PRAYER: Love—A “Yes” To Belonging (Part One) by Brother David Steindl-Rast

Love—A “Yes” To Belonging (Part One) by Brother David Steindl-Rast

From: Gratefulness, The Heart of Prayer


In the two preceding chapters we have seen that faith and hope are always there when one is grateful.  We saw that one must have trust in the giver before one can give thanks.  But trust of this kind is the very core of faith.  And we recognized also that one must be open for surprise before one can be grateful.  Deep down, every gift is a surprise.  But openness for surprise is the essence of hope.  Faith and hope, in this sense, are two aspects of the divine life within us.  The third one, often mentioned in the same breath, is love.  It, too, is intimately tied in with giving thanks.  The ties between love and gratefulness are what we shall explore in this chapter.

In getting at the roots of faith and hope, we had to use a trick, which we shall use here, too.  We had to carefully distinguish faith and hope from their popular misconceptions.  It would be all too easy, as we saw, to confuse faith with beliefs and hope with hopes.  Yet, this would lead us, in the long run, far astray.  We tend to assume that we know the meaning of basic concepts like faith, hope, or love.  But, precisely because they are so basic, we need to re-examine now and then what they really mean.  When the roof of our house is leaking, everyone notices it.  When a window pane is broken, the damage is obvious.  We can fix it before greater harm happens.  But when the foundation walls begin to shift, we are in trouble.  We may not be aware of it until it is too late.  Even a slight shift can, in time, cause the whole building to topple.

The conceptual shifts we detected are slight, indeed.  But they are consequential.  It is a minute shift of emphasis from hope to hopes, from believing in someone to believing something.  Yet, we saw that hopes can in the end get in the way of hope, and beliefs can become obstacles to faith, when we cling to them.  When we look closely, we discover that a similar change of emphasis has taken place in our general understanding of love.  In fact, the problem here is every bit as dangerous, if not more so, for it is more difficult to discern.  What has happened to our understanding of love?  What shift has happened to this basic concept?

We can get an inkling of the problem when we focus on the difficulty that most of us experience with the command to love our enemies.  Remember, everything in this book must be able to stand the test of your own experience.  What I propose remains a mere suggestion until it is validated by your experience.  If your own experience doesn’t bear it out, it is not true – not true for you, at any rate.  In case you never had any difficulty loving your enemies, my argument will be lost on you.  For most of us, however, the problem will be a real one.  Merely thinking about loving our enemies, we get already entangled in contradictions.  Love, in the sense we normally give to that word, is simply not applicable to enemies.

Normally, we have preference and desire in mind when we speak of love.  For most of us, love, in the full sense, is a passionate attraction.  Given this notion of love, we need not put it to the extreme test of loving our enemies.  Loving our neighbors up and down the street with a passionate attraction is sufficiently grotesque a notion.  Even long before we get to the Bible, we find that there must be something wrong with thinking of love as preferential desire.  This notion applies, in fact, only to a small number of the many cases in which we speak of love.  Where it fits most obviously is in the case of lovers.  Beyond that, things get problematic.

Even for lovers, the current notion of love becomes less applicable to their relationship the more their love matures.  Preference grows less and less exclusive; desire finds fulfillment in mutual belonging; and yet, their love keeps growing.  But if love as preferential desire fits even in the most typical case only in a measure, what shall we say of other examples?  Do we love our parents with a passionate attraction?  And yet, we do love them.  The word “love” is surely appropriate among brothers and sisters.  But do we mean desire when we use it?  Obviously, there must be something askew with the current notion of love.

What is it that has gone wrong?  Why do we give so narrow a meaning to the word “love” that it fits only a fraction of the cases in which we actually use it?  I have a theory that explains – to my own satisfaction at least – how this narrowing of the notion of love comes about.  Long before we begin to reflect on love, long before we even learn to speak, we do love.  We love our parents, our playmates, our pets, our toys.  Passionate attraction is hardly what characterizes any of these relationships.  Nor does anyone take much notice of that love.  It is like the air we breathe.  But then, let’s say in kindergarten, we fall in love.  This, now, is passionate attraction, at least in miniature.  And suddenly everybody makes a big ado about this puppy love.  Our little classmates giggle and tease us and write on the wall, “Johnny loves Betsy.”  And the adults smile and call it our first love, as if we hadn’t known love before.  It’s no wonder that this experience so impresses us that this one form of love becomes in our minds the norm for every other form, whether it will fit or not.

If preferential desire is far too narrow a notion of love, what is a more adequate one?  If it is to apply in all cases, it ought to apply also to Johnny’s puppy love.  We should be able, therefore, to find in his experience – and in our own, if our memory is good enough – an element that characterizes love in all its forms.  What is that element?  It certainly is overshadowed by the passionate attraction that strikes us most.  But underneath is something different: a sudden experience of belonging to Betsy, which Johnny accepts with delight.  So overwhelming is this sense of belonging, in fact, that it spills over, as it were.  Those of us who grew up in a big family may remember that we could tell right away when one of our brothers or sisters had fallen in love.  But how?  They were suddenly so kind to everybody in the family.  Johnny washes the dishes and doesn’t forget to take out the garbage when his turn comes.  That’s a dead giveaway: he’s in love.  And why does he do so?  Because his sense of belonging is aroused and his joyful acceptance of belonging to another spills over, even to his family, whom he normally takes for granted.  We shall find this “yes” to belonging in every form love takes.

It would be an endless task to prove this point by running through every conceivable case of love in order to show that both a sense of belonging and a willing “yes” to that belonging is implies.  But there is an easier way.  We may be able to agree that the opposite of love is indifference, rather than hatred.  Experience proves, in fact, that we find it hard to tell, at times, whether we love or hate someone.  But this is never someone toward whom we are indifferent.  Indifference is a clear-cut “no” to belonging.  Both love and hatred do care.  Indifference says: “I don’t care.  I have nothing to do with this one.”  It stands to reason, then, that a “yes” to belonging should be a universal characteristic of love as diametrically opposed to indifference.

1 Comment on PRAYER: Love—A “Yes” To Belonging (Part One) by Brother David Steindl-Rast

  1. Children are children. Puppy love between kindergartners is something I have never seen, and I have four children. They may be encouraged or are imitating adults. It is called puppy love for a reason.

    Love is the denying of oneself for the sake of God. The feelings that inspire actions of love are emotions; useful, but only useful if they energize the will to love. It is the will to love that is the test of love, when we love our enemies. Indifference to each other springs from indifference to God, something that I am sure offends Him greatly as Our Creator. Once we will to love God first, then we can love others, in all forms, and indifference will evaporate.


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