Saturday, April 24, 2010

"Simon, Do You Love Me?" Reflections on the Third Sunday of Easter

“So when they had dined, Jesus saith to Simon Peter, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me more than these? He saith unto him, Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee. He saith unto him, Feed my lambs.”

We lose something when reading the English translation of this passage, because we lose the distinction between different words (different in Hebrew, in Aramaic, in Greek and in Latin) that mean quite different things, but that English translates by the word ‘love’. It’s often been said that in English, ‘love’ can have a whole range of meanings, and can connote very different things. We can speak of love for nature, for animals, for abstractions, for ideals, for nations and classes, for parents, for children, for friends, for lovers, for God, for particular individuals. A schoolboy who says ‘I love baseball’ means something very different then someone who says, ‘I love my girlfriend’, and in turn that’s a different thing from what we mean when we say ‘Paul Farmer loves the poor’ or when we say ‘So and so truly loves God.’

In the Latin Vulgate, Christ says, “Simon Joannis, diligis me plus his?” ‘Diligere’ is the root of our word ‘diligent’: it means to care for, to have a regard for. The noun form corresponding to ‘diligere’ is ‘dilectio’: care for someone or something, disinterested love that is concerned only about the good of the person or thing loved, and not about oneself. This is what the experts in animal behavior call altruism (pure other-centered love, from which all motives of selfish gain and self satisfaction have been removed) and which they have been trying to explain for a very long time. Selfless love, in other words. Latin has a close equivalent to ‘dilectio’, ‘caritas’, from whence we get the English word ‘charity’: traditionally these words have been used at various points in the New Testament to translate the Greek ‘agape’. Theologicans have debated whether or not there are subtle differences in meaning between the Latin words, but they are in any case very close in meaning.

“Do you care for me?” asks Christ, in essence. Peter answers, “Te amo”, I love thee, but with the meaning of brotherly love. The Greek word here is ‘phileo’, to love as one would love a brother or a family member. This refers to a human kind of love; in the love between brothers, one can distinguish both self-directed and other directed strains of love. For as the evolutionary biologists tell us, love of close relatives came about, in large part, because it was favoured by evolution for ‘selfish’ reasons: in protecting and defending our relatives, we are protecting and defending people who share a good portion of our own genes. Of course among humans, and perhaps among some animals as well, love of kin has become something much more than simply a strategy to spread our own genes, and it is in most cases largely, or mostly, other centered. But still, it refers to a merely human love: ‘dilectio’ refers to something higher, the pure and self-emptying love that God pours out on his creation, and which God the Father and God the Son eternally express towards each other. ‘Dilectio’ is also the kind of love that we are called to show to each other, and to humanity in general: love of our fellow human beings simply because they are human, because they are as capable as us of suffering, and of taking joy, and of making choices for good and evil.

Beyond brotherly love and sacrificial, self-emptying love, there are other types as well. There is romantic love, sexual and erotic love. There is natural affection, such as that we feel for a child. We can feel affection, too, tinged with pity and compassion, for anyone who is suffering or in need. Still another kind of love characterizes what we feel for a good friend. There is the kind of love that we feel for parents, the ones who gave us the gift of life. Still another kind of love is felt for figures who hold authority over us, a love that is bound up with the desire to obey and honour them. There is the kind of love that we feel for our country, or for our church, or for a religious or political ideal, or for nature. These are all very different emotions, with different obligations attached to them and which makes us feel very different things, but they all have one thing in common: they When our friend, or our brother, or our lover, or our child, or even a country or church or movement with which we sympathize comes to suffer, we suffer with them (this is where we get our word ‘compassion’, from Latin, ‘to suffer with’) and cannot be truly and completely happy until we are happy. And when they are happy, even though we might at that moment be in a tragic and unpleasant situation ourselves, we are raised out of our own pain a little bit, and can share in theirs.

