Loving Our Neighbor
We humans are relational creatures. In the normal course of things, we develop bonds of caring and support, that, when they grow strong enough, we call love. This love can be reflected in action, such as when we tend to wounds, offer gifts, hug and hold, cook or clean or read stories, give money or clothes, visit, smile, pray.
We can also show love by sacrificing ourselves for our beloved. God so loved the world, it is said, that he gave his firstborn son. To be like Jesus, then, must we also die? Some people have indeed given their lives for loved ones, and even for strangers. Most of the time, though, I suspect God will accept less drastic sacrifices.
Yet who are we sacrificing for? Who is our beloved? According to Christian Scriptures, our beloved is our neighbor, but also our enemy. Can we possibly be expected to sacrifice for our enemy? Can we even love him?
Types of Love
Perhaps we could if we stretch a point. The Greek term storge is normally thought of as parental empathy and tenderness, though it can mean acceptance and tolerance. At times, I can tolerate and even accept my enemy. To think of the loving my enemy in the sense of philia, as a friend, is more difficult. Harder still is to love my enemy with the individual and passionate intimacy of eros.
Yet Richard Rohr points out that eros is more like agape, that divine love, than we think. When we experience a lust for the vibrancy of life and the ecstasy of union, we also discover that this desire can never fully satisfied by a human partner. No matter how much we strive to find our fullness in another person, we cannot. So we come to thirst for that which does satisfy us, Rohr explains, a loving union with God.
He writes that “human love and passion prepare us for and lead us to divine love.”  In this way, if we can relinquish our need to possess the other, we may come to know a deeper and sweeter love, that of agape, which allows us to see the other as a reflection of the divine. We can do love our neighbor as ourselves and even love our enemies. 
Loving That Which Is Us
According to Cynthia Bourgeault, this does not mean that we love the other person the way we love our families or even “as much as” we love ourselves. Rather, we come to see our neighbor, and our enemy, as “the intimate expression of [our] own being.”  We and our neighbor are one. How can we not love that which is also us?
The Buddhist story of Kisa Gotami, which I shared last year, reveals this kind of love.
When Kisa Gotami’s son dies, she is inconsolable. For days, she carries her dead baby around, begging everyone she sees to wake him up. Finally, someone directs her to the Buddha, who tells her that he will bring the boy back to life if she can bring him a mustard seed from a home where no one has ever died. This task proves to be impossible, and a defeated Kisa returns to the Buddha. But first, she lays down her child in the forest, for she has come to understand that death is part of life.
From this experience, Kisa developed a desire to learn from the Buddha. Soon, she took vows and became a nun. Enlightened, she felt at one with everyone she met, and offered her love to all of them. All of them.
The Pain of Love
What she did not do, however, was to return home to her husband. If she had any other children, she left them, as well. She gave up the loves of storge and eros, and pursued agape instead.
At last week’s Recovery Church meeting, we discussed the challenge of re-opening oneself to love after one has experienced great loss, whether that loss came through death or betrayal of some other kind. To purposefully leave oneself open to heart-shattering pain seems foolish, yet to wall ourselves off, to push intimacy away, to distrust and discourage, is even more foolish. Could this emptying of ourselves, this longing to experience nothing but the refined and distant love of agape be just another way to avoid the suffering of loss?
I do not mean to disparage Kiso Gotami’s decision. Hers is the path of the Bodhisattva, and an honorable path it is. However, to love everyone is also to love no one, at least not in an intimate way. When we dwell in that realm of mystical oneness, we know that to possess another is an illusion. We have no husband, child, mother, father, wife, sister, aunt, nephew, for they are not “ours.” They don’t belong to us, and we don’t belong to them. For a Bodhisattva or a Christian saint, who desire no love in return for the love they offer, relationships might matter, but the individual person does not. A saint will love you, whoever you are, and then move on to the next person, feeling no attachment to what she has left behind.
The Courage to Risk
As a nun, a follower of the Buddha, one who blesses and loves from afar, Kisa never again had to risk experiencing that deep, possessive, passionate love that leaves us open to despair when it is gone. Yet if we can make our way through the misery of despair toward some kind of enlightenment or emptying, perhaps we will find a kind of peace.
Yes, we can erect walls to protect ourselves from pain, though our loneliness will be pain enough of its own. If we are brave, we can choose to love again even though we know love will not last forever. Not only do we mortal beings have the inconvenient tendency to die and leave our beloveds behind, we also betray them in fiercer ways. Too often, for instance, we confuse lust and greed with love. Eros is not simply sexual desire, nor is it the ownership of another person. True eros is a longing to make our beloved happy, to serve and tend to her needs, to be patient and kind and forgiving. Asserting power and authority over another has nothing to do with love. Nothing.
