Meaning of Love
I am something of a “word nerd.” I actually enjoy discussing the finer points of English grammar, and in my mind, one of the greatest disappointments of the modern age is the loss of the Oxford comma. But even though I find grammar and punctuation to be super fun, I’m especially fascinated by etymology. What can I say? Some folks like to play basketball or watch cooking shows; I like to learn how words have changed in meaning over time.
Did you know that the word “girl” originally meant any child, male or female? Or that “meat” used to refer to all solid food? “Nice” originally meant “ignorant,” and “awful” once meant something much closer to “awesome” than “terrible.” But language is a living, growing thing, so over the centuries, these and so many other words have changed in meaning.
In last week’s Gospel we heard Jesus distill his entire message into one directive. “I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another” (John 13: 34). Then this week, we’ll hear Jesus tell his disciples that he will send the Holy Spirit to give them the strength and courage to live out that new commandment. Bottom line: the Gospel of Jesus Christ is all about LOVE.
Simple, right? Just one commandment to follow! Unfortunately, though, “love” may be the most poorly defined and universally misunderstood words in the English language. I think I have spent the last half of my life trying to unlearn its original meaning and relearn what it’s truly all about. And I’m sure I still have a long way to go.
Many of us grew up understanding “love” as a feeling of warmth and closeness. But the “love as feeling” definition falls apart pretty easily. We soon recognize that we love many people but don’t always feel tenderly towards them. Take my son, for instance. I love my son more than I ever thought possible, but Lord knows how I “feel” towards him in all his angst-ridden teenage glory at times is anything but warm. When I have to ask him four times to put the dirty clothes on the floor of his room into the laundry, and he says “on it” four times but I still find them on the floor. . . let’s just say that tenderness is not exactly what I’m feeling in the moment. Jesus too did not feel tenderly toward the money changers he chased out of the temple or the scribes and Pharisees he derided as hypocrites. I believe Jesus would have high-fived me when I told my son, “If those clothes aren’t in the laundry in the next three minutes, you will never see another screen as long as you live.”
Over time, many of us move from a “love as feeling” understanding of the word to more of a “love as choice” approach. On one level, defining love as a decision one makes to put the others’ interests ahead of my own makes sense. Even though I do not always feel warmly towards my son, I choose to seek the best for him in all circumstances. But although “love as choice” is a step in the right direction, I think this definition comes up short too. If love is a decision, then it’s limited by my decision-making abilities. If it’s a choice, then it’s episodic, not constant. If it’s a decision I make at a discrete moment in time, then it’s also all about me and my preferences. Something about this understanding of “love” feels incomplete to me. If Jesus’ whole message can come down to this one word, then “love” must be something that isn’t centered around me or limited by my capacity to make good choices.
I have come to believe that “love” as a noun is that which connects everything. It’s the sacred soup from which we all came, the web of relationship that binds all life together, the blessed wholeness to which we will all return. It is the understanding that everything came from God, is connected to everything else, and goes back to God in the divine dance known as life. Love is the holy wholeness of existence. Sure, we experience life in parts rather than in whole. I’m me, and you’re you – two separate entities. But it’s also true that we’re both connected, an understanding that used to be the sole province of mystics but that science has now confirmed as well. The Buddhists have a simple way of capturing this: “not two.”
So if “love” as a noun is divine connection, then “love” as a verb is simply the act of recognizing this connection. I recognize this connection when I care for my son and when I help a friend in need. But as Jesus himself said, even criminals love their own. I also recognize this connection when I support a cause that helps someone I will never meet and consequently will never feel tenderly towards. That’s love. I recognize this connection when I am tolerant of someone whose politics I despise. That’s love. I recognize this connection when I forgive someone who hurt me even when he feels no remorse. That’s love. They are all ways I recognize the divine oneness of life. In this way, “love” involves choice but isn’t choice itself. It involves feelings but isn’t the feelings on their own. I think this was the love that Jesus spoke of and made the core of his message.
In addition to telling us to “love one another,” Jesus also told us to “pray always.” “Prayer” is another of those tricky words whose meaning may need to evolve as we grow and change. I used to see prayer as “communication with God.” I now see prayer as anything that helps me to love as Jesus taught. Prayer is anything that helps me recognize the divine relatedness to all of life. This can involve communication with God through words or music or communal worship, but it isn’t confined to those individual actions alone. For me, prayer could also involve a difficult conversation with a loved one where I share my deepest needs. It could involve taking photographs of nature. It could involve advocating for legislation that supports the dignity of all people with my elected representatives. It could involve writing in my journal about my frustration with the dirty clothes on the floor when I know that’s not what I’m really upset about. It is what I have been doing as I wrote this reflection. For me, prayer is anything that helps me to better recognize the blessed wholeness of life.
Like I said, I’m a “word nerd.” I’m actually offended when I hear someone say, “Where’s she at?” or fail to understand the difference between “their, there, and they’re.” And don’t even get me started on the use of “disrespect.” I don’t think I will ever get over the shift in our language that now allows its use as a verb. But as horrific as I find the phrase “don’t disrespect me,” I think the common understanding of “I love you” may be even worse. At least, it can cause more problems. I will take Jesus as his word and try to “love one another” in the only way it makes sense to me. I will do my best to recognize that we’re all part of one crazy, beautiful entity called life.