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The Secret of True Love


Is there anything in the modern world about which more has been written and said than about love?

idaFather John A. Hardon, S.J.

The term appears in so many places and in so many forms, in books and periodicals, in lyrics and songs until it seems as though modern man, at least modern Western man, wants to make up in speech what is so painfully lacking in life. It is as though the absence of love, in a world preoccupied with self, calls for some sort of expiation and that lovelessness among people is being somehow repaired, if not made up for, by all this preoccupation with the word, love. There is more than passing value, then, in inquiring into the secret of true love.

In an age when so many crimes are being committed in the name of love, and so much love-talk fills the vocabulary of our day, we had better look into the meaning of true love. Otherwise there is risk of being deceived by false love or at least of failing to live up to the high expectations of the One whose name is love and who out of love became one of us and whose final will and testament before He died was that we love as He did, that we love truly and not spuriously. If we do, He will love us now and for all eternity.

Let us begin by identifying the secret of true love in three sentences, each based on divine Revelation and each successively building on the one that precedes. After stating each sentence we shall prayerfully examine the implications of each of these expressions of a divine law.

True love means to give rather than to receive;
True love means to give in deeds and not only in affections or in words; and
True love means to give self and not only to give things.

To give rather than to receive

There is a deeply practical reason why we should begin exploring the meaning of true love in this way. Modern man is so bent over himself that he actually thinks that to love someone is mainly to receive something from that person, from the one he thinks he loves. "I love you" on the lips of most people means "you satisfy me" or "you give me what I want" or "you fulfill my desires" or "you are good to me" or "you please me" or "you are what I need." There may be a measure of truth in these sentences, since even the purest and most sublime form of love is personally satisfying. There is pleasure in loving others and in fact the deepest satisfaction of the human heart is experienced by one who loves.

But, saying this is not what people generally mean when they say that they love. Otherwise, how explain the pathetic shambles of marital love in, by now, millions of human lives? Our civil courts have redefined love between husband and wife to mean that they are in love as long as each gets from the other what he or she is looking for. When this selfish desire is not satisfied or not satisfied enough, they are said no longer to be in love. What perversion of a sacred word and what tragedies follow on this abuse of language!

The same misinterpretation is seen in the lives of priests and religious who when they entered their high calling thought or at least said they were being moved by the love of God. But then as the demands of their vocation grew on them they became less sure. They expected to receive from God consolations, or spiritual visitations, which is what some of the books on mysticism tell you. They looked forward to getting pleasant manifestations of God's affection, and when these experiences did not materialize they became sure there was something wrong. So they either left their vowed state of life or at least slackened in their commitment to their vocation. They did not get what they thought was coming to them, as though loving God primarily means getting something from God. It is impossible to overemphasize how many otherwise good people are living under this illusion: that to love is to get. And if you are not getting, well, there must be no love.

On the contrary, the essence of true love is to give to the one we claim to love. These are not idle words. They have a history written in blood. The measure of our love is our willingness to give. We may also receive in return and if we do we are grateful, but we do not bargain with our hearts giving only if we receive, or giving only in order to receive, or only giving as much as we expect to receive. That is business, it is not love. We love in the degree that we are ready to give. If we are ready to give little, we love little; if we are ready to give much, we love much. Generosity is the standard of love. It is the norm of love. It is the divinely established condition of love.

To give in deeds

It is strange but not surprising that human nature should be so prone to make another mistake. Even when it is ready to give to another and not only to receive when it loves, its tendency is to give only or mainly with the affections, or in sentiments, or in words and hold back on giving more. We return to the familiar experience of so many young people who during courtship tell each other how much they love one another. He tells her that he loves her and uses the most extravagant language to convey his feelings: she is adorable; he cannot live without her; she is precious, sweet and lovely. And if he has any poetic talent and they are living at any distance from each other he writes her long letters, not monthly or weekly, but, as one recently told me, twice in one day to reassure her of his undying love and tell her in sonnets or other romantic ways which she is sure he sometimes quotes that she is indeed the woman of his dreams. Depending on her vocabulary and imagination she responds in similar if less florid terms. Men, by the way, are the poets of the world; women are the realists. Then they marry and in marriage after marriage something curious happens. It takes no time at all for the romanticism to wear off and cold reality to set in. Once they discover that true love is more than mere words and feelings they either settle down to not talking about but practicing their love in action and in deeds, or the marriage so happily and promisingly begun begins to weaken and, unless something drastic enters soon, to disintegrate.

So too among priests and religious. They have been trained to tell God that they love Him and the prayerbooks of the spiritual life are filled with beautiful and elevating acts of the purest love of God. But unless a priest or religious has been properly trained and unless he or she has learned the difference between real love and the verbal sentiments of love, no matter how sincerely felt, something again pathetic takes place. The once fervent postulant or novice or young priest begins to realize that something has gone wrong. They have to be reminded no less than the young married couple that when we love someone we do of course have an internal experience of this affection, that is where love begins, and we should express our affection in words that convey the sentiments of our hearts.

