I will define falling in love, for the purposes of this reflection, as experiencing, whether for an instant or over a period of time, a strong attraction to another person. It is often extremely inconvenient. For one, it does not always happen in ideal circumstances, where both parties are similarly attracted to each other. Many have felt and suffered greatly the sting of unrequited romantic love. I would venture to say, however, that such circumstances do not pose as many challenges as those where one is in love with someone decidedly unavailable, such as a person who is consecrated, married, or in serious discernment of these states. Presumably, it is just as difficult for a consecrated or married person who falls in love with someone else, though we do not look as kindly on their troubles as we believe, sometimes rightly, that it was their responsibility not to become distracted from their spouse or religious calling in the first place; however, not even the most faithful of persons is spared this possibility.
Our scandalized response to falling in love and my questioning of that response
Our reaction to falling in love in circumstances such as I've described above tends to be what I loosely refer to as being "scandalized": a mixture of shock, confusion, guilt, anxiety and frustration. The word scandal comes from the Greek word scandalon, which means "hindrance"; this is how we treat falling in love in difficult circumstances—for some of us, perhaps in all circumstances. Finding ourselves in this sorry state, we will usually respond in one of five ways, all of which I find to be somewhat mad, and certainly inadequate.
One, we ignore the reality we are experiencing and/or its significance in the hopes that our refusal to recognize it will result in its removal. Two, we avoid it or run frantically from it, foolishly thinking that feelings can be confined to a physical space and that the same "out of sight, out of mind" tactic that works to combat the overeating of relatively innocuous sweets and cookies—the effectiveness of which varies significantly from person to person—applies to diminishing our attraction to the infinite mystery that are human beings. Three, we deny—that is, we tell ourselves and others lies about either the very reality of the experience itself or the importance of the reality we're experiencing; we may go so far as to even deny the essential significance of the person we've fallen for. Four, we inwardly or outwardly reject the experience we are having and perhaps, as a result, the person for whom we've had the apparent misfortune of falling for. Finally, we give in and decide to "follow our hearts"—or some other such idiotic modern sentimental equivalent that encourages acting on emotions divorced from the reason and wisdom of the heart—and pursue the relationship.
But are these really the only options? Could falling in love not be, rather than a scandalizing experience, an opportunity to give thanks and be reoriented toward the Good, the True and the Beautiful? Could it not be possible that such an experience is given to us for the very purpose of strengthening the commitments we are called to live? If not, we may very well despair over our inability to remain faithful in the face of so many distractions, which I argue are in fact allies meant to recall us to ourselves and our particular mission.
The prevalence of the "scandalized" attitude is evident when I realize how tentative I feel in even daring to suggest that falling in love in these circumstances should be looked upon as an opportunity for Grace or, in fact, as a gift. In case anyone should think I am green lighting emotional infidelity of any kind, let me state clearly that nothing is further from my intention. Indeed, this reflection was inspired by my dear brother in the seminary, for whom this seemed to be a topic of interest and whose good I desire. I do not wish to lead anyone into error and should any of the following somehow contradict the teaching of the Church, I submit to her correction. While I'm fully aware of the dangers of misinterpreting or mishandling the view presented here, I believe that the possibilities for Grace are more than worth whatever risk may exist.
What falling in love is and the affirmation of its goodness
First, let us look at the phenomenon of "falling in love." Falling in love, simply put, is a natural response to the good of the other. Most of us have been strongly moved at some point in our lives by beauty in nature or art. Perhaps our response has been tears, laughter, a feeling of awe or gratitude, an aching longing for the "glory yet unseen" that it reflects and points to. This response is, consciously or unconsciously, a response to the good—as beauty is an aspect of good—of the creation in question, and by extension, a recognition of the Creator. This recognition is good and our capacity to appreciate such beauty is also good, and a gift. Such a reaction to nature or art does not—unless we are hopelessly Puritan—tend to scandalize us. Yet just as feeling overwhelmed by a piece of music or a sunset is a response to the good of creation and that capacity is a gift and a good, so too is our "head over heels" response to a person to whom we are attracted a good, and the capacity to experience it, a gift.
