I would like now to turn our attention to what I referred to above as the “hierarchy of being.” What I mean by this is that the universe is saturated with meaning, purpose, and beauty of all kinds, and that, in order to understand and respond to this universe in its fullness, it is important to understand this richness and to respect it. In a particular way, it is important to distinguish that there is a kind of tapestry of meaning that cascades from God into all the levels of created being, such that some are fuller in innate meaning than others, of more “ontological weight,” as it were, whereas others are lesser (though everything, each in its own way, remains significant).

This is true, for example, in the fact that persons are of incomparably higher dignity and value than animals, without in this way taking away any importance from animals. Each animal, without the breath of personal being to enliven it, is but an individual of a species, whereas each human person—while being an individual of a species—is also of a value incomparably higher than all animals put together, since he or she is singularly unique, like no other person who has ever been or ever will be. As John Paul says, he or she is a person “chosen by eternal Love.” Persons, therefore, issue a “word” to us that far surpasses in significance the word that we hear through animals. We hear in each person a word that has an absolute significance, an eternal significance, rooted in God’s own creative love which has formed them in their mother’s womb, not only for a certain period of time, but for an eternity of intimacy in the life of the Trinity—a destiny begun already now in this life and finding its everlasting fulfillment in the next. This also means that, morally speaking, our encounter with persons issues a further “call,” and a “call” of a different kind, than our encounter with animals (though animals also issue a moral call of a different nature). The value of a person, in other words, has a particular moral significance for us, issuing a word, both from the heart of the other person as well as from God who created and sustains and ceaselessly loves them.

In fact, precisely this approach to being—one that listens deeply in contemplative receptivity to the unique “word” spoken to us through each and every thing that God has made—is the foundation of the deepest intuition into the moral fabric of the universe. And when we do this, we realize that the natural inclinations within us—the God-given aspiration of our being and all our faculties towards beauty, goodness, truth, self-preservation, communion, etc.—also correspond with, and find fulfillment in, the world around us. We have been made for the world, and the world has been made for us. This is, literally, a match made in heaven.

And yet it has also been wounded by original and personal sin, such that the word spoken by created reality is now muffled to the ear of our heart, and the radiance of its beauty is dimmed to our eyes. Or better: our ears have become hard of hearing, and our eyes have become weak in sight. In order to be moved by reality and to respond to it as it deserves, therefore, calls for a profound healing and transfiguration of our hearts by the grace of God. It calls for a deep purification of all those movements that make us blind and deaf—movements of possessiveness and unhealthy pleasure-seeking and pride—and also a re-education in the nature of authentic love and affirmation, such that we become capable again of the receptive vulnerability and reciprocal surrender that all that is beautiful, good, and true awakens in the heart.

This healing and renewal of our heart, both to live its authentic inclination towards reality, as well as to live in receptive responsiveness to the word of gratuitous beauty that reality speaks, is precisely the nature of virtue. It is the integration and harmonization of our being within itself and its union with reality—indeed, it is an integration that flowers in and through an abiding relationship with reality, and above all with the Author of reality. And as this capacity matures within us—above all by God’s own activity within us, and also by the very efficacy of beauty, goodness, and truth as they do their mysterious work within us, and, finally, by our own humble cooperation—we will be more and more “moved” by all that is. We will be touched by it in a harmony of mind, will, affectivity, emotion, and body, and be capable of responding to it authentically and, indeed, affirming it within the very affirming love of God.

In order to enrich our understanding of all of this, I will now speak about the “three kinds of importance” that I mentioned above. This will hopefully help us to understand—and to live—more profoundly according to the rich hierarchy of being. These three kinds of importance were described by the Catholic philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand. By “importance,” he means that things present themselves to the human person as significant or desirable, as objects for desire, choice, or action. There are three “kinds” precisely because realities can present themselves to us under these three different aspects, can be desirable or significant under one or another aspect, or under multiple aspects simultaneously. Understanding them can enrich and clarify our ability to hear and respond to the word of created reality. These three kinds are as follows: 1) things of intrinsic value or importance in themselves, 2) things that are objectively beneficial for the human person, 3) things that are subjectively satisfying.

