Collect for Candlemas

Almighty and ever-living God, we humbly beseech thy majesty: that, as thine Only-Begotten Son was this day presented in the temple in the substance of our flesh; so we may be presented unto thee with pure and clean hearts, by the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

An Apologia for the Romantic Way

Tell me not (Sweet) I am unkinde
That from the Nunnerie
Of thy chaste breast and quiet minde
To Warre and Armes I flie. 
True; a new Mistresse now I chase,
The first Foe in the Field;
And with a stronger Faith imbrace
A Sword, a Horse, a Shield. 
Yet this inconstancy is such
As you too shall adore;
I could not love thee (Dear) so much
Lov'd I not Honor more. 
-- Richard Lovelace, To Lucasta, Going to the Warres, 1649

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Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Beata Beatrix, 1870

Before I differ from Tyler Blanski's article The Protohomosexual of a few weeks ago, I'd like to note an important agreement between us. He writes movingly in his final subsection ("We Are Oriented") of the intrinsic human impulse toward sexuality-as-procreation. There are other reasons that we are interested in sex, obviously, and other ways in which we display the urge to create; about the only thing we are told in Genesis about God, before being told that we are made in His image, is that He is a maker, and our creative drive is in a sense our most thoroughly human attribute. We share freedom and intellect with the angels, and we share body and social instinct with animals; but creativity appears to be a distinctly human phenomenon, and in sexual reproduction, every level of our being -- spiritual and animal -- is involved at once. No wonder it's so pleasurable, and so complicated.

So, as a philosopher* and as a Catholic, there is important overlap between Blanski's views and mine. And, in the last resort, I hold that that overlap is weightier than our divergence, not only because we are both Catholics (and therefore agree about things beside which even sexuality is almost trivial), but because our views of this topic are, I think, more similar to one another than either is to contemporary secular orthodoxy.

That said, there is a difference, and it is important.

Blanski, in seeking to answer the question of why so many straight people are pro-gay, turns to the Western romantic tradition, and particularly to the revolutionary shift that took place in the movement of Courtly Love. Of course, classical antiquity and the early Mediaevals knew perfectly well that people sometimes fall in love, but it hadn't been customary to admire them for it -- largely because no one can help observing that people make some absolutely terrible decisions under the influence of erotic love. The twelfth-century poets of Courtly Love practically invented a new way of looking at eros, of which the Arthurian tradition (especially the story of Guinevere and Lancelot) is probably the best-known modern survival among English speakers. It became a sort of erotic cult: the devotee considered himself the slave of his lady, and his love for her mixed the romantic with the worshipful. The Church was scandalized more than once by the tradition of Courtly Love; and, for their part, the troubadours were divided among themselves: some counted themselves dutiful sons of the Church, while others preferred to flaunt their dedication to their ladies as against the faith.

Edmund Blair Leighton, The Accolade, 1901

That lovers are inclined to rebel against any limits on their devotion is, of course, human nature, and did not begin with Courtly Love. What those poets did introduce was a quasi-religious attitude in which the service of the beloved became a kind of separate moral dispensation, one that could override other ethical principles. And it is this characteristic of Courtly Love which Blanski fixes his argument upon, citing its tendency toward narcissism, its removal of eros from the realities of daily life, its readiness to deceive and to betray, its dismissal of children from lovers' concerns, its general lawlessness. All of this forms it (Blanski argues) into a proto-homosexual disposition; i.e., it turns sexual love into an end in itself, instead of a means to the creation of the family, and therefore containing in itself the seeds to the modern LGBT rights movement.

Now, these were real traits of Courtly Love, both in its poetic theory and its lived practice. Nor -- though it has decayed considerably over the last century, largely due to the influence of Marxism (which decries the lover's service to his lady) and many forms of feminism (whose criticisms are more diverse) -- have we seen the end of the erotic tradition the troubadours gave birth to. But Courtly Love was not as simple as Blanski implies, nor can it be dismissed as summarily as he seems to want to do. The vigorously Catholic rebuttal to this element of his argument can be summed up in a single word: Beatrice.

