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Love Is Always Conditional

 We want to say that love is unconditional. It seems right. It is equal parts comforting and challenging. It is comforting because if I am loved, then there is nothing I can do to lose that. It is challenging because in order to love, I have to will to be untroubled by obstacles. We do not want to say love is conditional because we fear submitting love to the twisted logic of relationship terrorism: if you do not meet my demands, I deprive you of what is good for you, or vice versa. We think of conditions as qualifications and we do not want to attach qualifications to love. So we say love is unconditional. But that is wrong. Love is always conditional.

The conditions of love are not a list of demands but the ways in which love is demanding. If, as Aquinas teaches, “to love is to will the good of another,”[1] then what makes love demanding are those conditions in which I have to figure out how exactly to will your good, conditions that also include my own creaturely limitations. You never exist in an abstract space, nor do I, and the conditions surrounding your wellbeing or woe and the conditions surrounding mine are the mold in which love is enfleshed. I love you here in this—that is, I will your good in a particular way that reckons with the conditions. If I commit to loving you in the future, then I commit myself to reckoning with whatever conditions may come. We want to call that unconditional love, but really it is a commitment to conditional love.

This is no mere semantic point. How we conceive of love sets the horizon for our imaginations. We think of formation towards that horizon. We construct images of truly loving persons. We measure ourselves and others against those images. We consider relational roles and vocational commitments accordingly. We pass on those expectations to our children. They accept or reject what we propose.

The fortunate among us beam with gratitude for those who have loved us “unconditionally.” But no one has ever been loved unconditionally by another person. Instead, the gratitude is really for someone else’s consistency in loving us conditionally. What kind of person loves conditionally, in a consistent way? That is a question that changes everything, once we stop fantasizing about unconditional love. What hangs in the balance is the difference between the idea of love and the reality of love. Reality has to do with conditions.

Christ, Others, and Crypto-Monophysitism

Only God’s love is unconditional, if by “unconditional” we mean that God’s love is wholly gratuitous, given in advance. This is most apparent in the doctrine of creation, which guards the truth that it is solely and only as gift that God wills that anything at all comes to be. If we turn to Genesis 1 and ask “why?,” then we find no response—the only answer waiting for us is “because.”[2] The divine will to create is love without cause, preceding conditions. So yes, that love is unconditional.

But if we allow that notion to spread too quickly and without due regard for how God then deals with these creatures who come about from his unconditioned gift, then we risk missing something else truly astonishing about divine love. While the act of creation is unconditional, the act of redemption and then sanctification are immersed in conditions, and yet everything is the gift of divine love. This does not mean that we therefore say that redemption is earned or justification merited. To the contrary, it is abundantly clear that the Father loves the sinner while he was still a long way off; indeed, God proves his love for us in this: that while we were still sinners Christ died for us (Luke 15:20; Rom 5:8). The whole point is that the Father loves us in his Son as we are, even as sinners. It is a targeted love; the love that redeems is love that reckons with our conditions. It is conditional love, par excellence.[3]

We think of “unconditionality” wrong if we think of it as oppositional to the conditions of creaturely life. In Christ, we see that divine love is the clear and sober view of the full set of conditions in which “the good of the other” might be willed. And in Christ, this divine love is given conditionally, reckoning with all those conditions, in a supreme act of discipline and creativity: discipline to study and heed the conditions, creativity to figure out how to will the good of the other right here. Rather than obstacles to love, these conditions are the thresholds of divine love. Conditions matter.

The temptation to call Christ’s love unconditional is really the appeal of crypto-Monophysitism. Yes, he is the Word by whom that unconditional love in the act of creation is given. But no, that unconditionality does not define the work of the same Word when the divine act is to redeem and then sanctify those who have been gratuitously created. Far from being blind to the conditions of the “others” for whom he is poured out as divine love, Christ reckons with those conditions in his dual obedience. He is utterly obedient to the Father, whose will alone he serves—and he is obedient to the creatures whose flesh he takes on. The latter is the form the former takes when divine love is translated into human terms.[4] The same love that unconditionally gives life to what-is-not reckons with the conditions of those who have been created. This subjection to the myriad terms of conditional love reveals the seriousness of divine love.

