April 2, 2012
It was at a dinner party, recounted in Plato's dialogue the Symposium, that Socrates confronted the notion put forward by several people that love is a matter of like attracting like. That notion is most explicit in a speech by the dramatist Aristophanes who maintained that human beings were originally spherical beings who were cut in half by Zeus. Henceforth, each half longed to be reunited with its other half and "to heal the wound of human nature."
Should two of those human halves ever encounter each other, they are "struck from their senses by love, by a sense of belonging to one another and by desire and they don't want to be separated from one another, not even for a moment."
This narcissistic view of love remains with us today under many guises. Socrates, however, sided with Diotima at the Symposium. Diotima rejected the notion that love is seeking one's lost half. She maintained that what everyone really loves is the good. Each person loves the good and wants the good to be theirs forever. Love stretches beyond the self and yearns for an immortal love.
Zoom ahead a few hundred years to another meal, this one called the Last Supper. At that dinner, there is but one speech about love, the one we know as Jesus' high priestly prayer (John 17.1-26). There, Jesus declares that the Father has given him power "to give eternal life to all whom thou hast given him. And this is eternal life, that they know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent" (17.3-4).
In the second volume of his book Jesus of Nazareth, Joseph Ratzinger notes that what Jesus means by "eternal life" is not simply life after death. Rather, it refers to "life itself, real life, which can also be lived in the present age and is no longer challenged by physical death" (p. 83).
Eternal life is gained through recognition - not of one's missing other half - but rather of the One who is totally other. Love aims not at restoring me to my full self, but rather communion with the other. Love is self-transcendence and communion, above all, with God.
Eternal life is not an escape from this world, but rather a delving into each moment in all its fullness. It challenges what Pope John Paul II used to call the split between faith and life, one of the great problems of our era.
The Eucharist is the centre of life, but that centre extends well beyond the walls of the Church. Indeed, eternal life means the collapse of those walls and that the act of faith permeates every breath we take. It means the constant, never-ending recognition of the Other. It means a love that stretches beyond the egoism of the self.
At the Paschal Triduum, we celebrate God's gift of eternal life. Every day, we live out the self-transcendence to which that gift calls us.
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