Agape is often a cold comfort, but it is not fickle. I know this because I am often in the presence of those in need and even my enemies and in this way I am in the presence of the opportunity to love. I will admit I don’t always like it. “Love your enemies.” I get it. I know it is not mere advice, but is required. I know it is also required to avail oneself to others. I don’t always like that either, but it is a thing required.
“You shall love, whether you like it or not.” Those were Father Quintana’s words in Terence Malick’s “To the Wonder.” In the sermon where he speaks this, he tells us rightly that emotions are fleeting, but love endures. Fine and well I think. I do get it; love is not about want, at least not the love spoken of here. The love here, that which is called agape, is not about the emotion of joy that comes from the reciprocity of what we usually think of when we think of love, but the experience of a certain grace which you lend to another regardless of whether it is returned to you. Talk about a killjoy for my selfish, jealous, petty, shallow personhood. That’s agape for you. Or is it?
The answer to that is no, but it is hard to see sometimes. I remember Father Quintana and how he moved through Malick’s movie. He was always there for another, but no one was there for him….at least not a person. I watched him and thought, he is noble, but who would want to be him and yet we are called to be exactly like him.
You cannot require another person to love you; you cannot be guaranteed the joy of that reciprocity. Fortunately nearly all of us have these things, but they are not anything to be coerced of another and if we don’t have them, it does not make love no less a command for us.
Historically this has been oft challenged. Nietzsche thought such a thing made true Christians a doormat. Nothing is further from the truth. There is a strength in a love that expects nothing of another, that may or may not be returned. This does not make one a doormat at all, but actualizes them in that what they become is a more fully realized image of God, who gives His all to his children and revels in their love, but does not withhold it even if it is not returned.
This is that place of strength that is commanded of us. It is why Father Quintana says what he says, for we must be as close to the image of God as possible. We should delight in love that is returned, but we should not think we are entitled to it. That is difficult for it requires not only that we love our friends, but those who are far from friends and are often not even very good people. It also requires we be there for the good people, who for some reason or another have little or even nothing to offer us. It is difficult work, but it is work we are hardly excused from and if we come to the place we can do it, it carries for us not only that strength that we garner from its actions, but the joy that we participate in that love that is so much larger than us.
Image: Javier Bardem as Father Quintana