The first of these, the intrinsically valuable, corresponds with the reality that I was speaking of directly above—about how the human person speaks a profound “word” from God, a word simultaneously of the incomparable dignity of the individual person as well as of God himself who created and sustains them. By the intrinsically valuable, or the valuable-in-itself, in other words, I refer to the fact that realities bear a particular weight of meaning, being manifestations of the very beauty, goodness, and truth of God himself in the world. They present themselves to us precisely under the guise of value, of the good in the full meaning of the term. And this value or goodness is not a subjective category imposed on created things by us, as in merely, “I happen to value (x), or I don’t really value (y).” Rather it inheres within created things as their inner essence, the fullness of their being by God’s creative touch. This is precisely what “intrinsic” means: their value lies within them as a very property of their being, and is not imposed on them or interpreted through them from the outside. Value is but the radiance of their meaning, and thus in a way synonymous with the good as a “transcendental property of being” in its inseparable union with beauty and truth.

And indeed values present themselves to us, in a particular way, through the experience of beauty. Values present themselves to us as beautiful. And beauty, in its part, awakens our hearts to goodness; and goodness, further is but the voice of truth. These three realities, which are really only one reality under different aspects, reveal the essence of being, of all that exists. For all that exists, everything that has being, participates in some way in the eternal Being of God, who created and sustains them, and who is, himself, eternal Beauty, Goodness, and Truth. And each thing does so in its own way, with a differing degree of fullness and also with different contours. The person manifests value in a way far beyond any other created realities, for he or she alone is made “in the image and likeness of God” as a substantial “I” in relationship with “Thou,” with reason, will, and affectivity, and called into the full flowering of eternal intimacy. But all other living creatures also manifest the beauty, goodness, and truth of being, and of living being filled with something of the vibrancy of God’s own life. And thus they bear an innate value in themselves as well, a value that awakens reverence and gratitude and also a desire to care for them responsibly, each animal according to its kind.

Next on the level of the hierarchy of being is the world of plants and other living organisms beneath the level of animals. These too are, we could say, miraculous in their beauty, in the marvel of their being, even while they speak a different word from that spoken by the world of animals, and even less than that spoken by each and every person. We also notice that, as we follow the cascading richness of the hierarchy of being down from the heart of the Trinity, through the realm of created persons, through the realm of animals, and through the realm of plants, we find a recurring theme. Those creatures that are closer to God bear a fuller interior unity within themselves, while also being richer in the multiplicity of their interior being. They are constituted of a greater richness both of fullness and of inner harmony between the parts which compose them. We have seen this in particular in terms of the person, who, while incomparably rich in the multiple facets of his or her being, is really profoundly simple in the core of the singular “I” as it stands before the “Thou” of God and the “you” of other persons. Animals, on the other hand, do not have this same sense of self that unifies their being to an irreducible core identity, a rich interior world of subjective consciousness that is in fact bigger than the entire universe. They still manifest a strong word of individuality, yet no longer of a unique and incomparably precious person, but of an individual of a species that lives only once. The realm of plants manifests even less a sense of incomparable uniqueness, and also less unity of a diversity of parts, as indeed many plants can “reproduce” themselves by being cut apart and replanted, etc.

Finally, we encounter the realm of non-living things such as minerals and all the other constitutive elements of visible creation. In addition to singular created things, however, there are also values that present themselves to us “as a whole composed of parts,” and not merely the voice of a singular being. For example, the breathtaking beauty of a mountain range bathed in the light of the rising sun speaks a profound word of value from God’s creative love and wisdom. It calls to the human heart for a response of reverence, gratitude, and love. The same is true of the other values that inhere in creation and are continually manifest within it—from the rich coordination of sound and space, of light and warmth, of the passage of day from sunrise to sunset, and so many other experiences that continually speak to us of the creative love of God. Also of innate value are moral qualities within human persons, within human relationships, or within human dispositions or acts themselves: such as integrity, justice, generosity, mercy, compassion, harmony, community, etc. In sum, all things of value speak of the inner life of God as Trinity—of his own being as Beauty, Goodness, Truth, Love, and Communion—within the limits of time and space, and thus draw our hearts back to the Creator of all.

Before moving on to the next kind of importance, let me make a final note. The human person, and humanity as a whole, has been created as a kind of “summation” of the goodness and value of the whole creation, such that the destiny of creation is tied up inextricably with the destiny of man and woman. We see this already in how all that exists in the lower degrees of value and ontological weight in some way is taken up into the higher degrees, and all, finally, is enfolded together in the rich unity of the person and in their knowledge and love. The entire universe, truly, is God’s gift to the human person, meant both to speak a word of love from God and to draw the person ever closer to the Giver, as well as to be joined with the human person in an act of gratitude, love, and praise, so that, with him and in him, it may find its everlasting fulfillment in communion with God. This is true even of those created realities that seem to speak to us “from above,” and awaken a sense of awe and humility before a surpassing grandeur—like the beauty of mountains or sky or sea, or the music of harmonious sound, or even, when authentically received, the marvel of the living and non-living creatures. This is the case because our great gift and task of lifting up the world into communion with God in the experience of our own communion with him does not consist in subjecting or dominating creation, in completely comprehending or controlling it, but above all precisely in reverencing it, loving it, affirming it, and caring for it. This is the primal “priesthood” entrusted to us in the beginning by God, in the Garden of Eden, such that humanity stands on the horizon of being, between God and the entire created universe, and, in him and in the living experience of his heart, all things converge together into a mysterious participation in the life of God.

