Daily Meditations

The Destiny of Eros: Uncertainties

Nothing touches the mystery of personal existence like this theme of human love, which is why we should show reverence and restraint, and heed even more the evangelical caution against judging. We should remember the attitude of Jesus towards the woman ‘taken in the very act of adultery’ (John 8.3-11). We should remember the other, almost tangibly sensual account of the same Jesus allowing a prostitute to wipe his feet with her hair and anoint them with ointment and tears. The whole incident is suffused with eternity because of the imminence of death and transformation: ‘She has done it to prepare me for burial’ – already a spice-bearer. The Pharisee who receives Jesus says to himself, ‘If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.’ Jesus, perceiving his thoughts, says to him, ‘Her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little.’ And to the woman, ‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace’ (Luke 7.36-50, Matthew 26.6-13).

Finally we should remember the conversation with the Samaritan—a heretic!—at Jacob’s well. Jesus quietly reminds her that she has had five husbands and that the man with whom she now lives is not even a husband. In so reminding her he is not judging, but his prescience must disclose to the woman who he is. ‘Sir,’ she says, ‘I perceive that you are a prophet.’ To this woman Jesus reveals not only the mystery of the living water, but also that ‘God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth’ (John 4.1-42).

Talking to the woman taken in adultery, the sinner, the woman with five husbands, Jesus, in contrast to the Pharisees -and especially to Christian Pharisees- refuses to give too much importance to the tribulations of the flesh, or to make sex the scapegoat for our troubles; in these tribulations he sees only a sign of our common situation: ‘Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her’. And he knows that humble people such as this woman with her disordered life will be the first to understand him.

That is why the Christian message, in such circumstances, is not a law that is imposed but something attractive that is proposed. It is not the business of the Church to dictate the laws on behalf of the State or to behave like some pressure group in obstructing them. The Church inspires and sanctifies, it does not compel; its business is to change hearts.

But more needs to be said. Even to her own children, the Church must be a merciful mother, not an impersonal juridical power. Her teachings about human love must be adapted, with immense care, to the circumstances of each person, by ‘spiritual fathers’ and bishops with the gift of discerning spirits. Among Eastern Christians this merciful adaptation, called ‘economy’, is actually a basic principle in the regular life of the Church. Orthodoxy is as insistent as Catholicism on the mystery of monogamy; more so indeed, since remarriage after the death of the spouse is not encouraged, and the rite has a penitential character. However, full weight is given to Christ’s teaching that divorce is impossible to the Christian except in the case of porneia (i.e. where there has been adultery or fornication); where a couple has died because it is broken apart, the fact is recognized, and the divorced person can be married again.

This sacrament is not like baptism, where the freedom of the person encounters constantly-offered grace. In marriage, grace is offered to a couple, i.e. to two human freedoms that are in agreement. In certain special cases, in the discernment of which the responsible ecclesiastical authorities must exercise the greatest care, it becomes apparent that common repentance and mutual forgiveness are no longer possible, that the couple no longer exists, and can no longer as such be a vehicle for the love which binds Christ and his Church. How can the Church debar these casualties of fate from communion? Would it dare to exclude from Christ the woman taken in adultery, the harlot, the woman with five husbands who now lives with a man who is not her husband? And are we any different, that we should cast the stone of the law?

~Olivier Clement, On Human Being:  A Spiritual Anthropology