The Art of Loving | Sojourners

The Art of Loving

Image via Zvonimir Atletic/

Last year in Sarajevo, an Islamic theologian told me that only in understanding Victor Frankl's philosophy could one really understand the war in Bosnia - a people's struggle for meaning and a desperate defense of those symbols that give their lives meaning. Frankl, who died the same week as Princess Diana and Mother Teresa, founded the Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy (after Freud and Adler) known as Logotherapy, which he said "makes the human aware of the hidden logos or meaning of his or her existence."

While Frankl studied with Freud and Adler in the 1930s, his own work did not take on its real depth until the late 1940s after he spent three years in four Nazi concentration camps, including Dachau and Auschwitz. All of his family, with the exception of his sister who escaped, were killed in the camps. His enduring work of survival literature, Man's Search for Meaning, describes how he came to understand through his suffering that "everything can be taken away from a prisoner, except one thing: the last of the human freedoms, to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way."

Unlike other European existentialists, Frankl was neither a pessimist nor anti-religious. During his processing into the concentration camp his coat was taken from him and switched with another. He was devastated because his wife had sewn the manuscript of his first book, his life's work, into the lining. He found, however, that in the pocket of a stranger's coat was a torn piece of paper-printed on it was the Shema Yisrael, the most important Jewish prayer. He knew then that he would have to live his life's work through daily prayer.

Frankl identified three ways to counter the despair to which humankind is prone: by creating a work or doing a deed, by experiencing something or encountering someone, or by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering. Frankl's own experience fell primarily into this last possibility. He chose the attitude of love, saying, "It is essential to keep practicing the art of living, even in a concentration camp...for the salvation of humankind is only through love and in love. It is love that shows us the way to our deepest spiritual self."

Mother Teresa's search for meaning was found in Jesus and lived out through "creating a work or doing a deed." Love flowed through her into the lives of others, especially the poorest of the poor, the "out-caste" of India. We can call her saintly without also calling her a prophet. While she was not afraid to speak boldly for the resources she needed to serve the poor, she did not give sharp critique to the secular structures that foster poverty and powerlessness. Nor did she overtly chastise the Roman Catholic Church for its clinging to custom over compassion. But she was consistent in her opposition to abortion and capital punishment because they were both "failures in receiving and recognizing Jesus."

Mother Teresa's heart was for the ones who lived on the outskirts of hope, because through prayer she had hope in abundance. "Love to pray," she said. "Prayer opens your heart until it is big enough to hold and keep God. Only then can you see Jesus in the broken bodies of the poor."


NO WONDER SHE and Princess Diana found each other. Diana was thirsting for Mother Teresa's powerful, rooted love. And Mother Teresa recognized a young woman with a great heart still in the process of being formed and nurtured, with a questing spirit that yearned for meaning and what was good.

Diana Spencer we feel we know (perhaps too well), without really knowing her at all. Her personal sufferings made it clear that she was quite literally starving for something that gave her life meaning. It was that insatiable desire in her that made her so wonderfully and fearfully human. The photos of Diana speaking quietly with a man in a homeless shelter or walking through Bosnian mine fields are notable not because of what she is offering to others, but because of what they are doing to her. You can see that she is being transfigured by the experience, filled with an intangible spirit she desperately needed.

Perhaps this is why we can't let her go. Like so many of us, she was inexperienced in the ways of the soul and seeking greater meaning. She needed Mother Teresa's wisdom and her deep spiritual confidence. It is fitting that Diana was buried at Althorp with Mother Teresa's rosary entwined in her fingers, that endless circle of suffering and love.

In Victor Frankl's conclusion to Man's Search For Meaning, he writes, "You may of course ask me whether we really need to refer to 'saints' [in the concentration camps]. Wouldn't it suffice just to refer to 'decent people'? It is true that saints form a minority...and will always remain a minority. Yet I see our very challenge as to join that minority."

Sojourners Magazine November-December 1997
This appears in the November-December 1997 issue of Sojourners