What Love Is – Fulton J. Sheen, Ph.D., D.D.August 29, 2013
It takes three to make love, for lover and beloved are bound together on earth by an ideal outside both. If we were absolutely perfect, we would have no need of loving anyone outside ourselves. Our self-sufficiency would prevent a hankering for what we have not. But love itself starts with the desire for something good. God is good. God is being, and therefore has no need of anything outside Himself. But we have being: Creation may be described as the introduction of the verb “to have” into the universe.
What makes us creatures is the fact that we are dependent; all that we have, we have received. Because we are not perfect, we constantly strive to make up for what is lacking, or to complement our having by having more. The craving for private property, for example, is one of the natural aspirations of man, for by it man hopes to enlarge his personality and to extend himself by owning things.
Love Has Three Causes: Goodness, Knowledge And Similarity.
It is possible for man to mistake what is good for him, but it is impossible for him not to desire goodness. The prodigal son was right in being hungry: he was wrong in living on husks. Man is right in trying to fill up his life, his mind, his body, his house with what is good; he may be wrong perhaps in what he chooses as a good. But without the desire for goodness, there would be no love, whether it be love of country, love of friend, or love of spouse. Through love every heart seeks to acquire a perfection or a good which it lacks, or else to express the perfection that it already has.
It follows then that all love is produced by goodness, for goodness by its nature is lovable. It may be difficult to understand why certain people are loved, but of this we can be sure: those who love see a goodness in them which others do not see. God loves us because He puts His Goodness into us and finds it there. We love certain creatures because we find goodness in them. Saints love those whom no one else loves, because after the manner of God, they put goodness into other people and find them lovable.
If it be asked why the drunkard loves alcohol, why the libertine loves perversion, or why the criminal loves stealing, it is because each of them sees some good in what he does. What each seeks is not the highest moral good, for endowed with free will, each can always choose a partial rather than a total good, thus making a god of his appetites. Evil in order to be attractive must at least wear the guise of goodness. Hell has to be gilded with gold of paradise, or men would never want its evil.
If evil were always called by its right name, it would lose much of its appeal. When the exaggerations and perversions of sex are called the “Kinsey Report,” they give an air of scientific goodness to that which would have no appeal if it were called “lust.” Goodness by its nature is lovable, and love finds it impossible not to pursue goodness. Goodness is perfective of our being, and thus compensates for the meagerness of our having.
If one is asked why he is in love with a particular person, he may, if he is a logician, put his argument into some such form as this:
It is our nature to love goodness:
But X is good:
Therefore, I love X.
As we have said, this goodness is not always moral goodness; it can be physical goodness, or utilitarian goodness. A person is then loved because of the pleasure he gives, or because he is useful, or because “he can get it for you wholesale.” But good he must be, under one of his aspects, otherwise he would not be loved.
The second cause of love is knowledge. A woman cannot love a man unless she has had at least some knowledge of him. “Introduce me to him” is a demand for knowledge preceding love. Even the dream girl of the bachelor has to be constructed out of fragments of knowledge. The unknown is the unloved. The love of the animal begins with the knowledge that comes through its senses, but the knowledge of man comes from his senses and his intellect. As love comes from knowledge, so hatred comes from want of knowledge. Bigotry is the fruit of ignorance.
Though at the beginning, knowledge is the condition of love, in its latter stages love can increase knowledge. A husband and wife who have lived together for many years have a new kind of knowledge of one another which is deeper than any spoken word, or any scientific investigation; it is knowledge that comes from love, a kind of intuitional perception of what is in the mind and the heart of the other. It is possible to love more than we know. A simple person in good faith may have a greater love of God than a theologian, and as a result a keener understanding of the ways of God with the heart than psychologists have. Goodness alone in isolation from knowledge could not prompt love; it must first be proposed to the mind and understood as good.
Knowledge can be either abstract or emotional. Geometry is abstract knowledge, but knowledge about sex is emotional knowledge. An isosceles triangle arouses no passions, but sex knowledge can do so! Those who advocate indiscriminate sex education to prevent sexual promiscuity forget that, because of the emotional tie-up, sex knowledge could lead to sex disorders. It is argued that if a man knew there was typhoid fever in a house, he would lose the desire to go into it. True, but the knowledge of sex is not the same as the knowledge of typhoid fever. No one has a “typhoid” passion to break down doors with quarantine warnings, but the human being does have a sex passion, which needs a control.
