About twenty five years ago I joined a group of people who would eventually start Corpus Christi House, a day shelter for the homeless in Boise. We studied the writings of Dorothy Day and examined the Catholic Worker movement she started, a faith-based but not religious movement (catholic meaning universal). We wondered together what a Boise House of Hospitality could look like.
In those early years we spent a lot of time discussing what love is. Love is a word that seems perfectly clear until you try to define it.
At one of those discussions, I remember a person saying, “love is commitment.” I was taken aback. At the time I was in my twenties, relatively newly married with two small children. Love is affection and tenderness and romance! Commitment is part of that. But love is a feeling!!
He disagreed. He said that love can have feeling but doesn’t need it. At its core, love is commitment.
I had never heard such a thing, and it stuck with me. As the years have gone on, I understand it now. I have been through many times where fondness and affection were too little to carry the load. It was commitment that kept me in the game. After we opened Corpus and I started spending time with homeless people, love as commitment became the only way I understood love. The people we welcome at Corpus Christ House yell at us, argue with us, lie to us (all the time!), and rarely express gratitude. These are hard people to be around.
Dorothy Day often quoted Brothers Karamazov by Dosteovsky, saying,
Welcoming homeless people is a daily love-in-action and it is usually harsh and dreadful. But it’s not just homeless people. After over 30 years of marriage, there have been many days when I’ve felt hurt, angry, and let down. The romance was not there, but I still loved. Parenting love has turned out to be a lot more about commitment and boundary holding than fondness and affection. Then my husband and I adopted a sibling group from foster care, hurt children who hurt those around them. I discovered that I don’t have to conjure up affection in order to stay committed to them. And that is love.
However, I think the truth is that love also includes cherishing. While affection requires a reciprocal experience with the other, cherishing doesn’t. I can cherish you without you contributing to the relationship. Cherishing comes out of recognizing that, created in the image and likeness of God, every person is an encounter with the Creator. When we cherish people, we want and work for their well being, regardless of the state of our relationship. When we cherish, we see their best self even if they can’t see it themselves.
Today I would say that love is commitment that cherishes.
During this Easter season, we celebrate that love conquered death. Jesus continued preaching about this committed, promise-keeping God even as he was misunderstood, betrayed, entrapped, and finally killed. He fed thousands who drained him so completely he was constantly getting away by himself. And then commitment took him back. Jesus healed the man born blind and the woman with a hemorrhage, cherishing those he didn’t even know.
I’ve heard people talk about God’s love in terms of superhuman affection or superhuman sacrifice. I absorbed those ideas, and then have had to suppress the dissonance they create with the actual gospel story. Neither affection or sacrifice makes sense with Jesus’ condemnation of the religious leaders, acceptance of Judas as a disciple, or cleansing of the temple.
Could it be that the love God has for us is commitment that cherishes? That it’s really not about affection after all? There are so many times Jesus gets upset, and stays completely connected. There always seemed to be Pharisees or religious elders around for him to fight with. And there are so many stories of Jesus being moved by compassion, his committed cherishing of others stronger than his own agenda or exhaustion.
Even as the years have taught me how little affection has to do with love, I’m slow to give it up when thinking about God. I keep thinking of God’s love for me as superhuman affection. But here’s the trouble, I know that God has good reason not to feel affectionate toward me. I sin and I neglect; I am not a great relationship partner. Therefore, I secretly doubt that God really does love me.
And when I secretly doubt God’s love, I do all kinds of things to compensate. I don’t think I’m alone in this. How much of our demand for proper liturgy and legalism with our constitutions is about trying to numb our doubt? How much of our enthusiasm for humility and silencing lay voices (either our own or others) is about showing how good we are? How much of our resistance to change and avoidance of risk is about eternal insecurity?
But if we see God’s love as commitment that cherishes, trust naturally flows. God has already demonstrated ease in commitment, a commitment that even execution couldn’t waver. God has already demonstrated depth in cherishing, healing random strangers who just happened to need Jesus at that very moment. Rather than seeing God’s love as primarily affection (knowing we’re not affection worthy) or sacrificing (distant and impersonal), we can see God’s love as commitment that cherishes, a love that is personal, dependable, and long-lasting.
This Easter season we celebrate a cherishing love so committed it conquered death.