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In Shirley Duboulay's biography of Fr. Bede, she quotes at length a series of letters that Fr Bede wrote to his dear friends Russill and Asha in which he writes beautifully about the relationship between eros and agape.  He had already for years been in search of, as he put it, "the other half of his soul".  His experiences through undergoing two strokes indeed opened him up to a great experience of maternal love; often in his last months when he spoke of this love his voice would tremble and he seemed to be on the verge of tears.  This relationship at the very end of his life undoubtably fleshed out that love, as is evidenced by what he wrote in these letters.  Some years ago I collected a series of sentences culled from those afore-mentioned letters of Bede to Russill and Asha, and formed them into one paragraph, which has become for me a sort of manifesto of sexuality and spirituality.  I shall quote the sentences and then explain what they have come to mean to me.

What is the meaning of life?  The meaning of life is to love and there are two ways to love.  One is through a dedication of the whole of your life to the spirit and the working out of that dedication.  The other is to love another human being so profoundly that that initiates you into the divine love.

First of all what Bede discovered, and what he spoke about and wrote about openly, was the relationship between love for another human being and love for God.  Not only are they related to each other, they are in a sense two equivalent paths, indeed there are two ways to love, one through a dedication of one's whole life to the spirit and the other to love another human being profoundly.

One of the frailties of language is that it can often be too general.  For example, we use only one word over and over again for the concept of love.  Bede's mentor and friend C S Lewis of course wrote the famous book last century on The Four Loves.  We shall concentrate on only the two types of love that Bede mentions here: eros and agape. 

Agape without eros simply does not work.  It leaves our human nature starved.  Of course, eros without agape is equally disastrous.  It leaves us to the compulsion of human and sexual love.

Agape is generally thought of as "good love"––even dictionaries call it "Christian love".  I was taught since my youth that agape is love as God loves, love that asks for nothing in return.  Eros, on the other hand, is generally thought of as sexual and sensuous love––not that there is anything intrinsically wrong with that, obviously, but "erotic" in common usage usually has the connotation of being somehow a lesser love, and "dirty" at that.  And yet, eros is not just, or even primarily, sexual, at least in the original Greek conception; it's that and so much more.  Eros is the love that is a longing, the love that draws us out of ourselves and draws us into others.  James Hollis describes is this way:

The Greeks thought of Eros as a god, oldest and yet youngest of all the gods, at the beginning of all things and ever-renewing, ever emergent. …  We have too narrowly confined the work of this god within the bounds of sexuality.  Surely he is present there, but we are moved by forces deeper than sex, longer than love, more mysterious than the beloved.

When Bede speaks about  "a dedication of the whole of your life to the spirit", I take that as referring to agape; and when he speaks about the other as being "to love another human being so profoundly that that initiates you into the divine love," I take that to mean eros.  However, what Bede ultimately comes to understand, it seems to me, is that these two ways are actually not two different ways at all, but part of the same process.  And so he says

My love for you is not only agape; it is a deep natural urge of love which draws me to you.  Often I feel your presence as a tremendous force in my life, making me realize that I cannot experience divine love unless it is united with my human love for you.

Eros and agape are part of the same movement, because agape without eros simply does not work; and, of course, eros without agape is equally disastrous.

James Hillman, Eros and Psyche

We find great resonances with this line of thought in James Hillman, the great Jungian psychoanalyst, especially in the section on "Tortured Love" in his book The Myth of Analysis.  Rather than eros and agape, he writes about eros and psyche, using the Greek myth of Eros and Psyche by Apuleo, in which the fundamental theme is the torment of the soul (psyche) in its relationship to eros.  The fable itself, as well as the various works of art that were inspired by it especially from the 4th century BCE until the 6th century CE, and then again during the Renaissance, tell of Psyche being tortured by love, full of sadness, on her knees, weeping after having been struck by Eros' arrow, depressed and sad at being unable to re-unite with him, and destined to fulfil a series of impossible tasks assigned to her by Aphrodite, Eros' mother.

