Developmental psychologists and adherents to Attachment Theory say that the two greatest needs of an infant are to feel safe and secure. If a child’s development occurs over time in an environ- ment where they experience safety, security, and healthy relational connections, they will mature into a securely attached adult and move on to healthy interdependent relationships. On the other hand, if a child’s developmental years are scared by the experience of some form of relational trauma, such as physical, sexual, emotional or psychological abuse, the chance of developing a healthy concept of self, and healthy adult relationships is compromised. It has also been shown that a person who grows up in a secure and safe home atmosphere statistically has greater resilien- cy when faced with challenging and/or traumatic situations later in life.
A sense of safety and security for a child begins with the relationship of his/her primary from the first days of life, where they experience the caregiver’s love, tenderness, and ability to be present in a meaningful way. Of these, love is the most important, and is usually manifested through ten- derness and being tuned in to the child’s emotional needs. St. Paul reminds us of something very similar. He tells us that even though we may have the gift of prophecy, know all mysteries and all knowledge, give all our possessions to feed the poor, or even surrender our body to martyrdom, if we don’t have love, it profits us nothing (cf. I Cor. 13:1-13).
Love is a word that is often misunderstood today. It is used in a variety of contexts and we read about it in the media, but it seldom portrays its true meaning. Love is more than a felt sense. Love is a Person. St. John the Evangelist tells us, “The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love” (I John 4:8). Knowing that love is a person and not merely a feeling correctly orients us in all our relationships, both vertically with God, and horizontally with others.
Our capacity to love, weather God or others, rests not in our own ability but in God who is the very source of love. In order to love, we must first receive it, in order to give it. God as the source of love gives us the capacity to love Him and to love others. Our love for God as well as for our neighbor also has a point of intersection. St. John the Evangelist reminds us that we cannot say we love God and not love others. In his first pastoral letter, he says, “If someone says, ‘I love God,’ but hates his brother, he is a liar, for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen” (I John 4:20). Love is, therefore, two directional, interde- pendent and interconnected.
Fr. Zacharias Zacharou of St. John the Baptist monastery in Essex, England, stated in one of his talks the following: “Around us we see only tragedies and broken relationships. Nevertheless, we think that we will manage better. Unfortunately, we are ignorant of the measure of our fall and of how weak we are. We expect perfect and dynamic love from those around us who have the same passions as us, while we ourselves are unable to offer this because we are all bound by strong bonds and heavy burdens of sins. Our mistake is that we expect those around us, that is, sick and fallen creatures, to fulfill our innate need for love, which is something that only God can truly sat- isfy. We are deceived when we expect to receive from men, something that God alone can give us. He instilled in us the desire for love, and He alone can satisfy it.”
In my experience as both a priest and a therapist, I’ve witness time and again deep levels of frus- tration when a spouse feels unloved by the other, or not loved enough. Underlying wounds from previous relationships come crashing into the present marriage relationship, and the expectation of being deeply loved is once again dashed against the rocks. Outside of our conscious awareness, we continue to expect perfect and dynamic love from those around us who have the same passions as us.
To love and be loved is the greatest human desire, and because we are relational beings created in the image of a relational God, we most often seek love through human relationships. The depth of our desire for love, as Fr. Zacharias tells us, will never be satisfied in our horizontal relationships, because no human being can fill the depth of such a longing. In our repeated attempts, though, we try to fill the depth of our longing for such love through our relationships with others, and in the process, we become disappointed and sometimes hurt. This is not to say we cannot experience the love of God through others, we can, just not at the depth that our soul desires.
Fr. Zacharias looks at it this way, “When we are confronted by the ruins of human love and find ourselves completely broken, then two solutions can be given: either we turn to God with our pain, so that God enters our life and renews us, or we continue to be deceived by our human plans and skip from one tragedy and barrenness of soul to another, hoping that some time we will find perfection. The drama continues until we come to realize that we cannot achieve this on our own. We need a Third Person in our relationships. Just as the priests, who embrace one another in the heart of the Divine Liturgy, say, ‘Christ is in our midst’, so we should do the same in our life. God is not an in- truder in our personal relationships, but the One Who will cleanse and perfect them. He will make them secure because His great and eternal love will strengthen and inspire them.”
The challenge many of us face is simply giving God permission to enter into our relationships, al- lowing Him to be in the space “between” so that we may love others through Christ and allow our- selves to be loved by Him through others as well. This is true on all levels, whether between hus- band and wife, parent and child, siblings or friends. If we allow Christ, who is Love, to be the Third Person in our relationships, our deepest longing for love will be fulfilled and we will lessen our ex- pectation of having this need fulfilled by those who are unable to fulfill it in the first place. It re- mains a choice, however, we can “either turn to God with our pain, so that God enters our life and renews us, or we continue to be deceived by our human plans and skip from one tragedy and barren- ness of soul to another.”
Fr. Zacharias says, “If we understand, that in our present state, we are unable to fulfill our bound- less desire for love, then, maybe we will be humbler and more discreet in the love we expect in our human relationships. If we become aware of our own and others spiritual poverty, as well as the greatness of God’s merciful love, we will acquire compassion and forgiveness. We will be purified of our selfishness and treat others with respect and freedom. We will accept them as they are, with- out wishing to make them ‘perfect’ according to our way of thinking, and will not make demands on them, neither seek to dominate them.” St. Paul says, “love does not insist on its own ways” (I Cor. 13:5), which is often difficult to detect in ourselves the ways in which we do this in our relation- ships. It’s difficult to recognize because for starters, we have become so adept at justifying our- selves, and second, we continue to look for our hearts to be fully satisfied through others, and not by God.
To summarize, our capacity to love others in a healthy and pure way increases to the degree that we grow in our love relationship with Christ. Likewise, as we grow in a loving relationship with Christ, our sense of being loved, belovedness (our lovability) increases. This has a tremendous healing ef- fect on us! Having sought for so long a sense of being loveable through human relationships, we are now fulfilled by the love of God, which in turn frees us up to love all people more deeply!
With love in Christ, Fr. Timothy