An Alternative Eros

A Greek note:  the English word “erotic” is derived from the Greek word ἔρως/ eros, defined by the Arndt-Gingrich lexicon as “passionate love”.  In Proverbs 7:18 LXX it is used for the adulteress’ forbidden “embrace in eros”; in Proverbs 30:16 LXX the “eros of a woman” is listed along with the hungry Hades/ Sheol as something which is never satisfied.  In a rather less sensual way St. Ignatius wrote that he was “loving death” [ἐρῶν τοῦ ἀποθανεῖν/ eron tou apothanein], and that his “love” [Greek ἔρως] had “been crucified”.  That is, he now longed to die as a martyr and to be with Christ (from his letter to the Romans, chapter 7).  Arndt and Gingrich pretty much had it nailed:  ἔρως was a passionate love, a strong longing.

In our debased and overly-sexualized society, “erotic” always means sensual and sexual, so that “erotic love” is something “rated for those 18 and over”.  No responsible parent would allow their young children to read “erotic literature” or to view “erotic images”.  Indeed, the line between “erotic” and “pornographic” is often thinly drawn, and sometimes the former is just a polite word for the latter.

I suggest that Christians, who have embraced a counter-culture by becoming Christians, need to offer to the world an alternative eros.  Submitted for your approval (as Rod Serling might say), and as an aid to creating such an alternative, I here offer a different kind of erotic image.

As you can see, the inset image is that of an old man and an old woman.  They have lived together since their first youthful kiss, and now the woman is dying, and she wants only to have her hand held by him as she slips away.  When I found the image online, it was accompanied by the words, “She said, ‘Don’t call the doctor.  I want to fall asleep peacefully, with your hand in mine.’  He told her about the past, how they met, their first kiss.  They didn’t cry; they smiled.  They didn’t regret anything; they were grateful.  Then she repeated softly, ‘I love you forever’.  He returned her words, gave her a soft kiss on the forehead.  She closed her eyes and fell asleep peacefully with her hand in his.”  Incredibly cheesy, yes.  But it also contains a vision and an antidote to the false eros in which our culture is drowning.

In our culture, eros is rooted in a certain standard of external youth and beauty.  An erotic image contains a young and beautiful person, usually in a suitably sexual pose.  Our culture values such eros for the fleeting physical experience it can provide, as it values such relationships for the amount of such physical experiences they can provide.  When the relationship can no longer provide such experiences—either because the other person is no longer young and beautiful or because the element of mystery in the relationship has diminished—the relationship is often no longer valued as it was before.  The persons involved then call it quits and go on to pursue other relationships.  This accounts for much of what is called “serial monogamy” in society and for soaring divorce rates.

In our world characterized by death and decay the presence of youth and external beauty considered essential for eros is sure to diminish.  Bluntly put, everyone becomes old, wrinkled, infirm, and no longer externally beautiful.  Everyone dies.  Long before that, the tantalizing and intoxicating element of mystery that gave eros much of its power inevitably fades—and fades quickly.  (We note in passing that the temptress that Proverbs warns about is called the “strange woman”—i.e. someone foreign, exotic, exuding mystery, someone temptingly different from the honest girl next door. See Proverbs 5:3 KJV.)

Even our popular culture occasionally recognizes this.  In his song Make Love Stay, the late Dan Fogelberg wrote, “Now that we love, now that the lonely nights are over, how do we make love stay? Now that we know the fire can burn bright or merely smolder, how do we keep it from dying away?  Moments fleet taste sweet within the rapture when precious flesh is greedily consumed.  But mystery’s a thing not easily captured, and once deceased not easily exhumed. Now that we love, look at the moonless night and tell me:  How do we make love stay?”

Indeed:  mystery is not easily exhumed after it dies, and the wonderfully strange woman quickly becomes a very known and perhaps less wonderful.  If eros is rooted in youth, external beauty, and mystery, what hope is there?  How do we make eros stay?

The couple in the erotic inset image knew how.  True and lasting eros is not in fact rooted in youth, external beauty, or mystery.  It is rooted in commitment.  That was the point of the old western wedding vows, now almost universally discarded for lesser poetic schlock when people “write their own wedding vows”.  The older formula had the couple promise that they would have and hold their partner from that day forward, for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death part them from one another.  They might grow poorer, they would probably grow sicker.  They would certainly not retain their youth, their external beauty, or their mystery.  But their mutual commitment was the soil in which eros could stay and grow.

The thought is hardly new.  The late Fr. Alexander Schmemann wrote about it in his For the Life of the World:  “Once, in the light and warmth of an autumn afternoon, this writer saw on the bench of a public square, in a poor Parisian suburb, an old and poor couple.  They were sitting hand in hand, in silence enjoying the pale light, the last warmth of the season.  In silence:  all words had been said, all passion exhausted, all storms at peace.  The whole life was behind—yet all of it was now present, in this silence, in this light, in this warmth, in this silent unity of hands.  Present—and ready for eternity, ripe for joy.  This to me remained the vision of marriage, of its heavenly beauty.”

Yes.  This is the true eros, an alternative to the fading and false eros reigning unquestioned in our land. Christians must cast away the false eros, and embrace the true one.  And they should submit for the world’s approval this alternative.  The false eros has betrayed us all.  It is time to look elsewhere for something that actually works.

 

2 comments:

  1. Father an excellent meditation. My wife and I did not meet and get married until we were 61 years old. From the moment I laid eyes on her, her beauty was evident to me. It has only grown more evident over the last 13 years. Due to her recent long recovery from back surgery, we spent the last 6 months together almost 24/7. We butt heads every once in awhile but we have grown even closer and her beauty is even more radiant. We both pray for a repose that is “…painless, blameless, peaceful with a good defense before the Dread Judgement Seat of Christ”.

    We were brought together by the Grace of God and remain that way by His mercy.

    Physically, neither of us is robust or what the world calls attractive let alone sexy but we fit well and give thanks to God for bringing us together.

    I do have a quibble with your use of the word ‘cheesy’ to describe the couple’s story. It is any thing but cheesey. I can think of at least a dozen other adjectives off the top of my head that describe the nature of the story better than cheesey. For me the best one is sentimental. Still your overall point is sumptuous.

    1. Thank you for sharing your story. FWIW the adjective “cheesy” was offered by someone other than me; by using the word I was deferring to their judgment.

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