Editorial Note: This excerpt is taken from an essay by the same name originally published at Church Life Journal on December 18, 2018.
We want to say that love is unconditional. It seems right. It is equal parts comforting and challenging. It is comforting because if I am loved, then there is nothing I can do to lose that. It is challenging because in order to love, I have to will to be untroubled by obstacles. We do not want to say love is conditional because we fear submitting love to the twisted logic of relationship terrorism: if you do not meet my demands, I deprive you of what is good for you, or vice versa. We think of conditions as qualifications and we do not want to attach qualifications to love. So we say love is unconditional. But that is wrong. Love is always conditional.
Some weeks ago I was struck by something I read about St. Catherine of Siena, as I wrote about elsewhere. At a certain point in her life Catherine discerns a call to care for one particular woman with breast cancer whom no one else will aid because the stench of her rotting flesh is so nauseating. Catherine is likewise nauseated, but rather than turn away, she presses her nose against the flesh to make herself accustomed to it. After some time, though, the stench grows worse and Catherine’s senses are revolting against her own will to abide in charity. On the verge of being sick, Catherine does this:
Filled with anger against her own miserable flesh, she seized the bowl, which was full of the water she has washed the sores with, and pus from the sores: “By the Life of the Almighty, by the beloved Bridegroom of my soul, you shall receive in your stomach what you feel such fear of.” She turned from the bed and drank the contents of the bowl. Later she confessed to Raimondo [her spiritual director and confessor] that once she had mastered her revulsion the horrible drink had seemed delicious. And from that time on she never felt any reluctance about looking after Andrea.
When looking from a distance at Catherine of Siena, it is all-too-easy and quite tempting to say that her life was marked by unconditional love. That is untrue because that does not at all account for the particularity of her love. Here, in this room, with this woman, with this rotting flesh and these sores and this pus, Catherine reckons with the conditions. For her to love, to will the good of this other, means figuring out how to love in this particular way. Needless to say, the solution is shocking, if not repulsive. The fantasy of unconditional love has no time for that. This is the conditional love of one who seeks to love as Jesus loves.
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