1st Lenten Sermon 2011

Author: Father Raniero Cantalamessa, OFM Cap.


Father Cantalamessa's 1st Lenten Sermon

"The Two Faces of Love: Eros and Agape"


Here is a translation of the first Lenten homily delivered today in the Vatican by Father Raniero Cantalamessa to Benedict XVI and the Roman Curia. The homily is titled "The Two Faces of Love: Eros and Agape."

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1. The Two Faces of Love

With the homilies of this Lent I would like to continue in the same vein that I began in Advent, to make a small contribution vis-à-vis the reevangelization of the secularized West, which at this moment is the main concern of the whole Church and in particular of the Holy Father Benedict XVI.

There is a realm in which secularization acts in a particularly pervasive and negative way, and it is the realm of love. The secularization of love consists in detaching human love in all its forms from God, reducing it to something purely "profane," in which God is out of place and even an annoyance.

However, the subject of love is not important just for evangelization, that is, in relation with the world; it is also important first of all for the internal life of the Church, for the sanctification of her members. It is the perspective in which the Holy Father Benedict XVI's encyclical "Deus Caritas Est" is placed and in which we also place ourselves in these reflections.

Love suffers from ill-fated separation not only in the mentality of the secularized world, but also in that of the opposite side, among believers and in particular among consecrated souls. Simplifying the situation to the greatest extent, we can articulate it thus: In the world we find eros without agape; among believers we often find agape without eros.

Eros without agape is a romantic love, very often passionate to the point of violence. A love of conquest which fatally reduces the other to an object of one's pleasure and ignores every dimension of sacrifice, of fidelity and of gift of self. There is no need to insist on the description of this love because it is a reality that we see daily with our own eyes, propagated as it is in a hammering way by novels, films, television fiction, the Internet, the Gossip magazines. It is what common language understands, moreover, by the word "love."

It is more useful for us to understand what is meant by agape without eros. In music there is a distinction that can help us to form an idea — the difference between hot and cool jazz. I read somewhere about this characterization of two kinds of jazz, although I know it is not the only one possible. Hot jazz is passionate, ardent, expressive jazz, made of outbursts, feelings, and hence of runs and original improvisations. Cool jazz is that which one has when one passes to professionalism: feelings become repetitive, inspiration is replaced by technique, spontaneity by virtuosity.

This distinction having been made, agape without eros seems to us a "cold love," a loving "with the tip of the hairs" without the participation of the whole being, more by imposition of the will than by an intimate outburst of the heart, a descent into a pre-constituted mold, rather than to create for oneself something unrepeatable, as unrepeatable is every human being before God. The acts of love addressed to God are like those of certain poor lovers who write to the beloved letters copied from a handbook.

If worldly love is a body without a soul, religious love practiced that way is a soul without a body. The human being is not an angel, that is, a pure spirit; he is soul and body substantially united: everything he does, including loving, must reflect this structure. If the component linked to affectivity and the heart is systematically denied or repressed, the result will be double: either one goes on in a tired way, out of a sense of duty, to defend one's image, or more or less licit compensations are sought, to the point of the very painful cases that are afflicting the Church. It cannot be ignored that at the root of many moral deviations of consecrated souls there is a distorted and contorted conception of love.

We have therefore a double motive and a double urgency to rediscover love in its original unity. True and integral love is a pearl enclosed within two valves, which are eros and agape. These two dimensions of love cannot be separated without destroying it, as hydrogen and oxygen cannot be separated without depriving oneself of water.

2. The Thesis of Incompatibility Between the Two Loves

The most important reconciliation between the two dimensions of love is the practice that happens in the life of persons, but precisely for it to be rendered possible it is necessary to begin by reconciling eros and agape also theoretically, in the doctrine. This will enable us among other things to know finally what is intended with these two terms that are so often used and misunderstood.

