The ancient Greeks had more than a dozen words for what we translate as the word “love.” Eros, physical desire or passion, scared them a bit, as it threatened a loss of control—very different from our obsession (especially this month) with romantic love and the experience of being “madly in love.” Philia, or friendship, was highly valued, centered in the kind of loyalty formed among fellow soldiers on the battlefield, and also referred to the love shared between parents and children or family members. Ludus, playful love, was thought to be the lighter side of loving, engaged by children or in childlike play between casual acquaintances, and was seen as one of the delights of being in society. Pragma, mature, realistic love, was considered the ground of enduring relationships between mates, family members, and others one considered essential. This kind of love involved compromise, commitment, and beyond “falling” in love, the effort to “stand” in love. Philautia, or self-love, was thought to be natural and essentially good as grounding the individual in self-awareness, though it could descend into narcissism and self-centeredness, if not balanced in relationship to concern for the needs of others.
The deepest, most complex, and most demanding type of love, according to the Greeks, was agape, selfless, self-giving, empathetic love, extended to all people, whether family members or distant strangers. Later translated into Latin as caritas, the origin of our word “charity,” this is the kind of love of which Paul speaks in 1 Corinthians 13:
“If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don’t love, I’m nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate…no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love. Love never gives up. Love cares more for others than for self. Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have. Love doesn’t strut, doesn’t have a swelled head, doesn’t force itself on others, doesn’t always say ‘me first,’ doesn’t fly off the handle, doesn’t keep score of the sins of others, doesn’t revel when others grovel, takes pleasure in the flowering of truth, puts up with anything; trusts God always, always looks for the best, never looks back, but keeps going to the end. Love never dies….until that completeness (when we can see as God sees), we have three things to do to lead us toward that consummation: trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly, and love extravagantly. And the best of the three is love.” (The Message, Eugene Peterson)
I know how far from perfect I am, and how inferior to God’s way has been my way of loving, so far—and I’m pretty sure that’s true of most of us mere humans. Nevertheless, God has planted within us a longing to love and to be loved, in ways great and small, personal and communal, and I believe God expects us to keep growing in our capacity to experience and to share love—in all its varieties, but especially in the capacity for agape, the greatest of these. Holy Scripture and the teachings of Jesus and all who came after him call us to strive for that ideal, even if on this side of the mortal journey we will inevitably fall short of perfection.
Agape, unconditional, self-giving, empathetic love, is what we all most need, and in this month of hearts and flowers and all the sweet, sentimental expressions everywhere around us, it’s good to remember the heart of our calling: to love one another, as we are so dearly loved by the One who created us, who accompanies us, and who inspires us on our way.