Love as Intimacy and Transcendence
February 1, 2004
1 Corinthians 12:31–13:13
“Faith, hope, and love abide, these three and the greatest of these is love.” This line concludes one of the most beautiful and profound passages in the Scriptures: the famous hymn to love from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians which we heard as today’s second reading. In this hymn Paul asserts that love is the greatest gift. This is another way of saying that without love we miss life. We must have love if our lives are to be fulfilled and complete.
What does Paul mean by love? It includes, but it is something much greater than romantic love. In fact, a careful reading of Paul’s hymn to love will reveal that there are two distinct aspects of the kind of love that Paul is describing.
The first aspect pulls us towards other people. In the first part of the hymn Paul describes the qualities which allow us to bond with others. Love is patient, love is kind, love is not envious, or puffed up. Love is not self-seeking or rude. These qualities of love allow us to connect to others, to commit to others. If we use modern terminology, we would call this movement of love that binds us to others intimacy. Paul is saying that without intimacy in our lives are incomplete.
But as you continue to read the hymn another aspect of love emerges: an aspect which moves us beyond ourselves, beyond our understanding, even beyond the people we love. Paul says, “Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know in part, but then I will know fully even as I am known.” Paul is pointing to the part of life that pulls us beyond ourselves into something larger. A modern word we would use to characterize this aspect of love is transcendence. Paul is saying that without transcendence life is incomplete.
So when Paul tells us that we must have love, he is insisting that our lives must be characterized by intimacy and transcendence. We must have both if we are truly to live. Unless we let love pull us towards intimacy with another person our lives will be impoverished. That intimacy could be with a spouse or with a close friend. But what is clear is that that movement toward intimacy involves work. Some people identify intimacy with a feeling or a verbal marriage commitment. Intimacy, however, involves the work that Paul describes in the first part of the hymn. Intimacy is being patient with the other, listening to the other, understanding the other, respecting the other in his or her uniqueness, adapting our lives to meet the other’s needs and dreams.
There is a delightful little movie now in the theaters. I saw it this weekend. It is called “A Date With Tad Hamilton.” It is not a great movie but it has a number of wonderful scenes. In one, Tad Hamilton says to the female lead, “Come away with me. I love you.” She responds, “No, you don’t love me. You love the idea of loving me. You really don’t know me. Real love,” she says, “is knowing the details of another person.” Intimacy is knowing the details. Intimacy is appreciating the specific things in others that make them to be who they are. If we then are going to claim intimacy with someone, we have to claim more than a feeling, more than a certificate. We have to be able to recount what are the specific things that make that person to be who he or she is and rejoice in that particularity. As Paul states in this hymn, “Love rejoices in the truth.” When we know the truth of another person’s life and they know the truth of our life and when we both rejoice in what we know, then we have intimacy.
But intimacy is not enough. We also need transcendence. We need the ability of seeing something greater than ourselves, of understanding that there is something beyond all the things that we can organize and control. We must know what it is to step over the line from knowledge to mystery. That trusting of ourselves to mystery is what Paul calls love. If we insist on limiting our lives to only the things that we can see and feel, if we insist on limiting our lives to only the things we can understand and control, our lives are impoverished. It is a failure of love.
Love then pulls us in two different directions, towards intimacy and towards transcendence. We must have both to truly live. Moreover, because love pulls in two directions, there are two distinct abilities that we must encourage in our lives: holding on and letting go.
Intimacy demands that we hold on to another, that we commit ourselves to the hard work of listening, changing, and appreciating. If we are to be intimate we must not be afraid to commit, to hold on. Transcendence demands the ability of letting go, of understanding when we have come to the point where we no longer have control, when there is something greater than ourselves into which we can entrust our lives. A full and complete life demands the ability to hold on to the people we love and to let go at those times when mystery begins. Knowing when to do each is the key to happiness.
Love is indeed the greatest of gifts, but it pulls us in two distinct directions. Therefore, the Scriptures today invite us to examine our lives and to assure ourselves that we are open both to intimacy and to transcendence. If we wish our life to be complete, to be fulfilled, if we want to be happy, we must learn how to hold on to the people we love and how to let ourselves go into the embrace of a God who loves us.