After these beautiful realities, the other two kinds of importance will not need much explanation, but will hopefully fit right in the context of what I have already said. If the first kind of importance is that of the valuable-in-itself, then the second kind is that of the “objectively beneficial.” This refers to the way in which things present themselves to me as good under the guise of bringing fulfillment and flourishing to my own being or capacities. For example, in terms of intrinsic value a person presents himself to me as someone incomparably unique and of singular dignity, awakening a response of reverence, love, and care. In this response I am drawn out of myself in a kind of loving self-transcendence, as my being expands as a gift to him and also opens to welcome him into the care of my inner heart. But in this encounter, I may also experience the voice of the goodness of a relationship with this person for my own enrichment; I may feel that a friendship with him would deepen my own flourishing and happiness as a person. It would, in other words, bring me an objective benefit.

Now, this experience is an entirely good one, and in fact essential for me to truly respond to the goodness of the other person in all its proper dimensions. For a merely “altruistic” love for him that refuses to take any delight or care in the enrichment and joy that he brings to me through our communion is not more perfect, more full, but rather less so. The only condition for this experience and desire remaining healthy is that the objective benefit springs from, and remains always rooted in, the primary acknowledgment of intrinsic value. The other person does not become a means to my own benefit; I do not “use” him for my own enrichment. Rather, my own enrichment springs forth from the very fullness of his intrinsic value as a person, as well as from the intrinsic value of our relationship itself, which I embrace simply because they are beautiful, good, and true, and worthy of my wholehearted response. Indeed, if I were to turn away from the intrinsic value, to try to possess it for my own ends, rather than letting it draw and expand me towards the other person in love, I would immediately cease to receive the objective benefit as well. This is because the benefit is communicated precisely in the very living experience of communion, which is founded on the gift of self (which is also, of course, acceptance of the other). And this kind of relation—with another person as well as with all intrinsic values—can come about only when they are reverenced and responded to precisely as values, and not as mere means to my own fulfillment.

There are other dimensions of reality, however, which are not intrinsically valuable in the same way as the person, or as any of the other realities I spoke about above (though in fact everything that exists bears a certain kind of intrinsic value, since, as John Paul affirms, “being and good are convertible” [TOB 2:5]). The usual example given of this is the goodness of an education; an education is good, and presents itself as good to me, precisely as for me, as something that will benefit me as a person. But even here we can recognize that the value of an education, just like in the case of friendship, does not exist “in itself” outside of the persons who participate in it. Education, in other words, really means nothing but the communication of human persons in the realm of a deepening contact with and understanding of reality. Thus, it is a form of relation—between human persons—that is ordained to bring about a particular benefit, for those involved, of deepening relation with reality as a whole: a more holistic and also deeper contact with the world of being, and with the nature of created reality, etc. Thus, we can affirm that, though education presents itself under the guise of the “objectively beneficial,” this objective benefit is rooted in the very nature of being as good, as intrinsically valuable, and thus depends on value. It is still a matter of maturing, expanding, and enriching my being—for my own sake, and thus for my benefit—on the basis of the intrinsic value of all that is.

