I was tempted to entitle this essay, Flexing The Muscles Of Our Heart, except that the more I have studied the concept of love, the more I have become aware that love is not restricted to the heart. It can take over the mind, the body, our actions; and it can profoundly affect the functioning of our souls.
I gave up a whole long time ago on thinking of love as an emotion. A simple emotion. Like cheerfulness. Or being touched. Or even resentful. Something that can infuse our thoughts and body with a change of sensing in that moment, but which can diffuse just as easily as it was stimulated.
Love, in the strong sense of the word, is clearly not something that just comes and goes. It is very much a stay-around-whether-you-like-it-or-not, either because of the degree of attachment or through our own discipline, phenomenon. And I think that’s why, mostly, we just don’t get it. We want to think of it as something we can control, both in ourselves and in others. Something that makes sense, has its own kind of logic, is malleable.
We tend to think of it as an emotion, that is, as something that is stimulated from something outside ourselves. That it is something that we can put on and take off. Something we can talk about with our therapists and get a sense of.
Except love is not that. Any of it.
When I stopped thinking of it as something that comes from outside of us, I looked at it instead as something that is a part of us. Already existing inside us. Part of our makeup.
So, beginning with the end (always a fun place to start), I looked at the effects of love. Effects that God would want us to have. The good stuff.
I put aside all the crazy stuff. But even that gave me a direction to look in. Because the crazy stuff that people do while claiming love as their impetus proves that love can be an overwhelming confusion for a person. Which gives it a complexity that other things in our lives just don’t have.
So, again, I looked at the results that we should be reaping from love.
And, yes, even in this, love appears to break down into different expressions.
Just like C. S. Lewis says.
Although, not surprisingly, I had my own take on the divisions.
Mr. Lewis defines storge as affection, especially as parents to offspring. And in this case, I’ll be lazy and accept this definition (even though other definitions go other places with the concept). Mostly because I want to write about the love of a parent for an offspring: that drooling, pooping, screaming amalgamation of demands and cooing that seems to run into a psychic wall at the age of thirteen, and then, as a result of this smash-up, begins to run in virtual circles until it manages to find the door and spins its way out into the world. At which point, the best thing for a parent to do is make sure that there is a sturdy lock on the front door. And that it is kept firmly fastened.
At all times.
I have two of these. And from the very beginning of my association with children-of-my-own I wondered about the organizational capabilities of God. And not in a good way. But I did become mightily impressed by the fact that in spite of what a child is, a parent loved it.
I mean, him. Or her.
Talk about a muscle.
The flexing of which cannot be overlooked, or under-appreciated. I have come to the belief that each and every parent, no matter how neglectful, deserves some sort of recognition. Kind of like the acknowledgement that returning soldiers should get after a particularly nasty and drawn-out war.
It is the muscle that teaches the parent sacrifice. And only parents understand the depth of this accomplishment. From the outside, it may draw kind smiles and sweet squeezes on the arm with a message of understanding, but in reality it’s the ability to get up in the middle of the night, in spite of having a knock-down flu of your own, and clean up the vomit in your child’s bed.
Even to the changing of the sheets, and finding large towels to put under the sheets to soak up any remaining ooze.
And who gets to come into your room to change your sheets when you vomit in the night?
Oh, right. No one. You get to do it yourself.
There is really nothing that can describe the depth of sacrifice that goes into making up a parent’s love for her child.
And gaining this amazing ability – to sacrifice, no matter the degree of loss to the parent – is something that makes this world very much a better place to live in.
It’s clearly one of those God things that should be here.
While C. S. Lewis does not use the word, philia, he does single out love for our friends. Friendship works its own love muscle. With its own results. To have a friend, to keep a friend, to manage a friend, takes an infinite amount of humility and acceptance. It is a transformational function. Because on an ongoing basis, friendship transforms what we might otherwise overlook into something of value. It is a continual teaching of appreciating that which is in our reach. A stooping over to enjoy the beauty of a dandelion in the field when we know that we could be looking at the fine cultivated roses in the formal garden at the end of the walk.
Friendship is the teaching of our soul to breathe. Just breathe.
I used to think that the different natures of love were hierarchical. And they did always seem to be placed on a list in a certain order. With parental love on the top of the list, giving it not the pride of place as it would seem, but the position of the first step. A stepping up to agape. But now, as I see these natures as muscles, I think of them as congregated together, like the four cavities of the heart, making up one organ. Each equal to the others. Each bringing to the individual a gift that enriches his life.
So, back to the muscles. Next on the list is eros. You have to look at profoundly contented couples to see how a functioning eros muscle works. The phenomenon of this type of love, the union that results from it, I think, can have the most profound effect on the soul. Being seen by another, by your other, gives the soul a concrete experience of being connected, which is the force of the soul. The soul is what connects us with God. And to have this connection literalized gives the soul an ability to function with a strength that it lacks without it. And a strong soul beautifies this world by bringing the song of God into it.
Like the angels who constantly sing the praises of God, our soul can reach out and express the glory of God.
And so, finally, agape. While all the love-muscles are difficult to work, present a continuing challenge, a strengthening discipline, the muscle that we must continually exercise, that we cannot neglect, is our love for God. It is through this love that we are given the grace of transcendence. We are born into a body that has built into it instincts to divide ourselves from others.
And yet through our love for God, we can change our very make-up, our very brain structure, and learn to see the world not as we are born to, but as God sees it. Which, of course, raises the question: Why did God design us in such a way that we need to be reformed in order to serve him properly?
But reformed we do need to be. And it is through the love of God, the functioning of this love, that our transformation takes place.
We can learn concepts like humility.
C. S. Lewis focuses this love on the virtue of charity. But I think that agape is deeper than that. If that deepness can be expressed. Yes, agape shows us how to reach out and love humanity. But it also leads us into understanding silence. And stillness.
It lets us put our hand in the hand of God, and to hold on as the world tumbles around us.
Sacrifice. Value. Union. And transcendence.
They make up the complete set of that which is God himself.
The four muscles of love.