We might like to say that Christ is the unconditional love of God, but we imagine thereby that he is like a comet passing through humanity with an untroubled divine will. He is not that. He is far more beautiful; terribly beautiful. He is the communication of unconditional divine love into the conditions of human life. And the conditions matter, everlastingly.

For Christ, the struggle is real. He is never the love of God despite the conditions of the ones whom he loves; he is rather the love of God given in every condition, personally. He is the divine will for the good of the others who are riddled with conditions. In him is found the persevering discipline and the abundant creativity of figuring out what loving you means, right here and now. This is not to diminish his divinity but to marvel at how seriously God takes humanity. Utterly seriously, as a lover.

Images of Love: Conditions as Thresholds

In his Portal of the Mystery of Hope, Charles Péguy, in the voice of Madame Gervais who is schooling a young Joan of Arc, speaks to the seriousness of divine love in Christ:

Jesus Christ, my child, did not come to tell us tales.
During the little time he had . . .
He didn’t have any time to waste, he didn’t waste his time telling us tales and playing charades for us to figure out . . .
Rather, at this price, he came to tell us what he had to tell us.
Didn’t he.
Calmly.
Simply, honestly.
Directly. Right from the start.
Ordinarily.[5]

Fantasizing about “unconditional love,” which is always abstract, is a flight from the ordinary, where real love lives. It is where real love lived in Jesus: in the ordinary, the conditions of life. His love lives there still. If we really want to know what love is rather than escaping to what we often imagine it to be, we ought to study the conditional love of Christ. And there are few better ways to do that than to heed the witness of those who seek to love one another as he loves us. These are true images of love.

Saint Catherine of Siena

Some weeks ago I was struck by something I read about St. Catherine of Siena, as I wrote about elsewhere. At a certain point in her life Catherine discerns a call to care for one particular woman with breast cancer whom no one else will aid because the stench of her rotting flesh is so nauseating. Catherine is likewise nauseated, but rather than turn away, she presses her nose against the flesh to make herself accustomed to it. After some time, though, the stench grows worse and Catherine’s senses are revolting against her own will to abide in charity. On the verge of being sick, Catherine does this:

Filled with anger against her own miserable flesh, she seized the bowl, which was full of the water she has washed the sores with, and pus from the sores: “By the Life of the Almighty, by the beloved Bridegroom of my soul, you shall receive in your stomach what you feel such fear of.” She turned from the bed and drank the contents of the bowl. Later she confessed to Raimondo [her spiritual director and confessor] that once she had mastered her revulsion the horrible drink had seemed delicious. And from that time on she never felt any reluctance about looking after Andrea.[6]

When looking from a distance at Catherine of Siena, it is all-too-easy and quite tempting to say that her life was marked by unconditional love. That is untrue because that does not at all account for the particularity of her love. Here, in this room, with this woman, with this rotting flesh and these sores and this pus, Catherine reckons with the conditions. For her to love, to will the good of this other, means figuring out how to love in this particular way. Needless to say, the solution is shocking, if not repulsive. The fantasy of unconditional love has no time for that. This is the conditional love of one who seeks to love as Jesus loves.

The Brothers Karamazov

I doubt very much Catherine daydreamed as a child about one day drinking the pus from the sores of a deteriorating woman, who was also rather nasty to her personally. Catherine discovered those conditions as the threshold of love. In a similar way, it is one thing to fantasize about parenting and how you will love your children unconditionally. It is quite another thing to use a straw to suck the snot out of your infant’s nose because, as you discover, that is really the best way to do it. You discover more about love when you wake in the middle of the night to piercing cries and run to your child’s room, only to see the undeniable evidence of the stomach bug. And your child wants you to hold him, just as he is. O holy night. The ideas about love become works of love in and through concrete conditions like these.

In The Brothers Karamazov, Fr. Zosima sees right through a gushing widow who fantasizes about loving in such a way that conditions will not matter to her. As she tells him,

I love mankind so much that—would you believe it?—I sometimes dream of giving up all, all I have . . . and going to become a sister of mercy. I close my eyes and, I think and dream, and in such moments I feel an invincible strength in myself. No wounds, no festering sores could frighten me. I would bind them and cleanse them with my own hands, I would nurse the suffering, I am ready to kiss those sores.[7]

That desire is a start, but the great moment comes when those imagined sores become real sores and the duty of love is to kiss the sores right in front of you. There are no dreams that prepare you for that. “Active love is a harsh and fearful thing compared with love in dreams,” Fr. Zosima concludes.[8]

