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A Life-Giving Love Song

By Harold Burke-Sivers
Some reflections on perhaps the central question of popular music—What is love?

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We all want to love and to be loved. The problem is, hardly anyone seems to understand love, and so many people who want love don’t seem to have it. Harold Birke-Sivers explains that we can understand love better if we recognize the depth of love to which we are called as an imaging of God’s love for us. We can then see why love can’t be just physical, or just emotional. True love, the love that everyone wants to experience, is about truly and deeply wanting what is best for the other person.

In the early 1980s, the rock group Foreigner had a hit song called “I Want to Know What Love Is.” The song spoke of the search for love’s meaning and the feelings that come with it through the reception of love by another person. Love, when experienced in this way, is vitally important to our emotional and psychological development. For Christians, however, love is—as the Boston song reminds us—“More than a Feeling.” It is the primary way in which God communicates to us and through which we respond to that call.

The fundamental significance of love for the human person is perhaps best summarized by the evangelist: "God is love and he who lives in love lives in God, and God lives in him. We are to love, then, because He loved us first" (1 John 4:16,19). Therefore, love is significant to the human person because man, through love, is "called to communion with God. This invitation to converse with God is addressed to man as soon as he comes into being. For if man exists, it is because God has created him through love, and through love continues to hold him in existence. He cannot live fully according to truth unless he freely acknowledges that love and entrusts himself to his Creator" (CCC, n. 27, emphasis mine). God's sustaining and life-giving love affects man at every level of his being, that is, physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

On the physical level, Pope John Paul II sees sexuality as a fundamental component of our personality, that is, as one of the means in which human beings express and live out God's life within us. As the image of God, we are created for love and this love should be made manifest in sexual intimacy. This physical expression of human love "includes right from the beginning the nuptial attribute, that is, the capacity of expressing love ... in which a person becomes a gift and—by means of this gift—fulfills the meaning of his being and existence" (Theology of the Body, p. 63). Human sexuality, through which we participate in the mystery of loving communion with God, can never find its full expression apart from the intimate partnership of life and love established by the Creator in marriage. Through this sacramental bond of unity and love "the conjugal act preserves in its fullness the sense of true mutual love" (Theology of the Body, p. 432), which is an expression of God's divine love within us.

Insofar as it entails sincere self-giving, growth in love is helped by the discipline of the feelings, passions, and emotions. Thomas Aquinas tells us that love is the root of all other passions because there is no passion in the soul of man that is not founded on love of some kind. The Catechism of the Catholic Church reiterates both Aquinas and Augustine when it states that "to love is to will the good of another. All other affections have their source in this first movement of the human heart toward the good. Only the good can be loved" (CCC, n. 1766). On this point, Joseph Pieper notes that "loving someone or something means finding him or it good" (Joseph Pieper, About Love, p. 19). True love, which perfects man in his totality as a human person, becomes realized in him when he seeks and loves what is intrinsically true and ultimately good. Love is perfected in man in as much as it leads to his ultimate end: union with God.

The gift of love is transformed through the power of Christ's redeeming grace. Through His death and resurrection, we become partakers in God's divine nature. Pope John Paul II puts it this way: "as an incarnate spirit, that is, a soul which expresses itself in a body and a body informed by an immortal spirit, man is called to love in his unified totality" (Familiaris Consortio, n. 11). Love entails a total self-giving, an act of selflessness that unites us to Christ crucified and opens our hearts to accept God's divine and loving will. Without love, man "remains a being that is incomprehensible for himself; his life is senseless" (Redemptor Hominis, n. 25). The fundamental nature of love itself, inherent within that symbiotic relationship of man and God, is spiritual communion. The spiritual dimension of love must be understood in light of Christ's redemption of the world, which calls us to God's grace and love in relationship, for "to be truly human means to be related in love" (Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Co-Workers of the Truth, p. 235).

Human love should be a response to God's call to love one another as He first loved us. However, due to our sinfulness, love's true meaning is often distorted and reduced to silly platitudes and clichés which permeate much of modern society ("love means never having to say you're sorry," for example). God is often removed from society's understanding and perception of love. Many purport that contraception, homosexuality, and pornography are "loving" acts, but in reality this is not love at all. They undermine the intimacy of a truly loving relationship with God by rejecting the inherent openness to life-giving love through faithful, permanent, and exclusive relationships that model God's own Trinitarian life.

Love, when experienced solely on a physical, "feeling" level, creates a spiritual void that can only be filled by emulating the life-giving love of Jesus Christ. For those of us whose love is truly Christ-centered, we must challenge contemporary society's interpretation of love's true meaning by being living witnesses to God's truth in the world. The question we must answer is not, "What is Love?" but rather, "How Deep is Your Love?"

Copyright © 2000 Harold Burke-Sivers

Harold Burke-Sivers welcomes your comments. Email him at

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