But is there anything that presents itself to me as an objective benefit which is not also rooted in the intrinsically valuable, which is, in other words, merely objectively beneficial to me? In the strictest sense, the answer is no, for all that is good is so because it participates in being, and thus has value. And all goodness, even in our subjective experience of benefit, consist in being in communion with the real. Nonetheless, in our experience, it can be helpful to distinguish cases in which the benefit to ourselves, for all practical purposes, defines the goodness or desirability of certain things for us. And this distinguishes the “word” of such encounters from those with realities that present themselves to us as intrinsically valuable, which present themselves to us by saying, rather, “I am good and beautiful in my self. Do you affirm me as good? Do you give me the response that I deserve?” For example, food presents itself to us in the way of objective benefit, desirable to us not primarily because it is valuable, but because it is beneficial and necessary for our health and well-being. The same is true of counseling or psychotherapy; we may seek out therapy not because of some intrinsic value within it, but because it benefits us in a place of need and desire (though of course true healing comes only insofar as it directs us to reality and allows us to experience it more authentically). It is also important to recognize that, when a person lives and acts out of a place of deep personal wounds or sins—and we all struggle with this—then we can be inclined to become blind to intrinsic values and instead to turn all things into objective benefits for ourselves. This is a very sad thing, as it keeps a person enclosed, trapped, and isolation in the world of their own needs, desires, and fears, and hinders them from experiencing the fulfillment, joy, and expansive freedom that are fully found only in the surrender of self to the voice of intrinsic values, and in the communion with the real that speaks of God as Beauty, Goodness, Truth, and Love.

Finally, we come to the third kind of importance. This is the importance of the “subjectively satisfying.” Like the objectively beneficial, this importance presents itself to me precisely on the basis of my own need or desire, and yet it does so on an even more basic or low level. It does not have any innate cognitive link with intrinsic value, or even with objective benefit, but rather is desirable only because it brings me an experience of subjective satisfaction or pleasure. Here again we can see how the wounds of sin have scarred us, as we can be inclined, not only to seek our personal benefit apart from the full and innate value of being, but also to seek subjective pleasure or satisfaction in isolation, apart from the word of being and indeed even apart from, and against, our own authentic well-being. Nonetheless, even the experience of satisfaction or pleasure has been willed and created by God, to be the sensible, tangible sign of the goodness of reality as it echoes through all the levels of our created being—from the highest level of intrinsic value to the objective benefit of our nature to the enjoyment in all of our faculties. Thus, we should not think that subjective satisfaction is inherently bad or dangerous; it is rather an essential dimension of our being, and we have a healthy need to experience it.

But it also calls out to be integrated with the higher levels of our being, such that the “voice” of subjective satisfaction may harmonize with the “voice” of objective benefit, which, in its turn, inheres entirely in the “voice” of intrinsic value. All three kinds of importance together are significant for human life, and none of them can or should be alienated from our being or experience. It is indeed helpful to understand their distinction and their interrelationship, as this can help us to discern the path by which these three dimensions may be healed and integrated in our experience. It can help us to always give priority to the intrinsically valuable over the merely beneficial or subjectively satisfying, and also never to seek the latter to the expense of the former. But of course, by God’s plan, all three are meant to be harmonized together in the rich fabric of a single human life—a life abiding in ceaseless contact with the whole of reality in all of its dimensions, in the attitude of receptivity and gift, in the disposition of loving affirmation before all that is.

Before concluding this chapter, I want to make a final point. This is to acknowledge that, in the light of his understanding of intrinsic values and their moral significance, Dietrich von Hildebrand critiqued the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas, which I have tried to expound so much throughout these reflections. As John F. Crosby summarizes:

Now von Hildebrand thinks that the bonum [good] of Thomistic philosophy centers largely around this third kind of good [the objectively beneficial] and does not take sufficient account of value and of value-response. He has in mind the Thomistic teaching that each being has a natural desire (appetitus) for the fullness of being proper to its kind, or in other words for the full actualization or perfection of its being, and that bonum or good simply expresses this perfection or actualization considered as desirable. Bonum thus seems to von Hildebrand to be defined in a way that is equivalent to his third kind of good—its seems to be good understood as that which is beneficial or fulfilling for some person. But if good is defined in this way, then little place is left for value and value-response. As a result, he says, the Thomistic ethics cannot do full justice to the transcendence that really characterizes the moral life; in place of a life centered around giving things of value their due and obeying the call of morally relevant values, we now have a life centered around the full flourishing of myself. And although such a life is never to be confused with a life centered around the merely subjectively satisfying, it is still deficient with respect to transcendence. Whenever von Hildebrand deplores eudaemonism [a happiness-based morality] in ethics, he is deploring a concern with my flourishing that compromises the spirit of value-response in which I ought to live.i

