Monday, January 24, 2011

The Only Word for Love is Everybody's Name

Fathers and teachers, I ponder, "What is hell?" I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love.  (Father Zosima in The Brothers Karamazov)

It's hard to argue against the position of Dosoevsky's saintly Father Zosima, and yet this raises the question: what does it mean, then, to be able to love?

I've noticed that the orthodox Catholic circles I began traveling in since my reversion in 2002 provide, among other things, a harbor for people who seem not to believe that they are required to fulfill the great commandment to love one another, and much less that to love their enemies.  To be clear, I've never heard anyone say that he thinks he is exempt from this command, but, just as the progressive church waters down some of the more difficult teachings of Christ, so does the orthodox one -- or at least, in my experience, so do many of its professed adherents -- water down this one, which is no less difficult, and perhaps infinitely more so.  For example, during the brief period when I dated a moderately-well-known Catholic journalist, I suggested that he pray for abortionists and for those who promote abortion.  He replied, with disarming honestly, that the thought had never occurred to him.

Indeed, I have often heard orthodox Catholics, when speaking of their responsibilities vis-à-vis other people (not forgetting, of course, that other famous definition of hell -- that it is, itself, other people) use the word "charity" in place of the more powerful, intimate "love."  But even in the Douay-Rheims Bible, favorite translation of the orthodox Catholic, Our Lord's commandment is "Love one another."

But my point is not to scold; I'll leave that to others who have far more right to it than I do.  My point is to ask the question again:  what does it mean to be able to love?  And how does one do it?

I've been reading some of the unpublished writings of English mystic Caryll Houselander, and in one diary from the 1930s, she writes:

Nothing helps me more to love other people than doing penance for them.  If it is an individual for whom I have any bitterness it is a sure cure, but since I took to praying and offering penance daily for all sinners I have found my love of people growing in proportion . . . It seems that in proportion to the love we give to God, He gives us love for each other.

Houselander was a natural-born misanthrope, and yet she strove to love other people; she also noted that Christ himself "sought [the] love" of others.

I used to think I knew all about love.  I now know that I know approximately less than nothing about it.  But there is a beautiful line in a beautiful song by Dar Williams, "It Happens Every Day":  "the only word for love is everybody's name."  How do we put that into practice, I wonder?

You can here the song performed live here, starting at 2:42.


Enbrethiliel said...


Coincidentally, I was singing Eponine's lines from the musical Les Miserables in my mind just this evening. They include the lyric, "To love another person is to see the face of God."

Which doesn't answer your question or anything, Pentimento. =P It just totally fits what Father Zosima said.

Now, I'm no genius when it comes to love, either, but I fancy I know a thing or two about Catholic circles that are often just big cliques. And they're reminding me of this quote from (I think!) C.S. Lewis:

"Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united--united with each other and against earlier and later ages--by a great mass of common assumptions."

The really funny bit is that those words came to mind when I was wondering why the anti-feminist blogs of the "Man-osphere" were reminding me so darn much of feminist writing from the 60s and 70s.

Perhaps someone looking in from the outside can't understand why "orthodox" Catholics and "progressive" Catholics can't get along when we clearly share the same cafeteria. =P

Rodak said...

It's a mystery and a trial. We are commanded to love people we don't even like; and at the same time, we often find it most difficult even to like people we love.

Pentimento said...

Have you listened to the song, E.? Wondering if you liked it.

GretchenJoanna said...

To be able to love surely is the supreme attribute of being truly human, as only Christ has been in perfection-- so it is our inheritance as baptized Christians. Recently I was reminded to hold others in my heart, where the Kingdom of God is, instead of in my mind, where there are only facts about the person; for example, he is an abortionist, she hurt (or is hurting) me terribly. This has been a great help in being able to pray, which is, as you point out, an essential activity of Love.

Pentimento said...

Thank you for that insight, GretchenJoanna. I am trying Caryll Houselander's practice of doing penance for the people in my life who have caused the most destruction, but I'm finding it hard. I can't get past my tears, which shows no progress over the years since all these events took place.

Enbrethiliel said...


I hadn't listened to it yet because I just found out that some tracks from Duran Duran's unreleased album have been leaked, and well, you know . . . *blush*

It has been oddly disappointing, so far, that perfect post-80s Duran Duran album is proving to be as elusive as that perfect cup of coffee. And it's the main reason I don't think I'm in the right frame of mind to appreciate to Dar Williams right now! =P

But I did give the song a listen and found myself drawn in by the lyrics. But I didn't realise it was because I found them sad until I got to the very last line.

Pentimento said...

Um . . . ROFTL.

Yes, they are sad.

Anne-Marie said...

Back in university days, when I was still somewhat confused about abortion, I was helped immensely by a sign someone on the pro-life side was carrying outside an abortion clinic. It read, "We love you, Dr. Morgentaler, but we hate what you're doing."

Pentimento said...

That is powerful. Thank you for sharing that, Anne-Marie.

Elizabeth K. said...

I find it easier to love other people, even enemies, when I remember that they were once babies. Either they had parents who loved them as much as I love my kids, which is something, or they didn't, which is tragic. And also I try to remember what a disastrous mess I am, but, to paraphrase Evelyn Waugh, what a worse mess I'd be without God's grace. I think this is a long way of answering your question of what it means to love anyone, or to love our enemies--Jesus says to do good to them who hurt you, and I think of that as praying for them, even if I have to grit my teeth, and not taking active revenge, by willfully depriving them of dignity or something they need and that I'm in a position to give. This may sound troubling, but I find myself in this position sometimes with students (I teach college). Some awful little git who really seems to deserve dire consequences instead becomes a reminder of this difficult command, and how to live it.

Pentimento said...

" . . . or they didn't, which is tragic." That's an important point for me, too, in loving those I'm inclined to scorn or ignore. And I try to remember that this apparent lack of love is not just evident in adults who have led lives of crime and bad behavior, but also in the petty social cruelties and jockeying for status in my own social set.

When I taught as an adjunct when I was working on my doctorate, I had quite a few students who got lectured in my office and deserved D's but somehow ended up getting B's. I also had several cases of plagiarism, in which the students really should have failed and possibly been brought before a review board, but I gave them D's instead when I learned of the mitigating circumstances. All my plagiarists were Asian, and I knew that a D would realy be just as bad to their parents as an F . . .