Wednesday, February 14, 2007

The Ups and Downs of Love in the 21st Century

Happy Valentine's Day!

How can we who are Catholic properly celebrate the bodily dimension of love, so obviously given to us from a God who loves us?

For this special day, the following item comes from a weekly Catholic e-newsletter sent out in the Twin Cities, called "Got Culture?"

It's a really great summary of B-16's thoughts on the relationship between divine and human love as expressed in December 2005 in his first letter to the faithful, entitled "God is Love."

The ups and downs of love

And [Jacob] dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it!---Genesis 28:12

Pope Benedict XVI’s first encyclical, Deus caritas est, is on Christian love. In this excerpt, he illustrates the difference between ascending love (eros) and descending love (agape) as well as their connection.

Questioning the essence of love:

Are ascending loving and descending love connected?
Are Christian love and mere human love connected?

7. …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.

Describing the two dimensions of love:

1) Eros—ascending, worldly, receiving, possessive, concupiscent, covetous, for self
2) Agape—descending, faith-based, giving, oblative, benevolent, charitable, for others

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 [self-giving] love (amor concupiscentiae — amor benevolentiae), to which is sometimes also added love that seeks its own advantage.

Ascending and descending love cannot be separated:

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.

Ascending love, upon approaching the beloved, turns into descending love, or it ceases to be love. Even if eros [ascending love] 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 [descending love] thus enters into this love, for otherwise eros is impoverished and even loses its own nature.

Man cannot live by descending love alone:

On the other hand, man cannot live by oblative [giving], 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. John 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. John 19:34).

Jacob’s ladder, ascending and descending angelsIn the account of Jacob’s ladder, the Fathers of the Church saw this inseparable connection between ascending and descending love, between eros [ascending love] which seeks God and agape [descending love] which passes on the gift received, symbolized in various ways. In that biblical passage we read how the Patriarch Jacob saw in a dream, above the stone which was his pillow, a ladder reaching up to heaven, on which the angels of God were ascending and descending (cf. Genesis 28:12; John 1:51).

St. Paul:

The heights of contemplation (ascending love)joined to the depths of compassion (descending love)A particularly striking interpretation of this vision is presented by Pope Gregory the Great in his Pastoral Rule. He tells us that the good pastor must be rooted in contemplation. Only in this way will he be able to take upon himself the needs of others and make them his own: “per pietatis viscera in se infirmitatem caeterorum transferat” ([by the depths of compassion he takes upon himself the weaknesses of others (my translation)] Book of Pastoral Rule, part 2, chap. 5 [audio files]). Saint Gregory speaks in this context of Saint Paul, who was borne aloft to the most exalted mysteries of God, and hence, having descended once more, he was able to become all things to all men (cf. 2 Cor 12:2-4; 1 Cor 9:22).


Rapt in contemplation inside, set on service outsideHe also points to the example of Moses, who entered the tabernacle time and again, remaining in dialogue with God, so that when he emerged he could be at the service of his people. “Within [the tent] he is borne aloft through contemplation, while without he is completely engaged in helping those who suffer: intus in contemplationem rapitur, foris infirmantium negotiis urgetur” (Book of Pastoral Rule, part 2, chap. 5).

Love-one reality, two necessary dimensions:

8. We have thus come to an initial, albeit still somewhat generic response to the two questions raised earlier. 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.

Grace builds on nature:

The Christian faith accepts human love, purifies it, and reveals new dimensions of itAnd we have also seen, synthetically, that biblical faith does not set up a parallel universe, or one opposed to that primordial human phenomenon which is love, but rather accepts the whole man; it intervenes in his search for love in order to purify it and to reveal new dimensions of it. This newness of biblical faith is shown chiefly in two elements which deserve to be highlighted: the image of God and the image of man.

---Pope Benedict XVI, Encyclical letter Deus caritas est on Christian love, December 25, 2005 (also PDF and FlashPaper formats).

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