A friend of mine became a monk. This was 30 years ago, after we’d been at college together for four years, and although he’d been a libidinous guy, his hunger for God trumped his craving for sex so he hung up his mojo and joined an abbey.
“How do you do it?” I asked in amazement.
“At first it wasn’t easy,” he said. “All I could think of was beautiful women. I’d go to vespers and hear them calling. I’d look at the shapes of trees in the forest and see the kick line of the Follies Bergere.” He’s a funny guy who likes to exaggerate. “But then, I figured something out. You can have an erotic life without sex.”
“Is that right?”
Apparently, he’d learned this mysterious lesson through the teachings of Hildegarde of Bingen. “‘The earth of human kind contains all moistness, all verdancy, all germinating power,’” he declaimed, quoting the 12th-century abbess. “‘Everything that is in the heavens, on earth, and under the earth is penetrated with connectedness, penetrated with relatedness,” he went on. “‘The soul is kissed by God in its innermost regions.’ Hot, right?”
I agreed without meaning it.
“The point is, the universe is erotic,” the monk told me. “By its very nature. God is erotic. Spirit is erotic. This is nothing but the play of Eros,” he said, indicating the flowers in his garden, the pears in a blue ceramic bowl, the light coming through the stained glass window, the birdsong, the smell of freshly mowed grass. “I would still love to be with a woman. But I suppose that Creation will have to do.”
This conversation reminded me that we overlook the true depth of Eros in our materialist culture, where the erotic is reduced to sex. Open almost any dictionary and you will find these two terms used interchangeably. But turning Eros into a synonym for coitus is a serious waste of veriditas, a flaccid shrinkage of anima mundi. Sex is a beautiful thing, of course; the coming together of loving beings in sensual union can be a holy experience. But mistaking the divine power of Eros for even the most satisfying sex is to miss a major point about the role of Eros in spiritual life.
Eros is the primordial force that animates the whole of creation and compels human beings toward mystic connection with this blessed world. The erotic is inseparable from the mystic impulse and is, in fact, “the innate tendency of the human spirit towards complete harmony with the transcendental order, ” as Evelyn Underhill defined it. Being spiritual creatures in physical bodies, we enjoy comingling with the others’ bodies but long equally to penetrate, and cleave to, life’s sacred embrace itself, to know ourselves as lover and beloved in the cosmic dance. Indeed, the erotic drive has been described as the fifth force that drives the universe. Besides the four classical forces of reality—the gravitational, the electromagnetic, the nuclear, and what’s known as “the strong and the weak,” is a fifth force, a universal Eros that generates the entire cosmos. Did you know that Zoroastrians believe that gravity, the force drawing planets together in space, is love itself? Western philosophers like John Dewey link this astronomical, cohesive power to the force that motivates us as mystical beings. “The spiritual life gets its surest and most ample guarantees when it is learned that the laws and conditions of righteousness are implicated in the working processes of the universe,” Dewey wrote, “when it is found that man in his conscious struggles, in his doubts, temptations, and defeats, in his aspirations and successes, is moved on and buoyed up by the forces which have developed nature.” In other words, the universal force of attraction that draws the planets and stars together is the same force that draws us together as people, reaching for connection with others and God. That is why the ancients believed that Eros the god was the bridge between the physical and the divine worlds. He symbolized that living, pulsating, expansive, connective vitality that constitutes our very essence and holds the universe together.
The erotic injects passion into spiritual practice as well. It’s common for longtime practitioners to turn their practice into hard labor, a duty-driven, obligational slog that loses its intensity through rote repetition. This can cause us to fall out of love with our practice—just like we fall out of love with a partner—through over-familiarity and neglect. But our connection to practice is like our relationship to anything else; it has to be renewed, replenished, shaken up, through questioning, distance, or surprise, anything that snaps us back to attention. If you’re a meditator, try some yoga. If you’re an expert in asana practice, explore something psychodynamic. If you rely on prayer, turn that prayer into action. If you rely on activism, try being still. Expanding, exploring, and being well-rounded is helpful to seekers and lovers both. You may find that defenders of the faith (whichever you belong to) will disagree with this approach. Bible thumpers and fundamentalists—those attached to form over substance—will tell you that enlightenment depends on how many times you bow, or the color of your robe, or repeating the gospel to the letter. But they are wrong. Every person’s path is his own and needs a measure of passion to remain alive. Spiritual life needs Eros.
So ask yourself, where have you de-eroticized your practice? How could you connect more profoundly? Where are you living from the outside in rather than from the inside out, and how does that feel, and how can you change it? Where is the spiritual passion missing? To be honest, I began by pitying my monk friend, secretly, focused as I was on what he was missing, but left him feeling something closer to envy for the juiciness of his inner life, his visceral connection to God. For a minute, his example made me want to give up sex for a while and focus on Hildegarde of Bingen.
But not yet.