Circular Letter: Summer 2007
Measuring Up to God’s Love
Though of monumental cultural and moral value for the Church and even the world, John Paul II’s Theology of the Body remains inaccessible for many given its volume and technical precision. Though never referring directly to this work, Pope Benedict has in some way simplified it and brought it down to the common man’s level in the first part of his encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, God Is Love. In this encyclical, in continuity with his beloved predecessor, he is leading the Church to the heart of the Christian message. For love is the source and goal of all of Christian life. “God is Love” (1 Jn 4:8), and His love as Creator and Redeemer calls for a human response of love. But love is an ambiguous term which can have very different meanings in various cultures and ages, in contrast to the biblical and Christian understanding. Often the word is misused or used only with reference to part of man, to simply his body or to his spirit alone. In this encyclical, therefore, the Holy Father outlines an authentic Christian understanding of human love and how man should understand and respond to God’s love for us.
The Common Notion of Love
Like a good shepherd of souls, the Holy Father begins his treatise by trying to find a common ground, a common understanding of love as used by the world today and as used in the biblical, Christian tradition. He begins therefore with a more philosophical consideration of what the world calls “love”. While mentioning certain kinds of love, “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,” he asserts that what is meant primarily by “love” is the “love between man and woman, where body and soul are inseparably joined and human beings glimpse an apparently irresistible promise of happiness” (DCE, 2). This love of eros the Greeks “considered…principally as a kind of intoxication, the overpowering of reason by a ‘divine madness’ which tears man away from his finite existence and enables him, in the very process of being overwhelmed by divine power, to experience supreme happiness” (DCE, 4). As such, eros was exalted by religions through fertility cults and “sacred prostitution”, and “was thus celebrated as divine power, as fellowship with the Divine” (DCE, 4).
Pope Benedict paraphrases the modern philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, who, bringing to expression a commonly held opinion, accused the Church of having “poisoned eros”: “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 that is the Creator’s gift offers us a happiness that is itself a certain foretaste of the Divine?” (DCE, 3). To be sure, Christianity never, not even in Old Testament times, rejected eros in itself. Echoing the teaching of Pope John Paul II in his Theology of the Body, Benedict XVI shows how an undisciplined eros is a “counterfeit divinization of eros [which] actually strips it of its dignity and dehumanizes it” (DCE, 4). “Indeed, the prostitutes in the temple, who had to bestow this divine intoxication, were not treated as human beings and persons, but simply used as a means of arousing ‘divine madness’: far from being goddesses, they were human persons being exploited” (ibid.).
From these considerations, the Holy Father draws two conclusions. 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” (DCE, 5). Secondly, it is clear that the “Divine” will not be reached simply by “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” (DCE, 5). Without purification and discipline, eros is not an “ascent toward the divine” nor even love at all, but the degradation of man.
This conclusion follows from the fact that man is a composite being, body and soul. Under the aberrant influence of Descartes, modern man tends to see a certain dichotomy between spirit and body. As a result, “he now considers his body and his sexuality as the purely material part of himself, to be used and exploited at will” (ibid.). The body is no longer considered an integral part and expression of his person, but “has become a commodity, a mere ‘thing’ to be bought and sold, or rather, man himself becomes a commodity” (ibid.). The man who considers his body something extraneous to his “self” loses respect for his body and becomes a slave of his instincts.
Man as an Integral Whole: Body and Soul
Christianity, on the other hand, has always viewed man as an integral whole. Man is “a unity in duality, a reality in which spirit and matter compenetrate, and in which each is brought to a new nobility” (ibid.). This thought reflects the profound teaching of John Paul II, where the body is seen to be the sign or sacrament of the person, the visible reality which expresses and manifests the invisible reality of the free and rational soul made to the image of God, setting him above the animal world (cf. Theology of the Body, 19:3).
