Love has got to be one of the most confusing words in the English language. In one moment, we might declare, “I love enchiladas!” and in the next, we might worry about whether telling a person we love them might give them the “wrong impression.” The word is, admittedly, far, far overused for the wrong things, and far, far underused for the right things. What’s got us so confused?
Is it a noun or a verb? Can you “fall” into it, as one could unexpectedly fall into a manhole while walking down the street? Or is love a choice? Should love be “free,” or should it “bind us” together? How does sex fit in with love? We have heard about “true” love, “unconditional” love, and even “tough” love. Does it then follow that there is “untrue” love, “conditional” love, or “easy” love? Furthermore, if I declare that I love everyone in the world, is that sincere?
People have studied the classifications of love since the beginning of time, and I won’t go into all that since I’m not an expert and there’s enough written about those things already (i.e. Agape love, Eros love, etc.)
Where I’ll start is with C.S. Lewis. I quote Lewis a lot, I know, maybe too much. But I really can’t help it – his words resonate with me in so many different ways. I really like his definition of love in particular.
“Love is not affectionate feeling, but a steady wish for the loved person’s ultimate good, as far as it can be obtained.” – C.S. Lewis
I find that to be very profound: love as a steady, beautiful wish. Love holds out an unyeilding torch of hope and truth for another person – for this life and beyond. It implies that we see someone not only for who they are today, but also for who they could ultimately become. We become mini prophets of optimism, peering into the future for someone else, even when they cannot do so for themselves. We believe in who they would be at their best, and we envision how dazzlingly brilliant they could be when wholly redeemed. It’s not that we don’t see their shortcomings or failures – in fact real love sees those things quite clearly. It’s just that the glorious brightness of who we know they could be overwhelms all else. Loving someone is seeing them and appreciating them for who they are, but while at the same time believing and hoping that their best will be magnanimously more beautiful than who they are today. This kind of love allows us to weather the storms of life’s difficulties, adapt to the seasons of changing circumstances, and remain unchanged by the pulling tides of emotions.
Love doesn’t require a specific type of relationship – it doesn’t even require all the kinds of typical words, emotions or affections you might typically associate with the word “love.” Obviously, those things can co-exist quite nicely with love in many cases, though.
Does love have to be recognized or reciprocated in order to be love? Perhaps it can be more ardently powerful when it is not. Love gives itself over to others continuously, even when there is no hope of it being recognized or returned. What about loving someone you do not know? Is that possible? Certainly, although I think that it is action-oriented. It is not enough to simply declare that I love the people of Austin, for example; I must find a way of serving them. Love is active service, not just words.
On this subject, I find myself always coming back to the story of Jean Valjean. Yes, the musical Les Miserables had great success on film recently (I liked it quite a lot) but Victor Hugo’s novel, (which I highly, highly recommend as one of the best books ever written) tells the story by showing us an even more “stern and splendid” kind of love. The entire novel is one massive love story, marked by adventure, tragedy and profound and eternal beauty. No, I’m not talking about the love story between Fantine and Valjean, Cosette and Valjean, Cosette and Marius, or Eponine and Marius here, although those were certainly small love stories within the story.
The greatest love story in Les Miserables occurs between jean Valjean and the Bishop Myriel. In the novel, Hugo goes to great lengths over many pages to introduce us to the Bishop: who he is, what he was like, and how he became who he was. Even though he became an important Bishop, he continued to act in service. He was humble, lived simply, enjoyed gardening, and gave most of his salary and his time to serving the poor. The Bishop had almost nothing of value that he treasured – his home was very humble – except for his silver utensils and silver candlesticks. Every night for dinner, his elderly maid would remove them from the cupboard carefully for use, clean and polish them, and place them back afterwards. The silver was the one luxury the Bishop allowed himself.
Valjean at this time was a hardened ex-con who had been disproportionately punished in the French prison system for years for stealing a loaf of bread. Life had been horribly cruel to him. After being released, he was despised and rejected by everyone who saw him, because he was a convict. Everyone, that is, except the Bishop. He found Valjean starving on his doorstep and invited him in. Valjean, an exhausted, filthy criminal, ate soup with the Bishop’s silver spoons and slept for the first time in years in a real bed, in the clean white sheets. The Bishop called him “brother” and treated him as an honored guest.
But Valjean was not restful; he was utterly lost. Waking in the middle of the night in these surroundings, fear and evil took hold of him. In the darkness he crept to the cupboard, filled his bag with the Bishop’s silver and snuck away.
The next morning, when the maid, Madame Magliore, discovered what happened and came to the Bishop in distress, he responded in an astonishing way:
The Bishop remained silent for a moment; then he raised his grave eyes, and said gently to Madame Magloire:–
“And, in the first place, was that silver ours?”
Madame Magloire was speechless. Another silence ensued; then the Bishop went on:–
“Madame Magloire, I have for a long time detained that silver wrongfully. It belonged to the poor. Who was that man? A poor man, evidently.”