Gustave Dore, Paradiso: Canto I, 1868

Dante, perhaps the greatest poet of Western history, didn't just write the Inferno. It was preceded by La Vita Nuova, which chronicled his earlier acquaintance with and love for Beatrice, and followed by Purgatorio and Paradiso, in which she comes to him after her death and rescues him by grace and illumination. And the common thread that runs through all of them is precisely: Courtly Love, employed by a wholly orthodox Catholic, as a way of the soul to God. Beatrice is Dante's beloved, and she functions to him, from the first moment of their meeting, as an image of Christ. In her, Dante beheld the glory of the Creator; her mere presence is enough to fill him with humility, joy, and love, and he responds neither with rejection nor with idolatry, but with veneration -- that kind of mingled delight and awe that we pay to the angels and the saints. Many lovers have felt it, and it can be used as a way of seeing God; like anything can.

Using erotic love as a way of the soul has its dangers: covert narcissism, overt idolatry, foolishness, lust, impatience. They must be acknowledged, and the professed romantic must be as cognizant of these dangers, as firm in his purpose, and as faithful to the doctrines and the sacraments, as the professed religious brother or sister has to be. But none of this renders it unusable as a way of the soul, nor, I believe, should erotic love be dismissed or hedged off as something that only great souls may attempt. Greatness and sanctity come from devoting oneself to the Way,** not as pre-existing superiorities that justify the use of the Way.

Incidentally, Dante's love for Beatrice illustrates the antidote to what I believe Blanski's error to be. Both Dante and Beatrice were married to other people, yet there is no hint that Dante regarded this as at all relevant. This is not because they were adulterous and simply didn't care: there's no evidence that they had anything but the most casual contact -- he himself reports going into raptures when, after nine years of acquaintance, Beatrice condescended to say hello to him in the street one day. Dorothy Sayers, in her introduction to her translation of the Purgatorio, that this love
is not the febrile anguish of the death-Eros, in which possession forever mocks desire; nor yet the simple and affectionate exchange which does not look beyond possession. It is in fact not concerned with possession one way or the other, though it may survive loss. It is a love whose joy -- and therefore whose fulfillment -- consists in the worshipful contemplation of that which stands over and above the worshipper. True to its origins in courtly love, it finds its entire happiness in being allowed to do homage to its acknowledged superior. ... If earthly love, as such, is but a type and an overflowing of our innate (though it may be unrecognized) desire for God, then it is inevitable that there should always be something in its nature which transcends and eludes possession.***
The troubadours might have said the same; C. S. Lewis notes in The Allegory of Love that there was debate among them as to whether sexual intimacy with one's lady was the pinnacle of eros, or something beside the point. Dante took the latter view.

As ... seen here? Possibly?

The point is, eros, though it's become linked in our minds with marriage, is really an independent phenomenon. It is not incompatible with marriage; but there is nothing in Scripture, and little in history, to make either one the necessary companion or guardian of the other. The idea that eros necessarily leads to marriage or forms a good foundation for it is, in fact, about as young as words like homosexual and heterosexual. Eros is a tradition that may be entered by any loving soul who will, regardless of the object of love -- conditioned, as Dante's love was, by the same orthodox structure of ethics and economy of sacraments that governs all of Christendom. More briefly, the Romantic Way rightly considered is part of the Way as a whole, and operates on the same principles and within the same limits.

These conditions are not foreign to the tradition of erotic love. Nor is Dante a lonely example; the Cavalier and Metaphysical poets of seventeenth century England were exponents of the same in their own milieu of royalism and romanticism. Poets like John Donne and Richard Lovelace knew well how to combine eroticism with religious devotion, and the divided tongues of fire that we call Baroque art exhibit this synthesis magnificently.

