As Christians we talk about love quite a lot. Love the Lord your God – that’s the first and great commandment. Love your neighbor as yourself – that’s the second. Love is the fulfillment of the Law. Perfect love casts out fear. Love not only your neighbors, but your enemies also.
Are all these loves the same? Certainly not! The love I have for my wife includes actions and commitments that would be inappropriate (and illegal) to direct toward my son; I love them differently. The love that I have for the flock God has given me is not the same sort of love that I have for my friends. The love that we are to have for God is not the same as the love we are to have for others.
When we mix up these loves, catastrophe follows. St. Augustine of Hippo experienced this in his pre-conversion life.
The reason why that grief had penetrated me so easily and deeply was that I had poured out my soul onto the sand by loving a person sure to die as if he would never die. The greatest source of repair and restoration was the solace of other friends, with whom I loved what I loved as a substitute for you, and this was a vast myth and a long lie. (Confessions, IV.viii(13))
As a young man, he was utterly devastated at the death of his closest friend. Upon writing his Confessions, he realized that he had given this friend a form of love that cannot healthily be given to anyone but God himself. He loved this friend “as if he would never die.” It may seem a little morbid, at first thought, to take death into account when investing your heart in someone else’s life. Who wants to think about their spouse dying sometime in the unknown future?
But then I remembered the words of the wedding service: “Will you love her, honor her, comfort and keep her, in sickness and in health; and, forsaking all others, be faithful to her as long as you both shall live?” There it is, at the very beginning of the marriage life: a momento mori – a reminder of death. In our present culture, the emphasis on the words “as long as you both shall live” is usually the challenging reminder that divorce is against God’s law except in the most extreme cases. But what I’m noticing here, also, is that even spousal love is acknowledged to have its limits. I love my wife deeply, and I do not doubt that I would miss her should she depart this life before I do. Already, after not quite even seven years, it is difficult to imagine life without her. But, the day we entered into Holy Matrimony, we verbally acknowledged that our marriage vows will end.
In fact, Saint Paul took this a step further in his writings. “A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. If the husband dies, she is free to be married to whom she wishes” (1 Corinthians 7:39), and also, “a married woman is bound by law to her husband while he lives, but if her husband dies she is released from the law of marriage” (Romans 7:2). So even the love found in the great sacramental rite of holy matrimony is limited. Only our Lord God is worthy of (and able to receive and reciprocate) the total abandonment and trust of unrestrained love.
Now, I don’t mean to say that we married folks need to start planning for our spouse’s death, apart from the usual last will and testament stuff. This doesn’t mean we should shy away from good friendships for fear of losing them. No, such attitudes betray an unhealthy fear of death. Rather, we are to acknowledge the reality of death, and live accordingly. This is a thoroughly Christian and biblical attitude; we must live this life in a Christ-like way now, while we can still serve God in this present world, for soon it will pass away. So by all means, we make friends, get married, have children, invest in the world around us. But we mustn’t forget the kingdom-building reality that it is in Christ alone that we find true and perfect eternal love. In the resurrection, we will love as he loves, but until then we love imperfectly, and live imperfectly. Thus it is necessary and right that we put our greatest love in God alone, and order our other loves accordingly.
God is love, after all.