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Some years ago, I used to have interesting discussions with a Buddhist monk about my age about the way the key ideas found in our respective traditions either converged or diverged – or both.  I originally thought that the idea of love and of metta would be convergences. Not so.
Metta is one of the ‘four immeasurables’ of Buddhism. It describes selfless loving-kindness, fellowship and benevolence. It is closely allied to another of the immeasurables, karuna, which is generally translated as compassion. For Buddhists the contrast between the two is very subtle. I only have a page so we won’t go into all the discussions I had with my fellow monk. What surprised me, was the vehemence with which he dismissed the Christian idea of love as being equivalent to metta. For him love suggested a form of attachment, with all the seductions, traps and tricks of eros: control, possessiveness and, sadly, the inevitable prospect of further and deeper suffering. You may have met people who declare they will ‘never fall in love again’ as the pop song of the sixties proclaimed. At least until they did
I could see his point and so we also spoke of the other meanings of love in Christian thought. But he never accepted that love could be a translation of metta because it had too much eros in it. Eros, of course, is not bad: at least Pope Benedict XVI didn’t think so in his first encyclical on the theme of 1 Jn 4:16 (‘whoever loves lives in God and God lives in him’). The Pope argued the need to integrate eros into the ‘God is love’ definition. Nietzsche of course said that Christianity found eros as a god and tuned him into a devil. He also had a point.
Perhaps one of the biggest challenges Christianity confronts today is to get its understanding of love straight – this would include understanding why the Ugandan parliament’s penalty of death for expressing gay love is so completely un-Christian. This task involves a lot of reflection, but the reflection also demands a lot of contemplation. Only in contemplation can the full meaning of ‘God is love’ be felt, tasted and experienced. In the contemplative state of mind, we discover that we are loved and that is the discovery of our source, our true self and the mystery of being itself. It is painfully unsentimental and explosively liberating.
My monastic brother, who later fell in love and got married, helped me to understand how we should use the word love. At the same time the ambiguity between the love of the pop song and the Song of Songs and the first letter of St John is wonderfully potent too. It affords us an insight into those most painful human situations, especially in divorce courts and murder trials, when those who have fallen in love have then fallen so viciously and destructively out of love.
Certainly, then, when eros collapses all the forces of metta, karuna, koinonia (fellowship) and agape (the main Christian word for love) need to be brought in to prevent the worst and to repair the broken.

Laurence Freeman
Lenten Reflections 2023
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