A Lesson on Love From St. Peter Chrysologus

St. Peter Chrysologus truly was one whose speech was indeed like honey from the comb.

School of Guercino, “Saint Peter Chrysologus” (17th Century)
School of Guercino, “Saint Peter Chrysologus” (17th Century) (photo: Public Domain / Public Domain)

We have all heard St. Paul’s famous definition of love from 1 Corinthians 13 so many times that we almost know it by heart:

Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

And there’s hardly a Catholic wedding ceremony that doesn’t use that reading for the Epistle.

Further, a common grammar school or CCD teacher’s tool was the old chestnut: “Now take the word ‘Love’ out of that reading and replace it with your own name — and if we act like that, we will truly be known as Christians: Kevin is patient, Kevin is kind…”

I’m not one to argue with St. Paul. However, there is a refreshing tonic to this almost impossible (impossible for humanity, not for God) definition of love, from today’s Doctor of the Church, St. Peter Chrysologus:

“But the law of love is not concerned with what will be, what ought to be, what can be.

“Love does not reflect; it is unreasonable and knows no moderation. Love refuses to be consoled when its goal proves impossible, despises all hindrances to the attainment of its object. Love destroys the lover if he cannot obtain what he loves; love follows its own promptings and does not think of right and wrong. Love inflames desires which impel it toward things that are forbidden. But why continue?”

I didn’t have to go scouring about books of dubious origin for that definition of love — it’s taken from the one-volume Christian Prayer (Divine Office) from the Second Reading of the Office of Readings in Advent.

How on earth did we go from the singing of “kumbaya” in St. Paul’s version of love, where all is peace and calm, to the tormented, almost maddened incarnation of it found in St. Peter Chrysologus?

The two are not mutually exclusive. There are (rare) days when all does seem right with the world — with life and with my prayer life — and St. Paul’s vision and version of love feels just right: Kevin is patient, Kevin is kind, Kevin rejoices in what is right.

But not all days are created equal. That’s when it’s good to know that a saint — and a Doctor of the Church no less — found that love had a lot more human failings sewn into it: “Kevin is unreasonable, Kevin does not reflect, Kevin knows no moderation.” And still we call this love.

Who was this man?

St. Peter Chrysologus (born about the year 380, died 450) was born and raised in Imola, a town in Emilia section of Italy. All that we really know of him is that when the Archbishop of Ravenna, John, died in 433, St. Peter was consecrated as his successor. Ravenna was at that time the capital of the Western Empire and St. Peter enjoyed the confidence of the Emperor Valentinian III and his saintly mother, Galla Placidia.

As Butler’s tells us, “We have many of his discourses still extant: they are all very short, for he was afraid of fatiguing the attention of his hearers, but the matter of the discourses of St. Peter Chrysologus caused him to be declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Benedict XIII in 1729.” (He had never been formally canonized.) His pre-Vatican II feast day was Dec. 4, though he most likely died on Dec. 2. After the council his feast day was moved to July 30.

Not for nothing was he called “The Golden Speech” (similar to another Doctor of the Church, St. John Chrysostom, who was called “Golden-Mouthed”). St. Peter is “said to have preached with such vehemence that he sometimes became speechless through excitement.” One can almost hear him yelling from the pulpit those words that seem so human, that sound so very much like us:

“The law of love is not concerned with what will be, what ought to be, what can be!

“Love does not reflect! It is unreasonable! And knows no moderation!

“Love refuses to be consoled when its goal proves impossible!

“Despises all hindrances to the attainment of its object!

“Love destroys the lover if he cannot obtain what he loves!”

Thankfully St. Peter Chrysologus’s sermons — he was nothing if not one of the most gifted speakers our Church has ever produced — have not only survived but been collated and translated into English and all share the same sharp, biting, trenchant tone shown above. In fact, earlier this month, on the feast of St. Elizabeth of Portugal, St. Peter’s is the Second Reading from the four-volume breviary:

“Peace lends strength to our prayers; it is the way our petitions can reach God easily and be credited; it is the plentitude which fulfills our desires. Peace is the mother of love, the bond of concord and the manifest sign of a pure soul, one which seeks to please God, which seeks to be fulfilled and has its desire rewarded. … Now you see, dearest brethren, why we should love peace and cultivate harmony: because they beget and nurture love.

And his reading from the Monday following the Epiphany is also touching:

“So the Gentiles, who were the last, become the first: the faith of the Magi is the first fruits of the belief of the Gentiles.”

(In this case St. Peter Chrysologus sounds a lot like St. Paul the Apostle to the Gentiles.)

Finally, St. Peter Chrysologus is important since, as Bernard McGinn notes, he became the Archbishop of Ravenna the year St. Augustine died. With close ties both to the Emperor and to the Pope St. Leo the Great, St. Peter forms a sort of bridge between the “later” period of the patristic Doctors of the Church (culminating in Augustine and St. Leo the Great) and the “early” medieval Doctors (St. Gregory the Great, Isidore of Seville, and Bede).

Regardless, for a definition of love that seems closer to my own life experience than that of holy St. Paul, St. Peter Chrysologus truly was one whose speech was indeed like honey from the comb.