Hillman teaches, based on his own experience in psychoanalysis as well as on studying the archetypes of this myth, that the torture of the soul seems inevitable in every intimate involvement.  Despite everything we do to avoid or alleviate it, we always seem to end up involved in the very process that generates suffering, almost as if a mythic necessity were compelling us to act out the myth of Eros and Psyche.  What the myth tells us, according to Hillman and Jung before him, is that young girls enter into adult femininity through a type of torture.  In the Renaissance depictions of this myth, for instance, we see Psyche depicted as a butterfly, with her wings burnt by the flames of Eros.  But the soul of a man is also subjected to torment through which he is awakened to the psyche; indeed Eros is tortured by the same fire as well.  While Eros burns others, he also burns alone when he is separated from Psyche, deprived of her gifts of intuition and psychological reflection.  Psyche's torture is depression and nostalgia; Eros' torture is mania.

Hillman says that we experience this separation under the form of a split in ourselves: while eros burns in mania, psyche performs her labors without hope or energy, without love, inconsolable, depressed, trying to understand.  Before their reuniting becomes possible, the psyche must pass through the dark night of the soul, the mortification in which she feels the paradoxical agony of a "potential pregnancy in her own depths and yet a sense of guilt and isolating separateness".   For Eros too this torment transforms the manic energy.  Eros will remain in a state of burning unease and agitation (dominated by the mother, but that is a whole other story!) until he realizes that he himself has been struck by his own arrow, that he too has found his companion, his mate, in Psyche––let us say, "the other half of his soul".  In the process he is meant to acquire psychic consciousness.  And the torment continues until the work of the soul is––the labors of Psyche are––completed, and the psyche is re-united to a transformed eros.    It is only at this point that the union takes place, and psyche really becomes Anima, soul.

All this is very similar to the dynamic to which Bede was referring.  Whereas Hillman speaks of the erotic obsession or erotic mania that occurs in eros when it is separated from psyche, Bede says simply that eros without agape is disastrous, because it leaves us to the compulsion of human and sexual love.  But agape without eros is equally disastrous.  Bede says human nature starves; Hillman explains Psyche without the wings of Eros cannot find any kind of proper perspective nor raise herself above her immediate compulsions either, which are melancholy and depression.  So Hillman asserts that until our psyche can legitimately unite itself with the creative energy of eros and bring to a sanctified birth that which she is carrying in her, we are doomed to live out our loss of primordial love.

Even though this reading of the human condition presupposes suffering, this is not blind and tragic suffering, or at least it doesn't have to be.  This type of suffering, according to Hillman, has to do with initiation, and with the transformation of the structure of our consciousness.  Jung says, "The ardor of love always changes fear and compulsion into something higher and freer."
The trials of Eros and Psyche are initiatory.  They symbolise the psychological and erotic trials which we all have to undergo.  All of this gives us a completely different image, by the way, of neuroses; neuroses in this light can become initiation; consequently psychoanalysis, at its best, can become the ritual of our process of psychic and erotic development, that leads to their mysterious union.

Let us also remember that according to the universal archetypes present in this myth, eros is divine energy, because Eros himself is a child of the gods.

Tantric Yoga, the chakras

In meditation we can learn to let our own natural desires, our eros, awaken and surrender it to God, that is, let it be taken up into agape.  It must neither be suppressed nor indulged.  It is surrender that is called for.

Bede uses even stronger language than this later when he says that if the sexual energy is suppressed, even in prayer, it becomes "neutral or terribly destructive.  There is great danger here which many Christians do not realize," Bede says.   Here is where I want to bring in specifically the lessons that can be learned from Indian psychology.  Hillman himself makes reference to Bhakti yoga, that is, the yoga of devotion, in the context of the psychological discipline of developing eros, or the erotic discipline of developing psyche, either of which tend toward "psychic integration and erotic identity", but one sees immediately a connection with tantric yoga and the chakra system.  In New Creation in Christ Bede says that Christians should know about this kundalini way of yoga, and he wrote of it in other places as well.

Working with the chakras is for the eventual rising of the kundalini serpent energy coiled in the base of the spine.  All forms of genius and creativity involve some form of awakening this essence.  As Bede writes

This idea is particularly worked out in Kundalini yoga, where the understanding is that Kundalini is the serpent power.  The serpent was always the symbol of this earth power.  That power is supposed to be coiled up like a serpent at the base of the spine and is understood to be the source of all psychic energy.  That energy, kundalini, rises up through seven chakras, or energy centers, from the base of the spine to the crown of the head.  As the Kundalini . . . rises up through the body, the whole being is gradually transformed, from the physical, through the psychological, until finally spiritual evolution is attained.

