Love - Divine and Human. Preliminary remarks
marriage, and sexuality concern everyone, because love
is a vocation for everyone. As Christians, we believe
that the entire creation was made through love. The
source and end of all things is love, because the source
and end of all things is God, and "God is love"
(1 John 4 : 8, 16). St. John Chrysostom describes the
all-embracing love of the incarnate God in a homily
on the Gospel of Matthew :
"I am a father for you [says Christ) and a brother,
a bridegroom and a home, a nurse and a dressing, a root
and a cornerstone. Whatever you want, I am for you.
My desire is that you have no need whatsoever. I shall
serve you ; for I came not to be served, but to serve.
I am a friend and a member and a head, a brother and
a sister and a mother. I am everything for you. Just
stay in communion with me. I have been poor for you
and a wanderer for you, on the cross and in the tomb
Even evil depends on love. According to the optimism
of some Church Fathers, no one commits an act of evil
unless they believe that something they love will result.
Therefore, love is divine in origin and sacred in nature.
From a human perspective, there is no singular way of
understanding the concept of love. It conveys a host
of meanings and moods : from "making love"
which may imply a loveless physical act, to the profound
commitment of an elderly couple ; from selfish motives,
to selfless giving ; from the softness of a child holding
its parents' hands, to the intimacy of two friends holding
Human beings are made to love and to look at one another.
The experience of love is heaven and life ; the absence
of love is hell and death. St. Macarius of Egypt believed
that hell resembles being bound, back to back with another
person, unable for all eternity to face that person.
Love shatters the chains of loneliness ; it tears down
the walls of selfishness. Love is a profound strength,
a spiritual energy. We are never more powerful than
when through love we are vulnerable. Love casts out
fear ; it is stronger than death. To say to someone
: "I love you!" is to make a metaphysical
statement ; it is like saying : "You will never
Appreciating this intensity of love, the Church Fathers
dare to compare it with eros or passion. Dionysius the
Areopagite describes God as a "manic lover"
who is zealously protective of His creation. Love is
so powerful, that one genuine expression of love reveals
an openness that transfigures the whole world. To gaze
into another person's eyes with love is to see the soul
of the entire world, it is to see the very image of
This kind of love is a gift from God. Yet at the same
tune, it requires cultivation and hard work. Love takes
time and skill, responsibility and respect. it is an
act of extending myself to nurture another, all the
time. On the evening of life, we will be judged only
on love. This love is more than mere feelings. It is
decision and commitment. If you want to love, you must
create it and not wait for your spouse to offer it.
In love and marriage, God provides us with a wonderful
opportunity of being reborn, of maturing. "This
is indeed a great mystery" (Eph. 5 : 32). Life
is the great mystery - to be lived, and lived in abundance.
And if we work on love, if we cultivate love, if we
let down our guard of mistrust, if we struggle to relate,
then we shall gradually notice that the whole world
changes and that the whole world is beautiful. In reality,
of course, it is we who shall have changed ; it is we
who see the same things with different eyes.
Physicality and Spirituality
authors have from the earliest of times been uncomfortable
with physical or sexual love. Somehow, physical love
is considered a debased form of love. Certain authors
affirm that celibacy is superior to love in marriage
; others propose that the sole purpose of physical love
is procreation. Physicality or sexuality have been tainted,
regarded as impure. They are seen as contaminating and
shaming ; people are riddled with fear and guilt. Sexuality
is viewed as an expression that connects us to the lower
forms of life, identified with lustful desires and animal
The figure and theology of St. Augustine has set the
pattern for Western thinking on this subject to this
day. As a result, people suffer from an in-built schizophrenia
in this most intimate and personal aspect of life. For
Augustine, sexuality is the result of our fall, Eve
is the result of Adam's defection from God ; woman is
not created in God's image, but as man's instrument.
Yet St Paul made it clear that in becoming one flesh
(cf. 1Cor. 6 : 16), man and woman symbolize the union
between Christ and the Church. In any case, Christ never
identified sin with the body, but with what is committed
in the heart (cf. Matt. 15 : 18-19). For Christians,
"the flesh is the hinge of salvation" (Tertullian).
How unfortunate, then, it is that Christianity - as
the religion of the body and the flesh, as the religion
of incarnation has left a permanent scar on the human
It is not a matter of coming to terms with the body
or with sexuality. Rather, it is a matter of recognizing
these as crucially bound to the deepest aspects of human
nature. Sexuality is not accidental ; rather, it is
essential to our reality. Sexual and physical love belong
to the mystery of our being. This is, not to say that
sexuality and spirituality are one and the same. However,
there is an intimate correspondence between the two.
The denial of one is reflected in the degradation of
the other. Without sexuality, there is no beauty ; without
beauty, there is no soul ; and without soul, there is
no God. "Male and female [God] created [us]"
(Gen. 1 : 26). So we are told immediately after the
creation of Adam and Eve in the image and likeness of
God. For the Eastern Fathers, without Eve, Adam was
incomplete. "Woman is made in full communion with
man : sharing every pleasure, every joy, every good,
every sorrow, every pain" (St. Basil the Great),
"sharing divine grace itself" (Clement of
Alexandria) Writing in exactly the same period as Augustine
of Hippo, St. John Chrysostom claims that "sexual
love is not human ; it is divine in origin."
