“Whoever is not righteous,” says Saint John to his disciples, his little children, “is not of God, nor is he who does not love his brother. For this is the message that you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another” (1 Jn. 3:10-11).
I’ve lately been discovering how fine a thing it is to read Scripture in translation, not into English, but into another language, for every language has its resources and its deficiencies.
The translator, if he’s honest and humble and if he has any touch of the art, will have to meditate upon the original for its range of meaning, its shading, its tone of voice, its resonances with other words in Scripture, and then try to find in his own language the words that will capture those, or that will be the least inadequate approach that the language can make.
Sometimes his language has too few words; sometimes it has too many. English, for instance, has too few words for “love.” Latin has too many. And yet that is why we can learn from them.
If you’ve gone to a Catholic school, you’ve probably heard that the word for “love” used most frequently in the New Testament is the Greek agape, a relatively uncommon word outside of the Scriptures, denoting a selfless love, a surrendering to the good of another. “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only-begotten Son” (Jn. 3:16); that is agape.
But if we then conclude that, in our love of neighbor, no desire is involved, no movement of the heart, then we will reduce Christian love to a bland stoic benevolence. And that is not Scriptural. “As the deer longs for the running streams,” says the psalmist – literally, as the deer pants for that living water – “so my soul longs for you, my God” (Ps. 42:1).
In English, then, that we have but one word, love, for agape and eros (“desire”)is not necessarily a bad thing. If our love is but a shadow of God’s love for us, then we may suppose that the erratic and feeble beating of the human heart is but a faint echo of God’s heart. Let Muslims worship a God beyond love. We Christians worship the God who is Love.
Compassion by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, 1897
The reader of Latin faces a different problem. Saint Jerome had a noun for translating agape: caritas. That’s the noun for the adjective carus, meaning dear, precious, treasured. My Vulgate edition spells it charitas, suggesting a relation to Greek charis: grace, blessing, favor.
God is Himself a relationship of love: the Father holds the Son dear to Him, and the Son receives in joy the favor of the Father, and that is the self-subsisting Spirit of Love between them.
But when you move from the noun caritas or charitas to the verb, that’s where your trouble starts. For these nouns lack a verbal form. Then you must choose either amare, with its overtones of passion, or diligere, to “choose,” as it were – to take delight in.
The latter is the one that Saint Jerome uses for the passage from John’s letter above. We are to love one another; and that’s easy, or so we think it is, if the love is distant and bland and stoical. We may sit upon our thrones, like the good emperor Marcus Aurelius, and forbear with our brother’s folly and vice, and bestow favor upon him nonetheless.
It’s a lot more difficult to treasure our brother, as if he were or could someday be a source of delight. When Jesus stood at the tomb of His friend Lazarus, He wept, and the Jews nearby said,“See how much He loved him!” (Jn. 11:36).
The love of Jesus was never cool and distant; note the ferocity with which He loved the Pharisees. So when Saint John says that we are to love our brothers, he is thinking of that same kind of love, a love that will not let us rest until we can rejoice in unity with the blessings from God that we share in common.
Then, if we see a brother in need, we must open our heart to him; that’s the word we use in English to express the experience in us that is both metaphorical and quite physical. Our hearts beat faster when we see the poor man and do not restrain ourselves from sorrowing with his sorrow.
And here again Latin is more versatile – and more unsettling to us – than English is. Saint John says we are not to shut our splanchna from that brother in need. Saint Jerome translates accordingly: we should not be one who clauserit viscera sua ab eo: who shall have shut his entrails from him.
The Greek, and the Latin, will go on to talk about the heart, but before the heart we have here the viscera, which the King James translators rendered by a phrase, the bowels of compassion.
No, I am not recommending bowels for modern English. It won’t do. But I wonder if, instead of the cute symbol for love that we use on greeting cards, we at least used a representation of what the human heart actually looks like, with the aorta and the vena cava, we might recover a more robust sense of what Christian love demands of us.
Yes, that is love, that desire we denote by the cute heart with Cupid’s dart stuck in it. It is in itself a good thing.
It is good, because it is a shadow of that full-spirited and also full-bodied love of Jesus for us sinners. And that desire we denote by the real heart of the man, pierced with a lance.