The importance of the question stems from the fact that a work exists which has made popular in the whole Christian world the opposite thesis of the irreconcilability of the two ways of love. It is the book of the Swedish Lutheran theologian Anders Nygren, entitled "Eros and Agape." [1] We can summarize his thought in these terms. Eros and agape designate two opposite movements: the first indicates the ascent of man to God and to the divine as to one's good and one's origin; the other, agape, indicates God's descent to man with the Incarnation and the Cross of Christ, and hence the salvation offered to man without merit and without a response on his part, which is not faith alone. The New Testament has made a precise choice, using the term agape to express love and systematically rejecting the term eros.

St. Paul is the one who with the greatest purity formulated this doctrine of love. After him, always according to Nygren's thesis, such radical antithesis was lost almost immediately to give way to attempts of synthesis. No sooner Christianity entered into cultural contact with the Greek world and the Platonic view, already with Origen, there was a re-evaluation of eros, as ascensional movement of the soul toward the good, as universal attraction exercised by beauty and the divine. In this line, Pseudo Dionysius the Areopagite would write that "God is eros," [2] substituting this term for that of agape in the famous phrase of John (1 John 4:10)

In the West a similar synthesis was made by Augustine with his doctrine of caritas understood as doctrine of descending and gratuitous love of God for man (no one has spoken of "grace" in a stronger way than he!), but also as man's longing for the good and for God. His is the affirmation: "Thou hast made us for yourself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee" [3]; his also is the image of love as a weight that draws the soul, as by the force of gravity, toward God, as the place of one's repose and pleasure. [4] All this, for Nygren, inserts an element of love of self, of one's own good, hence of egoism, which destroys the pure gratuitousness of grace; it is a falling again into the pagan illusion of making salvation consist of an ascent to God, instead of the gratuitous and unmotivated descent of God toward us.

For Nygren, prisoners of this impossible synthesis between eros and agape, between love of God and love of self, include St. Bernard, when he defines the supreme degree of the love of God as a "loving God for himself" and a "loving oneself for God" [5]; St. Bonaventure with his ascentional "Journey of the Soul to God"; and St. Thomas Aquinas who defines the love of God poured out in the heart of the baptized (cf. Romans 5:5) as "the love with which God loves us and with which he makes us love him" ("amor quo ipse nos diligit et quo ipse nos dilectores sui facit"). [6]

This in fact would mean that man, loved by God, can in turn love God, give him something of his own, which would destroy the absolute gratuitousness of the love of God. On the existential plane the same deviation, according to Nygren, is had in Catholic mysticism. The love of mystics, with its very strong charge of eros, is, for him, nothing other than a sublimated sensual love, an attempt to establish with God a relationship of presumptuous reciprocity in love.

The one who broke the ambiguity and brought to light the clear Pauline antithesis was, according to the author, Luther. Basing justification on faith alone he did not exclude charity from the founding moment of Christian life, as Catholic theology reproaches him; he has rather liberated charity — agape — from the spurious element of eros. To the formula of "faith alone," with the exclusion of works, would correspond, in Luther, the formula of "agape alone," with the exclusion of eros.

It is not for me to establish here if the author has interpreted correctly on this point Luther's thought who — it must be said — never posed the problem in terms of opposition between eros and agape, as he did instead between faith and works. Significant, however, is the fact that Karl Barth also, in a chapter of his "Ecclesial Dogmatics," arrives at the same result as Nygren of an unreconcilable opposition between eros and agape: "When Christian love comes on the scene," he writes, "the conflict immediately begins with the other love and this conflict has no end." [7] I say that if this is not Lutheranism, it is however certainly dialectical theology, theology of the "aut - aut," of antithesis at any cost.

The repercussion of this operation is the radical worldliness and secularization of eros. While in fact a certain theology was busy expelling eros from agape, secular culture was very happy, for its part, to expel agape from eros, namely every reference to God and to the grace of human love. Freud furnished this with a theoretic justification, reducing love to eros and eros to libido, to pure sexual drive which fights against any repression and inhibition. It is the state to which love has been reduced today in many manifestations of life and culture, especially in the world of entertainment.

