Levels of Love

Fear Less Love More

Artwork by Mary Beth Volpini. See more at drawntocolor.com

Valentine’s Day feels like a good time to take a closer look at Love. February is also Black History Month in the US, and lately I have been reading and listening to sermons and speeches by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin_Luther_King,_Jr in 1964.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1964

When you listen to Dr. King speak, his message is more powerful than ever before. As his deep baritone voice melodically rises and falls, you are swept across the tides of time into his eternal message of Love and Will. His gift was to help us touch the human heart and awaken our deeper transpersonal nature. He was a master teacher, leader, and poet – using his voice to conjure truth through the most familiar of images and the essence of everyday life.

“Levels of Love” was Dr. King’s sermon for 16 September 1962 at Ebenezer Baptist Church. I actually found three sermons on this topic. In all of them Dr. King ultimately  urges us to love our enemies. As he returned to this topic of love over the years and especially love for your enemies, Dr. King kept deepening and adding new levels to his treatise.

Below I outline the levels of love that he distinguishes. (You can read the entire sermon by clicking here.)

Utilitarian love

This is love at the lowest level. In this case, you love another for his or her usefulness to you. You depersonalize the person whom you love, and that person becomes merely an object. This love is entirely conditional. There is no I-Thou relationship, but rather an I-it.


This term is used by Plato in his Dialogues to refer to the yearning of the soul for the realm of the Divine. This higher level of love is what King called ‘romantic love’. He said:

“A romantic love rises above utilitarian love in the sense that it does have a degree of altruism, for a person who really loves with romantic love will die for the object of his love.”

While romantic love is beautiful, King insists that it is not the highest form of love, because it is basically selfish. We love another because we are attracted to him or her. Our lover fulfills some inner need in us.

Mother’s love

This type of love is on the same level as romantic love. King said:

“Mother’s love brings sunshine into dark places. And there is something about it that never quite gives up. No matter what the mistake is, no matter how low the child sinks, if she’s a real mother, she still loves him. But even this love is not the highest. For a mother loves her child because he is her child.”

017190 King levels of Love

Amore / Love
In greco 3 parole / In Greek 3 words
– Eros (con due significati)/ (with two meanings)
– Philia
– Agape
Vedi M.L. King, Forza di Amare, Cap. V, p. 81 /
See M.L. King, The Force of Love, Chap. V, p. 81
(Notes from Assagioli’s Archives)


This is a Greek word that means intimate affection between friends. King explained the difference between philio and romantic love like this:

In romantic love, the individuals in love sit face-to-face absorbed in each other. In friendship the individuals sit side-by-side absorbed in some great concern, some great cause, some great issue beyond themselves, something they like to do together. It may be hunting. It may be going and swimming together. It may be discussing great ideas together. It may be in a great movement of freedom together. It is someone so close to you that he knows your heartbeat.

King pointed out that even this isn’t the highest love for there is something about friendship that is selfish. Friendship is always based on an affection for somebody that you like, who shares the same interests that you have.

Humanitarian love

Humanitarian love is broader and more inclusive. This is a love that rises to the point of saying that within every human there is a divine spark. But it still can’t be the highest point because it is impersonal. It says I love this abstract thing called humanity, but this love does not necessarily exist for the individual. As Dostoevsky wrote in The Brothers Karamazov:

“But it has always happened that the more I detest men individually the more ardent becomes my love for humanity.”


Another Greek word, the highest level of love is agape because it is unmotivated, spontaneous, overflowing and seeks nothing in return. King said:

“Agape is the love of God operating in the human heart. And the greatness of God’s love is that His love is big enough to love everybody and is small enough to love even me. The greatness of agape is that you love every man, not for your sake but for his sake. And you love every man because God loves him. Even to the point of loving your enemy.”

Confession of My Search for Agape

Now, I want to testify how difficult agape, this highest level of love is, to willfully achieve. I have a neighbor, whom I am certain God has given me for this very practice! This neighbor is nearly impossible to talk or reason with. He has betrayed me, lied to me, and is difficult to figure out. He is negative in much of what he does and says.

