We are coming closer now to the climax of this book. I will attempt to bring all of these strands together in a few chapters devoted to the sacraments and their precious role in the path of integration and maturation in love, and, indeed, devoted to a reflection on their gratuitous beauty as simple expressions of God’s own self-giving love that seeks to sweep us up into intimacy with him in the heart of his life as Trinity. But before that I will come around again to the convergence of the vocations of marriage and virginity, so as to see and experience more vividly the throbbing heartbeat of all human love as it participates in the pure and virginal love of the Trinity. This is a love in which all the desires and aspirations of humanity are fulfilled—fulfilled in a way that is not less profound, but more profound, more intimate, more intense, than we could ask or imagine.
In this chapter, however, let me bring to a close this series of reflections on maturation in love and the dance of reciprocal self-giving that leads to the full flowering of human intimacy in the likeness of the intimacy of the divine Persons of the Trinity. This will also help to make it more concrete, in situating it in the simple contours of bodily, human love, as lived both in marriage and in continence. Perhaps a good way to do this is by framing my previous words in the context of earlier reflections in Part I of this book, as well as, subsequently, in a historical context in the history of the Church and the development of the doctrine entrusted to her by Christ. In particular, I am referring to the understanding of the way in which divine love takes up, heals, purifies, and transfigures human love so as to make it a living participation in itself, in the way of living and loving proper to the Trinity. This has been a refrain throughout this book. But in fact it carries in itself a number of presuppositions: that human love is actually capable of this kind of participation in divine love, and that thus it already carries in itself a kind of likeness of divine love, even if only in the form of promise and hope; that our natural aspirations and desires are innately good, given to us by God, and that following them authentically is an essential dimension of our path to wholeness and happiness; that the ultimate goal of our life in union with God does not contradict or cancel out the secondary goals of union with other created persons and with the universe itself. All of this should be apparent thus far, and I have expressed in Part I why it is so tremendously important to see this in the light of the wounded tendencies that have hurt the Church and so many human hearts in previous centuries.
In particular, I spoke of what seems to me to be perhaps the “final stage” in the development of Christian doctrine, in which the lines are coming together anew, and more deeply, in the central mystery of love and intimacy that alone gives meaning to all else. And it is quite telling that this development has been born precisely as a kind of “resurrection” from the “death” of the previous centuries, in which the very reality of the interconnection between love and intimacy was called into question, and the very possibility of a union between divine and human.* This was played out in part—or at least can be understood—in the categories of the two Greek terms for love: eros and agape. Eros refers to a longing love, a love of desire and aspiration which draws the heart out in thirst for the fulfillment that comes only in union with the object of one’s love. Agape, on the other hand, refers to a giving love that makes a gift of oneself for the sake of another person, for their good and to benefit them. In our contemporary climate, it is still often assumed to be self-evident that erosis a merely human love, an imperfect and needy love, indeed an innately selfish love in need of purification, perhaps even annihilation, to give way to purity which lies in altruistic agape. Thus agape is thought to be the properly divine love, the way of loving that is proper to God as the creator and life-giver, who pours himself out without thought for return or benefit, and who—since he can have no inherent “lack” in himself—cannot possibly long or thirst for a reciprocation of his love nor for intimacy with his beloved.
To the surprise of many, however, it is a historical reality that the union of eros and agape characterized authentic Christian spirituality and theology throughout the entirety of its history. The first centuries of the Church—indeed in a way right up to William of Ockham, and, even more, the Protestant Reformation—saw that both eros and agape were essential dimensions of love, not only in the human sphere but also in the divine sphere. Indeed, the deepest insights of those madly in love with God, and those most profoundly moved by the love of God gratuitously pouring itself out for us in Christ, confirm that these two dimensions of love are really inseparable. They are both the “ecstasy” of love that draws the lover out of himself to the beloved, first (agape) to seek her authentic good and to foster her happiness, and second (eros) to enter into union with her and to receive her in the joy of intimacy and mutual belonging.