Love as a Gift
January 28, 2007
1 Corinthians 12:31-13:13
Today’s second reading is one of the most beautiful and popular passages of the New Testament. It is Paul’s famous hymn to love from First Corinthians. I can count on one hand the number of weddings that I have celebrated that did not include this reading as part of the ceremony. In this hymn, Paul identifies the qualities of love and enumerates their importance and power. Despite the beauty of the language, reflecting upon this hymn can be a disturbing experience. Because as we hear Paul describe the qualities of love, it is almost impossible not to measure ourselves against them. And when we compare the love that is in our lives with the love that is in the hymn, we often come up short.
So let’s give it a try. Shall we?
I’ll enumerate some of the qualities of love that Paul describes in this hymn and as I do so, ask yourself how much of those qualities is present in your life?
Love is patient.
Love is kind.
Love is not jealous; it does not put on airs.
Love does not insist on its own way.
Love does not brood over injuries.
How are you doing? I know. I once did this in a small parish group. After going through the description, I asked, “How do these qualities match up in your own life?” One person answered: “What qualities? I threw in the towel at patience!”
Despite the beauty of this hymn, when we measure our self against it, it is easy to become discouraged. This is why the most important line in this passage is the first one. Paul says, “Set your hearts on the greater gifts, and I will show you one that is greater than all the others.” Paul calls love a gift. By calling it a gift, Paul is saying that we cannot love or perform the actions described in this hymn unless God gives us the power to do so. We cannot love without the gift of love, and that is a gift which only God can give.
Now seeing love as a gift is tremendously important because it challenges the normal way that we approach loving. We usually set love as a goal. There is a big difference between a goal and a gift. A goal is something that we imagine we are doing on our own, by our own will power and strength. When we try to love as a goal, we usually fall short. Then we blame ourselves for not trying hard enough. So we try harder, and we fail again. Then we become discouraged. But Paul is telling us love is not a goal, it is a gift. Our ability to love is dependent on God enabling us to love. Without God’s grace, we cannot be patient or kind or forgiving. We are dependent on God’s gift, if we are going to love in the way that Paul describes. So love is not a goal that we accomplish through our own strength and abilities. It is a gift which only God can give.
Now, of course, knowing that love is a gift does not absolve us from the responsibility to grow in love. We cannot sit back and say, “God do your thing!” We must cooperate with the gift. We must do our part. It is necessary to build upon God’s grace. Nevertheless, there is a very big difference from seeing love as a goal and as a gift. Seeing love as a gift changes our whole approach to it, not only theoretically but practically.
So the next time you have difficulty loving, do not just try harder. Ask for the gift. The next time you are running short on patience, when the children are ready to push you over the edge, when you are so irritated with someone at work, that you are about to scream, do not just stand there biting your lip until it bleeds. Pray. Ask God to give you the gift of patient loving. You will be amazed at how much easier it is to be patient, when you invite God into the situation, when you realize that you cannot do it on your own. God’s presence can give you strength. God can give you patience.
When you find yourself brooding over injuries, replaying in your mind past hurts, and you cannot stop. Admit your weakness and ask God for the gift of forgiving love. Most likely that forgiveness will not be granted in a moment. It will come gradually over time. But as you open your heart to the gift, you will gain the freedom to let go of the hurts you cannot change. When you find yourself insisting on your own way, being unable to compromise or change your mind, do not beat your head against a wall. Ask God for the gift of generous loving. Ask for the ability to see a larger picture, to realize that your way is not the only way and that the things that you are holding on to so tightly may well be suffocating you. Ask God for the gift of generous loving so that you might find the ability to change.
Love is not a goal that we accomplish by our own will power and strength. It is a gift that only God can give. It is a gift with which we have to cooperate, but it is a gift nonetheless. Without God’s grace we can do nothing. We cannot be patient; we cannot be forgiving; we cannot be kind. But God is generous. That is the good news! For we believe that if we open our hearts, if we pray for God’s help, God will not abandon us. We believe that love is a gift which God will give.
