By Tom Palanza, Jr.
It’s such a familiar phrase, isn’t it: “God is love.” I hardly ever seriously think about what it means anymore. “It means God is love,” I say to myself, as if – a priori – I know what “God” means and I know what ”love” means, so I must also know what “God is love” means. I use the phrase in “light” conversation with people and in my “heavy” school work. It is one of those fundamental ideas you use all the time to develop more ideas. It’s good that the phrase is a familiar one – you wouldn’t want people not to know God is love – but it’s also important to realize that the phrase is not self-explanatory since we cannot fully define either of it’s terms! This phrase requires contemplation.
You might say that we know what love is. There are the classic Greek words for love, the dictionary definition of love, and your own experiences of love that have shaped the meaning of the word for you. But, if we take the passage of 1 John 4:7-21 seriously, then it seems to me that love becomes something very difficult to define. In fact, it becomes tied up in the very being of God – which is not exactly something you could define during over espresso and biscotti (although I can’t think of a better way to attempt it)!
I want to offer a very abbreviated meditation on “God is love.” It comes from Anselm’s 11th Meditation: The Redemption of Mankind. I’ve included my favorite paragraph below. It might seem odd to use a meditation on redemption (which means we are talking about Jesus living, being killed, and rising to save us and thus isn’t all lovely stuff) from Anselm (who’s Satisfaction theory of redemption is often and poorly caricatured as God being a kind of tax collector and Jesus being the infinitely valuable sum used to pay him off since humanity can’t) in order to contemplate “God is love.” Yet, Anselm profusely brings up love in his discussion.
The redemption that Jesus achieves according to Anselm – at least it seems to me – is that he makes a loving response back to the love of the Father graced upon humanity. We are saved when we join in this response. For “God is love” does not just mean that God loves us unconditionally, but that the life of God consists in a love relationship. This is seen in one model of the Trinity alla Augustine: the Lover, the Beloved, and the Love shared between them; which is also reminiscent of John of the Cross: “Amada en el Amado transformada!” See, agape love is all well and good, but we are talking about a transforming love here – which necessitates not just one person loving another, but two lovers being transformed! Only in this love relationship can Love (capital L) exist – the Love that is the Spirit which gives life and renews the face of the earth. So, where humanity fails to respond in love to God and thus fails to be transformed and thus is subject to death, Anselm says Jesus has responded in love for us and brought us into the transforming, life giving relationship of love that is God (the Trinity). That, at least, is where my contemplation of Anselm’s meditation led me. What do you think?
Consider, O my soul, consider earnestly, all that is within me, how much my whole being oweth unto Him. Truly, O Lord, because Thou madest me, I owe unto Thy love my whole self; because Thou didst redeem me, I owe Thee my whole self; because Thou makest me such great promises, I owe Thee my whole self, nay more, I owe unto Thy love more than myself, insomuch as Thou art greater than I, for whom Thou didst give Thyself, to whom Thou dost promise Thyself. Make me, I beseech Thee, O Lord, to taste by love that which I taste by knowledge; to perceive by affection what I perceive by understanding. I owe more than my whole self to Thee, but I have no more than this, neither can I of myself render even all this to Thee. Draw me, O Lord, into Thy love, even this whole self of mine. All that I am is Thine by creation, make it to be all Thine by love. Behold, O Lord, my heart is before Thee; it striveth, but of itself it cannot do what it would; do Thou do that which of itself it cannot do. Bring me into the secret chamber of Thy love. I ask, I seek, I knock. Thou who makest me to ask, make me also to receive; Thou grantest me to seek, grant me also to find; Thou teachest me to knock, do Thou open to my knocking. To whom dost Thou give, if Thou deniest him that asketh? Who is he that findeth, if he that seeketh is disappointed? What dost Thou give to him that prayeth not, if to him that prayeth Thou deniest Thy love? From Thee have I my desire; from Thee may I have also the accomplishment thereof. Cleave thou unto Him, cleave unto Him right earnestly, O my soul! O good Lord, good Lord, cast her not away! She is sick with hunger for Thy love, do Thou cherish her, and let her be satisfied with Thy loving-kindness, enriched by Thy favour, fulfilled by Thy love; yet let Thy love lay hold upon me and possess me wholly, because Thou art with the Father and the Holy Ghost, the one only God, blessed for ever world without end. Amen!