A Time for Love
By Eugene Kennedy
The world is full of definitions of love; wise men have tried to get it into words for centuries. But for all the generations of poems and statues, and now balloons and banners, love remains without the last word said about it. It is, above all else, elusive and mysterious. Love is many things but it is not the sum of them; it is easy to recognize and experience but painfully difficult to describe with satisfaction. Love does not easily fit into categories nor is it found only at certain times or in certain relationships. Wherever and whenever it is found, however, authentic love has certain watermarks that are always there.
That is what St. Paul was trying to tell his Christian community at Corinth in his famous exposition on love. I have often wondered why he wrote about love to his Corinthian converts at that particular time. In an immediately preceding section he discusses the Christians' unity even though they have differing gifts which they are called to use for the sake of each other. He seems to have detected a certain spiritual competition in his flock, a certain flowering of religious ambition which endangered the balance of the Christian community. Paul seems to be saying, "You Corinthians, despite your gifts, will have it all wrong unless you get down to business about the nature of love." We are all different, he tells them, and it is in the climate of our differences from one another that love becomes important. So he writes, "Be ambitious for the higher gifts," and then he quickly adds, "and I am going to show you a way that is better than any other." Nothing he or anybody else does will mean much if it is not motivated by love; just gongs booming and cymbals clashing. He goes on to describe love in a way that has never really been improved upon. He says, first of all, that love is patient.
This concept does not appeal very much to either young or old in a world where man's appetite for speed records, whether in running the mile or flying across the ocean, is never really satisfied. It is all the more difficult in an age where the delay of any gratification is looked on as an evil or at least an unfortunate impediment to the good life. Tremendous cultural forces urge man on to get what he wants now and to postpone the consequences until later. This is true in getting into debt in order to get the luxuries of life; it is also true in the level of human relationships where intimacy must be instant and where, for example, sexual experience is no longer regarded as a goal but rather as a beginning of relationship.
It is hard for people who have been conditioned by the values of immediate gratification to pause for a moment and ponder the meaning of love as something patient. That means, after all, that love can wait, that love can suffer, that love is not in a hurry, and that an appreciation of this is indispensable to any kind of authentic and mature loving. Wise men and women know that patience and suffering are essential characteristics of love even as they are of life itself. Patience, after all, is not procrastination or hesitation. It is not putting off some action of life out of fear; it is rather a whole way of presenting oneself in relationship to others that indicates a sense of respect for the other and an understanding of the way all things, including love, grow.
You can think about love as something patient in many different ways and still not exhaust its meaning. Friends and lovers must be patient with one another, not crossing the borders of each other's private lives prematurely, not trampling on the inner space of the other heedlessly or selfishly. This kind of patience only means something to the person who can look at the other as distinct from himself, with a separate life, separate needs, and a right to have these respected. Even those who love each other most intensely come up against the mystery of their distinctness from one another and of the ultimate impenetrability of some core of each other's personality. They cannot tear away or obliterate what makes them separate individuals. Indeed, it is of the essence of creative love that separate persons, with distinct characteristics, assert themselves in relationship to one another. This kind of sharing brings people very closely together, but it never obliterates the boundaries of their personalities. Indeed, one of the pains known to all real lovers is the impossibility of merging themselves into one identity.
The frustration that lovers face because they cannot, even through the most intimate sexual sharing, become forever one can only be tolerated by those who have learned the meaning of patience. In their patience they do not respond to this frustration with the angriness or the hostility of one whose path has been blocked by some obstacle. They sense rather that their separate personalities, even with the unknown depths which yield only slowly to each other, are essential to the nature of their love. This is a hard kind of learning, one that demands special sensitivity and the readiness to take a long-range view of life. Lovers must be patient if they are to grow in love and understanding.
Patience means a readiness to suffer. There is no suffering more exquisite than that which is known by those who love one another. One of the simplest truths of all time tells us that lovers can hurt each other precisely because they mean so much to each other. They learn, over the years, each other's weak spots; in a strange way, they know just how to move in on each other with maximum effect. Only a great deal of patience can help two people to stay in relationship to one another after they have learned so much about each other's weaknesses and how to get quickly at the jugular of each other's emotions. That is a part, that dangerous knowledge of the fabric of love, but it is only a part of it. When patience dies, this special understanding of where and how to hurt looms larger in the relationship until it has destroyed it altogether. Only patient love keeps people who know each other's faults and failings, and how to capitalize on them, together. This is not an easy thing by any means.
But love suffers in other ways as well. There is surely nothing that is more at the core of any love relationship than the realization of how lovers really die to themselves if they are to give life to one another. This is clearly one of the strong aspects of the patient quality of love. It lights up the little things as well as big ones and sets the pattern for the life in which yielding up the self for the sake of the other never really does come to an end. It just takes on new forms of expression. It is the counterpoint in every person's life of the very mystery of redemption itself, the living out of the mystery of life in Christ that is real religion. People who love each other have the difficult task of trying to share as intimately as possible even when they know that their separateness can never be fully erased. Neither man nor woman can have things fully his or her way any more, from running the house to raising the children to making love to each other. Life is something they experience together, and it demands the surrender of the self in a sensitivity to each other that they cannot allow to grow dull merely because of the burden of the years and the boredom of routine. Lovers who remain alive to each other have learned to die to themselves for the sake of their mutual love. This theme is essential to any grasp of the meaning of love at all.
There is no wonder that Paul put patience first in his way of describing love's characteristics. Patience is first because it is the strength that lovers need if their relationship is to retain its vitality. This is the kind of virtue that gets beneath the surface of a man or a woman to reveal his true identity. Those without an identity cannot possibly enter into the hazards of love because they have no storehouse of patience, no wisdom of life about its necessity. They simply cannot be patiently present to one another in any kind of relationship. Patience, in other words, is a source of strength and a sign of challenge that can only be understood by those who have reached a reasonable level of maturity. It does not have much meaning at all for people who are hollow and undeveloped.