Without doubt, the one word in all the English language most prone towards misunderstanding, misapplication, and abuse is the word "love." It is unfortunate that the most important concept in the entire universe should be the most poorly expressed, yet such is the limitations of language.

Despite this, however, it is important to understand the concept from the standpoint of spirituality, for love is the very essence of it. It is the energy that fuels the spiritual walk as well the means of achieving it. It is more important than water and oxygen for sustaining human life, and yet it remains poorly understood for what it truly is. As such, it is vital we nail down a firm definition of the term, for without a good understanding of what "love" is, the rest of what is said about the spiritual journey is moot.

It is easier to define the term by explaining what it is not. Fortunately, this is not difficult to accomplish, for our society does not lack excellent examples of what looks like love but is, in fact, only a pale reflection of it. Probably the most universally assumed aspect of it is that love is an emotion or something one "feels" towards another, but it is not. Though this is what usually comes to mind when someone utters the word, love is not attraction, affection, or feelings of romance. While all these emotions may emanate from love, they are not love itself. In fact, love is often best seen when it is apart from any strong "feelings" at all.

This is, of course, a great relief in some ways, for it helps us come to terms with the Christian edict to "love" our neighbor as ourselves, not to mention the more difficult and often impossible call to even "love" one's enemies. Once we realize love has nothing to do with feeling fondly for another or holding to positive affections, we no longer have to feel guilty about our inability to feel anything but contempt. In fact, it is possible to love someone in a spiritual sense even while holding them to be an obviously reprehensible person. Love is not a blinder designed to prevent us from seeing the flaws in others or even an obstacle to judging another's actions as destructive, selfish, and hurtful. For that matter, love has nothing to do with how we feel about a particular person at all—be it negative or positive.

Love is something far more vibrant than either emotions or sexuality, for it transcends both. One doesn't love someone because they give them something in return or make them "feel good" about themselves. Love does not demand anything in exchange, nor is it looking for anything in return. It simply is. Steady, stable, and unchanging, it does not grow or diminish with time, nor does it ever cease to exist. It is the one and only universal constant, and the very core of all reality. It is, in effect, all that is. There is nothing else. Never was and never will be.

So what, exactly, is this thing called "love?" If it's not an emotion or passion, and one can even hold others responsible for their crimes and still be expressing love, what is this mysterious substance?

I believe it is only one thing and one thing only: oneness.

Now here's another word that seems poorly defined. What does "oneness" mean and, more importantly, how does it "play out" in the practical world?

Oneness is simply the universal desire to see everything return to its source and so realize its own absolute perfection in the realm of absolute reality. It is the longing and even the determination to see everything be everything it is supposed to be. It is the wish that everything finds its way through the storms of life to the safe harbor it was always designed to reach. It is healing and completeness, and seeing the perfection in everything.

Using this definition, then, when you "love" something the way Spirit loves it, you want to see only one thing in it: its return to wholeness. Love is that which understands the darkness inherent with forgetting one's divine essence and nature, and recognizes the pain of living in the self-imposed illusion of this physical world. It is nothing less than the desire to set others free from the prisons of their own minds. It is an unconditional love that hurts with others and laughs with others, and feels the oneness all life shares in common. It is the essence of the divine. It is the face of God.

With this in mind, then, we can love those who persecute us in the sense that we wish them the opportunity to eventually see through their own fears and hatred to find the peace they are lacking. This allows us to love the prostitute, the rapist, the drug dealer and the thief in the respect that we wish all of them the ability to eventually find their way back to the Divine essence within themselves they have been denying for so many years. Love is what allows us to see the blindness others live in, tied up in their fears, terrors, frustrations, and hatreds, and realize the desire to set their tormented souls free. That's why we can "love" a serial killer while holding his actions in contempt. We can see his inner soul's struggle for oneness and the agony it endures in not being able to find it, and while we don't pardon those crimes committed in the physical realm, we wish his soul well in the future and, in fact, are willing to do what we can to assist it in its journey towards wholeness.

