Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day. Whether you’re planning a romantic evening with your significant other or intend to protest the Hallmarked-out holiday I think we should talk about romance. Particularly from a Christian point of view. I find it a bit strange that, in a culture of cliché love songs, romantic comedies, and a multi-million dollar wedding industry, when it comes to the Church we have lost all understanding of romantic love for others. Sure, Christianity, and Jesus’ ministry in particular, is centered on love—we are to love the poor, the less fortunate, and our enemies. We are to love and honor our parents and we are to remain in community with the entire Church. And yet, when it comes to marriage, sexuality, and sexual relations, there is very little mention of romantic love or the importance of having a true emotional and mutual connection with another. Spending a lot of time with Christians and seminarians (many married/in committed relationships) I don’t hear a lot of conversation surrounding romantic love. We do talk about love – we converse about the Greek word Agape – a true and unconditional love for and by God. But, where the hell is Eros? Eros, another Greek word, most closely identified as a passionate, sensual, and intimate love is not present in the Bible and rarely comes up in a Christian context.
Now, to be fair, I’m not a romantic person. I’m quite cynical actually, but I’m still concerned that a lack of romantic love within the Christian tradition is problematic. Romantic love is about intimacy and becoming close to another, not just emotionally but physically as well. Romantic love is the attraction one has for another, it is an excitement and an enthusiasm, and it is a desire and longing to understand another in a physical, spiritual, and emotional manner. This romantic love, of infatuation and complete vulnerability to another, is often passed by when the Church and theologians talk about marriage or sexual relationships.
As Christians we are seeking out a relationship with Christ and want to truly know him. However, how can we go about coming to know Christ in an intimate way, if we cannot even come to know another man or woman in an intimate way? Romantic love, in all of its dreamy idealism and enthusiasm, illustrates intimacy in a positive and outward way. Romantic love brings desire to the forefront, a feeling which at its very nature is religious, not sexual. Desire is a longing for closeness and intimacy, a yearning, a wanting of more also desire to know God better, both in God’s humanity and divinity. Integrating romantic love into the Church and allowing for emotion and vulnerability to take over a part of our lives makes us more readily available to Jesus Christ.
I want romance, people. Hot, steamy, passion-filled, erotic romance. And, I think romantic love is possible to incorporate in the Church and will only help us lead more faithful Christian lives.
This isn’t all that new. Let’s look at the genre of erotic and courtly love literature of early Christian mystics. My girl Mechthild of Magdeburg was a rock star at incorporating this language of eroticism and romantic passion. Here’s just a brief excerpt:
I cannot dance Lord, unless you lead me.
If you want me to leap with abandon,
You must intone the song.
Then I shall leap into love,
From love into knowledge,
From knowledge into enjoyment,
And from enjoyment beyond all human sensations.
There I want to remain, yet also want to circle higher still.
(Flowing Light of the Godhead)
In closing an eye to the use of the word ‘Lord’ as a title within the reading, the verse could easily be talking about a human lover, who has filled her with a sense of love and a desire for more. Just as we desire to be closer to God and come to know God more fully, we long to be one with our romantic partners. Ideally, a romantic relationship with another culminates when you reveal your deepest secrets, thoughts, and desires to your partner. Mechthild has bared her soul; her love with Christ is evolving, and although she remains in a state of perfection and harmony, she still seeks more. In that same way, if directed toward a romantic partner, human beings are seeking to share their journey with someone and to bare their whole self to another. Mechthild illustrates the same kind of love that many contemporary sources are illustrating in the modern entertainment industry (an entertainment industry that seems to thrive off of romantic love). For example, let’s take a look at my other girl T-Swift for a sec:
‘Cause I don't know how it gets better than this.
You take my hand and drag me head first, Fearless.
And I don't know why, but with you I'd dance in a storm
In my best dress, Fearless.
(Fearless, Taylor Swift)
In the same fashion that Mechthild talks about submitting to God (I cannot dance Lord, unless you lead me), Swift sings of submitting to a romantic lover (You take my hand and drag me head first…). Both verses imply a sense of chasing after, of gratitude for, and of being in union with another, for the good of both parties. Both songs also bring about a sense of fulfillment and absolutely gratification. As Mechthild says, “and from the enjoyment beyond all human sensations, there I want to remain,” she really means “cause I don’t know how it gets better than this,” both in reference to a loving, intimate, and romantic relationship that has provided the writer with a sense of complete emotional gratification.
Just as Swift’s music is an expression of romantic love in her life which allows listeners to imagine, formulate, and desire an all-encompassing love like she describes in her song, a mystic’s use of erotic language does the same—pushes readers beyond their own limitations toward a relationship with God.
Romantic love exists, and its existence allows for individuals to go farther than traditional concepts of love and enter into new, more intimate engagements with others.It is not the intention of romantic or sexual love to replace the religious love we feel for God, but it is to include romantic love as a way to better understand Jesus, ourselves, and our relationships with others. The fact that this romantic and passionate love has existed within the tradition of mysticism, and exists today within our romance-obsessed, Valentine’s Day driven, and candlelit dinner inspired fantasies, is an indication of the necessity of romantic love in our relationship with God and with others.
Romantic love encompasses both the emotional and the physical sides of desire, passion, and attraction. Romantically loving someone means caring for them, trusting them, wanting the best for them, and seeking to join with them in thought and in action. This love flourishes when one allows oneself to become as vulnerable as possible with another—in others words completely revealing one’s heart and soul and feelings to another human being.
Love is everywhere. Listen to the radio, turn on the television, flip through the Bible. Love is present in the world. The problem is not that love does not exist or that love is not practiced, but that romantic love is not held to as high of a standard as other types of love within the Christian tradition. Inserting romantic and passionate love into the Church’s teachings ables human beings to harness the often unpredictable and idealistic romantic love found throughout the media and in fairytales, in a healthy way. Understanding romantic love as a much deeper and meaningful expression enhances our relationships with the Divine.
So, tomorrow is Valentine’s Day. Whether you’re single or taken, take a minute or two to understand romance in your life and how romance might complement your faith rather than be distinct from it.
Also, write some erotic love poetry. Because, it’s good for you.