Balthasarian Reflections on Love
Those passions that fall short of Love will lose its fizz and become flat, drained like the champage, wilt like the rose which has been severed from its roots and be short-lived and hollow like the declarations of politicians!
But Love is altogether different. It is truly a "many-splendoured thing" and it is doubtless that true Love will have been shared, exchanged and lived yesterday. But then again, true Love was celebrated the day before 14 February, and is being celebrated today and will be celebrated tomorrow; Love is an everyday celebration that needs no particular day to single it out - it is a daily lived experience, it is the very Being of the Lover for the Beloved and their way of interacting with one another.
Thus, Von Balthasar says: "The giving of external gifts is never essential in love; it is but a makeshift measure that aims at abolishing the self by filling up the inequalities and dividing distances between oneself and the other. Only when there is nothing left to give but love itself will love have attained its full maturity" (The Grain of Wheat, 81).
Note that he does not condemn gift-giving as such, but only if love remains at that level so that it is not allowed to grow and flourish beyond such a stage. Related to this, I recall my Christmas in the Philippines in 2004: it was memorable because few gifts were exchanged. Living among the poor, they could not afford to give gifts but we did spend the days together and we rejoiced in common celebrations with communal meals, games and song; here was Love and no gifts were required to express that. In another way, I think this is also true of living in a religious community - material gifts are seldom exchanged but we do give of ourselves to one another in fraternal love and community, sharing our lives, dreams, hopes, fears and pains with one another.
Daily, I am being schooled in this way of Love, this giving of myself to others. I am obviously a slow learner (!) but I think I am progressing, one arduous little step at a time. We are all called to this school of Love that consists of giving ourselves to others, putting others before ourselves. The Teacher in this school of Love is Christ, whose "love possesses the utmost tact. It knows how to combine the most intense demands with the most exquisite unobtrusiveness" (ibid, 91). This gentle and divine Teacher is Love Himself and He is the Way to true Loving. He accomplishes this by loving us first and foremost and this moves us to respond to Him in love, a love which overflows into love for our neighbour as a natural and habitual outpouring of divine love.
Therefore, Von Balthasar says: "It is not difficult to understand the unity of love for God and love for man. We have only to grasp the fact that love is not enjoyment and a feeling of fusion but an act of devotion, whereby the lover puts his heart at the beloved's service. In order to love God we do not have to renounce the love of the world but only its disordered enjoyment. Temperance and love are not only 'compatible': temperance so much belongs to the inner essence of love that, according to Paul, the person who loves keeps all the commandments. And he does so unconsciously. The negativity of prohibitions has been transcended by the loving person into the positivity of love: ama et fac quod vis [love and do what you will]" (ibid, 85).
Thus, true Love frees us just as Truth - the truth of Love Incarnate - shall set us free (cf Jn 8:32). And we are freed for Love, to give ourselves freely even unto death, just as He did upon the wood of the Cross. So Balthasar says that "Eros is capable of understanding the meaning of Agape and subordinating itself to it by undergoing a death and a resurrection" (ibid., 97). This is the very nature of Love, to be broken and given for others. Or in another striking and beautiful image given us by Von Balthasar: "The rocket: steeply does love's fiery ray shoot up to heaven, stop, and burst (at the moment of ecstasy), and a thousand sparks stream every more quickly down to earth. God sends you, torn and divided, back to your brethren" (ibid., 83).
How many people still think love is about self, satisfying one's needs, desires, loneliness and pain? All too many of us look to another to 'complete' us, to make us feel better, using the Other as a panacea. But this can never be, because it is precisely in this self-seeking that we lose Love. And so such relationships, built on an illusion, runs dry and wilts away. But if our love is "a selfless, self-surrendering love, then God is not far", we are drawn nearer to He who is "Love itself: as such, he always also encompasses and delights [us] the subject" (ibid., 91).
Let us pray for the grace to be schooled in this Love by the divine Master and so draw nearer to Him.