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Mystery of Love

 

Forty years ago I left the Marriage Encounter weekend with two deep desires. The first desire was to grow my relationship with my wife. The weekend had taught me the need for communication to nourish our marriage and the techniques to do so. The second desire was to pursue a greater love of God, for on that weekend I had experienced God as Love at the center of reality and my life. From the convergence of those two desires, an intuition took root: If I could grasp the nature of marital love, that insight would guide me to greater love of God.

What moved my deep-seated intuition 40 years ago to today’s insight was reading “Will and Spirit” by Dr. Gerald G. May. The author was an expert in both human psychology and in spirituality. His analysis of both these subjects prompted me to make two discoveries. One, that the manifestations of love for both marital and divine love are basically the SAME; and two, that the manifestations are in reality a PROCESS—a transformative one at that.

As human beings, we have a mysterious, fundamental human longing for unconditional love. It manifests itself in different ways. In both marital and divine love, we experience narcissistic love, erotic love, compassionate love and agapic love.

Narcissistic Love. Hardly a true form of love, narcissistic love manifests itself in marital love when we are self-centered. Or when we seek to bolster our self-image. Or when we are more interested in receiving than in giving, more focused on self-preservation and aggrandizement than on the welfare of our spouse.

That is its manifestation in marital love. But can our love of God be narcissistic? Yes, when we adopt a coping strategy in our relationship with God. When we look to God only as the One who saves us from the problems and sufferings of life. This kind of mentality is hardly spirituality. Yet, religious institutions encourage it. The good news is that there is a redeeming quality in narcissistic love.

Erotic Love. As our empowering life force, erotic love is pleasure, is passion, is sexual that moves us to union with our spouse—and to the fullness of human life. In his book, The Holy Longing, Fr. Ronald Rolheiser says that we are born with fire in our bellies—eros—that drives us to love, beauty and creativity, or to destructiveness. Ultimately, it is what we do with that energy that matters.

What about our love of God? Can it be erotic? Should it be erotic? As erotic beings, we can’t love our spouses in one way and God in a different way. We have one mind-heart set for love. NOT a secular set to love our spouse, and a spiritual set to love God. Ultimately, spirituality seeks union with God—and with others. We must bring our erotic energy to bear on our spiritual life—in our prayer life and in our relations with others. Otherwise, our spiritual life will dry up.

The primary example of our need for erotic love is in our Eucharistic Celebrations. Jesus revolutionized public worship by creating a Love Meal intended to form the Beloved Community. Indeed, Jesus’ Love Meal is either an erotic experience or it is an experience that doesn’t nourish our relationship with God or our sisters and brothers. Unfortunately, the Church has turned Jesus’ Love Meal into a church service. We must make it happen for ourselves.

When does erotic love lead us astray? When we adopt a strategy of seeking emotional highs or irrational exuberance in our relationships with God and others. When we look at spiritual experiences as escapes from reality or allow the so-called “spiritual” to blind us to the problems and sufferings of others. Or when we are selective in our choices of persons to whom we relate.

Compassionate Love. In marital love, compassionate love is a committed, noncontrived giving of time, energy, attention and wealth to further the welfare and improve the life of our spouse. It flourishes when we have moved beyond the phase of seeing our spouse as the “intimate enemy” who must be controlled or manipulated to conform to our personalities. That breakthrough leads us to compassionate love of our spouse.

A similar breakthrough in our relationship with God opens us up when we have gone beyond strictly a need mentality or an escapist mentality. We must even eliminate a happiness mentality which conditions our relationship with God based on the proposition: if one lives one’s life correctly one will be happy. Not so. We experience negative feelings which rise from our human condition. Further, life provides us with many painful situations.

Like the marital life, the spiritual life requires us to experience purgation of those mentalities that prevent growth in love, hope and faith in God. The good news is that the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Love, is an aggressive Lover who enlightens us and consoles us on our spiritual journey. Compassionate love of God blossoms in us when we discover that the Spirit of Love is at work in our lives and we foster that relationship.

Agapic Love. The previous manifestations of love—narcissistic, erotic, compassionate—are all conditional forms of love. Circumstances and personal whim can influence them. To a degree, our wills can control them. Self-serving motivations can enter into their expressions. But agapic love is ultimate, unconditional love. As such, it suffers from none of these defects. The only choice humans have in relation to agapic love, Dr. May writes, is whether or not to recognize its presence. We can neither magnify nor destroy it. That suggests to me that agapic love is pure gift, the gift of the Spirit of Love.

In both our marital and divine relationships, we can and should be open to reach the heights of agapic love. Dr. May gives us an insight into agapic love by contrasting it with erotic love. He states: “The world falls away in the ecstasy of erotic love. The ecstasy of agapic love is characterized by an awesome joining with all the rest of the world, becoming a part of it. In an erotic ‘high,’ the world disappears in love. In the spiritual ‘high,’ the world appears in love.” When marital love or divine love has brought us to moments of loving all beings and creation, we know that the Spirit has gifted us with agapic love.

