Another List of Loves

C.S. Lewis penned an insightful book entitled The Four Loves, offering a clear taxonomy of love according to its varieties as family affection, erotic love, friendship, and charity (love of and for the sake of God). I wish everyone would read the book (although I would suggest supplementing the fourth part with Josef Pieper’s book On Love). However, there is another way of listing loves which complements Lewis’, and is a good antidote to our tendency to sentimentalize the matter. The other list suggests we classify love according to its biblical usages, and, curiously, we will find precisely four loves once again.

The four are as follows: 1) love of God; 2) love of self; 3) love of neighbour; and 4) love of enemy. The second is usually subsumed obliquely under the third (‘love your neighbour as yourself’), but is no less crucial, and leaving it out produces an aberrant version of altruism. In the other list, the first three loves are finally – in the Christian scheme of things – lifted into a higher order by the fourth love, Christ himself becoming our brother, our spouse and our friend, infusing the natural loves with supernatural grace. Charity baptizes and transfigures the other loves, but without denaturing them, or negating their mundane dignities. In the second list, I shall propose that an analogous alchemy is at work, and that love of God, self and neighbour are also lifted into a higher order of love, but an unlikely one: the love of enemy. It works something like this: as our imperious ego undertakes its lifelong pilgrimage to the center of our being, where – as Thomas Merton claimed –  God is forever creating us (and, ego-permitting, transforming us), it finds itself in a triple warfare with 1) God himself, 2) with its own higher self and 3) with whoever happens to be around (our unavoidable neighbours).

Scripture tells us the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. The very name of the founding patriarch of the Old Testament, Israel, means ‘struggle with God’, and nearly every great Biblical figure contends with the divine will, even resisting it. Jesus himself wrestled with the Father’s will in the Garden. And St Therese of Avila once piously complained that she knows why God has so few friends if he treats them the way he treats her.

And as for ourselves, it is a commonplace that we can be our own worst enemies. The battlefield of the human heart is perhaps the scene of the most brutal exchanges known to human conflict. Still, it is when we come to our beloved neighbors that the true test of love arises, for, as we read in John 4, if you cannot love your neighbor whom you can see, how can you love God whom you cannot see? Some have even suggested that perhaps we are commanded to love both neighbor and enemy because, often enough, they are the same person. But I think the matter lies deeper than just the fact that the guy next door can occasionally be a jerk.

The truth is that we are constantly, and providentially, surrounded by enemies until we attain beatitude. Our inconstant little flicker of consciousness, in its lifelong journey to the scintilla animae (the spark of the soul; anima animae, soul of the soul; apex animae, summit of the soul – or however the mystics may name that pinnacle of our being), will be embattled on three different fronts by those three somewhat disguised adversaries: by God himself, who created the soul and commissioned it with a severe vertical climb, quite outside our created comfort zone; by the very sovereign nobility of that summit of our soul – glaring at our pettiness from its alpine heights; and finally – and most visibly – by those neighbors and enemies who come at us, unbidden, from the world around us. Thus, love of enemy shows itself not only in saying a Hail Mary for serial killers or the village atheist, but is rather the deeper, and weirdly challenging dimension of all Christian love. Love of enemy is to love the fearsome God who tries us and humiliates us; to love the pestering voice of our higher self’s conscience, as it relentlessly presses us on to more trying reaches of virtue; and to love the people around us who routinely refuse to dance to our music. These enemies can make our love adventurous and robust, and will prove at last to be the best of friends.