I am fixating on Eros, which is odd, because I always thought that if I was good, Religious Boy all those naughty thoughts of desire and love and madness would be chased away by the excellence of my ability to recite by memory the questions of the Baltimore Catechism. It was supposed to be the sinners and ne’r-do-wells who would live it up while I knelt in Church and gazed upon glorious, technicolor illustrations of baby angels. Religion is supposed to be safe, with the trade-off being moral rectitude and a chance at eternal life.
It turns out, though, that it isn’t the Church but Modern Life that has killed Eros (whatever modern life is and however you define it. Roger Scruton refers to the current age as the catastrophic process by which “public life has been deliberately moronised”. This is a full-on rant, just go with it). It is Modernity, or whatever jumble of pick-your-own poison amongst the options of the sexual revolution, crony capitalism, gross commercialism, the separation of body from soul as a result of Cartesianism gone wrong, atheism, etc… that has dehumanized us and put Eros down for the count. Now we live in a world of sex robots, deliberately childless couples, and desperate but entirely misinformed attempts by Hollywood to shock us back to life through ever-increasing imitations of Eros on screen.
It’s a sad state of affairs out there. Desire has been turned entirely to an all-encompassing, naïve attempt to eat, pray, and love our way around the world, and thus Desire is a pale shadow of what she once was, a mere root unable to flower. Honestly (and echoing an observation by Anthony Esolen), I’m not even sure of the last time I saw teenagers holding hands.
Where is Eros alive and well? In the Church. The Church is the only institution that currently upholds the link between body and soul, thus uniting our physical, sensible Erotic love with a deeper, universal love capable only through the miracle of an eternal soul united with a finite body. In the human person, heaven and earth truly find a meeting place. Romance is sacred. What is so interesting to me about this is the natural order by which Desire blossoms in us. There’s a fitting progression by which Eros is nurtured, and perhaps many of the ills of Modern Life can be traced back to the egotistic refusal to stand in line. Modern Life, of course, is generally skeptical of the body/soul connection and so lacks the very tools it needs to achieve its goal. It creates a toxic atmosphere in which we are presented with Desire as a valid, and in fact the only, expression of human love but are entirely unable to take the necessary steps to achieve it. End result: Frustration. Anxiety. Despair.
Once we accept that the metaphysical architecture of a human being makes possible the radical notion of bodily, eternal life in union with the soul, then and only then does the natural order of which we speak come into view. It is described in, among other places, Brideshead Revisited, the writings of Plato and Kierkegaard, and the Divine Comedy. This last is the one on my mind right now because I recently finished reading Robert Royal’s excellent commentary on the same and he makes numerous insightful observations on the topic.
In the Divine Comedy, Dante describes two objects of desire: Beatrice and God. These desires are not mutually exclusive, as if love of a woman and love of God must cancel each other out, but the desires support each other and are interlinked. In fact, Virgil, who as the guide represents Natural Reason, only leads Dante through the Inferno and Purgatory. He is left behind at Paradise, thus representing the limits of the natural intellect, and it is Beatrice, who represents the fulfillment of Desire and Love, who leads him into the realm of supernatural virtue. At one point, Beatrice actually becomes a theophany as Dante stares into her eyes. He sees all of time and space unfold in the reflection on her pupils and the forms therein become mirrors of the divine. The result is a deepening and opening up of desire that pulls him onward and upwards towards the fixed mobile in the highest realms of Heaven.
Even from the depths of the pit desire can take hold and begin to reorder the soul. The transition that Dante undergoes beginning with his downward trajectory is necessary from start to finish. It is the natural order. We know that from the very beginning of the Inferno he has already admitted his life is at loose ends. He’s in the dark wood of a mid-life crisis, suffering from lack of direction, and falling prey to the very despair that has brought Modern Man to his knees. Dante has desires but they are disordered and as such he is lost, which is why in order to find himself he must first descend to hell and see the resultant vice. He must crawl thence through purgatory and be purified so as to spring forth, then and only then, into paradise by way of a properly ordered desire. His entire journey is one of Eros, and from darkness to light Desire is there as his constant companion.
