I am very grateful to Dr Stephen Milne who has given me permission to promote his excellent writing here to a wider audience through this publication. He has some excellent resources here.
Love according the Pope Benedict XVI: The Gift of God
Today I begin a series on Pope Benedict’s wonderful encyclical Deus Caritas Est(God is Love). First given in Rome on 25th December 2005, it is an important reflection on the meaning and practice of love for each believer and for the Church as a “Community of Love”.
The Holy Father begins his encyclical by reminding us of St John’s words “God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him” (1 Jn 4:16). A long-time favourite of mine, St John’s letter from the Scriptures captures the “heart of the Christian faith” by expressing the Christian image of God “and the resulting image of mankind and its destiny” (DCE, 1). I have often dwelt on these words, and we have “abide with me” hung at the bottom of our stairwell in our home to remind us of their importance.
For Benedict XVI, their importance is in how they summarize the “fundamental decision” of the Christian life, that “we have come to believe in God’s love” so that,
“Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea but the encounter with an event, a Person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction” (DCE, 1).
How often I have come across the notion that being a Christian is simply ‘a comfort’, ‘an ideal to aspire to’, or an attempt to live by someone else’s ‘rules’! Throughout Pope Benedict’s letter, it is the Person of Jesus Christ that shines through, the Person without whom our ability to love remains wounded by sin, but with whom new power is given for the world by which it can know God’s Love and carry it forth into the lives of others.
Benedict XVI reminds us further at the start of his letter that the central “event” that can be encountered in faith is God’s gift of “his only son, that whoever believes in him should…have eternal life” (Jn 3:16). In continuity with the faith and worship of Israel, Jesus brought together the “commandment of love for God and the commandment of love for neighbour”. This means that love is now more than an ‘obligation’, it becomes a “response to the gift of love with which God draws near to us” (DCE, 1).
This idea – that God offers us a ‘gift of love’ – runs contrary to many voices in the world today. The voice of violence perpetrated in the name of God for example, or the voices of atheistic materialism and secularism clamouring for the removal of God from all technical, scientific, educative, economic and political spheres all tend to assume an image of God quite contrary to a ‘gift of love’.
In the contemporary secular narrative God is at best imaginary, at worst a restraint upon true human freedom, a freedom predicated upon man’s right to determine good and evil and to set the boundaries for his own existence without God. When this is applied to the practice of life, and especially to the sphere of human love itself, what John Paul II calls the relationship of the gift “is changed into the relationship of appropriation” (Theology of the Body, July 23rd 1980).
Contemporary, secular life is consequently dominated by an approach to the other that rejects the ‘gift of love’ and that breeds cynicism about life and corrupts the essential meaning of love that has its roots in “the love that God mysteriously and gratuitously offers to man” through Christ (DCE, 1). Instead of seeing the other as a sign of the gift of love, the human person is objectified becoming a commodity to manipulated according to my own power or a threat to my existence, carried out under the counter-signs of radical individualism and lust.
Contemporary attitudes to marriage, sexual relations between men and women and to the unborn
often reflect this and in the next part I will consider Benedict’s distinctions between eros andagape as the basis for restoring an authentic understanding of love.
Love according to Pope Benedict XVI: Eros and Agape
In Benedict XVI’s encyclica lDeus Caritas Est, so rich in material for reflection, love is subject to a rather more searching analysis than that usually afforded by today’s celebrity culture. “Love is the light – and in the end the only light – that can always illuminate a world grown dim and give us the courage needed to keep living and working” (Deus Caritas Est, 39).
In particular, says Benedict, one love stands out amongst the many ways we might understand what has become a much misunderstood word. That is the love between man and woman “where body and soul are inseparably joined and human beings glimpse an apparently irresistible promise of happiness” (DCE, 2). In the first part of his encyclical, Benedict explores the particularity of that love and two of its main dimensions – eros andagape.
Eros, unless it is to fall into a destructive counterfeit of love that dehumanises man by reducing him to mere ‘sex’ must be integrated into the unity that is man who is a body-person, a compenetration of spirit and matter. Because eros tends to “rise ‘in ecstasy’ towards the Divine” and to “lead us beyond ourselves”, it needs the exclusivity of “this particular person alone” to become both self-discovery and the discovery of the other (5-6).
In this sense “love looks to the eternal” (6) and embraces the whole of existence, including the dimension of time. This is because of Jesus’ own journey of renunciation from Nazareth to Golgotha in which the whole of mankind is embraced. As eros becomes less and less self-concerned, it moves (within this exclusivity between man and woman) closer to agape – that oblative love that seeks the good of the other and has its roots in God’s love for man.
