Do you believe in love?
This question, simple as it may seem, may elicit a complex array of emotions—from the warmest of glows to the deepest heartache, from the greatest of longings to the most resolute disenchantment.
I am no stranger to these difficult emotions, but perhaps because of them, I choose to believe in love and its victory. As a Christian, and more specifically, as a Jesuit, I consider it an essential part of my identity. “They will know we are Christians by our love,” the song inspired by John 13:35 says. As I understand it, my calling in life is to identify in myself and in this world not only the blessed places where love abounds, but also the places where love can be overlooked, where love has been wounded, left for dead, or shackled, where love longs to be, and to point myself and others to its overflowing and replenishing source.
And while I have chosen a particular way of living out my Christian vocation to love, I have to say I enjoy a good romantic love story. I like asking my friends about their relationships, especially in the beginning stages. I remember a friend telling me, “Well, we’re still getting to know each other,” as she assessed the situation after a few dates. A sensible approach. After all, before you commit to someone, before you say the first “I love you,” you want to see if your values, your goals, your interests match up, and in more contemporary language, you want to check for any possible red flags.
Knowledge and love, it seems, go hand in hand. There is a true joy in being known and being loved just for who we are. This is true beyond romantic relationships. I think, for example, about my time studying philosophy. I know it may seem surprising, but they were some of the happiest years of my life because I lived in a community where I felt that I was truly known and loved by my superiors and my fellow brothers in formation who offered me their care, companionship, and support. From walking to campus to talk to students and offer them coffee and bagels on Friday morning for “Java with the Jesuits,” to practicing the art of preaching together, to having moments of deep and intimate conversation, the more we got to know each other, the greater the love and the fraternal bonds grew.
But sharing our true self with another is never without its risks. You could argue that you can’t love someone or something you don’t know. The logic goes, “it’s because I know you that I love you,” and if knowledge is a precondition for love to exist, then there’s always the possibility that by exposing more and more of who we are, others will decide they’re no longer interested.
Although the hunger to be known and to be loved just for who we are is universal, perhaps it manifests itself more intensely for those of us who have, in fact, lived experiences of shame and rejection. When the act of revealing ourselves–to others at home, at school, or in a relationship–leads to a denial of love, our unfulfilled hunger only grows stronger. What we do or don’t do about it will vary. For some, it may lead us to open up and seek validation everywhere we turn. For others, the thought of being hurt again seems so unbearable that we may never share with another all of who we know ourselves to be. Being anywhere between these two extremes can easily lead to isolation and despair.
Is there anything that can offer a sense of hope in all this? Something that can make love and sharing oneself not feel like such a gamble? Something that can make us love more fearlessly, generously and authentically?
I think of parents at their best, who love their child even before their birth, who switch the script and say, it’s because I love you that I want to know you, that I will know you. Holding their child in their arms, well before they know anything about their temperament, interests or abilities, you’ll often hear parents say, “All I know is that I love you.” I am well aware that, far too often, this is not the experience for everyone growing up, but it strikes me that God is indeed this way with us. We know that God is all-knowing, yes, but this doesn’t prevent us from seeing him as an engaged parent, getting to know us and loving us unconditionally as the mystery of our life unfolds. As psalm 139 says, “Lord, you have searched me, you know me.”
How beautiful to think that not only in those parts of ourselves that we have deemed lovable, but also in those that are hurting and broken, the places that we’d rather not visit, even the places that to this day remain unknown to us, God will already be there loving us and knowing us, knowing us and loving us.