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Better than Sex!

There's more to erotic love than just racy books and movies. It's way bigger, and much more beautiful, than that.

Adam, having named all the animals, is unable to find a suitable partner among God’s creatures. The Lord then causes Adam to fall into a deep sleep and draws from his flesh a woman. Adam declares: “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman.” Moses comments, “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Gen 2:18-24).

In his encyclical Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict XVI observes that this primordial narrative portrays man as “somehow incomplete, driven by nature to seek in another the part that can make him whole, the idea that only in communion with the opposite sex can he become ‘complete’” (11). There is in man a lost wholeness, a hunger to rest in the beloved.

In the Greek tradition, as demonstrated in Plato’s Symposium, this need is seen as a primal desire for beauty called eros or erotic love. As Benedict notes, the narrative of Adam and Eve reveals that “eros is somehow rooted in man’s very nature.” We all, as humans, have an erotic appetite, a need to be sated in the beauty of the beloved and feel whole.

Is erotic love simply sex? Resting in the beauty of another, experiencing wholeness and satisfaction with a beloved—it’s easy to think of these ideas as just high-minded euphemisms for sex. And it’s true that sex and erotic love are intertwined—but they remain distinct.

Eros is a self-love, a need to be satisfied. Our erotic love is, as Josef Pieper and others teach, a desire for affirmation, a need-love, and a hunger for beauty and the ache to rest within it. Eros can enrapture the soul. It causes a mania, a madness, that floods our senses and saturates our thoughts.

We see this between lovers. As C.S. Lewis notes, we speak of this madness as “falling in love.” Eros, as Socrates learns in the Symposium, first awakens due to the beauty of the beloved. We are attracted to beauty, and the contours of the beloved awaken in us what may be referred to as a common eros—and this is very much expressed in sex. The self-love of the lovers, their need to feel whole and affirmed, is quenched in one another.

Therefore, sex is an expression and satisfaction of eros. But it remains only a part, and not the whole, of erotic love.

Is sex, as an erotic act, good? Even the pagan Socrates comes to understand that eros can lead the lover into a love of something more than the beauty of the body. The lover can come to love the inner beauty of the beloved—that is, the beloved’s virtue—and even come to love virtue for its own sake. No one has sex with virtue, of course, yet virtue is a beauty, and in fact a higher beauty, that calls eros to ascend and be satisfied.

As grace perfects nature, so too does theology perfect philosophy. Thus, what observations the Greeks were able to garner about eros from nature are perfected by what we may observe in God’s self-revelation. As Pope Benedict XVI asserts, the Adam and Eve narrative purifies the pagan notion of erotic love and reveals where sex belongs: in marriage (Caritas 11). Eros’s ache for affirmation and wholeness in the beauty of the beloved is ultimately for the beloved as spouse. Our common eros delights in becoming “one flesh” with the beloved. Sex, as an erotic act, finds its proper flourishing in the marital embrace. It is a good act.

C.S. Lewis speaks of eros as a “need-love,” a self-love that seeks satisfaction in the beloved. In marriage, however, the lovers become “one flesh.” Under this radical redefinition of the “self,” their erotic love is extended to one another. The husband cares for and tends to the needs and affirmations of his wife, as the wife does for her husband—both as they would their own. The erotic love becomes, even in a natural sense, the foundation of a mutual self-giving love of the spouses. An interplay of beauty and rest, like a dance, unfolds between the lovers.

But the satisfaction of spousal love can never truly satisfy the erotic longing of the human heart. When we rest in the beauty of the beloved, we are happy, and we wish to be happy always and not just sometimes. In other words, our erotic appetite is infinite and cannot be fully satisfied by our finite spouse. In the Symposium, Socrates learns that eros is an ascent of the soul, an upward movement, by which the erotic appetite that seeks beauty in the beloved also desires beauty in virtue, honor, and glory. Eventually, man ascends to Beauty Itself, God, and our infinite appetite for happiness is satiated in infinite Beauty.

The pagan idea that man’s erotic appetite for wholeness and affirmation is finally sated in God, the Divine Beloved, is echoed within Holy Scripture. In fact, God uses man’s common eros as the primary analogy for the relationship between himself and man.

As Pope Benedict perceives, the prophets “describe God’s passion for his people using boldly erotic images” (Caritas 9). Ezekiel speaks of Israel as a young maiden abandoned in a field whom God bathes, dresses in jewels and fine linens, and takes as his bride (16:6-14). God and Israel enter into a marriage covenant at Mount Sinai, and Israel’s idolatry is presented as adultery against her groom, God (Exod. 19:1-9; Ezek. 16:15-58). In the New Testament, Christ is presented as the groom who takes the Church as his bride. Like husband and wife, Christ and the Church become “one flesh”—as seen in the Holy Eucharist—with Christ as the head and the Church as the body (Eph. 5:21-33). Christ is our Divine Beloved, calling us to satisfaction and rest (Matt. 11:28; John 7:37). God uses the common eros of husband and wife to call men and women to the heavenly eros of loving him.

How does eros help us be holy? The first and greatest commandment is “you shall love the Lord your God.” Eros is the call for the lover to ascend to the Divine Beloved. God, Beauty Itself, fills our lost wholeness, and we come to know ourselves as resting in him.

The second commandment of Christ is “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” We cannot love our neighbor unless our eros, our self-love, is rightly ordered. Only a self-love that has ascended to God, the Divine Beloved, can cultivate the virtuous self-love necessary to affirm its neighbor. In other words, the wholeness and affirmation that come with being sated in Beauty Itself saturate us and then direct us on how to treat our neighbor virtuously.

Erotic love places sex within its proper order, but erotic love is not reducible to sex. Eros is an ascent, a call to pursue the Divine Beloved and be satisfied in infinite Beauty—a Beauty that teaches us how to love ourselves and our neighbors.

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