The Protestant Reformation, in the main, thoroughly rejected this union of eros and agape (as a consequence, among other things, of a Biblical fundamentalism and of the doctrine of “total corruption”). Eros thus largely passed out of theological dialogue and thought until it was brought into focus in the early twentieth century by the Lutheran theologian Anders Nygren—who held precisely the above-stated position that divine love was pure agape, and human love was pure eros, and that the two were totally incompatible. Paradoxically but providentially, this led to a reawakening of the affirmation of the beauty and necessity of eros in human life, and indeed the very “divine” nature of eros in the Trinity, which permeates the Theology of the Body and so much of the rich currents arising in Catholic thought in recent times.
These two dimensions of love—as I indicated earlier with different terminology—cannot be separated and still remain true to what they are. A merely “agapeic” love is an impossibility, a merely altruistic giving away of self without concern for one’s own happiness and without the thirst for intimacy with the beloved (however much people may assume otherwise). And yet “erotic” love needs to be held in the arms of agapeic love, the ardent ecstasy of thirst for the beloved needs to be held and guided by the lodestar of agape, in order to remain on track and to authentically receive what it seeks: a total and indissoluble union with the beloved, the object of its love and its longing. Let me quote some beautiful words from Adam Cooper, who succinctly summarizes the union of these two dimensions in the thought and life of the early Church:
Origen of Alexandria was among the first to reflect deeply on the especially nuptial shape of the relational convergence of loves [eros and agape] in Christ. In the prologue to his Commentary on the Song of Songs, Origen said that there is “no difference whether God is said to be loved with agape or loved with eros, nor do I think anyone can be blamed if he calls God eros, just as John called him agape.” Origen’s theology of divine eros was to make a marked impact on the history of spirituality for centuries to come. In the biblical book of the Song of Songs he found the most adequate language to express the profound relationship of the Christian soul to God. Given its highly erotic language and sexually evocative imagery, the Song of Songs appears especially prone to allegorizing or spiritual interpretation. But the fact is that the central influence the Song of Songs exercised throughout the history of Christian exegesis and spirituality was not in spite of its eroticism, but precisely because of it.* If the story of the soul is a love story, and if God is love as he has effectively demonstrated in Jesus Christ, then there is no more suitable vocabulary to express the relationship between the Christian and God—in all its depth and intensity, its power and precariousness, its thrill and promise—than that sanctioned and approved by the Holy Spirit himself in the exuberant erotic poetry of the Song.
Anyone who has read great works from the history of spirituality will immediately recognize the way the Song of Songs has come to shape Christian prayer. Just think of the Confessions of Augustine, the sermons of Bernard of Clairvaux, the letters of Catherine of Siena, the poems of John of the Cross. For these authors the love of Christ enchants the soul like music, pierces the heart like an arrow, inspires in the believer the warmest affection and ardent response of prayer. The saw that, in a way most closely akin to erotic experience, spiritual life in Christ is structured within a range of intense emotional dialectics: presence and absence, anticipation and fulfillment, now and not yet, possession and separation, longing and consummation, yearning and rest. All these polarities find their parallel in the more or less fitful progression of salvation history toward its heavenly fulfillment in the kingdom of God. By writing the first Christian commentary on the Song, Origen inaugurated a tradition of spiritual reflection on the Song that was to motivate imagination and enrich the practice of Christian prayer—especially among celibates—for more than a thousand years.
This erotic way of interpreting and expressing the dramatic and dynamic interaction of divine and human loves in the Christian story has not only been important for Christian spirituality, but for dogmatic theology and Christian metaphysics as well. Dionysius the Areopagite, the pseudonymous Eastern theologian whose writings so profoundly influenced the direction of medieval thought, and who was quoted by Thomas Aquinas more often than any other author next to Augustine and Aristotle, located eros right at the heart of his theological and cosmic worldview. Dionysius summarizes the meaning of eros as “a capacity to effect a unity, an alliance, and a particular commingling in the Beautiful and the Good.” In other words, eros is the glue that holds together both the universe and the Church. As an innate attraction to beauty and goodness, it draws the individual out of herself into harmonious community with others. If this is true, then we must go on to speak analogously of God the Trinity as the subject of erotic love:
We must dare add this as being no less true: that the Source of all things himself, in his wonderful and good love for all things, through the excess of his loving goodness, is carried outside himself, in his providential care for all that is, so enchanted is he in goodness and love and longing. Removed from his position above all and beyond all he descends to be in all according to an ecstatic and transcendent power which is yet inseparable from himself.