According to kundalini yoga, the universe is composed of centers of energy known as charkas.  These seven centers of energy in the Universe are also within the human person.  So what takes place within the human person––the marriage of Shiva (consciousness) with Shakti (energy)–– reflects and resonates with what is taking place in the universe outside.

The chakra system begins with the muladhara chakra, the muddy area at the base of the spine where the kundalini energy is coiled.  This is the place of creation and eros, primal passion.  The awakening of the muladhara chakra is very important; all the passions are stored there, also all guilt, every complex and agony. The yogis believe that when kundalini is ascending from the muladhara to the next chakra, svadhisthana, the practitioner experiences a crucial period in which all repressed emotions, especially those of a primal nature, express themselves.  In this period all kinds of infatuations ensue, but it should be pointed out that this is in a sense pre-sexual, more primordial than sexual.  (I tend to think of this as the "adolescent" or "puberty chakra".)

The next chakra center is the svadhisthana, located in the region of the genitals.  This is the place of sexuality, also of good taste and aesthetics, where seeds within seeds of generativity are stored.  One swami wrote that when kundalini is residing in the svadhistana chakra,

the last vestige of karma is being thrown out and all the negative samskaras express themselves and are expelled. . . . This is the stage of evolution known as purgatory. . . .  When the explosion takes place and svadhistana begins to erupt, the aspirant is often confused and disturbed by the activation of all this subconscious material . . . which is often attributed to a disturbed mental condition.

Perhaps here we have Hillman's neuroses that can actually be seen as rites of initiation, the constellation of eros in psyche.  Unfortunately, according to Swami Satyananda Saraswati, if one fluctuates even slightly, kundalini will return to muladhara and the real awakening will be more difficult.   Bede says "the energy must not stop there . . . if the energy is stopped at any of these centers it becomes destructive."

I won't go much farther; we've almost reached my point.  The next chakra is the manipura, in the abdomen; its element is fire.  This is where rising passion begins to be transformed by the heat.  It is the center of honesty, dependency and autonomy.  According to the Buddhist tradition, the actual awakening takes place here, and from here the awakening is ongoing, so if one has made it this far there is practically no danger of devolution.  Only then comes anahata chakra, at the solar plexus-heart, where passion becomes non-physical, compassion.  This is the place of devotion and self-service, where need is transformed into love and courage.  This is the stage where one attains the freedom to escape from a preordained fate and determine one's own destiny, and where love overcomes ego.  Perhaps this is where eros finally frees himself from the grip of Aphrodite, where love overcomes fear.  Most importantly, this is where eros transforms into agape.

From here we reach the vishudha in the throat; where passion is transformed into dispassion and tranquillity; and then ajna at the brow, the third eye of wisdom, where passion becomes vairagha–the wisdom of non-attachment before reaching sahasrana, the crown chakra, where the restrictions of time, space and mortality are transcended.  But we are most of us not ready for that.  My main point lies back in the anahata chakra: according to kundalini yoga, the teaching of the chakras suggests that we cannot even experience authentic agape until it has been brought to fruition by the rising of eros, until eros constellates in psyche, until the primordial energy has been brought up from muladhara where it has been stored.  Even further, I want to suggest that we cannot adequately transform our eros into agape until we first not only acknowledge it, but reverence it as a sort of divine madness planted in us.  So Bede says, "I cannot experience divine love unless it is united with my human love for you".  Schlobotsky in his book on bramacharya yoga called The Passions of Innocence writes that the problem with Christians, and monastics in general, is that we try to start with the heart chakra, that is agape, and forego acknowledging and reverencing the eros, which he says would be a very difficult enterprise.

What is to be noted, not unlike what we said of Eros in the thought of James Hillman, is that this energy within us, according to the Hindu tradition, is itself divine; it is really the goddess Shakti herself.  It is also important to keep in mind the idea of transformation and surrender, not suppression; it's important to keep in mind that we need to not only accept but also reverence eros, reverence the creative madness within us.  Whether we are speaking of actual loci in the body or not does not matter to me; what I love about the chakra system is the notion of awakening, reverencing the divine madness of eros within us, neither indulging it nor suppressing, but surrendering it, allowing it to be burnt and transformed into another kind of love.  It not only seems preferable, it seems inevitable.