Later that day, the Bishop heard a knock on the door. Several police officers had picked up a suspicious looking man, and upon searching him, they found that he had a bag of silver serving utensils in his possession. Almost everyone in town knew that the Bishop’s silver was his prized possession, so the officers had obviously taken him straight there.
But it was the Bishop who spoke first, without allowing the officers to ask the question.
“Ah! here you are!” he exclaimed, looking at Jean Valjean. “I am glad to see you. Well, but how is this? I gave you the candlesticks too, which are of silver like the rest, and for which you can certainly get two hundred francs. Why did you not carry them away with your forks and spoons?”
Jean Valjean opened his eyes wide, and stared at the venerable Bishop with an expression which no human tongue can render any account of.
“Monseigneur,” said the brigadier of gendarmes, “so what this man said is true, then? We came across him. He was walking like a man who is running away. We stopped him to look into the matter. He had this silver–“
“And he told you,” interposed the Bishop with a smile, “that it had been given to him by a kind old fellow of a priest with whom he had passed the night? I see how the matter stands. And you have brought him back here? It is a mistake.”
“In that case,” replied the brigadier, “we can let him go?”
“Certainly,” replied the Bishop.
The gendarmes released Jean Valjean, who recoiled.
“Is it true that I am to be released?” he said, in an almost inarticulate voice, and as though he were talking in his sleep.
“Yes, thou art released; dost thou not understand?” said one of the gendarmes.
“My friend,” resumed the Bishop, “before you go, here are your candlesticks. Take them.”
He stepped to the chimney-piece, took the two silver candlesticks, and brought them to Jean Valjean. The two women looked on without uttering a word, without a gesture, without a look which could disconcert the Bishop.
Jean Valjean was trembling in every limb. He took the two candlesticks mechanically, and with a bewildered air.
“Now,” said the Bishop, “go in peace. By the way, when you return, my friend, it is not necessary to pass through the garden. You can always enter and depart through the street door. It is never fastened with anything but a latch, either by day or by night.”
Then, turning to the gendarmes:–
“You may retire, gentlemen.”
The gendarmes retired.
Jean Valjean was like a man on the point of fainting.
The Bishop drew near to him, and said in a low voice:–
“Do not forget, never forget, that you have promised to use this money in becoming an honest man.”
Jean Valjean, who had no recollection of ever having promised anything, remained speechless. The Bishop had emphasized the words when he uttered them. He resumed with solemnity:–
“Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I buy from you; I withdraw it from black thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God.”
If you know the story, you know what happens to Valjean afterward. His heart was transformed. He came to know God. Over time he became a rich businessman and the mayor of an industrious town, he helped the poor, he heroically did the unthinkable in revealing his identity as a convict in order to prevent a man from being falsely accused in his place, he adopted a dying prostitute’s daughter and raised her as his own, and he saved the boy she loved from dying in the streets of Paris. He was faced with huge moral dilemmas, and while in his lifetime he found great success, he was also forced into depths of great humility. No image of Valjean is more poignant than the one of him slogging through the stinking sewers of Paris, half-dead, to save Marius, the boy his daughter loved. Throughout his life he was chased mercilessly by Javert, a law man who couldn’t forgive, but Valjean showed him grace and forgiveness at every turn, cofounding and confusing Javert – literally to death.
This one act of love from the Bishop with the silver candlesticks truly altered the course of history for not only Valjean, but for every other main character in the book, through their connection with Valjean. After Valjean’s redemption, the the Bishop doesn’t appear in the story again, but his love touches every other person in it. Valjean felt the impact of the Bishop’s love on himself, and he knew exactly what it would mean for others if he were to do the same for them.
What an astonishing story. The Bishop certainly did not have any cause to love Valjean, but I suppose that he deeply knew that kind of love himself; that he was acting out of the deep understanding of how he had been redeemed by God even when he did not deserve it. In this way, the Bishop continued in carrying out in small-scale what God has already carried out in the world in large scale: the love story between God and man, when God sacrificed the thing he loved most, his son, in order to buy our freedom.
Love does not retaliate or take revenge. It isn’t loud, demanding or selfish. It is never entitled. Love waits patiently. It forgives quietly. It trusts implicitly. It takes great risks and makes great sacrifices. It knows disappointment, pain and rejection well. But make no mistake, love is not weak, it is not blind, and it is no pushover. It does not run from a fight. Love may enter the ring looking like the underdog, but it always leaves as the champion. It is always stronger, always fiercer, always bolder. Love cannot be thwarted, even by death.
Love interrupts. It disrupts. It transforms. It connects. When you love someone, you love not only that person, but also every person that they may ever touch. We talk about all kinds of networks these days… but the network of love we create is the one that will last; this is the one that really matters. In this way, our legacy on earth is not our wealth, success, achievement, or biological offspring. Our legacy that we pass down through the ages is a legacy of love. Love cannot be silent or brushed aside. It will speak out, and its affects will ripple outward exponentially in ways that you cannot possibly anticipate or imagine.
“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or clanging cymbal.” – I Cor. 13:1