Thursday, 25 April 2013

Of the Desire to be Loved

St. Catherine of Sienna

This is another one of those questions which I have been pondering a great deal lately, as it has a very keen relevance to my personal life. The following is just a line of reasoning that I myself have followed; the conclusions seem, to me, to follow from certain principles expounded by the spiritual writers I've read. The question is whether it is acceptable to have a desire to be loved by others? It seems natural to men to have this desire, as humans were indeed made for love. And yet, on the other hand, we find in the writings of the Saints and other spiritual authors a discouragement of this very desire. For example, St. Catherine of Sienna, in her great Dialogue, records the words of Jesus to her, concerning the love of creatures:
Do you know how the imperfection of spiritual love for the creature is shown? It is shown when the lover feels pain if it appear to him that the object of his love does not satisfy or return his love, or when he sees the beloved one's conversation turned aside from him, or himself deprived of consolation, or another loved more than he.
I struggle with this particular defect; I think we all do, to some degree. But this shows an imperfect love. Our love for others must be a love of benevolence, which is solely a will for the other person's own good; it is essentially a disinterested love, in which we do not seek ourselves, but rather give ourselves, as it were, to the person we love, for that person's good. We sacrifice our own self-will for the sake of what the other person wills, thus uniting our will to theirs, and seeking their good. This requires that we neither expect nor hope for the return of our love; for this would manifest in us a desire for our own good, for our own delight and consolation - this would be self-love, a manifestation of pride.

Now, it is true, as I have written before (see this post, and this post), friendship requires that love be mutual, and thus that the lover's love be returned by the beloved. Friendship is a love of two people for each other, not of one person for another. But, perhaps somewhat paradoxically, it is also necessary to friendship that the lover have the love benevolence, according to which he must not expect his love to be returned. Thus, it would seem, the perfect friendship is one in which the lovers do not expect or hope for each other's friendship. Again, this follows from the fact that the love of friendship, which consists in the love of benevolence, is a purely selfless love.

Again, this seems somewhat paradoxical; and it could also be seen as somewhat harsh. But it might soften some its harshness to note that, although two people ought not expect their love to be returned, neither ought they to be unacknowledging of the fact that it is returned. In other words, they ought to be very grateful to each other when their love is returned, even if they ought not to expect that return. But neither may they be cast down or disappointed when it seems to them that their love is not returned. This is the essential point. We ought to be completely satisfied with giving up ourselves in love, so as to seek purely the good of the other person.


  1. I used to think Luke 6:32, "And if you love them that love you, what thanks are to you? for sinners also love those that love them.", was opposed to self-love, but it isn't.

    We must love ourselves so that we do not sin against the 5th commandment.

    It's like the "Please put your oxygen mask on before assisting others" disclaimer on airplanes. ☺

    Love as "willing the good of another" certainly applies to oneself. To not will one's own good is an offense to God.

  2. One must love oneself, not for the love of oneself but for the love of God. :)

  3. Two things:

    1. Is it possible that being loved by other human beings is necessary for one's own moral and spiritual good? That to some extent the love of people enables one to better love God? If so, it would be consistent with a virtuous self-love to desire human love.

    2. Is it safe to say that: a) returning the love one has received is good or even virtuous; b) desiring the good of another means desiring the other's virtue; and c) therefore, loving another means desiring that this love be returned ... for the sake of the beloved.

    1. 1. It is certainly possible, and so TO THAT EXTENT it would be fine to desire human love; but even that is only so because it is ultimately not for one's self, but for God. Charity loves humans and self ultimately for the love of God; so all kinds of human love are legitimate only so far as there are for the sake of the love of God.

      2. Yes, I think that works as well. But that's different than desiring one's love to be returned simply for the sake of one's own delight, which is what St. Catherine is writing about, above. It has to be other-directed, and ultimately God-directed, and only self-directed insofar as it is serves toward these other directions, as is pretty clear from your syllogism.

  4. Thank you, Maestro. But then we should also consider, as we discussed offline, that to love and be loved is something of an intrinsic need in human beings, like the need for bodily nourishment. Desiring that one's own needs be met - include the need for human love - cannot in itself be defective or sinful, although this desire must be properly ordered and subordinated, as you point out very well.

  5. A post that resonates with a truth that I have just discovered (or realized): To love on earth is to suffer. Even if one had a warped love only for oneself, one would still suffer because of their imperfections, pride, and other trials.
    But the ultimate expression of this truth can be seen in the Crucified Christ, whom we are called to follow.