Essay / Blog

Love: A Risky Business

The Catholic apologist and Bible translator, Ronald Knox, captured the heart of G.K. Chesterton and his importance when he observed that Chesterton “had the artist’s eye which could suddenly see in some quite familiar object a new value; he had the poet’s intuition which could suddenly detect, in the tritest of phrases, a wealth of new meanings and of possibilities.” But “[T]he most salient quality,…” noted Knox, was his “gift of illuminating the ordinary, of finding in something trivial a type of the eternal.”1 His writing tends to make one better, wiser, and most important of all, happier, merrier.

Chesterton particularly shows us a better way forward through his understanding of love. In an essay entitled, “The Orthodox Barber,” he observed:

There is a very real thing which may be called the love of humanity; in our time it exists almost entirely among what are called uneducated people; and it does not exist at all among the people who talk about it….

I remember seeing a crowd of factory girls getting into an empty train at a wayside country station. There were about twenty of them; they all got into one carriage; and they left all the rest of the train entirely empty. That is real love of humanity. That is the definite pleasure in the immediate proximity of one’s own kind. Only this coarse, rank, real love of men seems to be entirely lacking in those who propose the love of humanity as a substitute for all other love.

I can well remember the explosion of human joy which marked the sudden starting of that train; all the factory girls who could not find seats (….) relieving their feelings by jumping up and down. Now I have never seen any rationalistic idealist do this. I have never seen twenty modern philosophers crowd into one third-class carriage for the mere pleasure of being together. I have never seen twenty Mr. McCabes all in one carriage and jumping up and down.2

Chesterton puts an even finer point on the matter in his essay “The Irishman.”

Suppose I say to you suddenly—‘Oblige me by brooding on the soul of the man who lives at 351 High Street, Islington.’… Now you will probably be broadly right about the man in Islington whom you have never seen or heard of, because you will begin at the right end—the human end. The soul of the man in Islington is certainly a soul.  He also has been bewildered and broadened by youth; he also has been tortured and intoxicated by love; he also is sublimely doubtful about death. You can think about the soul of that nameless man who is a mere number in Islington High Street. But you do not think about the soul of your next-door neighbour. He is not a man; he is an environment. He is the barking dog; he is the noise of a pianola; he is a dispute about a party wall; he is drains that are worse than yours, or roses that are better than yours. Now, all these are the wrong ends of man.3

Chesterton is saying that humans have the tendency, especially where love is concerned (though certainly not love alone), to celebrate the idea or ideal, despise the actual experience. Few things have been elevated and celebrated by the human community as much as love; yet human history demonstrates how elusive real love is, how very difficult it is to attain, let alone sustain.

Dostoevsky raised this very point in The Brothers Karamazov. The elder, Zosima, is recalling a meeting with a doctor who suffered from the disease of love in general.  “I love mankind,” he said, yet:

I am amazed at myself: the more I love mankind in general, the less I love people in particular, that is, individually, as separate persons. In my dreams,” he said, “I often went so far as to think passionately of serving mankind, and, it may be, would really have gone to the cross for people if it were somehow suddenly necessary, and yet I am incapable of living in the same room with anyone even for two days, this I know from experience. As soon as someone is there, close to me, his personality oppresses my self-esteem and restricts my freedom. In twenty-four hours I can begin to hate even the best of men: one because he takes too long eating his dinner, another because he has a cold and keeps blowing his nose. I become the enemy of people the moment they touch me,” he said.  “On the other hand, it has always happened that the more I hate people individually, the more ardent becomes my love for humanity as a whole.4

Like Chesterton, Dostoevsky is exposing the hypocrisy of mere talkers, and pointing us to the true arena of human love—the environment of touching that too often proves fatal to our elevated and romanticized ideas. Against this we find Zosima further stating:

Active love is a harsh and fearful thing compared with love in dreams.  Love in dreams thirst for the immediate action, quickly performed, and with everyone watching. Indeed, it will go as far as the giving of one’s life, provided it does not take too long but is soon over, as on a stage, and everyone is looking on and praising. Whereas active love is a labor and perseverance, and for some people, perhaps, a whole scene.5

