Thursday, November 25, 2010

TOB: A New Paganism I: Balancing Eros and Agape

In his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict XVI spoke about the relationship between eros – the desire for and seeking of personal happiness, and agape – selfless giving for the good of the other. Like the Pope, I see the need for a synthesis of the two and a greater balance between them. However, whereas the Pope was primarily addressing the World, I would like to primarily address the Church. I will do so in this series of three articles.

Paganism tended to inordinately exalt eros, or, as the pagans called it, “divine madness”. This can be seen in the fact that some religious rites consisted of sexual acts. In fact, the word “orgy” came from the Greek orgia, which literally meant “secret worship”. It can also be seen in the fact that the pagan gods were all very “sexual”. It is not surprising that the greatest of the Greek gods, Zeus, was also the most promiscuous, having fathered many of the other Greek gods by numerous different women.

With Christ, however, this would be turned upside down. Christ preached that the poorest were the richest, that death is the path to life, and that those who surrendered their liberty attained the greatest freedom. Christ also taught us, especially by the example of his life, that the greatest “pain” can become the greatest “pleasure”. With Christ, agape love attains a pre-eminence: “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).

However, this exaltation of agape did not denigrate eros. On the contrary, agape purified eros and exalted it higher even as it subordinated it to itself. It was a baptism of eros, so that the greatest act of agape would also become the greatest experience of eros. For Christ, it was through his greatest act of agape – His Passion and Death – that He experienced eros most intensely.

The Saints, when they described their mystical experiences, often spoke of sharp, penetrating, and even burning pains with intensity beyond anything they had ever experienced in the flesh. And yet, they reported that this pain had a most delightful sweetness to it. On the other hand, they also described their human suffering as being their greatest joy, to a point where they desired to suffer more and more. For the Saint, whatever state he is in, he is content (Philippians 4:11), and this is the “baptism” of eros and its “union” with agape.

Unfortunately, for “fallen man”, eros and agape tend to divide rather than unite, just as the differences between the sexes are meant to unite but often divide. For fallen man, he must go through a process whereby the two become united in complete harmony. Regarding eros and agape, the latter is often experienced as “pleasure-less pain”, while the former is experienced as “painless pleasure”. It goes without saying, then, that fallen man tends to exalt pleasure (which by nature he enjoys) and his pursuit of it to the detriment of agape (which is often experienced as pain, a thing disagreeable to his nature).

When Christ announced to the Apostles that He would brutally suffer and be unjustly killed by the leaders of his own religion, Peter “rebuked” him, and told him that as the “Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16), He should experience eros, not agape. Peter was thinking as “fallen man” does and not as “God thinks” (Matthew 16:23). He had it backwards – as fallen man often does. Rather, the Son of God, who “came not to be served but to serve” (Matthew 20:28), who had “nowhere to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20), who rode “triumphant” into Jerusalem on a donkey (Matthew 21:2-7), would be “enthroned” and “glorified” by being nailed to a Cross (John 3:14-15), where He would experience true eros through the most extreme agape.

Just like we too often do, the Apostles wanted to remain on the Mount of Transfiguration (Luke 9:33, 37a) or continue to gaze indefinitely at the glory of the heavens Christ ascended to (eros) (Acts 1:9-12). However, we are created in the image and likeness of God to love as He loves. And this is how He loves: The Father gives (agape) Himself to the Son, who receives (eros) that gift, and in turn gives (agape) Himself back to the Father, who receives (eros) the gift of His Son. So it goes for man: there is a time to “give” (agape) and a time to “receive” (eros), a time to weep (agape) and a time to laugh (eros), a time to mourn (agape) and a time to dance (eros) (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8). Likewise, after the eros of their “Sabbath rest” (Matthew 17:1a), God made the Apostles descend from the mountain and return to the agape of their hard and often painful “work” of evangelization.