Loving in the Truth
January 31, 2010
Luke 4: 21 – 30
The Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky once wrote, “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing.” This is not the way we are accustomed to hear love being described. We associate love with patience, kindness, forgiveness, and hopefulness. This is the way that Paul describes love in today’s second reading, and certainly those qualities are true of love. But right in the middle of Paul’s description there is a line that we often overlook. Paul says, “Love rejoices in the truth.” It is love’s connection to truth which makes love at times a harsh and dreadful thing. Love and truth are intimately connected. True love, true intimacy, can only exist in the truth. This is what makes true love such a rare phenomenon, and why we so seldom find it. Love is not some warm feeling or an emotional rush that knocks us off our feet. Love is a choice to say to another person, “I love you enough and I trust you enough to let you speak the truth to me. I will stand transparent before you. I will speak the truth to you. Together then in truth we will love each other.”
Now loving in truth is not easy. It is not easy to speak the truth or to hear the truth. But despite that pain, love remains the chief goal and purpose of life. We do not waste love or truth on strangers. We are polite to them, and we let them go their way. We only risk telling the truth to people to whom we are connected, to people to whom we belong. This is what is happening in today’s gospel. Jesus comes to his own home town, to Nazareth. He knows these people. They belong to him. They are his family. Jesus risks being transparent before them. He challenges them to hear who is he and what he is saying, to open their minds to think in new ways.
Now it must be said that Jesus’ experiment in Nazareth did not go too well. They took him out and tried to throw him over a cliff. But the good news of this gospel story is Jesus’ example. He challenges each one of us to find in our lives someone before whom we can stand transparent. He tells us that life is not primarily about protecting ourselves from hurt, but risking to love in the truth. This example of Jesus is very important because some would say that protecting ourselves is more important than risking this kind of love. Maybe life would be better if we surrounded ourselves with work and with gadgets and with superficial relationships, and never let anyone in. Then who could make a claim on us, who could demand anything from us? Maybe life would be easier without such love. But it would not be life. Because the only way to life is through love and the only way to love is in the truth.
So where does that lead us? It leads us to thankfulness and faith. The gospel today asks us to examine our lives. If we can find in our lives people before whom we can be transparent, people we allow to speak the truth to us and to whom we can speak the truth in return, then we should be thankful. Because it is in those relationships—with a spouse, a friend, or a family member—that we have true love and life. But if we look at our relationships and see they once had that kind of love but now have begun to fade, if we have never found someone with whom we could have true intimacy, or if we have surrounded ourselves with things that are unworthy of us, then the gospel calls us to faith. It calls us to believe that God has made us for something better, that we are made for love, and it is never too late to find it. We believe that if we entrust ourselves to God’s care God will guide us to the kinds of relationships that we need, that if we open ourselves and take the risk, we can find the love and truth for which we were made.
Now, of course, to open ourselves to that kind of love—whether it is in a present relationship or a new relationship—is risky. Our love may be rejected; our invitation may be overlooked. We could be hurt. That is why at times love is a harsh and dreadful thing. But it is still worth the effort. It is still worth the faith to believe that it is possible, because love in the truth is the only way to life, and ultimately the only way to God.
The Power of Love
February 3, 2013
1 Corinthians 12:31-13:13
Today’s second reading is one of the most famous passages in the New Testament. It is Paul’s hymn to love from his First Letter to the Corinthians. I could count on one hand the number of times I presided at a marriage over the last 40 years where this passage was not used.
When we think of love, we get all warm and fuzzy. We imagine Paul being enthralled by romance. But when we examine Paul’s hymn to love, it quickly becomes clear that his understanding of love is different than the normally accepted understanding. In fact, in Paul’s understanding, there are two distinctive qualities of love, both of which can surprise us.