Two years ago I was in Madrid. The newspapers did no more than speak of a certain art exhibition taking place in the city, entitled "The Tears of Eros." It was an exhibition of artistic works of an erotic nature — pictures, designs, sculptures — which intended to bring to light the indissoluble bond that there is, in the experience of modern man, between eros and thanatos, between love and death. One comes to the same observation, reading the collection of poems "The Flowers of Evil of Baudelaire" or "A Season in Hell" of Rimbaud. Love which by its nature should lead to life, leads now instead to death.

3. Return to the Synthesis

If we cannot change with one strike the idea of love that the world has, we can however correct the theological vision that, unwittingly, fosters and legitimizes it. It is what the Holy Father Benedict XVI has done in an exemplary way with the encyclical "Deus Caritas Est." He reaffirms the traditional Catholic synthesis expressing it in modern terms. "Eros and agape," one reads there, "ascending love and descending love — do not ever allow themselves be separated completely from one another [...] Biblical faith does not construct a parallel world or an opposite world in regard to that original human phenomenon which is love, but it accepts the whole man intervening in his search for love to purify it, revealing to him at the same time new dimensions" (Nos. 7-8). Eros and agape are united to the source itself of love which is God: "He loves," continues the text of the encyclical, "and this love of his can be qualified without a doubt as eros, which however is also and totally agape" (No. 9).

One can understand the favorable reception that this papal document had also in the more open and responsible secular environments. It gives hope to the world. It corrects the image of a faith that touches the world tangentially, without penetrating in it, with the evangelical image of the leaven that makes the dough ferment; it replaces the idea of a kingdom of God come to "judge" the world, with that of a kingdom of God come to "save" the world, beginning from the eros which is the dominant force.

To the traditional vision, whether of Catholic or Orthodox theology, one can contribute, I believe, a confirmation also from the point of view of exegesis. Those who hold the thesis of the incompatibility between eros and agape base themselves on the fact that the New Testament carefully avoids the term eros, using in its place always and only agape (apart from a rare use of the term philia, which indicates the love of friendship).

The fact is true, but the conclusions drawn from it are not. One supposes that the authors of the New Testament knew both, the meaning that the term eros had in common language — the so-called "vulgar" eros — and the lofty and philosophical meaning it had, for example, in Plato, the so-called "noble" eros. In the popular meaning, eros indicated more or less what is indicated also today when one speaks of eroticism or of erotic films, namely, satisfaction of the sexual instinct, a degrading of oneself rather than a raising of oneself. In the noble meaning it indicated love of beauty, the force that holds the world together and pushes all beings to unity, namely, that movement of ascent towards the divine that dialectical theologians hold incompatible with the movement of descent of the divine towards man.

It is difficult to maintain that the authors of the New Testament, addressing simple people without any education, intended to put them on guard in regard to Plato's eros. They avoided the term eros for the same reason that today a preacher avoids the term erotic or, if he uses it, does so only in a negative sense. The reason is that, now as then, the word evokes love in its most egotistical and sexual sense. [8] The suspicion of early Christians in comparisons of eros was ultimately aggravated by the role that it had in the orgiastic Dionysian cults.

No sooner Christianity entered into contact and dialogue with the Greek culture of the time, every preclusion fell immediately, we have already seen, in comparisons of the eros. It was used often, in Greek authors, as synonym of agape and was employed to indicate the love of God for man, as well as the love of man for God, love for the virtues and for every beautiful thing. Moreover, to be convinced suffice it to give a simple look at Lampe's "Greek Patristic Lexicon. [9] Nygren's and Barth's system hence is constructed on a false application of the so-called argument "ex silentio."