The Mass is the “source and summit” of the Christian life. It is the source from which “grace is poured forth upon us” and we are drawn “into the compelling love of Christ” and “set on fire” through the Eucharist (eros). But soon after we are
dismissed with the word, “Go” – go back to the world and “give” (agape) what you have “received” (eros) here, go back to your crosses, go back to your work, go back to sowing in tears (Psalm 126:6a). Do not remain here at the font of grace, as tempting as that might be. Then, after you have laid down your lives as I have and given (agape) yourself away to my children and your brothers, come back full of joy next Sunday and you will receive (eros) from your Father every good “gift”, you will “reap in joy” (Psalm 126:6b), for this is the summit toward which all your “apostolic works” are ultimately directed (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 10; Lumen Gentium, 34).

It is the same with marriage, where we go forth from the marital embrace (eros) to the carrying of our crosses and the dying to ourselves in the daily trials and challenges of married life (agape). It is the same with “the element of life” – water. The seas “give” themselves (agape) through evaporation to the skies which “receive” (eros) its water; the skies in turn “empty” themselves of water vapour (agape) through precipitation in order to replenish and “fill” the seas (eros). And so it is for all of nature, in all human experiences, and for all created things, just as it is in God.

However, we live in an age of a “new paganism”, where “erotic” pleasure is exalted over sacrificial love, where man more and more “takes” from the earth without “giving” back, and where Christians are very much “of the world” (John 17:14), failing to use the things of the world as though they possessed them not (1Corinthians 7:29-31).

It is no surprise, then, that the Mass, which is the “source and summit” of the Christian life, has been transformed from a “sacrifice” to a “celebration”, where the crucifix has been replaced by the “risen Christ”, and where the penitential and adoring gesture of kneeling has been supplanted by the “joyful posture of standing” that is more befitting of an “Easter people”. But without the sorrow of Lent we cannot experience the joy of Easter. And without the Cross, there is no Resurrection. That is why the true Christian, like St. Paul, was “content in all things” – if called to “give”, it is an opportunity to “boast in the cross of Christ” (Galatians 6:14) and be “strengthened by our weakness” (2Corinthians 12:9); and if called to “receive”, it is an opportunity to experience the breadth, length, depth, and height of God’s love in all its glory (Ephesians 3:17-19). Thus, whether we are called to “receive” (eros) or called to “give” (agape) – and we will be called to a good measure of both – we will “count it all joy” (James 1:2).

In many popular presentations of the Theology of the Body today, the influence of this “new paganism” is discernable. Much is said about “Carmelite spirituality”, but almost always, the raptures and ecstasies (eros) are spoken of to the near or full exclusion of the dark nights of purgation (agape).

For my Christian Spirituality course at Steubenville, I was required to read Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross and The Interior Castle by St. Teresa of Avila. The “former” spoke of how praying through desolation (agape) actually increased grace and did more for the soul than praying through consolation (eros). The latter repeated, over and over, that as beautiful as these mystical experiences might be, the reader was warned, in no uncertain terms, against desiring these “gifts” at all, and was told that it is far greater to “receive” none of these “gifts” but simply to pray because God wills it (agape). What was repeated, over and over – in fact, one might say it was the theme of this book – is that what matters is not the receiving of mystical gifts (eros), but rather, bringing one’s will in conformity with that of God’s (agape).

I was also struck by how at each and every stage of spiritual growth, in each mansion of the Interior Castle, the mystics experienced the cross (agape). The trials did not end at the seventh mansion; in fact, at times, they increased. But so did their love, which allowed them to transform their moments of agape into experiences of eros.

After reading these profound works, I desired not the great mystical gifts and spiritual experiences of eros that some Theology of the Body presenters promise us; rather, I desired to do God’s will and pray for His sake, not my own (or as my professor asked rhetorically, “do you want the consolations of God or the God of consolations?”). This, to me, was what I believed St. Teresa and St. John were clearly trying to teach their readers. It can happen that a Theology of the Body presenter can simply pick up the idea of “mystical ecstasy” from snippets and quotations found here and there rather than reading Teresa and John in toto. The latter would go a long way to correcting this imbalance.

