February 16, 2020 — Rev. Paula Norbert
“An entire army made of lovers would be invincible.” Plato, Symposium
It is said the Eskimos in North America have 50-100 unique words for snow. Many Native communities have incredibly nuanced terms for plants, ground, and jungle structure which help them describe and navigate their surroundings, make sense of their environment and connect them with the world around them. We might ask why it is then that we have only one word to express our most intimate feeling. Love. We find writings on love throughout Scripture, the teachings of Jesus, and in all great literature. Love is a feeling; it is an action; it is at the core of who we are as human beings and the ideal for how we might best live in relationship to God, to one another, to our beautiful world and how we are called to treat ourselves. Let us pray, O Holy One of great love, you have created us in your image, as Children of God, and so this day, may we be reminded of all that is possible with love and through love. Amen.
The writer Eric Brown shared in an article on love, “We need a more comprehensive description of love, to focus our definitions so that we more accurately describe our emotions and intensify our understanding of the world we inhabit. Fortunately, we do have these descriptions. Both the ancient Greeks and modern psychologists have already helped us on our quest to dissect the divisions of love and understand it as a concept. With their insight, we can apply a more nuanced understanding of love to our daily lives and relationships and in doing so, come closer to our loved ones, peers, and neighbors.
Intuitively, we know that not all love is the same.” I would guess that most of you have heard about the four common types of love as described by the ancient Greeks: eros, philia, storge, and agape. Some of these words are also used at many places in the Bible to provide a more expansive understanding of what we call love. Each of these types of love and other definitions of love beyond these categories are profoundly important to the quality of our lives, our community and our connection to our spirituality, our faith.
Eros is passionate and romantic love. We think of Eros as the attraction to the beauty of the individual. Plato once wrote, “He whom love touches not walks in darkness” Symposium I’m sure that most of us may remember our first big crush or our first love way back in junior high or high school. We may have not even spoken to the person but we felt an attraction to them because of how they looked or acted; there was some spark, or as my sisters and I used to call it, ‘the ping’. I think of that scene in It’s a Wonderful Life when the two characters played by Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed are walking home from the high school dance and he is talking away as they flirt with one another. From a porch in the distance, an older man calls out, ‘why don’t you kiss her instead of talking her to death?” And then he sighs and laments, “love is wasted on the young.” It’s a great scene and it depicts that tension between two young people who are attracted to one another…the simplicity of it, the innocence, the romance before life gets in the way. How fun.
Yet we know, we don’t stay in that place of first romance. When we enter into a longer lasting relationship, the blush of first love may pass but at its best, a deeper commitment takes its place. It is a wonderful thing to be present with two people who have committed themselves to one another over time. I have been so moved by being in the presence of a loving spouse caring for their beloved at a time of serious illness. It may be the attraction that brought them together, but it is the commitment to live in love that sustains the relationships.
Philia or Amity is the love between friends, also referred to as brotherly/sisterly love; Philia is a love built on respect, equality, familiarity, and understanding. Importantly, our love for our friends is freely chosen. — Erich Fromm, in The Art of Loving wrote,
“The deepest need of man, then, is to overcome his separateness, to leave the prison of his aloneness.” C.S. Lewis, the great Christian writer wrote: “[…] to the Ancients, Friendship seemed the happiest and most fully human of all loves; the crown of life and the school of virtue. The modern world, in comparison, ignores it.”
The great bond between friends is a precious thing. We know of individuals who have risked everything for a friend, whether on the battlefield or during a time of threat or crisis. A good friend is priceless. We have friends who have shared happy moments with us from our youth or during our adult years and there are the friends who show up when we really need them. Friendship is an amazing thing. Again from It’s a wonderful life, “no man is a failure who has friends”
Familial love is the affectionate love we have for your family, whether that be a son, daughter, mother, father, or for our immediate or extended family. Love within a family is considered to be the most natural, or common, manifestation of love that we know.
It is our first experience of being loved and loving others. It is the foundation out of which all other relationships will emerge. In healthy families, we are innately loving towards our children. Familial love is emotive because of the deeply rooted traits, the history, the kinship we share, and the familiarity that grows from shared experiences, both good and challenging.
Familial love is also our first experience of conditional and unconditional love. I think that’s why it is so traumatic when families experience a death or fall apart, when a divorce happens, or there is a major break within the family and people drift away from one another. I have heard people grieve deeply about the disconnects they feel, the deep pain they experience when a family member shuts them out or betrays them. But families can be also be amazing supports to one another and despite the struggles of family, most people are immensely grateful for these connections, these family bonds.
Most of you know that we think about Agape as the highest form of love, for it is unconditional love. This is commonly referred to as God’s love for us, and of our love for God. Agape is commonly known as the love we ascribe to ‘enlightened’ individuals — individuals who offer respect, understanding, and compassion to all beings without hesitation, judgement, or condition. Agape is the unconditional love for oneself and for all others.
Agape is considered the greatest of the four loves, as it is not contextual; changing circumstances or the changing of individuals does not impact agape. “Agape also translates beautifully to the ‘Golden Rule’ that is expressed by the world’s’ various religious scriptures — “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It is the instinct to treat all beings with kindness, not because they have treated you with kindness first, but because you are a kind person. Agape is what we strive for in life.
I am reminded of this community in Nicaragua with which our college group had a special connection. I may have shared some of the story of this community when I first came to Union Church. Through a generous donation, we had been able to connect them with a microloan to support the expansion of farming within the community. With the profits earned, the community decided collectively to send a group of their young people to the university in the capital city, even though not everyone was related to these young people. They decided as an entire community, after much prayer and discussion, that this was what they wanted for the next generation, to provide them with the opportunity to get further education, to have opportunities to learn and use their gifts and hopefully to have some of them return one day and share their learning within this community. This was a selfless manifestation of love beyond any personal consideration.
While we may not have a wide variety of words for love within our English language, I trust that each of you has experienced love and expressed love in a multitude of ways. We have been inspired by the love of individuals and by the stories of those who have risked everything for others. We know that Jesus told his followers what he considered the most important commandment which was to love God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind AND to love your neighbor as yourself. May we continue to be guided by that until the end of our days. Amen.
With thanks to “The Four Hidden Flavors of Modern Love” by Eric Brown for Highexistence.com