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As Robert Louis Wilken has noted on more than one occasion, Maximus the Confessor’s use of the phrase “blessed passion of love” evokes the Christian integration of the passionate and sensual movement of amor with the virtue of caritas (or, for Maximus, the relationship between eros and agape) that we are in danger of forgetting.

The Roman tradition exalted a dispassionate tranquillitas—steady ripples and calm winds across a body of water. Such a state did not necessarily lead to the absence of emotion and desire, but it did suggest a domestication of those interior movements. The sage was the paragon of rationality in which desire became cerebral wish, a disembodied experience of calm attraction. While Christian writers entertained such a vision of the interior life, it fails to do full justice to the faith once delivered.

In many ancient and medieval Christian writers there is little effort to tame the passionate embrace of amor. The movement or its intensity is never seen as a problem, only its final end. Augustine knows that we are taken up to our true home by amor because “my love is my weight” and God inflames it with the gift of God. At the beginning of his work on love, William of St. Thierry states that “the art of arts is the art of love. . .for love is a power of the soul leading her by a kind of natural weight to her destination.”

When Richard of St. Victor describes the “burning and seething amor that penetrates the heart and seizes the emotion,” he has in mind what he calls the four degrees of violent caritas. The pedagogy of divine love wounds the soul so much that the person comes to hate all things including the self for God’s sake and yet these wounds conclude in the love of all things. Passion for God transmutes into a passion for creation, which is what it means to put on the humility of Christ.

To be free of the “passions”—those unbridled explosions of emotion and desire—in Christian terms was not to be free from the passionate movement of amor. Instead, it was to have such a passionate explosion of desire caught up in the movement toward the divine, which in turn fueled the movement toward neighbor.

In this light one wonders whether Reinhold Niebuhr set up a false dilemma when he defined love as complete disinterestedness and full selflessness. For much of the tradition, amor or eros was not disinterested but a fully invested, deeply passionate movement of the self for the self into God. It is not a disinterested love at the end of the day, but a love that unifies self-interest with other-interest precisely by orienting it toward an eternal draught. And yet, as Niebuhr was never able to see, this satiation with divine goodness cannot be mere otherworldly quietism. It stems from a particular way of experiencing the world as the garden of God so that in the joy of divine delight we now delight in the goods of creation. The blessed passion of love frees one to be for the world even as it teaches one to be not of it.

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