But that is not enough. Christ our Lord could not have been plainer: "Anybody who receives my commandments and keeps them will be the one who loves me." Notice, "and keeps them" and again, "if anyone loves me he will keep my word." He will not just hear it. He will not just tell me, "Lord, I love You;" he will show it. As we think about it, this stands to reason. If, or since, love consists first of all in giving, we may ask what is easier to give, feelings and words, or deeds? And who gives more, the one who says that he loves and stops there or the one who says that he loves and shows that his love is genuine by doing something about his affections?

When did God begin to love us? He never began, He always did. God always loved us? From all eternity? Yes, from all eternity! Suppose by an impossible flip of imagination we were able to talk to God before we existed and told Him, "Lord, I know You love me dearly and I really appreciate it, but would You mind doing something about it?" He might ask, "Like what?" "Forgive me, Lord, for making the suggestion -- like bringing me into existence." God's love has been effective. God did something about His love for us. That is why we are here.

Moreover, as we so well know, sentiments can be tinged with selfishness and the most affectionate words can be superficial, if not dubious, if not backed up with a security of deeds. I like the following description by St. Vincent de Paul, the great apostle of charity. Says Vincent, "Let us love God, my brethren, let us love God, but let this be at the expense of our arms and in the sweat of our brows. For very often many acts of the love of God, of goodness, benevolence, and other similar interior affections and practices of a tender heart, although very good and most desirable, are nonetheless much to be suspected when we never come to the practice of effective love." That is the key word, effective. True love is not only inside of me, it produces effects outside of me. True love is active, it does things and not only says things. True love is inventive, it discovers ways of showing affections for the one it loves. It is creative, where the imagination is ever on the alert to give to the one it loves whatever the loved one may need. Or if not need, as with God, to give Him what He wants. And as the Savior made clear, He wants deeds.

To give oneself

There is one more element to the secret of true love. It is also the capstone of love. Authentic love does not stop with giving and even giving in deeds. If it is genuine the one who loves also gives himself. Self-giving is the heart of love because unless I give myself I am holding back or bargaining, and my professed affection for someone is adulterated by self-love. The commandment of Christ -- "deny yourself" -- was no figure of speech. He meant it to be taken literally. If we love God we are willing to give up self-will to do His will; it is that simple and also, as we all by now know, that hard. Most people would be willing to give up anything except their wills.

According to St. Augustine the human race can be divided into two cities. Two loves, he says, have made these two cities: self-love, even to the contempt of God, and the love of God, even to the contempt of self. Between these two loves is divided the whole family of mankind. Here, if anywhere, by their respective fruits, can be recognized true love and its approximations as also its spurious counterparts. In real life this self-giving to God is mainly put into practice by our selfless love for others. God does not need us. He does not even, which does not flatter us, He does not even need our love; honest, He does not. How could God need us, being already perfectly happy and perfect in every degree? But He wants our love and wants us to show it by our self-giving to others whom He puts into our lives for this solitary, unique and divinely ordained purpose, that by giving ourselves to them we are giving ourselves to Him. "Lord," we are sometimes tempted to ask, "why did You do it? Of all the strange characters You have put into my life, Lord, why?"

This is the reason why! To show our love for Him by giving ourselves to the people whom we know and, shall I add, with whom we live. Of course in their dark moments they may have the same thoughts about us, and then we serve the same providential purpose in their lives. Can people ever be demanding? Yes. But there is Someone behind the person who asks us for anything. It is the Infinite God who is asking.

This self-giving should be nothing mysterious; it is the most obvious but, for some people, the most difficult thing in the world. It means in the words of St. Paul that we are always patient. I checked the adverb -- Paul says always patient and kind, never jealous, that we are never boastful. Never? Never! Or conceited. Never rude or selfish; that we do not take offense. Can you imagine? That we never take offense. This does not mean that we will never be offended, which is not the same thing. We are never resentful; we take no pleasure in other people's sins, but delight in the truth. We are always ready to excuse. (Dear Lord, do You mean it? Yes, I mean it.) We always trust, we hope, and we endure whatever comes which, let us remind ourselves, is real Christian courage. Courage is the endurance of pain out of love.

"My God," we are prompted to pray, "is it possible for weak human nature to rise to these heights? Can we really love in this selfless way?" His answer to us is the reply the angel gave to our Lady, "Nothing is impossible to God." What we cannot do, He can achieve in us and through us by the power of His grace. True love is not a theory. It is not poetry or pious fancy. It is a reality, the reality of a Person who became Man and dwells among us. In this love we can all have a share provided we allow Incarnate love to take over the mastery of our hearts.



hardonFather John A. Hardon. "The secret of true love." from Spiritual Life in the Modern World (Boston: MA Daughters of St. Paul, 1982): 49-56.

Reprinted with permission from Inter Mirifica.

The Author

hardonbook1hardon2Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J. (1914-2000) was a tireless apostle of the Catholic faith. The author of over twenty-five books including Spiritual Life in the Modern World, Catholic Prayer Book, The Catholic Catechism, Modern Catholic Dictionary, Pocket Catholic Dictionary, Pocket Catholi Catechism, Q & A Catholic Catechism, Treasury of Catholic Wisdom, Catholic Lifetime Reading Plan and hundreds of articles, Father Hardon was a close associate and advisor of Pope Paul VI, Pope John Paul II, and Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity. Read articles or hear tapes, etc. of Father Hardon here.

Copyright © 2008 Inter Mirifica
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