For this reason, while Pope Benedict admits that “eros tends to rise ‘in ecstasy’ toward the Divine, to lead us beyond ourselves”, yet because the body forms a unity with the spirit, it must submit to the higher order of reason in order to express and manifest man’s superiority, as the image of God, to the animals. Therefore, eros “calls for a path of ascent, renunciation, purification, and healing” (DCE, 5). In other words, because of the fall of man and the resulting concupiscence of the flesh which “wars against the spirit”, the body’s instincts must be harmoniously ordered by the spirit, so that the person express and manifest himself as a free and rational creature, who, created in the image of God, is called to union with HIM.
A New, Biblical Dimension of Love: Agape
Eros comes to be purified when it is subordinated to and united with another dimension of love, agape. This love, the typical biblical notion of love, is not “self-seeking, a sinking in the intoxication of happiness; instead it seeks the good of the beloved: it becomes renunciation and it is ready, and even willing, for sacrifice” (DCE, 6). When this dimension of love is united with eros, love becomes a “journey, an ongoing exodus out of the closed inward-looking self toward its liberation through self-giving” (DCE, 6). Both dimensions of love, eros and agape, must complement each other. “Even if eros is at first mainly covetous and ascending, a fascination for the great promise of happiness, in drawing near to the other it is less and less concerned with itself, increasingly seeks the happiness of the other, is concerned more and more with the beloved, bestows itself and wants to ‘be there for’ the other” (DCE, 7). This purified love, moreover, seeks to become definitive, both in the sense of exclusivity and of being “forever”. Without agape, the benevolent, giving love, eros turns in upon and seeks only itself. But without eros, a certain enjoyment of the beloved and a desire for the other, agape will run dry. For to be able to love, we must first receive and enjoy being loved.
Thus far, the Holy Father has shown that the Christian notion of love is not something foreign to “love” as man uses the term today. Rather, the faith manifests other dimensions of love which involve an integral view of man as a union of body and spirit. For love to be integral and fully human, it requires purification and maturity. What the Bible adds to this philosophical picture of human love, according to the Holy Father, is a new image of God and a new image of man himself.
Uniting Eros and Agape: A Christian Image of God and Man
First of all, unlike all other religions, the God of the Christian faith is a God who loves man with a personal and even passionate love. He seeks man and gives Himself to man, even to the point of forgiving man. His love for man “is so great that it turns God against Himself, His love against His justice” (DCE, 10). This love is both eros and agape. And this love becomes visible and incarnate in Christ. “His death on the Cross is the culmination of that turning of God against Himself in which He gives Himself in order to raise man up and save him” (DCE, 12). Like Pope John Paul II, Benedict XVI understands divine love for man as essentially a gift, a Self-giving of God to His creatures, an effusion of the inner-Trinitarian Love, where each Person is a total gift for the Other. Following St. Paul (cf. Eph 5), we can understand this love through the “icon” of marriage. Christ’s death on the Cross has the characteristics of a spousal gift of self by Christ Himself to the Church, after which the spousal relationship between husband and wife is patterned (cf. TOB, 94:5).
Secondly, the Bible also reveals a new image of man and human love. First, human love from the very beginning has a dimension of eros: Adam saw that he was “alone” in the midst of the animals and sought a helper, someone like and for himself. Man (man and woman) is essentially a “seeker”. Secondly, from the beginning, this eros “directs man toward marriage, to a bond which is unique and definitive” (DCE, 11): “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife and they become one flesh” (Gen 2:24). As John Paul II would say, man and woman, in the state of original innocence or, subsequently, when their love has been purified through temperance and self-mastery, come to understand the “spousal meaning of the body” which is ordered toward a communion of persons, each becoming a total and free gift for the other (cf. TOB 49:5). This self-giving is the very essence of love.
