Posted February 18, 2004
Book: A Rhapsody of Love and Spirituality
Author: David Fekete
Algora Publishing, New York, pp.306
An excerpt from the Jacket:
The state of sexual relations today, according to the great Catholic theologian Walter Kasper, has reached crisis proportions. The radical changes that have taken place in recent years in man’s understanding of himself and of the society he lives in and in the relationship between the sexes . . . led to a grave crisis. This may well have come about partly by a failure to resolve the kinds of tensions that we will look at in this book. We have no comprehensive cultural tradition about love. All we have today is what T. S. Elliot calls a heap of broken images — fragments.
Sensing that something doesn’t mesh when it comes to love, many have turned away from primary texts and traditions of love that our culture has generated. Instead of following traditions, many follow the whims of personal desire. To some, departing from tradition is considered liberating. To others, living according to personal desire is considered unstable and capricious, even unholy. Love between a man and a woman is it sacred or sinful?
Love and spirituality have always been in tension. A Rhapsody of Love explores Platonic eros, Christian mysticism, friendship, religious ritual, and love as people experience it, turning up startling ironies and paradoxes.
Consider the curious irony of a celibate priest conducting a marriage ceremony between a man and wife. Where did such a custom come from? What does it say about sexuality and love?
Can it be that the Puritans, who have a popular reputation for prudery, were in fact champions for Romance?
Sifting through the fragments of our culture’s traditions, panning for gold, we turn up hidden suppositions and forgotten ideals. Here, we may rediscover the keys to the sublime, the exalted, the blessed nature of love.
Drawing on poetry, literature, theology, the Bible, philosophy, and music lyrics, the author creates two categories: Transcendental Platonic Eros (love) and Romantic, personal love, and leads a search for traditions that we may wish to recover, adopt anew, or simply reclaim as we say yes, that’s the way I always thought it should be!
An excerpt from the Book:
When two lovers look into each other’s eyes, they remember heaven, where they used to live, and their souls begin to grow wings. So goes Plato’s poetic description of love in his book Phaedrus. His description of love is passionate: the lover shivers and experiences holy dread; he grows hot and falls into a sweat; he struggles helplessly as against a flood; in a frenzy, he cannot sleep at night and is restless all day when his beloved is not present. Nothing equals the sweetness the lover feels in his beloved’s company. Mother, brother, friends are all forgotten in the lover’s passion for his beloved; his property means nothing to him; he scorns civilized behavior if only he can live near his beloved. If he didn’t fear being called a madman, the lover would offer sacrifices to his beloved as to a god.
Clearly, Plato has experienced the intensity of love. Yet, in the long run, this strange love delivers the strongest blow against love that Western civilization has known. Plato comes close to saying that one is better off not loving at all. But as a pious Greek, Plato knows that Love is a god. And despite Plato’s philosophical vocation, he doesn’t completely abandon reverence for the god of love; but by the time he gets done saving Love from his own philosophy, little is left that looks like love. Ultimately, to get back to heaven, the lover must leave behind his personal beloved. The soul must purify itself from all passion. And poetry, since it “waters” the passions and “makes them grow,” must be replaced by dispassionate philosophy.
Our culture still reels under the effects of Plato’s onslaught. In the centuries that followed, Plato’s philosophy became the model for the entire Mediterranean world’s view of the universe and a person’s place in the universe. Christianity’s early educated Fathers wrote in such a philosophical climate. And through these educated Fathers, Christianity imported Plato and passed him on to Europe. And even in more recent times, Poets who are all too familiar with Plato’s philosophy write with their backs up against a wall. Some important writers who felt compelled to write defenses of poetry are Plato’s own pupil Aristotle, Sir Philip Sidney, William Wordsworth, and Percy Bysshe Shelley.
But love will have its way. In Longus’ Daphnis and Chloe, an ancient Romance has been preserved from the second and third century C.E. that still speaks to lovers, today. It represents a tradition of Romance that was highly popular in the ancient world. Unfortunately, through time, we have lost all the texts of the genre excepting this one gem.
Longus narrates the innocent life of a young couple that grows up in the Greek pastureland. Their love develops naturally, since it is uncomplicated by urban distractions. This rustic couple spends their days together tending their herds of goats and sheep. Right at the time of puberty, they become aware of one another in a troubling and at times painful way. The story moves on to tell how they come to know the god of love (whose Greek name is “Eros”) and the emotions they have been experiencing. They become emblems of Eros, protected and nurtured by the god himself.
Thus the battle lines of this book are drawn by Plato and Longus. Neither writer wrote with the other in mind. Rather, each author represents a way of loving that generates a vast tradition of literature. For Plato, love involves merging with an infinite, immortal Idea of The Good or The Beautiful that transcends every finite mortal — so you must give up every finite, mortal thing for the Ideal. For Longus, on the other hand, love finds its home in a particular, finite person. Love finds its fulfillment in that special someone; and this personal love is intended by God. It is just as spiritual as is Plato’s love. Thus both writers claim to be worshiping the god of Love, but their way of doing so is at odds with the other’s. These two ways of seeing love have been influencing our culture for millennia, and in the pages that follow we will enjoy and compare important texts that have been generated by various writers since the time of Plato and Longus.
Table of Contents:
Chapter 1. Two vast antagonists: Longus and Plato
Daphnis and Chloe
Plato and transcendent love
Chapter 2. The lover’s coach and the apple fallen from Plato’s tree: Ovid and Aristotle
Ovid: the lover’s coach
Remedies for love
Aristotle: How far has the apple fallen from Plato’s tree?
Chapter 3. Eros and the Bible: Romantic scriptures, ambiguous interpretations, and Gregory of Nyssa’s Platonic biblical alligories
Gregory of Nysssa: The Song of Songs becomes a Platonic journey
Chapter 4. Bad news for lovers: St. John Chrysostom, St. Jerome, and St. Augustine
St. John Chrysostom
Chapter 5. Knights and ladies versus the monks: Chivalric romance and ascetic discipline
Tristan and Isolde
The quest of the Holy Grail: The undoing of Chivalry
Chapter 6 A crippled attempt t salvage marriage and popular movement against it:
The cloud of unknowing
Chapter 7. The romancers strike back:
Sir Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene
Chapter 8. Radical theologian of true love: Emanuel Swedenborg
Chapter 9. Eternal feminine: Shelley and intellectual beauty
Chapter 10. The death of God, the end of love: T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land
Eros in the Waste Land
Chapter 11. Ancient voices echo in modern halls: The recent erotic spirituality of Vatican II and David Matzko McCarthy, Karl Barth, and Eberhard Jungel
Chapter 12. A heap of broken images? Erotic love and spirituality in the post-modern age.