Could it be that the saints and mystics encountered Jesus as Eros? The Holy Spirit as Eros? God as Eros? The spiritual life as an erotic affair? I think so, despite the fact that the Church’s toxic spirituality had denigrated eros almost from its inception.
What has been the effect of such negative spirituality? It has impacted the spirituality of married couples in particular, but also all seeking a spiritual life. For it has pitted soul against body, hiding the glory of our embodied personhood: we are incarnate spirit, a being who is body, soul and spirit. Further, it has fostered unhealthy spiritualities.
History of Eros. Ironically enough, the pagan, first-century author Plutarch appreciated the connection between eros and marital spirituality. In his “Dialogues of Love,” he wrote: “Physical pleasure with a spouse is the seed of friendship and the participation in great mysteries. Though the physical pleasure is brief, from it grows day by day respect and grace, affection and faithfulness.”
Contrast Plutarch’s insight with the Church’s long insistence that reproduction was the saving element in marriage. I believe that when the Church resolves its discomfort with eros in marital relationships, it will bless eros for all spiritualities. The result? A second Pentecost will dawn. The good news is that 2000 years later the Church is beginning to discover eros as an intrinsic characteristic of human psychology and healthy spirituality.
In his first encyclical letter, God Is Love, Pope Benedict XV1 rehabilitates the word “eros:” “…it is neither the spirit alone nor the body alone that loves: it is man, the person, a unified creature composed of body and soul, who loves. Only when both dimensions are truly united, does man attain his full stature. Only thus is love—eros—able to mature and attain its authentic grandeur.” Also, he states that God’s love “may certainly be called eros, yet it is also totally agape.”
Where does all this take us? I will propose a new, bold spirituality that will empower us to live a deeply spiritual, fully human life—based on a spirituality of eros. For starters, let us define spirituality as a theology of God, a psychology of human beings, and a methodology for bringing human beings into an ever deeper relationship with God.
Psychology of Eros. First, let us look at eros in human psychology. For the human being, eros is pleasure, is passion, is sexual, is our empowering life force. It is the total mind-body response. It embraces the power of our sexuality to empower our relating, our loving, our thinking, our creating.
In their book, Holy Eros, James D. Whitehead and Evelyn Eaton Whitehead, define eros: “Eros is the vital energy that courses through the world, animating every living thing. It is…the energy that stirs humans to be in touch, to reach out and link their lives in lasting ways….Eros is the force that quickens our hearts when we encounter suffering and moves us to help and heal. Sex, curiosity, compassion—Eros moves through our lives in delightful and bewildering ways.”
These definitions of eros sound very positive, but there is a terrible bias against the word itself built over many years. In his book, “Original Blessings,” Matthew Fox writes: “We have a word in our language for passionate celebration, but it has been co-opted by the multi-billion-dollar pornography industry…the reason the pornography industry has priority on the word “erotic” is that our spiritual traditions in the West have lost passion for passion and passion for eros.” Our first task is to regain our comfort with the word.
Eros in Spirituality. Eros is both our richest gift and a problem for us, warns Fr. Ronald Rolheiser in his book, “The Holy Longing.” He says that we are born with fire in our bellies—eros—that drives us to love, beauty and creativity, or to destructiveness. Ultimately, our spirituality is what we do with that energy. He gives three examples. Eros drove Mother Teresa to heroic accomplishments for God and the poor. Eros drove the rock star Janis Joplin to death at an early age from an overdose of life. And eros drove Princess Diana both to a life of charity as well as to a life of the jet-setter.
Rolheiser concludes: “Spirituality is about finding the proper ways, disciplines, by which to both access that energy and contain it.” So, at the heart of living a spiritual life is a dialectic calling us to entertain opposing ideas and to seek to resolve their conflict. On the one hand, if our spiritual life is not an erotic affair with an Infinite Lover, it is not a spiritual life. It may be a pious or religious way of life, but it is not a spiritual life which seeks deeper union with God.
On the other hand, to access deliberately eros has its challenges. But, ultimately, we must befriend our eros and not look upon our erotic feelings “like potential terrorists threatening to hijack the ship of self and steer it uncontrollably into dangerous waters” in the words of Wilkie Au, spiritual director and writer. What’s the solution?
Spirituality of Eros. We need a bold, new spirituality to resolve this dialectic related to eros. We can’t just focus on embracing eros. We can’t just zero in on containing eros which has been our principal strategy for years. We need a spirituality of eros that gives us a methodology that enables us to access eros in our life experiences, engage it and befriend it, allowing eros to become a natural part of our lives.
