Perhaps the greatest love story I’ve ever encountered can be found in the memoir A Severe Mercy. It was handed to me when I first felt the pain of heartbreak at the ripe age of nineteen, by a philosophy professor in college who would later change my life. In his book, Sheldon Vanauken recollects the relationship he had with his wife, Davy.I’ve recently been called to revisit their story. After reading it for the first time in five years, I can’t recommend a better book for anyone who has ever fallen or will ever fall in love.
The love story of Sheldon and Davey calls me to reflect on the conclusion of my undergraduate thesis on the nature of love. Love has the power to awaken us, to pull us beyond our mundane existence, to usher us on the path toward profound communion with others. When we open ourselves up to love, our world becomes transfigured. With the advent of love, we discover new value in others and in ourselves, and our life is imbued with new meaning. As Dietrich von Hildebrand explains in The Nature of Love, beauty plays a profound role in love:
Falling in love is essentially to be granted a vision of the beauty of another person’s individuality. This vision fills us with reverence, and simultaneously with a powerful attraction for the object whose beauty has been perceived. Literally, to love another person means to see his beauty, to discover the secret of his personality. This vision is so convincing that we say, “Never shall I forget it.”
Philosopher Jean Vanier writes, "to love someone is to show to them their beauty." The core of von Hildebrand’s philosophy of love, which encompasses his philosophy of the human person, is how we see the other. This is put quite simply in the words of the Little Prince: “That which is essential is invisible to the eye.” When we see with eyes of love, we are attaining a true vision of the other. The vision of love reveals the beloved person in a new light. In her book By Love Refined, Alice von Hildebrand refers to this spiritual sight of the other as a “Tabor vision,” a great gift which enables us to see into the beloved’s true self. With this vision, we see this person’s “true face, his unique beauty”:
Those who love have been granted the special privilege of seeing with incredible intensity the beauty of the one they love - while others see primarily his exterior acts, and particularly his failings. At this moment, you see more clearly than does any other living human being. Do you recall the Gospel story of the Transfiguration? The apostles went with Jesus to the top of Mount Tabor, and suddenly Jesus became radiant and his garments a dazzling white. For the first time, the apostles were allowed to see Jesus directly, clothed in His glory as God. He was transfigured before them.
This apprehension of beauty is not any sort of empirically measurable observation. It is a vision beyond the vital or sensual sphere of perception. This vision “from within” surpasses the scientific observation of the impersonal human body, which is a limited seeing “from without.” Love gives us a profound perception of the other, a spiritual sight. This seeing from within is from the heart.
Love is a reverent appreciation of the other’s being as such, a response to the transcendent value of another person in terms of herself as a thou, in full light of her personhood. This response to the other in “love is a self- transcending value-response,” John F. Crosby writes in Personalist Papers. “I de-center myself towards the other when I seek out the beauty of the other and love her in virtue of her beauty.” This attitude of reverence is the cornerstone of one’s love for the other. Without a reverential attitude, we cannot love. Through cultivating such attitudes as reverence, humility, and love, we properly orient ourselves toward others in preparation for the task of loving. For it is “only though love [that] we can attain to the mystery of individuality in a person,” Crosby writes, “that is, get a glimpse of the unrepeatable personal essence of a person.” Without love we can only grasp a person at the level of the essential; through love the other becomes fully revealed. Love heightens our receptivity to others and the world around us. We are drawn out of our subjective existence into a dialectic of love with others and the world around us.
Saint John Paul II relayed these personalist truths to the world, reminding us of “the vocation of human persons to self-donation.” Our self-gift to others results in a mutually edifying and uplifting spiritual growth. In love, we are called to this task of uplifting one another: “If I had loved as I should have loved,” Crosby writes, “then I would have been co-responsible for the growth in the power of another to love, and thus co-responsible for the greater love that he would have shown throughout his life in all of his relations with innumerable others.” The phenomenon of love cannot be reserved for oneself. It is a gift that one gives freely without expecting anything in return. In this age of increasingly narcissistic tendencies among millennials, fueled by a social media absorbed atmosphere of instant emotional gratification, this concept of a selfless donation in love is perhaps becoming too antiquated to fully understand. Cultivating authentic love in a time of social media is a herculean task, but it is not impossible. We must learn the art of love at all costs, for as Saint Teresa of Avila writes, “it is love alone that gives worth to all things.”
Many Catholics cite the Catechism in discussions on love, for to love is simply “to will the good of another.” This truth can be painful—when we truly love someone, sometimes the best thing we can do is to let love go. Truly willing the good of another might mean withdrawing our love for a season. The winter may be all you can give, and the advent of spring beckons for break from the gift of self. A no to one love can mean a yes to something greater that might be on the horizon. It is up to us to discern the season of our love, for our will and our will alone sanctions love. But we must remember that our gift of love isn’t cheapened even if it does not last forever.
In loving others, we come to recognize the individual as worthy of being loved. Love is recognizing the overall beauty of the other, a metaphysical beauty that transfigures our physical seeing into something greater, a profound seeing from within: “As nearly as a lover can do,” Vanauken writes, “I was seeing the whole of her — a wholeness I would never lose.” This gift is the key that unlocks our innermost self and our fundamental task as human persons, to love others: Amo, ergo sum.