The Path of the Renunciate

How then are we to understand the way of renunciation, and the path of the renunciate, of which Bede was a prime example himself?

A sex loving monk, you object!
Hot blooded and passionate, totally aroused.
Remember, though, that lust can consume all passion,
Transmuting base metal into pure gold.

As Bruno notes in his introduction to this section in The One Light, Bede understands the development of Tantra as rising in opposition to the sannyasa path of renunciation.  In the earlier Upanishadic tradition, "the aim had been always to go beyond the physical and beyond the psychological to the Supreme Reality", which in practice entailed a strong tendency toward the asceticism which up to that point had prevailed in Hinduism as a whole, and ought to sound familiar to traditional Catholic teaching on ascetic practice.  "Leaving behind the body, the soul, the mind and all its activities, the aim was to unite oneself with the supreme brahman, the supreme atman."   Bede marvellously traces how historically the Tantric texts, which first begin to appear in the third century CE, rise up out of the indigenous Dravidian Shaivism of south India, where devotion to God as mother is very strong, so the tendency is to assert the values of nature and of the body, of the senses and of sex.  Many things which tended to be suppressed in the Aryan Vishnu tradition came to be reverenced by Tantra.  A key doctrine of the Tantras is "that by which we fall is that by which we rise."  In other words, as we may fall through the attraction of the senses, through sex, passion and desire, so we have to rise through them, using them as the means of going beyond.  "As the Kundalini . . . rises up through the body, the whole being is gradually transformed, from the physical, through the psychological, until finally spiritual evolution is attained."

But is the opposition of tantric path to the sannyasa path of renunciation a false dilemma?  Perhaps we can also see a synthesis of the masculine way of renunciation and the feminine way of embrace, that is still in keeping with traditional Indian thought, in which Tantrism is not seen as opposed to the sannyasa way––in which the way of eros is not opposed to the way of agape.  If we see this development in the light of the traditional Brahmanic pattern of the four stages (asramas) of life––that one passes through the stages of bramacharya, householder and forest dweller before reaching the age to take sannyasa¬¬––one could understand that healthy renunciation might only come after some integration has already taken place, when the kundalini energy in the natural flow of life has been reverenced and allowed to work its transformation on the human person.  Perhaps one is only ready for the great renunciation after the kundalini has been reverenced and allowed to rise up and begin the work of transforming the whole being, starting with the physical, working through the psychological, until finally spiritual evolution is attained.  This makes a lot of sense, and stands in contrast not to the path of renunciation itself, but perhaps in contrast to the monastic practice––Buddhist, Hindu as well as Christian––of young people "taking sannyasa", attempting a life long commitment to celibate chastity without ever having gone through the necessary stages of reverencing their eros, of allowing this divine creative sexual psychic energy to do its work of transformation, particularly of eros being transformed into agape. 

I am amused and somewhat consoled to discover that this tendency toward dualism is not limited to Christians but is shared by monastics in general, as evidenced by this, one of my favorite Buddhist stories, from China: There was an old woman who had supported a hermit for years, giving him a hut and feeding him while he spent his life in meditation.  One day she decided to test him to see what kind of progress he had made, so she sent a beautiful young woman to his hut.  The girl sat on his lap, threw her arms around him and pressed her body close up to his, and then asked the old man "What are you feeling right now?"  And the old man answered, "I am like a withered tree that grows on a cold rock in winter.  Nowhere is there any warmth."  Well, the young girl went and reported this to the old woman, and when the old woman who had been supporting this hermit for years heard this reply she immediately grew furious, went to the hermit's hut and kicked him out, and burned his hut down saying, "And to think I supported that guy for twenty years!  What a waste!"  So, agape without eros leaves our human nature starved.  It is like a withered tree that grows on a cold rock in winter.  Nowhere is there any warmth.  What a waste!

According to Fr Bede, Tantra is particularly important today because many in the West, consciously or not, have already discovered this way of the Mother.  Furthermore, when understood correctly, it may have lessons to teach especially Western Christians, reeling in the wake of a sexual crisis among its professional celibates.  Because agape without eros starves; and eros without agape is madness.

