“Angels and Love” essay by Andrei Pleşu - leading Romanian intellectual who gained European-wide recognition.
The substance of the relation between man and his guardian angel, says Sergei Bulgakov, is love. Unfortunately, due to overuse and sentimentalism, the term has become all but unusable. Invoked at every step, in the most diverse circumstances, “love” succumbs to its own sublimity. One says “love” and the whole audience smiles tenderly, prey to a diffuse emotionality. It goes without saying that something very beautiful, something essential, something about which everyone has a very clear idea has been said.
The word has such a prestige that analysis and definition can be dispensed with. (It is even a blasphemy to “rationalize” something so lofty, so noble, so mysterious!) We know very well what love is! “There is nobody who has not loved at least once”, “Life has no meaning without love” and so on. The correlation I love you! – I love you too! has got to the point, in American films, of being a kind of “How are you?” In reality, we are confronted with one of the most nebulous concepts of everyday speech. And it is as frequent as it is nebulous. God forbid that one should stutter when one is asked (from the eyelashes more than the lips): “Do you love me?” There are few people in love, no matter how ignorant, no matter how atheist, who do not suddenly recall, at special moments, 1 Corinthians chapter 13.
The sphere of love is so comprehensive that it is almost impossible to systemise: love is both the feeling between woman and man, the feeling between parent and child, and between relatives of different degrees or friends. There is more or less guilty carnal love, there is spiritual love, “selfish” love etc. You love your country, your job, your home, your habits. You love, of course, God. No one can deny the reality and the legitimacy of all these types of love. But the love of which the Scriptures talk – without excluding any of its everyday versions – is something else, is another, less frequent and more complicated love. It is not so “democratically” widespread, it does not always have the “spontaneity” of usual love (because it is not “natural” but super-natural), and it distinguishes itself rather by a formidable exigency, it constructs itself (yes, it constructs itself, however much this might offend the apologists of the “natural”, “simplicity”, and irrational inflammation), it laboriously constructs itself, at the limits of the impossible.
The love which the Scriptures urge is, in principle, an impossible love that has no apparent motivation. What do I mean? I mean that, for example, it is very normal to speak of the love of parents for their children or of children for their parents. It is just as normal to love your friends, the woman you have fallen in love with, the mentor who has moulded you, the profession which fulfils you. For all of these, as well as for others, you always have good justifying reasons. The other love – the scriptural type – does not have such reasons. It occurs without the support of palpable arguments, without reason, even against any reasonable motivation. From my point of view, only thus does “love” start to become interesting, genuine, mature. The classic example of the love I am talking about is – in the Christian context – “love of one’s neighbour”. Normally, you have no reason to fall in love with your “neighbour”. You view him, at best, with amiable indifference, as a distant and alien “him”.
Well, it is demanded of you to enter into affective communion with this stranger, to overcome the neutrality of strict sociability, to invest yourself in him as in yourself. “Love your neighbour as yourself” is a more convoluted saying than it seems, although it is frequently cited as a self-evident basis of Christian morality. Generally, “as yourself” is taken as a form of superlative. In other words we set out from the presupposition that we love ourselves enormously and we are invited also to apply the same treatment to our “neighbour”. But do we really love ourselves so much? In reality, when we are alone with ourselves, we know very well what we are capable of. We know very well what sins we have, how much we weigh, what are our penumbra. The only difference between self-judgement and the judgement of others is that the former is almost always accompanied by generous indulgence. We know our defects, but we also know that, in spite of them, we are decent people.
Our lives are full of aberrations, lies, pettiness, vices, worthless thoughts, and turpitude of every kind. But for all that, we feel that the devil is not so black, that we are remediable, that deep down we shelter a good soul and a clean heart… In the first instance, “love of the neighbour” expects nothing more of us than to view the defects of others with the same indulgence, with the same understanding complicity, as we view our own. To believe in our neighbour’s good nature, in his right to compassion and forgiveness. But the Christian adage also lends itself to a symmetrical interpretation, proceeding from the neighbour’s point of view: “Do not love yourself other than you love your neighbour!”