As Cyril O’Regan has recently argued, the formation Fr. Zosima provides from the monastery is one that builds up certain capacities for forbearance and forgiveness in order to commission the one so formed to work out those difficult tasks in their messy relations in the world. In the novel, of course, this occurs through Alyosha, who does not overlook the conditions of his peculiarly wounded or vengeful or gifted relations, but takes in what is there to see in each of them and then sees more. The young Alyosha is becoming a lover in and through concrete conditions that do not allow him to escape from reality in flights of fancy but force him to plunge more deeply into actual humanity. In O’Regan’s words:

Alyosha, for Dostoevsky, is what the monastery primes in the step back into thoughtfulness and recollection that helps clarify a vision of relation between selves, others, world and God, a crucible in which through discipline we purify desire, and in our daily being together do the hard work of love. Alyosha is Dostoevsky’s Christian response to the insidious workings of the Enlightenment that promises depth but makes facile, but also the despair and nihilism of which it is the breeding ground.

That Enlightenment impulse privileges the pristine idea over the messy reality, whereas the Christian notion of love reorders the world so that the concrete comes before the abstract, the particular before the universal, and the person before the collective.

Absent the contact with actual conditions and the mandate to love precisely right there and then, the idea of love becomes unbearable because, when you really think about it, how could you possibly will yourself into unconditional love once and for all? The conditions are a relief because they present a task, and even when they are utterly challenging, the task is to love in just this way right now. You do not have to do everything at once––if you did, despair would soon sink in. Alyosha’s formation at the hands of Zosima has prepared him for this reordering and the hard work of love, which reckons with conditions.

Blessed Franz Jägerstätter

The fictional character of Alyosha is no fantasy. We discover how real he is when we recognize him in those nonfictional persons who undertake the ways of loving for which Alyosha was formed. One such person is Blessed Franz Jägerstätter. With his life situated in a particular place at a particular time, Jägerstätter faced the demanding task of figuring out how to love amidst very concrete conditions. His homeland of Austria was overrun by the power of the Third Reich. Public opinion was on the side of this overwhelming power. Military conscription was mandatory. But he conscientiously objected to serve because he saw, in clear terms, that this regime was evil and that complicity with its bloodthirst was incompatible with the Gospel. It was either Hitler or Jesus Christ, not a little of both. He chose Christ.

That seems like a straightforward choice of loyalty and love; it was anything but. His refusal to serve meant his arrest and incarceration. It would eventually mean his defamation on the local level, his invisibility on the global level, and his inevitable execution. But the weightiest condition was that this sacrifice was not his alone, felt by him alone, affecting his livelihood alone. There was his wife, Franziska, left alone to manage a farm, who longed for her husband. There were his three young daughters, deprived of a loving father, who longed for reunion. His love for Christ was not without conditions. Moreover, his discipline in recognizing all these conditions and his creativity in figuring out what “willing the good of another” meant in these concrete circumstances was not a choice for Christ at the expense of his family. To the contrary, he objected to conscription and he suffered the consequences as the intentional manner in which he would love his wife and children, by loving Christ first of all and ordering all his loves to this one end. For him, “love is love” would be meaningless because “God is love” meant everything.

What he left his family as their inheritance was his solitary witness to the incomparable worth of the Word of God. He became their witness to the truth: that the Word of God who took on the conditions of our lives is worth more than all the palaces in the world.[9] For the one who sees clearly and who gives himself concretely, love is a matter of order. He loved his family by loving his God first.

When his time was spent, Jägerstätter exercised that same forbearance and forgiveness in which Zosima formed Alyosha, and he gave those gifts to those to whom he was personally responsible:

Dearest wife and mother, I am deeply grateful for everything that you have done for me in my life, for all of the love and sacrifices which you have shown me. And I ask you once again to forgive me everything that I have made you suffer and feel hurt. You have surely been forgiven by me for everything…

Dearest wife and mother, it was not possible for me to free both of you from the sorrows that you have suffered for me. How hard it must have been for our dear Lord that he had given his dear mother such great sorrow through his suffering and death. And she suffered everything out of love for us sinners. I thank our Savior that I could suffer for him and may die for him… Give my warm greetings to my dear children.[10]