4. An Eros for the Consecrated

The rescue of eros helps first of all human couples in love and Christian spouses, showing the beauty and dignity of the love that unites them. It helps young people to experience the fascination of the other sex not as something torbid, to be lived taking cover from God, but on the contrary as a gift of the Creator for their joy, if lived in the order willed by Him. To this positive function of eros on human love the Pope also makes reference in his encyclical, when he speaks of the path of purification of eros, which leads from momentary attraction to the "forever" of marriage (Nos. 4-5).

However, the rescue of eros should also help us, consecrated men and women. I made reference at the beginning to the danger that religious souls run, which is that of a cold love, which does not descend from the mind to the heart, much like a winter sun that shines but does not give warmth. If eros means impulse, desire, attraction, we must not be afraid of feelings, much less so scorn and repress them. When it is a question of the love of God," wrote William of St. Thierry, "the feeling of affection (affectio) is also a grace; it is not in fact nature which can infuse in us such a feeling." [10]

The psalms are full of this longing of the heart for God: "To you, Lord, I raise my soul," and "My soul thirsts for God, for the living God." "Pay attention then," says the author of the "Cloud of Unknowing," "to this wonderful work of grace in your soul. It is nothing other than a sudden impulse that arises without any warning and points directly to God, as a spark given off from the fire ... It strikes this cloud of unknowing with the sharp arrow of the desire of love; do not move from there, no matter what happens." [11] Enough to do so is a thought, a motion of the heart, a short prayer.

However, all this is not enough for us and God knows it better than us. We are creatures, we live in time and in a body; we are in need of a screen on which to project our love which is not only "the cloud of unknowing," namely, the veil of darkness behind which God hides himself.

We know well the answer given to this problem: precisely for this reason God has given us our neighbor to love! "No man has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us ... He who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen" (1 John 4:12-20). However, we must be careful not to omit a decisive fact. Before the brother that we see there is another that we also see and touch: It is the God made flesh; it is Jesus Christ! Between God and our neighbor there is now the Word made flesh who has reunited the two extremes in one person. It is in Him, moreover, that love of neighbor itself finds its foundation: "You did it to me."

What does all this mean for the love of God? That the primary object of our eros, of our search, desire, attraction, passion must be Christ. "Pre-ordained to the Savior is human love since the beginning, as its model and end, almost as a casket so large and wide as to be able to receive God [...]. The desire of the soul goes only to Christ. Here is the place of its rest, because he alone is the good, the truth and all that which inspires love." [12]

This does not mean to reduce the horizon of Christian love from God to Christ; it means to love God in the way He wishes to be loved. "The Father himself loves you, because you have loved me" (John 16:27). It is not a question of a mediated love, almost by proxy, by which whoever loves Jesus "is as if" he loved the Father. No, Jesus is an immediate mediator, loving him one loves, ipso facto, also the Father. "He who sees me, sees the Father," who loves me loves the Father.

It is true that not even Christ is seen, but he exists; he is risen, he is alive, he is close to us, more truly than the most enamored husband is close to his wife. Here is the crucial point: to think of Christ not as a person of the past, but as the risen and living Lord, with whom I can speak, whom I can even kiss if I so wish, certain that my kiss does not end on the paper or on the wood of a crucifix, but on a face and on the lips of living flesh (even though spiritualized), happy to receive my kiss.

The beauty and fullness of consecrated life depends on the quality of our love for Christ. Only this is able to defend our heart from going off the rails. Jesus is the perfect man; in him are found, to an infinitely higher degree, all those qualities and attentions that a man seeks in a woman and a woman in a man, a friend in a friend. His love does not subtract us necessarily from the call of creatures and in particular from the attraction of the other sex (this is part of our nature that he has created and does not wish to destroy); he gives us, however, the strength to overcome these attractions with a much stronger attraction. "The chaste one," writes St. John Climacus, "is he who drives out eros with Eros." [13]

Does all this destroy, perhaps, the gratuitousness of agape, pretending to give God something in return for his love? Does it cancel grace? Not at all, rather it exalts it. What in fact do we give God in this way if not what we have received from him? "We love, because he first loved us" (1 John 4:19). The love we give to Christ is his same love for us that we return to him, as the echo does the voice.

