The word is used all the time throughout every major theology book I’ve read (including “Introduction to Christianity,”) but I feel its true meaning in the Catholic faith keeps eluding me.
Christ once said, “love your enemies.” But how does one go about loving a serial killer (or any other kind of reprehensible human being) to the same extent that you love your mother and father, or your own children? (What C.S. Lewis calls “agape.”) Christ seems vague about this. In this day and age when so many people seem to go out of their way to be hateful and brutish, how is a person expected to impart love on someone who deliberately rejects it?
One thing that comes to my mind is how Fr Simon on Relevant Radio stresses that agape love means sacrificial love. He says you can almost always replace the word love in Scripture with the word sacrifice.
What does sacrificial love look like?
“Agape is sacrificial. It says, I love you when you are not very lovable. Agape is the cross, extending its arms to embrace all humanity. Agape loves when it is not always convenient and when it is not reciprocated. It extends to both the deserving and the undeserving.” Fr John Bakas from here
John 15:13 RSV
Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.
“Everything that is done out of Love acquires greatness and beauty.” – St. Josemaria Escriva
“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken.” C.S. Lewis
“Charity means pardoning the unpardonable, or it is no virtue at all. Hope means hoping when things are hopeless, or it is no virtue at all. And faith means believing the incredible, or it is no virtue at all.” G.K. Chesterton
“So the divine love is sacrificial love. Love does not mean to have and to own and to possess. It means to be had and to be owned and to be possessed. It is not a circle circumscribed by self, it is arms outstretched to embrace all humanity within its grasp”. ––Fulton J. Sheen 1
We must travel outside of ourselves, our imperfections, biases and hatreds. Our Lord clearly said that all sins - all sins - would be forgiven men except final impenitence. Since God desires that no one perish, so must we have the same desire.
God loves all whom He created. If a murder’s sin cannot be forgiven, then neither can yours. Or mine.
We all struggle with those who are difficult to tolerate. Some we outright hate.
Our solution, and one which works each and every time is to pray for them.
Find something to like first then increase the like.
We are spirit and body, made in the image of God. The body causes us to sin and through the trials our spirits develop and become more pleasing to God. Eventually if we are pleasing enough to God we reach heaven.
I liked God. Then I liked Him a lot. Now I love Him.
When I look around me I see animated bodies, personalities born of the flesh but inside, inside everyone is spirit, made in the image of God.
If I love God, I love God in man.
Perhaps it might help if we see others as our mother, father or our own children. We are after all spiritually brothers and sisters. Isn’t it the case that the immoral are to be pitied as they damage themselves through their acts. The physically violent do violence to themselves with every blow. Shouldn’t we reach out to them, care for them, pray for them. Isn’t that love?
It is often said hate the sin but not the sinner and it’s easy to see why, though this may be our greatest challenge and perhaps most of us can only try to achieve these dizzy spiritual heights. I for one hope that I will never be tested to that degree but if I am I am sure that I will need God’s strength to pass it.
Now, what would be the true good of the serial killer? First of all, going to Heaven, going to Purgatory, if that’s impossible, suffering less in Hell, if that is also impossible.
And the first step obviously includes ceasing to murder. The best way to achieve that is conversion, but being killed by police would also achieve this goal.
Now, are you sure wanting the serial killer to stop murdering people is so hard?
To take a different example, a competent general (not necessarily being anywhere close to “a saintly general”) should not see killing enemy soldiers as the main goal. He should see victory as the main goal. And he should see that victory would be even easier to achieve, if the enemy soldiers would stay alive and switch sides instead.
A general killing enemy soldiers trying to switch sides (claiming that, let’s say, “They do not deserve to fight with our glorious army!”) would not be seen as merely not loving - he would be seen as incompetent, risking the victory for no good reason.
So, to reiterate, consider what exactly is the good that you are expected to will for the enemies, and things should become easier.
I think agape is broader. It’s to see the humanity in the person, the image of God, who they are behind who they may’ve become due whatever demons drive them. It’s to know that everything is created good by God to begin with, even if we fail to live up to it.
It’s a good question. I really think one has to develop their own personal understanding of what love is. Yes there is love in the Christian sense which other posters have referenced. For me, the absolute, foundational, bottom floor basement definition of love is this’ “love is an expression of value coupled with an act of will.” How it manifests itself in life is subjective. In my understanding I use the following example. Let’s say the most despicable person I know is Hillary Clinton. Don’t like her or her politics. But if I turned a corner and found Hill lying on the ground in the rain with a broken ankle and no one else around, I would stop, try to offer her shelter, call for medical aid, and do what I can to alleviate her situation. She is a child of God, made in the image and likeness of God and as a Christian I owe her (and my creator and myself), at least that bit of compassion/aid/decency. And of course there are degrees of love depending on the person/circumstance.
Yes you could extend my basic definition to something frivolous like saying “I love chocolate” and it would be applicable, but if one is that stunted in their spiritual and emotional understanding, I don’t think any further conversation would be of value.
Love is that amazing energy that starts and ends in the heart of God. We can access and enjoy as much of it as we choose. The key is to choose.
To love is to will the good of the other. To sin is to fail to do this. We all miss the mark. Some sins we’re more culpable of than others, but the spiritual path is a path that doesn’t just give us a set of external rules to obey. Rather, it enlightens our path to help us grow in our ability to do what is right. Sometimes what holds us back is spiritual blindness. Sometimes what holds us back is slavery to a habit. Sometimes we’re just a bit reluctant to do what we ought.
I would even go so far as to say that discerning between mortal and venial sin isn’t all that helpful. Typically, when people hear that they think “Oh my gosh. You’re taking away the motivation to go to confession.” But in actuality, if you’re motivated to go to confession merely out of a fear of mortal sin, your error is like someone planning to delay their baptism till they’re on their death bed.
Go to confession for the grace, and recognize that if you’re regularly going to confession, unless you have a “play the system” mindset, you likely aren’t falling into mortal sin. If that motivates you to stop going, then look at where your heart is. Don’t just scare yourself into external displays of piety.
Our default - even the most charitable and saintly among us, is hell. Our sins deserve that. We can do no good act on our own to merit an eternal reward, since whatever we do is limited to time and space. Yet, we know that God does not delight in the destruction of any living thing. He offers eternal bliss to all who have a contrite heart - who turn away from self and sin and toward Him.
That is the crux of the matter. Contrition. Murders? Easy. Gangster “Dutch” Schulz, born Jewish, asked for a priest in his last moments. It is believed that he made a confession based on contrition, and received absolution.
This is as it should be, or else mankind has no hope.