Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Purification of Eros

Did Christianity really destroy eros? Let us take a look at the pre- Christian world. The Greeks—not unlike other cultures—considered eros 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. All other powers in heaven and on earth thus appear secondary: “Omnia vincit amor” says Virgil in the Bucolics—love conquers all—and he adds: “et nos cedamus amori”—let us, too, yield to love. In the religions, this attitude found expression in fertility cults, part of which was the “sacred” prostitution which flourished in many temples. Eros was thus celebrated as divine power, as fellowship with the Divine. The Old Testament firmly opposed this form of religion, which represents a powerful temptation against monotheistic faith, combating it as a perversion of religiosity. But it in no way rejected eros as such; rather, it 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. 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. An intoxicated and undisciplined eros, then, is not an ascent in “ecstasy” towards the Divine, but a fall, a degradation of man. Evidently, eros needs to be disciplined and purified if it is to provide not just fleeting pleasure, but a certain foretaste of the pinnacle of our existence, of that beatitude for which our whole being yearns.
Deus Caritas Est 4

Reflection – This post picks up where a previous one leaves off. You know, I love it when Pope Benedict agrees with me! Makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside.
When I was a newly ordained priest, oils still wet on my hands, there was a certain popular novel making a lot of waves, and bringing people to question their faith about Jesus and the Church. I decided to teach a course at the parish I was at that would debunk this ridiculous novel. But, of course, I had to read the thing first.
So yes, I read The Da Vinci Code. Now, I am not a very accomplished ascetic; I am not known for my all-night vigils, my sunken cheeks and eyes due to my heroic fasting, my ability to assume uncomfortable postures of prayer for hours on end.
But give me this: I actually read The !/&*@# Da Vinci Code. (Excuse my language). Surely that counts for something (although perhaps not, now that I’m complaining about it)! And, of course, that fatuous piece of best selling tripe is all about this business of sacred eros and holy prostitution and all that stuff. How empowering it is for women to be conduits of the divine… for men, of course.
At the time, I had precisely the response that Pope Benedict writes above. Women are just being used in this scenario! They are not valued as persons, but as instruments delivering some kind of ‘sacred’ experience to men. There is no real love, no real bowing before the beauty and sacred value of the person—just a using to get some kind of experience. Whether it is a simple experience of lust and pleasure or some elevated ‘sacred high’ is irrelevant. And where do women go, then, to get their sacred experience? Or do they not need one?
And this is the way of eros, if left to its own dynamism. It is such a powerful force, such an intense experience, that we tend to use the other person to deliver this erotic high to us. Eros is made by God, and is beautiful and good, but it is not sufficient unto itself. Left to itself, it degrades to lust and use.
And so we begin to work our way towards Pope Benedict’s answer to the charge of modernity, the accusation that the Church is anti-sex, anti-eros, anti-fun, and ultimately anti-human. He says, “Evidently, eros needs to be disciplined and purified if it is to provide not just fleeting pleasure, but a certain foretaste of the pinnacle of our existence, of that beatitude for which our whole being yearns.” And this is where the next instalment of the encyclical will take us, to the purification of eros so that it may realize its divine intent in our human being.

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