St Thomas on the effects of love


Happy Feast of St Thomas of Aquinas!

Aquinas offers an extensive account of the three theological virtues, and as we know from St Paul, “the greatest of these is love.” Love (caritas) for Aquinas is defined as “the effective willing of the good of another.” We can see in this definition the other-centered nature of love. When we love, we want another’s good and do not only think of the other instrumentally in terms of our own good. When I talk with my PULSE class about this definition, the question of how we can be “effective” is raised. For me, listening and presence are essential in order to love effectively. In relationships of service and friendship alike, we can only love well when we listen well and do not presume that we know what another needs. Relationships where we claim to act for another’s good but do not respect or understand what the other understands himself or herself to need are not loving. Instead, we need to listen and to respect that the dignity of others (at least adult others) requires trusting that they know better than we do what their own needs are. The same applies to communities: we ought never presume that a poor community is need of help from the wealthy, but instead can work to build mutual relationship that acknowledges that love is based on understanding one another’s mutual needs. When we are not in a position to do anything else for another, we can remain present in relationship. Presence rather than absence speaks volumes about our love.

Thomas also describes the effects of love. Among them are ecstasy, mutual indwelling, and zeal. By ecstasy, Aquinas need not mean mystical experience (although Thomas reportedly also had these). Rather, ek-stasis means to go out of oneself. Thus the ecstatic quality of love is about leaving our own limited world of self behind and entering into the world of another. Zeal is contrasted to jealousy: if I am jealous of what another has, this  is not very loving, but zeal is the desire to have for oneself what another has, and can be good. For example, if another person demonstrates great courage, my love for him might encourage me also to develop courage in myself. In love, we actively look for good qualities in another that we can then also pursue with zeal. Most beautifully, I think, Thomas says that love is about mutual indwelling, and here he does not mean only romantic love: when I love the other dwells in my heart, and is always present to me in an interior sense. But I also dwell in the other, because of my care and concern to know him or her more and more, that is, to penetrate to the depths of the heart of another.

For Aquinas, love is a participation in shared friendship with God, in that when we love, it is also God’s love working through us. I understand this to mean that the love that we hold in our hearts for others is already God’s love at work in us, and when we love authentically, we ought also to see the same God in the other.