Deus Caritas Est--Reflections on Love


This is probably premature as I have not yet read the entire encyclical, and yet when a Pope moves toward the Song of Songs (as in section 6, which precedes the excerpt below), it seems to call for comment.

from Deus Caritas Est
Pope Benedict XVI

7. By their own inner logic, these initial, somewhat philosophical reflections on the essence of love have now brought us to the threshold of biblical faith. We began by asking whether the different, or even opposed, meanings of the word “love” point to some profound underlying unity, or whether on the contrary they must remain unconnected, one alongside the other. More significantly, though, we questioned whether the message of love proclaimed to us by the Bible and the Church's Tradition has some points of contact with the common human experience of love, or whether it is opposed to that experience. This in turn led us to consider two fundamental words: eros, as a term to indicate “worldly” love and agape, referring to love grounded in and shaped by faith. The two notions are often contrasted as “ascending” love and “descending” love. There are other, similar classifications, such as the distinction between possessive love and oblative love (amor concupiscentiae – amor benevolentiae), to which is sometimes also added love that seeks its own advantage.

In philosophical and theological debate, these distinctions have often been radicalized to the point of establishing a clear antithesis between them: descending, oblative love—agape—would be typically Christian, while on the other hand ascending, possessive or covetous love —eros—would be typical of non-Christian, and particularly Greek culture. Were this antithesis to be taken to extremes, the essence of Christianity would be detached from the vital relations fundamental to human existence, and would become a world apart, admirable perhaps, but decisively cut off from the complex fabric of human life. 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. 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. The element of agape thus enters into this love, for otherwise eros is impoverished and even loses its own nature. On the other hand, man cannot live by oblative, descending love alone. He cannot always give, he must also receive. Anyone who wishes to give love must also receive love as a gift. Certainly, as the Lord tells us, one can become a source from which rivers of living water flow (cf. Jn 7:37-38). Yet to become such a source, one must constantly drink anew from the original source, which is Jesus Christ, from whose pierced heart flows the love of God (cf. Jn 19:34).

To clarify his point, and to unite it with some of the earlier ruminations, I simply offer this definition proposed in section 3:

That love between man and woman which is neither planned nor willed, but somehow imposes itself upon human beings, was called eros by the ancient Greeks.

So, the holy Father talks about a love that is neither planned nor willed. Further, he goes on to say that this love, the so-called ascending love of the cited section is critical to our advance in love and in the spiritual life. This ascending love is the arrow of desire. Desire may start with a worldly or human object, but that is not the ultimate aim of desire. The target of desire is always to return home. Desire points the way to something missing. Too often people stop at the point of obtaining what is desired, which is unfortunate because obtaining Earthly desires will never be satisfying.

The Holy Father points out that the fullness of love is in giving and Receiving. That is, the fullness of love is in the outward travel of the arrow of desire and in the shower of agape that comes down to us as the manna of Heaven. Anything less falls short of true love, true caritas.

I find this passage particularly comforting:

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.

What it says to me, in a roundabout way is that the human lot is to be tempted by desire. Desire is the siren-call of God, call us upwards, encouraging each person to transcend his earth-bound desire and to heed the desire that gives life and is behind all earthly desire. So, those of us who constantly complain about bodily temptation--yes, it is a very difficult passage to endure, but what it says, indirectly, is that we still hear God's call even though we are yet distant from Him.

Eros is answered by and intertwined with agape. In our present situation, the two are intrinsically bound and cannot be separated without doing radical harm to the very nature of love itself. Eros severed from agape parts passion and sympathy from service--it damages both will and desire.

I'll continue to read, and if other thoughts occur, I'll be happy to share them, but so far in this brief transit, I have met Pope Benedict XVI mystic or protomystic whose first encyclical calls us to a closer relationship with out Lord. The nature of the letter seemed to surprise a great many in Rome, and yet there was no need for it to do so. After all, he was chosen by the Holy Spirit, and we will assume that he has consented to be guided by Him, so what could be more practical than telling a world drowning in the diminution of eros that God is reaching out and calling each person home?

God bless our good Pope, and thanks be to God for the message He inspired of the Holy Father.

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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on January 30, 2006 9:09 AM.

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