We must be careful not to take our focus off the cross and off those “dark nights of purgation” for too long. Why? Because almost without exception, we are still in the first few mansions, and not in the seventh like St. John or St. Teresa. Unlike the Saints in heaven, we still sin; we must still kneel at Mass; we must pull ourselves away from the glory of the transfiguration on Mount Tabor because we have a great deal of work to do in the valleys – including the work of our salvation, which we labour at “with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:13). In fact, the mystics themselves did not spend all their time gazing at the Lord’s transfigured glory even in the seventh mansion. They received these mystical experiences with gratitude, then humbly went back to their “work” and the “humdrum” of everyday life at the monastery.

Like the Prophets and like the Saints, who “imitated Christ”, we, like sons in the Son, are called to accept everything, both eros and agape, as from the hand of a loving Father and Creator. We are called not just to experience pleasure (eros), but to also embrace pain (agape) and even intentionally make it a part of our lives (penance, fasting, abstinence, etc.). It is thus that eros and agape will gradually unite in us like it has in Christ and His Saints. Thus we will be filled with the Holy Spirit, who Himself is that exchange of “Love”, being simultaneously “given” and “received”, thus making Him the perfect union of eros and agape.


  1. Doesn't look like my comment took. Anyway, great image of the cycle of precipitation and evaporation. I sent an summary of my family's genealogy back to 1699 via another email address.

  2. Thanks for this post, Wade, there are many good points here to think about.
    In looking back at Benedict's encyclical, he seems to be saying that when properly understood, eros and agape have things in common. In # 7 he speaks of how they work together: "Yet eros and agape--ascending love and descending love--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."
    Perhaps the marital embrace can also partake of the nature of agape when carried out with true love and right intentions--especially perhaps when one spouse may not feel inclined to it at the moment.
    In any case, though, the reminder that sacrifice is essential to true love is very timely.

  3. Thank you for the compliments and comments, Sr. Lorraine.

    Although the marital embrace is created as a foretaste of the "eros" of heaven, it too can, actually "must", at times become an experience of "agape", when, as you said, one spouse may not feel inclined to at the moment. This is precisely what the Church's teaching on "the marriage debt" and "rendering the debt" ensured.

    However, in these Theology of the Body debates, I have encountered a number of people for whom this teaching has not been well understood and has even been dissented from. In fact, Christina King said on Catholic Exchange that "as for the marital debt…it leaves a poor taste in my mouth." I have found that with those whose understanding of the Church's teaching on sex and marriage have come primarily or exclusively from Theology of the Body presenters, there seems to be a certain gap in their knowledge or grasp of the fullness of the Church's teachings on sex and marriage, and this is one example.

  4. Hi Wade, I just came to see if you had posted more in this series. I hope you had a grace-filled Christmas and new year, and happy Epiphany tomorrow (since you celebrate the feast in the Latin tradition).

    About the language of "the marriage debt," I have to admit I don't really care for that language because it sounds almost like carrying out some kind of transaction or paying a bill. That might have been what Christina meant. while the concept is certainly valid, the way of expressing it could be done with more personalistic language and it would make more sense to people.
    Happy new year!

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

  7. Hi, Sr. Lorraine. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

    Unfortunately, I am behind on this article series. I hope to complete it soon.

    Regarding "the marriage debt", the terminology is taken directly from Scripture.

    1 Corinthians 7:3

    Douay-Rheims: "Let the husband render the debt to his wife, and the wife also in like manner to the husband."

    RSV-CE: "The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband."

    I would imagine there would be a similar objection to conjugal "rights".

    Dr. Hahn speaks about the "referential language" of Scripture and the "auxiliary languages" drawn from philosophy over time. He says, and I agree with him, that the "referential language" of Scripture must always remain the necessary foundation. He would say that "personalism" is one philosophy among many, and even though it has been popularized in this particular age by a great Pope and received a certain "pride of place" today among many in the Church, it remains subservient to the language of Scripture. This is why "rendering the debt" has been used by the Fathers, by St. Thomas, and by the Catechism of Trent - it is Scriptural.

    Although we might not understand certain Scriptures, we can never dismiss certain phrases or passages on that account, because Scripture is the Word of God. That is one of the problems with absolutizing a particular philosophy - when it contradicts Scripture, we sometimes tend to side with the philosophy than with Scripture. But when there is a Scripture we find difficult, the solution is to give assent to it and to pray and study so that we can understand it.

    I'll let you know as soon as I get the other two up.