Rabbi Marc Gellman writes about religion for Newsday.
How do you define "love"? I know it's more than an overwhelming emotional response or being charmed, but I'm not sure what an appropriate definition would be.
-- J in Raleigh, N.C.
My favorite wordless definition of romantic love is what I look for when I interview brides and grooms in advance of their wedding day. If they touch and laugh, I know they are truly in love. My favorite wordy definition of love is from D.H. Lawrence, who called love having "the courage of your tenderness." My blessings of joy go out to all my courageously tender readers who still have someone to touch and someone with whom to laugh.
However, I want to add a reflection about the connection between love and faith.
Faith expands our experience of love by teaching us to love God. Loving God allows us to see the universal power of love because it teaches us that all people, not just those we choose to love, are made in the image of God. Love of God thus expands our capacity to love each other. The Hebrew Bible understood this by commanding us to love God (Deut. 6:5) and by commanding us to use that love to help us love our neighbor and the stranger in our midst (Lev. 19:18). Jesus knew this foundational Jewish teaching and made it the heart of Christian ethics:
"Master, which is the great commandment in the law? Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets" (Matthew 22:35-40).
There is also the dark gift of love, which is the pain we feel when the ones we love die. Love makes us exquisitely vulnerable to loss. I love the writings of C.S. Lewis on this point. His eloquence and faith are unsurpassed:
"To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket -- safe, dark, motionless, airless -- it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside of Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell," he writes in "The Four Loves."
When I counsel mourners who are broken by grief, I will often ask them if they would trade their present pain for never having loved their dearly departed. Nobody has ever said they would take that deal. Here again, Mary Oliver has the truth of it in her poetry:
"To live in this world you must be able to do three things: to love what is mortal; to hold it against your bones knowing that your own life depends on it; and, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go."
So love is not just a gauzy feeling of passion and desire. Love is a courageous choice to become eventually wounded. Will Jenks, a paraplegic friend of a friend, wrote a letter that was never published but should have been:
"I think it is likely I am not the most seriously wounded among us, only the most conspicuously bandaged. Sooner or later every one of us will be made to feel flawed, inadequate, powerless. The solution is to let yourself be loved. Not pitied, indulged or pampered, but loved. It is sometimes a matter of asking others, even those we have no claim on, to carry part of the load, to make room in their plans for our needs. It is sometimes a matter of not asking, but waiting and trusting others to sense our wants; it is always a matter of expecting to be loved. And the time to begin is now. It will put us in touch with the truth about ourselves and about every other human being. We are precarious, we are mortal, but we are loved."