The distinction between attraction and temptation
In order to appreciate the proposal that falling in love, and the capacity to do so, is a gift, it is helpful to clearly distinguish attraction from temptation. Though they often tend to invade one's reality at the same time in the most bewildering manner, they are not the same thing.
Attraction and temptation are similar in that they are often experienced as something happening to us that is beyond our control; indeed, both are not within the realm of the will. We do not will initial visceral, or natural, responses and attractions to people. Likewise, temptations enter our mental or physical sphere unbidden. This knowledge should give us a sense of both humility and freedom when we are feeling overwhelmed by just how easily we are affected by a particular gorgeous being's smile or charming manner. Of course, we must, through the practice of virtue and with the help of grace, work toward seeing and responding to the fullness of Reality in a good and ordered way, but we cannot be held morally responsible for a visceral response or first impression, unless of course we have made immoral choices, up to that point, that have impeded our freedom to see the truth of things. The repeated viewing of pornography, for example, would arguably make it difficult not to almost immediately reduce in one's mind an attractive person to an object. In the absence of any such choices, however, it is important to remember that since one does not will attraction, there can be nothing sinful about being attracted to someone, or falling in love. This so-called "falling" is not due to our fallenness!
The difference between attraction and temptation is that attraction to the opposite sex and our capacity for attraction is part of our God-given nature, and is therefore good; temptation, on the other hand, is not good in itself, but neither is it sin unless succumbed to. The possibility for sin, for our distortion of a good, is one of the "imperfections" of our freedom; but this same freedom also allows us to choose the good.
Though we may acknowledge that all of the above is true, we tend to be, nonetheless, suspicious of feelings of attraction, perhaps because of the powerful, overwhelming quality falling in love has, and the vulnerability we experience as a result. We are right to be cautious when in this position, but a "scandalized" response can decrease our ability to wisely judge the reality in front of us by adding panic to what is already an emotional stew. It is certainly troubling when we're attracted to someone to whom we cannot draw any closer; but even then, such a situation should not be treated as an evil to avoid but as a difficulty that can be transformed. This is not a mere coping mechanism but is, in fact, what is required of us by the truth. For when our response leads us to label falling in love as less than, or even the opposite of, the acknowledged good that it is, we have accepted a subtle lie and have unwarily ceded undue credit, and therefore power, to evil.
A good viewed as less than a good is the acceptance of a lie
How is this true? Evil triumphs when people are convinced that it does not exist, or perceive an evil as a good. Less obvious, perhaps, is that it is equally a victory for evil when a good is perceived as an evil or simply misrepresented. For example, it is nowadays fairly common to view sexual intercourse as nothing more than a natural, pleasurable act rather than a mutual and total gift of self designed to mirror the love that is the essence of the Being of God—it has been reduced and stripped of its inherent mystery: a half truth has been presented as the whole truth.
Falling in love is unlikely to be perceived as categorically evil, but it can just as easily be presented in a diminished or impoverished way, namely, when an attraction is viewed solely as a temptation to be fled as opposed to an opportunity for growth and an opening to Grace, a gift for which we should give thanks even in circumstances that do not allow for any kind of romantic fruition.
The consequences of accepting a lie
Monsignor Luigi Giussani, founder of the Catholic movement Communion and Liberation, defines scandal as "the objection that comes from an interest that is not professed in the name of truth, in search of the truth." To be scandalized by that which is good or that which is true is to have a diminished view of reality. Not only is this a poverty in and of itself—and as such should be enough of a deterrent for us to try to avoid it—but our ability to contend with the circumstances in a mature way is also likely to be diminished because if we are not fully in the truth, then we are not free. Not being free, we are limited in our ability to act reasonably. Moreover, if we are content to not be free, we will be less open to Grace and thus our ability to use the resources that we do have will be impeded. We will instead resort to the "scandalized" responses described at the beginning of this article, all of which have consequences that are at least potentially damaging if not definitively so. Let us use as an example a fictional married man, Charlie, who is attracted to his female boss, and apply each of the aforementioned responses to his situation.
