The other day I was Facetiming with a friend of mine and as I said goodbye, just before we hung up, I playfully said, “Love to love to love ya.” She laughed, but I meant it.
Love to love to love ya. I like the repetitiveness of that phrase. It’s lyrically catchy. Before a few years ago, I couldn’t have used that word with many people. I wouldn’t have used that word very often. Love was something mysterious that meant something serious for other people, but not really for me. ‘Love to love to love ya’ was something I picked up, a way of talking myself into action by virtue of repetition. The third time’s a charm, as they say.
Before I entered the Jesuits my understanding of love wasn’t very well defined. Love was one of many words in my life with what you might call an impoverished definition: poorly, narrowly, or shallowly understood. There are lots of other impoverished definitions operative in the world today — Church, faith, God, prayer — where narrow simplicity has overtaken what was meant to be broad and complex.
I’ve found that an impoverished definition comes about when I rely solely on my own limited experiences, or worse, when I base my understanding on fear or adopt a definition from someone else, when I haven’t tested it myself, when I’ve unreflectively tried to graft someone else’s words or concepts on to myself. Sadly, there have been lots of these impoverished definitions in my life, love foremost among them.
My dad has never been effusive in his words: he’s German — really German, born in Germany German — and, as if that wasn’t enough, the son of an alcoholic and an enabler. He doesn’t say he loves us. That’s just not his way. As much as love may be an overused word (e.g. I love this song…I love this artisanal cheese plate…I love dogs in strollers!) for a long time in my own life, it was an underused description for what was. And so, for years, I had trouble naming what was love as love.
A colleague would offer me a compliment and I’d demure, saying, “he was just being kind.” Or a friend would go out of her way to spend time with me when I was struggling, and I’d say, “well that was very nice of her.” The truth is: that wasn’t simply nice, that was love.
I had trouble naming and claiming love in my life because I held a very narrow definition of what that could be: love had to look a certain way, or be between me and a certain person or group of people, or someone had to use the magic words – I love you – in order for me to claim it as love. What I was doing, though, was holding out for some perfect idea of what love was. My narrow and rigid definition meant that I missed out on a lot of love and, consequently, I rarely returned well the love which was offered to me because I never realized that’s what it was in the first place.
My father doesn’t tell us that he loves us. But I remember the summer vacations he took us on – every year – and the hours of overtime he worked so we could do and have stuff, his knowing smile and the constant push he continually gives us to be better versions of ourselves. I know Dad loves me, even if he doesn’t say it.
Love shows itself in deeds, more than in words, St. Ignatius wrote. That’s as true today as it was when he wrote it 500 years ago. His brief statement is both an encouragement to love as well as a clue to the means by which we can receive it: there’s a lot of love out there already just waiting to be named and claimed if we can pay attention to what others are both saying and doing.
Over time, I have wildly expanded my definition of what constitutes love, not because I am desperate for that love, but because, if I am honest with myself, that’s what these moments are. I’m simply naming what is, rather than denying it, which is what I used to do. When I stopped doing that, I came to realize that there’s a lot of love in my life.
And for a celibate who thought religious life would be really lonely, I’m doing pretty well. My definition of love has changed because I allowed it to, I was open to that change, I desired that change. I have known love and I can name it. When I say those words, “love to love to love ya,” I mean it — broadly defined, warmly felt, authentically given and gratefully received.
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