Fr. David Meconi, S.J, Shares How Human Love Helps Us Understand Divine Love & Embody It

“What is every love? Does it not consist of the will to become one with the object it loves?” – St. Augustine

In Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, Catherine Earnshaw famously declares, “My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods: time will change it, I'm well aware, as winter changes the trees. My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath: a source of little visible delight, but necessary. Nelly, I am Heathcliff!” This stormy passion isn’t mere saccharine literary sentimentality.

“Eros begins in ecstasy but leads to a transfiguration of the lover into the beloved,” said Fr. David Meconi, S.J. (Saint Louis University) in his lecture “Augustine’s Theology of Love” (January 12) given for Lumen Christi this past quarter. Quoting Augustine in his early work On Order, Meconi emphasized the unitive aspect of love: “What is every love? Does it not consist of the will to become one with the object it loves?”

Ecstatic love—the kind that propels each of us out of ourselves and has us completely absorbed with another person—is enticing, gripping. It is what drives the human drama toward greater and ever more beautiful depths. When we love another creature with such abandon, such complete devotion, there is something divine in it.

Love seems to bind us tightly to those around us.

Meconi witnessed how powerful such ties are when his dying mother—a devout woman who went to daily Mass and seemed entirely in love with Christ—told her son that she didn’t want to leave behind her children, and she found fault with herself in this. It prompted Meconi to think more deeply about human love.

Parents don’t want to let go of their children; lovers are incomplete without their other half.

There are various kinds of love, said Meconi, but one source of it. “God is love and love is God,” the mature Augustine discovered, especially after he overcame the shame of his lustful past and saw in the city of Hippo the poignant love of parents for their children and spouses for one another.

George Eliot in her first novel Adam Bede captured perfectly the kind of seamless charity Augustine himself wanted to advance.

“A love which a young man gives to a woman whom he feels to be greater and better than himself. Love of this sort is hardly distinguishable from religious feeling. What deep and worthy love is so, whether of woman or child, or art or music. Our caresses, our tender words, our still rapture under the influence of autumn sunsets, or pillared vistas, or calm majestic statues, or Beethoven symphonies all bring with them the consciousness that they are mere waves and ripples in an unfathomable ocean of love and beauty; our emotion in its keenest moment passes from expression into silence, our love at its highest flood rushes beyond its object and loses itself in the sense of divine mystery.” 

Meconi, referring to Augustine and his wayward youth, confessed that “we can all be deluded—especially in our early years” and attracted by false loves, by love’s artifice. But true love—whether it be amongst youthful lovers, a husband and wife, mother and child, grandfather and grandson, or two longtime friends—distinguishes itself in that it fills us with a pure and sublime rapture.

“From Emily Bronte to George Eliot…we see how so much of our understanding of love and human flourishing is anchored in the pastoral work of St. Augustine of Hippo,” said Meconi—explaining that what makes Augustine special is that he is among “the first in our great tradition to realize that love is one and that all love is ultimately divine”—that we encounter God in the enfleshed reality of our simple lives.