To ignore something is to neglect it and its significance. If one is ignoring something decidedly negative, it may in fact be a good tactic, in that it helps weed out unwanted behaviour, but it does not solve the actual problem. Children who throw tantrums to get attention, for example, will throw fewer, or perhaps stop altogether, if their tantrums are ignored; however, that does not change the fact that the child wants attention.
But attraction is not intrinsically negative, nor is it really behaviour, as such. Given that it accompanies us—much to our dismay—wherever we go, it is far more difficult to ignore compared to an outside source of annoyance such as a tantrum. No, desire must be attended to, but not necessarily by acquiescence (i.e. if it feels good, do it), as is the popular frame of mind in today's society.
Choosing to ignore his attraction to his boss does not in any way strengthen Charlie's commitment to his wife. And if he is not actively strengthening it, especially in face of such a challenge, it is arguably being weakened. Ignoring this attraction may be sufficient in times of strength, but what of times of weakness and vulnerability? He will not have built up any resources to continue to adhere to the good he is called to—his marriage—and to put in proper perspective the other good—the attraction to his boss. After all, that which is not freely acknowledged cannot be freely put aside.
2. Running away
Running from or avoiding something is reasonable if that thing is intrinsically evil or if a particular set of circumstances would constitute an occasion of sin. The trouble is that one cannot really successfully run from or avoid a good such as attraction without running from or avoiding the subject thereof.
In order to try to escape his attraction, Charlie would likely also be avoiding his boss, which is impractical for a successful working relationship as it is likely to affect their communication and compromise the quality of his work. Again, this tactic may be helpful in times of calm, but what if he should at some point get tired of running? What if, at some point, he no longer has the option of running? That which is not faced cannot be mastered.
While running away from attraction or ignoring it may come out of a desire to be prudent, denial is more serious in that it is a form of untruthfulness. There are three different types of denial that I address here: denial of the existence of the attraction, denial of the attraction's significance—perhaps calling it something else—or denial of the significance of the person to whom one is attracted.
The first two types of denial can lead us, mistakenly, to abdicate responsibility. After all, something that does not exist or that is insignificant requires no definitive action on our part. This is why denying an attraction can result in carelessness and imprudent behaviour.
If Charlie lies to himself about the attraction, saying that it doesn't exist, he may make excuses for doing certain things that, had he acknowledged it, he wouldn't. For example, he may spend more time in his boss' company than necessary: after all, what is the harm if there is nothing going on? Or, if he acknowledges the attraction but calls it something other than what it is, saying, for example, that he and his boss are just "really good friends," he will justify and actually defend behaviour that would otherwise be considered imprudent. If he is lying to himself, he will probably also lie to his wife, even if it is just in the form of mild excuses, perhaps as to why he is distant or distracted. Even if no inappropriate relationship develops between Charlie and his boss, simply by denying the truth of his attraction or its significance, he will have put himself in a position that limits his ability to remain faithful to his wife, and thus weakens their union, even if it is barely perceptible.
The third type of denial goes so far as to deny the significance of the person to whom we are attracted. (There is a fourth type, which would consist of denying the actual existence of a person, but then we have crossed into the realm of utter insanity, which is beyond the scope of this article, and beyond my capacity, as my personal experience lies in dealing with insanity of only mild proportions.) In the case of Charlie, he may reduce his boss in his mind to less than who she is by denying her worth or seeking faults in her in order to be able to more "reasonably" dismiss her. Not only is this uncharitable toward his boss, but it is also a violence to himself by reducing or denying his experience of that person, an experience that God is allowing and which, as mentioned, is in and of itself good and, in fact, a gift.
