You were created for bliss and ecstasy.
Read that one more time. Has anyone ever told you that? It’s true – bliss and ecstasy.
Have you ever experienced something so beautiful that it actually hurt? In those moments – a sunrise over the ocean, stars filling the nightsky, the crescendo of an orchestra, a moment of intimacy with a loved one – our hearts ache with longing. We never want the experience to end.
It reawakens one’s sense of wonder where one enters into the eternal “I AM” of God. When the heart encounters beauty, time ceases and only the present matters. The thought of forever can often bring a feeling of fear, entrapment, or boredom. But when one’s heart, in an instant, is pierced by a glimpse of beauty, one does not want that particular moment to end, but rather the heart aches for that beauty to last forever – it pleads to go ever deeper into that one newly opened prism, because the heart knows there is no way one could ever fully exhaust the mystery. It keeps on giving and giving. An encounter of beauty is one of discovery and learning – it never remains stale or static, but thrusts one forward into ever new surprise. Beauty opens a portal into the eschaton where we can behold in awe the One who is ever ancient, and ever new, one who is present with us now as the Eternal Present.
– Br. David Brokke SOLT, Created: Bridging the Gap Between Your Art and Your Creator
The Greeks had a word for this – one of the dimensions of love called EROS. However, the Greeks considered it largely a kind of madness or intoxication, usually associated with sexual pleasure, but a significant purification of eros occured through the Jewish faith of the Old Testament. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI writes about this extensively in his first papal encyclical Deus Caritas Est. The English word erotic comes from the Greek eros, but unfortunately has not yet been redeemed, and remains very twisted and misconstrued in its meaning, being almost exclusively associated with sexual desire and pleasure, so for the purposes of this post, I will continue with the use of the Greek.
Eros – love as desire; desire for everything true, good and beautiful; seeking union; a yearning for infinity
Modern counterfeit eroticism seeks to possess the beautiful by means of sexual frenzy. The difference for Plato is that true eros desires to be possessed in the beautiful… Man’s desire for the Beautiful arouses his hope that his satisfaction is not in this world; his quest is not yet complete.
– Nathan Goebel, Cruciform Eros
Father Nathan Goebel (one of the priests on the popular podcast Catholic Stuff You Should Know) wrote an excellent thesis called “Cruciform Eros” on the importance of eros in the priestly life, which is really significant to the point that eros is a necessary element of love for all people, including those who will never express or experience it in a sexual way. Eros is not limited to sexual or physical love – it is so much deeper and broader. As Fr. Nathan quotes D.C. Schindler (The Redemption of Eros):
“[S]exuality is not the same thing as eros, which is a more universal and thus comprehensive desire, but is rather a physical image of eros… If Plato, and indeed the Christian tradition itself, resists the reduction of love to its physical expression, it is not necessarily because of a contempt for eros… but is rather an insistence that it be accorded its integral significance.”
Eros and lust are not the same, just as chastity and celibacy are not the same (more on that in future posts).
God’s love is often referred to exclusively as agape, a descending, self-sacrificial, selfless love, but Pope Benedict argues, “eros and agape 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.” He continues further: “Fundamentally ‘love’ is a single reality, but with different dimensions; at different times, one or other dimension may emerge more clearly. Yet when the two dimensions are totally cut off from one another, the result is a caricature or at least an impoverished form of love.” We see these two dimensions of love in the beautiful poetry of the Song of Songs, which as Benedict says, “ultimately describe[s] God’s relation to man and man’s relation to God”.
You ravish my heart, my sister, my promised bride, you ravish my heart… I come into my garden, my sister, my promised bride, I gather my myrrh and balsam, I eat my honey and my honeycomb, I drink my wine and my milk. Eat, friends, and drink, drink deep, my dearest friends. I sleep, but my heart is awake. I hear my Beloved knocking. ‘Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, my perfect one… Then I rose to open to my Beloved, myrrh ran off my hands, pure myrrh off my fingers… I opened to my Beloved.
– Song of Songs 4:9, 5:1-2, 5-6
Ecstasy, from the Greek ekstasis (to be taken out of oneself), is eros experienced to the full. Experiences of ecstasy can be found throughout the writings of the Christian mystics. One of my absolute favourite works of art is The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa by Bernini, where he strove to capture in marble the moment of ecstasy St. Teresa of Avila experienced when her heart was pierced by the love of God, who is Beauty. Recounting this experience in her own words, St. Teresa concluded by proclaiming: “the soul is satisfied now with nothing less than God.”
God is a communion of Persons, a Holy Trinity, and He experiences eros for Himself. He exists in relationship, and therefore human beings, made in His image and likeness, are also made for relationship. The three Persons of the Trinity, Father, Son and Spirit, desire each other so deeply as to be one, completely united in an eternal exchange of love. This is the truest and purest form of communion, and God wants to invite us into it. As William K. Riordan puts it, “we see God in His goodness attracting Himself in His eros to come forth from Himself in an eternal ecstasy in which new beings are created, sustained, and perfected“. Those new beings are us. You and me, all human persons.
Your desires are good. Let me repeat that… your desires are GOOD.