Benedict relates how the Fathers of the Church saw the image of Jacob’s ladder (Gen. 28:12) as a symbol of the “inseparable connection between ascending and descending love, between eroswhich seeks God
and agape which passes on the gift received.” For the contemporary world, this is an important message. A culture that elevates eros within a Manichean view of the body is doomed to the destruction it will reap if this is not tempered by agape and rooted in a deep contemplation of God.
Human experience affirms the power of eros to takes us ‘out of ourselves’, to enable us as C. S. Lewis once put it, to overleap “the massive wall of our selfhood” and to provide “an image, a foretaste, of what we must become to all if Love Himself rules in us without a rival.” (The Four Loves, 138). But biblical faith also affirms the human need for such a love to be purified into something that can become the basis of communion, a gift of self that (where man and woman are concerned) requires the exclusivity and permanence of marriage to ensure its growth and flourishing.
In a society dedicated to the pursuit of pleasure based on indefinite and impermanent ‘partnerships’, eros will never be purified into that winsome and deep love that flows between man, woman and the Trinitarian God and that fulfils itself in the gift of a child. Agape is not just wishful thinking, it seeks the perfection of God made manifest in man.
And that bears no comparison to a world of ‘partners’ and ‘hook-ups’.
Love according to Benedict XVI: The nobility of married love
Today is the Feast of St John Chysostom (347-407). In one of his sermons he says of marriage:
“this passion is not only strong, but unfading. For there is a certain love deeply seated in our nature, which imperceptibly knits together these bodies of ours.” (Homily on Ephesians)
In my last post about Benedict XVI’s encyclical Deus Caritas Est, I wrote about Eros and Agape and how the exclusivity of married love allows the one to develop into the beauty of the other. It is the Revelation of biblical faith, says Benedict, that allows us to see the nature of God and the nature of man clearly enough to understand how this can happen.
In the biblical revelation, God not only creates the world, but also “loves with a personal love” and a love that is specific. He chose Israel as a nation and loves her, giving to her the Torah and “opening Israel’s eyes to man’s true nature and showing her the path leading to true humanism” (DCE, 9).
This “true humanism” consists, says Benedict, in the fact that man can experience God’s love through fidelity to Him in “truth and righteousness” – a fidelity that leads to joy and happiness. Joy, because God’s is “a love which forgives”, despite the breaking of the covenant and the personal sins I commit. Jesus Christ fulfils and completes the salvation of man promised to the people of the covenant.
The Absolute, the Supreme Being, the Logos is thus also “a lover with all the passion of true love” (DCE,
10). The novelty in the history of religions of this image of God is also matched, according to Benedict, by the biblical image of man. Created in solitude, God gives to Adam a “helper”, the woman without whom man is not complete and for whom he will leave “his father and mother and cleave to his wife” to become one flesh (Gen. 2:24).
In this image, only both together represent a complete humanity – man and woman are equally dignified ways of being human such that only in communion do they become complete. This exclusive bond of marriage, says Benedict “becomes the icon of the relationship between God and his people and visa versa” (DCE, 11). The uniqueness of this image of man and God means that the marriage covenant enobles man and woman, placing them into a relationship that mirrors reality and partakes of the reality of Love itself.
For those living ‘alternative lifestyles’, the nobility and beauty of married love needs a witness in the lives of young couples willing to live together in the Love of Christ. In the turbulent world of today’s ‘relationships culture’, only married love that “looks to the eternal” can remain anchored in a Love that descends, upholding both husband and wife in the embrace of Christ and His Mother. Such a Love suffers all for the sake of the other. For,
“neither death, not life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come…nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 38-39).
Love according to Benedict XVI: To live is Christ
In the fourth of a series, I examine Pope Benedict XVI’sencyclical Deus Caritas Est(God is Love) and his exposition of how Jesus Christ gives “flesh and blood” and “an unprecedented realism” to the activity of God in the Old Testament. Christ, says Benedict XVI, comes in search of the lost sheep of humanity and in an ultimate sense, turns against himself to give himself “in order to raise man up and save him” from sin and death:
“By contemplating the pierced side of Christ (cf. Jn 19:37) we can understand…”God is Love” (1 Jn 4:8)…It is from there that our definition of love must begin. In this contemplation the Christian discovers the path along which his life and love must move.” (DCE12)
What is implied by this is that an understanding of life and love that cannot be lived and that does not translate into concrete action is unworthy of man for whom Christ died, once and for all. For such an understanding to be lived, man needs the presence of love to uphold and nourish him for what truly nourishes man in the deepest sense “is ultimately the Logos – eternal wisdom” (DCE13).
