“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you” (Jer. 1:5)
Last time, we embarked on our journey through Agape - Unconditional love - the most universal, all-encompassing expression of love. This time we will explore our first love, the love we first experience in life: storge (stor-yí in Modern Greek).
The German philosopher Heidegger famously stated, “We are thrown into this world.” This idea is linked to an ancient pessimism that has always linked birth to death, the womb to the tomb. The Orthodox Church rejects this teaching. We are not “thrown” into the world, even if the world is fallen; rather, we are nourished, warmed, and affectionately welcomed into it.
Storge, the Greek word for familial and affectionate love, is the source of that affection. It is our first love, which reveals itself in the nature of humans and animals. From the moment of our conception all the conditions are provided for this love to burgeon forth. Storgic love is expressed through nourishment, warmth, bathing, caressing, and playing. As psychologists have uncovered, storge plays an essential role in our physical, cognitive, social, and spiritual development as human beings. Storgic love is noteworthy for being one of the more “natural” loves, as it exists throughout the animal kingdom. We would not say that animals have agape, unconditional love, for each other or for us. As far as we can tell, they don’t experience philosophia or eros either. However, they do demonstrate affection, and some have abundant stores of it. In fact, some mammals have had so much storge that they have even raised human children. Thus, storge bears witness to the universal generosity of the Creator, who never forgets even a single sparrow.
The love implanted in parents, especially in mothers, is a sign of the generous gift of life. It is, moreover, a sign present at every level of creation. In the book 4 Maccabees, a philosophical appendix to the three books of Maccabees in the Septuagint, the author reflects on the storge that animals have for their young:
And consider how comprehensive is the affection (storge) of love for offspring (philoteknia), which draws everything into the sympathy of compassion, so that even irrational animals possess a sympathy and affection for their young like that of humans. The tame birds frequenting the roofs of our houses defend their fledglings, while others build their nests, and hatch their young, in the tops of mountains and in the precipices of valleys, and the holes and tops of trees, and keep off the intruder (4 Macc. 14:13-16).
The author elaborates further by listing acts of self-sacrifice in nature: birds that cry out for their young and bees that die to protect the hive. A recently discovered instance of the perseverance of storge in the animal kingdom is the giant North Pacific octopus, which lives in the frigid abysses of the Pacific Ocean. Due to its inhospitable deep-sea conditions, this octopus must brood its eggs for extended periods of time – without leaving the nest. Researchers tracked one mother that brooded its eggs for over four years. To do this it had to starve itself while constantly fending off intruders, and died soon after its babies hatched. It is the longest living octopus recorded by marine biologists, and it appears that it lives this long to sacrifice its life for its young to live, too.
It is clear then that the principle of self-sacrifice is not just written in heaven but also inscribed in nature. These animals’ sensitivity and inclination to preserve and nurture life should urge us on to the even greater love, the agape, we owe each other as rational human beings. Whereas many materialists take examples from nature as evidence that human beings are no different from animals, in Orthodoxy we come to the opposite conclusion: these examples serve to spur us on,“rational sheep” that we are, to a yet higher calling, in the knowledge that we are made in the image of the “Lamb of God” (Jn. 1:29,36).
We have all the resources and instincts to willingly and joyfully participate in this process of generation, and equally to be repulsed by violations of it. The Church frames its condemnation of abortion, along with neglect, child abuse, incest (which all societies consider as a taboo) in light of this fundamental natural law. Our drastic failure as humans to keep this law, which many animals diligently abide by, leads to serious moral crises and existential catastrophes.
In the Gospel of John, Nicodemus asks Jesus: “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” (Jn. 3:4). These words, as strange as they seem, form the precise question we pose to storge: If we were brought into the world through such a bounty of nature and nurture, what is it that we were born for? How can a person tap into that abundant source of life and love that characterized our entrance into the world? Or are we born merely to die?
Everything that Christ said and did suggests otherwise. All these subtle and miraculous workings of life from its inception instead point to a cosmos that is destined for life. God has not only provided for our care from the womb, but has also planned for our rebirth amidst the throngs of a mortal world in birth pains. “For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Rom. 8:22-23). From these words of St Paul we see all the imagery of a rebirth nurtured by divine Storge.
St Kallistos Kataphygiotes writes that “all things have a natural loving affection (storge) for that from which they come, as is also true vice versa, that parents fiercely love their children. For this reason there is an abundant and ineffable pleasure that arises for anything that returns to the One, the Cause of all things,” that is, to God (On Union with God, 27). Not only does He reveal Himself as a loving Father, but He manifests Himself with images of storge taken from the world of animals. When Christ is lamenting for Jerusalem, he says, “How often have I wanted to gather your children as a hen gathers her brood under her wings! (Mt 23:37)” When God saves Israel he is likened to an eagle fluttering (rachaph) over its young and bearing them up on His wings (Deut. 32:10-11). This may give us a hint as to why the Holy Spirit appears as a dove at Christ’s baptism: at the creation of the world, the Spirit was “hovering” (rachaph) over the waters, ready to bring the world into being, together with the Father and the Son (Gen. 1:2). Taken all together, we see that God does not hesitate to take the flight and brooding of birds as a reflection of His love, so as to raise us up to Himself “on wings like eagles” (Is. 40:31).
In his commentary on the six days of creation, St Basil writes that about an anonymous Syrian saint’s interpretation of the verse: “and the Spirit was moving over the waters”: according to this Syrian, the “more expressive Syriac word”, which is similar to the original Hebrew word rachaph, signifies that the Spirit “cherished the nature of the waters as one can see a bird cover the eggs with her body, imparting to them vital force from her own warmth” (Hexaemeron 1.6). While the Greek and English words flatten the meaning, the passage comes to life with the help of these Semitic ‘words of love’.
We see the full manifestation of divine storge at Theophany: the Holy Spirit appears in the likeness of a dove, and the Father says of Christ, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased” (Mt. 3:17). We may understand all these strange details as pointing to the mystery of the Holy Trinity’s eternal love. Just as Christ’s baptism contains storgic elements, likewise our own baptism is framed by the budding flowers of storge. We are adopted as sons and daughters of God, even as tiny babies, and God’s love for us compensates for any failures on the part of human beings. It is expressed as a rebirth and a guarantee of good things to come.
The whole spectacle is a dizzying whirlpool of life: the octopus keeps her eggs warm from the bleak darkness of the abyss; the Spirit hovers over the waters; Christ wards off the forces of death; “The waters saw You, O God; the waters saw You, they were afraid; the depths also trembled” (Ps. 77:16); at baptism, godparents renounce evil and promise to protect their godchildren. And just as the Trinity created the world with tender, storgic love at the beginning, so the Trinity creates us anew and renews our capacity for love.
In this stop on the circle of love, we have surveyed storge as the nurturing love that ensures our growth and development, the comprehensive natural love that plays out through all of creation. We have also explored how God shows divine storge to demonstrate His love for each of us. In our next article we will encounter the most precious and personal source of storge, by whom God Himself was nurtured as a baby:
“You are a tower adorned with gold,
A City surrounded by twelve walls,
A shining throne touched by the sun,
A royal seat for the King
O unexplainable wonder,
How do you nurse the Master?”
Join us next time as we continue to circumnavigate the circle of love in our series “Words of Love”.