In his encyclicals Deus caritas est and Caritas in veritate, Pope Benedict XVI discusses the relationship between two different aspects of love, which he refers to using the Greek terms, agape and eros.
Prior to reading these encyclicals, I had always thought of agape as the higher love in which the person makes a gift of himself to the other. A loving or covanental relationship, therefore, is one of mutual self-gift. Eros, on the other hand, is a lower, self serving desire for the other. With eros, therefore, the best form of personal relationship one can have is a lower ‘contractual’ arrangement in which self-interests are aligned. In the Christian life, I thought, we are offered the possibility through grace of raising up our natural tendency to eros into one by which we are capable of self-gift – agape – in a new way.
Benedict offers us something different. He describes how Christianity does not eradicate eros at all. Rather, it raises it up into a desire for the other which is consummated in an ordered acceptance of the gift of the other. He makes the point that a gift cannot be given if it is not received by the one to whom it is given. Thus, in the loving interraction, both agape and eros are happening simultaneously in a dynamic process. Each is giving themselves to the other, while accepting the gift of the other in an ordered way.
Futhermore, and this being the case, the reception of the gift of love is our first act of love, for we cannot love others or love God without first accepting love from God. This is not passive, it occurs to me, but an action, an assent of the will; it is the spirit reaching out, so to speak, and grasping that hand of God that is offered to us every moment of the day.
Suddenly eros seems vitally important. If we reject God’s love then we are incapable of living the Christian life in any degree and the joy that is available to us all through the Church is shut out of our lives. The place where that acceptance of God’s love in our hearts might occur most profoundly, powerfully and effectively is, of course, in the sacred liturgy. Eros is the first act of an ‘active participation’ by which He abides in us. By this we participate in the transfigured Christ and become (Read More)