Sometimes I feel like I still need a basic how-to of the Christian life. Love is such a difficult concept for me. I think it's because even though I know better, I constantly slip into the error of mistaking the word as a kind of feeling rather than a kind of act, a choice, or a way of life. It's a common error, maybe one of the fundamental American social errors. And I'm kind of embarrassed to fall for an error so common. Which is itself a problem, I suppose.
Mistaking "love" for a kind of feeling leads some souls to mistake the ephemeral for the lasting, and so endanger themselves. It leads others to mistake the surface for the substance, and so fail to deepen. Me, it tends to tempt me to despair. I have feelings, but not many of the kind that one can mistake for love. So sometimes, in forgetting, I go a long time wondering if I actually have any in me.
Oh, there are exceptions. I'm human, and a mother, and I live in the experience of biological attachment -- something that nearly knocked me over with its power, because the sense of wanting to love, of having physical desires that aligned with total self-gift, was so alien to me. It gave me much food for thought -- can I harness this power? I wrote in 2007, about real love, "Attachment is the natural way that we become disposed to love. The other way, the supernatural way, is through the sacraments." Sometimes, if you know something (intellectually) about what love really is, you wonder how people get so snookered by its substitutes. One reasonable hypothesis: We mistake feelings not so much for love itself, but for attachment, love's natural source of power.
I've gone to the writings of St. Thérèse and listened to her explain the merits of "doing little things with great love." Daily life is a string of such little things, the ordinary duties of marriage and motherhood, citizenship and community; how to swing this "love" thing? Can I transform my tasks? Can I transform me?
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I'll tell you right now, trying to generate feelings of love whilst going about the tasks of the day works imperfectly at best. It's not a bad exercise: one considers why this task is here, for example, that the laundry pile is so high because I have many children, for whom I am truly grateful, and try to convert it into being grateful for the laundry itself. St. Francis embraced Death itself as a beloved sister: perhaps laundry could be a sort of affable nephew or something? But I never quite get there, although I can fake it to myself for a while, sometimes even long enough to get it all sorted into baskets.
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This week I went back to 1 Corinthians 13, always a corrective when one has forgotten what love is.
I did get sidetracked somewhat by a sudden fascination with a translation problem*, but managed mostly to focus -- as I swear I've done over and over again -- on the attributes. Love is patient, love is kind, and then some more stuff. Rejoices in the truth. There's a list there of what love is not, as well as what love is, but honestly I could stand just to pick a couple of these things -- patience, kindness -- and work on that. For me, "doing small things" with a love greater than I usually can muster might simply be to do them with patience and kindness.
And neither are things that you have to feel in order to do.
(Yes, even patience. Certainly we can feel impatience, but we can do, or at least try to do, patience despite it. Who hasn't snapped at a whining child, "Be patient!" Why ask for patience if we don't mean a behavior change? What we really mean is "Stop whining and wait." Surely we can ask the same of ourselves.)
I foresee a time of muttering to myself, "Love is patient, love is kind," as I go about my day. Seriously, those two attributes alone are enough effort to keep me occupied, never mind all the others.
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I do think ahead with some foreboding. Even if you actually get a handle on the intellectual meaning of "love" as an interior disposition, you still have to reach out to others with something that is sensible, i.e., available to their senses. "The body, and it alone, is capable of making the invisible visible" -- that is St. John Paul II -- and wherever our vocation has placed us, we have a duty to communicate love.
A love that is known by nature. By how it seeks to be felt -- sensed.
We have to try to generate those feelings -- in others! (Feelings that are true -- feelings of being-loved -- that are safe, not dangerous, because we really do love and desire to love the ones who feel them: we know they are worthy, that they are persons, knowing and bearing with them and beholding always an image of all creation and all the Uncreated too.) We create the space where it is safe to feel love, and then it is our job to fill that space so love can be felt. Not so easy for those of us who don't "feel" very much, or who don't trust "feelings;" who prefer to take the easy way out, reasoning and thinking about everything instead.
I wonder, too if the comparative dearth of "feeling" might not turn out to be a sort of gift, in the end. I hope, maybe, it makes it easier for me to rejoice in the truth, because the reason I'm naturally suspicious of "feeling" is because "feeling" tends to obscure. Still, conscious acts of patience and conscious acts of kindness -- or at least, squelching urges to vocalize impatience, to react with unkindness -- cannot hurt, and might spread outward, even if they don't penetrate inwardly as much as I would like.
*Because I can't let it drop. NAB: "love is not rude." But Latin Vulgate: "non est ambitiosa." Rude or ambitious? Quick survey of various English translations reveals a split between the two. The Greek received text is ἀσχημονεῖ, which everybody seems to translate as "acts unbecomingly," so more "rude" than "ambitious." What did Jerome have in mind, exactly? A mystery for another day.