Beth Haile

Every martyr works out the fundamental option of his or her life within the concrete conditions of their time and place. If we think we are gazing at a superhuman will that blazes right through everything, we miss what is really going on. The choice for love is being fashioned, stretched, tested, and realized right through, with, and in the conditions of life. Dostoevsky’s widow has a Monophysite’s dream; Franz Jägerstätter and Catherine of Siena have a saint’s realism. These truly marvelous witnesses of Christian love surround us, if only we would have the eyes to see them. Sometimes, their confounding beauty strikes us unawares, and we are shocked into seeing. This happened to me and many others not long ago when Beth Haile wrote one of the most stunningly honest and grateful blog posts anyone is ever likely to read. I see it as a hymn of praise to the unrelenting concreteness of Christianity’s conditional love.

Dr. Haile is in her mid-30’s. She is married with four children. Five years ago she was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. It is unlikely she will live to 40. Those are her current conditions, and she knows it. Right here, right now, in the midst of these very conditions, she witnesses to the beauty of love. Not the fantasy of love, but its reality. Its grittiness and particularity. She witnesses to the truth of love as the discipline to reckon with “what is” and the creativity to will the good of others through these conditions. As she testifies:

I will not lose if my cancer kills me. I will only lose if I stop living BEFORE my tumors start growing again, if I let sadness, and despair, and depression have the last word. And so I am not doing that. I read to the kids for at least an hour each night, often two. I do all the school with the kids. I quiz my daughter on spelling words, my son on his letters. I take the kids on walks. When the kids are playing, I unload the dishwasher. I clean up toys. I make Korean feasts. I am living and so I am winning.

It is hard to read her account and not grieve with her. But she is not grieving. She is not wishing away the conditions of her life such as it is, even though she would of course welcome a miraculous cure for her cancer. Instead, she is gripping the conditions. She is loving those she loves in and through these very conditions. She seems utterly committed to the mundane and thereby she is totally open to what is grandest of all: not a fantasy, not a comet-like divine will, but an unbridled invitation to gives herself over in works of love in the real world—her real world of her children and husband and home. Here are the thresholds of love, by which she seems to be learning what to let go of. As she concludes:

I probably won’t write much, if at all. I have one hand, two brain tumors, and four kids. But I want to conclude that I love my faith, I love being Catholic. It is a horrible time for the church (why now? I am heartbroken) but I know the church is much bigger than the hierarchy (though what they do matters so much). I am proud to be a member of Jesus’ church. I take great consolation in the fact that his body appears on countless altars around the world, every day. And I have been privileged to have seen, to have been served by his body, by the finest people of God. In many ways the church is very sick, but I cannot forget that in other ways it is alive and healthy. And I am happy that I get to keep being a part of this church when I die. People are saying that they are praying for a miracle, but I know the miracle has already happened and pretty soon my eternity is going to be Easter morning.

When Christ appeared to his disciples on Easter morning, he was bearing the wounds of love.

Toward a Spirituality of Conditional Love: A Short Treatise on Commitment

To this litany of Christian lovers, more could be added. Many more. Endlessly more. We could add Dorothy Day who had to deny a bed to a drunken prostitute but who tried to do it as St. Thérèse instructed—that is, by at least making the other person a little happier. So when the prostitute asked for a kiss, Dorothy kissed her loathsome, disfigured mouth, as an act of love.[11]

We could also add Josephine Bakhita who was flushed with the joy of hope when she, a slave subjected to brutal “masters” since childhood, was eventually introduced to the one “Lord” who was goodness in person and sought her wellbeing. The 144 scars that marked her body from unbearable flogging became signs of identification with this “Lord” who was himself subjected to flogging but now awaited her at the Father’s right hand. The wounds of cruelty were united to wounds of love (Spe Salvi, §3).