Love- in all of its forms- teaches us to identify with another person, to share in their joys and pains, and to devote ourselves to trying to make them happy. And in this way, we are able to share in the eternal love which the three Persons of God pour out for each other, and to participate in that love ourselves. The myth of Genesis tells us that the Serpent said to the first men, ‘And ye shall be as gods’, but as is the nature of the divine economy, God brought truth out of the enemy’s lies, for when he taught us- through our instincts, through the natural law written on our hearts, and through his own Incarnation- to truly love each other, he showed us how, when that love is eventually perfected in the kingdom of heaven, we will really be, in our small and paltry way, ‘like gods’. When ‘the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us’, he recognized all those individual forms of love as good in their own right, but also as just special, and especially intense, cases of something broader: the goodwill and concern for others that we are called to show for everyone. Through his presence at the wedding in Cana, he recognized romantic love as something good; through his brotherhood with the twelve apostles, which the medieval writers called ‘the greatest fellowship the world had ever seen’, he sanctified friendship, and through his Assumption of his mother into heaven, and his coronation of her as queen of heaven, he sanctified familial love forever.

Peter responds to Christ’s question, though, with a half response. He tells Christ that he loves him, but he confesses a mere human love: he loves Christ as he would love a brother, but not (yet) with the selfless care and devotion with which God loves us, and with which God calls us to love each other. Indeed, there was a lot lacking in Peter’s love. He fell away from love when he betrayed Christ three times on Maundy Thursday night: ‘Then Peter remembered the word of Jesus, which said unto him, Before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice. And he went out, and wept bitterly.” The Apostle Paul tells us in his letter to the Galatians that Peter fell away from the truth a second time, out of fear: ‘For before that certain came with James, he did eat with gentiles, but when they were come, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing those of the circumcision…” The noncanonical Acts of Peter tells us, famously, of a third great episode of cowardice and betrayal on the part of the first Bishop of Rome, when he allowed himself to be talked into fleeing the persecution of Nero. He had originally wanted to stay and accept his fate, saying, “Shall we be runaways, brethren?” But his flock had prevailed on him that it would be better to escape and live another day, to preach the Gospel elsewhere, then to be crucified. Peter fell victim to cowardice and to the voice of the crowd, as he had twice before, and fled out of Rome: but on his way out, he ‘saw the Lord entering into Rome.’ The Acts tell us that Peter asked Christ, “Whither goest thou?” and that Christ answered him, “Yea, Peter, I am being crucified again.” St. Peter was so ashamed of this rebuke that for the last time in his life he repented of his weakness, and went back into Rome to accept his fate.

In the history of Peter we see, then, his devotion to Christ, which led him to preach the Gospel as bishop of Antioch and of Rome, and eventually to die for his beliefs. But we also see the limits of a purely human love. Peter had shown himself willing to love Christ with the love of a brother, but until the end he struggled to show the love that Christ called him to show: the love that descends from God, the love that is called ‘dilectio’ and ‘caritas’, the love that ‘beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.” This is true of all of us; for with the exception of Christ (and depending on whom you ask, his Mother as well) we are all touched by sin, and by the fall.

St. Augustine said that there are only two real and permanent objects of love in the world, God and the self. All the other loves reduce, in the end, to one of these: to the former at their best, to the latter at their worst, and at the Last Day we will all have to choose between loving God (and our companions and friends of course, but loving God above all) and loving ourselves. “Two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly by love of self, even to the contempt of God, the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self.” At best, when we love a friend, or a child, or a lover, or a family member, or a leader, or something inanimate like nature, we really love them because of the spark of the divine which we see within them, and because at some level they are infused by God and his goodness. That is why the writer of the Song of Solomon, in a fascinating line, seems to recognize something superhuman and unearthly beauty within his lover: “Who is she that looketh forth as the morning, fair as the moon, clear as the sun, and terrible as an army with banners?” And again, why the same writer, recognizes that within his lover there is a kind of perfection and flawlessness that points beyond the merely earthly: “Thou art all fair, my love, there is no flaw in thee.” In a purely literal sense, none of us is ‘terrible as an army with banners’ and none of us is truly flawless; but in a much deeper and more true sense, within each of us is a spark of something which is, truly, perfect and terrible, superhuman and supernatural, and when we are touched by love, any kind of love- friendship, romance, familial love- we can see the other person not just at the superficial level as a flawed human being, but also as the work of the Most High God, made in his image and likeness, that we truly are and that we were meant to be.