In my heart, I want to love him, because I see how much he is personally suffering. I want to have compassion for him, because I see how difficult he makes his own life as well as the lives of others around him.

But my nature is not so good. It takes tremendous will for me to create agape for this neighbor whenever he comes around. It is much easier for me to fall into negative feelings – not exactly of hatred– but of bad will. As soon as these negative thoughts pop into my head lately, I have been turning to prayer: “God have mercy on all our confusion (mostly mine!) God please help me to be kind. God please help me to have compassion for this person suffering before me and the person suffering inside me.”

Well, it’s working … a little. I need more practice which I’m sure I will have. Neither I nor my neighbor is going anywhere! I have great faith that such love is worth working towards. For Dr. King promises us:

“Love has within it a redemptive power. A power that eventually transforms individuals… Here’s the person who is a neighbor, and this person is doing something wrong to you. Just keep being friendly to that person. Keep loving them. Don’t do anything to embarrass them. Just keep loving them and they can’t stand it too long. Oh, they react in many ways in the beginning. They react with bitterness because they’re mad because you love them like that. They react with guilt feelings, and sometimes they’ll hate you a little more at that transition period, but just keep loving them. And by the power of your love they will break down under the load.

That’s love, you see. It is redemptive. There’s something about love that builds up and is creative. There is something about hate that tears down and is destructive. So love you enemies…

For this controlling force of love, this controlling power can solve every problem that we confront in all areas of our lives.”

Wedding Bells for Joy

joy smaller


For a year now, I have been a volunteer working one morning a week for the local Italian Catholic organization Caritas, which means ‘charity’ in Italian. This national organization, funded in part by the Vatican and in part by donations, offers food and clothing to the poor, subsidizes housing, pays medical bills, and tries to find or create jobs for the unemployed. During this past year, I have done everything from teach asylum seekers English, pack and distribute groceries for the needy, canvas for food outside supermarkets, help run an auction, perform basic office work, and hang out with people in the Caritas waiting room.

One sweltering July morning, Rose (Note that all names have been changed) showed up hot and sweaty and on the verge of tears. She had walked three miles in the sweltering heat pushing her 4-month-old baby girl in a rickety stroller down a road full of racing Italian traffic and no sidewalk. Rose plopped down onto a chair and started sobbing. Everything was just too much. Despite having been in the country for two years, she still didn’t understand much Italian. (I would realize months later that she could barely read and write.) That day she sat gripping another official letter that can had come in the post. One of those bureaucratic letters full of convoluted language that just tells you to wait for another bureaucratic letter to arrive someday soon.

Rose speaks English, so we were able to easily communicate. The first thing I did was offer her a drink of water. The first thing she did was hand me a raggedy little book about the size of your palm. Inside, on a few stapled sheets of paper, were the notes Italian immigration officials had scribbled upon her arrival in Sicily. Female. 27 years old. Picked up at sea. Post traumatic stress. Nigerian.

boat off the coast of sicily

Immigrants arrive off the coast of Sicily.

And so our journey together started. I entered her world of being poor, black, African and unwanted as we tried to maneuver our way through the Italian refugee system. This included trips to the city hall, the hospital, the welfare office, the post office, the baby’s doctor, the center for the baby’s vaccinations, the county office for asylum seekers, and police headquarters. We went and stood in lines, not just once, but at least three or four times before securing the needed stamp, document, signature, seal of approval, or digitalized card.

Soon after we met, she and the baby were evicted from their apartment. This meant a frantic search for another apartment, more documents, more signatures, meetings with less than helpful and not very friendly realtors, and final moving arrangements. Caritas was continually supportive, undersigning her rental contract, paying an unemployed man to help her move, and arranging for a needed plumber. Since 2017 the Catholic church in Italy has taken in 25,000 migrants, financed in part by EU funds. More than 2700 asylum seekers have been assisted with Vatican money alone. At one point, the director of Caritas pulled me aside and said, “Caterina, we wouldn’t be doing any of this without you involved. You don’t just put somebody in an apartment and say arrivederci. You become a part of their life.” And so this entire adventure seemed to sneak up on me. I was suddenly learning what it really meant to help somebody. Naturally, my husband Kees became a part of this story too, and we are now committed to helping this little family as best we can.