True love is what makes it possible to look at everyone not as perpetrators, but as souls on their individual journeys. It doesn't look to ignore or rationalize their sins away, but it seeks to understand the motivation behind them. It sees the flaws as a part of the process, and sees how the good and the bad work together to bring about the very wholeness all of life seeks to realize. Love understands and accepts the process, and finds ways of becoming a positive part of it. It is love in action.

Admittedly, much of this may sound a bit unrealistic. After all, people are capable of doing horrible things to one another, and simply trying to find "perfection" in such actions seems both disingenuous and naïve. Why should we "forgive" someone for murder or rape or, for that matter, simply for being a miserable parent or spouse?

The problem here is that we tend to confuse acceptance for forgiveness and punishment with retribution. While these terms are not entirely unrelated, they are not synonymous with one another either. Additionally, from the context of spirituality they perform very different functions as well. Acceptance, for example, doesn't mean that what a person did is "okay." In fact, what they may have done is very probably is anything but okay. What it does mean, however, is understanding how separateness from God drives us towards acts of cruelty.

For example, the terrorists who hijacked and flew passenger jets into the World Trade Center towers did so because they mistakenly believed they and their passengers—as well as the people in the towers—were separate from themselves. Further, they perceived God to be something outside of themselves as well as a "person" who would be impressed enough by their self-perceived act of martyrdom that He would admit them into Heaven. If they truly could have seen the world from the perspective of spirit, they would have immediately seen the damage they were doing to themselves and their own people through their actions. In destroying the physical existence of 3,000 people, they destroyed a part of themselves. That was the really tragedy of September 11. That is the real tragedy in any act of brutality.

Love, then, is being able to accept what the September 11th terrorists did even while finding it inexcusable. They simply couldn't help it, considering the context within which their minds were working. Love, then, would seek their enlightenment, not their condemnation. Any one of those terrorists had the potential to be great men of peace given a different model by which they might understand the world around them. They did what they did because they were going about spiritual blind, just like most of us do. The difference was they acted out their blindness while most people merely think about it.

The second misunderstanding about love is that it is inconsistent with punishment. However, punishment is simply another term for consequences, and all actions hold particular consequences, regardless of what they are. Therefore, a murderer being sentenced to a lifetime of incarceration is simply experiencing the universal constant that one reaps what they sow. This is not inconsistent with love, for love does not find value in keeping someone from experiencing the frequently unpleasant consequences of their actions. In fact, it can be said that protecting another from seeing the unfortunate results of their more foolish actions is to prevent them from growing spiritually. There is no lack of men and women turning to God from the confines of a prison cell to illustrate this point, just as there are legions of others who find the divine from a hospital bed or from within the confines of an empty apartment where children once played. Often the most valuable spiritual lessons are perceived through the context of the most excruciating self-imposed emotional and physical pain. To remove consequences is to take away the opportunity to grow.

But punishment must not be confused with retribution or vengeance, which really is incompatible with idea of divine love. To want to see another suffer is to misunderstand the most basic truths of spirituality: consequences induce spiritual growth, vengeance retards it-especially in the one who demands it the most. Therefore, to lust after revenge is to harm the very body of God and, hence, to do great damage to the self. That's not to say such feelings are not very human and even, in some cases, understandable; it's only that they are not consistent with spiritual growth or divine love. They are, in fact, the antithesis of it.

By way of an example, imagine two fathers whose daughters are each brutalized and murdered by the same man. The first father is livid with rage and wants to see her daughter's killer not only imprisoned, but tortured and slowly starved and beaten to death. The second father, though equally grieved by the death of his daughter, resists these impulses to see her killer tortured and instead can only feel a type of pity for the man. He truly wishes the young man-who came out of an abusive home himself-would come to understand the weight of his crime and, more importantly, that he would find his way out of the darkness of his own tormented soul and into the light of God's love. Several years later, the young man does come to understand the horrific effect his actions had on others and even finds God in his life. He is truly repentant and seeks both father's forgiveness, even though he knows there is nothing he can do to make up for what he did. Even though he knows he has no right to expect absolution, he sends them each a letter apologizing for his actions and explaining how through prison he has found God and is now a new person. He is not looking to be released-in fact, he remains on death row awaiting his execution-but he simply wants them to understand how truly, deeply sorry he is for what he did and that he wished he could bring both their daughters back.