The first is this: For Paul, love is not a feeling; it is an action. Paul does not describe love by giving an account of its impact upon our emotions. Instead, he simply lists the actions that people who love do. Love is patient. Love is kind. Love is not jealous. It is not pompous. Love is not inflated or rude. Love does not seek its own interests. It is not quick tempered, nor does it brood over injuries. It does not rejoice over wrongdoing, but it rejoices with the truth.
This list of actions—treating other people with kindness and respect, forgiving past hurts, and rejoicing in goodness—is the way that Paul defines love. He really does not care how we feel about doing any of these actions. What he cares about is that we do them. So contrary to the Hollywood notion of love that seizes our hearts and sweeps us off our feet, true love for Paul is a decision to act in a particular way. It is not falling into love, but it is living love in every circumstance.
This leads to the second distinctive and surprising characteristic that Paul ascribes to love. For Paul, love is a vocation, a ministry, a responsibility, a way of giving witness to our faith in God. Paul knows that actions of love are powerful and have the ability to draw others to the person who does them.
Several years ago there was a feature article in one of the major newspapers of our country about a man who collected tolls for the turnpike. His name was Sam and he worked at a busy interchange where there were six tollbooths. But Sam’s line was always two, three, or four times longer than any of the other booths at that exit. For some reason, people were willing to wait five or ten minutes longer in order to pay their toll to Sam.
When the reporter from the newspaper explored this phenomenon, he found that the reason for it was rather simple: Sam was a consistently kind and positive person. He would greet everyone with, “Good morning. How’s the family?” He would add personal comments, “Oh, I like your new glasses.” This simple approach of kindness, patience, and goodness drew people to Sam. They were willing to wait longer simply to see him. As one of the drivers who was interviewed for the article said, “My job is a rat race from nine to five, and I go from one problem to another. So I need a cup of strong coffee and a few kind words from Sam before I begin my day.”
Actions of love have the power of drawing people to those who do them. This is why Paul wants the Corinthians to act with love because such actions are a powerful witness to a God in whom we believe.
Now, the article in the paper did not say whether Sam was a Christian or not. But, if he was, his actions would make his faith credible to others. People can disagree with our doctrines. They can remain unimpressed by our worship. But everyone is attracted by actions of love. This is why Paul tells the Corinthians that they are to treat others with kindness, patience, and forgiveness, in a way that uplifts what is good. He tells them to do this not to make them feel warm and satisfied but to witness to the God who loves us. When we treat others with love, we draw them to believe in God—a God in whom it is worth believing.
January 31, 2016
Two friends went out for a walk. One was an optimist, the other a pessimist. The pessimist spoke first, “Another cloudy day in Cleveland. I can’t remember the last time I saw the sun. Why do we live in such a gloomy place?” The optimist responded, “Too much sun is not a good thing. Do you know that we have one of the lowest rates of skin cancer in the country? In this sense, we are very lucky to be living here.” Then the two friends started climbing a hill. “This hill is steeper than I remember it,” said the pessimist, “I thought we were going for a walk, not a hike. By the time I get to the top I’ll be covered with perspiration.” “Exercise is good,” said the optimist, “Trust me, by the time we get home and take a shower, you’ll feel great and be very thankful we had this climb.” Just then a huge flock of birds flew over the friends, and deposited their droppings on the both of them. “This is disgusting,” said the pessimist pulling the bird droppings out of his hair. And then he saw that his friend was smiling. “Okay,” he said, “I’m ready. Tell me why you’re smiling because we are covered in bird droppings.” “I’m smiling,” said the optimist, “because I’m thankful. I am thankful that God did not make buffalos fly.”
Every day, perhaps more than once a day, we face some kind of disappointment or failure. When that happens we have a choice of focusing on what is wrong or looking for what is good. Some people would say that looking for the good is an illusion or a trick to make us feel better. But finding what is good in our lives is a creative process. In almost every situation there is mixture of both good and bad. It is up to us to decide which of these two aspects are we going to claim as our own.
