Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
Love is the Greatest
In 1963 at the age of 21, Mohammed Ali (still known as Cassius Clay at the time) brags about his boxing skills and personality in the poem, "I am the Greatest." I am a fan of Ali's humor and boxing skills but have always been a little unsettled about his seeming self-worship, a turn to self, and in another term, self-love that I considered "unchristian." In the same way, I always feel a little uncomfortable with some lines of my favorite Whitney Houston song, "Greatest Love of All." It is my go-to song for karaoke, but I get a little hesitant to sing the part where she says, "The greatest love of all is easy to achieve. Learning to love yourself. It is the greatest love of all." Is loving yourself not contrary to love as Christ did and as St. Paul says in his hymn of love from 1 Corinthians 13? Is the love Jesus and St. Paul call us to embrace self-love?
What is the theological virtue of love? Is it not to love God through our neighbor? St. Thomas Aquinas, whose feast we celebrated on Friday, January 28 in his Summa Theologica, defines love/charity as "the friendship of man for God" (ST, II-II, Q. 23. art. 1). Each time I pray the three Hail Marys after the Creed at the beginning of the recitation of the Holy Rosary, I dedicate each to the theological virtues of faith, hope and love respectively. But I always intensify my meditation on love because it is a supernatural grace experienced on earth and in heaven. Through faith, we know God; through hope, we express our longing to be with God and place our trust in him to aid us; through love or charity, we come to love God for his own sake and love him in our neighbors. Love is the greatest because "Love never ends" (1 Cor. 13:8). When we put love into action, like in the fourteen descriptive verbs in St. Paul's hymn (1 Cor 13:4-7), love makes faith and hope come alive and results in spiritual joy, brings peace, and leads to mercy.
Is there room for self-love in living out our love for God and neighbor? Is there some truth to Whitney Houston and Mohammed Ali's expression of self-love? Properly distinguished, Yes! Self-love is the basis of love for others. Our love for another is based on and derived from our love for ourselves. The love of self inclines one to the love of others. St. Thomas Aquinas taught that rather than being opposed, they compliment each other. The love of self finds its fulfillment in the love of others. There is room for self-love if it is not egoistic and does not see its relation to others as ends and means. Love is willing the good of the other, and it originates in pure self-love.
In the Gospel of today's mass (Lk. 4: 21-30), the people of Nazareth reject Jesus; they reject love. So our efforts to love the other would sometimes be rebuffed, and we can't force it. Love is not coercive; love invites the other to respond. Do we give up loving because of rejection? On the contrary, we must continually cultivate love in faith and hope. Tina Turner sings, "What's love got to do with it?" Everything. If we want to make it to heaven, we need to love because love is the greatest theological virtue that enables it.
Fr. Bernard, OP