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Posted by on Sep 8, 2014 | 0 comments

Erotic Prayer

Erotic Prayer

“Diotima of Mantinea” by Józef Simmler

No, not sex. Erōs is one of the ancient Greek terms for love, from which we derive our word ‘eroticism’ and in philosophic circles it signified love that was ecstastic (taking one outside of oneself) and generative of life. This would, of course, include sex, but it involves much else besides. It is erōs which Plato, in his dialogue Symposium, credits with raising the philosopher beyond matter to the world of the divine forms; in the voice of the priestess Diotima, the ideal lover discovers in his beloved a beauty that causes him to go beyond himself, to forsake physical beauty for something higher. Erōs here is an intermediary between the mundane and the transcendent, something itself neither mortal nor divine, but which can ultimately lead to the divine.

In Christianity, this concept of love as an intermediary was supplanted by the biblical declaration that “God is love (agapē)” and much of the early church discussed agapē to the exclusion of erōs. An exception to this aversion towards speaking of erōs was the 5th century theologian Pseudo-Dionysius and, following him, St. Maximus the Confessor. Dionysius returned to the Platonic idea of erōs as ecstatic and generative of life, while maintaining the Christian vision of God as being love himself. According to him, the primary act of erōs was God’s creation of the world. For God, himself utterly beyond all relation to anything outside of his Trinitarian life and in need of nothing, went out of himself to give life to the world, and so bestowed his own erōs on creation that it might return to him in its own act of live giving ecstasy. As patristic scholar Hans Urs von Balthasar put it in his seminal work on St. Maximus the Confessor:

Insofar as it is both erōs and agapē, the divine mystery is in motion; insofar as it is loved and longed for, it moves all that is capable of erōs and agapē towards itself. To put it more clearly, the divine mystery is in motion insofar as it endows beings capable of longing and love with an inner share of its own life; on the other hand, it moves other beings insofar as it stimulates the longing of what is moved toward it, by means of its very nature. Or again: ‘God moves and is moved, thirsting that others may thirst for him, longing to be longed for, loving to be loved.’[1]

This concept of a love that takes us beyond ourselves, and our own set limits of habit formed by our location in time and space is important for the Christian life of prayer. It is necessary lest we fall into the apathy discussed in Rachel’s last post.

It is especially necessary in times of intercessory prayer. It is too easy for us when we pray for others, especially those we are not close to, as a simple task, a duty to be fulfilled. There is a need, we speak to God about that need, and we move on. Yet, in Christ, by the Holy Spirit, we have been made one family with those Christian brothers and sisters for whom we pray, and we seek to call those not yet in that family into the life of God. This familial reality transcends time and space, transcends the extent to which we’ve developed relational bonds with those for whom we pray. It is, in short, ecstatic and life-giving, participating in the erōs of God, and as we pray for others, we should be open to this. Next time you pray, I encourage you to be open, in the Spirit of God, to be moved beyond yourself into the life of the other, into their hopes and fears before God the Father. In so doing, you become able to speak the life of God into that person beyond your own capacities, participating in the ecstatic and life-giving love of the Holy Trinity.

Two words of caution: As much as I speak about going beyond yourself into the life of the other, this must be done with courtesy and compassion. Don’t presume to express false empathy, or force spiritual intimacy. It is crucial that this be an act of openness to God’s Spirit, creating a space of hospitality that is open to God and to the one for whom you are praying. What is important is that we are going outside ourselves to participate in God’s eternal, life-giving love, not forcing ourselves into the other’s space. Also, I wouldn’t recommend talking about this in terms of erōs in a context where you don’t have several paragraphs to explain what you actually mean by that.


[1] Balthasar, Hans Urs von. Cosmic Liturgy: The Universe According to Maximus the Confessor. Translated by Brian Daley. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2003, 90, quoting St. Maximus the Confessor, Ambigua, PG 91, 1260C.
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Kevin G.

I was born in Kenya and lived there for nearly four years. After returning to the states I moved to California, where I remained through to the end of college. I graduated from UCLA with a BA in philosophy in 2011, and recently completed a masters program in doctrinal theology in Vancouver, BC. I hope to eventually become a professor. I have an amazing family, incredible friends and a wonderful church community. Throughout my interests can be found an intense attraction to issues of human nature, be they in drawing people, philosophizing about human ethics or any number of other subjects. People fascinate me. My faith is, and always will be the central hub of my life, and more than just faith, my relationship to God and my place in His Kingdom.