Love for a particular person- a friend, a lover, a family member- draws that person out of the general run of humanity, and sees them as special and unique in some way, unique as God Himself is unique; for we don’t love a gender as a whole, but one particular person of our favoured gender. This is why, again, the Song of Solomon tells us, “As a lily among thorns, so is my beloved among women” and conversely, “as an apple tree among the trees of the woods, so is my lover among men”, and this, too, recalls the love of Christ, which was particular as well as universal. He wept not simply collectively over the daughters of Jerusalem, but also for the individual Lazarus, and he went to his death not simply for all of us but also for each of us, and he would have done it if only one person- you, or me, or the centurion, or Herod, or the repentant thief Dysmas- were to have been saved by it.

At worst, however, our feelings for another person can be corrupted into a form of self-love, and we can desire their company solely for our own benefit or pleasure. How many people have served the poor not out of any genuine love, but solely for the desire to see themselves as a good person? How many people have had children not because they wanted to bring new life into the world, but solely to carry on the family name? When we do this, we cease to value the other person as a creation of God, good in their own right, and we begin to see them as extensions of ourselves, and means to our own happiness. This is why, within even the best and highest loves, we always see a tension between the human and the divine standards of love, and we always need to keep struggling against selfish impulses and desires, which can pretend to be true love: brass wearing the colors of gold, and the vulture resembling, for a true moment, the form of the eagle.

In Christ’s question to Peter we see the tension between divine and human standards of love. “Do you love me?” This is a powerful question, that all of us can identify with, because we hear it so often in our own lives. We think of it especially in the context of romantic love, and indeed it’s a question that people ask and are asked all the time, of their husband, wife, boyfriend, or girlfriend. How happy we are when we can really, and with perfect sincerity and honesty, answer ‘Yes’, and when we can hear the same answer back. This is why the great prayer of the Abbe Perreyve, addressed to the Blessed Virgin Mary, asks of her to ‘have pity on those who love one another and are separated.’ But how often are, we, like Peter, only able to answer this question in a partial and deficient way?

This is a question that we often face, just to take one example, in the context of sexual relationships. I happen to think that the sexual revolution was, like many revolutions, a good and necessary thing that went quite a bit too far; I don’t think that homosexuality, or contraception, or premarital sex are necessary wrong, for example. But with increased freedom should come increased responsibility as well. The first question, and the most basic question, should echo Christ’s question to Peter: “Do you love me?”, and in any sexual relationship, the answer to that question should be ‘yes’, in the full and complete sense that Christ meant it, and we shouldn’t, like Peter did, try to qualify or limit that. Sex is intended to be an expression of the deepest and most intimate union- physical, emotional, and spiritual- of which we are capable in this life, and outside that relational context, it’s not serving its full purpose, and is being robbed of its true nature. Unfortunately, many of us when asked that question can’t truly and fully answer ‘yes’. So many people don’t think about the reality that every sexual act involves a small, but real, possibility of creating a new human life, and don’t ask themselves if they would be willing to help take responsibility for that life if the birth control failed. But how can that failure to think about the other person’s needs really be called love? A great many other people answer ‘yes’, but that answer only lasts, in their mind, for a couple days or weeks, and again, how can something that ephemeral really be called love? I can’t help but think that if more people really thought about that question, and how they would answer it- and asked themselves if they really could answer ‘yes’ before taking a relationship to the next level- that we would have fewer unwanted pregnancies, fewer abortions, fewer broken hearts, fewer divorces and broken relationships; and most of all, less casual and uncommitted sex at nightclubs, parties, et cetera.