Christian asceticism: transformation in the Holy Spirit

So shakti rises and eventually reaches the sahasrara chakra, the thousand petalled lotus at the top of the head.  This is where we open up to the whole universe and the transcendent mystery beyond. … I like to see it flowing from above, with the Holy Spirit descending through all the faculties, right down through the whole body and then rising up again and returning to God.

In the best of the Christian tradition, eros is not to be avoided.  As a matter of fact the ancients speak about our eros for God, and God's eros for us.  Dionysius the Areopagite from the Divine Names writes

In God, eros is outgoing, ecstatic.  Because of it lovers no longer belong to themselves but to those whom they love.

Maximus the Confessor as well writes, in On the Divine Names, that God is the producer and generator of tenderness and eros, and that God is the moving force in those who look to God and who possess the capacity for desire, according to their own nature.  The most direct connection is made by Origen who says that although “eros is usually experienced in terms in relation to a human lover, it is in reality a heavenly force.”  And to further corroborate our theme, St John Climacus taught that for those who love God with the strength of eros, that eros is transformed into agape.

In modern times Ronald Rolheiser has a beautiful treatment of eros, using Goethe's phrase the "Holy Longing" in the book of the same name.  He says it is

. . . an unquenchable fire, a restlessness, a longing, a disquiet, a hunger, a loneliness, a gnawing nostalgia, a wildness that cannot be tamed, a congenital all-embracing ache that lies at the center of human experience and is the ultimate force that drives everything else.

For Rolheiser our contemporary search to define Christian spirituality needs to be rooted in eros.  He writes that for the Christian spirituality "concerns what we do with desire.  It takes root in the eros inside of us and it is all about how we shape and discipline that eros."  He gives the example of John of the Cross whose "love's urgent longings" were none other than the eros which is the starting point of the spiritual life, and for whom spirituality is how we handle that eros.   "Eros," for Rolheiser––carrying with it desire, disquiet, nostalgia, lust, appetite, and hope––"is soul and soul gives energy."  He writes that Christians should agree with the Greeks who say that we are fired into life with a madness that is the root of all love, hate, creativity, joy and sadness, and we should add that God has put this eros inside of us, so that we might share in God's work of creation, and ultimately contemplate that which we have helped create and burst with a joy and "swell in a delight that breaks the prison of [our] selfishness."  And for this reason

sexuality lies at the center of the spiritual life.  A healthy sexuality is the single-most powerful vehicle there is to lead us to selflessness and joy, just as unhealthy sexuality helps constellate selfishness and unhappiness as does nothing else.

Given the sexual scandals in the Roman church that has surfaced over the past few years, one does not have to reach far to guess that it is quite possibly a result of the destructive and dangerous character of blocked sexual energy.  “Eros driven underground becomes rage, and great violence ensues,” writes Jungian James Hollis,  and Richard Rohr agrees with this, quoting Fr Bede in his book Adam’s Return, and adding

. . . if religion does not integrate and validate the sensual, pleasure-loving, erotic part of a man [he is specifically referring to male spirituality here], it takes devious and destructive directions.  If you do not bless it and bow to it, it turns on you and controls you, as we have seen in the recent pedophile scandal.  If you bless it, it also shows its limited value and longs for something higher.

So perhaps Christian asceticism can and needs to be seen in a fresh light.  Perhaps the idea of "mortification of the flesh" derived from the Fathers of the Desert, and their tendency toward extreme asceticism has past its usefulness.  Bede wrote that "[t]heir aim was to conquer (emphasis mine) the flesh by watching, fasting and bodily mortifications. … They probably found these disciplines necessary but it had a very bad effect on the Christian tradition of asceticism.  The result is that many people reject asceticism altogether."   He also wrote of the asceticism such as that found in Thomas à Kempis' Imitation of Christ, that it is not a good model for today because it is limited and negative.  "We are learning to appreciate the physical self particularly through yoga … We are trying to learn to appreciate the body and the world, and to integrate them into our Christian lives."   When seen through the eyes of yoga, the discipline of ascesis can rather be seen as control without any strain, complete control in perfect harmony, with an eye toward transformation and right relationship rather than a dualistic notion of punishing the flesh.  "Yoga is never a suppression of anything ," Bede writes in The River of Compassion, "neither of the body, nor of the passions, nor of the senses, nor of the mind.  It is a bringing of the whole person into harmony, into a perfect order."  We may even still do the same things, engage in the same practices, but we would do them for different reasons, and that slight change of focus may help us immensely. 

