Developmental psychologists and adherents to Attachment theory say that the two greatest needs of an infant are to feel safe and secure. If a child develops over time in an environment where they experience safety and security, both physically and emotionally, they will mature into a securely attached adult and move on to healthy interdependent relationships. There are of course exceptions to this, namely experiencing some form of relational trauma, such as physical, sexual or psychological abuse. Even so, a person who grows up in a secure and safe home atmosphere statistically has greater resiliency when faced with challenging and/or traumatic situations later in life.
The sense of safety and security comes through the primary caregivers love, tenderness, and ability to be present and real with the child. Of these, love is the most important. St. Paul reminds us that even though we may have the gift of prophecy, know all mysteries and all knowledge, give all the possessions to feed the poor, or even surrender our body to martyrdom, if I don’t have love, it profits us nothing (cf. I Cor. 13:1-13). Even if we have the kind of faith that can move a mountain, or possess a surplus of hope, it matters little, because the greatest of all gifts is love. Weighing in on this, the author of the Ladder of Divine Ascent, St. John Climacus, elevates love to the highest rung of the ladder and equates it with spiritual perfection and Christ-likeness, which is the ultimate goal for every Christian.
Love is a word we both see and hear a lot of in every day life. We talk about, read about and hear about it, usually as describing a feeling, such as, “I feel loved”, or “I love you”. But love is much more than a feeling; it’s a Person. In First John we read, “The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love” (I John 4:8). Knowing that love is a person and not just a feeling correctly orients us in all our relationships, both vertically with God, and horizontally with others. Of these two directions, our “vertical” relationship with God takes precedence, because it directly impacts all our horizontal relationships. The capacity to love, whether God or others, rests not in our ability but in God Who is love. No one can love without first receiving it from the Source. Any such love, outside of God, is a psychological and carnal love. If we think we can love without God, we deceive ourselves out of a distorted sense of independence, failing to recognize our fallen nature, which devoid of God’s love is nothing more than dust and ashes. God as the Source of love gives us the capacity to love Him in return and to love others, including our enemy. The “horizontal” direction of love for our neighbor is also important when it comes to loving God. St. John the Evangelist reminds us that we cannot say we love God but not love others. In his first pastoral letter, St. John says, “If someone says, ‘I love God,’ but hates his brother, he is a liar, for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen” (I John 4:20). Love is, therefore, two directional.
Fr. Zacharias Zacharou of St. John the Baptist monastery in Essex, England, stated in one of his talks, “Around us we see only tragedies and broken relationships. Nevertheless we think that we will manage better. Unfortunately, we are ignorant of the measure of our fall and of how weak we are. We expect perfect and dynamic love from those around us who have the same passions as us, while we ourselves are unable to offer this because we are all bound by strong bonds and heavy burdens of sins. Our mistake is that we expect those around us, that is, sick and fallen creatures, to fulfill our innate need for love, which is something that only God can truly satisfy. We are deceived when we expect to receive from men, something that God alone can give us. He instilled in us the desire for love, and He alone can satisfy it.”
To love and be loved is the greatest human desire, and we most often seek it through human relationships. The depth of our desire for love, as Fr. Zacharias tells us, will never be satisfied in our horizontal relationships, because no human being can fill the depth of our longing for this, it’s impossible. In our attempt, though, we try to fill the depth of our longing for such love through our relationships with others around us, and in the process we become gravely disappointed and deeply hurt because all of us our fallen human beings, who have passions that intrude in our relationships and cause pain in our loved ones. We are expecting and desiring something from others that only God can fulfill.
Harvel Hendrix in his book, Getting The Love You Want, theorizes that as adults we look for partners in life who will fill the gap that was left from our upbringing in the relationships with our primary caregivers. In other words, if you grew up with a mother who was not nurturing or attentive, and a father who was mostly absent, then you will look for someone who will fulfill your need to be nurtured and tended to. If the person you choose, at some point, because they are human and fallen and imperfect, neglects to call you when they are going to be late coming home, or they fail to notice something special you did, you will re-experience the same feelings of sadness, abandonment, and anger as you did growing up and you’ll either project your anger onto your spouse or you’ll withdraw into passive-aggressiveness. Your need to love and be loved is there, but once again, you experience disappointment.
Fr. Zacharias says, “When we are confronted by the ruins of human love and find ourselves completely broken, then two solutions can be given: either we turn to God with our pain, so that God enters our life and renews us, or we continue to be deceived by our human plans and skip from one tragedy and barrenness of soul to another, hoping that some time we will find perfection. The drama continues until we come to realize that we cannot achieve this on our own. We need a Third Person in our relationships. Just as the priests, who embrace one another in the heart of the Divine Liturgy, say, ‘Christ is in our midst’, so we should do the same in our life. God is not an intruder in our personal relationships, but the One Who will cleanse and perfect them. He will make them secure because His great and eternal love will strengthen and inspire them.” The challenge we face is letting God into our relationships, and allowing Him to be in the space “in between” so that we love others through Christ and allow ourselves to be loved by others through Christ as well.
Fr. Zacharias goes on to say, “If we understand, that in our present state, we are unable to fulfill our boundless desire for love, then, maybe we will be more humble and discreet in the love we expect in our human relationships. If we become aware of man’s poverty and wretchedness, but also the greatness of God’s merciful love, we will acquire compassion and forgiveness. We will be purified of our selfishness and treat others with respect and freedom. We will accept them as they are, without wishing to make them ‘perfect’ according to our way of thinking, and will not make demands on them, neither seek to dominate them.”
Only God can fulfill our deepest longing to love and be loved, though we can experience this in part through the imperfect people around us, including those with whom we are closest and most intimate. During the Divine Liturgy, the clergy say to one another, “Christ is in our midst”, as they exchange the kiss of peace with one another. Though this phrase is said as part of the Liturgy, the fact is that Christ is in the midst of us all. God is with us because He is in all places at all times. The question is, are we calling to mind this reality and calling on His name like breathing in air? Christ is with us, so let us acknowledge Him moment to moment at every encounter with another person. Christ is in our midst, so let us remember that He is in the space between us and every other person we come in contact with and love them through Him. Love is a Person, and it is only through Him that we can fulfill the two greatest commandments to love Him and others, to love and be loved.
In Christ with love,