From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Spirituality: Word search

by Father Michael Savelesky, for the Inland Register

(From the May 24, 2001 edition of the Inland Register)

Even after years of upgrading computers, the tools which these machines make available to my flying fingers continue to amaze me.

In addition to writing with greater ease and rapidity than on a regular typewriter (especially when making corrections) I can check the spelling of my words, assess the age-appropriate reading level of my composition and even check the syntax — all literally with the push of a button! Recently I discovered that my new computer includes a thesaurus “tool” which helps me search out just the right word to express my thoughts.

Last week a brief commentary on National Public Radio prompted some reflection about my discovery. The commentator had made the observation that our culture has become rather lazy in its use of words to describe our experiences, wants and needs. For example, the teenager’s “cool” is used in a variety of ways to mask a lack of clarity of expression. Or our common use of words like “thing” or “thingamajig” glosses over the need to be more articulate. For example, we say “Linda, please put that thing over there in the corner next to that there thingamajig” instead of “Linda, please set the flower pot in the corner next to the umbrella stand.”

It is true. We are getting lazy in our use of words. And we are the losers. We may think we are communicating in intelligent and useful ways but we are not. We are just getting by with shallow communication skills.

A specific application of this reflection comes to mind when we hear Jesus’ single command to his disciples at the Last Supper to “love one another as I have loved you.”

Our immediate awareness is that such a command is not so challenging to follow. After all, love comes easy for us. We love the color of the carpet in the den; we love ice cream; we love the color of the clothes we wear; we love western music; we love our pet lizard; we love the weather. And we love our parents.

The English language does not help us here. We use a single word which seems to capture all. Even if our computer word search tool helps us identify a broader selection of possibilities like “cherish,” “appreciate,” or “have affection for,” the word “love” still falls short of expressing the heart and soul of Jesus’ command.

This command is found in John’s Gospel. Even its author encountered difficulty in determining the proper word to express it. John’s language world (Greek) offered him words like “eros” and “filia.”

But they fall far short of what Jesus demanded of any who would bear his name. “Eros” is inadequate because its use would require no more than loving those who turn us on emotionally or who make us feel good. We would find little difficulty in fulfilling such a command, but this kind of “love” is shallow and usually short-lived. Christian love demands far more.

“Filia,” which expresses a sense of companionship, also falls short. Jesus does more than confirm the easily-made interpersonal relationships between golfers, coffee sippers and running partners.

St. John must have had to use his own form of word search tools until he came across the unique Greek word “agape.” The word was not in popular use at the time he wrote, but it is a highly expressive selection. “Agape” communicates the essence of Jesus command far better than “eros” or “filia.” It carries with it a sense of radical hospitality whose origin and motivation is born of conscious, personal decision to open one’s home (and heart) to whomever one encounters.

Usually Christian writers merely translate “agape” as “unconditional love.” But this easy translation runs the risk of sounding too philosophical. It is true that “agape” (love) is unconditional (radical hospitality has to be), but “agape” is more than a state of mind or a well-meaning intention of the heart. It is a love which expresses itself in action. Agape takes the initiative to reach out in an inclusive way to welcome not only the easily loved, but also the stranger — and even the enemy.

In reflecting upon the disciples’ encounter of God’s love experienced in Jesus of Nazareth, John (and the others who had known Jesus) knew without a doubt that they were challenged to do more than merely love those who loved them, who made them feel good or with whom they felt comfortable. It was clear that in Jesus all humankind had experienced the “agape” of God — a free loving choice which reached out in perfect hospitality to include all in the embrace of God’s Kingdom, sinners as well as saints.

Is it any wonder, then, that the hallmark of those who follow Jesus — man, woman or child — must be their way of loving? Not “eros.” Not “filia.” Nothing less than “agape.” Truly, this is a challenge, a commandment.

It is unfortunate that we cannot just incorporate “agape” into our language. Then the translator of John’s Gospel could write: “And Jesus said to his disciples, ‘This is my new commandment: Agape one another as I have agaped you. By this will everyone know that you are my disciples, that you have agape for one another.’”

Perhaps publishers should start using this ancient Greek word instead of our weak English word “love.” It’s uniqueness certainly would catch our attention and force us to learn its meaning. Then we could not hide behind our “love” and would be challenged to a deeper and truer gift of Christ-like hospitality.

After all, since the first days of the Christian Way this form of loving (agape) is what has set us apart from the crowd and the culture which has competed to shape us — the way we have expressed agape one for the other.

(Father Savelesky is pastor of Assumption Parish in Spokane. His book, Catholics Believe, is available from Harcourt Religion Publishers.) (Download an order form in pdf format to print)

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