What Is Love?


This piece was written in 2021 by Religion Department Chair and Religion Teacher Kevin Veselik:

I love Pompei pizza.

I love my wife.

I love the White Sox and the Fighting Irish. I love my three sons.

I love riding my bike (and my sons love the Burley) through the forest preserve to Brookfield Zoo (I love the seals and river otters; the boys love the lions and the carousel).

I love my parents, my grandparents, my siblings, and my nieces and nephews.

I love reading Little Blue Truck (we love the Halloween one) and Pete the Cat (we love the one about buttons) books with my sons on the couch on snowy Saturday mornings (with hot coffee, which I love, made with beans from Costco, which I also love).

I love backyard baseball before 7:00 AM on sunny summer mornings (though we are not sure if the neighbors love it).

I love my friends.

I love teaching my sophomore students about the Sacraments (which I love), especially Reconciliation & Eucharist (which I really love).

I love National Parks (the boys loved seeing a bear in the wild, and I loved surviving seeing a bear in the wild).

I love my students.

I love Lake Opinicon.

I love cheering for the Redwings on the court and on the field (and on the stage, on the ice, and especially on the cross-country course).

I love Jesus and His Church and His Mother.

If you’re like me, you might use the word love often and you might mean wildly different things when using it. As we approach Valentine’s Day (I invite you to check out this link if you are not familiar with the life of St. Valentine), I thought it might be worthwhile to consider the following question: what is love? I think a look at what the Lord has revealed to us in Sacred Scripture can help us here.

When the New Testament tells us that love is the most indispensable of all virtues (1 Cor 1:1- 3), the greatest of all the virtues (1 Cor 13:13), the greatest of the commandments (Mt 22:36- 37), and the very nature of God (1 Jn 4:16), are the Scripture writers using the word love like I do when I say “I love pizza”? Of course not! So what, then, according to Scripture, is love?

The New Testament was written in Greek, and the ancient Greeks (and maybe the modern Greeks too?) had at least four different words for our English word “love.” Storge refers to familial love (i.e. the love we have for our children, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc.) or affection. Eros refers to romantic love, the unplanned, unwilled, sugar-rush, head over heels, can’t stop thinking about someone love. But these are not the words used when Scripture speaks of love as the greatest of virtues and as the very nature of God. Rather, the New Testament uses agape (ah-gah-pay) and sometimes philia (which is often described as the love of friendship). The English word that was commonly used to describe agape love was charity, but now people typically think of charity as simply giving to the poor. And we know that we use the English word love in all different ways now. So, in an attempt to be clear, I’ll refer to the love that Scripture speaks of as agape love.

St. Thomas Aquinas defines agape love concisely for us: it is “willing the good of the other.” Scripture is clear that agape love is not a feeling. Agape love is a choice, an action of our free will. Agape love is wanting what is best for the other and doing something about it. Agape love, therefore, is selfless, self-sacrificial.

Before continuing on to focus on agape love, I should note that eros and storge love are wonderful and good! We should strive to pair our storge or eros love with agape love. Eros love, especially, can turn poisonous and dangerous if it is not paired with agape love. Christ helps us keep eros love and agape love together with the grace he offers us through the Sacrament of Matrimony.

I am fortunate to see agape love (wanting the best for the other and doing something about it) out all around me:

  • My wife waking up to console and feed our 3-month-old son in the middle of the night even though her alarm is going off 4:15 AM before a 12-hour shift at the hospital.
  • The Frey brothers volunteering their time, year after year, to bring groups of students to Guatemala to build houses for those in need,
  • Junior boys waking up early on an at-home day to get to 7:10 AM Mass at school to support a friend,
  • Parents who sacrifice lots of time and money to send their children to Benet,
  • Benet faculty, staff, and administrators working harder than ever to help our students learn in our unusual and difficult circumstances,
  • My dad patiently and compassionately caring for his patients and his family despite all of the stresses of the pandemic,
  • Parents who say no when their high-school aged child asks to attend an unsupervised party,
  • My mom and my mother-in-law spending their time rotating between serving others in their work and volunteer positions and caring for their grandkids and their own parents,
  • A brave student telling a parent or counselor about a friend who is self-harming,
  • Abbot Hugh, Abbot Austin, Fr. Michael, and the late, great Father Ed (even into his 90s) giving up their Saturday evenings and staying up well past their usual bedtimes to hear late-night confessions and celebrate Mass at Catalyst Junior Retreats,
  • Parents who help their child avoid or overcome an attachment to pornography, and
  • Teachers who call out academic dishonesty when they see it.

As I hope my examples above make clear, agape love isn’t always comfortable or pleasurable or easy. It can be awkward. It can be exhausting. It usually involves hard work and sacrifice. It’s not always the same as being kind (though, of course, being kind often accompanies agape love). Like any parent or teacher knows, loving with agape love can be challenging because it isn’t always perceived as love. But like a good doctor loves his patient by telling the truth about a difficult diagnosis, Christians love with agape love when we tell the truth about how God calls us to live. Because agape love is not a feeling (and that’s not to downplay feelings- our feelings matter, of course), we can still choose to love others even when we don’t really feel like it or even if we don’t particularly like them at the moment.

One of the great truths and mysteries of Christianity is that the more we love others with agape love (i.e. the more we put God and others before ourselves) the happier and more fulfilled we are (think about the joy of Mother Teresa or the joy of the Christmas Drive Shopping Day). That’s because God created us to share in His life and to be one with Him, and the more we love with agape love, the more like God we become. Think about it- God doesn’t need us. He’s perfect and has no need. And yet the Lord created us, didn’t give up on us, broke into human history and became man and suffered and died to save. How does this make any sense? The Lord loves us with agape love. He wants what is best for us and does something about it. We were made by agape love (God) for agape love.

St. Valentine, a third-century priest who performed marriages for Christians even though he knew it could lead to arrest, torture, and death, is an excellent example of someone who wanted what was best for others and did something about it, even when it was frightening and difficult to do so. St. Valentine, patron of young people, those in love, and happy marriages, pray for us!