Love’s Process. The above analysis suggests that manifestations of both human and divine love are basically the SAME. It also suggests a new perception of this mysterious phenomenon called “love.” First, the various manifestations of love are not stages at which we arrive at and must spend time. Ideally, love is a PROCESS—a flow from the narcissistic to the erotic, to the compassionate and to the agapic (if we are gifted). Second, seen in this light, love becomes our commitment to our spouse and God to surrender to love’s WHOLE process. That commitment and intentionality are our deepest expressions of marital and divine love.

We may begin with narcissistic love for both our spouse and God but we must strive for deeper love. What we can’t allow ourselves to do is to get “stuck” at any point in the love process. For example, we can’t allow ourselves to remain at the narcissistic, for that would be destructive of both human and divine relationships. Both our human and divine loves manifest the sensational—the highs of life. But we can’t allow ourselves to get stuck there. That would only block growth in our relationships. Further, couples must be capable of transcending their own relationships to reach out to others: that is the way the Spirit of Love operates—inviting us to compassionate and agapic love.

Love’s Transforming Power. Plutarch, the first-century Roman historian, recognized love’s process in his marriage and its transformative power. In his “Dialogues of Love,” he wrote: “Physical pleasure with a spouse is the seed of friendship and the participation in great mysteries. Though the physical pleasure is brief, from it grows day by day respect and grace, affection and faithfulness.”

Likewise, in the spiritual life the Spirit’s gifts of consolations (emotional highs) are joyful experiences on our spiritual journey to greater love, hope and faith. But the joy is not an end in itself. The gifts of consolations are invitations to transformation and spiritual growth.

What is the secret to love’s transforming power? Love generates psychic fire that is the agent of transformation—the fire of the Spirit of Love. However, that psychic fire is inflamed in committed unions. Committed unions—marital and divine loves—are the crucibles of love. Given that environment, love melts down our alienation from God, others and our spouses. That is why our divine union, such as in the Eucharist, and marital union are potentially so powerfully transformative.

Love’s Prelude. Since marital love and divine love are so similar, we can draw insights from either one and apply it to the other. From my pursuit of a deeper spiritual life, I have learned that it is what I do BEFORE a spiritual exercise that is most important. Here is what the spiritual life has taught me about love’s prelude for marital love and how I have applied it

One, we must approach both marital and divine union—conscious of their inherent mystery. As mystery, we are powerless to be the masters of our own experiences and must rely on the Spirit of Love. Before prayer or Eucharistic Celebrations, I remind myself that I have been programmed for relationship with an Infinite Being, an Infinite Lover, but I am powerless to live such a relationship without the Spirit’s help. Before marital union, I remind myself that my capacity to love is so deep within me that I am powerless to awaken it without the Spirit’s gift. Mystery, and the wonder that mystery evokes, helps prepare me for both divine and marital union.

Second, recognizing the mystery we are engaging in and our powerlessness in both divine and marital love helps us to experience self-emptying. We must strip ourselves of our masks (clothes are part of our masks), behind which we hide to enhance our false self. We must experience psychic nakedness. Then, we can put ourselves at the disposal of the beloved (human and divine), gifting ourselves, yielding ourselves, surrendering ourselves to the beloved’s invitation to union. We surrender into union.

Third, focusing on the transformative nature of both marital and divine love opens us up further to the mystery of our engagement. It is kind of like the leap of faith. We know that we are entering into a mysterious encounter and we believe that it will be transformative—how we don’t know. For divine union, I know from experience that making transformation of a personal defect my goal at Eucharistic Celebrations opens me up to the Spirit’s action and deepens my potential for union. For marital union, being aware of this union as being mysteriously transformative, helps us to experience more deeply our powerlessness and psychic nakedness that invite the Spirit of Love to gift us with unitive and agapic experiences.

Love’s Mystery. Love’s mystery begins with ourselves. Fr. Teilhard de Chardin has written that we are not human beings living a spiritual life. Rather, we are spiritual beings living a human life. Love’s mystery begins with our mysterious human nature.

This wisdom has been ignored when we have probed the mystery of marital love. Too much emphasis has been placed on biology and pop psychology to reveal the nature of marital love. Perhaps too the Church has taken possession of our understanding of divine love. As the result, for too long marital love and divine love have been isolated from one another. In reality, they enlighten and energize one another.

The Spirit of Love has used Dr. May’s book, Will and Spirit, to enable me to bring marital love and divine love together. My intuition 40 years ago was right. Grasping the nature of marital love guides us to greater love of God. But what has surprised me is how pursuit of a deeper love of God has revealed insights into marital love and has in fact reinforced that experience.

