May 19, 2006

Seeking the Face of the Lord

We are truly ourselves when body and soul
are intimately united

I continue the series on Pope Benedict’s encyclical “God is Love.”

The Holy Father said that in speaking about love we “immediately find ourselves hampered by a problem of language. Today, the term ‘love’ has become one of the most frequently used and misused of words, a word to which we attach quite different meanings.”

The encyclical deals with the understanding and practice of love in sacred Scripture and in our Church’s tradition, but the Holy Father said we still have to keep in mind the meaning of the word “love” in the different cultures and in present-day usage.

“We speak of love of country, love of one’s profession, love between friends, love of work, love between parents and children, love between family members, love of neighbor and love of God.”

Among all of these meanings, “one in particular stands out: love between man and woman, where body and soul are inseparably joined and human beings glimpse an apparently irresistible promise of happiness.”

The pope remarked that all other kinds of love seem to fade in comparison. And he asks, “Are all of these forms of love basically one so that love in its many and varied manifestations is ultimately a single reality, or are we merely using the same word to designate totally different realities?”

Then the Holy Father developed a presentation on the difference and unity between love as “eros” and love as “agape.”

He wrote: “That love between man and woman which is neither planned nor willed, but somehow imposes itself on human beings was called eros by the ancient Greeks.” He mentions that the Greek Old Testament uses the word eros only twice, while the New Testament doesn’t use it at all.

There are three Greek words for love: eros, philia (the love of friendship) and agape. Most often, the New Testament uses the word agape. St. John’s Gospel uses the term philia (the love of friendship) “with added meaning” to express the relationship between Jesus and his disciples.

It is important to note that the Greeks rarely used the word agape. “The tendency to avoid the word eros together with the new vision of love expressed through the word agape, clearly point to something new and distinct about the Christian understanding of love.”

Critics of Christianity since the era of the Enlightenment saw this new way of understanding love as something thoroughly negative. In fact, Friedrich Nietzsche expressed a widely held perception when he asserted that Christianity had poisoned eros, which gradually degenerated into a vice.

The pope writes, “Doesn’t the Church with all her commandments and prohibitions, turn to

bitterness the most precious thing in life? Doesn’t she blow the whistle just when the joy which is the Creator’s gift offers us a happiness which is itself a certain foretaste of the divine?”

It’s an important question. Did Christianity really destroy eros? To answer the question, the Holy Father gives a brief analysis of the term in the pre-Christian world. The Greeks, like other cultures, considered eros to be principally a kind of intoxication, the overpowering of reason by a “divine madness” which “tears man away from his finite existence” and enables him to experience supreme happiness.

Virgil said, “Love conquers all”—and he adds, “Let us, too, yield to love.” In the pre-Christian religions, this attitude was expressed in fertility cults, part of which was the “sacred” prostitution which flourished in many temples. “Eros was celebrated as divine power, as fellowship with the Divine.”

While the Old Testament opposed this form of religion, combating it as a perversion of religiosity, it in no way rejected eros. Rather, as the pope wrote, [the Old Testament] declared war on a warped and destructive form of it because this counterfeit divinization of eros actually strips it of its dignity and dehumanizes it. … Far from being goddesses, the prostitutes were human persons being exploited.”

The brief overview of the meaning of eros in pre-Christian usage and the concept of the Old Testament tell us two things: “First, 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.” But it is not simply a matter of submitting to instinct. “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.”

The Holy Father says that this is due first and foremost to the fact that we are beings made up of body and soul. We are truly ourselves when body and soul are intimately united. He said the challenge of eros can be truly overcome when this unification is achieved.

(To be continued next week.) †


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