I want very much to emphasize that von Hildebrand’s disagreement with Thomas Aquinas, in my opinion, is a misunderstanding. Von Hildebrand seems never to have encountered the authentic richness of the teaching of the Common Doctor, but only a reduced version presented in later commentators who did not themselves understand the full depth and breadth of his writings. It is, of course, good that von Hildebrand emphasizes the beauty, importance, and power of a response to values for their own sake. This is essential for understanding and living the richness of human life. For what kind of relationship could a human person have with God, for example, if he or she related to him only because such a relationship was beneficial to them? This would amount to mere use. But is Aquinas really saying this when he speak of the good, and of our natural inclinations, in the way that he does? I do not believe so at all. To say that there is no place for self-transcendence and value response in Aquinas seems to me deeply inaccurate. He was, after all, profoundly immersed in a culture that was in awe of the grandeur of being—in its radiant beauty, goodness, and truth—and, beginning from this awareness, he showed how the desires and inclinations of the person are oriented precisely to participation in this great mystery of being. There was no need, therefore, for him to emphasize the “disinterested” or “transcendent” nature of the good, as the whole of the atmosphere of the high Middle Ages was saturated with precisely a value-responding attitude before being, and before God, the Author of all being.

Indeed, we can affirm without hesitation that, just as a responsiveness to the word of objective value is essential to the full meaning of human life and love, so too is the teaching of Aquinas. His understanding of our natural inclinations towards the flourishing of our being in contact with reality is also absolutely essential for avoiding falling into the opposite extreme: a false altruism which dismisses the self in order to care only for responding to objective values outside of oneself. True ethics, in its authentic expression, can only be understood in the rich interrelationship between both of these emphases: a value-responding attitude to all that is beautiful, good, and true, including those values that speak a word of moral invitation or obligation to me; and an attitude that listens profoundly to the inner orientation of my being, and the being of all persons (and non-persons!), to be conformed to reality in its fullness, and, in this conformity, to find authentic happiness and fulfillment.

In a word, when authentically understood, both of these approaches to morality and the human life are entirely compatible with each other. In fact, they need each other. They are but two dimension of a single, indivisible reality. When distorted or misunderstood, however, the one can lead to a false dismissal of the self, while the other can lead to making excuses for selfishness which in fact harms the self. And, when we look deeply into this matter, we see precisely that only in God can these two dimension come together perfectly in our experience. And this is precisely what we have seen—even if indirectly—in our previous reflections inspired by the Theology of the Body of John Paul II. He speaks of our “rootedness in Love,” in the “dimension of the gift,” as the grace of original innocence, in which and from which we can respond to all things in their authentic meaning and beauty (value-response). And this rootedness was precisely our openness to the gift of God’s own self-communication, a communication also passing in and through all created goods, such that the whole universe is a gift experienced as for me. All things are a gift from God to the beloved human heart, and thus a good intended to bring me happiness and fulfillment. Even objective values which call for a response from my heart are also always for me in the provident plan of God, and, while calling me to transcend myself in responding to them, also expand my experience of the true depth and beauty of my own being in contact with the fullness of reality.

At the end of this section on the authentic beauty of morality and ethics, it can be affirmed that the three approaches to, or dimensions of, this mystery are not mutually exclusive but rather deeply united. The obligations of the external commandments, the word spoken by objective values, and the authentic desires of our humanity are but three facets of a single reality. They are but three expressions of the one “dimension of gift” in which God created us out of his boundless generosity, and all three elucidate our call to find happiness and fulfillment through love and intimacy, and to serve the same reality in all persons. Indeed, in the light of the true beauty of the Gospel, the convergence of the word of objective value and the deepest aspirations of the human heart is profoundly apparent in the very heart of the law itself: in the twofold commandment that gives meaning to the whole of Scripture and to the human heart’s response to God’s gift of himself in history. As the Bible expresses it:

And one of them, a lawyer, asked [Jesus] a question, to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.” (Mt 22:34-40)

These two commandments, which are really facets of a single twofold commandment, recapitulate the law and prophets in their entirety, summarizing, as it were, the whole inner significance of the Old Covenant, and yet finding fulfillment in the newness that Christ brings in the gift of Redemption. In other words, he confirms the old law, and yet he makes it new from within, not by imposing more external obligations, but by the outpouring of his own love into the human heart as the very living principle by which we love. Saint Paul says: “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery, You shall not kill, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,’ and any other commandment, are summed up in this sentence, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law” (Rom 13:8-20).

