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What is love?

What is love?Christine Clear, who is currently giving a course on Love at the Milltown Institute, reflects here on the multifarious and complex meanings of that simple word.


Do you think a lone tiger crossing the frozen planes of the Antarctic is really just searching for love? Are the thousands of marathon joggers crossing a bridge in any one city really running towards the Ineffable? Is a mother pushing her daughter’s car to a wrenching start, and waving her on, honouring the basic laws of love, or basic laws of evolution?

What do we mean by love? Where is it? Who knows about it? And how can we find it? Is the search for love best undertaken by being alone under the vast skies, or is it better taken in fellowship through common and rewarding purpose? What does love ask of us, and how does it work?

Valentine’s day is approaching and our culture is going to spend a lot of sound-bytes around this four-letter word. The love most likely to be presented will be a high-visibility love. A love which we can watch and discuss like the weather. To a stranger such talk might appear as colloquial and charming; how we talk of southerly winds of attraction, the balmy days of union, and the ensuing seasons of commitment etc., Yet, while our appreciation for this mellifluous forecast might be fleeting or praising, the stranger will see that for this one day in the year, the seduction of love, romantic love in all its capitalist prescriptions, is offered as the only real antidote to the cold pain of human existence.

“Without love, humanity would not last a day”, when Eric Fromm said this in 1957, it was loading a lot on the word then, but it now seems even more exacting given our ecological fragility and thus human vulnerability. And so, if Fromm’s statement is true, then why out of all the myriad of loves that we could explore, have we chosen to celebrate the entertaining kind, the cutesy/easy/sugary love? The love of puppies and cushions? And of beachballs?

Nearly, all the good artists take love seriously, certainly the real poets, and unarguably almost all of the mystics. That was my reckoning at least when I first had this conversation with myself late one night on a motorway, heading west, alone and trying to work out the semantics of it all.
NO…I do not LOVE ice-cream, car, houses, technology…
I LOVE FREEDOM.
And YES, I do not LOVE you because you LOVE me,
I LOVE you because I’ve learnt HOW to love you.

But, what is love? What does it mean? What does it want? I know that if love is the solution to the pain of existence, it is also a big part of that pain too. And as a motorway theologian I argue that if love is also pain – and God is love – well, then, we’re into something…unsettling. Is God pain – the Cloud of unknowing – and is embracing that darkness, as St. Teresa of Lisieux says, an act of love? The suffering of agape and the suffering of mystical union should be collapsed no doubt, but one thing is remains, love and suffering, and suffering and love, is, as all the ancient romantic sagas tell us, a truism. Christ sang of it too, albeit from another perspective. For the mystic to step into love, either by choice or charm is for her/him to step outside of community, and like the lone tiger roaming blizzardly deserts, to be ultimately alone, is to be often killingly lonely. For acts of salvation, one must proffer good measures of one’s life to keep the bigger picture going. Ordinarily, it is called evolution. One generation’s teeth and hair must fall out, for another generations to grow. But what if that proffering has no direct bearing on humanity? What if the search remains separate from the commonplace? Is that love? Does love imply a relation with both life and death, and does love ask that while a part of us is struggling to live, a part of us must also struggle to die.

Is that love?

Or is this erroneous, misguided and masochistic delusion?

Is love not the drive into the eyeball of life, the demand and the answer of the spirit to live and to celebrate, and to cry out in praise of life; to dance, to drink, to laugh, to love ? Freud said that civilization is “a process in the service of Eros, whose purpose is to combine single human individuals and after that families, then races, peoples, and nations, into one great unity, the unity of mankind”. Is this the kind of love that has the spiritual bottle to receive life as gift and grace, to run with what been given, to believe in what’s been done, to cherish what been offered, and to testify to it all by loving another? Isn’t love believing in life? Isn’t it the profound human wisdom of accepting the difference between you and I, and isn’t the strength and stature needed to hold that tension, ultimately, as Iris Murdoch has defined love itself as, “the very difficult realisation that something other than oneself is real.” Allowing one-self to partake in the delight, drama and stamina it takes to look into another pair of eyes and not flinch, is surely the groove through which life itself flows, reproduction, celebration, creation, forgiveness and service. Are these not the fruits of love? The fruits of salvation, the gifts of the Lamb, offered to those capable of navigating the paradox between giving and receiving, between what is mine and yours, between what is now and not now. Surely this is love? Surely, it is love that we learn to love, for love’s sake? For most, accepting we are not the centre of the universe is greatest gift that love can offer, and so is the ensuing and enabling freedom it gives is for real community and fellowship.

Isn’t that love? Aren’t we loving then?

Or is there still yet another love which creates life (even more life) through the stuff of love itself. A love which transforms life into art, ethics, beauty, justice, abundance? Through and by own baring in the world? Many of the parables of spiritual alchemy, show how to transform one reality into another through the laws of love, is itself, love. This is love not the genius of the imagination in figuring how to cook raw materials so that they turn into something else? Or, as Mozart said “neither a lofty degree of intelligence nor imagination nor both together go the making of a genius. Love, love, love, that is the soul of genius” So is love the only antidote to blandness, to despair, violence, anger and ugliness? Is love the genius of creating an antidote solution to a problem? For example, Christ transforming a conniving mob calling for an accused woman’s blood, into a dignified crowd by their own conscience, is testimony to love’s efficacy.

Is it that that love asks?

I know the four letters of love are the deeply grooved conduits between us and our universe.

For the most part I think we are all just trying to reach love, like sailors navigating home. Visibility is moderate, and the correlation between capitalism and our own sense of self makes it often difficult to see. Is it possible in a consumerist culture to celebrate love when it doesn’t follow the laws of economics? We know that love, real love, has a boomerang effect, in the sense that the more I give away, the more I have. Is this why love in a consumerist economy is trivialized and sugared because, as Gandhi wrote, only the truly courageous can love? Can we say that of love, or is that unloving?