How can you possibly define love?
Aside from love being undefinable, English-speakers face the added difficulty of having only one word for love. We often use the name of love in vain. We hear the verse “God is love” and the next minute we say how we ‘love’ our favorite breakfast foods. This naturally leads to a fair amount of confusion and prevents us from honing in on love’s true meaning.
To clear this confusion we can avail ourselves of the Greek language, which employs a dazzling array of different words to describe love. Agape is a deep, personal love. It would sound quite odd for you to say in Modern Greek that you have agape for sandwiches or cereal. Eros, is a passionate and ecstatic desire for beauty; it’s English equivalent would be ‘falling in love’. Philia is friendship, and storge signifies the love between family members, especially the tender love between mother and child.
The usual Greek word for God’s love in the New Testament is agape, a word so lofty that St John was able to write with confidence that “God is love” (o Theos agape esti; 1 Jn. 4:8). It expresses the totally unconditional love that God has for all of us – by which He created us from nothing. This love may seem unattainable, but St John’s words are reassuring: “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that He loved us and sent His Son” (4:10). This is the mystery of divine love: although God is incomprehensible and His love undefinable, He makes Himself known to us and calls us to become partakers of His love.
So while love is undefinable, we are emboldened to explore and map out its geography with the Greek language as our compass (for aside from being great poets the Greeks were also great searfarers). C.S. Lewis famously wrote meditations on The Four Loves of the Greek language: agape, eros, philia, and storge. In these reflections he drew on his encyclopedic knowledge of Western literature. What if we were to do something similar with the wellspring of the Church Fathers’ writings? The Greek Fathers approached love from several angles, employing all of the versatility of their language to give us a small taste of the boundless love they experienced. In their works we come across a splendid array of words of love, including philokalia, ‘the love of the good and the beautiful’ and philanthropia, God’s overarching and indomitable ‘love for mankind’ which stands at the heart of Orthodox hymnography.
St Paul says that even “if we speak the tongues of men and angels,” as long as we do not love we are “noisy gongs and clanging cymbals” (1 Cor. 13:1). Greek words won’t necessarily bring us any closer to a proper understanding of love. However, they can certainly help us reflect on the different kinds of love so as to gain a greater appreciation of how God manifests Himself through all of them and satisfies our need for them. The more we understand the manifold ways in which God loves us, the more we can be inspired to imitate His love, for “if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 Jn. 4:11).
Agape is the biblical word that best expresses unconditional love, but we would be mistaken to neglect the value of the other loves. In the writings of the Fathers, we discover that when the many forms of love have found their center in God, they become clear reflections of His love. Holy Scripture, too, shows how Jesus Christ, in the fullness of His agape for us, does not command us to strive for a heavenly love that is always out of reach. He is Love Incarnate and draws us into His divine love by means of its down-to-earth and familiar forms, through which we perceive love “as in a mirror dimly” (1 Cor. 13:12). In addition to demonstrating the heights of agape so beautifully in the Sermon on the Mount and at the Last Supper, Christ lifts us up to this agape through the other forms of love, as we can see from the following images in the New Testament:
- Eros: Christ is the Bridegroom who loves the Church (Jn. 3:29; Mk. 2:19; Eph. 5; Rev. 21:2, 9-10)
- Philia: He says to his disciples, “I have called you friends (philoi), for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you” (Jn 15:15; cf. Mk. 2:19).
- Storge: God is “our Father, who is in heaven” and He sends the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” (Rom. 8:15; Gal. 4:6).
The Orthodox Church embodies love in all its forms through its liturgical and sacramental life so that we may ever be drawn into the mystery of divine love. We may recall the Orthodox wedding ceremony with its rich symbolism of circles and bonds: the bride and groom exchange rings, are given crowns, and join together in the circular ‘Dance of Isaiah’. The whole ceremony demonstrates how eros, through the Mystery of Marriage, can be elevated as an icon of the very Mystery of Christ’s love for the Church.
It is in this spirit, then, that we map out “a kind of sacred circle of divine eros,” as St Kallistos Angelikoudes describes: a circle that is “set in motion when first God manifests His divine eros to us through His deeds, whereby God appears as our Lover and at the same time raises us up to love Him in turn, so that God becomes our Beloved”. Christ “gives life to the whole circle of the virtues,” according to St Gregory the Theologian, “which are gently commingled and intermixed with each other by the Law of Love (philia) and Order.”
This circle will be our compass as we embark on a series of reflections about the many kinds of love that characterize our lives and our relationships. How is agape, the unconditional love to which we are all called, related to the loyalty of philia or the warmth and affection of family life (storge)? What are some of the concrete ways we can cultivate agape for God and neighbor? And who is our ‘neighbor’ anyway? Does eros have a positive role to play in one’s spiritual life? How about the love of animals, or the love for art and music? By attempting to explore these questions, we hope to deepen our understanding of the profundity of the word ‘love’. Our prayer is that each person will find at least one ‘word of love’ in Greek that particularly resonates with them, a word that can serve as an entrypoint into the mystery intimated by the phrase: “God is love.”
In our next article, we will delve into our first ‘word of love’.
ἀγάπη - agápe - unconditional love; absolute gift-love; by this love God created us from nothing, became man for us, and loved us when we were yet sinners.
φιλανθρωπία - philanthropía - “love for mankind”; God’s lovingkindness (chebed, eleos). The love that recognizes the value of each and every human being as having been made in the image and likeness of God.
πόθος - póthos - yearning, longing to be united with another; not yet fulfilled or consummated, but with the hope of reunion.
ἔρως - éros - passionate, ecstatic, productive love, in which one goes outside of oneself for the sake of the other. The ultimate human form is realized in the mystery of marriage; the ultimate divine form is the marriage between Christ and the Church, and the union of God and the soul.
φιλοκαλία - philokalía - ‘the love of the good and the beautiful’. The pursuit of goodness and the appreciation and cultivation of beauty. The root kalos means both ‘good’ and ‘beautiful’.
φιλοσοφία - philosophía - ‘the love of wisdom’; the pursuit of truth and knowledge that inspires the soul with wonder. For the church fathers, Christian ‘philosophy’ also implied a life of asceticism and simplicity.
φιλία - philía - friendship; companionship marked by loyalty, trust, and the pursuit of common goals.
φιλοτιμία - philotimía - lit. ‘the love of honor’. Its later Christianized form (Modern Greek: philótimo) has come to mean a sense of love and decency in which someone helps others without expecting anything in return. Philotimia is also related to the honor and integrity that holds healthy societies together: honoring the aged, the dead, and the guardians who put their life on the line.
φιλοπατρία - philopatría - ‘love of one’s country/fatherland’; the patriotic love for one’s homeland that naturally arises from one’s love for family and place of upbringing.
στοργή - storgé - affection; familial love, especially between parents and children. This love is also experienced by animals, and can be felt between humans and animals.
φιλοξενία - philoxenía - ‘love for strangers’; hospitality.
φιλοπτωχία - philoptochía - “love for the poor”; charity and compassion for those in need.