Disinterested Love

Saint Francis de Sales (1567-1622) taught and wrote about a new kind of love, “Disinterested Love”.  Disinterested love meant a loving attraction to a person or thing only because of the love of God.  By love, Francis meant a movement of the heart towards what is found to be good…. an outpouring and progress of the heart towards the good, which aims at union with God. Love, therefore, is the beginning and end of the process of the total growth of the human person in his or her spiritual journey.

Many moral philosophers and theologians have been critical of the traditional Christian concepts of a pure, self-denying, disinterested love (agape) partly on the grounds that such a love is neither possible nor desirable, especially in special relationships such as marriage. St. John of the Cross says that such a pure love is both desirable and humanly possible. John holds that charity includes not only God's love, but also the perfection of a natural human love that can be meaningful for secular as well as Christian ethical and moral thinkers.

Self-love can help us understand the meaning of genuine love.  We naturally love ourselves and want the best for ourselves.   Now, you and I have a unique capacity that no other creature in the visible universe can boast of.  You, as a human person, have the ability to know another human person as one having the same nature as yourself.  You realize that every friend of yours, and every person behind the wheel of a car or in front of a computer screen, has the same nature as you have, and that nature is a human nature.  And you know that since they are of the same nature, they too love themselves naturally and wish the best for themselves.  You have the power to know, to have intellectual knowledge. 

You also have a will.  Will is not the same as desire.  Anyone who has ever been on a diet knows this; for I may desire a piece of cake, but I can choose to go against my desires…I can will against my desire and I can will something that I don't desire.  I can will to abstain from chocolate cake, even though I have a strong desire for a piece.  We can choose or will to do something contrary to our natural instincts.  Because we are gifted with the power to will.

What does this have to do with genuine love?  You and I naturally want the best for ourselves.  This is self-love.  But I can know you as another self and so I can will the best for you as I will the best for myself.  You and I can love another person as another self.  I can join my will to yours and will what is best for you.  In joining my will to yours and willing the best for you, I often have to transcend my desire, deny myself, and reach out to meet the needs of others... 

Genuine human love, which, as St. Francis De Sales calls it, is “disinterested love” and it is loving the other as another self, or willing the best for the other and choosing in accordance with that will.  This is the only kind of love that is freely given.  This love is not a feeling, but an act of the will.  It is not an emotion - although it may be accompanied by emotions. 

This may sound very dry, a relationship without passion and spontaneity.  Yet, it is with passion and excitement…it is the love that endures, lasts…His love is everlasting! It is only when we are guided by knowledge, reason and will that we achieve our greatest strength…that our love becomes passionate.  When a person's marriage (or celibate commitment) is governed by reason and disinterested love, as opposed to self-love or romantic love, and when the entire network of our emotions are made to serve that love, the result is that the passions are at their best and are most fully alive.  It is when our emotions are working in harmony with reason and disinterested love that our life is passionate to its fullest extent. 

Disinterested love loves the other as another self, which implies a transcendence of the self, a going beyond oneself towards the other.  The proper effect of this love is joy.  So few people today know the difference between joy and pleasure because so few people know how to love in the genuine sense of that word.  Self-love is good and achieves pleasure, but it is often joyless. 

A marriage built on "Romantic love", for example, may very well be pleasure filled - at least for a time, but it may not become joy-filled until the couple 'fall out of love' and begin the difficult process of learning to love the other for the sake of the other and not merely for the sake of what they do for each other or bring to each other.

A little girl named Liz was suffering from a rare and serious disease. Her only chance of recovery appeared to be a blood transfusion from her 5-year old brother, who had miraculously survived the same disease and had developed the antibodies needed to combat the illness. The doctor explained the situation to her little brother, and asked the little boy if he would be willing to give his blood to his sister. He hesitates for only a moment before taking a deep breath and saying, "Yes, I'll do it, if it will save her."

As the transfusion progressed, he lay in bed next to his sister and smiled seeing the color returning to her cheek. Then his face grew pale and his smile faded. He looked up at the doctor and asked with a trembling voice, "Will I start to die right away?"

Being young, the little boy had misunderstood the doctor; he thought he was going to have to give his sister all of his blood in order to save her.

Total, unconditional giving that comes from caring deeply about the other, giving without caring about self is “disinterested love”. This type of love is a one way street….going outward toward without expecting a return!  

Blessed be God,

Who has not rejected my prayer

Or withheld steadfast love from me! (Ps.66:20)

The Lord has not withheld his steadfast love from me. This is a source of great joy. It is also a source of inspiration and strength. It is a challenge to reach out in love - “not to withhold” our love from others. We are called to give what we have received as gifts from the Lord.

As children of God, we have to keenly desire to grow to heights of disinterested love, when in loving God we seek not so much the delight of loving him as the will of Him who wills that delight so much so that were he to will anything that does not delight us, we would still love His Will that so wills it. We care deeply about His Will and not care about that which is not in harmony with His will. 

Two brothers worked together on the family farm. One was married and had a large family. The other was single. At the day's end, the brothers shared everything equally, produce and profit.

Then one day the single brother said to himself, "It's not right that we should share equally the produce and the profit. I'm alone and my needs are simple." So each night he took a sack of grain from his bin and crept across the field between their houses, dumping it into his brother's bin.

Meanwhile, the married brother said to himself, "It's not right that we should share the produce and the profit equally. After all, I'm married and I have my wife and my children to look after me in years to come. My brother has no one, and no one to take care of his future." So each night he took a sack of grain and dumped it into his single brother's bin.

Both men were puzzled for years because their supply of grain never dwindled. Then one dark night the two brothers bumped into each other. Slowly it dawned on them what was happening. They dropped their sacks and embraced each other. 

This is an example of caring love that makes you not care….this is what St. Francis De Sales calls “disinterested love”.

If you really care, you also need to learn not to care. So we pray, “Lord, teach us to care and not to care”.

Take a moment and pray….

Lord, help me to be attentive and sensitive to the needs of others,

Empower me to respond with tenderness and compassion,

Teach me to look out for other’s needs rather than my own,

Teach me to live a self-sacrificing life,

To seek to love and not to be loved…….. 

Fr. Gus Tharappel, msfs

IDL - Introduction to a Devout Life