Like avoidance, rejection, which is really an expansion or more explicit form of denial, is reasonable if it is of something that is truly evil. Yet neither attraction nor the subject of the attraction is evil; in fact, both are good. If that which is good is a reflection of the Creator, we cannot be asked to reject it; that is unreasonable. In fact, one of the reasons we may find attraction hard to dismiss is not only due to powerful feelings of affection but also because anything that reflects the Creator draws us; we are, after all, made for Him. As with avoidance, it is difficult to reject attraction without also rejecting in some way the person who attracts us.
In our example with Charlie, his rejection of the attraction he experiences would likely cause him to resent and reject his boss, and perhaps treat her coldly. He may even begin to treat all women this way, treating them as potential threats, which is decidedly uncharitable and unjust. Even if his rejection is only in his thoughts, he will be practising saying no to the existence and significance of a human being, and this is a form of violence.
5. Giving in
Giving in and pursuing an attraction that we are not free to pursue is to lose sight of our destiny, which is union with God. It is an indication that we have a truly impoverished understanding of God and His will (i.e. that all things work together for His glory for those who love Him, even those things that would appear to be distractions). If He calls you clearly to something, yet allows you to encounter something else that draws you, what does this mean? Surely not that He is capricious and has changed His mind, but rather that He intends for that encounter to serve your call. If this is not true, we must conclude that serving God through our call with any sort of faithfulness is an impossible task as there will always be other things that will, if only for a time, attract us more. If this is the case, Christianity is unrealistic idealism. Indeed, without an understanding and affection for destiny—our unity with God—it is understandable to see it as such.
This is clearly the most damaging of all the responses. If Charlie were to pursue a romantic relationship with his boss, he would destroy his marriage, thus separating him and his wife from that which was meant to bring them to greater holiness. He would hurt and betray his family, likely leaving them weakened in their ability to trust and their willingness to love. He would also be separating himself from God.
Such decisions may be made out of cowardice or arrogance: a defiant refusal to face one's responsibilities. More often than not, however, I would speculate that it stems from emotional and/or spiritual immaturity, in that it mistakes a part of reality—emotions—for the whole and makes decisions based solely on those emotions. It is unsurprising that this immaturity thrives in a culture that is not only rife with moral relativism but that also proposes a myriad of attractive, cheap substitutes for the experience of transcendent love, which all human beings desire. Often it is this desire gone awry that leads to selfish decisions, and that must be taken into account not to excuse the sin but to understand more precisely its origin.
If these reactions are insufficient, and possibly even sinful, then...
I've spent a great deal of time focusing on the consequences of not acknowledging falling in love as a good—the scandal of it. Now that all the imperfections of the above responses have been described, perhaps what I propose will seem more reasonable and be more attractive.
What I am suggesting to counter these scandalized reactions is the cultivation of a less fearful, more fully human response to Beauty and Goodness, as they are present in falling in love. If we acknowledge that that which is created by God reflects Him and is therefore good, it seems to follow that our attraction to the good of creation and our capacity to be attracted to the good and thus to the Creator that creation reflects, is also good.
If that is the case, then we are not called to ignore, avoid, deny or reject that which is good, even if we are choosing another good. Luigi Giussani, for whom human desire was a topic of great importance, speaks of this in his book, Is It Possible to Live This Way? in a chapter on freedom. In the following excerpt, paraphrased slightly for clarity, destiny refers to our relationship with God (the nature of which is freedom):
...you govern yourself according to the destiny you are aware of. This always implies a tearing away, a wound. In Christian terms it's called penitence or mortification. Mortification means that it seems like a death, like a renunciation, but it isn't! Because if someone chooses A, he then sees the B he is giving up in another light; he doesn't lose it. He sees it in a permanent light, eternal, true and eternal, and loves with a love that is true and eternal. He no longer loses it....
So, in order to avoid the rejection of a good yet still adhere to our calling, we need an awareness of our destiny, and of mortification, which is not in fact the rejection of a good, but the viewing of it and its place in another light. We need to recognize that falling in love is not something that is against us, but for us: it is meant, as is everything we encounter, to recall us to our destiny, to Christ.