Where this eros of mutual communion is to be found, the result is an ekstasis: a going out of oneself in order to be possessed by the beloved, as exemplified by St. Paul: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20). In this, says Dionysius, “Paul was truly a lover [erastēs] and, as he says, was beside himself for God, possessing not his own life but the life of the one for whom he yearned, as beloved above all things.” Through the translation of Dionysius’s writings into Latin, this erotic, Christ-centered worldview found its way right into the heart of Western theology. Richard of St. Victor’s interpersonal Trinitarian theology of love, Bonaventure’s doctrine of the spiritual senses and affective knowing, and Aquinas’s doctrines of God the creator’s self-diffusive goodness and the human person’s ecstatic deification are all expressions of this fundamental Christian vision.i
Yes, how important it is to let these strands—torn apart by the compartmentalized thinking and fearful hesitation of many—be woven back together again! How important it is for the Church to rediscover the ardent passion of a longing love that, precisely because it is longing for consummate intimacy with the divine Bridegroom, is also indestructible in its generous self-giving and self-surrender even through suffering and death! How important it is that human eros can discover again that God himself has eros within himself, that he is eros, just as he is agape! The throbbing heartbeat of the Church has always lived and safeguarded this mystery (for it is, after all, the pulsing heart of a Bride deeply in love with her Bridegroom!), even if historical circumstances have tended to obscure it. And those simple and humble souls who, throughout history, have allowed Christ to passionately approach them in his agapeic-erotic love, have felt in themselves these two dimensions of love flowing together as one as a gift to him who has first loved them. They have felt this surging current of love flowing as one single movement of ecstasy in the gift of themselves to the Beloved: both to simply praise, adore, and glorify him gratuitously because he is deserving of this gift, and also to enter into gratuitous intimacy with him who is fullness of Beauty, Goodness, Truth, and Love, who is the One in whose embrace alone full happiness, rest, and fulfillment is found.
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I said at the beginning of this chapter that looking at my previous reflections through the lens of eros and agape would help us to approach the maturation of love in both marriage and virginity/continence. How is this so? There are many things that this can crystallize for us, but the main one is this: If agape and eros are really two dimensions of a single love, inseparable and united, then both marriage and virginity are forms of self-giving that spring from this indissoluble union of agapeic-erotic love. Said in another way, just as the desire for marital self-giving is born not only from the erotic desire for union with the beloved person, but also from the desire to serve and foster their authentic good, so the choice of virginity is motivated not only by the desire to serve the Church and one’s brothers and sisters, but also by an impassioned erotic desire for intimacy with the divine Bridegroom, and, indeed, with other human persons in the fulfillment of erotic love that surpasses and fulfills the temporal expressions of sexuality.
There is a continuum here, between the two different vocations, and not a radical rupture. Both expressions of love, both forms of incarnate gift, are closer together than they at first appear, particularly when understood in their mature state: here we understand that marital and sexual love is innately virginal in its inner core, and virginal love is innately erotic at its heart. The narrow understanding of eros that has so twisted our understanding of love in the contemporary world—in which everything “erotic” is sexual, if not animal—is purified and elevated by the gift of self made in virginity. And the danger of a false altruism is remedied by the incarnate, tangible, and affectively moving experience of longing for intimacy with another person (eros), which is an essential dimension of the ecstasy of love. Thus it is profoundly erroneous, and unhelpful, to speak of virginity as the vocation of “agape” and marriage as the vocation of “eros.” They are both expressions of each dimension, eros and agape, in their indissoluble union.