Icon or Idol
it is difficult for a person to become aware of sexuality
(of his or her body) without becoming aware of the sexuality
(of the bodies) of other people. And so in physical
love, in the union of marriage, man and woman offer
one another to the image of God in the other person.
This is not unlike the encounter that occurs in the
event of an icon. There is an art involved in iconography.
Similarly, there is an art involved in love. Love is
not simply an act ; it is art. The purpose of the art
of love - as also in iconography - is to transfigure
one other, to see each other as the manifestation of
the divine Beloved. If there is a place for icons in
the Church, then there is also a place for marriage
and sexual love.
The body and sexual love resemble an icon that opens
up to divine beauty and divine love : "Blessed
is the person who has obtained such love and yearning
for God as a mad lover has for his beloved generating
fire by fire, eros by eros, passion by passion, desire
by desire" (St. John Climacus).
To see another person as an icon is to see the world
through the eyes of God. It is to abolish the distance
between this world and the next ; it is to speak on
this earth and in this age the language of heaven and
of the age to come, it is to reveal the sacramental
dimension of love. According to an apocryphal saying
of Jesus : "The kingdom of heaven is made manifest
when two people love."
The icon teaches us another means of communication,
beyond the written and the spoken word. We are taught
not to look at icons, but to look through them. By the
same token, we are called to penetrate the surface of
the person we love and to reveal the sacred depth within.
In fact, the matter of procreation directly relates
to this notion of icon. Unless marital love opens the
couple up beyond themselves, unless the relationship
of the two in marriage reflects the communion of the
Trinity, unless the love of the couple extends them
in one way or another, then marital love is reduced
from a sacred icon to a mere idol. The loving couple
is at all times called to move beyond a reflection of
one another; a mirror is not an icon, but a reflection
of oneself. The couple is called to become an icon of
the Church, a "miniature church." For St.
John Chrysostom, "marriage is a mystical icon of
the Church." The dimensions of the Church reveal
the dimensions of the married couple. As "we believe
in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church,"
so the couple ought to reflect the same unity, holiness,
openness, and apostolicity. This is important because
the Church refuses to idealize or romanticize the married
life and the family. Therefore, the couple must beget
"offspring ;" their love must "bear fruit."
The paradox is that the couple must have children, even
if they cannot bear children.
Monasticism and Marriage
of the Church Fathers interpreted the letters of St.
Paul, as implying that monasticism is superior to marriage
(cf. 1 Cor. 7 : 8-9). Yet, "if virginity is honored,
it does not follow that marriage is dishonored"
(Gregory the Theologian). St. Macarius of Egypt exclaims
: "In truth, there is neither virgin nor married
person, neither monk nor secular ; but God gives His
Holy Spirit to all, according to the intentions of each."
The Syriac version of the very same text reads as follows
: "Truly, virginity by itself is nothing, nor marriage,
nor life as a monk, nor life in the world..."
Inward purity is always possible, irrespective of the
outward circumstances. Symeon the New Theologian is
adamant about this : "Many regard the monastic
way as the most blessed way. For my part, however, I
would not set any way above the others ; nor would I
praise one and depreciate another. But in every situation,
it is the life lived for God and according to God that
is entirely blessed."
As we have seen, in a loving relationship, the other
person becomes the center of attraction. The goal is
always movement outside and beyond oneself. The perspective
is always the kingdom of heaven. Monastics have traditionally
understood this truth to the same degree as married
couples. Thus ascetic writers teach us that love is
never satisfied ; it is only fulfilled. Love is not
an act of satisfaction, but of total giving. Sexual
love is for the glory of God, not for the selfish gratification
Genuine love cannot ultimately be achieved without chastity.
In the "Ladder of Divine Ascent," St. John
Climacus places purity (step 29) immediately before
love (step 30). Monasticism, then, is not abstention
from sexual love. It is another manifestation of this
love. Monasticism can never be an extinction or diminution
of the most vital human response to life. There is an
element of asceticism in marriage, a refinement to love
; just as there is a dimension of love in monasticism,
a passion for God. In the monastic tradition, passions
are dealt with differently ; they are overcome by greater
passions. One single, vivid experience of passionate
love will advance us much further in the spiritual life
than the most arduous ascetic struggle. One single flame
of pure love is sufficient to spark a cosmic fire and
transform the whole world.
Love is neither a physical nor a material issue. It
is not primarily a sexual concern. It is a spiritual
concern. It should not be feared like a taboo, but received
as a sacred mystery ; it should never be concealed as
a secret, but revealed as a sacrament.
Monasticism, like marriage, is a sacrament of love.
Monasticism, like marriage, is a sacrament of the kingdom.
The true dimension of both is eschatological. Thus love
is greater than prayer itself ; indeed, it is prayer.
