Saturday, 8 February 2014

What is Love?

What is Love?

It is perhaps one of the great questions; perhaps one of the un-answerable questions. They say it makes the world go round. It certainly inspires people to many great things, or at least they say it does. But what is it? It’s not a substance, it isn't solid and you certainly can’t catch it or pin it down and pull it to pieces to explain what it is made of. By the way I don’t believe that when you do that with anything you can understand what it is; only what it is made of. When you pin a butterfly down and examine it you don’t really learn much about what a butterfly actually is. To learn what a butterfly is you have to watch it fly. I suspect it’s the same with love. To understand what love is you have to watch it fly through the gardens of life, the gardens of delight.

Where I come from the word “Love” is a colloquialism, a bit like “Pet” in the North East or “Duck” in the East Midlands. It can trouble those who visit the Leeds area. Over twenty years ago I worked as a civil servant in the National Health Service. They had just moved their headquarters from London to Leeds and many people and been transferred “up north”. Well one morning a colleague came in looking visibly shaken and quite disturbed. People gathered round to see if he was all right. After a while he explained what had happened - He said that he had to get the bus into work that morning as his car was being serviced. As he got on the bus and paid his fare the driver said to him “That will be £1.20 Love”. He paid the fare and then sat in his seat and after a while it dawned on him what this large hairy northern man had said to him - Well we burst into laughter, which didn't really amuse him. We explained that it is just the way people speak round these parts, even big hairy bus drivers.

Now I suspect that the bus driver was not making a romantic advance to my colleague, although you never know, it’s just what he says to everyone who gets on his bus. I wonder how many times in my life I have heard the words “Danny love...or all right love, can you do this for me love, what do you think of this love, we’re going to have pie and peas for tea tonight love”

I suspect that this is not the love that people will be spending millions of pounds on in a few days time; it is not the love being expressed on Valentine’s Day. Therein lays the problem of course, the limits of the English language. We have one word for love and yet when we use this one word we are often talking of many different forms of love. I'm not sure what that says about us modern English speakers and the development of the language we use, but I suspect it says something

The ancient Greeks had six different words for love. One was “Eros”, which was primarily sexual or passionate desire. This may surprise some but the ancient Greeks did not always hold a positive view of Eros, It could be seen as fiery and irrational. It involved a loss of control that was feared. Just think of the story of Helen of Troy, “the face that sailed a thousand ships.” Plato saw it as “Divine” madness.

The ancient Greeks understood what it meant to “fall madly in love”. I have been consumed by this kind of overpowering love many times in my life, I hope to goodness I will again. It is a part of our humanity, but not the only part.

The ancient Greeks viewed “Philia” as a higher form of love than “Eros”. This is the type of love that develops through deep friendships. When they spoke of “Philia” they were often talking of the kind of love that formed on the battlefield between comrades in arms, brotherly love. It’s the kind of love that compels a person to go to any lengths to protect the person or persons they love; it’s the kind of love that inspires self-sacrifice. In many ways it is similar to “Storge” which the ancient Greeks described as the love parents feel for their children. When I look at my life this is a love that has grown and developed in me in recent years and especially in the last few weeks and months. It’s the kind of love that is formed in 12 step fellowships and religious communities, you see it in sporting teams too and other communities where people bind together and look out for one another.

Another form of love that the Ancient Greeks spoke of was “Ludus”. This is a kind of playful or flirtatious love. It comes alive in friendly banter, around the people we feel comfortable with or when we dance and flirt with others.

Another form was Agape love. This is a love without prejudice, a selfless love, some call it religious love. In Christianity it is seen as the highest form of love. When translated into Latin it became Caritas from which comes the word charity. This is the love that is spoken of by the Epistle Paul’s in 1 Corinthians 13 “4Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.6Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” Agape has parallels with the Buddhist concept of “metta” or “universal loving kindness”. The Buddha’s word’s on loving kindness, the Metta Sutta says. “So with a boundless heart; Should one cherish all living beings; Radiating kindness over the entire world:”

Another form was “Pragma” or long standing love. This is a form of mature love that develops over long-term relationships say between married couples. Pragma was about making compromises and developing patience and tolerance so that relationships could mature over time. It was not so much about the madness of falling in love we find in “Eros” and more about standing and holding in love. I suspect that this is the kind of love we see less and less of these days. People of my generation seem to be inspired by the need to be free and have their personal needs met, rather than this kind of love. It’s not something I've ever been any good at, I must admit. Over the last few weeks I have seen much of my enormous and complicated family. I have not seen many of them for years. The majority have asked me if I was married yet, to which my stock answer has been “oh I'm not very good at that sort of thing.” Most of them responded in rather lovely ways by saying things like “it will happen at the right time” etc, they all seemed most concerned about me. My uncle Gerald epitomised it with following response, he said “Oh it’ll come lad and when you least expect it.”