Now the first father has never released his hatred for his daughter's killer and writes back a vitriolic letter explaining how much he looks forward to seeing the young man's execution and hopes to see him in Hell one day. The second father, however, instead of reacting with anger, chooses to visit the man in prison, where he tearfully thanks him for the letter and forgives him and promises to pray for him. He even corresponds with the man for the next few years until the day he is finally executed. Then, while the first father attends the man's execution, watching with satisfaction and glee as he dies, the second father can not bear to watch and stays away. However, he was the only one to show up for the funeral, which he leaves with a sense of peace the first father will never find throughout the balance of his cynical and angry life.

This is how real love works. The first father could never understand it nor appreciate its value in healing his pain, while the second father turned to it as the only thing that could bring wholeness and peace back into his aching heart. It's not that he loved his dead daughter any less than the first man or that he didn't grieve for her just as much, but that he choose to appropriate the kind of Divine love only God can give. He didn't expect the state to release the man simply because he had dramatically changed his life, nor did he fight to commute his sentence to life imprisonment simply because he had forgiven him. The actions and their consequences remained unchanged. What was different was how the two fathers choose to interpret them; one seeing them as vengeful and deserved retribution for a loathsome and despicable punk, the other as the natural consequences experienced by a misguided, frightened, and broken young man.

Of course, it is easier to see the difference in this story since the young man clearly had a change of heart, making the contrast between the two father's attitudes much more evident. But what if the young man had gone to his death unrepentant and full of spite; perhaps even bragging of his crimes all the way to the death chamber? How would that change the attitudes of the two fathers? Wouldn't the first have been justified in his hatred and the second appear the more pathetic of the two, naively holding to some unrealistic belief in the inherent goodness of man and the value in pursuing love and forgiveness as a way of life?

Obviously, this is where real love is most difficult to manifest. It is when the wicked don't care if you forgive them or not, and when the evil throw your love right back in your face that one can come to realize just exactly what it is. In the end, real Divine love—the agape love the Bible talks about—will be made manifest whether the person is repentant or not. The second father still chose the better—if not the easier—path, for he chose to love even when hatred would have been justified, and in so doing insulated himself from letting the negative energy of hatred engulf him as it had the first father. In so doing, he demonstrated what God is really like. He is on a spiritual journey that even the greatest tragedy cannot derail, for he understands the situation and the circumstances from a higher level of consciousness. The pain in losing his daughter is no less bitter, but he understands the "bigger" picture whereas the other father cannot and, the truth be told, will not see it. As a result, his peace and joy is permanently taken from him while for the other it was never lost to him for it is always a part of him.

That is what real love is like. It is not an emotion, but a reality. It is seeing the value in every human life—no matter how obviously depraved it may be—and wishing that it will ultimately find its way back to its creator. It is looking to heal damaged emotions and psyches, to restore and rebuild that which the incarnate soul has chosen to destroy. On the practical level it may still feel pain and hurt and loss, but on the level of the spirit it feels only peace and contentment, for it knows that nothing is truly destroyed and that everything will be ultimately restored. It knows this because it understands everything to be a part of God and as such, it cannot be anything but perfect and complete, regardless of how it may appear from our perspective in time and space and separateness. It is perfect love, because it has a perfect source of love. That is why everything else that passes for love in our world seems petty and transient in comparison; compared to Divine love, that's exactly what it is.

But this love is not complete if not seen in the context of all life. If we can learn to see the Divine in other people-no matter how well they may hide that light from us-we must see it in everything from a moth fluttering on our windowsill to the blades of grass beneath our feet. As such, everything is worthy of love and should be seen in that vein. Recognize that all life is interconnected and, as such, is to be loved. In this way, then, love permeates our very being. We can never be apart from it, nor can we be without out for it exists within the very fiber of our being. It is all that is, for it is what God is and God is all there is. Therefore, all that is, is love.

It is only for us to decide to see it, and that's the hardest part of life. Yet seeing it is the entire point of the journey of life, for to find love and see love in everything is to find and see God in everything. That may not make for good doctrine, but it does make for a full and complete life.