What is Love?

Definition of true love

Thousands of years of art, music, poetry and literature give overwhelming evidence of the wonderful human experience of love. But what is it? Pope John Paul II gives a solid answer:

“Love is not merely a feeling; it is an act of will that consists of preferring, in a constant manner, the good of others to the good of oneself” (We Wish to See Jesus, 2004).

Love is experienced of course most fully in human relationships. Family, friends and acquaintances can all be the source of very fruitful experiences of love. In all of them, an ‘acid-test’ for their durability is whether or not they encourage us to give of ourselves. Relationships can often turn selfish. But if we are making sincere attempts to look to the needs of the other before our own, that is a pretty safe bet that we are on the right lines.

There is a challenge to face here especially when it comes to friendships between members of the opposite sex. Here, many people see love in terms only of a mutual attraction that does not go very deep. The attraction is a good thing, since every man harbours a deep longing to cherish a woman and give himself to her, and every woman has a profound sense of the need to be cherished and so give herself, with all her capacities for enhancing life, in return. The two dynamics working together bring about a very powerful force.

The challenge and the gift of true love

The experience of love between a young man and woman offers excitement as well as challenges. Excitement because the mutual attraction puts colour into the relationship. Challenges because people are precious, and they must be treated with the greatest of respect.

Yet selfishness can creep in because we often seek short-term pleasure at the expense of deeper relationships. And this can cause much heartache and sadness.

We have to gain a degree of self-mastery in all our relationships. This is attained through prayer and constant vigilance of the heart. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us, “The alternative is clear: either man governs his passions and finds peace, or he lets himself be dominated by them and becomes unhappy” (CCC 2339). Young people who have a perceived love for each other might do well to ask themselves if their attraction is based on what they can get for themselves, or whether it seeks to give.

You might test for the suitability of a relationship you may be in by asking whether you have a sense of responsibility for each other. Men are sometimes told that the way to prove their manhood is to use the woman. Women meanwhile sometimes feel that the way to a man’s heart is through the style of their dress, or the way they show themselves.

But God tells us that true manhood and womanhood come only at our expense: for the sake of the other. If a man or a woman say that they love each other, but have no desire to protect their bodies or souls, then the ‘love’ is a counterfeit.

The words of one of the greatest-ever preachers, St John Chyrsostom, might deepen the question. He said that a young husband should say to his bride: “I have taken you in my arms, and I love you, and I prefer you to my life itself. For the present life is nothing, and my most ardent dream is to spend it with you in such a way that we may be assured of not being separated in the life reserved for us” (Homilies on Ephesians, 20,8).

If we can adopt this kind of attitude towards those we love, then the chances are it will make for a stable relationship.