One of the psychological reasons why decent people shrink from vulgar sex discussion is because by its very nature it is not a communicable kind of knowledge. Its method of communication is so personal as to make the two who are involved shrink from making it general. It is too sacred to be profaned. It is a psychological fact that those whose knowledge of sex has passed to a unifying love in marriage are least inclined to bring it back from the realm of their inner mystery to that of public discussion. It is not because they are disillusioned about sex but because it has passed on to love, and only two can share its secrets.
On the other hand, those whose knowledge of sex has not been sublimated into the mystery of love, and who therefore are most frustrated, are those who want to talk incessantly about sex matters. Husbands and wives whose marriages are characterized by infidelity are most loquacious on sex; fathers and mothers whose marriages are happy never speak about it. Their knowledge has become love; therefore they do not need to gossip about it. They who presume to know so much about sex actually know nothing about its mystery, otherwise they would not be so gabby about it.
The third cause of love, besides goodness and knowledge, is similarity. This is a denial of the oft-repeated axiom that “opposites attract.” Opposites do attract, but only superficially. Tall men marry short girls; fast talkers marry good listeners; and tyrants marry Milquetoasts. But in a more profound way, it is not unlikeness but likeness which attracts.
The likeness between persons can be twofold: one arises from two persons having the same quality actually, as, for example, a mutual love of music. This likeness causes the higher love of friendship, in which one wishes good to the other as to himself. This is what is meant when it is said that two persons are a “perfect match,” or “they were made for each other.”
The other kind of likeness arises from one having potentially, or by way of desire or inclination, a quality which the other has actually, for example, a poor girl wanting to marry a rich man. The stingy man loves the generous man because he expects from him something he desires. The vicious man can love the virtuous man when he sees virtue in conformity with what he would like to be. This kind of likeness causes love of concupiscence, or a friendship founded on usefulness or pleasure. In this kind of love, the lover loves himself more than his friend. That is why, if the friend ever prevents him from realizing what he wants, his love turns to hate.
Because we are imperfect beings, we seek to remedy our lack by possessions. Thus people who are “naked” on the inside, in the sense that they have no virtue in their soul, try to compensate for it by excessive luxury on the outside. What one person lacks it is hoped the other will supply. Because the human heart desires beauty as its perfection, the ugly young man seeks to marry a beautiful rather than an ugly girl. On the surface, it would seem that his ugliness is the opposite of her beauty, but really it is his love of beauty (which he does not possess actually), which attracts him to that which is beautiful.
The loves of all hearts are so many mirrors revealing their characters. Weak men in high positions surround themselves with little men, in order that they may seem great by comparison Capitalists who became rich because they struck some of God’s wealth in the earth, love to build libraries to parade a learning which they do not possess. They love in appearance that which is similar to what they love in hope and desire. The woman who wishes to be a social climber will cultivate friends who are “useful,” because of this similarity. They have what she wants to have: social prestige. Saints love sinners, not because they both have vice in common, but because the saint loves the possible virtue of the sinner. The Son of God became the Son of Man because He loved man.
On this subject no one has written with greater precision than St. Thomas Aquinas, who in his monumental summary of Divine Wisdom points out that there are four effects of love. Because he envisages love as something higher than sex or a biological function, his observations apply in varying degrees to both human and Divine love. These four effects of love are: unity, mutual indwelling, ecstasy, and zeal.
All love craves unity. This is evident in marriage where there is the unity of two in one flesh. When a person loves anything, he sees it as fulfilling a need and seeks to incorporate it to himself, whether it be the wine that he loves, or the science of the stars. In friendship, the other person is loved as another self, or the other half of one’s soul. One seeks to do the same favors for him as one would do for oneself, and thus intensify the bond of union between the two.
Whether it be love of wisdom, spouse, or friend, love is a unifying principle of both lover and beloved. Aristotle quotes Aristophanes as saying: “Lovers would wish to be united into one, but since this would result in either one or the other being destroyed, they seek a suitable or becoming union, to live together, speak together, and share the same interests.”
Because love creates unity, we have explained why some heroic souls are willing to take on the sufferings and sins of others. A loving mother faced by a child’s pain would take on that pain, if she could, in order to free her child of it. She feels the pain as her own, because her love has made her one with the infant. Just as love in the face of pain takes on the pain because of oneness with the beloved, so love in the face of evil takes on the sins of others, because of oneness with the beloved.
