Saturday, February 17, 2007

Love and/or Charity?

The observance of Valentine’s Day Wednesday moved me to pay a little closer attention to this concept of love, specifically, giving love. Since Valentine’s Day is a day of loving and giving, what do the two have to do with one another? This problem was wrestled with back in the 4th century by St. Jerome.

The story goes that Pope Damasus commissioned ascetic scholar St. Jerome to prepare a Latin translation of the Bible now known as the Vulgate. You see, the translation was into the common people's "vulgar" Latin. Jerome's sources were mainly in Greek, and in trying to get from Greek to Latin, one of the first problems he faced was what to do with agape.

Agape is a Greek word meaning "love." But it's love of a special species. The ancient Greeks had a number of words for love, each with different implications. For example, a celebration of Valentine’s Day is sopping with the Greek love word eros, and you don’t need a cupid’s bow to bull’s-eye what kind of (erotic) inferences it carried.

Agape, on the other hand, implied a holy or pure love, as in "Love (agape) the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind" and "Love (agape) your neighbor as yourself." Jerome's problem was that he lacked a good Latin equivalent for agape. Latin's primary love word was amor, but its meaning was very broad. The love of a parent, brother, friend, lover - all sorts of love were amor in Latin. So Jerome turned to caritas instead.

Caritas is a Latin word that used to mean "dearness" or "high price." By extension, it sometimes meant "esteem," "affection," or - in an indisputably chaste sense - "love."

By choosing it as his Latin agape, Jerome lent great importance to caritas - and to words, like "charity," that ultimately rose from it. He also inadvertently set up a schism in English Bibles. Some versions, like the King James Bible, talk of charity ("And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity"). Others go right from agape to love ("And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love").

However you translate it, agape is one of the three primary Christian virtues, along with faith and hope. In his first letter to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul writes, "And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not love, I am nothing" (1 Corinthians 13.2).

Give me a little love here, ron

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