Have these words ever escaped your lips? "Love is not a feeling; it is a virtue." I'm sure I've said this at least once or twice. But here I am discussing love, the feeling. I will emerge from my state of self-contradiction by stating unequivocally that love is a feeling which, if channeled properly, will permit us to live out the virtue of love.
If we love someone or something, we are attracted to that object. Stirrings of attraction are feelings of love. Just as anger mishandled can lead to destructive expressions of anger, and fear mishandled can lead to a state of disempowerment, so our feelings of attraction or love can be easily misinterpreted and misapplied. It is very easy, for instance, to respond to these feelings with consciousness only of oneself -- one's intrapersonal gratification. But love, in fact, is an energy moving us to move beyond ourselves in order to focus on the beloved. We want to understand and appreciate the beloved; therefore, the feeling of love is an energy leading us to seek wisdom, knowledge, understanding, appreciation.
It is a wonderful thing when, for example, a man and a woman in a marriage commitment are able to integrate their mutual attraction with the values that declare, "We understand that, somehow, we have been given to each other, so that we may be a gift to the human family." Marriage is one way in which the feeling of love serves the virtue of love.
It goes without saying that there are other ways to put the feeling of love to work. I will write about those I am most familiar with.
There's the love we feel when we are engaged in any sort of learning. We move from the dullness of ignorance into a lively state of absorption in the thing being studied. We can delight in "the way things are" when studying, for instance, about the natural world. We can develop a sense of fellow-feeling in all sorts of human-centered disciplines. When it comes to the struggles of the human family -- for instance, when we are studying history, anthropology, or sociology -- we may not necessarily delight in the way things are or have been, but we can lovingly commit ourselves to look intently at society's ills and dedicate our talents and energies to healing them. And this is love.
And of course there is the love we feel when we look beyond the wonderful things and people before us and consider the God who gave them all to us. Feelings of love -- a sense of thanksgiving for a life which is obviously a gift to us -- understandably lead us to discover a relationship with God and to be satisfied with nothing less than union with the source and ground of our being. As the prophet Micah (6:8) puts it so well, our purpose is "to act justly, to love tenderly, to walk humbly with our God."
Theologians hold that human beings are fundamentally religious. It is of our essence, as beings capable of integrating feeling and reason, to allow love to carry us toward a state of union with God, that we may know who we really are: that we are beings given to each other so that we can celebrate in our lives the God who IS love. We can live out our true identity and purpose, for, as the apostle Paul (1 Cor 13) writes, "Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails."
To live love is arduous. One could easily choose not to live love. We are encouraged, however, to live love, thanks to the example of numerous persons throughout history who have shown us that the loving life is the truly full and fruitful life. Those of us who are followers of Jesus of Nazareth have even more than a memory of a just person living a good life. For it is our faith that Jesus, God and human, God who is Love, loved us to the point of winning for us fullness of life through his precious death. We affirm that Jesus is alive and is one with us in all our struggles. We can love because God has loved us first and keeps on loving us into fullness of life.
Father Kevin Laughery