This sacrificial love reached its highest psychological expression in the Garden of Gethsemane, where Christ so identified Himself with sinners that He began to sweat crimson drops of blood. It reached its greatest physical expression on Calvary, when He offered His life for those whom He loved. But before Gethsemane and Calvary, the law that love tends to unify the lovers produced the Incarnation, in which God, Who loved man, became man to save him from his sins.
As saints become one with Our Lord through the identification of their will with God’s Will, so those who love unto marriage become “two in one flesh.” The human heart would never be reaching out for unity, either socially, economically, or sexually, were there not within it a fundamental sense of incompleteness, which only God can perfectly satisfy. The sense of emptiness in a person pushes him on to overcome his deficiencies, until ultimately he becomes one with what he loves.
Incidentally, since love produces unity, it follows that one must be careful about that with which he is ultimately unified. Unity with God is necessarily immortal love. A love that has no higher destiny than the flesh will share the corruption of the flesh. Our Lord made the fact of sex identification one of the reasons for His condemnation of divorce. “But I tell you that the man who puts away his wife (setting aside the matter of unfaithfulness) makes an adulteress of her, and whoever marries her after she has been put away, commits adultery.” (Matt. 5:32)
Sex love creates a completeness between man and woman which goes far beyond any other unities of the social or political order! That is why the State which respects the family unity as the basis of civilization is much more unified than a civilization which ignores it. A divorce-ridden civilization is already in cause, a disrupted civilization. It may take a few decades for the cracks in the family to become earthquakes in the political order, but one must not conclude, because its tombstone is not yet erected, that the civilization is not already dead. “Thou dost pass for a living man, and all the while art a corpse.” (Apocalypse. 3:1)
The State may break the outer bond uniting husband and wife through divorce, but it can never break the inner bond which unity in one flesh has created. To justify their breaking of the unity, they may say: “Love has deceived me.” Rather it is they who have deceived love. And their deceit began with the day when they confused love and “sex thrill.” They never loved in the first place, for love never takes back that which it gives, even in unfaithfulness. God never takes back His love, though we are sinners. We may betray Him, but He never abandons us.
Mutual indwelling, the second effect of love, literally means that in love one inheres or exists in the other. The passion of love is not satisfied with mere possession but even seeks to assimilate the other into itself. There is hardly a woman in the world who has ever held a babe, who did not say: “This child is so sweet. I would like to eat it.” Hidden in these words is the mystery of assimilation which reaches its peak in Holy Communion, where the God Incarnate satisfies our desire for complete inherence with His Divinity and Humanity, under the form and appearance of bread.
If love did not imply inherence, there would be no psychological explanation for the fact that the harm and injury which is done to our friends can be felt as done to us. This love in the supernatural order becomes an inherence which is identical with fixation. Sanctity is fixation in the love of God. Married love is fixation in human love for the love of God. “He who dwells in love dwells in God, and God in him.” (1 John 4:17)
This indwelling of the thing or person loved is a fact in an intellectual as well as an affective way. The astronomer loves the stars, and he has the stars in his head, not in their material being but in a manner which is peculiar to his spiritual intellect. But if the universe were not in his head, he could not love the universe. Here the thing loved is in the lover. In affection, the lover inheres in the beloved, and the beloved in the lover.
What is it that makes the lover so curious and interested in all that the beloved does? Why is every tiny gift treasured, every word recalled again and again to memory? Why is every scene colored by the vision of the beloved, if it be not that in some way there is no peace without complete inherence of the one in the other? No lover is ever satisfied with a superficial knowledge of the one loved.
The lover of music can never have too much knowledge of music. The lover of God never knows the words “too much.” Those who accuse others of loving God or religion too much, really do not love God at all, nor do they know the meaning of love. Those who are united in love, enjoy and are pained at the same things. The Psalmist who loved God would say that his heart was cast down at the thought of those who broke the law of God.
This mutual inherence, as the second effect of love, adds something to unity in marriage. Unity of the flesh now becomes unity of the mind and heart. The intermittent carnal oneness demands another kind of unity than the flesh. St. Paul says husband and wife ought to act toward one another “as if married in the Lord”; that is, as conscious of their vocation to be one in Christ. As Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote: “Two human loves make one divine.” Mutual inherence is much more than a sharing of interests and an exchange of properties: rather these are the effects of a deeper fellowship which reaches into the core of their being.