For anyone else who (like me) is a very passionate person, this is particularly good news. For most of my life I thought there was something wrong with me, that I needed to beat down or somehow get rid of the intense passions and desires I felt. This was a lie, and I believed it for far too long. It was through Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body that the desires of my heart were finally affirmed as inherently good (though in need of purification). This was something I’d always hoped and intuitively felt must be true, but couldn’t quite believe until recently. I don’t know if I can adequately articulate what a radical change this realization has brought about within me, personally. My desires were intentionally placed in me, by God, to direct me towards Him who is the ultimate fulfillment of all human desire. This knowledge has freed me in ways I didn’t even know I needed to be freed, and I hope that sharing it might bring about this freedom for others.
We all, moreover, need to set out on the path of purification and healing of desire. We are pilgrims, heading for the heavenly homeland, toward that full and eternal good that nothing will be able to take away from us. This is not, then, about suffocating the longing that dwells in the heart of man, but about freeing it, so that it can reach its true height. When in desire one opens the window to God, this is already a sign of the presence of faith in the soul, faith that is a grace of God.
– Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, General Audience, November 7 2012
We can’t forget about this key of purification and healing. Though inherently good, our desires must be purified. Saint Augustine referred to life as a “gymnasium of desire”. A gymnasium is a place to train, so to follow the analogy through, life is the training ground for desire, where it is directed towards ultimate fulfillment. Unfortunately, when misdirected (as is often the case), these deep desires lead us to unhealthy and dangerous ends (addictions of all kinds, hook-up culture, emotional dependency, etc.). Our desires are infinite. They cannot be ultimately satisfied with earthly pleasures because we were not made for this world. Christopher West often says, “when we take our desire for the Infinite to something finite, we are always left wanting” and further, “God wants to awaken our desires at their depth and redirect them towards ‘the stars’ [Himself]”.
We all have disordered hearts. Before the fall, our desires were pure, but because of original sin, that purity was lost, which is why Adam and Eve clothed themselves – not because their desires or their bodies were bad but because the desire of the one looking had become impure. In his fourth homily on the first Epistle of John, St. Augustine states: “The whole life of a good Christian is a holy desire… Let us desire therefore, my brethren, for we shall be filled.” We shall be filled. As my favourite saint, Thérèse of Lisieux wrote, “God would never inspire [us] with desires which cannot be realized”. He will fulfill us.
God loves us where we are and how we are, but He loves us far too much to leave us there. He is always calling us higher, to a more full and vibrant life than we can even imagine. At the root of every human desire is some good and truth because desire is good. Our desires must be mastered, not repressed or allowed to run our lives. We must order them – point them in the right direction. Sexual desire was created to fulfill the very commandment to love as Jesus loves… “This is My Body, given for you.” In order for desire towards other human persons to be rightly ordered, it must mature from an attraction to a person based on what good they are for us, to love as goodwill (selfless love), a longing for their good above our own. This is difficult. It takes time. We cannot do it by ourselves. But this is the fantastic, life-transforming good news of Jesus Christ! He wants to purify our desires even more than we do, and He actually can. All we have to do is let Him.
[E]ros captures the sense of transport of man’s being as such far better than does agape, and this constitutes for Denys as aesthetic as well as a soteriological statement. For man’s transport to God does not stop at Aristotelian and Neo-Platonic… but grounds the latter in an antecedent and con-descending divine ekstasis in which God is drawn out of himself by eros into creation, revelation, and Incarnation. But we must listen to the whole passage:
‘And the divine Eros also brings rapture, not allowing them that are touched by it to belong to themselves, but only to the objects of their love… And hence the great Paul, constrained by the divine Eros, and having received a share in its ecstatic power, says, with inspired utterance: ‘I live, and yet no longer I, but Christ lives in me.’ These are words of the true lover, of one who… was beside himself… and unto God… not posessing a life of his own… but the life of his Beloved, a life surrounded on all sides by an ardent love. And we must dare affirm (for this is the truth) that the Creator of the Unvierse himself, in his beautiful and good Eros towards the Universe, is, through his excessive erotic Goodness, transported outside of humself, in his providential activities towards all things that have being, and is overcome by the sweet spell of Goodness, Love, and Eros. In this manner, he is drawn from his transcendent throne above all things to dwell within the heart of all things in accordance with his super-essential and ecstatic power thereby he nonetheless does not leave himself behind. This is why those who know about God call him ‘zealous’, because he is vehement in his manifold and beneficent Eros towards all beings, and he spurs them on to search for him zealously with a yearning eros, thus showing himself zealous for love inasmuch as the things that are desired are considered worthy of zeal and inasmuch as he allows himself to be affected by the zeal of all beings for which he cares. In short, both to possess eros and to love erotically belong to everything Good and Beautiful, and eros has its primal roots in the Beautiful and Good: eros exists and comes into being only through the Beautiful and the Good.’”
– Hans urs van Balthasar, Theological Aesthetics: Seeing the Form
[Note: The is the first in a 3 part series on the love, life, and the body all grounded in St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. Please check back over the coming two weeks for parts 2 and 3.]
(All emphasis added to quotations is my own.)