BEND — More than a year ago, Pope Benedict XVI issued his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est or God Is Love. That letter, issued on Christmas Day 2005, is not necessarily an easy read, and yet I believe it is a document that bears reading. I choose to spend a little time with this document today because I do believe it has something significant to offer to our modern society and to us.
The Holy Father, early in the encyclical, identifies a major problem with love. He writes: “Today the term ‘love’ has become one of the most frequently used and misused of words, a word to which we attach quite different meanings.” He then goes on to discuss two specific forms or types to which this single word “love” might refer. The terms he chooses, or rather draws from Greek and Christian cultures, are eros and agape.
He identifies “eros as a term to indicate ‘worldly’ love, and agape, referring to love grounded in and shaped by faith. The two notions are often contrasted as ‘ascending’ love and ‘descending’ love.” In other words, one is a love that seeks to receive and the other a love that is intent on giving.
In a very surprising way, the Holy Father then points out the essential connection between these two forms of love. In our society the differences between the two are readily obvious. They are as distinct as the eros of simply living together and the agape of a faith-filled committed marriage.
The difference is even seen in approach to liturgy or Mass attendance. On the one hand the love of eros inclines one to attend Mass because of what one receives, how it makes one “feel,” while the love of agape inclines one to attend Mass out of a self-giving desire to love and serve the Lord.
Eros inclines us to seek our own good, whereas agape inclines us to seek the good of another. Many people respond to the “eros love” of Christmas and Easter but a much smaller number respond to the challenge of the “agape love” required for weekly or even more frequent Mass attendance. Many married couples seek the “eros love” of the marital embrace, but far too many reject the “agape love” of genuine openness to children.
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