Does this open to door to the possibility of a homoerotic devotion? I believe it does, in principle, though -- since marriage exists in its own right, independently of eros, just as eros exists independently of marriage -- marriage is still defined in its own terms, which, as a Catholic, I admit and even insist are oriented toward the family. Homoeroticism of this kind, used as a way of the soul, would be obliged to renounce sexual intimacy with the beloved. But this is no new idea. Its earliest expression in the West may be Plato's depiction of Socrates' erotic mysticism in the Symposium, and, in one form or another, it has continued, all the way down to (admittedly, sadly obscure) examples like Dunstan Thompson and Philip Trower. The notion that a love which cannot lead to marriage is intrinsically perverse, in my opinion, smacks of a baptized Freudianism that I have no truck with.

What of the Catechism's phrase that same-sex sexual desire is "intrinsically disordered," i.e. a misdirected impulse (like all sexual desire that is in itself unable to issue in life)? Well, that's true. But eros can't be reduced to the desire for sex, and, though it seems it generally does, it doesn't always produce the desire for sexual union with the beloved. I've been in love once or twice without any conscious desire to sleep with the person in question. It wasn't any less or otherwise romantic love on that account.

For eros is not primarily a way of craving, but a way of seeing; and the seen beloved is being seen in her or his archetypal goodness through the lens of erotic love. The beloved may not live up to her or his archetype of possible goodness, and the lover may in one way or another be disobedient to the heavenly vision. But the heavenly vision remains, and the heavenly vision isn't really about sex, even when it's connected to sexual desire. It is, on its minor scale, an intimation of the Beatific Vision, in which seeing is receiving and receiving is loving: None is afore, or after other; none is greater, or less than another; but the whole three Persons are coeternal together, and coequal. And the Romantic Way is defined by a maxim from the same creed: One, not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but by taking of that manhood into God; one altogether, not by confusion of substance, but by unity of Person. That is, the Way has not been changed in its own nature, so that the beloved is made an idol, but the Way assumes the lowers Ways into Itself, redirecting their natural courses toward a supernatural end -- so that, if we open ourselves by grace to the possibility, all roads lead to that Rome where Christ Himself is Roman.****

From Saint George and the Dragon as told by Margaret Hodges, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman.

*I don't mean philosopher here in any technical, still less exalted, sense. I just mean a person who likes to think about how reality works and how we ought to live in it, and really that's a much commoner pastime than we sometimes realize; almost everybody does it, at least a little bit.

**I.e., to any of the specific forms of the Way into God which is God, namely Christ. The way of monastic devotion is one of these ways, and one of the most obvious due to the renunciations it involves. But the other ways, those that accent affirming the image of God in His creation (rather than accenting the distinction of substance between God and His creation), are nonetheless the Way.

***Introduction to Sayers' translation of the Purgatorio, p. 43.

****Dante's Purgatorio XXXII.102.


  1. Very excellent response, I too wondered about Tyler's dismissal of chivalry, given Dante and C.S. Lewis!

  2. Gabriel, just a note, I think the Bible DOES address eros in the Song of Songs. In fact, there eros seems to me to be at the center of King Solomon/God's relationship with the bride. Just a note. I don't know what it actually adds to the conversation

    1. Quite true; I was, stupidly, forgetting that. I had only the New Testament in mind, which is always a mistake. :)

      As to what it adds, well, I'm not really sure either. I'm very much inclined to think that it gives a Scriptural backing to the Romantic Way, in addition to the traditional support found in Catholic literature of the Mediaeval and Modern periods. And of course it lays out a pattern for a sanctified conjugal love, whereas things like the poetry of Dante are more focused on the adoration of the beloved apart from both marriage and sex. I confess I probably don't understand its specifically erotic dimension that well; I like the book, but I'm so used to the mystical interpretation from authors like St Bernard and St John of the Cross that I rarely think of it on its natural level (which is a defect, really, since the mystical interpretation depends upon the literal meaning).