When We Were on Fire

I recently watched the Baz Luhrmann’s film Mouline Rouge!, and was struck by the kind of love the character Christian displays throughout the film. He is infatuated with Satine, filled with what C.S. Lewis calls eros, and this passionate love quickly becomes jealous, irrational, and emotional.

This is Christian’s first experience with love, and he is young and naive. I wonder if there is a connection between youth and this kind of passionate, overwhelming love. Many young men I know had an eros experience in their teens or early 20s. Inevitably, the relationships ended (or never came to pass), but the pain of that out-of-control emotional love prompted them attempt to squelch their vulnerability, to never feel that terribly again. Thus, many of these men refrained from dating altogether for a long time, or they began a series of shallow, sexual relationships.

The kind of love that makes us lose ourselves in another is terrifying. We sit before a Force that we cannot control, and suddenly we feel small. We are sure our happiness lies in the hands of Another, and this is a kind of powerlessness. It is not so difficult for me to imagine that God is love in this way, for the overwhelming joy and hope found in God’s presence usually has–for me–a shadow of dread. Who is this God, transcendent and omnipotent, all-knowing and almighty? Great and Terrible, a Consuming Fire. This One I love has the power to heal all my wounds or to crush me completely.

Noah Gundersen sings of this connection between a moment of eros and a spiritual experience:
Was it something special
Or just another way out
Like the credits to a movie
Or seeing Jesus in the time of doubt

In Christian teaching, it is common to separate eros from agape, and to favor a love that is willed or chosen over one that a person falls into. And yet, Frederick Buecher questions this teaching, writing this:
“The first stage is to believe that there is only one kind of love. The middle stage is to believe that there are many kinds of love and that the Greeks had a different word for each of them. The last stage is to believe that there is only one kind of love…
To lose yourself in another’s arms, or in another’s company, or in suffering for all men who suffer, including the ones who inflict suffering upon you–to lose yourself in such ways is to find yourself. Is what it’s all about. Is what love is.
Of all powers, love is the most powerful and the most powerless. It is the most powerful because it alone can conquer that final and most impregnable stronghold which is the human heart. It is the most powerless because it can do nothing except by consent.
To say that love is God is romantic idealism. To say that God is love is either the last straw or the ultimate truth.”
–“Love,” Wishful Thinking, (Harper, 1993), 64-65.

What I love about Buechner’s definition is that it reincorporates the mysterious and felt elements of love that we (in our “maturity”) often dismiss in our teaching of love as a verb. “Love is a choice,” we say, “It is not an emotion.”
And yet, ask anyone who has been in love; ask anyone who has been hit with the Love of Christ; you will probably find there is more to the story.
Sometimes, love is in your gut. Sometimes, it’s goosebumps and tears in your eyes. Sometimes it’s being so caught up that you want to dance and cry and write a poem–even, or perhaps especially, if you cannot dance, and you do not cry, and you are not a poet.

If passion is suffering, being in love is foolishness. “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18). In our rationalism and realism and attempts to justify our faith historically and scientifically, many of us have grown uncomfortable with the Mystery and with the Laughter. Perhaps all of us, not just the young and naive, have a deep craving to hear a song reminding us we are loved “until the end of time.”

-My title is stolen from a recently-published book (which I have not read) by Addie Zierman. It struck me as unbelievably poetic.

-The lines from Noah Gundersen come from the song “Liberator,” and they are also an example of the rhetorical device chiasmus


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