What is the most defining characteristic of the Divine Life, the mutual love of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost? I think the obvious answer is gift. Giving and receiving of the Divine Persons is Love, and first and foremost, God is Love.
But the word gift seems abstract to me. It is an abstract definition of what can only be sufficiently described as a personal reality, a relationship that is experienced, not simply defined. In a theological sense we can accurately say that love’s defining characteristic is gift, but love is not experienced by abstract definition (not that abstract definition is not important for humans to find genuine love). What word sufficiently describes the reality of personal Divine Love? It would have to be a word that refers back to an experience at its very heart, and not one that seeks to define that experience in abstract terms.
I believe that word is tender. It seems to me that tenderness describes the Divine Life more than any other word (at least that I am acquainted with), not because it explains it in an abstract sense, but because it captures a personal reality, one that we tend to explain in abstract terms such as self-sacrificing, giving, receiving, or even love. Perhaps the connotation of the word love, in its most rich expression, refers back to this personal reality of tenderness.
But the word love still seems like an abstract quality assigned to a personal relationship. For example, to love God is to cherish him above all else, and to give yourself to him. This still seems like a rather abstract word even if we attach a great deal of emotional significance to it, even if it rightly achieves in us an attitude of tenderness toward God and neighbor.
What is tenderness? Tenderness is something that exists within the experience of intimate love between persons such as the love between the Divine Persons. I would even go so far as to say that tenderness helps us to understand the reality of Divine Love more than any other attribute. True tenderness can’t exist without other things such as truth, goodness, and beauty, and it exists less when other attributes are not present in a robust way. For example, we can say that love is tender until we are blue in the face, but it will not truly be tender if it is not first good and true. Love is not convincing if we seek tenderness without seeking the other attributes that relate to it, even if tenderness more than any other attribute, captures the personal reality of love.
Pope Francis, in his Installation Mass homily, has said that we should not be afraid of tenderness. Often we are afraid of tenderness because it involves intimacy and vulnerability, and we feel like if we make ourselves vulnerable we will get hurt or we will be misunderstood. This fear is natural and good in some instances; we cannot go forward seeking tenderness in relationships that do not manifest goodness, truth, beauty, and thus trust. We would be foolish to make ourselves vulnerable in a relationship that does not also include these other attributes. But there is one thing of which we can be very sure; our relationship with God, at least with regard to His part, already involves complete goodness, truth, beauty, and trust. We must, therefore, not be afraid to make ourselves vulnerable to God, and to seek to experience his tenderness, his gentleness, and thus his love. Once we come to focus on and experience this love we will be better equipped to love our neighbor even if our neighbor insists on perpetuating an incomplete or warped understanding of love and thus of tenderness.