The word “love” is one of the most over used and generic words in the English language. I can say I love to fish, and also say I love my wife and children. When I attend Mass I frequently hear the homilist say that God loves us and right after Mass, I can say that I love to go to the stadium and watch my favorite college football team play. So, the question is; what is love? The answer is that we have to understand the word “love” in its proper context.
There are four types of love. These types are self-love, Eros, Philo and Agape. Self-love is love of self. We should love ourselves. If we don’t love ourselves, we cannot love others. This is why Jesus said, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matt 22: 29; Mark 12: 31) However, with self-love comes pride which must be tempered with humility. We can take pride in what we have accomplished, our work, our spouse, accumulated knowledge or the type of person we strive to become (e.g., ethical, empathetic) because we have leveraged the charisms that God has given to us. This is good pride. Harmful pride is an inordinate love of self at the expense of diminishing or taking away from others.
Pride must be tempered with humility. St. Bernard of Clairvuax, in his 36th sermon, defined humility as truly knowing oneself. This means honestly knowing our good points as well as our shortcomings. When we follow St. Bernard’s direction, we quickly come to the conclusion and realization that God is God, and we are not. St. Paul wrote “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How inscrutable are his judgments and how unsearchable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord or who has been his counselor?” (Romans 11: 33-34) Isaiah 55: 9 states “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, my thoughts higher than your thoughts.” Truly—and tempered by humility—we must freely admit to ourselves that we are not God. To be absorbed in self-love is to think we are God.
Eros is the type of love from which we obtain the word “erotic.” This type of love centers on material gain. Specifically, we ask ourselves, what’s in it for me? From this type of love, we desire the four types of material goods as described by St. Thomas Aquinas. These types of materials goods are pride, pleasure, wealth and honor. Associatively, we can sometimes turn these types of material goods into our own personal gods. As such, sometimes we attempt to fill the hole that is inside of each of us—which was given to be filled by love of God—with these types of material goods. Yet, no matter how much money we accumulate, alcohol we drink, drugs we take, sex we have we never fill the hole because all of these things are temporary and at some point will disappear. Whereas, when the hole is filled with God, it is permanently filled which bring us joy and satisfaction.
Philo is a love of others whom we enjoy having a friendship with; however, we are not willing to really sacrifice anything of value for the friendship. Aristotle defined three types of friendship. Specifically, he defined virtuous, pleasurable and utilitarian. All friendships begin as pleasurable. We enjoy being with particular people because we have a common interest. For example, I have friends that I tailgate with at college football games, but our mutual pleasure in each other’s company is based upon our common desire to support our football team. I only really associate with these friends during football season.
During job interviews, we quickly attempt to establish a pleasurable relationship. Generally, we are not only being evaluated with respect to a particular work skill-set, but also if we will be a compatible member of a team or organization. However—after being hired—the relationship we have with our supervisor develops shades of being utilitarian. Specifically, the supervisor has tasks that must be completed and the employee is the means by which these tasks are completed. In short—and not in necessarily a bad way—the employee is being used as a utility item by the supervisor where both the supervisor and employee benefit for material gain. However, a negative consequence occurs when the pleasurable friendship is moved from being of mutual benefit to a state where one party benefits at the other party’s expense or detriment. This type of friendship changes to an Eros type of love because one party is being exploited by the other for material gain.
A virtuous friendship is one where both parties move each other to become more virtuous. But, what does virtue really mean on a practical level? A professor of mine once used the following story. Assume that you are attending your own funeral. What would you want people to say about you? Perhaps, we would want to hear; “she was always generous to a fault” or “she always had time to be concerned with the wellbeing of others.” These types of comments are virtues. While these types of friendships move us toward virtue, they also entail a movement toward Agape love.
Agape is the type of love that entails self-sacrifice. For example, in a marriage each spouse implicitly agrees, under the auspices of “just servitude,” to become the slave of the other. This means that each spouse will place the needs of the other over their own needs. To satisfy the needs of the other one will frequently be called to perform self-sacrifices. No one has ever said that Agape love was easy.
When we hear a homilist speak of love, they are usually speaking about Agape love. Specifically, they are speaking about God’s self-sacrificing love that led Christ to the cross, for example. In the same vein, we are called to Agape love toward God and each other. (Matt 22: 37–39) Moreover, we commit these acts of self-sacrifice because of our love of God.
One of the graces and privileges God has granted me is to minister to inmates at a local county jail. One of the “lines” that the inmates frequently hear from a couple of the other Churches in the area that also minister to inmates at the jail is that they want to share the “Good News;” that Christ died on the cross for our sins. Additionally, the word Gospel also means “Good News.” Frankly, and in my experience, many inmates simply don’t relate well to these definitions of “Good News.” When I meet with an inmate for the first time and ask them about what they think the “Good News” really means to them they will repeat the definitions they have been given. I readily agree that Jesus’ dying on a cross is a culmination of God’s salvific plan which, in total, is the “Good News.” However, I explain that the “Good News”—taking a step back from the death by Jesus on a cross—is that there is an all-powerful God who created everything and all of us out of love. And, this God set us free to make our own choices in this life. Now, are you ready for the “Good News?” Here it is—get ready. In spite of everything we have done, no matter how bad, God wants us back! God wants us back is the “Good News!” In speaking directly to an inmate, I say God loves you—in particular—so much that He is willing to make self-sacrifices for you. It is because of God’s love that Jesus—who is God—freely surrendered to the cross for all of us out of Agape love. Jesus would have willing surrender to the cross if you were the only person in the world who needed salvation out of love, but we all need salvation.
In closing and in consideration of the different types of love, I cannot help but reflect on the words of Albert Pike who wrote, ““What we do for ourselves dies with us. What we do for others and the world remains and is immortal.” The essence of God is truth, love and mercy. God’s love is Agape, as ours needs to be to be true Disciples of Christ. It is by Agape love that we become an apostle (i.e., one who is sent) by Christ into the world. Only self-sacrificing acts of love will become immortal.