In the final analysis, the mystery of love is the mystery of the Spirit of Love. The Spirit pervades all of our life. The Spirit is the agent of all human creativity, all human inspirations, all human love’s aspirations.

When we attempt to relate to God, we find his infinity beyond our reach. The Spirit of Love makes encounter possible. Likewise, when we attempt to express marital love, we find our capacity to love is beyond our reach. The Spirit of Love makes it possible. Sure signs of the Spirit’s action can be seen when our marital and divine loves are transformative and transcending—driving us to go beyond our loves to love all beings and all creation. Indeed, the mystery of love is the mystery of the Spirit of Love.

Holy Eros

Could it be that the saints and mystics encountered Jesus as Eros? The Holy Spirit as Eros? God as Eros? The spiritual life as an erotic affair? I think so, despite the fact that the Church’s toxic spirituality had denigrated eros almost from its inception.

What has been the effect of such negative spirituality? It has impacted the spirituality of married couples in particular, but also all seeking a spiritual life. For it has pitted soul against body, hiding the glory of our embodied personhood: we are incarnate spirit, a being who is body, soul and spirit. Further, it has fostered unhealthy spiritualities.

History of Eros. Ironically enough, the pagan, first-century author Plutarch appreciated the connection between eros and marital spirituality. In his “Dialogues of Love,” he wrote: “Physical pleasure with a spouse is the seed of friendship and the participation in great mysteries. Though the physical pleasure is brief, from it grows day by day respect and grace, affection and faithfulness.”

Contrast Plutarch’s insight with the Church’s long insistence that reproduction was the saving element in marriage. I believe that when the Church resolves its discomfort with eros in marital relationships, it will bless eros for all spiritualities. The result? A second Pentecost will dawn. The good news is that 2000 years later the Church is beginning to discover eros as an intrinsic characteristic of human psychology and healthy spirituality.

In his first encyclical letter, God Is Love, Pope Benedict XV1 rehabilitates the word “eros:” “…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.” Also, he states that God’s love “may certainly be called eros, yet it is also totally agape.”

Where does all this take us? I will propose a new, bold spirituality that will empower us to live a deeply spiritual, fully human life—based on a spirituality of eros. For starters, let us define spirituality as a theology of God, a psychology of human beings, and a methodology for bringing human beings into an ever deeper relationship with God.

Psychology of Eros. First, let us look at eros in human psychology. For the human being, eros is pleasure, is passion, is sexual, is our empowering life force. It is the total mind-body response. It embraces the power of our sexuality to empower our relating, our loving, our thinking, our creating.

In their book, Holy Eros, James D. Whitehead and Evelyn Eaton Whitehead, define eros: “Eros is the vital energy that courses through the world, animating every living thing. It is…the energy that stirs humans to be in touch, to reach out and link their lives in lasting ways….Eros is the force that quickens our hearts when we encounter suffering and moves us to help and heal. Sex, curiosity, compassion—Eros moves through our lives in delightful and bewildering ways.”

These definitions of eros sound very positive, but there is a terrible bias against the word itself built over many years. In his book, “Original Blessings,” Matthew Fox writes: “We have a word in our language for passionate celebration, but it has been co-opted by the multi-billion-dollar pornography industry…the reason the pornography industry has priority on the word “erotic” is that our spiritual traditions in the West have lost passion for passion and passion for eros.” Our first task is to regain our comfort with the word.

Eros in Spirituality. Eros is both our richest gift and a problem for us, warns Fr. Ronald Rolheiser in his book, “The Holy Longing.” He says that we are born with fire in our bellies—eros—that drives us to love, beauty and creativity, or to destructiveness. Ultimately, our spirituality is what we do with that energy. He gives three examples.  Eros drove Mother Teresa to heroic accomplishments for God and the poor. Eros drove the rock star Janis Joplin to death at an early age from an overdose of life. And eros drove Princess Diana both to a life of charity as well as to a life of the jet-setter.

Rolheiser concludes: “Spirituality is about finding the proper ways, disciplines, by which to both access that energy and contain it.” So, at the heart of living a spiritual life is a dialectic calling us to entertain opposing ideas and to seek to resolve their conflict. On the one hand, if our spiritual life is not an erotic affair with an Infinite Lover, it is not a spiritual life. It may be a pious or religious way of life, but it is not a spiritual life which seeks deeper union with God.

On the other hand, to access deliberately eros has its challenges. But, ultimately, we must befriend our eros and not look upon our erotic feelings “like potential terrorists threatening to hijack the ship of self and steer it uncontrollably into dangerous waters” in the words of Wilkie Au, spiritual director and writer. What’s the solution?