This is not far from the thinking of other contemporary Christian teachers.  Anselm Gruen, Benedictine monk and author, writes for instance that discipline (asceticism) is not a way that we suppress our drives and passions, but a way that we can transform and shape them.

The three basic drives––eating, sex and greed––are transformed through fasting, asceticism, and almsgiving.  Here discipline is a good way not to suppress the drives, but to shape them, so that they can serve us as a power source.  We overcome sadness by fleeing dependency on the world, by letting go of what we are clinging to, and by setting ourselves free [emphases mine].

As the Amritabindu Upanishad (1-2) teaches

Driven by the senses the mind becomes impure;
but with the senses under control, the mind becomes pure. 
Driven by the senses we become bound;
but with the senses mastered we become free.

The senses are not suppressed or killed––they are controlled and shaped, (might we say "focused"?) and thus become sacraments, instruments of salvation, as Cipriano Vagaggini teaches that all flesh is for the Christian.

For Fr Bede a primary necessary step in learning to deal with and shape our eros is meditation.  He uses a pleasant expression when he says that in meditation we learn "to let our own natural desires, our eros, awaken and surrender it to God, that is, let it be taken up into agape."  It is specifically in and through meditation that we learn to turn the mind to the inner light, the Atman, the Spirit, which is able to direct the mind and bring it into right relationship with the senses.  As Andrew Olendzki says about the Buddhist tradition, the reason why meditation is such a crucial tool is because the wisdom spoken of here is really only accessible to a settled and focused mind.   It is in meditation that we still the mind and train the senses, so that we may awaken and learn the surrender necessary to be guided by the spirit.  It is in meditation that we may learn to surrender to God who, as Maximus the Confessor reminds us, is the moving force, the producer and generator of tenderness and eros, and come to possess the capacity for outgoing and ecstatic, creative desire.

Awaken and surrender!


From William Johnson’s Mystical Theology, section entitled “Ascent to Love” in Chapter 16, “Union”

In the context of the man-woman relationship Jung refers to four symbols that describe the ascent to contemplative love whether in marriage or celibacy.  The symbols are Eve, Helen, Mary and Sapientia.

Eve, associated with Hawah or earth, symbolizes biological, instinctive, sexual love.  She is a symbol of the instinctive urge to procreate and preserve the species.  Helen of Tory represents the romantic or courtly love of the troubadour.  She is the beautiful woman who bewitches Marlowe’s Faust as he cries in ecstasy, ‘Is this the face that launched a thousand ships and burned the topless towers of Illium?  Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.’  Mary symbolizes the devotional love of one who prays with deep feeling and with tears.  Sapientia or wisdom is mystical love.  She is the Shulamite of the Song of Songs.  It is the glory of the human person to love her with unlimited spiritual passion––and forever.

Called and sustained by grace alone, one passes through the stages of growth symbolized by Eve, Helen, and Mary, reaching a climax with the all-consuming love of wisdom.  In this ascent, however it is important to note that the lower is not rejected for the higher.  Eve is not rejected by the one who loves Helen.  Eve and Helen and Mary are not rejected by the one who loves Sapientia.  Indeed, Eve and Helen and Mary are somehow contained in Sapientia, which is the all-embracing feminine.  Unrestricted love goes one and on, transcending but not rejecting.

Clearly the path is very demanding.  While one does not reject Eve and Helen and Mary, one does reject clinging to Eve and Helen and Mary.  There must be no clinging, no inordinate attachment.  This is the path of nada, nada, nada, the path of mu, mu, mu.  It is the surrender of all to find all.

At the summit one reaches a love that is both human and divine, valid for both married and celibate.  The married person, while being consumed by sapiential love for the other, can still express this love at the level of Eve when it is appropriate to do so.  The celibate person is finally so consumed by sapiential love that he or she is able to sacrifice the love of Eve without undue suffering.  In the final analysis what matters is not celibacy or marriage but love––the same love is poured into the hearts of all.