It is true that virginity renounces the explicit living of the sexual capacity in this life—which is a particularly vivid bodily incarnation of the mystery of eros—and yet it does not thereby renounce eros at all. Rather, it seeks to take up all the ardent capacities and longings of spirit, mind, and body into the gift of oneself to Christ, and, in Christ, to other human persons. It only does so in a virginal way, a way no less erotic and no less intimate, but rather simply rooted in the consummation of all love and intimacy that awaits us in the new creation, which has been inaugurated already in this temporal world by the Resurrection of Christ. And it does this, not only in the form of service and concern for others, but also in the aspiration and longing for gratuitous communion and intimacy, which both sustains all the forms self-giving in service, as well as surpasses them and gives them direction within the orbit of the Trinitarian intimacy that gives meaning and fulfillment to all things. This allows us to understand that, in a profound way, though agape holds eros in our relation to another human person, our eros for God—our ardent longing for everlasting communion with him—holds and sustains every expression of the agapeic gift of our life for the good of others throughout our historical existence. In other words, this is simply another way of saying that I have been created for gratuitous intimacy with God (as well as with others), far beyond any particular service or ministry I can give, and that service unfolds only in, and leads to, intimacy for its own sake. Intimacy is always primary, and alone gives meaning to everything else.
The same is true for marriage from the other angle. Those who choose marriage embrace the temporal incarnation of erotic love as manifest in the sexual act, and yet in this—to the degree that they are mature—they discover that this act is only one dimension of eros among many (one temporal and imperfect expression of this longing), and indeed realize that the very sexual act is also meant to be an expression of agape as well. They thus come to learn and experience the innately virginal trajectory of eros: not as sexual desire, but as the longing for beauty, goodness, and truth, as the longing for union with the inner essence of the beloved person, both the human person and the divine Persons of the Trinity. Thus, in both vocations, eros seeks to become fully spiritualized in the ardent impulse of the love-wounded heart for nuptial intimacy with Christ, the divine Bridegroom, and in him with the Father and the Holy Spirit. And in this context eros does not become less incarnate, less bodily, but rather more authentically and transparently so, such that the erotic gift of oneself to God and other human persons occurs and manifests itself in all the rich fabric of life and the manifold expressions of affective and physical tenderness.
And here eros is held entirely within, and united to, agape, even as agape is born from, held within, and fueled by the ardent longing of eros in its sensitivity to the ravishing touch of beauty, goodness, and truth.* The two are not opposed, but united. Indeed, when one lives love deeply and purely, one realizes that eros and agape really cannot be separated from one another without being wounded in their very essence. If agape is not fueled by eros it becomes a mere impersonal “duty.” For agape needs eros to be truly “interested,” truly tender and heartfelt and intimate: a true breath of compassionate, warmth, and longing love upon the beloved person. And eros need agape in order to be pure and complete: to be an impulse that carries me beyond myself towards the beloved, not in grasping and control, but in gift and surrender, such that in authentic vulnerability I enter into intimacy with them, and they with me, in the reciprocal tenderness that is simultaneously acceptance and gift. Yes, eros and agape are both, in their essence, but a receptive-responsiveness to the innate beauty and dignity of the beloved, which draws my heart, my body, and my whole being out in an ecstasy of love as a gift to them, and also makes my whole being a receptive space of tender acceptance for them. This is the very essence of love, its logos, in which eros and agape are inseparably united and flow together in a ceaseless dance of attunement to the beauty, goodness, and truth of the beloved (and, when this Beloved is God, it illumines my agapeic-erotic response to all things in the light of his own ravishing Beauty, Goodness, and Truth, his own essence as uncreated Love).*