Leaving us Himself in the Eucharist, Jesus ensures through an act of oblation that his presence will endure with us giving us the possibility of both presence and communion, a communion that connects us to “all those who
have become, or who will become his own” (DCE 14). I cannot “posses Christ just for myself” says Benedict XVI – a corrective perhaps against the current tendency to individualise faith along purely spiritual and intellectual lines.
But “God incarnate draws us all to himself”, interweaving faith, worship and ethos into an encounter with God’s agape from which we can draw strength to make love the practice of life. This is the sense, perhaps, in which St Paul says “to live is Christ” (Phil 1:21) for Christ becomes the meaning (Logos) and means by which I live and love. And love, says Benedict XVI referring to the parable of the Last Judgement (Mt 25:31-46), is “the criterion for the definitive decision about a human life’s worth or lack thereof” (DCE15).
This is an important statement in today’s world in which the criteria by which the lives of others are judged have become utilitarian and superficial. On the one hand the acquisition of military power allows nations and states as well as individuals to destroy innocent lives with impunity whilst on the other, scientific advances coupled with state-sanctioned power enable man to destroy life at its roots in the womb or at the embryonic level.
This profound loss of the value of human life in all its existential dimensions is the result of the rejection of the Logos and of inhuman anti-philosophies that parade their bogus credentials throughout our education system and the Academy. It is the result of an anthropology wholly inadequate to the reality of man that promises a freedom predicated on false assumptions about the person and about the nature of good and evil. Freedom, says Benedict XVI elsewhere,
“belongs to the basic structure of creation, to the spiritual existence of man…Freedom finds its creative space in the realm of what is good. Love is creative; truth is creative – it is under these conditions that my eyes
are truly opened, and I can recognize things for what they are.” (God and the World 94-95)
In a culture that has largely rejected the notion of objective truth, Benedict XVI holds out a light, a light we see made luminous in the lives of saints like St Vincent de Paul whose memorial is today. It is a light that shines in the darkness of a contemporary infatuation with power.
But power, as someone once said, tends to corrupt and to lead us to enslavement not freedom.
Image: St Vincent de Paul (1581-1660). He founded a congregation of priests (called Lazarists or Vincentians) for missionary work, groups of laymen to help paupers and galley-slaves, and, with St Louise de Marillac, the Sisters of Charity, the first congregation of women entirely devoted to the care of the sick and the poor (crossroadsinitiative.com).
Love according the Benedict XVI: The eyes of Christ
In the last of a series on Pope BenedictXVI’s encyclical Deus Caritas Est, I examine the way in which love of God and love of neighbour are interrelated. With the passing of the third reading of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, the contemporary obsession with power takes another step nearer to its ultimate realisation – the creation of human life simply for the purpose of directing it towards pre-chosen and materialistic ends.
For Benedict XVI, however, power is never the nexus of man’s vocation. Love, for Benedict, lived out in love of neighbour makes it possible for man to “encounter God” whereas “closing our eyes to our neighbour…blinds us to God” (Deus Caritas Est, 16). Because we cannot see God directly, how is this possible? The answer, says Benedict, is through the “love-story” told in the Bible leading all the way to the Last Supper, the Cross and Resurrection. It is also through the lives of the saints, in the sacraments and especially the Eucharist that men and women encounter the God who is Love.
Through these encounters, we become closer to God so that our wills begin to coincide with His – so much so that the commandment to love ceases to be an exterior command imposed upon me from without, but becomes my own based in “the realisation that God is in fact more deeply present to me than I am to myself” (DCE, 17).
In this way, love of neighbour becomes not just a possibility but a reality that can be lived. From within this encounter, I can learn to “perceive in others an interior desire for a sign of love”, I can begin to see “with the eyes of Christ” (DCE, 18). This link between vision and moral action is very important for only through our capacity to see the world interiorly according to an ethic of love will we be able to live in abandonment to God.
For secular man, this ethic cannot be manufactured from materialistic principles simply because:
“If I have no contact whatsoever with God in my life, then I cannot see in the other anything more than the other, and I am incapable of seeing in him the image of God.” (DCE, 18)
When the image of God is erased from contemporary life and from hearts and minds, society becomes coarse and hardened. Man’s tendencies to create his own goals outside of the circle of Love lead either to disenchantment and despair or to the gross misuse of power.
It is the saints, Benedict reminds us who “constantly renewed their capacity for love of neighbour from their encounter with the Eucharistic Lord” and who acquired the necessary “realism and depth” to transform the culture around them (DCE, 18). It is to their model we must look for an authentic transformation of the culture in which we now live – a culture that increasingly rejects the image of God in man and that consequently treats man as of no ultimate significance.