For, love is what defines human nature. Both monastics
and married couples must continually struggle to be
what they are called to be - enraptured by the living
flame of divine love. As we have already observed, love
is a gift from above as well as something to strive
for ; it is a starting-point, as well as an ending-point.
The alpha and omega of life are the first and last letters
of the Greek word "I love" (agapè).
This is true of a monk or a nun, as it is of a husband
and a wife.
The Sacrament of Marriage
sacrament is a transcendence of division and alienation.
In the case of marriage, each person must become conscious
of the divine presence in the other. Both husband and
wife must pierce the curtain of distance and falsehood.
When this occurs, the marital union is stronger than
death, not able to be "put asunder by anyone."
In this relationship, the male is never exclusively
the active pole, and the female is never exclusively
the passive pole. The basis in any sacramental relationship
is that man and woman are complementary : there is a
mutuality of giving and receiving, a meeting of reciprocity.
Neither must look upon the other as a means toward an
end, no matter how exalted or spiritual. Neither must
use the relationship for any purpose in which the other
is not fully and personally involved as an active and
cooperating partner and participant.
This means that partners should not seek fulfillment
in, or dependence on, each other. I cannot hold my spouse
responsible for my emptiness. At all times, I need to
discover the fulfillment of my emptiness in God : it
is God who makes me know that I am loved ; it is God
who empowers me to love another. Here, again, we encounter
the "monasticism" of the marital relationship.
Marriage is no magical solution to life's problems.
How could any marriage stand up to such expectations
? Is it any wonder that marriages fail, when we are
taught today that our partner is our "other half,"
when we are less than full persons in the sacrament
? Personal love implies full dignity and identity, no
diminishing of the other ; there is neither any false
idealization nor any disfigurement of the other. Wholeness
and integrity is indispensable for a healthy marriage.
And wholeness presupposes honesty, not niceness. Love
is an act of faith as well as an act of faithfulness.
It is always a temptation to lie, to deceive, to be
less than truthful.
This means that if there is to be any intimacy in love,
then there must exist the possibility of conflict. In
marriages where there is no conflict, there usually
is, or else, there may be no honesty. In society, and
even in Church, we are taught to be nice. This is like
learning to be dishonest. And so we smile when we are
sad or angry ; we say things we do not mean. Yet whatever
is not talked about openly remains unresolved and becomes
damaging in the lives of our children. We need to be
honest about our failures, open about our emptiness.
They are an invaluable part of our relationships. This
is why marriage is as much about separation as it is
about union ; it is as much about detachment as it is
about attachment. A poem entitled "Marriage"
by Kahlil Gibran underlines this paradox of separate-ness
and close-ness in love.
"You were born together, and together you shall
be for ever-more.
You shall be together when the white wings of death
scatter your days.
Aye, you shall be together even in the silent memory
But let there be spaces in your togetherness.
And let the winds of the heavens dance between you.
Love one another, but make not a bond of love.
Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of
Fill each other's cup, but drink not from one cup.
Give one another of your bread, but eat not from the
Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each
one of you be alone.
Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they
quiver with the same music.
Give your hearts, but not into each other's keeping.
For only the band of life can contain your hearts.
And stand together, yet not too near together.
For the pillars of the temples stand apart.
And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other's
Sexuality and Sacramentality. Conclusion
order to become a complete sacramental union, the love
between man and woman must embrace all aspects of their
life - every level and capacity of their being. This
includes the physical, the spiritual, the emotional,
and the intellectual aspects of human nature. If this
does not occur, the relationship remains unconsummated
and unfulfilled it is both unsacred and unsacramental
; it becomes both crippling and frustrating.
This offers us an insight into how few marriages - even
those blessed by the Church - are in fact sacramental.
It also indicates the connection between marriage and
deification, toward which we are all called. This would
be my definition of "sexuality :" true completion
and consummation on every level - as rare an achievement
as theosis itself, although as noble also a task and
If one partner develops (on any one level) beyond or
out of rhythm with the other, this unconsummated or
unmet (unmated) level, this uncomplemented or unfulfilled
part will always tend toward and seek expression in
some other form ; it will be unable to function properly
and fully within the marriage.
If integrity and totality are critical conditions for
a sacramental relationship, so too finally are continuity
and commitment. The capacity to transform one another
demands dedication and patience, until the sharp ends
of the hardened rocks in the relationship are smoothed
out, until a magnetic field is built up on every level.
Then level alter level unfolds, and interacts, and releases
its potentialities, which are no less than divine. In
this context, fidelity in the relationship is a reflection
of God's own loving-kindness and longsuffering nature.
In the final analysis, neither husband nor wife appropriates
what the other offers. On the contrary, each offers
it back - together with his or her self - to the source
of all life, to God, whom each of us comes to see and
encounter and love on the other, just as we do in the
Divine Liturgy. Man and woman become the bread and wine
of the Eucharist. Then sacramental love becomes blessing,
conferred by the Creator on two creatures who have turn
the same course of their life through whatever obstacles
and joys it may have led them. Thus shall they enter
at last, transfigured, into the Kingdom of God, to whom
is due all thanks.
John Chryssavgis Professor of theology in Holy Cross
School of theology, during the Conference on orthodox