“To give and not to count the cost, is the measure of true, deep and lasting love.”
What is love?
The word love is used in countless ways, with a huge variety of meanings.
How then do we know what people are really talking about, when using the word love? And does it matter anyway?
I believe it does: for me, love is the very meaning of life, why we’re here. I feel passionately, as I’m sure we all do, that love matters most in all human endeavors.
So what is love? What more can we say?
The four loves
CS Lewis, author of the famous series of books The Chronicles of Narnia, also wrote about love. His non-fiction book, The Four Loves, throws a lot of light on the subject. He distinguishes four different kinds of love:
- Brotherly love
- Romantic love
- Unconditional love
What does Lewis mean by these four loves? And where do they fit into our own life? Your life?
This is my take on it. I believe that we’re all on a lifetime love journey: from self-centeredness, all the way to self-forgetfulness, giving and even altruism.
In this love journey, all four loves have an important role to play in our human growth and development. All four loves continue; they remain an essential dimension of our life, as we grow into deeper maturity and wisdom.
Where does love’s journey start?
It all begins with going beyond our own needs, and a natural self-interest that risks becoming selfish, and then looking outward to others, and their needs.
We wake up, and realize that we are called to give, as well as receive. We have the first stirrings of love.
This first level of love, affection, is the natural love we usually feel for family and friends. This love is almost inborn as we live, relax and communicate in a small, intimate group.
I, myself, am truly fortunate to have experienced this love. I hope you did too. We were mother, father and three boys. The affection dimension was the very atmosphere that we breathed, at least most of the time.
And yet this affection is a tender plant, easily uprooted: as family feuds, quarrels and divisions amply testify.
The next level
Beyond family is a deeper brotherly love we experience for another person, one who somehow seems a bit special to us.
This is often described as having a best friend, a good mate, a bosom pal. I’m sure we’ve all had best friends. Such people have more than a natural affection for each other.
They are prepared to give time, energy and commitment to each other. Often they are ready to suffer, and perhaps even die, for such a close and cherished “brother.”
Such a person, then, is not simply a brother or sister that my parents gave me; it is a “brother” freely chosen, whose life and company we respect, esteem, admire and enjoy. Think of people you know like that.
In my own schooldays, and throughout my life, I am fortunate to have experienced brotherly love. Close friends: my buddies, my mates, my pals. These were my special “brothers.”
This too is an immense blessing, especially when we see so many people who feel lonely, sad and rejected.
The third level is romantic love, calling us to an even deeper love, union and commitment to another. People who are in love. We can even speak of having found our “soul mate.”
Romantic love finds expression in a long-term, and all-embracing mutual commitment, one to the other: “two in one flesh.” Such love is often displayed publicly, and witnessed, in the ceremonies of marriage and civil partnerships.
I hope you also know this love in your own life!
And me? Did I find this love? Yes! I myself finally experienced this romantic love, when I was already in my late 50’s! Never too late!
That was 20 years ago. It has been an amazing experience of love and commitment to a my very special woman. This love has greatly eased my way into the third age of life.
The highest level
Finally there is the unconditional love, that flows beyond family, best friends, and sexual partners. It reaches out to embrace the wider community. It commits to many unknown others, in a profound desire to make a difference in their lives.
It was of this highest love that St Ignatius spoke, in his classic prayer: that he might:
“love, and give, and not count the cost …”
You would be right to ask me: “To what extent did you yourself commit to this magnificent love?”
I’m more than happy to reply. This is my story. I was just 18 years old. I was young, idealistic and ready to take a jump. I did: straight into level four, unconditional love! How is that possible? What did I do?
Franciscan Monk and Priest
I felt an overwhelming call to dedicate my life to God, and to the service of other people. This I achieved by joining a religious community of Franciscans. I knew them: they ministered in my local parish church.
For the next 40 years I worked in the love and service of countless people, in many places. I even spent 8 years as a missionary in Central America, working with my North American brothers, and serving the local people.
My own struggles
Was my experience of unconditional love easy?
No, it’s never that easy. Not for me, not for anyone. It was a massive and ongoing challenge. There were endless ups and downs, good times and bad. How did I cope?
There were numerous things that I learnt and did. Above all, I received endless, excellent help and support from many good people, especially my Franciscan brothers.
Within my own deepest spirit, and still burning brightly, there was that unquenciable flame of love; a flame that drove me all through the years. This flame was nurtured by my Christian belief, that I should love and serve God, and His people, with ALL of my heart, mind, body and spirit.
Ask yourself: “How far have I got?”
The greatest and most challenging of these four loves is, of course, unconditional love; a love that CSLewis also calls “God-love.” Such complete love has both an emotional and a rational dimension: the whole person is involved.
- Emotional: this altruistic love often has a great element of compassion, where we feel for the suffering and needs of others.
- Rational: in our mind, we realize that the right thing to do is to help in any way possible. It appears to us as a basic human value.
I believe we all possess an awesome strength, deep within. You, too, are called to unconditional love.
It’s true: we may not all be called to a high level of unconditional love. It’s simply important to remember that this inner strength is always available — if we keep focussed on giving to others, and making a difference in our own unique way.
My own life has been a challenging, and yet blessed, happy and fulfilling journey into these four classic loves. That journey is there for all of us. It can be done. It should be done.
Please remember, and believe it: I’m no different to you. We’re all weak, fallible human beings; and yet also with the seeds of greatness within.
What has been your own experience to the present?
What might it be in the future?
May I wish you every happiness and success, as you continue on your own love journey!