Love that is held together only by the flesh is as fragile as the flesh, but love which is held together by a spiritual oneness and based on a love of a common destiny, is truly “until death do us part.” What makes a true mutual inherence is not the sharing of the same sensations of pleasure. Rather the “sister-soul” and “brother- soul” are formed in the daily communion with the same joys, sorrows, efforts, and sacrifices. One can yearn for another after knowing flesh unity, but it is impossible to yearn for another after soul unity.
It is not enough just to share the same words and the same enjoyments; one must also share the same silences. “Mary treasured up all these sayings, and reflected on them in her heart.” (Luke 2:19) Those who do not yet love one another deeply have need of words; those who deeply love, thrive on silences.
The third effect of love is ecstasy, which means being “carried out of oneself.” In a broad kind of way, because love makes the lover dwell on the beloved, he is to some extent already taken out of himself. Adolescents are often surprised that their elders know they are in love. But the fumbling with tasks and the skipping of meals indicate they are in a dreamer’s state. They are already lifted out of their natural way of acting.
The Greeks describe a strong love as “madness,” not in the sense of abnormality, but inspiration. The poet who was inspired was said to be “mad” with his love, as in romantic language today, the lover describes himself as being “mad” over his beloved. Employers are not reluctant to allow their employees to take a week or two off, knowing that they are practically useless during the time of “ecstasy.” As Shakespeare wrote: “This is the very ecstasy of love.” Later on they are said to be “getting down to earth,” as if to imply that previously they had their heads in the heavens.
The professors who are absent-minded about their studies, to the extent that on rainy nights they put the umbrella to bed and stand in the sink all night, are proving that love makes us indifferent to our ordinary surroundings. Where there is great love, people can put up with every manner of hardship because of the quality of love which lifts them up from their environment.
The hovel of the husband and wife who are in love is not nearly as boring as the rich apartment of the husband and wife who have ceased to love one another. The saint, like Vincent de Paul, has such a love of God’s poor that he forgets to feed himself. The particular spiritual phenomenon of levitation, in which saints in their ecstasies are lifted bodily off the ground, is a still higher manifestation of a love in which matter seems powerless to restrain the spirit.
The difference between love of humans and love of God is that in human love, ecstasy comes at the beginning, but in the love of God it comes only at the end after one has passed through much suffering and agony of soul. The flesh first has its feast, and then the fast and sometimes the headache. The spirit has first the fast, and then the feast. The ecstatic pleasures of marriage are in the nature of a “bait,” luring lovers to fulfill their mission, and they are also a Divine credit extended to those who later on will have the burden of rearing a family.
No great ecstasy of flesh or spirit is ever given for permanent possession without casting out something. There is a price tag on every ecstasy! The glory of an Easter Sunday cost a Good Friday. The privilege of the Immaculate Conception was an ecstasy given before the payment, but Mary had to pay for it at the foot of the Cross. Our Lord gave her “credit” but she later paid the debt.
Young couples who equate marriage and the thrill often refuse to reimburse Nature with children and thus lose love, as the violinist with a gift for music, who does not practice, loses the gift. “Take the talent away from him.” (Matt. 25:28) The first love is not necessarily the lasting love. The thrill of the young priest at his First Solemn Mass, and the near ecstasy of the nun at her clothing, are like “candy” given by God to urge them to climb spiritually. Later on the sweetness is taken away, and it takes a supreme effort of the will to be all one ought to be. So with the honeymoon of marriage. The term itself indicates that at first the love is honey, but afterwards it is as changeable as the moon.
The first ecstasy is not the true ecstasy. The latter comes only after purging trial, fidelities through storm, perseverance through mediocrities, and pursuit of Divine destiny through the allurements of earth. The deep ecstatic love that some Christian fathers and mothers have after passing through their Calvaries is beautiful to behold. True ecstasy is really not of youth, but of age. In the first ecstasy, one seeks to receive all that the other can give. In the second ecstasy, one seeks to give everything to God. If love is identified with the first ecstasy, it will seek its duplication in another, but if it is identified with unifying, enduring love, it will seek the deepening of its mystery.
