02 January 2010

‘my eros is crucified’—Ss Ignatius & Dionysius on Eros

In today’s post on St Ignatius the God-bearer, I quoted his Epistle to the Romans 7:2, ὁ ἐμὸς ἔρως ἐσταύρωται, which the Lightfoot/Holmes translation renders, ‘My passionate love has been crucified . . . .’ [1] Holmes has added a footnote here which reads, ‘love: i.e., for the “world”; cf. Gal. 6:14’. [2] But in an interesting passage of his rather unconventional ecclesiastical history, Charles Williams seems to find such an interpretation of St Ignatius’s eros far too limiting. Williams refers to the statement as ‘the greatest epigram of all’, writing:

Ignatius of Antioch in the early second century, had tossed it out on his way to martyrdom: ‘My Eros is crucified.’ Learned men have disputed on the exact meaning of the word: can it refer, with its intensity of allusion to physical passion, to Christ? or does it rather refer to his own physical nature? We, who have too much separated our own physical nature from Christ’s, cannot easily read an identity into the two meanings. But they unite, and others spring from them. ‘My love is crucified’; ‘My Love is crucified’: ‘My love for my Love is crucified’; ‘My Love in my love is crucified.’ The physical and the spiritual are no longer divided: he who is Theos is Anthropos, and all the images of anthropos are in him. The Eros that is crucified lives again and the Eros lives after a new style: this was the discovery of the operation of faith. The Eros of five hundred years of Greece and Rome was to live after a new style; unexpected as yet, the great Romantic vision approached. ‘My’ Eros is crucified; incredible as yet, the great doctrines of interchange, of the City [on which, see this post], approached. ‘Another is in me’; ‘your life and death are in your neighbour’; ‘they in Me and I in them.’ [3]

But Williams has also led us to one very patristic use of this epigram: that of St Dionysius the Areopagite. [4] In Divine Names IV.12, St Dionysius is responding to those who argue that the notion of eros is somehow counter to Scripture. He writes:

12. Indeed some of our writers on sacred matters have thought the title ‘yearning’ [eros] to be more divine than ‘love’ [agape]. The divine Ignatius writes: ‘He for whom I yearn has been crucified.’ In the introductory scriptures you will note the following said about the divine wisdom: ‘I yearned for her beauty’ (Wis of Sol 8:2). So let us not fear this title of ‘yearning’ nor be upset by what anyone has to say about these two names, for, in my opinion, the sacred writers regard ‘yearning’ and ‘love’ as having one and the same meaning. They added ‘real’ [ontos] to the use of ‘yearning’ regarding divine things because of the unseemly nature such a word has for men. The title ‘real yearning’ is praised by us and by the scriptures themselves as being appropriate to God. Others, however, tended naturally to think of a partial, physical, and divided yearning. This is not true yearning but an empty image or, rather, a lapse from real yearning. [5]

Thus, while there may be some value in Williams’s emphasis on the ambiguity of the passage, it seems to me that St Dionsysius’s teaching that agape and eros are the same thing leaves little room for a ‘great Romantic vision’ in St Ignatius, if we take this ‘vision’ in the context of Williams’s whole ‘Romantic theology’. In other words, I do not see how we can escape the conclusion that Williams is overly ‘eroticising’ St Ignatius’s eros, that there is not enough agape in it. Although I am convinced that we can indeed speak with Chrestos Yannaras of ‘the asceticism of marriage’, in which the ‘progressive transfiguration of natural eros into [St Dionysius’s] “true eros”’ is accomplished, it is important that we emphasise the place of such marriage within the context of ascesis rather than separating the two, as Williams seems to do in his notion of the ‘Romantic’ and ‘Ascetic Ways’ (on which, see this post). [6]

At any rate, I certainly find the Lightfoot/Holmes rendering of this passage wholly unsatisfactory!

[1] Michael W. Holmes, ed. & rev., The Apostolic Fathers, 2nd ed., trans. J.B. Lightfoot & J.R. Harmer (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1996), p. 105

[2] Ibid., p. 105, n. 76

[3] Charles Williams, The Descent of the Dove: A Short History of the Holy Spirit in the Church (Vancouver: Regent College, 2002), p. 46

[4] Ibid., p. 59.

[5] St Dionysius the Areopagite, The Complete Works, trans. Colm Luibheid (NY: Paulist, 1987), p. 81.

[6] Chrestos Yannaras, The Freedom of Morality, trans. Elizabeth Briere (Crestwood, NY: SVS, 1984), p. 162.


+Bishop SAVAS of Troas said...

Twice in one day! Evye, Aaron, evye.

aaronandbrighid said...

Now, Your Grace, I really must ask that you be turned back straightway in shame!

Joseph Schmitt said...


Have you read "A Theology of Eros" by Vladimir Moss?

aaronandbrighid said...

No, I have not. Of Moss's writings, I have only read his Lives of English Saints, and The Fall of Orthodox England. I am extremely wary of anything he has to say on a theological topic!

aaronandbrighid said...

Perhaps I should add that I would be wary of anything called 'A Theology of Eros' unless it was by a Church Father or the equivalent!