Knowing this, would it not then make sense to accept falling in love and allow the Spirit to work within that experience? We could then go freely about our duty, rather than averting our eyes and muttering something to God about being preserved from temptation and allow the same awe-filled response that we experience freely when viewing a sunset or listening to a symphony when we find ourselves attracted to a beautiful woman or man! Are we not, in fact, called to respond in the fullness of truth by saying with the genuine yearning that is present in our hearts: "How wonderful are your works, oh God! You have done well! Here is one who reflects You, whose origin is You and whose destiny is also You! And I am a witness to the truth of what he/she reflects!"
The humility that accompanies this awe should move us to gratitude. Recognizing the nature of the beauty we witness—that it is completely other, not of our making, and yet for us—and giving thanks for it is one of the first steps to freedom. And with greater freedom comes a greater ability to love.
We can love the person we are attracted to in a variety of ways. To begin, we can choose to cultivate a desire for the other's good. First, we acknowledge in our minds that that person's ultimate good is God Himself, His will for them, and whatever gifts He has in store for them. We can then pray that God will continue to increase our desire for the other's good, and to thank Him that He gives Himself to that person. We can also pray that the person may recognize and possess their ultimate good, or rather, allow himself to be possessed by Him who is the Ultimate Good.
Second, we can rejoice and be thankful that by our recognition of and gratitude for the good of the other, we are already participating in the good. That is, our recognition of the goodness of the person and our gratitude for it is also a good for which to be grateful. God creates us and takes delight in us. He must also take joy in seeing His creation not only delighting in the existence of other parts of creation, but also acknowledging Him and thanking Him for it, and furthermore, deciding to personally engage ourselves in that creation's destiny by choosing to desire its good.
Contemplating beauty, even imperfect human beauty, can move us to prayer. Remember, none of this could come about as easily if one did not first find the other person attractive. Yes, we can pray and should pray for those we do not like and are not attracted to, and this is perhaps, as Scripture says, the way of more credit to us. But when it does come easily to us, with all the wonder of romance attached, let us rejoice.
These practices of allowing awe, giving thanks and cultivating a desire for the other's good are excellent and, I believe, necessary companions to prudence, which, without the accompaniment of charity becomes a practice of suspicion, a headmaster skulking about the hallways, hunched over, seeking all possible dangers, his eyes furrowed in great concern over wrongs not yet committed. He cannot teach anything because he is never in the classroom but always prowling about, avoiding all of reality, including that which is good.
To love, in any form, is to die to self. Even in our airiest of crushes, we lose something—even if it is only our head for a moment. This reflection is in no way meant to make light of the pain of these situations; they are crosses. A Cross, viewed without the light of the Resurrection, is a scandal: nothing will draw us to it. Only through a clear view of Reality and affection for the One who calls to us through all things, can we be drawn to it and live it, and this is impossible without spiritual guidance and Christian community, more specifically, friendship. This is, in fact, one of the things that falling in love reminds us of: our need for friendship. If you are scandalized by falling in love, you need friends all the more. Not to protect you from the evils of romance, but to help you to judge why that romance has been given to you.
Since this reflection was inspired by seminarians, I include a special note that I think is particularly important to consider if one is in a pastoral role. You must not be afraid to acknowledge the goodness of the other in whatever acceptable boundaries exist. To deliberately avoid, at all times, gestures of affection—and how these are demonstrated will vary depending on the person and situation—would be, I believe, a great poverty to you and anyone to whom you minister. So many have used the realm of touch to betray trust, but you must not let the sins of others rule your behaviour: you are free in Christ. It is my hope that this reflection will help remind you of this, Christ's victory. Certainly, we must be honest with ourselves about our weakness and woundedness, but rather than continue to act solely in deference to our fallen state, let us look toward Christ, who has redeemed us, defeated death through the greatest love "scandal" in history, and is, indeed, restoring all things to Himself. Veni Sancte Spiritus, veni per Mariam.