50-frank-beard-1-page37-1200x1516 immigrants and the wall

“The Stranger at Our Gate” by Frank Beard (1896). Has much changed in more than 100 years? Even the wall is there…

In between all this running around with Rose, I would insist that we take a break, sit down in the shade and have an ice cream. Joy would hungrily suckle and Rose would hungrily devour her frozen yogurt. I greedily gulped down the fortifying and much needed café macchiato. More than once in the middle of the café or gelateria, Rose has dropped down on her knees to thank me for all that I have done. Since her arrival in Italy, I am the first person who has ever been nice to her. I am embarrassed by her display of gratitude as well as a bit frightened by its intensity. “Please get up!” I plea as I tug at her sleeve. “There’s no need for that. You are more than welcome.” From the start, she has called me ‘Mama’ and Kees ‘Daddy’, but I’m pretty sure those are names given to elders in her home country. In any case, as her surrogate mother, I have spent time fretting, worrying and praying for her.

Now, you might be wondering about Joy’s father. His name is Samuel (32) and he too is from Nigeria. When I first met Rose, he was picking tomatoes and lettuce in the fields in Sicily, a 24-hour bus ride from where we live. Earning €35 euros a day, he slept in the bush and sent most of the money to Rose. But that job ended and now he is here, looking for work as a brick layer and house painter, which is his profession. He too speaks little Italian, even after being in Italy for four years. His search for work is nearly hopeless especially where we live, as most young Italians in our economically depressed area have to leave to find work elsewhere. So Samuel travels by train to a nearby town to beg. Whenever I ask Rose where Samuel is, she says he’s doing “Buon giorno. (Good morning.)” That means he’s off begging, probably at the supermarket where the local police look the other way while refugees ask to return your shopping cart for €1.

1024px-immigrant-children-ellis-island 1908

Immigrant Children at Ellis Island (1908).

Rose and Samuel already knew each other back home. But Samuel had to flee Nigeria because gang members raped him and then threatened to turn him into the police if he didn’t join their gang. Homosexuality is a criminal offence in Nigeria. Rose followed him two years later with her sister, who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea. Once Rose arrived in Sicily, she ran away from the Italian refugee program she was in because they refused to tell her where her sister was buried and they wanted to send her to Napoli. When I asked her why she didn’t want to go to Napoli, Rose just shook her head. “Napoli and Africa. They’re the same thing.”

In fact, nearly 80% of Nigerian women who come to Italy are forced into prostitution by the Italian or Nigerian mafia. I kept thinking that at least I can try to save Rose from such a horror.

This whole immigration thing is a mess. Boatloads of people drowning every week in a sea where we love to swim and spend our summer holidays. The West and now China robbing the African continent of its minerals for our smartphones and its petroleum for our cars. Italy’s Interior Minister Matteo Salvini closes –  without notice – a refugee center near Rome that houses 500 men, women, and children, many enrolled in local schools. “I did what any good father would do,” he said. The money saved will be spent on “helping Italians.” Does it make any sense?

You can debate whether Rose and Samuel and Joy should be here at all. But that’s not the point. The point is they are here. I once asked them about their journey from home – across Nigeria, Niger, Libya, and the sea. They said that the drive through the sub-Sahara desert was “sheer terror.” “You got nothing to eat or drink, and if you got sick, they just tossed you out of the truck to die alone like a dog.”

Encountering the many government officials with Rose, I have experienced the icy brutality of racism and the callous indifference to the poor. Caught in the middle as her translator, I have seen officials refuse to help her, or worse, lie right in her face. Not everyone is unkind. As we wait in the welfare office for our appointment, Joy is swept away by a battalion of cooing Italian women and passed from one admirer to another. Everyone wants to hold Joy. Her eyes seem to reflect deep, ancient pools and her solid limbs seem rooted to a forgotten Mother Earth. She never seems to cry. In Nigeria, Rose was a hairdresser, a braider of African hair, so Joy’s hair is always woven into an elaborate work of art that you cannot help but notice. Everyone loves Joy. But, quite frankly, nobody wants her mother or father.