Eros without a proper object is useless. For want of direction it exhausts itself and, at best, will moderate into vague platitudes; it’s the sort of motivational quote plastered all over our facebook feeds in meme form. But it isn’t enough to desire a bland vision of world peace and harmony, and simply imagining a generic utopian world isn’t a stand in for real love.
Nietzsche, keen to reintroduce Eros back into modern life, claims that “Christianity gave Eros poison to drink” and in order to recover our senses we must reject the Church, but in fact, we find the situation to be the opposite way round. It is Desire run rampant without an object, the all-consuming desire to live life to the fullest, often meaning a blind obeisance to the passions, that detaches us from any meaningful interaction with true love. Kierkegaard puts it well in Either/Or,
Let us look as how they fling themselves from one pleasure to another: their password is variation. Do they desire something that is always the same? On the contrary, they want something that is never the same. In other words, they desire many different things, and he who wants in these circumstances is not only innerly dispersed, but also divided.
Pope Benedict XVI, writing about mistaken valuations of Eros in the ancient world that resulted in temple prostitution and the degradation of women, says that Israelite monotheism, “declared war on a warped and destructive form of [eros], because this counterfeit divinization of eros actually strips it of its dignity and dehumanizes it.” He goes on to argue, “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.”
What is the discipline required? A certain renunciation is needed. We cannot long for everything under the sun and expect to have it all. At first blush this seems a limitation. But in fact it is maturation. The Holy Father explains, “It is part of love’s growth towards higher levels and inward purification that it now seeks to become definitive, and it does so in a twofold sense: both in the sense of exclusivity (this particular person alone) and in the sense of being “for ever”.” If desire is an arrow, it must eventually strike home otherwise it is not true desire but only a passing emotion or fading attachment.
And here is where we find the true importance of Beatrice. She isn’t written into the Divine Comedy out of sentimentality; she’s there because Dante needs to come to grips with Desire. It isn’t the nebulous concept of love that motivates him. It isn’t the embrace of the cosmic universe that holds him captive. It is Beatrice, a specific woman with her own peculiar existence, her own charm, her own way of walking down the street. She is the one whose memory he desires, and for Dante she is the particular creature through whom universal love reveals itself. Beatrice is an example of the divine squeezing through the eye of a needle.
God doesn’t save us from our sins by fiat, he instead chooses to become a specific person who lives at a specific time and inhabits a life all his own. He is Emmanuel, God with us. The Eros of God isn’t content with abstract love, but manifests with such great Desire that it more or less compels Our Lord to get dirty in the mud of a Bethlehem stable, pour out blood from the sting of a whip, and feel his back splintered by the instrument of his death. This isn’t the way it had to be in order for us to achieve heaven, but it’s the way God chooses it to be because his Desire is so intense that it literally must incarnate itself so as to participate through solidarity in pain and suffering. His own assumption of humanity and subsequent destruction is the natural working out of divine Desire. Such it is for all of us as we bury ourselves in the waters of baptism, shackle ourselves to the bonds of marriage, and lay down our lives on foreign battlefields to protect our children back home. Desire is a seed that must fall to the ground and die for a specific beloved if it is ever to flower. We see the bud burst open in Dante’s own journey as he follows Desire through heavenly spheres, each of which perfects Eros as it submerges itself in the vast ocean of the love of the saints who are gathered into the divine life. Here we truly have a vision of Jacob’s ladder, a channel of grace that accompanies each specific person and accommodates angels both ascending (Eros) and descending (Agape). The two forms of love are shown to be comingled.