Much of the problem stems from the fact that our love is so often turned inward toward self, rather than outward away from self. I have found the following a truly helpful definition of love. It touches the essence of divine love and speaks to the burden of Chesterton and Dostoevsky: “The sustained direction of my will towards another’s good.” Not very glamorous, perhaps, but here is the right end of love. Chesterton is advocating the wonderful skill of being lazy with the love of real things, not merely their ideal constructs. Christian love, the love that our Lord demonstrated and the love we are called to emulate, is that which is able to encompass the beauty of Pachelbel’s Canon in D major as well as the runny nose of your neighbor’s child. Humans are not ideal constructs, they are the real things. We all are kids with runny noses whom the divine love embraces and the very concrete realities we ourselves are to love.

But there is more. Using a traditional fairy tale, Chesterton take us deeper still, pointing us to love’s transforming power and beauty: “There is the great lesson of ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ that a thing must be loved before it is lovable.” Chesterton really believed this, and as followers of Christ we ought to as well. Real love, which flows out of a desire for the good of the beloved rather than a selfish, grasping, self-appropriating love, has the unique power of transforming the one loved—in making the other person lovely.

At this point I must turn to the German theologian, Helmut Thielicke. Thielicke tells of a very old married couple he knew “who radiated a tremendous happiness.”6 The wife especially, in who’s face, Thielicke says, was etched a “hundred runes,” caused him to wonder: what could possibly be the source of this kindly old person’s radiance? Watching them together it suddenly became clear that this woman was “dearly loved.” Like a stone that had been lying in the sun for years and years, absorbing all its radiant warmth, she now was “reflecting back cheerfulness and warmth and serenity.” It was probably not, he says, because this woman was a kind, cheerful and pleasant person, that she was loved by her husband all those years, but probably the other way around. Because she was so loved, she became the person he now saw before him. If this is true, reasoned Thielicke, then surely we must come to the following conclusion. When I find it hard to love the other person because of some problem that has settled down upon our relationship, then I must allow the question to turn back upon myself:

Have I perhaps bestowed too little love upon this person, that he has become so cold and empty? Have I perhaps caused him to become what he really has become? The other person, whom God has joined to me, is never what he is apart from me. He is not only bone of my bone; he is also boredom of my boredom and lovelessness of my lovelessness.

The other side is also true. A person may be full of emptiness and boredom because she has not allowed herself to be loved. One who does not love makes the other person wither and dry up. But the person who does not allow himself to be loved dries up too. It is exactly the same with our relationship to God. Human love must be adorned with divine love if it is to flourish. For it is the creative, resurrected power of love alone that can deliver us out of nothingness into loveliness. But this divine, creative love must, like human love, be received.

Chesterton, Dostoevsky, and Thielicke remind us that the “the right end of love” lies in the arena of human affairs, and that it is a demanding, risky, and often messing business. But that it is also a truly beautiful thing—perhaps the most beautiful thing. For it is also the arena in which God in Jesus Christ loved us most deeply, most profoundly, and most powerfully. Without it we dry up and wither away; with it we become a new creation.

1 Ronald Knox, “G.K. Chesterton,” Captive Flames: A Collection of Panegyrics (London: Burn Oates, 1940), pp. 144f.
2 Tremendous Trifles (Dodd, 1909), pp. 168-69.
3 Excerpts taken from Chesterton’s essay, “The Irishman,” from the collection The Uses of Diversity (Dodd, 1921), pp. 50-54.
4 Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, Trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (Alfred A. Knopf, Everyman’s Library, New York, 1990) pp. 57. Italics mine.
5 Ibid., p 58.
6 The following reflection is found in Thielicke’s, How the World Began (Lutterworth Press, 1964)
Image: ”Dying Rose” by Megan Young is licensed under CC by 2.0
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