And I already bear the capacity for this ecstasy, this gift, from the first moment of my existence, even if it matures only gradually: for in my inner being as a person, I am constituted in relationship and by relationship. I am constituted by God’s own agapeic-erotic ecstasy of himself towards me, in the gift that generates my very life, and also communicates to me a participation in his own inner life as Trinity. Yes, in the very inner depths of the life of the divine Persons, we can no longer distinguish eros and agape, the ecstasy of longing for communion and the ecstasy of pure self-outpouring: they flow together in the gratuitous intimacy of the single divine life shared forever by the Persons of the Trinity, in the eternally realized communion and forever consummated happiness of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
We see all of this, in the contours of history—as eternity reaches out to redeem time and space and to take it up into itself—in the Person of Jesus Christ. He has come among us as God’s longing for us, God’s overflowing generosity which thirsts for our happiness and fulfillment—indeed, thirsts to be our happiness and fulfillment in the innermost embrace of the divine life. And thus in him eros and agape converge as a single word (logos) of love. He thirsts to be our Bridegroom, to give himself to us as the source of our happiness, and thirsts also, in the same moment, to receive our reciprocal response to his initiative of love, a reciprocal response which is simultaneously beatifying for us and also brings immense joy to his own longing Heart! Yes, he does not just love us with an altruistic generosity, but he loves us with sensitivity, compassion, and intimate presence, such that he is moved by us to the depth of his tender being, moved by us with heartfelt affection. And this affection—yes, this vision, this benevolence, this longing—draws him to come to us, to give himself to us to the very end, and to take us into himself…into the intimacy of his embrace, as the bride before the Bridegroom, and, with him, as a child in the arms of the Father.
How beautiful all of this is! And how transparently God reveals this awesome mystery of love to us in the Incarnation of Christ, in all the events of his life, and in a particularly intense way in his Passion and Resurrection. For we see this love radiantly manifest in Christ Crucified, giving his life, his very Body, as a gift for his beloved; and we see it received and reciprocated in Mary, who stands before him as he hangs upon on the Cross. Here the logos of love is laid bare before us, radiating with the ardent intensity of agapeic-erotic desire! This is a desire, a movement, a radiant vision and total gift—and an indissoluble intimacy of gratuitous beauty, goodness, and truth—that it is stronger than all suffering, evil, and death! And thus the very purity and intensity of love cannot end with the grave, but bursts forth victorious in the Resurrection. We thus see it visible, breathtakingly radiant, in the ravishing beauty and undying joy of Jesus’ Risen Body, as he opens himself to his disciples after his Resurrection, saying to them: “Put your fingers in my hands and see, and put your hand in my side, and do not be unbelieving, but believe” (Jn 20:27).
He has entered our humanity, entered into the very heart of our world, not to be overcome by evil, but to overcome evil with good, ugliness with beauty, lies with truth—all in the single, indivisible power of indestructible Love! And here he weds human and divine, creation and divinity, in the embrace of his own Person, in the sanctified flesh of his own humanity, espoused to him as Bride to Bridegroom. And in this way, in this sacred marriage of redemptive love, he takes us up—each one of us a bride before him who is the true Lover for whom we thirst—into the innermost embrace of his Father, where we experience with him the eternal kiss of the Holy Spirit whom they share.
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*To say that doctrine has developed over time into greater harmony, simplicity, and clarity—as well as to say that the clarity of the revealed beauty of the faith has gone through an obscuring “death” in certain periods—is not to say that during centuries of darkness it has been impossible for human hearts to make contact with the throbbing heartbeat of the Gospel and of reality itself. No, simple hearts have continually been living this mystery, and will continue to do so until the end of time, for God knows how to care for his little ones. But since we live immersed in the fabric of history and thus in a cultural context, it is of great importance that the Church as a whole has passed through, and will pass through—by God’s grace and in union with Christ her Bridegroom—her own Paschal Mystery, her own Passion and Resurrection into the full radiance of the joy and intimacy that he intends for her.