I have learned how it’s best to start every conversation I have with an Italian bureaucrat with wide innocent eyes (a long-time specialty of mine). “I’m terribly sorry,” I speak slowly in thickly accented Italian. “I’m American (this is obvious) and I work as a volunteer for Caritas. Please forgive me. I am completely ignorant of how these things work.” This confession softens the uniformed official in front of me, instantly turning him or her into the expert in control, as I become the helpless little americana. The truth is I am completely ignorant. After all I’ve never had to ask in my own country, in my own language – never mind in Italy in Italian, for visa documents or social assistance or food money or health care subsidies.

Choices. Rose and Samuel and all of us have made our own choices. Choices that reverberate over time. Choices that made sense when we made them and make no sense now. Choices that felt as if someone else made them for us. God’s choices. Choices that were a lucky guess.

021346 internationalization of the spirit assagioli

“Internazionale dello Spirito. (Internationalization of the Spirit)” (Note from Assagioli’s Archives)

Samuel is Catholic and Rose was raised as a Jehovah Witness. With the hope of helping them to integrate, we have gone with them to Sunday mass in the town’s cathedral. Samuel would like Joy to be baptized. But then, while making the baby’s arrangements, we discovered that Rose has never been baptized. So on Easter, mother and daughter will be baptized together and Kees and I will become double godparents.

To prepare Rose for this sacrament, the priest Don Emmanuele comes once a week to their home to give an hour’s worth of Bible study. Don Emmanuele is from Togo, a tiny West African country and former French colony. He gives the lesson in Italian and Kees translates it into English. Don Emmanuele has lived in Italy for the past 10 years. Handsome with beautifully proportioned features and milky brown skin, his sad, tired eyes light up whenever he starts teaching us about the Bible. We are working our way through the Old Testament. Lots of stories about women not being able to get pregnant and threatening to kill themselves and brothers killing or trying to kill each other. “No matter what difficulty you find yourself in, no matter how hopeless your life seems,” Don Emmanuele concludes at the end of the hour together, “turn to God. Pray to God. Because God always has a plan. It might not be realized right away. But if you are faithful to God, good will prevail.”

Samuel’s final plea for asylum in Italy is in April. His lawyer says he would have a better chance in court if Rose and he were legally married. To get married, the first thing they both need are official documents stating they are Nigerian. This means they have go to the Nigerian Embassy in Rome. One of the Caritas lawyers has said the Nigerian Embassy is the most corrupt in Rome. And that’s saying a lot. The embassy wants €200 from each of them for a piece of paper. If we throw Joy in (her papers now say she is “stateless”) that’s a total of €600.

€600 is a lot of “buon giornos”. It’s a lot of shopping carts to collect in the dead of winter.

Rose, Samuel and Joy. Will you help? I’m shooting for a clean €1000 to cover documents, trips to Rome, all the Italian bureaucratic expenses, a dress, a cake. I promise whatever is left over will go to the local Caritas.

Can’t you see? I’m doing a “Buon giorno”.

Grazie and God Bless You.

To help, please use our Paypal account purshana(at)live(dot)com or contact me for bank details.

021246 international psychosynthesis

Assagioli’s note from his archives.

Psicosintesi Internaz. – Comprensione / Psychosynthesis Internationaliz. – Understanding
Apprezzamento / Apprecation
Necessità di mutua integrazione (scambio) / Necessity of mutual integration (exchange)
Cooperazione ai varii livelli / Cooperation at the various levels
Gruppi di Nazioni / Group of Nations
Continentali / Continentals
Per affinità / By affinity
Fra continenti / Between continents
Oriente occidente / East West
Europa Africa / Europe Africa
ecc. / etc.
Ψς d. Umanità / Psychosynthesis of Humanity
Nuova civiltà mondiale /  New world civilization
Nuova cultura mondiale / New world culture
Sintesi organica (non conformità) / Organic synthesis (non-conformity)


Successful Willing

We are now more than half-way through January and you may want to reflect on any New Years Resolutions you have made. Most of us choose goals like losing weight, giving up smoking, learning something new, and finding a better job or relationship. Studies show that only about 2 out of 10 of us will manage to achieve our goals. When we do succeed in achieving a set goal, we often feel joyful.


