Do You Love Me?

By Ignatia.

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” A second time he said to him, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you girded yourself and walked where you would; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go.” (This he said to show by what death he was to glorify God.) And after this he said to him, “Follow me.”

(John 21:15-19)

This passage from the Gospel of John is one of the most beautiful readings at Mass during the Easter season, and
there’s so much to meditate on! There’s the parallel to Peter’s threefold denial of the Lord during His Passion, there’s the Lord’s unfathomable mercy in forgiving Peter and reinstating his place as shepherd of His flock, there’s the opportunity given to Peter to make restitution for his sins, there’s the specific mission that Peter is given – all very valid, very beautiful points to pray with. This year, however, during my first “post-convent” Easter season, I was focused on something different when this passage came up. At some point during college (pre-convent), I had learned that, in the original Greek of the text, John uses two different Greek words for love: agape and philia. The dialogue actually looks like this:

Jesus: “Simon, son of John, do you love (agapas) me more than these?”
Peter: “Yes, Lord, You know that I love (philo) You.”
Jesus: “Simon, son of John, do you love (agapas) me?”
Peter: “Yes, Lord, You know that I love (philo) You.”
Jesus: “Simon, son of John, do you love (phileis) me?”
Peter: “Lord, You know everything; You know that I love (philo) You.”

Knowing this provides a fascinating new understanding of the text. While there is some disagreement among scholars, generally the Greek agape is interpreted as unconditional, self-sacrifical love, like the love God has for His children. Philia, on the other hand, refers to affection between friends. One reading of the Greek passage is that Peter is petitioning the Lord to accept him back as a friend and “equal” after his betrayal, and thus the Lord’s switch from agapas to phileis is an acquiescence to that bold request. But I was moved this year by another interpretation.

Before the Lord’s Passion, Peter confidently proclaimed his agape love for the Lord: “Lord, why can I not follow you
now? I will lay down my life for you.” (John 13:37, emphasis mine). After his betrayal of the Lord, however, Peter no longer claims agape love. He is humbled. He sees himself more as he truly is, and not how he’d like to be. Thus, when the Lord asks him if he agape loves Him, Peter is distressed and responds with what he’s come to accept as truth: “Yes, Lord, I love You ” but only as a friend. I do not love You unconditionally as I had once thought. Twice the Lord asks for agape love, and twice Peter responds with philia love. And the Lord finally meets him where he is: “Okay, Peter, you can’t manage agape, so I’ll have mercy and meet you at philia.”

This in and of itself is striking, and a beautiful testament to divine condescension as well as to Peter’s humility. But what I find most beautiful is what happens next: Jesus agrees to meet Peter at philia, but He doesn’t leave Peter there! In the next breath, the Lord predicts how Peter will die to glorify God. This prediction is a promise that He will help Peter get to agape! Peter had initially thought to do it on his own strength, and he failed miserably, painfully. So now the Lord, knowing his “willing but weak” spirit, promises to provide what Peter is lacking. “Yes, Peter, I know that you don’t agape Me. But I also know that you desire to. So follow Me, feed and tend My flock, and I will help you. I will provide for your deficiency in overabundance. If you follow Me, I will give you the grace to die for Me.”

I, too, am like Peter. Although it is not a perfect analogy (since leaving the convent is not a betrayal of the Lord), entering and leaving the convent has taught me a lot about my limitations. This could easily lead to the self-blame, self-loathing, and despair of Judas – “If I had only been stronger or more prayerful or more virtuous or less selfish or less prideful, I wouldn’t have had to leave! I’ve ruined God’s plan for my life because I’m such a screw-up!” – but that is not the only option. I can also choose to be like Peter, to humbly acknowledge the truth about myself and my limitations, to turn with them to the Lord in trust, and to allow Him to heal me.

The chains that bound Saint Peter, in the basilica of S. Pietro in Vincoli in Rome.

Regardless of the circumstances of my departure from the convent, the end result is that I have realized that I am not able to love the way I had thought I was. My fervent “I will enter the convent and die to myself for You!” has turned into a humbled “Lord, You have seen and know everything. You know that I love You … and You know that I do not love You as I ought. You know that I am willing, but weak. I was not able to do what I set out to do relying on my own strength.” And the Lord’s promise is that He will give me the strength and the love necessary to love Him with agape. He will provide. He sees my desire, and it is enough. He has given me a mission – to evangelize those around me – and through this mission I will become conformed to Him. Through this mission, my love for Him will become steadily deeper until I am finally truly able to give my life to Him the way that He desires – not because of my passion or devotion or fervor, but because of His. He will supply strength in my weakness. My vocation – whatever it may be – is His project. I have only to say “yes” to His invitation to follow Him and to humbly acknowledge the truth about myself. He will do the rest.

“I love You, Lord, my strength.” (Ps. 18:2)