Friday, December 24, 2010

the eros of advent

Past and future veil God from our sight;
burn up both of them with fire. How long
will you be partitioned by these segments, like a reed?
So long as a reed is partitioned, it is not privy to secrets,
nor is it vocal in response to lip and breathing.

I read a beautiful little book this year by a Chinese Trappist named Joseph Chu-Cong called “The Contemplative Experience.” The title did not do justice to the subject matter; as a faithful son of Bernard of Clairvaux he was writing about the Song of Songs and how the Greek concept of love as eros is operative in the spiritual life. This is another topic I have been fascinated with these years, these different types of love––libido, philia, eros, agape. It started with Fr Bede’s insistence that eros leads into agape, and then a discovery that the ancient Christian writers spoke about God’s eros–longing for us and our eros-longing for God. Hence why the Song of Songs would be included in the Bible at all, how romantic love is only a symbol of the greater longing. As a matter of fact Pope Benedict wrote his first encyclical on this, too, and got roundly criticized. One earnest conservative writer wrote that we needed from the pope was a whole lot more discipline and a lot less “love and Mozart.” (I disagree vehemently: I think we need a lot more love and Mozart, or some kind of music and art.)

Anyway, someone like Paul Tillich, the great Protestant theologian says that eros simply is the love that is a “movement of that which is lower in power and meaning to that which is higher.” That puts all of our other erotic impulses in a new light doesn’t it, but also makes it apply all the more to the spiritual quest. The “movement of that which is lower in power and meaning to that which is higher.” Simple enough to say it is the love that is a longing, but it is a longing that draws us out of ourselves, toward ecstasy as much as if not more than enstasy. What was interesting about Fr Chu-Cong’s notion of eros was that he said it was a longing that doesn’t really want to be satisfied: but that eros wants their to be more and more longing, that somehow the longing is the thing, the longing is the impulse, the drive, the evolution, if you will, the impetus toward higher and higher and more sublime things. Because often we find that when we have what we think we wanted we are left dissatisfied. We didn’t really want the desire to be fulfilled, at least not yet, or not in that way. Fr Bede would say eros is meant to constellate in agape–the love that is self-donation, and the Yogic tradition would say that it rises ever higher and higher to meet the descent of Divine grace, when in the “tender compassion of our God the dawn from on high breaks upon us.” The “movement of that which is lower in power and meaning to that which is higher,” but then that which is higher bends down to meet us.

What does this have to do with Advent? St Benedict says that a monk’s whole life should be a little Lent. I always think of two former monks of our community during Advent. One is Fr Aelred who used to weep the first time we sang the Conditor Alme Siderum. And the other is Peter-Damian, because he and I agreed that if we were to write the Rule we would say “the monk’s whole life should be a little Advent.” It is this watching and waiting that somehow characterize our whole life, the long hours of vigil, listening, watching, waiting, preparing… I love the longing the eros, if you will, embedded both in the monastic life and in Advent, and I usually find myself a little disappointed when Christmas rolls around because our celebrations can’t possibly capture that for which we are really longing. It’s not about what happened so much as it is about what will happen–in me, in us. We hear so much from Luke’s Gospel the last week of Advent, because Luke’s Gospel is all about the fulfillment of promises. I have to realize that what I am waiting for is not another celebration of some moment in past history after all; the promise I have been waiting to be fulfilled is for that Word to really take root in my heart, and for me to become wholly incarnate myself, for me myself to be a vessel of God’s power and peace, an echo of God’s love and grace. That’s when the Incarnation happens anew and anew and again and again and eternally.

This was the last day of Advent. I savored it. I recommend that we try not to let Christmas distract us from starting the waiting all over again after the celebrations of Christmas, but instead let Christmas be a reminder of what we are really waiting for––for this lowly being of ours to be transfigured into a glorious copy of Jesus’ own being, who came to share in our humanity so that we might share in his divinity. And let’s not settle for anything less than that.