Too many married people expect their partner to give that which only God can give, namely, an eternal ecstasy. If man or woman could give that which the heart wants, he or she would be God. Wanting the ecstasy of love is right, but expecting it in the flesh that is not on pilgrimage to God is wrong. The ecstasy is not an illusion; it is only the “travel folder” with its many pictures urging the body and soul to make the journey to eternity. If the first ecstasy reaches its climax, it is an invitation not to love another, but to love in another way. And the other way is the Christ Way.
Zeal, the fourth effect of love, is that particular passion which makes us want to spread and diffuse the love which we know, and to exclude everything which is repugnant to it. The romantic lover seeks out those companions who will listen to his praise of the beloved, and to whom he can show her picture. The saint in love with Christ becomes a missionary and travels even into lands where the name of Christ has never been heard, in order that other hearts may share the passion for the Tremendous Lover. In carnal love, St. Thomas says, “husbands are said to be jealous of their wives, lest association with others prove a hindrance to their exclusive individual right. In like manner, those who seek to excel, are moved against those who are above them, as though they were a hindrance to their own ambitions.”
In the higher lover of friendship, zeal is not only positive, such as becomes apostleship in religion, but is also negative, in the sense that it seeks to repel all that is contrary to the will of God. When Our Lord entered the Temple of Jerusalem and found it prostituted by the buyers and sellers, He fashioned a whip of cords and drove them out: “I am consumed with jealousy for the honor of the house.” (John 2:17)
From the mother bird defending her nest of young to the martyr dying for the Faith, love pours itself out in zeal of the right kind. But the wicked can also be zealous for the evil which they love, whether it be the miser for his gold, or the adulterer for his accomplice, or the Communist for his world revolution. Those things for which we would spend our energy to defend, or die to keep, are the measures of our zeal! Love is the cause of everything we do. The subjects we talk about, the persons we hate, the ideals we pursue, the things that make us angry, these are indicators of our hearts. Few realize how much they betray their characters in revealing what their hearts love most. “Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaketh.” If our loves are wrong, our lives are wrong, as well.
What zeal is to religion, fidelity and fecundity are to marriage: devotion to the person loved, and the extension of that love in the family. This fidelity is not born of habit which is akin to organic or economic necessity; rather, it is an affirmation that this person has an absolute significance for life. This kind of zeal not only crushes all alien biological desires; it also is based on the fact that the other person is the one whom God has willed for us, “for better or for-worse, for richer or poorer, until death do us part.” As Euripides said: “He is not a lover who does not love forever.” And as Shakespeare sang:
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no; it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests, and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come:
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error, and upon me prov’d,
I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.
Zeal also manifests itself spiritually, in bringing other souls to God and physically, by begetting children for God. Fruitfulness is the natural effect of the love of tree and earth, of missionary and pagan, of husband and wife. Love does not thrive on moderation. Zeal is generosity. The love that measures the sacrifices it will make for others takes the edge off aspirations.
Our Lord said that zealous love had two characteristics first, it is forgiving, and second, it recognizes no limits. It is forgiving, because it knows that God’s forgiveness of me is conditioned upon my forgiveness of others. Love never wears magnifying glasses in looking on the faults of others. Married life requires this zeal in the shape of forbearance, which is not a gritting of teeth in the face of annoyance, nor the cultivation of indifference; it is, rather, a positive and constructive action putting love where it is not found. One feels under an obligation more exquisite and divine than a marriage contract.
Zeal knows no limits. It never pronounces the word “enough.” Our Lord said that after His followers had done all they were supposed to do, they were to consider themselves as “unprofitable servants.” Knocking the boundaries out of love, He said: “But I tell you that you should not offer resistance of injury; if a man strikes thee on the right cheek, turn the other cheek also towards him; if he is ready to go to law with thee over thy coat, let him have it and thy cloak with it; if he compels thee to attend him on a mile’s journey, go two miles with him of thy own accord.” (Matt. 5:39, 41)
In Divine service and in marriage, therefore, there should be a generosity which goes quite beyond the limits of justice. The neighbor who offers to come in for an hour to help and stays two; the doctor who in addition to a professional call “drops in just to see how you are”; the husband and wife who vie with one another in love; all have understood one of the most beautiful effects of love: its zeal, which makes them fools for one another. “We are fools for Christ’s sake.” (1 Corinthians 4:10)