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Divine mechanisms

· In the friendship between a man and a woman ·

A widespread opinion holds that friendship between a man and a woman is not possible unless there is (or has been) a sexual relationship between them too. A solely spiritual relationship would thus be something artificial, in which we would be deceiving our own selves first and foremost. This opinion presupposes that the fullness of love between a man and a woman should be expressed in the sexual relationship for which love itself inexorably strives, as for its fulfilment, and, in this sense, friendship would only be a lesser, poorer and more modest phase.

Francesco of Sales and Jane of Chantal

The dissemination of this opinion depends on the predominance of what Plato in his Symposium calls Aphrodite Pandemos, which means, that is, in the double sense of the Italian word “volgare”, common to all the people and also far from the elegance of what is noble. However, Aphrodite Pandemos exists, we must not deny it, since it is true that an erotic current necessarily runs through the relations between a man and a woman. This demon, a mediator between man and God, ceaselessly calls people towards beauty and urges them to seek union with it, and the first form in which it manifests itself is, precisely, sexual desire. For this reason Aphrodite Pandemos is commonly found in everyone; be on your guard, she is a goddess who must be honoured as such. That is to say, apart from the myth, we must recognize that in the depths of human nature Eros, irrepressibly exists, in other words love which is first and foremost a desire for bodily union. This honest recognition is the starting point for understanding that mystery of love which Diotima, the priestess of Mantinea, reveals to Socrates. For sexual desire is only the first and most common manifestation of the demon’s power which changes form and becomes richer and more joyful as it grows. Let us stress this point. As Simone Weil noted, only a wretched epoch like our own can take seriously Freud, the anti-Platonist par excellence, and his concept of the sexual eros as being primary, in comparison with which other forms of love are diminishments.

In fact, when love is strong it moves up step by step to the highest and leaves the lowest, as Margherita Porete a medieval mystic says, repeating, without knowing it, the teaching which Diotima imparted to Socrates, to testify that women truly have an “understanding of love”. In the same way, in his Confessions Augustine too, now that he has grown up and knows what Love, which is God, really is, recognizes that in the past he had been seeking love: he did not know what it was, he did not know how to love but it was love that he was loving. Amare amabam because it is love that one truly loves: love is the subject that loves and at the same time, the act of loving itself. It is creatures in all their finiteness that reawaken within us that “divine folly” with which all the most beautiful gifts come to man from God: it is then that Aphrodite Pandemos gives way to Aphrodite Ourania, who leads man towards heaven. Friendship is not an imperfect form of eros but on the contrary its highest degree.

Meister Eckhart writes that love for a creature is in fact love of ourselves and that in this love we find only bitterness, since all creatures are a null, since they receive their whole being from God, and contact with nullity does only evil. Love for a creature is a miracle than which there is nothing more beautiful and also more anguishing, because it puts first finiteness, multiplicity, and hence distance from the One in whom alone there is peace. In this sense, Eckhart writes further, where the creature enters, God leaves. Love which has a reason is not pure since where there is reason there is utility which has in any case been established. Pure love has no reason. Indeed the soul has two eyes: one looks at the creature and loves it with a love full of tenderness and compassion precisely for its finiteness; the other looks at eternity, at the One, and in the One loves all creatures with a love that is no longer for their bodies but for their souls which it seeks to improve, just as the soul itself is rendered better by this love.

This applies regardless of sex. Friendship is not something that should be sought, requested or hoped for: it is a virtue, and it simply happens as such and that’s that, as Simone Weil wrote. Friendship is not a state of mind that comes and goes, nor is it a sentiment but rather concerns what mystics call the depths of the soul, far deeper than fickle feelings, inaccessible in its naked essence to all things other than to God. It does not concern the soul but rather the spirit, and there, where male or female no longer exist, as Paul writes, sex no longer has any weight.

Besides, there is no doubt that humans are sexual beings and sex means division (sexus derives from secare): we are males and females and by nature seek that goal which we are lacking, without which we remain psychologically unpacified, full of misunderstanding and resentment. It is therefore in a woman friend that a man finds perfect completion, just as a woman finds it in a man friend: of course there is a current of Eros and this must be so, because the spirit cannot be perfect if the body and the soul are not perfect first, Eckhart teaches further, referring to what Germans (such as Goethe and Nietzsche) were later to call Vergeistigung, spiritualization, or sublimation, but in a sense opposite to that in which it is used by Freud (who took it from Nietzsche): not mystification of the sexual instinct but its substantiation.

It is therefore precisely in friendship, therefore, rich in the eros between man and woman, that the grace of Love, that “Popular sentiment that is born from divine mechanisms”, as a song of our times says, “Moves the sun and the other stars”. We can provide infinite witnesses: from antiquity to this day, history is full of them. From famous ones such as Clare and Francis, Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, Jane of Chantal and Francis of Sales, to intellectual ones such as Madame Guyon and François de Fénelon, Adrienne von Speyr and Hans Urs von Balthasar and Raïssa and Jacques Maritain, who were also wife and husband. Yet it is not something which applies only to men and women religious, saints and intellectuals. A valid example of it is given by our two contemporaries, Antonio Lupi, a Dominican, and the young Tilde Manzotti, whose correspondence (Amare infinitamente. Epistolario 1938-1939, edited by Elena Cammarata, San Leolino, Editore Féeria, 2014, 90 pages, € 12), shows, once again, the beauty and depth of friendship between men and women.

Marco Vannini

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