This is a question that we face not merely in personal relationships, though, but in the life of nations as well. Simone Weil said that what we call love for our country can involve two separate and mutually opposed kinds of loves; and that here, our moral failing is usually not that we don’t love our country enough, but that we love it with the wrong kind of love. True love for our country should involve compassion and honesty; we should love it as a parent loves their child, having a realistic understanding of where it goes wrong, of the good things as well as the bad things in its history, and should strive at all times to correct our nation and to make it better. Corrupt love for our country tends to see it as something incapable of evil, something objectively better than other countries, a false idol that we “exalt above all that is called God.” We tend to hear this a lot these days from political leaders who tell us that America is the greatest country in the world, or is in some sense an expression of God’s desires for humanity. Really? Was slavery in the American South an expression of a nation ‘under God’? Was Jim Crow? Was the genocide perpetrated against the Native Americans? Was the colonization of the Philippines? Was the development of monopolistic capitalism, that threw vast numbers of people off their lands and out of their workplaces as huge fortunes were consolidated into the hands of a few? Was the development of an economy based on consumption, greed, the desire to make more money and have more nice things than one’s fellows, was that an expression of God’s will? Was the destruction of the natural environment? What about American support of tyrants throughout Latin America in the name of anticommunism? What about the Vietnam War? What about Hiroshima?

Other countries have committed sins of their own, of course. But ours should be our special concern, precisely because they are ours, and should keep us from seeing the United States as an especially good or especially perfect country. Love for one’s country. like love for one’s child, should not lead us to see them as better then they are, or to deny their human flaws, or to try to persuade them that they are perfect just the way they are. My old high school principal, an Episcopal priest, used to say that a very unhelpful, and very common thing to tell a kid in school is that they are ‘perfect just the way they are’. That isn’t true love, that is idolatry. We can all see this kind of distorted, unhealthy love in the way that some parents try to go into their kids’ schools and talk the teachers into giving them a better grade then they deserve. We should see that the same kind of distorted love for our country is equally unhealthy. To really and truly love our country means trying to correct her and make her better than what she is today: as St. Augustine says, “Love, and do as you wish. If you accept, accept through love; if you correct, correct through love….in all things, let the root of love be within, for of that root can spring no evil.” If we could answer the question that our country asks of us, “Do you love me?” with the answer that Christ sought, and not the answer that Peter gave, how much better would we be, and our world as well.

For this is what Christ calls us to do: when we are asked this question, as we are all asked implicitly or explicitly, sometime in our lives, to think about our answer. He wants us to answer ‘yes’, and most of us at some level want to answer ‘yes’ too, but often we don’t think about what that ‘yes’ involves. Christ calls us to a kind of love that is deeper, more lasting, and more complete than that which we are capable of on our own. He sanctified all of our human loves, but he also showed us through his life, that they were just aspects of an even greater love, and gave us hints of what that self-emptying, self-denying love might be like: “Charity seeketh not her own.” He warned Peter, as he warned us, of the cost that love sometimes involved, by predicting his crucifixion: “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, When thou wast young, thou girdest thyself, and walkedst whither thou wouldest: but when thou shalt be old, thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, and another shall gird thee, and carry thee whither thou wouldest not. This spake he, signifying by what death he should glorify God.” But he also showed Peter the great and unbounded power of that love, when he forgave Peter the shame of his terrible betrayal. Let’s think about this beautiful, and powerful passage, and about the love that forgives wrongs and reconciles friends, and let’s try to make sure that in our own lives, when we are asked the question that Christ asked Peter, we can answer ‘yes’ with truth, with sincerity, and with understanding and acceptance of what it involves.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

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