It is indeed at the Father’s right hand that the one whom Thomas the Apostle proclaimed as “My Lord and My God” resides, clinging to the same flesh that was carried in the womb of Mary, cleaned with the tears of a prostitute and dried with her hair, scourged and then pierced by nails and a lance, and finally carried to the tomb by Joseph of Arimathea. Impressed upon that body are all the conditions of love that the Son of God willed to take on. That is the flesh that rose on the third day. That same flesh beholds the enduring significance of all those conditions of love, in all their radical and even scandalous particularity. Those conditions became the altars on which divine love “willed the good of another.” Catherine’s love is gathered up there, and Alyosha’s, and Franz’s, and Beth’s, and Dorothy’s, and Josephine’s. The conditions of love are not obliterated; they are remembered, even revered. These are the peculiarities of Christ’s saints, the discipline and creativity of love in myriad conditions. These are the contours of the body of Christ.[12]

Love is commitment, because in Christ divine love committed to all the conditions. Our love is commitment to particular persons, in actual places, at specific times, amid concrete conditions. To form people for the kind of love that Christ makes possible and invites from us, we must be formed for commitment. That means being formed for what runs ahead of you, because that is what commitments do: they run ahead of you. Commitments are reckless because they are uncalculating. By way of commitment, you pledge yourself into the future from the present. A commitment is a willingness not to ignore or do away with the conditions of loving another person in the future, but rather the willingness to love the person in and amid the very conditions of the future, which are not yet known. The recklessness of Christian commitment becomes concrete responsibility when, time and again, one comes to the thresholds of love in real life conditions. Christian commitment is the willingness to be consistent in conditionally loving, as Christ loved us.

The conditions will change; the works of love will change accordingly. My commitment to loving you requires my perpetual conversion from my idea of you to the reality of you. Only in that way can the “I love you” that I speak really mean what it is supposed to mean. “I love you” means “I see you” and in these conditions, I will your good.

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Featured Image: Detail aus dem Waldburg-Gebetbuch, WLB Stuttgart, Cod. brev. 12, fol. 70r, 1486; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.

[1] St. Thomas Aquinas, STh I-II.26 4, corp. art.; cf. CCC 1766.

[2] See Saint Augustine, “On Genesis: A Refutation of the Manichees,” in On Genesis, ed. John Rotelle, trans. Edmund Hill, vol. 13, The Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century (Hyde Park, New York: New City Press, 2013), 42 (I.4).

[3] Benedict XVI contemplates the mystery of God’s “conditional love,” going so far as to speak of divine eros, in the first part of Deus Caritas Est: God Is Love (Boston: Pauline, 2006) Indeed, the heart of the response to the Church’s arch-heretic, Arius, is orchestrated through Athanasius in his scriptural presentation of divine “philanthropia” by which the eternal Son takes on the conditions of creaturely existence, even unto the most extreme abasements. For more, see Khaled Anatolios, Retrieving Nicaea: The Development and Meaning of Trinitarian Doctrine (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2011), 104; cf. Athanasius, On the Incarnation, §2, 3.

[4] See Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theo-Drama: Theological Dramatic Theory, Volume V: The Last Act, trans. Graham Harrison (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1998), 120, 249–61; Hans Urs von Balthasar, New Elucidations, trans. Mary Theresilde Skerry (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), 123–24; Jean-Luc Marion, God Without Being: Hors-Texte, trans. Thomas A. Carlson (University of Chicago Press, 1995), 142; Leonard J. DeLorenzo, Work of Love: A Theological Reconstruction of the Communion of Saints (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2017), 84–95; 187–88.

[5] Charles Péguy, The Portal of the Mystery of Hope, trans. David Louis Schindler, Jr. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans, 1996), 64.

[6] Sigrid Undset, Catherine of Siena, trans. Kate Austin-Lund (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2009), 83.

[7] Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, 12th edition (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002), 56.

[8] Ibid., 58.

[9] Franz Jägerstätter, Franz Jägerstätter: Letters and Writings from Prison, ed. Erna Putz, trans. Robert Krieg (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2009), 237.

[10] Ibid., 129–30.

[11] Dorothy Day, By Little and By Little: The Selected Writings of Dorothy Day, ed. Robert Ellsberg (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1984), 110.

[12] For more on this, see, for example, Karl Rahner, “The Eternal Significance of the Humanity of Jesus for Our Relationship with God,” in Theological Investigations, trans. Cornelius Ernst et al., vol. 3 (Limerick, Ireland: Mary Immaculate College, 2000), 35–46.

Leonard J. DeLorenzo

Leonard J. DeLorenzo, Ph.D., serves in the McGrath Institute for Church Life and teaches theology at the University of Notre Dame. Among his published books is Work of Love: A Theological Reconstruction of the Communion of Saints and What Matters Most: Empowering Young Catholics for Life's Big Decisions.