As Catholics, we know that we are called to love! But this requires two things: understanding what love is, and understanding how to love.
What is love? In today’s world, there are two general conceptions of love floating around: love is either something that is primarily and ultimately about what is good for the other, or something that is primarily and ultimately about one’s own feelings and therefore about oneself. The first conception belongs to the Catholic understanding. The latter conception stands as the pinnacle of modern individualism. These two conceptions of love create two kinds of people: those who strive to be givers-receivers, and those that settle and become takers respectively.
The essence of Christian love (which I take to be love properly understood), is revealed in Christ’s words in John 15:13 when he says, “There is no greater love than this, that one lay down his life for a friend.” This passage unveils the paradox of love: that in giving oneself, one becomes oneself more completely. If Christ’s words are true, this means that man cannot perfect himself by a mentality and lifestyle that is characterized by “taking.” Instead he only becomes himself by “giving-receiving.” While the act of giving is the font from which love springs, reception must be included because a personal gift is only complete with a personal receiver. Indeed, love is most perfect when it is reciprocally given and received. Notice how the emphasis in Christ’s words remains on “giving” because the gift precedes the reception of the gift! The focus must be on what we give, not what we are going to get. If our focus is on getting, we begin to slip toward the “taker” mentality and lifestyle.
In order to illustrate that love is primarily and ultimately a “giving,” let us briefly consider its three “motions” as described by JPII in Love and Responsibility. In the first phase, love germinates like an arrow moving outward and recognizes the value of the other. This is love as fondness. Love begins to grow when the arrow does a 180 and returns to the lover. This is love as desire, where the lover recognizes the beloved as “good for himself.” But finally and decisively, the arrow fully matures by turning around and seeking the other as its final destination. This is love of benevolence, the most mature sort of love wherein the lover gives himself to the beloved for the sake of the beloved. The gift is total and disinterested.
Now for the application, the “praxis.” How do we love? I recall a priest who once shared a homily in which he said that there are two kinds of people in this world: givers-receivers, and takers. But I think the line is not so pronounced. Instead, I propose that there are those that strive to live the logic of love, that incredible (literally) Christian paradox, or those that live a life of grasping where they get everything for themselves and yet gain nothing. In other words, there are people who strive to love in the Christian manner and people who don’t strive to love but merely seek to take. Indeed, the decisive distinction between giving and taking is in the “striving.” This “striving” is a mentality, an orientation of the heart and the will made manifest in our actions. There will never be pure “givers-receivers,” because there will always be tension in every person’s life between the tendency to take and the desire to give. This is why love is difficult. It is why we must continue to strive, to daily enroll ourselves in the school of love. Without a doubt, this paradox of love seems strange to man, because we think that “taking” will lead us to find. But as Christ exhorts, give yourself, lose yourself, and then and only then will you find yourself.
In my reflection on “how” to love, it struck me that love is such a noble virtue, a lofty aspiration, a difficult vocation, that oftentimes we struggle to see what we are to do on the daily level! What does a concrete act of love consist in? Love’s loftiness oftentimes leads us to think that acts of love must be very large, earth shattering acts. But in fact this is not the case. Instead, love can grow from every human choice. Throughout every day, each of us have countless choices we must make. These choices are between two or more divergent paths. Naturally, tension accompanies these choices, for each path has its particular allure. Yet in stepping back and considering both sides of the coin, I often realize that choosing one path would consist in “doing what I want or what is good for me,” whereas choosing the other path would consist in “doing what is good for the other person.” I think this realization illustrates the heart of the matter regarding how to love. Love is discovered in these little choices! In the small denials of self! In the small “yeses” to the other and their good! This is how love begins to germinate. This is how love gains a foothold in our hearts, minds, and wills. Thus, next time someone asks you to go on a walk with them, go with them, even though you would rather be inside reading that book or playing that video game. Take out the trash before anyone asks, even though you really don’t want to leave your warm cup of coffee. Exercise those muscles of virtue! Strive to resolve the tension. Eventually our choices will begin to naturally lead us beyond ourselves, opening us to the giver-receiver mentality, habitus, and way of life. Eventually we will make these choices not because we ought to love, but because our hearts yearn to give, because our hearts are overflowing with goodness and thereby move us to make this gift of self, whether it be of our time, our talents, or our attention. Therefore, brothers and sisters, I encourage you to continue to strive, to continue to battle, to daily work through the tension so that we may be givers-receivers rather than takers and thereby live the vocation that is proper to man and in doing so become more fully who God made us to be!