Friday, 11 March 2016 00:00

Purifying Eros

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In his encyclical entitled “God is Love,” Pope Benedict XVI provides a beautiful reflection about human love. The Holy Father confronts the common accusation that Christians are “killjoys” and poison what should be the most precious aspect of human life: the love between a man and a woman. 

Frederick Nietzsche is an early promoter of this idea. He claims the Church goes so far as to create prohibitions against human experiences in which the greatest joy, instilled in us by our Creator, offers such happiness that it serves as a foreshadowing of the divine.

In the Pagan Greek paradigm, erotic love was understood as a type of rapture, as a divine madness that took over one’s reason, that elevated man out of his human limitations and, in this divinely inspired state of ecstasy, allowed him to experience supreme happiness. One of the results of this exaltation of the erotic was the concept of sacred prostitution as a method of entering into communion with the divine. 

Directly opposed to this aberration clothed in the language of religion we find the view presented in the Holy Bible. This view offers the goal of safeguarding the faith in the one God and in the dignity of the women who were objectified in such a degrading manner by the Pagans. But this does not mean that the Christian faith rejected erotic love in itself, but rather that it rejected the perversion of the erotic that was seen in the Pagan practices. For “An intoxicated and undisciplined eros,” according to Pope Benedict, “is not an ascent in ‘ecstasy’ towards the Divine, but a fall, a degradation of man. Evidently, eros needs to be disciplined and purified if it is to provide not just fleeting pleasure, but a certain foretaste of the pinnacle of our existence, of that beatitude for which our whole being yearns” (DCE, 4).

In our pagan-influenced society, the exaltation of eros and the exaltation of the fleeting pleasure Pope Benedict referred to runs rampant. So many of us expect to reach a state of ecstasy by seeking pleasure for pleasure’s sake, or seeking pleasure at any cost whatsoever. We end up slaves to our blind passions, which impede our living in the fullness of a charitable love. There are distinct types of pleasure: positive pleasures, loved by God, that are the fruits of good actions, like the charitable love between two people within the eternal bounds of marriage; and negative pleasures that are twisted and deformed, that result from bad deeds, that seek the pleasure only of the self, or that egotistically objectify another human.

This impulse that attracts us toward others should not be followed blindly. Eros must be purified. “Purification and growth in maturity are called for; and these also pass through the path of renunciation. Far from rejecting or “poisoning” eros, they heal it and restore its true grandeur.” (DCE, 5). 

Humans are comprised of both body and soul. Our grandeur can only be reached when we succeed in unifying both aspects of ourselves. “The challenge of eros can be said to be truly overcome when this unification is achieved…. it is neither the spirit alone nor the body alone that loves: it is man, the person, a unified creature composed of body and soul, who loves. Only when both dimensions are truly united, does man attain his full stature. Only thus is love —eros—able to mature and attain its authentic grandeur” (DCE, 5).

What does the path of purification of the eros entail? 

The experience of a true love. At the point of this true love, “Love…becomes concern and care for the other. No longer is it self-seeking, a sinking in the intoxication of happiness; instead it seeks the good of the beloved: it becomes renunciation and it is ready, and even willing, for sacrifice” (DCE, 6). Only when someone possesses such a love can he give it freely. True love is a dying to oneself because it is in the encounter with the other that love’s true meaning is revealed. Because of this, when you love fully and give fully of yourself, you experience the freedom that comes only from the absolute gift of self: a disinterested, sacrificial, reciprocal, complete surrender of body and soul for the sake of the good of the other. Love in this way becomes definitive in two ways: it is exclusive (for one person only) and it is “forever.”

Love is an “ecstasy,” but not in the sense of a momentary rapture. The ecstasy of love is an ongoing journey, a rejection of the inward-looking self towards the freedom of surrender and, precisely through this surrender, towards the ultimate self-discovery—an encounter with God.  “Whoever seeks to gain his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will preserve it” (Lk 17:33).

The Holy Father affirms that, “there is a certain relationship between love and the Divine: love promises infinity, eternity—a reality far greater and totally other than our everyday existence” (DCE, 5).  When love is authentic, the lovers are centered in God, such that authentic love becomes a participation in God’s love.  This is expressed beautifully in these words of Miguel D’ors:

With your warm gaze

Someone who is not you is watching me: I feel

Confused in your unspeakable love.

Someone wants me in your desire, someone

Caresses my life with your hands and makes,

With each of your kisses, his mark.

The descending love of agape and the ascending love of eros are not opposed to one another and they can never be completely separated. “The more the two, in their different aspects, find a proper unity in the one reality of love, the more the true nature of love in general is realized. Even if eros is at first mainly covetous and ascending, a fascination for the great promise of happiness, in drawing near to the other, it is less and less concerned with itself, increasingly seeks the happiness of the other, is concerned more and more with the beloved, bestows itself and wants to “be there for” the other. The element of agape thus enters into this love, for otherwise eros is impoverished and even loses its own nature. On the other hand, man cannot live by oblative, descending love alone. He cannot always give, he must also receive. Anyone who wishes to give love must also receive love as a gift. Certainly, as the Lord tells us, one can become a source from which rivers of living water flow (cf. Jn 7:37-38). Yet to become such a source, one must constantly drink anew from the original source, which is Jesus Christ, from whose pierced heart flows the love of God (cf. Jn 19:34)” (DCE, 7).

Thus may we all, spouses and any who wish to experience true love, seek to quench our thirst in God’s sacred, pierced heart.

Fr. FelixI belong to the Servant Brothers of the Home of the Mother since its foundation in 1990, and have been a priest for 25 years. I am licensed in Pharmacy from the University of Madrid and hold a doctorate in Dogmatic Theology from Holy Cross University in Rome. I am committed to the lay apostolate and give retreats for youth and adults.

Fr. Félix López is author and editor of the Blog "God’s Plan for the Family".

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