(Originally posted on OCN’s The Sounding)
Love. It’s a popular topic; a word thrown around here and there. We love our mothers and fathers from birth; we love our siblings, our friends, and even co-workers. We “fall in love” and many times vow to love one person for the rest of our lives.
So what kind of loves are these: familial, “love of one’s own”? In what way do we love those around us naturally? I use “naturally” because I think we’d all agree that to a certain extent we are naturally inclined towards loving. But the nature of this love, the root, where is it to be found? What is the goal of this love? Why do we love: for what purpose, for what benefit? What makes this “natural” love of ours binding? What unites us to those that we love?
I suppose it’s easy to think that all or any kind of love is good and of God, but is this true?
I don’t propose to know the answers to the above questions. In fact, I don’t even plan on trying to answer them here. Each in its own right could be expounded upon in its own article. I simply would like to talk about the relationship love has with Christ and if indeed Christ is the binding element of love.
The Scriptures tell us “We can do nothing without Christ”, and, “Except the Lord build the house, in vain do they labour that build it.” So, this brings us to the heart of the matter: Can love that is not mediated by Christ be called, or be in essence, love?
Here is a small, but powerful excerpt from a letter St. Nektarios wrote to one of the nuns under his spiritual care: “Be careful in the development of the feeling of love. It is endangered when the heart is not supported by honest prayer, and can then become carnal, unnatural, and can darken and burn the heart. I hope that this doesn’t happen. Love each other like holy sisters and let only the common love you share for the Lord unite you.”
According to this great theologian and miracle-worker, loves exist that are not good, are not “natural”, are not of God and in the end will only harm us, “darken and burn the heart” even.
I do not know how to discern which love is “carnal” and which is not, which is “spiritual” and which is based solely on selfishness. The only thing I know is that the Scriptures seem to suggest, just as St. Nektarios’ letter does, that love is of a very particular nature and can only be shared, understood, felt, and given with Christ as our conscious mediator. Again I will quote a letter written by St. Nektarios to a nun who (I’m assuming unknowingly and unintentionally) allowed her love for him to turn into something other than that which is mediated through love of Christ:
“My soul has become cold towards Syncletici so much that I have become indifferent towards her because of her state of mind. I love all of you, my dear girls, not because you love me but because you love our Lord Jesus Christ. It is a common love that we have for the Lord and it is that love which makes my heart love you, and it is what binds us. When one of you takes the love in your heart away from the Lord and offers it to the vanity of the world and the passion of the soul, then my love towards you will diminish because you have taken Christ out of your heart and have thus broken the bond of love between us, because, of course, the link that binds us is the common love of Christ.”
I must admit when I first read this I felt guilty. Have I too taken the love in my heart away from the Lord? Am I guilty of offering the love in my heart to the “vanity of the world”? The saint’s words seemed so sharp they cut me like a knife; I can’t imagine how they made Sr. Syncletici feel. Despite how she initially felt on reading her elder’s letter, I think they most likely helped her see her error.
How often do we fall into the same or similar error with our friends, co-workers, classmates, siblings, and/or parents? Perhaps not in a way that can turn into lust, but in a way that is merely human and devoid of Christ.
Can there be ANY love without Christ? I don’t think so. I don’t know what this means about the world and the supposed love non-Christians have for one another. It seems to me that St. Nektarios is clear: we cannot even love without Christ.
The most Holy Theologian and Evangelist John writes: “Do not love the world, nor the things of the world, if anyone loves the world the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the boastful pride of life is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away…”
All other “loves” (if they can in fact rightly be called love) will pass away. The love that is founded and mediated by Christ, however, will never pass away.