else can be a pain in the ass. Forgiveness is a bitch.
It’s intellectually easy, though: you don’t need to have access to some special formula to pull it off. You don’t have to belong to the special in-club of people who have it right and are battling to save the world, even though the world just doesn’t understand them in their loftiness.
Maybe that’s why some people, when presented with Christ’s commandment that we love on another, are quick to bypass the really obvious, really simple, yet really demanding understanding of that commandment and move on to a sort of specialized, secondary understanding: “loving people means wanting the best for them even if they don’t want it for themselves.” Or “loving people means doing what is best for them, but remember, what is best for you is not always comfortable.”
Okay, sure….but is that really what comes to mind first when we imagine the Essence of Caritas?
You can take the analogy of parenting. Sometimes loving our kids means wanting the best for them even when they don’t want it (such as not letting my daughter eat stuff with butter in it, since she has a milk intolerance). It might mean punishing them by removing a privilege, for their own good, to help them achieve discipline.
But in the whole scope of parenting, aren’t these instances of love sort of secondary? And less than ideal? In a day of loving my kids, loving them far more often means making them meals, listening to their problems, driving them to activities, washing their clothes, playing games with them, changing their diapers, givig them treats, telling them stories – then it does punishing them or keeping them from stuff they enjoy. And the punishments are only ever effective in the larger context of this love…this relationship.
Sure, Christ told people “go and sin no more.” But usually when he was performing a miracle on their behalf. If you want to come over to my house and miraculously turn my water into wine, believe me, I will actually listen to you when you call me out in love. Otherwise don’t bother.