1 Corinthians 13 is one of those passages commonly read at weddings. It is often perceived as a hymn to love, but if we hold to this perception we do so at our peril. It isn't merely a lecture about the qualities of love. Paul tells us in the preceding verse, "But eagerly desire the greater gifts. And now I will show you the most excellent way."
What follows then is a way. But how is it a way and what are we to do about it? After a brief prologue in which Paul tells us that without love all is in vain, he launches into a series of verses about the qualities of love--and this is where the going gets difficult. In verse 4a, for example, he tells us that "Love is patient and kind." This seems simple enough. However, if Paul is showing us a way, how are we to act on this? Should we draw patience out of ourselves and attempt to show it in love? What then, we become Pelagians, thinking that we can of our own efforts accomplish what is necessary?
If the verses that make up 1 Corinthians 13 are a way, then we are called to follow it, not merely admire the beautiful language that comprises it. How then do we act on "Love is patient and kind?" Paul doesn't tell us "Be paitent and kind." Instead he gives us a sort of field guide to love--look for these characteristics, and you'll know you've found it, and thus found the way.
We know that the way Paul is describing is love. We also know that Jesus is love. Not coincidentally, the qualities that describe love also describe Jesus. And perhaps this is the solution to Paul's "Best Way." The way of love is the way of Jesus.
Again, that seems simple, but how then does Paul show us this way? Are these guideposts supposed to help us recognize Jesus? Are they calls to change our behaviors? Are they a plea to open ourselves to the transforming power of love and recognize it as more than emotion and desire (although never precluding those two as well) but as a series of actions built on the fragile foundations of desire?
All of human desire is an arrow pointing home. All of our desire, whether we can see it or not is for one thing. Aquinas points out that no one desires what they think is truly bad--they have somehow led themselves into the belief that the evil they desire is, in fact a good. The revolutionary who blows up innocent people is advancing the freedom of his people, and so on. So, if desire is the arrow pointing home, the compass, perhaps what Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 13 is how to read the compass properly. Look at what you love and see if it meets all of these standards, and if not, then it is not fully what you desire, but perhaps another signpost on to something that better fits the description. Smaller loves gradually point the way to the Greater Love, just as rivulets run into streams, rivers, and the vast ocean.
If desire is the compass, there can be no question that humankind goes out of its way to deconstruct the compass and make all directions the direction home--and therefore none of them are. But, perhaps, a proper reading of St. Paul will give us an indication of true north and point us the way of proper love. We can't achieve it by ourselves, but we can desire it, pray for it, and be prepared to recognize it when it comes knocking at the front door.