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Raw Attraction: Forbidden, Fortuitous or “All That”?


Butterflies, blushing, giddiness, throbbing heart, are all symptoms of…..(drum roll)  yes, those bothersome, endearing, often dangerous yet exciting experiences we so commonly call “love.”   But can and should this sudden onset of attraction be worthy of the title of love?  What’s more, is it necessary to romantic marital love or is it something to be discarded as mere play of the emotions, a stoicly held distraction from virtuous love?

Surely, all of us can remember an instance, likely in our youth, where someone struck us with Cupid’s arrows.  Maybe it was the “bad boy” who came to land in our circle.  He was tall, lean, broad–shouldered, rugged and a fitting candidate for Michelangelo’s model of David.   Shameless as it may sound, many of us must admit that our ‘David’ made us tingle all over and left us acutely aware of his every flinch. 

Now forgive me for dousing the drama, but these experiences are not Jansenistic or Puritan forms of forbidden attractions, they do not enter the moral realm of good or bad.  At the onset they are a complacent response; an awareness to the opposite sex by way of an attraction.  They are a movement of our being to know him (or her) more. 

Too often single men and women receive counsel from friends, priests, family and peers who say to us “just choose a good man (or woman)” or “chemistry doesn’t matter, only compatibility” as well as “you are being too picky, love is no more than a choice” and, most irritatingly, “you are unrealistic and naive if you think love is ‘all that’”…

Is love meant to be “all that”? 

Fr. Cantalamessa, Preacher of the Papal Household, in his first Lenten sermon to Pope Benedict and the Roman Curia [1], (available at: http://www.zenit.org/article-32122?l=english) spoke of  “two faces of love”: eros (desire in the form of passion and pleasure) and agape ([Greek] love as desire for the good of the other, as communion in virtue, caritas).  In it he articulated a great concern for “eros without agape” found in present day secular culture and at the same time “agape without eros” among the faithful.   The folly of one without the other he likened to the body-soul unity of our personal being.  We are each an “individual substance of rational nature” (St. Boethius).  The same is true for our personal being and, particular to romantic marital love, also true for eros and agape.

Strictly speaking, ‘eros without agape’ falls in the order of concupiscent love (amor concupiscentiae) and can lead to an egoistic and hedonistic pursuit of others.   We witness this day in and day out in our present culture.  The promotion and exaltation of passion and pleasure incessantly bombards our lives in the form of movies, advertisements, songs, internet, etc., where its portrayal is both disposable and exchangeable – purely self-seeking and notably non-benevolent.  Eros disordered by our passions and directed solely toward our own good is no stranger.

Yet the perils of ‘agape without eros’ he noted are not so obvious.  Agape love, love in the fullness of communion with another- caritas, does not easily strike one as in need of the passions.   Moreover, many good and virtuous people claim that friendship and compatibility are the only necessary ingredients to a good marriage.  How flattering it would be to receive a proposal of "We are good friends and you meet all my criteria. Will you marry me?"  Isn’t marriage where eros is most significant to agape?

Imagine, on the one hand, a spousal union based only on amiable friendship (benevolence) without the driving force of sensual attraction (eros).  Should we heed the advice of our peers, many unions would be forged on the sole criteria of friendship, shared faith values and compatible attributes.  What then moves such couples to unite in the marital sacrament and to join in the unitive and procreative act of marriage?  It is in the physical union of the couple that their most personal and tender intimacy of marriage is found when eros serves to reach the deepest and most intimate end of agape.

St. Thomas asserts that all forms and degrees of love have two fundamental directions: self (amor concupiscientiae), and other (amor amicitiae), though love for other is primary while love for self is secondary.  What does this mean?  It means they are not opposing but rather have a collaborative end.  Benedict the VII, in his Encyclical Deus Caritas Est (DCE) explains the interrelationship of eros and agape thus, “[F]rom the standpoint of creation, eros directs man towards marriage, to a bond which is unique and definitive; thus, and only thus, does it fulfill its deepest purpose.”(DCE, 11)

In Love and Responsibility (ppg 74-84), Wojtyla further explains St. Thomas’ two-part objective basis of love to a tri-parte division according to love’s natural course of movement.  He draws out love as attraction, or complacent love (amor complacentiae) from love as desire, or concupiscent love (amor concupiscentiae).  Here we can detect a clearer movement toward love as good will to another (amor benevolentiae) benevolent love.  The first of Wojtyla’s tri-parte love, attraction, presents an initial awareness of the other.  It strikes at the chord of knowing. “Hey, I’d like to get to know her” a young man might say.  So he musters up the courage to ask her out and, after a few moments or days in her company, experiences a desire to be closer to her (eros).  And yet his desire to ‘know her’ has not reached the maturity of benevolence.  It depends upon the character, the choice and will and all the virtues of the one experiencing the desire. He is presented with an objective choice to pursue her for his own passions alone or for her greater good of which he would like to give to her and share with her, caritas

It is in this early stage of attraction and the beginnings of the passions of desire that vice or virtue finds a course.  He must choose at the urging of his attraction to come to know and appreciate her personal character and the integral person that she is in order to establish an authentic (benevolent) friendship with her.  Once friendship and personal appreciation are established, the old adage “To know is to love” rings true, his eros comes to encompass her personal entirety, where it grows to desire, even passionately, her personal good as his good – the fundamental virtue of charity (caritas) is moved by desire to reach love in its fullness of communion (agape).  His attraction to her becomes fortuitous.

Romantic love of eros and agape as a communion of two can best be summed up in Pope Benedict’s Encyclical Deus Caritas Est:

“Love (amor) now becomes concern and care for the other. No longer is it self-seeking, a sinking in the intoxication of happiness; instead it seeks the good of the beloved: it becomes renunciation and it is ready, and even willing, for sacrifice. It is part of love’s (amoris) 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.”…Love is indeed “ecstasy,” not in the sense of a moment of intoxication, but rather as a journey, an ongoing exodus out of the closed inward-looking self towards its liberation through self-giving, and thus towards authentic self-discovery and indeed the discovery of God.”

Yes my friends, marital love is meant to be “all that”!

(c) 2011 Culture of Life Foundation.  Reproduction granted with attribution.