Monday, April 17, 2006

Eros and Personhood

(excerpted from "The Person in the Orthodox Tradition")

It is being emphasised today that the person is linked with love and that only as person can man have true and real love. We read that "Personal distinctiveness is revealed and known only within the framework of direct personal relationship and communion, only by participation in the principle of personal immediacy, or of the loving and creative force which distinguishes the person from the common nature. And this revelation and knowledge of personal distinctiveness becomes ever more full as the fact of communion and relationship achieves its wholeness in love. Love is the supreme road to knowledge of the person, because it is an acceptance of the other person as a whole. It does not project on to the other person individual preferences, demands or desires, but accepts him as he is, in the fullness of his personal uniqueness. This is why knowledge of the distinctiveness of the person achieves its ultimate fullness in the self-transcendence and offering of self that is love, and why, in the language of the Bible, sexual intercourse is identified with knowledge of a person".

There is no doubt that when man becomes person, as described by the holy Fathers, then true love also develops and is experienced. The person is linked with love. God is a person and He loves man. That is why St. Maximos the Confessor, following St. Dionysios, says: "Theologians call the divine sometimes an erotic force, sometimes love, sometimes that which is intensely longed for and loved. Consequently, as an erotic force and as love, the divine itself is subject to movement; and, as that which is intensely longed for and loved, it moves towards itself everything which is receptive of this force and love". Thus person cannot be understood without love, and true love cannot be understood without the existence of the true person.

It is possible, however, for us to understand the person philosophically and abstractly, and by extension also to understand love as sensual and biological. That is why at this point the necessity for asceticism must be emphasised. Besides, even the character of marriage is ascetic.

Sexual love as a biological need is characterised by two passions, which "destroy precisely that towards which the human hypostasis is thrusting, namely the person". The first passion can be called ontological necessity and the second passion could be called individualism and separation of the hypostasis. The first is connected with instinct and the second with death, since a man is born who is going to die. "All this means that man as a biological hypostasis is intrinsically a tragic figure. He is born as a result of an ecstatic fact - erotic love - but this fact is interwoven with a natural necessity and therefore lacks ontological freedom. He is born as a hypostatic fact, as a body, but this fact is interwoven with individuality and with death".

This means that only when man becomes a person does he preserve love. And, as we said before, essentially the person is a revelation, a manifestation of the place of the heart, a rebirth of man. It is with these presuppositions that the Fathers of the Church speak both of person and of love.

St. Gregory Palamas writes that just as God is Nous, Word and Spirit, the same is true of man. Man too, created by God in His image, has nous, word and spirit. The spirit that quickens his body is his noetic love, "which issues from the nous and from the word and possesses in itself both the word and the nous". From these things we see that so long as the nous is pure, so is the noetic love which is connected with it. And as far as that purity of the nous is a condition for man's cure and is connected with the whole ascetic effort which man puts forth, and as far as this is connected with man's rebirth, to that extent love too is not simply biological, but noetic.

St. Dionysios the Areopagite, who speaks about love, stresses emphatically: "real love is praised as appropriate to the divine". And of course there are a number of preconditions which determine true love. When the powers of the soul are moved according to nature and above nature, then they experience real love; otherwise sensual love develops, which is an idol, or rather, a falling away from real love. St. Dionysios says: "Others, however, tended naturally to think of a partial, physical and divided love. This is not true love but an empty image or, rather, a lapse from real love".

Consequently, love is linked with the person, particularly when the person has a theological infrastructure and interpretation, and not a philosophical and psychological one. The philosophical and psychological interpretation does not give us assurance that love is genuine.

All the holy Fathers move within this framework. St. Gregory of Sinai says that love is "a spiritual intoxication that arouses our desire". In analysing this topic he writes that there are two "spiritually ecstatic loves". One is within the heart and pertains to those who are still in the process of achieving illumination of the nous, and is connected with noetic prayer, and the other is ecstatic, which pertains to those perfected in love. Both loves, which are divine, "acting on the nous, transport it beyond the sense-world". Thus true love, which constitutes the person, is a liberation of the nous from the senses. And this is also called spiritual intoxication, because the senses too are detached from their involvement with visible things.

This is the extended meaning of love in the teaching of the holy Fathers of the Church. St. Niketas Stethatos connects spiritual longing and love for other people with humility, compunction and pure prayer. "Nothing so inspires the soul with love for God and love for one's fellow men as humility, compunction and pure prayer". Humility shatters the spirit, that is to say, it makes low the heart of man. Compunction purifies the nous and illuminates the eye of the heart, and pure prayer binds the whole man to God. About this St. Niketas Stethatos says: "Where there is love for God, spiritual labour, and participation in the unapproachable light, there too the soul's powers will be at peace, the nous will be purified, and the Holy Trinity will dwell within us".

All these things indicate that we can speak of true love, when we have a real person. And, as we said before, that man is a true person who participates in the purifying, illuminating and deifying energy of God. The person is closely linked with the rebirth of man, the discovery of the heart. It is just at that point that we can speak of love. Otherwise, there are the sensual loves, which St. Gregory Palamas aptly calls the empty image of real love, the lapse from real love, as St. Dionysios the Areopagite puts it.


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