As Assagioli wrote:

“Since the outcome of successful willing is the satisfaction of one’s needs, we can see that the act of will is essentially joyous.”

If you find yourself far from feeling joyous, struggling instead with your longing to change, then maybe it’s time to take a closer look at how you make decisions. Assagioli has written extensively on decision making in his book The Act of Will. He describes six stages of the decision making process: defining purpose, deliberation, choice, affirmation, planning, and execution. Continue reading

When Desire Leads to Revelation


The Journey of the Three Magi. Postcard from Assagioli’s Archives (ID# 010305)

Today is Epiphany, a celebration of when the three Magi, traveling from the far East in search of the Divine Child, finally find him and offer him gifts. Driven by desire, their search ends in Revelation.

Desire. It is a word that can evoke so many different images and feelings. Assagioli saw desire as an integral part of our psychological functioning, along with sensation, emotion, imagination, thought, and will. “Everyone is moved by a desire of some kind,” Assagioli said, “from sensual pleasures to the most idealistic aspirations.”

Continue reading

A Different Kind of Christmas List

Underhill Christmas Rules 1921 1-4

Evelyn Underhill’s notes from the King’s College Archives.

Most of us are familiar with writing Christmas Lists. As children we might have been encouraged by our parents to write to Santa Claus, sending him our list of desired gifts. We might have also been told that Santa Claus kept his own “list of who’s naughty and nice.” As we became adults enmeshed in the frenetic holiday craziness, our Christmas lists probably became more numerous and less imaginative – lists of things to do, presents to buy, and greeting cards to send.

Recently, with the help of my friend and colleague Georgie, I discovered that the Christian mystic and writer Evelyn Underhill (1875-1941) also wrote a Christmas list – but a kind I had never seen before. In the archives of King’s College London, you can read three pages of her own notes which she entitled “Rule. Christmas 1921.” Her handwriting is evenly spaced and full of sensuous loops and curves. Like Assagioli, she occasionally underlines, and even double underlines words for emphasis. Underhill’s Christmas list contains her spiritual goals for leading a Christian life, to be tested and practiced by herself for six months – “quietly and steadily, with a disposition to find them true even where uncongenial.” Continue reading

Dark Days before Christmas

Light in the darknessIn northern Europe the days are growing shorter. Except for the oak trees with their withered sienna-brown leaves, most of the trees are bare against a bleak landscape and gray skies laden with cold, damp winds. The Dutch have a saying for this time of year: De donkere dagen voor Kerstmis. The dark days before Christmas. Indeed, every day is shorter and the nights seem to stretch out like a long, endless dream.

We are in the season of Advent, which mark the days before Christmas. Advent comes from the Latin word adventus meaning arrival. We freely use the word advent to simply mean “to come into being.”  This is the time of year that we await the arrival of light when the Earth will once again begin to tilt towards our sun. The days can then slowly “come into being,” promising their full splendor of sunshine and warmth at the summer solstice. For Christians, this is the time during which they await the birth of Jesus, when the Divine comes into being. Continue reading

Harkening Within


Etty Hillesum in 1939

Seventy-five years ago on November 30th, a young Dutch Jewish intellect died at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Her legacy of love and reconciliation, as described in her ten diary notebooks and the many letters that she wrote, continues to inspire people around the world. Etty Hillesum (1914-1943) was only 29 years old when she died, but during her short lifespan she managed to live a life of contemplative spirituality and practice in a world that seemed to be falling to pieces around her.

Hillesum grew up in a non-religious home of intellectuals. Her parents were both teachers – her father taught the classics and her mother Russian literature. Hillesum had two younger brothers, both very talented but mentally unstable. She describes having grown up in a “chaotic and sad situation … a madhouse where no human being can flourish.” Continue reading