Where, then, is the novelty and the beauty of this love that we call eros? The echo returns to God his own love but enriched, colored and perfumed by our liberty and gratitude. And it is all that he wishes. Our liberty pays him back for everything. And not only that, writes Cabasilas, "receiving from us the gift of love in exchange for all that he has given us, he holds himself our debtor." [14] The thesis that opposes eros and agape is based on another well-known opposition, that between grace and liberty, and even on the negation itself of the freedom of fallen man (on the "servant will").

I tried to imagine, venerable fathers and brothers, what the Risen Jesus would say now if, as he did in his earthly life when he entered on the Sabbath into a synagogue, he came to sit here in my place and explained to us in person what the love is that he desires from us. I want to share with you, with simplicity, what I think he would say to us; it will serve to make our examination of conscience on love:

Ardent love:

Is to put Me always in the first place;
Is to seek to please Me at every moment;
Is to live before Me as friend, confidant, spouse and to be happy;

Is to be troubled if you think you are ar from Me;
Is to be full of happiness when I am with you;
Is to be willing to undergo great sacrifices so as not to lose Me;

Is to prefer to live poor and unknown with Me, rather than rich and famous without Me;
Is to speak to Me as your dearest friend in every possible moment;
Is to entrust yourself to Me in regard to your future;
Is to desire to lose yourself in Me as end of your existence.
If it seems to you, as it does to me, that you are very far from this aim, we must not be discouraged. We have one who can help us reach it if we ask him. Let us repeat with faith to the Holy Spirit: "Veni, Sancte Spiritus, reple tuorum corda fidelium et tui amoris in eis ignem accende" (Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of thy faithful, and enkindle in them the fire of Thy love).

[1] Original Swedish version, Stockholm 1930, trans. Ital. "Eros e Agape: The Christian Notion of Love and Its Transformations, Bologna," Il Mulino, 1971.

[2] Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, I Nomi Divini , IV, 12 (PG, 3, 709 ff.).

[3] St. Augustine, Confessioni, I, 1.

[4] Commento al vangelo di Giovanni, 26, 4-5.

[5] Cf. St. Bernard, De diligendo Deo, IX, 26 — X, 27.

[6] St. Thomas Aquinas, Commento alla Lettera ai Romani, chapter V, lesson 2, n. 392-293; cf. St. Augustine, Commento alla Prima Lettera di Giovanni, 9, 9.

[7] K. Barth, Dommatica ecclesiale, IV, 2, 832-852; trans. Ital. K. Barth, Dommatica ecclesiale, Anthology by H. Gollwitizer, Bologna, Il Mulino 1968, pp. 199-225.

[8] The meaning given by the early Christians to the word eros is deduced clearly from the known text of St. Ignatius of Antioch, Lettera ai Romani, 7, 2: "My love (eros) was crucified and there is not in me a fire of passion ... I am not attracted by the nutriment of corruption and the pleasures of this life." "My eros" does not indicate here Jesus crucified, but "love of myself," attachment to earthly pleasures, in the line of the Pauline "I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live" (Galatians 2:20 f.).

[9] Cf. G.W.H. Lampe, A Patristic Greek Lexicon, Oxford 1961, pp. 550.

[10] William of St. Thierry, Meditazioni, XII, 29 (SCh 324, p. 210).

[11] Anonymous, The Cloud of Unknowing, published by Ancora, Milan, 1981, pp. 1356.140.

[12] N. Cabasilas, Vita in Cristo, II, 9 (PG 88, 560-561).

[13] St. John Climacus, La scala del paradiso, XV, 98 (PG 88, 880).

[14] N. Cabasilas, Vita in Cristo, VI, 4. 
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