Human Love Is Never Enough

If God is love, then human love can work only to the extent it allows itself to be filled with God, overflowing with his love.

St. Teresa of Calcutta greets a child at the Gift of Love Home on Oct. 20, 1993, in Singapore.
St. Teresa of Calcutta greets a child at the Gift of Love Home on Oct. 20, 1993, in Singapore. (photo: Roslan Rahman / AFP via Getty Images)

Some years ago, having just been awarded a sabbatical, and casting about for something to do, I hit upon the idea of writing another book. Since I’d already written a couple, the most recent being about death, a subject for which I continue to have a lively interest, I figured maybe it was time to write about love, a subject for which nearly everyone has a lively interest.

(Tell me if this is starting to sound like a Woody Allen movie, okay?) 

Anyway, when I asked someone who knows me pretty well if it was a good idea, without a heartbeat’s hesitation the answer came back: “No, you’re not yet wise enough to write about love.”

Now there’s an icebreaker for you. “But I’ve been teaching a course on Marriage and the Family for years!” I protested. “Surely the University must think I’m competent enough — why else would they entrust their students to me?” 

But then, wisdom and competence are not exactly the same thing, are they? The skyjacker who commandeers your flight to the Bahamas where you’d planned a week’s holiday with your wife is certainly competent enough to fly an airplane, but is it a wise exercise of his skills to land it in the Middle East with a hundred hostages on board?

 “The only wisdom we can hope to acquire,” writes T.S. Eliot, “is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.”

And why must it be endless? Because it is not a stepping-stone to something higher, but a virtue to be pursued for its own sake. Also, because one never comes to an end of the need for it. Can you imagine telling your confessor, “Humility, Father? Well, actually, I’ve already cornered that market. What next?” He will, just as soon as he’s finished laughing, certainly let you know: “Let’s give humility another crack, shall we?”

On the other hand, if one first had to become perfectly humble before sitting down to write about love, how would such a book ever get written? Or even less than a thousand words on the subject? “If a thing is worth doing at all,” says Chesterton, “then it is worth doing ill.” In an ideal world, yes, love is too important for anyone less than perfect to undertake to write about it, but we don’t live in such a world, do we? When things are in crisis because there is either too little love, or else the wrong kind is getting all the attention, then maybe even the imperfect ought to get in the game and say something helpful and true about it.

Beginning, for instance, with the following fact — that if God is love, and if he loves us and wants us to love one another, then human love can only work, only succeed, to the extent it allows itself to be filled with God, overflowing with his love.  In short, become divinized. Unless I try and love as Christ does, which means all the way to the Cross, then the love I give to my wife or my children, the neighbor across the street or the stranger I’ve not even met yet, will remain no more than a mockery of love, a mere mask worn to disguise the falsity of the feeling. Why would anyone wish to be loved for reasons that are ultimately self-serving and manipulative, given only to feed an unbridled appetite?

The challenge of loving another person, of actually going out of myself, of expending myself for the sake of this other, will never succeed if I do not find some evidence of God in this other, some hint or trace of his mysterious presence. I must really be looking for this, moreover, and not in any superficial or episodic way, but always determined to see signs that signify a greater power on which to draw.

“The adventure of losing self,” writes Hans Urs von Balthasar in a profound and beautiful essay called “The Sacrament of the Brother,” which appears as a chapter in his book The God Question and Modern Man, “will not be worthwhile if I do not meet God in my brother, if no breath of infinity stirs in this love, if I cannot love my brother with a love that comes from a higher source than my finite capacity of loving.”

To be sure, the animal kingdom does not have this problem, its behavior having been genetically programmed in advance, but for those us who are free to make choices, and who wish to live in Christ’s Kingdom, where the coin of the realm is charity, it will not be possible in the absence of God.

Jesus is very plainspoken about this. “I am the vine,” he tells us in John’s Gospel, “you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (15:5). 

The point Jesus is making here was reaffirmed by Pope Benedict XVI in his first encyclical, which he issued Dec. 25, 2005 — a sort of Christmas present to the world. Called Deus Caritas Est (God Is Love), it is an eloquent and timely reminder that eros, or human love, requires agape, or divine love, in order to realize its promise as self-gift. “The element of agape thus enters into this love, for otherwise eros is impoverished and even loses its own nature.” 

In other words, the river can never rise above its source. Unless the merely human aspires to something more than human, it will soon sink into the inhuman. But if it draws upon that higher source, thus sharing in the living water in which the life of God himself is steeped, it will diffuse and radiate the love of Christ out into the world.