The final form was “Philautia” or self love. Now for the ancient Greeks this manifested in two forms. This form of love, like all forms of love, had both a light and a shadow side. Its negative aspect was a form of narcissistic self obsession, which was motivated by vanity and greed and self absorption, to the total neglect of others. Think of the story “Echo and Narcissus”. Yet the other aspect of “Philautia” “self love” was, perhaps the most important, and from which all forms of healthy human love grew. It is what today we would describe as positive self regard, although actually I believe it runs much deeper than that. It is the kind of experience that is vital in order to deeply and appropriately love others and for that matter all life. Without this sense of love being at the core of who we are we are never going to offer “Agape” love to others, or not in a positive way. This is because we will love our neighbour as ourselves, in the sense that we will hate them as we hate ourselves, if we do not experience this form of love at the core of our being. We need to love our reflection as we look at it in the glass, “warts and all and beauty spots too”, although we need to guard against becoming self absorbed. Remember we are formed from the same stuff as everyone else and in everyone is a reflection of the divine. We are formed from the divine spark.

I recently came across an almost perfect expression of what "Love" is. It was in a short piece written by Robert Johnson and titled "Stirring the Oatmeal." Below is a short extract from it.

From "Stirring the Oatmeal" by Robert Johnson

Many years ago a wise friend gave me a name for human love. She called it "stirring-the-oatmeal" love. She was right: Within this phrase, if we will humble ourselves enough to look, is the very essence of what human love is, and it shows us the principal differences between human love and romance.

Stirring the oatmeal is a humble act-not exciting or thrilling. But it symbolizes a relatedness that brings love down to earth. It represents a willingness to share ordinary human life, to find meaning in the simple, unromantic tasks: earning a living, living within a budget, putting out the garbage, feeding the baby in the middle of the night. To "stir the oatmeal" means to find the relatedness, the value, even the beauty, in simple and ordinary things, not to eternally demand a cosmic drama, an entertainment, or an extraordinary intensity in everything. Like the rice hulling of the Zen monks, the spinning wheel of Gandhi, the tent making of Saint Paul, it represents the discovery of the sacred in the midst of the humble and ordinary.

“God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” Words from 1 John chapter 4 v 16. These words speak powerfully to me, to my spirit and to my life. They could easily become a personal credo statement. Now many would probably want me to explain what I mean, but I'm not sure I can adequately. All I know is that it make sense to me and my experience of life and that the realisation of the truth within this statement both powers and guides my life.

These words from 1 John chapter 4 are also central to the Universalist tradition that I increasingly identify with. I often identify as a Universalist when fellow Unitarians ask me about my personal faith and when I do many ask me if I am of the old or the more modern type. My usual answer to them is “both”. The God I know is pure love, who rejects none. It is the God of the “Prodigal Son” who not only welcomes his son home but rushes to meet him, hugs him and kisses him, the God of love and deep intimacy; a love that is experienced and not just thought about in some distant realm. It is a love that is spoken of in all the great faith traditions and secular ones too, encompassed in the “Golden Rule” of compassion. It is based upon humility and openness. No one can know the full answer we all glimpse through the glass dimly and it is an acceptance of this that opens us to new experiences, beyond our comprehension.

I love the way that Richard Trudeau describes “Universalism in a Nutshell”

"God is love.
No one is condemned.
The way to be happy is to do good.
There are sources of religious truth outside the Judeo-Christian tradition.
God is love."

Now no doubt many will want to argue about what is meant by God. Well like “Love” it may mean different things to different people. In my view it is a word that attempts to speak of something beyond description. I tend to follow the great modern Universalist Forrest Church who said “God is not God’s name, God is our name for that power that is greater than all and yet present in each”. This makes sense to me, to my experiences.

This is the love I have come to know and it is this that fills me up and allows me to live in love in this life.

I think the mistake so many of us make is that we seek love, when actually what we ought to be doing is living in love, in all its many forms. That said in order to live in love we have to first understand that it is love that we are made of and formed from. We do not need to seek it from anybody else, we just need to express it through our lives and we will know it and abide in it...”In all that we feel, all that we think, all that we say and all that we do.”

I will end this blogspot with some words by Mark Belletini

“Love Prayer”

Love, you are strong as a dark blue mountain.

Love, you are as fluid as a wide silver river.

Love, you are as splendid as clear night sky.

Love, you are as mysterious as a dark forest.

Love, you as wise as enduring friendship.

Love, you are true power, not mere distraction

Truth, not deceit,

Purpose, not impulse,

Poetry, not prose,

Sing, not sang,

Now more than tomorrow,

But tomorrow more than yesterday.

Love, condense yourself into this moment,

Permeate the silence that joins us in community,

So that in the fire of the words to come,

The promise of this hour

Might be sealed in peace


  1. A very informative ind interesting piece. :)

    I believe that love, in all its forms, is all we really need; it's the cure for all the world's woes. When people hurt others, it's a call for love, and is best treated with love. Not always easy, but necessary to heal the hurt from where further hurt emanates.

  2. Not always easy, but the only way..."Simple, not easy" as they say...thank you Mel