This week’s topic is love – everybody’s favorite virtue.
This is the third and final installment on what are known as the Theological virtues; faith, hope and love. And the literary work chosen by our mentor, Professor Karen Swallow Prior, is The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy. First published in 1886, its storyline is likely richly influenced by Tolstoy’s own journey of faith, which undertook a significant transformation in the decade prior.
Tolstoy moved towards a more aesthetic perception of faith after reading German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer’s writings. He affirmed his Christian beliefs, but adopted a greater sense of self-denial and pacifism, which brought him into conflict with the practices of the Russian Orthodox Church and the pre-revolutionary state. His creation of the character Ivan Ilyich espouses the complete opposite lifestyle in terms of being fully absorbed by material possessions and the pursuit of worldly status by imitating society’s ruling elite.
Ivan Ilyich views people as he does any other tangible accoutrement of success. People are valued for their celebrity factor and he gathers them as adornments in a manner reflecting his choice of décor in his home and about his person. For Ivan such things reflect the quality of a person’s attainments. For Tolstoy they are shallow, disposable and unimportant to our real need of love and relationships. Ivan Ilyich finds that out too late to shape his life, but the realization does impact his journey towards death.
The people in Ivan’s life, his family and associates, reflect their role as fixtures by being unable to show compassion when Ivan sustains a fatal injury. They look upon his suffering as an inconvenience in their own lives. Innately they desire his demise as the means to “release the living from the discomfort caused by his presence.” The exception to this emotional void is the servant Gerasim.
There is a great deal of displeasing acts one must undertake when serving as the caregiver for another. The displeasure can be enhanced when the service is performed for someone who is incapable of caring for even their most fundamental needs. The caregiver and the recipient are bound together in humility, which Tolstoy seems to advocate as the necessary condition for the presence of unconditional love. It is through Gerasim’s service that Ivan attains some peace in the face of his own mortality. Death loses its sting as promised for the faithful.
In her own explanatory narrative Professor Prior identifies the four Greek words for love to distinguish between the acts and relationships that we generally characterize with the single word love. There is storge (empathy), philia (friendship), eros (desire), and agape (unconditional love). All four are missing from Ivan’s life resulting in his emotional suffering, which mirrors his physical condition. The pain becomes so excruciatingly unbearable that Ivan endures the last few weeks of life screaming. Gerasim’s agape love is the means by which Ivan belatedly grows in spiritual wisdom and eventually finds relief from his agony.
The presence in our lives of all four aspects of love is essential to our sense of wellbeing. They define our relationships with others and indicate the complexity we encounter in shaping each relationship with the appropriate type of love exhibited for the benefit of others.
An instructive example can be found in the Gospel of John, which ends in a manner completely different from the other three accounts attributed to Matthew, Mark and Luke. John’s final episode involves a meal prepared by Jesus for his disciples. The setting is the shoreline of the Sea of Galilee after a long night of hauling in empty nets by the fishermen. The establishment of a relationship is the focus of the after dinner conversation. This is the episode in which Jesus famously queries Peter three times about the nature of his love for Jesus. What we lose in the translation of this exchange is that the first two times Jesus askes Peter “Do you love me?” he does so using the Greek word agape to which Peter can only reply with the Greek word philia.
Compassion reigns in this exchange as Jesus changes his expectations of his most ardent but unnerved disciple by lowering the standard of his query into their relationship. The third time he asks Peter “Do you love me?” Jesus uses Peter’s word, philia, to which Peter can truthfully and comfortably respond in-kind, affirming his feelings of brotherly love for the one he calls Lord and Savior.
By stepping down his expectation of Peter’s confession, Jesus displays his own unconditional love by meeting Peter at a level Peter can sustain at that moment. Such love elicits truth when we allow others to love us less, believing it to be a temporary expression of who we are together. It is informative to see that many years later Peter’s growth was on display when he advised his own followers about the nature of love learned years before at that seaside retreat:
“… make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, philia (brotherly kindness); and to brotherly kindness, agape (love).”
This is the path to effective and productive relationships.