WASHINGTON, DC, August 20, 2012 ― “Love” is an heavily used word in the world of religion, and it is used in many ways. There is of course the much used, “God loves me,” and, “The Great Love of the Universe.” These two examples invoke the concept of universal love. Christians believe that God loves us all, and in Hinduism and Buddhism love is a property of the universe.
When did Europeans start to think of love in romantic terms, as the love between two individuals?
Let’s go back to the late 13th century, to the time of the first minstrels. Their music, their lyricism, every tone of their sonorous lutes and elegant harps screams love. They sang of maidens in beautiful castles awaiting chivalrous knights, romanticizing the rather tense and unpredictable times in which they lived, just as we do today. They popularized the love you see when two people kiss in the rain on a moonlit night, or when Ray Charles’ “You Don’t Know Me” trickles into your ears on a gorgeous eve.
Romantic love seemed to the medieval populace, and especially the Church, a dangerous concept. Marriages at this time were established by families or by religions, usually dynastic and to preserve family wealth, hardly ever entered into by two people who truly loved one another. Marriage was too important to be left to young lovers; it was business for their elders.
And yet romance blossomed. Abelard wrote to Eloise of his lust, and she responded, “I wanted only you, and nothing that was yours.” She would have delighted to be his mistress, considering herself unworthy to be his wife.
Eleanor of Aquitaine encouraged stories of chivalric love in her court. This was the time of Tristan and Isolde, a tale that goes like this: Isolde is a young princess who is pledged by her family to marry King Mark. Neither has ever seen the other before, and so King Mark sends Tristan, his assistant, to bring Isolde back to him. Isolde’s mother had made a love potion and disguised it as wine for Isolde and Mark to share, but, Isolde shares it with Tristan, believing that it is only wine. Soon they are overtaken with with love for each other, and the maid who brought Isolde to Tristan tells the girl, “You have drunk your death.” Isolde replies, “If by my death you mean this agony of love, that is my life. If by my death you mean the agony that we are to suffer if discovered, I accept that. But if by death you mean eternal punishment in the fires of hell, well I accept that too.”
Love is a powerful emotion, the word associated with lust, romance, love for family, and the perfect love of God. It is central to religion (“For God so loved the world …” “Peter, lovest thou me?”) and in our daily lives. The story of Tristan and Isolde illustrates the depths and madness of love, an emotion so strong that people would suffer agony, death and damnation, just to be with their beloved.
Love as philios (love of friends and family) and love as agape (the selfless love of God) are not love as eros (sexual lust), another concern of the world’s religions. Eros, or Cupid, shot his arrows where he would, robbing men and women of reason. The Hindus had Kamadeva, a large and vigorous youth (sometimes green) who is also armed with a bow and arrows, only his arrows are named such things as “open up” and “agony.” Even thrust upon humans by gods, lust was a terrible, mind-warping thing, delivered on the point of a weapon, for it was as terrifying as death.
Love is a complicated emotion, explained and manifested in many ways since if first stirred in the human breast. Religion, as always, seeks to shed some light on the confusion that is love. From the tale of Tristan to the quiver of Kama to the minstrels of old, it pays off to know the theological importance of a little thing called “love.”
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