Thursday, January 05, 2006

on perfect love and on "Brokeback Mountain"

The movie has been widely touted as a love story. In one of its posters a sub-caption reads: “Love is a force of nature.”

One reviewer even said: “It is simply one of the greatest love stories in film history.”

And the U.S. bishops' Conference's Office of Film and Broadcasting in its review said that “While the actions taken by Ennis and Jack cannot be endorsed, the universal themes of love and loss ring true.”

Well, admittedly, that quote there from the bishops' review does sound a bit schizophrenic, and Andrew Sullivan in Daily Dish rightly recognized it as such: “Hard to summarize better the contradiction at the heart of the Church's teaching on homosexual dignity.”

He also adds:

The story is about love: human love. Not homosexual love; or heterosexual love. Just love. And the immense psychic pain and cruelty inflicted on countless human beings for so many centuries because of whom they fell in love with....But the story's message is, to my mind, one of the more eloquent rebukes to the current Vatican. You know, the Vatican that speaks, at its most compassionate, of the "affliction" of "deep seated homosexual tendencies." Change one word and you see the truth the Church hierarchy refuses to see. How about "deep seated homosexual love?" In Annie Proulx's inspired story, that becomes something deeper and grander: "deep seated human love." That's what the Pope is so afraid of. And why, in the end, he will lose this argument. Love and truth are on the other side of the debate. And our Catholic faith assures us that love and truth win in the end. Popes come and go; but the truth remains. And slowly, painfully, the truth is coming nout [sic].

So how does one address Sullivan’s contention that the Pope is on one side of this issue and truth and love on the other? And how does one explain those “schizophrenic” words from the bishops' review?

Well, since love is at the center of the chatter about this movie, then perhaps one should look at love. What does it mean to love? Does the Church say one kind of “love” is more “ordered” than another? Are there different degrees of love? Is there such a thing as perfect love?

Hmm. Perfect love. Let’s start there. To unpack this, let us turn to the thoughts of some of the people who have spent their lives contemplating about perfection, about goodness, about love—that’s right: some of the thinkers and philosophers in history.

Let’s take Plotinus (205-270 C.E.). Now he had something to say about perfection and goodness. He said, “Whenever anything [including love] reaches its own perfection, we see that it cannot bear to remain in itself, but generates and produces some other thing” (The Enneads).

Something is perfect when it is oriented outwards, generates, diffuses, moves from itself. It doesn’t stay within itself, unshared---but rather moves outward.

Now, let’s look at another thinker, Athanasius who took Plotinus’ words and “Christianized” them.

He said that God’s central attributes are goodness and perfection. And goodness by its nature diffuses, communicates itself, he said. Since God is good by nature, God therefore must be communicative, generative, out-going.

Is that indeed the case? Well, from the first pages of the Bible to the last, we have a story of how God has indeed generated life, has given God's self, moved outwards--there is God summoning creation to existence, God calling forth a special people (Israel), God coming down to give his own life for humanity, and God continuing to come to us to give us himself through the signs of bread and wine.

This is why John in his letter can proclaim “God is love” (1 John 4:16). This kind of love is expansive, life-giving, outward.

As an aside, compare that to the opposite of Love---Lucifer, who is wonderfully illustrated by Dante in the Inferno. He is depicted as dwelling in the very bottom of Hell, buried in ice from the chest down, his wings flapping, but going nowhere.

He has three faces. And he is chewing something in each of his three mouths. In one mouth he is chewing Judas Iscariot, Brutus in another, and Cassius in the third–-all traitors. So, there he is, encased, chewing on past resentments, turned inwards, imprisoned in himself.

So, the perfection of love and goodness is found in God, who is generative and who diffuses life and warmth.

And this is the kind of love humans are called to emulate: a love that shares in God’s own creative energy and will--a love that thrusts itself out there—-a love that gives life.

Now, ideally the best symbol we have in this material world for that kind of love is between a husband and a wife. Sure, in the beginning they may only have eyes for each other—-inward, exclusive, confined. Nobody else in the world exists but the other spouse.

But you see, as they express their love for each other physically, as they give themselves to one another bodily, something else is engendered----another life, another being who is capable of receiving and giving love.

