My first philosophy class, in 1987, was called the Nature of Love. It introduced me to von Hildebrand and Wojtyla and Pieper and Kierkegaard. Thanks to it and the simultaneous experience of falling in love with Jules, I began for the first time to see and grasp the ineffable and overwhelming mystery of the unity of Truth, Beauty and Love.
My earlier understanding had been terribly impoverished. I had been taught by well-meaning Christians that the love between a man and woman was a matter of finding a person with appropriate qualities and making a commitment of the will. I had been told more than once, including by priests, to realize that when it comes to finding a spouse, "feelings don't matter; feelings come and go." Now I saw how false that was. (I wrote an article elaborating the point a few years ago.)
Among the key concepts I learned through that class was that conjugal love was, in essence, "total self-donation," in von Hildebrand's phrase. Wojtyla called it a "sincere gift of self." When I marry, I don't just make a commitment to be faithful; I bestow myself on my spouse.—all of me, my heart, my will, my body, my self. Totally, exclusively, permanently.
Thanks to the papacy of John Paul II and the run-away popularity of his Theology of the Body, this language and understanding has now gone mainstream among faithful Catholics. Love means self-giving. This morning Facebook friends linked an inspiring trailer for a movie about marriage from the Augustine Institute stressing the very theme.
The other equally important aspect of the dynamic, though, also found in the thought and poetry of Karol Wojtyla/John Paul II and everywhere implied in von Hildebrand, and the gospel for that matter, gets less explicit attention.
In love (and a fortiori in marriage) I don't just give myself, I receive the other. All of the other, everything about him. Not my idealized version of him, not just the aspects of him that comport with my hopes or my theory of love, but the whole reality of him—body and soul, with all his strengths, limits, aspirations, potentialities, wounds and imperfections. I open myself to him and let him in.
I press the point, because in recent years I've been noticing a lack—a serious receptivity deficit among even devout Catholics. I've been noticing that it's possible to give yourself without love, without escaping egotism. I have come across people who are willing to give, but not to receive. They will "pour themselves out", but they will not open themselves up. They will serve generously, but they will not be vulnerable.
I have even known people to say "I love you" in the very moment they are ignoring or dismissing or hurting you with their unseeing and unreceptivity to your real self, real concerns, feelings and needs.
I have noticed the tendency in myself. I can't honestly say I love my children if I am not listening to them, sympathizing with them, receiving and responding to the reality of them in their individuality and concreteness—accepting everything about them and nurturing "whatever is good."
I've noticed something else too—how it is Jules' total receiving of me as much as his giving himself to me that fills my heart with happiness and makes it possible for me to live my vocation with joy and fruitfulness, despite the faults I find in myself that sometimes threaten to overwhelm me.
So now, whenever I speak or write of love, I try to remember to include mention of both self-giving and other-receiving. They are equally central in the inter-personal dynamism at the heart of the universe.