Many years ago, I occasionally brought Holy Communion to a retired couple on Sunday mornings after Mass. They lived in one of those slapdash apartment complexes thrown up by developers to lure seniors away from the cold and snow to bask in the Florida sun. The man—in his late seventies, always cleanly dressed—was quite clearly a meticulous housekeeper. His wife, apparently the victim of a stroke, was wheelchair bound.
What struck me most about the wife is that she seemed unable to walk or talk, and didn’t appear to be mentally alert, even though she was often smiling. Her hair was always well groomed and she was inevitably clothed in a flowered house dress. As far as I could tell, the husband had no outside help, so he was not only in charge of the apartment, but was the sole primary caregiver for his wife. He fed and bathed her; got her to the bathroom and into bed at night; and, one presumes, got a neighbor to look in on her as he did necessary chores out of the apartment. It wasn’t clear to me that they had children or near relatives in the area.
In a casual conversation with the husband, I once said how much I admired him for the way he cared for the house and how beautifully he tended his wife. In a quiet voice, he remarked that he was sure his wife would have done the same for him were he the sick one.
“After all,” he said, “I really love her.”
That simple, conversational exchange has always stuck with me. I have often told the story of that couple to my students, even though it has been decades since all this happened. (I do not even remember their names.) The man’s devotion was a perfect example of that kind of love where eros had turned into agape. I imagine that early in their lives, from courtship to marriage and into maturity, their love was expressed physically in a wholesome sexual fashion. Now, in their declining years, he loved and cared for her, even though she could not even utter a thank you, much less tender him a kiss. This was a love that gave profound meaning to the vow “for better and worse, in sickness and health, until death do we part.”
That couple have long gone to their reward and I myself am inching toward their age. Their story is etched into my memory, even though I only knew them casually because—and this is almost a paradox—they represent a vivid example of both romance and utter self-giving. They loved each other not in some sentimental storybook fashion, but in the grit of everyday life with all of its demands, at times calling upon something close to heroism.
My students always listen respectfully to my anecdote, but find it hard to connect with the story’s poignancy. Why should they? They are young, sexual juices hum in their bodies, their complex mating dances drive their impulses, their notions of love are shaped by popular culture, and their belief in and/or search for love is real. If they are even contemplating marriage in the future, it is done so in the haze of romanticism. However, nobody should fault them for being young.
Nevertheless it is important to try to teach the young about the complexity of love. I have developed a little pedagogical exercise to get to them to see how demanding love can be. It comes in the form of a thought exercise. Answer this question: For what or whom would you give up your life?
Interestingly enough, while few mention their boyfriend or girlfriend, most reply that they would give up their lives for their parents or siblings. They recognize that their own lives are connected to and derive meaning from those who first gave them life and nurturance. That kind of love is not what most of popular culture thinks it is.
In one of the most powerful passages in the New Testament, Jesus says, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:12-13). Jesus, of course, will put that commandment in practice very shortly, when he, in fact, gives up his life for the whole world. The deepest meaning of life is found when, in an act of complete unselfishness, a person gives all for the love of another.
One does not have to search world literature or the recorded lives of the saints to find examples of such love. I found it decades ago in the modest example of an elderly man who showed such love for a spouse. Of course, it is not the only example I have seen over my somewhat sheltered life as an academic. It shines forth in the lives of those parents who have cared for a disabled child, or those families who also quietly sustain an elderly parent. It is transparent in the lives of religious who devote themselves with eagerness to serve the poor their entire lives. Love of that sort manifests itself more modestly in every gesture of the person who resists the self in order to serve the needs of others.
Such love of the other is intimately and inextricably bound up with the love of God. In a striking passage, St. John says flatly that anyone who says he loves God but hates his neighbor “is a liar.” How, John goes on to say, can you love God whom you cannot see when you cannot love a neighbor whom you can see? (I John 4:20).
The conclusion from this is startling: If you truly and deeply love another, you experience God, who is love.