Three Kinds of Love

This article is a continuation of one I wrote a couple years ago based on the teachings of Aelred of Rievaulx. Aelred was a Cistercian monk and theologian who lived on both sides of the Scottish/English border just after what is usually considered the golden age of Celtic Christianity. He used the greatest commandment of Jesus, to love God with all our heart and to love our neighbour as ourselves, to talk about three powers of love within the soul. You can read my previous article, which looks in more detail at the greatest commandment and provides some context to this one, by clicking HERE.

Recently, in The Virtual Chapel, we have been discussing Aelred’s teaching and thinking about how each of the three loves operates within us. Below I explore each one, looking at how they are rooted in God, who enables us to grow in love for her own good pleasure. In the first love the soul is recollected within itself, in the second love it is extended outside itself, in the third love it is lifted up beyond itself.

Love of Self

In the depths of the Holy Trinity there are three persons who are really one. The love between them flows from one to another and back again, folding in on itself for all eternity. This eternal harmony generates an abundance of love which overflows from the Trinity, creating all things and uniting all things. The love which God has for herself is the abundant fountainhead of Goodness and Beauty from which all things come and to which all things are ultimately oriented.

We, as the image of God, are also a community of many parts who are really one whole undivided essence. The love the human soul has for itself is also a creative potential which can overflow into the world, endlessly filling itself in the process. If we wish to grow into the likeness of God, we must have the same tender affection and sympathy for ourselves that the persons of the Trinity share with one another. The soul which loves itself is like a peaceful family. All of its thoughts and feelings are working together for one another’s best interests. There is a great consolation and sense of peace which comes to the soul that loves itself. This sense of security and comfort allows us the freedom we need to work out our own salvation. 

The soul who resounds with this harmonious self love generates feelings of gratitude and a sense of meaning. When we love ourselves we become grateful to be alive, which fills us with a wonderful joy. The joy which comes from self love revitalises us. It bursts forth with the power of the new dawn, revealing the beauty of the image of God within us. When we see the beauty of the image of God within us we are filled with delight. The image of God grows into the likeness of God in the presence of true joy.

The way in which we love ourselves is the same way in which we love any other person. We speak kindly to ourselves, contribute to our own wellbeing, and rejoice in the way we are growing and changing. When we look upon ourselves with the eye of our affection, our inner garden overflows with green growth and brightly coloured flowers. The human soul contains an infinite fount of beauty, created as it is in the image of God. To love ourselves is to seek after this beauty and to nurture it. 

Love of Neighbour

When the love within us has filled itself beyond its own capacity, it pours out into the world around us. First it touches those who are closest to us, our immediate family and friends and the people who we live with. Then the affection which we have for ourselves continues to extend outwards in concentric circles of healing sympathy and generous compassion. It encompasses our acquaintances, co-workers, strangers on the bus, people we do not like or understand, and even those who are our enemies and who seek after our destruction. Every person without exception is our neighbour.

The love of neighbour is a forgiving love. It is a love which gives first, without expecting to receive anything in return, it for-gives. This is the same love which God has for creation. The love of God pours out from the depths of the Trinity without ceasing, giving life to the world and requiring nothing in return. When we love our neighbour we are acting as a conduit of God’s self sacrificing love. Forgiveness pours out from us like a copious river blessing the world and everyone in it. We love others in the same way that Christ first loved us.

The love which Christ refers to here is not the love of friendship, which is reciprocal by nature. Rather, it is the love of self sacrifice. It is the love which Jesus showed on the cross by dying for the forgiveness of others. He poured himself out for the sake of a world which rejected him. When we put on the mind of Christ, we have the same love as he does. We become as one mind, a mind that is humble and self emptying, which pours out the love inside it for the sake of everyone without stopping to assess their worthiness. 

The love which we pour out into the world is the comfort and consolation of Christ. It is a partnership with the Holy Spirit that bestows tender affection and sympathy, bringing the love of self within us to completion, to the fullness of its purpose. The fulfilment of our inner joy is for it to overflow in a reckless abundance. If we understand all mysteries and have faith which can move mountains, but do not embody Christ’s self sacrificing love, it amounts to nothing. 

Forgiving love is patient and kind. It is not jealous and does not brag. It does not insist on getting its own way and is not easily frustrated. It does not keep lists of other people’s mistakes. It endures the hardships of life with the same patience as Christ showed on the cross. It sacrifices itself in order to forgive those who have injured it. In this way forgiving love is a path that is more excellent than prophecy, deeds of power, or gifts of healing. To love our neighbour as ourselves is to bestow the greatest gift of God upon them.

Love of God

The love we have for God is one which desires to be united with the object of its affection. All creatures pour forth from God and all creatures are drawn back to the source from which they have come. We long to be united with God and God longs to be united with us. This loving desire is beautiful in itself. Distance makes the heart grow fonder.

We proceed out of God so that by love we might return to God. God’s self sacrificing love pours out into the world and blesses all creatures without conditions, but God also desires that her creatures will return that gift and seek her of their own accord. When the human soul possesses loving desire, it is because it is participating in the love God wishes to consummate with the cosmos. 

The love which the soul has for God is one of hunger and thirst. This is why the central sacrament of the Christian tradition is one in which we consume the body and blood of Christ. Columbanus wrote a sermon about the loving desire which the soul has for God. In this sermon, he says that Jesus is both the fountain of life and the bread of life. Christ is the bountiful and unquenchable source from which life, light, and wisdom pour out into the world. God is the one who gives and we are the ones who receive that gift. All these generous gifts come down to us from the Mother of lights, in whom there are no shadows of change. We are united with the light pouring out from this fountain by receiving it into ourselves so it fills us and draws us back into itself. As Columbanus said,

“Although we eat him when we love him, though we feast on him when we desire him, let us still desire him like people who are ravenous. Likewise with the fountain, let us always drink of him with an overflowing love, let us always drink of him with a fullness of longing, and let the sweet savor of his loveliness ravish us. For the Lord is sweet and lovely; and although we eat and drink of him, let us always still hunger and thirst, since our food and drink can never be completely consumed.” (trans by Oliver Davies)

The gifts of God are endless and so we never finish having our fill of them. It is the nature of creatures to desire the love of God with all our hearts. This is our natural condition, we are restless until we find our rest in God. Our loving desire to rest in God never ceases because a finite creature can be continuously united to the infinite creator for all of eternity without ceasing.

This kind of love is true prayer. It happens outside of time, beyond the reach of words and ideas. Because this love transcends all limitations, even a momentary taste of its sweetness contains the fullness of God. After our fleeting temporal lives have ended, the love which we have shared with God will remain for all eternity and can never be taken away from us.

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