Spirituality of Eros. We need a bold, new spirituality to resolve this dialectic related to eros. We can’t just focus on embracing eros. We can’t just zero in on containing eros which has been our principal strategy for years. We need a spirituality of eros that gives us a methodology that enables us to access eros in our life experiences, engage it and befriend it, allowing eros to become a natural part of our lives.

Most importantly, such a spirituality must provide us with a theology of God that cultivates a passion for living the spiritual life erotically. Our understanding of the Christian Vision must provide us with a supportive environment for living with eros as a natural part of our lives. Like Jesus’ garment which was one piece, so our methodology and theology must be one piece. At the same time, this spirituality must provide us with a discipline to defend us against the potential excesses of eros. Together these elements comprise the proposed spirituality of eros.

Methodology for Eros. How would one live such a spirituality? The clue is in the articles I have written on the spirituality of compassion. I have shared the various discoveries I have made about that spirituality since I first experienced it in 1988 at the Louvre Museum. This reflection has forced me to make still another discovery—that I have been living a spirituality of eros all these years because the spirituality of compassion is essentially a spirituality of eros.

Recall that the spirituality of compassion directs us to be fully present to the object of our encounter with a caring heart and an attentive mind. Whatever we are encountering, we must gift ourselves to the other to receive its gift. We must yield or surrender ourselves to the other whether it be art, music, dance, nature, other people, God. So it impacts the whole spectrum of our lives. Note: our efforts will not always produce the desired disposition, but God appreciates earnest effort. The rest is up to the Spirit.

At first, I had thought that the practice of compassion was simply a technique for concentrating the full energies of our mind and heart on the object of our encounter. A form of centering our minds and hearts. Then I realized that this practice was the way to spiritual union. Now I discover that it is the way to awaken my eros in order to gift, yield, surrender myself to the object of my encounter. The spirituality of compassion is indeed a spirituality of eros. This practice gives us a methodology to access eros in our life experiences, engage it and befriend it, allowing eros to become a natural part of our lives.

Containing Eros. The practice of compassion also eliminates the surprise of the pornographic in our lives. If we see all of life through the eyes of eros, we weaken its force. When the pornographic is the only source of eros, it has a more powerful effect. It causes us to focus on it and make a monster of it. Further, the fact that the pornographic offends the gestalt—the whole, integrated configuration—of our spirituality of eros makes us uncomfortable with it. We don’t want sensationalism; we want the joy of spirituality. Thus, we are more able to contain its power.

In addition, the above mindset disposes us spontaneously to draw upon the practice of discipline as described in Article 8. Briefly, this virtue has two facets—attentiveness and inattentiveness. We practice attentiveness to the interior landscape of our spirits to determine what directions our heart wishes are driving us. We practice inattentiveness to enable us to watch our compulsive needs wilt away.

Theology of Eros. Thus far, we have said that psychologically the human person is essentially an erotic being, and that the practice of the spirituality of compassion gives us a methodology for both accessing and containing eros. Note also that this spirituality leads us naturally to a theology of eros.

Now let us look at such a theology. For if the human person is an erotic being, then God must be perceived in erotic terms to be relevant. In an interview of Rubem Alves, Brazilian theologian and social scientist that appeared in Cross Currents, he states: “…a theology based on epistemology, no matter how fierce, doesn’t move people. We are not constructed in a Cartesian [philosophical] way. We are erotically constructed.” Here is a sketch of a theology of eros:

  • God as Eros—God is a passionate God. God did not want to remain totally Mystery, the Cloud of Unknowing. The Ultimate Source of Being, the Ultimate Source of Beatitude wanted an incarnate union with humankind. God is Eros. Further, this erotic God dwells at the core of our beings, recreating us from the inside out. Also, this erotic God permeates all creation. When we contemplate the incredible beauty of creation, we can only conclude that God is Eros Who wants to win our hearts.
  • Jesus as Eros—When we perceive the life events and words of the historical Jesus as contained in the Risen Christ, we discover the Jesus Process—a power source from which we receive the gifts of the Spirit. Then we can pray: “Risen Christ, set in motion the Jesus Process in our lives and pour into our hearts Jesus’ life energies, the love force that Jesus was and is now in the present moment.” The historical Jesus was Eros 2000 years ago and Jesus is Eros today.
  • Spirit as Eros—It is through the Spirit that the Infinite Lover issues Lover’s invitations, awakening us to the possibilities of love each day, calling us out of our tombs daily to experience new life like Lazarus. As Eros, the Spirit takes initiatives in our lives, stirring the movements of our hearts to inspire us and invite us to greater love, hope and faith.

How ironic! Eros, the life force rejected by the Church for so long has become the cornerstone of a spirituality that empowers us to live a deeply spiritual, fully human life. Further, I can trust a God Who is Eros, for He wants union with me, as I want union with Him. I can trust a God Who is Eros to take me home when my days on earth are completed.