Distance yourself from your ego, be a little more indifferent to your own soul, give up self-pity and consider yourself once in a while as you would consider others. In short: after you have made the effort not to love your neighbour less indulgently than you love yourself, try now not to love yourself more than you usually love your neighbour. However, the Scriptures demand something much harder to accept than reconsideration of your current attachments. It is not just a case of loving someone whom, until just lately, you viewed with benign indifference. What is required is nothing more nor less than to love your enemy (Matthew 5:43-48). For the common way of thinking, this is something very hard to absorb. Not to mince words: it is impossible. However, this is precisely what you have to do if you are at all to approach the other love, the love preached by the Gospels.
But how can you love your foe for himself? Are we not in an erotic utopia here? Is it not a little perverse when you are surrounded by hate to feel effluvia of love swelling within you? In order to overcome this perplexity it is necessary that between myself and my enemy there exist a territory of conciliation distinct from our contorted psychology. It is necessary that I be able to rely on something other than myself and him in order to temper (our) irrepressible adversarial impulse. Put differently, it is necessary that I identify a new dimension to our relationship, a dimension to include us both, to be common to us both. If between myself and my enemy there can appear a third party, separate but not alien to us, beneath whose benevolence we can meet, then our relationship becomes plausible. This third party, this messenger of reconciliation, delegated through his very nature to preserve us from contorting temptations, to educate us in the faculty of loving according to the model of the “other”, divine love, is the angel. One of his duties is precisely that of bringing “goodwill to men”.
It is beyond my powers serenely to contemplate the portrait of my foe. But if I can relate to his angel, to “his heavenly double”, whom he is always vexing, just as I vex mine, then I can be soothed. Both myself and my enemy – each with his insufficiencies – join in the same disfigurement. Our existential projects, our heavenly “models” are, even if to varying degrees, unfulfilled, frustrated; the conflict between us does nothing more than to give our failure an added dimension. In this common failure we can, however, find the beginning of closeness. That which our humanity divides, our angelicity brings together. You cannot love the grimace of your enemy. But you can have a movement of love toward the angelic visage which protects him and which, in contrast to you, cannot but love him. Each angel loves his “client”, however helpless he might be.
And in this unconditional dedication can be glimpsed, once more, the ineffable quality of the “other”, impossible and undemonstrable love. “Love your enemy” means “remember that his angel loves him”, “learn to love like the angels”. ***
Esoteric Islam speaks of three stages of the mystic path, which in a certain sense are increasing levels of love. The first (shari’ah) is the stage of worldly prudence, in which you distinguish plainly between what is yours and what is the other’s: “What is mine is mine, what is yours is yours.” There follows a second level (tariqah) in which the first departure from the self takes place, a significant glissando towards the other: “What is yours is mine, and what is mine is yours.” This level is consummated in the intimate chemistry of the enamoured, independent of partner’s participation. Lastly, at the third level (ma’rifah) the distinction between “mine” and “yours” disappears. Between partners a perfect homogeneity is born, an intense blending, almost an erasure of the person.
I remember that, without knowing anything about Sufism, ConstantinNoicaused to have his own way of saying something similar. He sometimes used to lament the mediocrity of the formula “Do not unto others as you would not have done unto yourself”. It seemed to him unacceptably minimalist. One ought at least to say “Do unto others as you would have done unto yourself”. It would sound more generous, more noble. But the ideal formula would be “Do unto the other as he would have done unto himself”. Both the Islamic version and the Noica version culminate in a loss of self, with a outpouring into the other. This is one of the traditional definitions of love. But loss of the self is just half, the first half of its respiratory movement. If things stop here, if solve is not followed by coagula, love remains a pure dissolution of the ego, a kind of mediumistic possession.
The complete cycle of the act of loving includes a second tense, a reintegration of the person, a rediscovery of the self in an enriched variant. This is the model of the love between man and angel. You must lose yourself in your angel in order to discover the personal contour of your humanity, just as the angel must lose himself, momentarily, in your humanity, in order to return, fulfilled, to the splendour of his angelicity.