God’s Love as the Measure of Human Love
In this way, as an expression of a total gift of self in exclusive and definitive love, marriage becomes an icon by which we can understand God’s love for man. At the same time, God’s love for man, revealed in the first Covenant and in the New Covenant on the Cross, becomes the model and measure for Christian marriage and human love. Moreover, this revelation is not only for married couples. God’s love and total gift of Self to man is the paradigm for all human love. This is the love which inspires celibates and virgins to give their lives to God, in response to His divine call and Gift. Each in his own state of life, from contemplating the love and total gift of God in Jesus on the Cross, “the Christian discovers the path along which his life and love must move” (DCE, 12). This path is a way of renunciation, of purification and self-mastery, until in purity and freedom we can give ourselves totally in return to God and His divine will.
The Eucharist, Entering Into Christ’s Self-giving Love
Yet we are not left to our own resources. God has loved us first! This is a first principle in all spiritual theology. Nourished and strengthened by His love, which we experience especially in prayer and the Sacraments, we walk out on the path of love, seeking to arrive at an ever more pure, unconditional, total gift of self. Our love is nourished most especially in the Eucharist. In the Eucharist, the Sacrifice and Gift of Christ becomes present to us and draws us by His love. “Jesus gave this act of oblation [on the Cross] an enduring presence through His institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper…. The Eucharist draws us into Jesus’ act of self-oblation. More than just statically receiving the incarnate Logos, we enter into the very dynamic of His self-giving” (Benedict VI, Encyclical Deus Caritas est, 13). Nourished by His self-giving in the Eucharist, therefore, we are strengthened to love and give ourselves in return.
This love for God will also include and is verified by our love for neighbor: “As you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me” (Mt 25:40). In this passage, “love of God and love of neighbor have become one: in the least of the brethren we find Jesus Himself, and in Jesus we find God” (DCE, 15). Interpreting 1 John 4:20, the Holy Father comments that “love of neighbor is a path that leads to the encounter with God, and that closing our eyes to our neighbor also blinds us to God” (DCE, 16).
The Angels Purifying and Inflaming Our Love
The holy angels can be a special help in our pursuit of pure and selfless love, a total gift of self. For as we have seen, eros, which is natural to us, needs to be purified in order that our lower instincts not rule over us and predominate. The angels, who are pure spirits and not inhibited by the concupiscence of the flesh, are sent to help us rise above our lower instincts that we may “live by the Spirit” (cf. Heb 1:14). If we truly strive for purity and self-mastery, therefore, they will be of particular assistance when we call upon them in our struggles against the passions or addictions, and seek to collaborate with their admonitions.
But even more importantly, the holy angels help to inflame a passionate love for God and neighbor. If we invite them to help us to pray and meditate, or to make an hour of Adoration with us, the angels can help us to see God’s loving goodness and providence, His longing in holy eros for “me personally” at every moment of my life. This experience of His love in prayer opens our hearts increasingly for God, fills them with longing for Him and transforms them. Once we have seen and experienced God’s love for me, the angels, who burn with love for God, can inflame our hearts as well with thirst for God in the seeking love of purified eros.
Moreover, once we have been filled with this love, we will want to love God in return. The angels can help us to respond to God’s love by opening our eyes and hearts to opportunities for becoming a channel of His love for others. For those who have received love and mercy should also become loving and merciful towards others. The angels can strengthen our wills for the good, that we may practice the active and benevolent charity of agape, even when this involves personal sacrifice and renunciation. With their help, if we are silent and listening for God’s will, we will learn to follow and obey, giving ourselves totally to God and His will, in the service of others. This is true and perfect love of neighbor.
Mary, Mother of Pure Love
Nor can we forget our Blessed Mother, Mary. She “shows us what love is and whence it draws its origin and its constantly renewed power. To her we entrust the Church and her mission in the service of love: …[Mary] You abandoned yourself completely to God’s call and thus became a wellspring of the goodness which flows forth from Him. Show us Jesus. Lead us to Him. Teach us to know and love Him, so that we too can become capable of true love and be fountains of living water in the midst of a thirsting world” (DCE, 42). Mary, Mother of Fair Love, pray for us, pray for the Church!
The texts of the Circular Letters are copyrighted and may not be reproduced without written permission.
©2021 Opus Sanctorum Angelorum Inc.
Back to Meditations Index →