I am writing this blog on Valentine’s Day, which seems rather appropriate since it’s a day filled with cupids and hearts highlighting romantic love’s strong attraction. As Catholics, however, we sometimes downplay this erotic dimension of love in favor of emphasizing St. Valentine’s self-sacrificial love. In other words, we shift the focus away from eros (romantic love) and onto agape (self-sacrificial love). But St. John Paul II takes a different approach.
Eros, in and of itself, isn’t meant to be avoided. Precisely the opposite. Eros is meant to find a home in the human heart by being united to agape. To borrow from St. John Paul II, we could say eros and agape are called to meet in the human heart and to bear fruit in this meeting. When I first encountered this admonition to give a greater role to eros in my heart, it bounced off my brain. I couldn’t see any kind of reconciliation between eros and agape, much less a fruitful intertwining. If this thought is bouncing off your brain, then I’m glad you’re reading this blog.
For most of us, the erotic is not something we intentionally yearn for more of. We usually associate it with sexual arousal, which can overtake and impel us to act in the heat of the moment, frequently without full consideration of the consequences. However, this is not true eros but its counterfeit. John Paul II calls it “reductive desire.”
In his Theology of the Body, St. John Paul II spends 24 audiences reflecting on this reductive desire and its impact on the human heart. Because of original sin, he says, we are now subject to a “value blindness” through which we reduce the other sex to the sexual value alone. Instead of seeing a human person—a someBODY created in God’s image and likeness for union and communion through a reciprocal gift of self in love—we see a someTHING, an object of enjoyment that can satisfy our sexual urge. Arousing and satisfying the body’s sexual urge thus becomes, in our minds, equated with the “erotic.”
But in the beginning it was not so. John Paul II takes us back to the original Greek understanding of eros (and the erotic) as an “inner power that draws man toward all that is good, true, and beautiful” (and I would add “relational”). It is an activity of the human spirit. However, because of original sin, the unity of body and spirit were split apart so that the body ceased drawing on the power of the spirit. As a result, the body frequently and insistently demands its own way, ignoring any input from the spirit.
For a moment, I’d like to return to the Garden and recapture God’s original plan for eros, for human desire. Human desire in its original purity wasn’t diminished by a value blindness but drank in the full value of reality. Our desire was aroused by the majesty of the mountains, the generous goodness of a lake teeming with fish, the unity and harmony of the stars and planets, and the dance of delightful relationality between man and woman. This stirring of desire was open to the full value of creation and the human person. Authentic eros was experienced as a profound receptivity to the other for his or her “own sake,” as a unique and unrepeatable person whom God called into being with their own journey and path to holiness.
Here’s where it gets exciting! While reductive eros considers how to discharge sexual tension (boo!), authentic eros creates a bond of belonging with the other through a reciprocal giving and receiving of the gift of self (hurray!). In other words, what characterizes true eros is transcendence—rather than remaining trapped within myself, eros draws me out of myself toward union and communion. The power of eros is unleashed so as to delight in and deeply affirm the goodness of the other: “This is my Beloved Son in whom I delight.”
Far from being opposed to agape, to self-sacrificial love, eros is integral to the full experience of human love because redeemed eros sees and embraces the whole value of the other, from top to bottom, left to right, inside to outside, for whom we want to sacrifice. The entirety of the beloved is received and welcomed, even the prickly and shame-filled parts. But acquiring this erotic disposition of transcending oneself in self-gift and receiving the other fully as a gift is arduous work. Our interior state, impacted by sin, is one of fragmentation. Body, soul, spirit, intellect, will, emotions, imagination, memory, and desire each seem to play their own musical score within the orchestra of our heart and the result is inner discord and confusion. We insatiably attempt to satisfy fragmented desire in a fragmented way.
The arduous work of redeeming erotic desire, then, involves the arduous work of redeeming our entire embodied person so as to be in full attunement. Now, I realize “attunement” is not a common word to describe redemption, but I think it best captures JP2’s vision for eros and agape bearing fruit in the human heart. And this “re-attunement” begins with restoring our covenant relationship with God by experiencing an intimate bond of belonging to Christ.
Intimate bond of belonging to Christ? Reading those words can be uncomfortable for some because we’re susceptible to a gnostic view of eros. What do I mean? Gnosticism was an early Christian heresy that said the material or fleshy part of us is bad and the spiritual part or soul is good. We easily translate this into Christ loving the spiritual side of us, our soul, but distancing Himself from our body because, well, it’s too fleshly. As a result, we struggle to live a redeemed eros because we limit redemption to our “spiritual value,” to the salvation of the soul, whereas Christ wants to love and redeem our whole embodied person. Tragically, we allow room only for agape in our relationship with Christ and conveniently silence eros.
Fortunately, Pope Benedict XVI not only didn’t silence God’s eros, but he announced it to the world! In his first encyclical, God is Love, no. 10, he wrote: “…God’s eros for man is also totally agape.” God is at “the same time a lover with all the passion of a true love. Eros is thus supremely ennobled, yet at the same time it is so purified as to become one with agape.” The fruit of this meeting of divine eros and agape within the human heart is a union “in which both God and man remain themselves and yet become fully one.”
Two and yet one. An intimate bond of belonging. Union in communion. The fullness of human desire and happiness is fulfilled only through purified eros united with agape. This is true in our relationship with God, and it is meant to be mirrored in our relationship with others. Perhaps someday images of cupid on our Valentine’s Day cards will be replaced by images of the Sacred Heart, a heart that loved so much that it spared nothing to express both eros and agape as the Bridegroom Redeemer. And our response will be a symphony of love, of redeemed eros united to agape so that our whole being is attuned to the Trinitarian Symphony of truth, goodness, beauty, and relationality through an intimate and indissoluble bond of belonging.
Katrina J. Zeno, MTS, (www.katrinazeno.com) writes and edits for TOBET, drawing on her 24 years of teaching experience in TOB. She is currently working on a second master’s degree in Steubenville, Ohio.