Jesus chooses the optimistic option in today’s gospel. He comes to his own town, to the people who know him and love him the most, and he preaches to them the gospel. It is a disaster. Not only do they reject him. They try to kill him. This is why the most important line in today’s gospel is the last line, “Then Jesus passed through their midst and continued on his way.” The rejection that Jesus experienced at Nazareth could have stopped him. He could have said to himself, “If this is the way my very family responds to my message, then certainly I’ll never be successful in proclaiming the Kingdom of God.” But Jesus did not focus on the rejection. He focused on what was good and then continued on his way, continued in his mission. The text does not tell us what the good thing was upon which Jesus focused, but it does not have to. We know that Jesus was always in touch with the goodness that came from his relationship to his Father. We too are in relationship with God as our father. Therefore, we can and should develop a Christian optimism, an optimism that is rooted in the love that God has for us.
When we mess things up at work or at school, Christian optimism does not pretend that there is nothing wrong. But it reminds us that God knows our intentions and our weakness, and God will help us learn from our mistakes. When someone we love is in trouble and we do not seem to be able to help, Christian optimism does not deny that there is a problem. But it reminds us that God loves the people in our lives as much as we do and will not abandon them. When we look at what is wrong in our world, Christian optimism does not try to pretend that working for peace or justice will be easy. But it tells us that God is committed to peace and justice and will work with us and through us to build the kingdom.
Christian optimism is a lot more than thinking positively. It is believing that the good things that we want for ourselves and others are what God wants as well. And, if God is with us and for us, we can always find something good upon which to focus. We can always find something to give us hope.
February 3, 2019
1 Corinthians 12:31–13:13
Today’s second reading from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is very well known. Ninety percent of Catholic couples choose this reading to be part of their wedding liturgy. They do this because the passage is about love. Paul goes on for a whole chapter talking about the qualities and the power of love. When we first read this passage, we are tempted to use Paul’s description of love as a kind of moral checklist, examining ourselves about how well we have loved. Have I been patient? Have I been kind? Am I concerned only about my own self-interest? Do I brood over injuries?
Using Paul’s words this way is certainly valid and helpful, but there are indications in the text that Paul has something larger in mind than our moral improvement. The tip-off to this larger sense is when Paul says, “Love never fails.” Love never fails? Of course it does. Love fails regularly. Honest efforts of love to hold a marriage together sometimes fail. Sincere attempts to save a son, daughter, or friend from making a disastrous decision sometimes fail. Love fails all the time. So how can Paul say, “Love never fails”? He can say it because here Paul is not talking about our love. He is talking about a greater and a prior love. He is talking about the love of God.
Behind all that Paul says about love is the eternal, perfect love of God which never fails. And the words fit. God’s love is patient. Time and time again, God waits for us, waits for us to see, waits for us to change, waits for us to respond to his love. God’s love is kind. God does not bully us or push us around but deals with us gently, as a mother deals with her infant child. God’s love does not seek its own interest. On the contrary, God humbles himself to become one of us, to suffer on the cross so that we might have life. God’s love is not about God’s interests but about our interests. God’s love does not brood over injuries. God’s love is merciful. No matter how many times we turn our back on God, God is willing to forgive. God does not brood over our sins. Though they be as red as scarlet, God will make them white as snow. Underlying all that Paul says in this famous hymn of love is God’s eternal and perfect love, which never fails.
Now, of course, Paul invites us to imitate God’s love. Because we have known God’s patience, kindness, generosity, and mercy, we are invited to be patient, kind, generous, and merciful to others. But the reason we do these actions is not simply because they are good, or because they are right, but because doing them allows us to participate in the love of God.
So the next time you are able to be patient with a family member who drives you crazy, know that your patience is not simply the result of Jesus’ teaching, but it is allowing you to act like God. The next time that you give of yourself generously to a friend who is in serious need, know that you are not simply doing something good, you are doing something divine. If you find the grace to forgive an enemy who has hurt you deeply, know that your action is not simply something moral. It is something eternal. God’s perfect love has called all things into being, saved us through Jesus Christ, and promises us eternal life. That is the love we have known. That is the love that we are called to share.