Don’t get me wrong, I am not about to put down this annual celebration of hearts and flowers – I am just as schmaltzy as the next person, shedding copious tears over old movies like “An Affair to Remember” and feeling all choked up listening to the love songs of the ’60s and ’70s. I guess at least once a year people are entitled to feel sentimental, go to great lengths to profess one’s love, and give (or receive) chocolates, roses, have dinner by candlelight serenaded by violins, and enjoy all the delightful stuff that is associated with February 14!
I guess there’s really much to praise in this annual celebration of love. But “love” as connoted during this yearly hearts and flowers time is really only the first stage of real love. The English language is actually so limiting – it has only one word, “love” and it is used in so many ways that do not really capture the true meaning of love. For instance, do we mean the same thing when we say “I love you!” and when we say “I just love your new outfit,” or when a child says, “I love Purefoods hotdogs!”
The Greeks have it. They actually have three words for “love,” – “eros,” “philia,” and “agape.” We could say that these words actually reflect three stages of love. It is “eros” that we generally connote with the word “love.” Eros was the Greek little god of love who shot arrows into the hearts of mortals which resulted in their falling “in love.”
The second word, “philia” when understood in the English context, is a kind of conditional love… a “quid pro quo” relationship. It in effect says, “I love you IF you love me, IF you do these things for me, IF you never make me unhappy.” It’s actually a manipulative kind of love. In such an instance as this, the person is actually saying “I love only me,” and the other person is really there only to provide the ego-stroking of a self-centered person who is capable of loving only one person – himself.
The third word, “agape,” is the highest form of love. Translated, it would say something like, “I love you even if you don’t love me. I love you for yourself. I love you and would even die for you “Agape” or true love is divinizing and can lead to or grow into “agape.” Even if we begin at the level of “eros” we can follow a path of ascent, as we are led into thinking beyond ourselves, beyond our selfish character to showing concern for the other, to a path “of renunciation, purification, and healing.” Taking this path, one becomes less concerned with oneself, and increasingly seeks the happiness of the other, bestows himself (or herself) and “is there” for the other, and in so doing, becomes more “god-like.”
While a lot of lovely poems and songs have been written about love, I think the most beautiful hymn to love is that written by St. Paul, who wrote:
“If I speak in human and angelic tongues, but do not have love, I am a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant, or rude. It does not seek its own interests; it is not quick-tempered it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoings, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
If we must graduate to true loving, then it would be good to reflect on St. Paul’s comments. Fortunately, we have a Model, Someone we can strive to imitate, Someone who has shown us the way to be restored to our true nature, as indeed we were created and meant to be. He is the ultimate expression of “eros” ascended to “agape” In our confused world today, we have a Lodestar – One who took on our nature, experienced our joys, hopes, rejection and pain, and Who showed us what true love is: “Greater love has no man than this, that he should lay down his life for his friends.” Not through hearts and flowers, but love as in “agape.”