Most importantly, such a spirituality must provide us with a theology of God that cultivates a passion for living the spiritual life erotically. Our understanding of the Christian Vision must provide us with a supportive environment for living with eros as a natural part of our lives. Like Jesus’ garment which was one piece, so our methodology and theology must be one piece. At the same time, this spirituality must provide us with a discipline to defend us against the potential excesses of eros. Together these elements comprise the proposed spirituality of eros.
Methodology for Eros. How would one live such a spirituality? The clue is in the articles I have written on the spirituality of compassion. I have shared the various discoveries I have made about that spirituality since I first experienced it in 1988 at the Louvre Museum. This reflection has forced me to make still another discovery—that I have been living a spirituality of eros all these years because the spirituality of compassion is essentially a spirituality of eros.
Recall that the spirituality of compassion directs us to be fully present to the object of our encounter with a caring heart and an attentive mind. Whatever we are encountering, we must gift ourselves to the other to receive its gift. We must yield or surrender ourselves to the other whether it be art, music, dance, nature, other people, God. So it impacts the whole spectrum of our lives. Note: our efforts will not always produce the desired disposition, but God appreciates earnest effort. The rest is up to the Spirit.
At first, I had thought that the practice of compassion was simply a technique for concentrating the full energies of our mind and heart on the object of our encounter. A form of centering our minds and hearts. Then I realized that this practice was the way to spiritual union. Now I discover that it is the way to awaken my eros in order to gift, yield, surrender myself to the object of my encounter. The spirituality of compassion is indeed a spirituality of eros. This practice gives us a methodology to access eros in our life experiences, engage it and befriend it, allowing eros to become a natural part of our lives.
Containing Eros. The practice of compassion also eliminates the surprise of the pornographic in our lives. If we see all of life through the eyes of eros, we weaken its force. When the pornographic is the only source of eros, it has a more powerful effect. It causes us to focus on it and make a monster of it. Further, the fact that the pornographic offends the gestalt—the whole, integrated configuration—of our spirituality of eros makes us uncomfortable with it. We don’t want sensationalism; we want the joy of spirituality. Thus, we are more able to contain its power.
In addition, the above mindset disposes us spontaneously to draw upon the practice of discipline as described in Article 8. Briefly, this virtue has two facets—attentiveness and inattentiveness. We practice attentiveness to the interior landscape of our spirits to determine what directions our heart wishes are driving us. We practice inattentiveness to enable us to watch our compulsive needs wilt away.
Theology of Eros. Thus far, we have said that psychologically the human person is essentially an erotic being, and that the practice of the spirituality of compassion gives us a methodology for both accessing and containing eros. Note also that this spirituality leads us naturally to a theology of eros.
Now let us look at such a theology. For if the human person is an erotic being, then God must be perceived in erotic terms to be relevant. In an interview of Rubem Alves, Brazilian theologian and social scientist that appeared in Cross Currents, he states: “…a theology based on epistemology, no matter how fierce, doesn’t move people. We are not constructed in a Cartesian [philosophical] way. We are erotically constructed.” Here is a sketch of a theology of eros:
- God as Eros—God is a passionate God. God did not want to remain totally Mystery, the Cloud of Unknowing. The Ultimate Source of Being, the Ultimate Source of Beatitude wanted an incarnate union with humankind. God is Eros. Further, this erotic God dwells at the core of our beings, recreating us from the inside out. Also, this erotic God permeates all creation. When we contemplate the incredible beauty of creation, we can only conclude that God is Eros Who wants to win our hearts.
- Jesus as Eros—When we perceive the life events and words of the historical Jesus as contained in the Risen Christ, we discover the Jesus Process—a power source from which we receive the gifts of the Spirit. Then we can pray: “Risen Christ, set in motion the Jesus Process in our lives and pour into our hearts Jesus’ life energies, the love force that Jesus was and is now in the present moment.” The historical Jesus was Eros 2000 years ago and Jesus is Eros today.
- Spirit as Eros—It is through the Spirit that the Infinite Lover issues Lover’s invitations, awakening us to the possibilities of love each day, calling us out of our tombs daily to experience new life like Lazarus. As Eros, the Spirit takes initiatives in our lives, stirring the movements of our hearts to inspire us and invite us to greater love, hope and faith.
How ironic! Eros, the life force rejected by the Church for so long has become the cornerstone of a spirituality that empowers us to live a deeply spiritual, fully human life. Further, I can trust a God Who is Eros, for He wants union with me, as I want union with Him. I can trust a God Who is Eros to take me home when my days on earth are completed.