One of the very best summaries of St. Paul’s spiritual and theological thoughts is chapter 13 of his first letter to the Corinthians. In it, Paul addresses the Church of Corinth, who was more captivated by the spectacular manifestations of spiritual life: speaking in tongues, trading in words of knowledge, engaging in prophecy etc. This letter’s purpose was to bring them back to the fundamentals, so he insists on the superiority of love.
Paul speaks of having these gifts, but he asserts here that it counts for nothing unless they are accompanied by, and give rise to, love. Why should this be true? It is true because God is love (1 John 4:16); love IS the divine life – and the entire purpose of spirituality is to get that life in us. But specifically, what is love?
Love is not primarily a feeling or emotion (though love can be accompanied by feelings and emotions); it is willing the good of the other as other. When we love, we escape the black hole of our own clinging egotism and live for someone else; to love is to leap ecstatically out of the self.
“Love is patient, love is kind” (1 Corinthians 13:4). Many of us are good or just to someone else so that he or she, in turn, might be good or just to us. This is not love, but rather indirect egotism. When we are caught in the rhythm of that sort of reciprocal exchange, we are very impatient with any negative response to a positive overture that we have made.
If someone responds to our kindness with hostility or even indifference, we quickly withdraw our benovelence. But the person characterised by true love is not interested in reciprocation but simply in the good of the other, and therefore, is willing to wait out any resistance.
True love has nothing to do with resentment, for it wants the success of the other. And the person who loves is not conceited, because she feels no need to raise herself above the other. Just the contrary: she wants the other to be elevated, and hence she takes the lower place with joy. Once we understand the nature of true love, we know why “it bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7). The one who loves is not focused on himself but on the object or person of his love. He is not preoccupied with his own weariness or disappointment or frustration. Instead he looks ahead, hoping against hope, attending to the needs of the one he loves.
“Love never fails” (1 Corinthians 13:8). In heaven, when we are sharing the divine life, even faith will end, for we will see and no longer merely believe; hope will end, for our deepest long will have been realised. But love will endure, because heaven IS love. Heaven is the state of being in which everything that is not love has been burned away. And that is why “faith, hope, love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13).
Paul has named here, not just the essence of his own theology, but also of Christian life itself. Everything else is just commentary.
Barron, R. (2011). The Indispensable Men: Peter, Paul, and the Missionary Adventure. In R. Barron, Catholicism: A Journey To the Heart of Faith (pp. 116-142). New York: Image Books.