Here’s the challenge (for me at least), it’s easier to love in the abstract, to love “humanity” and “social justice.” It’s harder to work through Desire for that which is directly in front of us, to keep turning off the overhead lights in our house without complaint because my wife has forgotten to do so for the last 15 years, or to continue to make hospital visits to sick parishioners even though I’m tired and it has been a long day. But love a specific person we must (or a specific place, or work of art, or sunset…), because Desire only finds the way forward by loving real, actual people who are imperfect. It is learning to tolerate even flaws that is the sign of true love.
If it’s a dangerous temptation to jump straight to universal love in the abstract, it can also be a temptation to simply stop with the love of a specific person, as if that is the limit of the virtue of love and Desire can carry us no further. But there are no outer limits on virtues and they, by their very nature, participate in their divine source. They cannot be limited without being neutered. In the first canto of Paradiso, Beatrice describes love as an arrow shot to heaven. Its true essence escapes the human imagination. Love is eternal, wild, and unbounded. Our souls must be enlarged through a purification of Desire if we are to stand even the smallest, faintest glimmer at the inscape of Love.
Returning to that scene in which Dante sees the divine reflected in the eyes of Beatrice. Robert Royal writes, “Dante does something that no other medieval troubadour ever thought to do. For all the talk in love poetry about seeing God in the beloved’s eyes, no one had previously imagined that it might be possible to turn from the reflection in those pupils and look upon the source of that light itself.”
As he continues to ascend the heavenly realm, the poet writes of the moment that Desire prompts him to finally turn from the reflection in Beatrice’s eyes and look up.
And all my love was so absorbed in Him,
that in oblivion Beatrice was eclipsed.
Not this displeased her; but she smiled at it
So that the splendour of her laughing yes
My single mind on many things divided.
Lights many saw I, vivid and triumphant,
Make us a centre and themselves a circle,
More sweet in voice than luminous in aspect.
Royal comments, “Dante’s shift of attention away from Beatrice to the multiple lights not only does not displease her, but is a great step toward a new mode of contemplation. As he becomes more fixed on the sources of what he first came to know through Beatrice, he will fulfill his relationship to her and transcend it without abandoning her: Heaven permits many such paradoxes, the basis of all of them being that as we draw closer to the primal unity, the mutiplicity of the cosmos becomes truer also, truer in that both we and our relationships with each other become more authentic.”
As Dante turns his attention to the lights, he realizes he is seeing virtue itself instead of its appearances. In other words, his Desire has followed the natural order of rooting itself first in sensible objects, in Beatrice herself as a specific human being, and is now seeing more universally into the pure essences underlying all of existence.
The circles corporal are wide and narrow
According to the more or less of virtue
Which is distributed through all their parts.
Royal comments on this passage, “It is by the apprehension of things that we necessarily first come to love them…but only after we have seen clearly enough to distinguish what Love is in its deepest being and manifold manifestations.”
Anthony Esolen, in the preface to his translation of Dante, has much the same insight, “To love a human being is also to love the body. To love the body is to love the small, the local, the particular. It is to love those things enjoyed by that body—even to love Florence, or to use Burke’s phrase, the small platoon into which one was born. It is to love Bag End and the beer from a particularly good harvest.” In the paradox, we see that it is only in the Church and only in the universal love of God that can truly begin to love this world, and that the more we love this world, the more we love God. Sever the link and Desire asphyxiates.
From the particular to the universal, that is how Desire opens up and shows how expansive the human soul can become and how love, while never leaving anything behind, never ceases to draw us onward. This is the order we must follow. There are no shortcuts. We each follow our own Beatrice and practice our love where we are right now, in this very place, with these very people. If we were to look up into the night sky and have a vision of Dante’s Rose unfolding its petals over our heads and with the eye of a lover see beyond to the angels and saints in a slow dance around the Source of all Being, we would perhaps glimpse the bending of Desire as it circles ever more tightly into the unity of Love, as Dante famously concludes,
But already my desire and my will
were being turned like a wheel, all at one speed,
by the Love which moves the sun and the other stars