This “great commandment,” as it is called, is founded on the worthiness of God, his innate value, which evokes in us the desire to love him with our whole being; it is also founded on our common dignity as human persons created in God’s image and likeness, such that we are invited to “love our neighbor as we love ourselves,” that is, on the foundation of the incomparable dignity of each person, which we know most keenly from our own self-awareness, our own subjective self-experience in our desire for love and happiness. And yet Christ takes this foundation and deepens it; he alone makes it possible that the “promise” spoken through the great commandment—and through all the other commandments, which find their meaning only in this one—finds fulfillment. And he does this by filling this very command of love—a total love of God and of other human persons—with the surging current of his own love. He gives what is called the “new commandment,” which Saint John describes so beautifully:

Whoever keeps his word, in him truly love for God is perfected. By this we may be sure that we are in him: he who says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked. Beloved, I am writing you no new commandment, but an old commandment which you had from the beginning; the old commandment is the word which you have heard. Yet I am writing you a new commandment, which is true in him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining. (1 Jn 2:5-8)

Yes, the newness of the new commandment is due, not to more obligations, but to a new force of love alive within us, and making us new from within. This commandment is new because it makes new. It is this gift which enables us to “walk in the same way in which he walked,” in the very love that is “true in him and in you.” It is this love, born of the redeeming gift of God in the Incarnation, Passion, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, that dispels the lingering darkness of sin and brings light to the longings and aspirations of the human heart. Jesus himself expressed this new commandment on the evening before he died, in the words: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn 13:34-35).

“Love one another as I have loved you.” Now the foundation of love is not merely the value of God as an “Other,” nor the value of other persons known on the basis of my own awareness of human dignity, etc., but rather the very living presence of the Trinity within me. It is loving as Christ loved. But isn’t this just a matter of following an example, of having a new “model” to imitate? No. The significance of these words of Scripture is much deeper. The literal translation of these words would not be, “Love one another as I have loved you,” but rather, “Love one another with the very love with which I have loved you.” In other words, Christ’s love becomes a substantial, living force at work within us, educating us in how to love, loving in us and through us in a way that we could not do on our own, and yet precisely and only in this way healing and renewing our humanity according to its deepest capacities in communion with the love of God.

And thus we come to share in the inner life of the Trinity: both in the life of prayer, both in the sacred sanctuary of prayer—where we love God with our whole being—as well as in our tenderness, care, and reverence for one another. We come to participate in the very relationship that the only-begotten Son has with his Father in the heart of eternity, for, just as the Son receives life eternally from the Father in the Spirit, so we receive life from the Father, in the Spirit, and through the Son. Jesus makes this clear when he draws a parallel between his own relationship with the Father and the relationship of his friends with himself. Just as he reposes eternally in the bosom of his loving Father, so his friends are to repose in his own bosom (Jn 1:18 and 13:23). And most profoundly of all:

As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you; abide in my love. [Literally: With the very love with which the Father has loved me, so have I loved you…] If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. [Notice: happiness!] This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you [with the very love with which I have loved you]. Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. (Jn 15:9-15)

How beautiful is this, that we become intimate friends of Christ, living with the same sap of divine love flowing in us as flows in him, abiding in his love as he abides in the Father, giving ourselves to him as he gives himself to us! And this love sustains us and expresses itself even through the gift of our life, the laying down of our life, for our friends—a gift of love that is so pure, so total, and so utterly sustained by grace, that it proves stronger than death and victorious over the grave! Here truly the grain of wheat is not alone, but bears abundant fruit (cf. Jn 12:24), as here the bonds of intimate love and abiding communion are so profoundly wrought between God and the human heart, and between human hearts and one another, that not even suffering and death can tear them asunder. Rather, love shows its depth and intensity precisely in the face of suffering and death, manifesting the true beauty of God’s all-surpassing victory that affirms, safeguards, and liberates the beauty of each human person, and the beauty of the whole creation, precisely in the face of what threatens to destroy it.

In sum, the new commandment of love—which recapitulates the whole law and prophets, and indeed the entirety of human existence, within itself—is ultimately nothing but the circulation of love ever passing between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, which begins to flow through human hearts and lives. And this circulation of love makes our hearts new from within, enabling us to participate in the very life of God for which we most deeply long, and in which alone we find true fulfillment. We love as God loves, with the very love of God poured into us and active within us. And this love does not harm or limit our human freedom, but rather unseals its truest depth and beauty, in a profound co-operation of mutual reverence, love, and cherishing tenderness between God and ourselves, and between all of the children of God within the living space of the Trinity’s life. This is the full flowering of human existence, and the highest purpose and goal of the inestimable gift of freedom: to share, already in this life and for an eternity of joy, in the inner exchange of love that is the life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

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i. Introductory study by John F. Crosby, in Dietrich von Hildebrand, The Nature of Love, translated by John F. Crosby and John Henry Crosby (South Bend, Indiana: Saint Augustine’s Press, 2009), see xiv-xxi for the summary of the three kinds of importance.