Monday, May 10, 2010

What Is Love?

Michael Novack's No One Sees God, which I referenced earlier, has an intriguing section about some of the great saints who had less and less direct experience of God as their lives unfolded. Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross is mentioned, as are St. Theresa and her namesake Mother Teresa. He makes reference to "revelation by subtraction," where God reveals Himself by stripping away illusions.

Two things about this. One, I've missed the boat on this. I know exactly what he is talking about, and see that those more committed than I have striven to know God more fully by this teaching. I just eventually gave that up and said "Well, prophet ecstacies (what's the reference?) are not going to be on the menu for me, I guess. Oh well. Carry on, then." I'm regirding to change that, BTW.

Two, I was immediately struck by how thoroughly unconvincing that would be to an atheist. That was the context Novack placed the discussion in, trying to show a similarity between the internal lives of some saints and some nonbelievers. I think he is correct, and I think it possibly profound, but I imagined myself as a skeptical hearer encountering this argument. "Well, that's a poor evasion. All that's happening is that you're seeing nothing, but you're calling it something. Worse, you're calling it something special. It's all rubbish." I didn't have a quick answer to that at the time.

One came up tonight in another context. A young woman from our church who comes down to see Tracy because she's arguing with her parents all the time was describing staying over at her (relatively new) boyfriend's house. (Sidebar for the curious. She insists, taking some offense, that nothing is "happening" during these times. And we believe her. For now. She doesn't accept our cautioning that this unstable and tempting situation will not go on indefinitely. The same conversation that adults have had with 18 year-olds for a thousand generations.) Within this discussion of the new boyfriend - who is sooo cute - and how they never fight, and her friends say they act like they've been together for a long time, and, and, all the other things that 18 year-olds have been saying to adults for a thousand generations - in that context, she asked my wife "What is love?"

So Tracy, after giving her own answer, calls out to me to come in and answer the girl's question. Keep in mind that we're not giving this answer to a thoughtful, abstract thinker. She's friendly enough, and nice enough, but a little ditzy. Let that frame any answer you attempt in the comments.

It's easy to generate Hallmark answers, or those saccharine Love Is... cartoons. "Being married to your best friend." The sentiments of the latter aren't especially bad, but those little kids make me retch. But in such a situation, you want to generate a pretty decent answer, even if it is off the top of your head. Love is being nice to each other when the children are throwing up. No, that's not what I want. It does get across the idea that it is only associated with the sensation of being in love. But I really wanted to drive that idea home in this particular instance. Love is what happens after three years (or eighteen months, or six months, or whatever the duration of the body experience of "being in love" is).

I admit, that's still got quite a bit of Hallmark in it. It's easy to say things like that - cute phrases that pretend to be profound. But it hit me just a few minutes later: that's the revelation by subtraction that Novack was referring to - and an experience that many nonbelievers could instantly see the truth of.


terri said...

Love is...not being embarrassed or self-conscious with someone, not fearing their disapproval, and trusting...that they will generally give you the benefit of the doubt when you blow it.....and vice versa.'s hard to get away from Hallmark-y sentiments....but that's why they sell millions of cards I guess.

Re: revelation by subtraction. Reading that really hit me square in the head.

I understood the term immediately, although the word "revelation" conjures up all kinds images that I wouldn't apply to myself.

I've had many subtractions lately, but there is still something there. I can't name it, but I feel it.

Anonymous said...

It is rather simple really.

Love is wanting what is best for another person, regardless of ones own desires.

Lust is merely wanting the other person to satisfy one's own desires.


boxty said...

I think Katherine cheated by paraphrasing Paul's letter to the Philippians. :)

S.S. said...

Love is when another person's happiness becomes essential to your own.

Anonymous said...

I am terribly embarrassed and ashamed to admit that this weekly mass going catholic mom didn’t KNOW I was paraphrasing the bible.

So should I feel ever lasting shame at my ignorance, or should I allow in a small scintilla of hope that the lesson, if not the chapter and verse, appears to have been learned?

I like S.S.’s comment too.


Assistant Village Idiot said...

Katherine, You should definitely take credit for "having the law written on your heart."

GraniteDad said...

Love is an act of the will.

karrde said...

Once upon a time, I heard a recording of some rap by a Christian group. (I don't listen to rap retrospect, this group was the slowest set of rappers I ever heard. But I digress.)

The recording was titled Luv is a Verb.

I don't claim to know what love is; I have only one dead relationship to my credit. But I know that love is defined by actions, not feelings.

And I know that feelings can get in the way of clear thinking.

Dubbahdee said...

Ummm...with a nod to Lewis, i would humbly ask...which love are we talking about?
It affects the answer to the question.

Dubbahdee said...

I should add that yes, I read the post. But the comments seem to be trying to answer to several kinds of love at once, and leaving out others.
For instance - love as an act of will. Hmmmm. This must be from a man who is old enough to know that there is more to love than the urgent itchings of the adolescent body, but still young enough to be more confident in his own powers than is perhaps warranted.
At least when it comes to affection and eros. See. It matters which kind of love we are talking about.

Dr X said...

The notion of decreasing direct experience of God as life unfolds is something that many of the seminarians I know have spoken about. They tell me that their spiritual directors often discuss this with them. Certainly, it has been true in my own experience. The reaction at first is to ask "where the hell did You go?"

I had not considered the notion of revelation by subtraction. It's an interesting idea and it does ring true. I suppose that much of the experience of revelation is subtractive. It isn't simply what you're shown directly. It involves illusions that fall away.