Since such false love abounds in our world, does this mean some of us are unable to love?
Rejecting Our Children
A Scandinavian folk tale tells of a pastor’s wife who was afraid to have children. She bought a spell from the village witch that allowed her to destroy each of the six souls who were waiting to be born through her. When the woman hurled stones into a well, she heard six faint childlike cries. A great relief fell over her, for she knew then that she was safe from motherhood.
The story is about the stern anger of her husband and the forgiveness of God. Yet I wonder why she so feared being a mother. What did she think it would be like? Did she dread the work and inconvenience? Was her husband so harsh and cruel that she didn’t dare bring a child into the relationship, into a home without love? Or was she herself incapable of loving, so that she might harm a helpless baby? What kind of family had she grown up in? Were her parents empty and cold?
Early on in my career as a chaplain for people with addictions, I worked with a new mother who was detoxing from heroin. Her baby was in the hospital, but soon the mother would be able to be with her infant at a special treatment center that housed mothers with their young children. The woman told me how much she longed to be a good mother, to love her baby, yet the next day I stood by her when her boyfriend showed up outside, offering her sex and drugs and that promise of completeness that so lures the lonely soul.
Choosing Our Addictions Over Love
For a few moments, the mother wrestled with the competing urges inside herself. Perhaps if her baby had been with her, in her arms, she’d have behaved differently, but perhaps not. An infant has little to offer a mother who is starved for love herself. Not that her boyfriend had much to give, either, but the woman had a dream of love she was sure he could fulfill. So she left the unit, giving up all rights to her baby.
For a few moments, I felt shocked. Being a mother myself, I could not imagine betraying an infant for the sake of drugs, of a relationship with a broken man himself dependent on pretensions of happiness. I don’t know if her addiction was more to the drug or to the man, but it didn’t matter. She was lost. Nothing I or anyone else said or did made a difference. Perhaps Buddha would have known what to do to change her mind, and maybe not. We are human; we betray one another. The act tears us apart. If we are fortunate, from the wound, a deeper kind of love will emerge. If she is lucky, that young mother will one day wake from her addictions and learn to love.
God’s Love, No Matter What
In the Scandinavian tale, when the pastor learns what his wife has done, he tells her that she will never be forgiven, not until flowers grow on the slate roof of their house. Then he throws her from his home.
Many years later, she returns to the house, exhausted, limping, wearing the tattered clothing of a beggar. Not recognizing her, the housekeeper lets her in, giving her a spot before the fire to sleep.
The next morning, the pastor comes downstairs and discovers her, dead. Right away he recognizes her, yet before we can learn what he thinks about it, the housekeeper cries out for him to come, look. A miracle has occurred. On the tiles of their slate roof, flowers have bloomed.
Did God forgive the woman the moment the stones were tossed into the well? Did she have to earn God’s forgiveness through years of suffering? Maybe her suffering taught her how to love. Is that why she was forgiven? Yet is it fair to ask us to earn forgiveness or love any more than we must earn grace? If no one has loved or cared for us, we cannot know how to love ourselves or others. Is that really our fault?
Loving One Another into Love
Unfortunately, it seems, too many of us have never been adequately loved. We show that lack in our inability to love our neighbor. I don’t care what kind of love we’re talking about, to be true, love must be gentle, kind, forgiving, accepting, and generous. Love thinks less of itself and more of the other, which does not mean we do not matter. If we cannot love and care for ourselves, we will not be able to love and care for anyone else, not even our own children. Not really.
The unloved child grows to be the scared, angry, or bitter adult. Can we help these unhappy people to love themselves and others?
I believe God’s love is big enough for everyone and strong enough to heal all pain. But we also have a role in such healing. First we must seek out our own healing. Then, like Kisa Gotami, we might learn to love others, even our enemies. If we care about the unloved and unlovable, if we can show them an abundance of agape, maybe they can learn to care about themselves. In this way, little by little, even the most unloving soul may learn to love his neighbor.
In faith and fondness,
- Rohr, Richard, “Purity and Passion,” Center for Action and Contempation, November 13, 2017, https://cac.org/purity-and-passion-2017-11-13/ accessed December 16, 2017.
- See, for example, Mark 12:30 and Luke 6:27.
- Bourgeault, Cynthia, The Meaning of Mary Magdalene: Discovering the Woman at the Heart of Christianity (Shambhala: 2010), 121, quoted by Richard Rohr in “Purity and Passion.”