*Of course, this also implies the presence of a “sublimating” principle at work in the human heart, such that the erotic expressions of the Song of Songs were understood as illustrating virginal realities in the communion between God and the human person, and not a literal eroticization of prayer—or better, a sexualization, for true eros refers to much more than the genital or sexual sphere, or even than the complementarity of man and woman, though all of this also incarnates eros in a specific sphere. Eros expresses, as the text says, the aspiration of the human person—in both body and spirit—to the fullness of beauty, goodness, and truth, and, in a specific way, to the incomparable beauty of the beloved person (whether God or a human other). This aspiration does not cut off or minimize the body, nor gender, but rather purifies and transfigures the whole incarnate person so that one’s whole being manifests and participates in the erotic purity of the love of God.
*Here we can understand how there is a total “interpenetration” or “circumincession” of eros and agape, such that each is completely held within the other and they flow into one another ceaselessly as a single reality of love. Agape is born from the awe-filled longing of eros before the beauty of the beloved, as the very desire to gratuitously affirm, praise, and uphold this beauty. And eros is continually drawn on in the orbit of agape as a deep attunement to the inner experience of the beloved and the profound desire for their happiness, or a simple joy in this happiness (as in the case of God, who is eternally happy). Yes, we see here how the dance of eros and agape is fulfilled in the mystery of intersubjectivity with which I concluded Part I of this book: in the co-living of lover and beloved in a single life, in which the very subjective consciousness of each, their very solitude, flows together in a single “we” of love that does not dissolve “otherness” even as it unites “I” and “you” in the joy of total reciprocal self-surrender and mutual belonging.
*In this light, we can indeed see a kind of “triadic” structure to love, in the three dimensions of eros, agape, and logos (a rich Greek term that means simultaneously word, reason, truth, and voice). It would be tempting to try to parse these out as applying distinctly to the three transcendental properties of being—beauty (eros), goodness (agape), and truth (logos)—and thus to the three spiritual faculties of affectivity, will, and mind. And indeed even to the three divine Persons of the Father (agape), the Spirit (eros), and the Son (logos). But even if this comparison can be instructive—and thus is worth thinking about—it can easily be carried too far, as all three dimensions flow together in an inseparable way, and whenever separated, lose their inner integrity and meaning. It is precisely this tendency to divide which has wrought so much harm in the history of theology and human life.
For eros and agape are one in logos, one as a single and indivisible response to the innate truth of the beloved person, which is also their beauty and goodness. Thus we have an eros for goodness, an eros for truth, just as for beauty; and agape affirms not only the good, but inseparably affirms truth and beauty. And the logos is thus innately erotic and agapeic, just as they in turn are “logical.” In a word, the truth (logos) of love, the voice of love—and thus the truth of Being itself as Love—is full of longing and self-gift as its very living heartbeat. … And when we turn to the Trinity, we see: The Father’s eternal outpouring of himself into his beloved Son is not only agape, but eros—the ecstasy of longing which is both the origin of the Son in a gratuitous gift of generosity and also the gratuitous impulse towards delightful intimacy with the Son. And it is this in a wholly attuned way (logos), which conforms totally to the nature of the Son as the Word of the Father, just as the Son’s acceptance and reciprocation of the Father’s gift is inseparably logos, eros, and agape back to the Father. And the Spirit’s breath between Father and Son, his presence as the fruit of their love as well as the bond of intimacy uniting them, is the perfect union of eros, agape, and logos in the single uncreated Person-Love-Intimacy of the innermost divine life of the Trinity.
i. Adam G. Cooper, “The Story of God and Eros,” in God and Eros: The Ethos of the Nuptial Mystery, ed. By Colin Paterson and Conor Sweeney (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2015), 93-96. The footnotes contained in this text are as follows: [1) See the English translation by Greer, in Origen, Exhortation to Martyrdom, 223-31. 2) See especially Turner, Eros and Allegory; Kingsmill, The Song of Songs. 3) Pseudo-Dionysius, Divine Names IV, 12, in Pseudo-Dionysius: Complete Works, 81. 4) Ibid., 10-15, 78-83. 5) Ibid., 13, 82.]