And so this couple as they go through life begin to share in God’s creative, expansive, outward-oriented love. And you know, as that child grows up, the parents’ gaze which first focused on each other and then on their child, now begins to look upon the world—-the world in which their child is to live.

This is why I like Ronald Rolheiser’s description in his book The Holy Longing on how familial love basically makes a young man mature. First, he may be all about lust: getting a girl and bringing her to bed. But as that lust turns into a desire to love and to commit himself, his world gradually begins to expand. Soon, his gaze and his world include not only his wife, his child, but also his neighborhood, his community, and the world. And so that lusty adolescent because of love becomes a gentle, blessing, mature father and grandfather.

Yes, this may be the ideal and there may be many marriages out there that have fallen short of this, but there are many more that continue to journey to this ideal. And so to them, I say, keep at it.

And to those couples who can’t have children, the Church has always said that their union still reflects that self-donating, giving, outward divine love. Whatever physical limitations they may experience, they still share in reflecting that perfect love.

Can we say the same about gay love? Well, take the most ideal gay relationship out there---monogamous, loyal, loving: the partners are devoted to one another, devoted to their friends and family, they contribute to their community and society. We have many such couples here in the bay area and I number a few gay couples as friends.

But take that most ideal gay relationship and ask, as I have asked my own gay friends: can this love, in and of itself, when expressed in the most intimate way possible, share in the generative and creative love of God? Can it bring the gaze of those two lovers away from themselves and onto another?

I look at a film like “Brokeback Mountain” and observe the relationship between the two main male characters (Ennis and Jack) and I indeed observe a depiction of love...but it's a love that...well...a love that's turned in on itself. Yes, yes, because of their circumstances, they have to be clandestine. But suppose they don't have to be so secretive. Take their relationship and move it forward to the 21st century, and then move them to San Francisco: some things will be different, but not entirely, not with respect to having children.

At this point one of my gay friends would usually say, “well, there’s adoption.” That’s all well and good, but I am talking about the most loving, giving, ideal couple out there, creating a new being out of the physical expression of their love for each other. This is sharing in creation itself, sharing in God’s own work.

Going back to “Brokeback," as I said and as the bishops' review has said, love is indeed depicted in the movie: no doubt there is love and affection between Jack and Ennis. But a part of me also recognizes something unreal about it.

Unreal how? Well, basically here is the story of two guys who spent one summer together in the mountains herding sheep---two guys who deny they’re queer. During this time together an intense physical connection happens. And then they part without any expectation of seeing each other again. While apart they get married, raise kids, and enter into the hurly-burly of raising a young family, without any sort of contact with between the two men. Then when they meet one day after four years, they immediately kiss passionately.

I don’t know. It doesn’t ring true.

However, there is another scene in the movie which I really like. There was Ennis holding his 4-year old in one arm and his baby in another, rushing towards his wife who is working her butt off at the grocery, and then asking her to take the children because he was suddenly called to work. I like that scene because it is so real!

It’s seemingly ordinary events like that that really bind two people together---taking care of children, making their own way in life, making ends meet. That’s life. That’s how relationships grow.

The flip side is Ennis and Jack meeting four times a year for over 10 years “to fish”---sort of their own rendezvous for their trysts. Just the two of them together, alone, turned in on themselves, with seemingly nothing else holding them together but a physical connection. Well, admittedly, gay or straight, that kind of arrangement can grow old if the only thing holding the relationship together is sex.

But that's why that part of the film, which is supposed to be its selling point, is so unreal for me, because the love depicted there has no place to grow and couldn't have lasted the way it did in the film.

Now, shift from that gay relationship in the film and onto gay relationships in general and do you see what I mean? The most ideal and “perfect” gay relationship if compared with the most ideal and “perfect” marriage between a husband and a wife lacks something. It lacks that ingredient that makes for growth and perfection.

What is that key ingredient? As Plotinus, Athanasius, and the rest of the Christian teaching on love tell us: “Whenever anything [including love] reaches its own perfection, we see that it cannot bear to remain in itself, but generates and produces some other thing.”

And that other thing is another human being.

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