There are more uses of the erotic than just erotic ones.
~ Anna Kartsonis
There is a long tradition of erotic male friendship, from the ancient Greek and Roman world through the Middle Ages in Europe. It may sound strange to our ears, but educated medieval men often expressed their friendship for one another in the language of passionate love.
Still today, whether a man is straight, gay, or in between, he may recognize that there is something erotic about his friendship with another man, even if it never becomes sexual in reality or fantasy. Our culture acknowledges something of this when we speak of bromance.
The passage below is from Aelred of Rievaulx (1110-1167), a Cistercian abbot, who wrote with great intelligence and passion about the importance of friendship. Many modern readers suspect him of being gay. I share that suspicion. But given all we know of him, it would be going too far to say he had sexual relationships with his fellow monks. What we see here is a man who is not afraid to use the image of male-male sexual love to describe his experience of close friendship. He makes it clear that, having taken a vow of celibacy, he means to keep it. Rather, he is talking about channeling his desire into friendship, and ultimately toward Jesus. His friendship with another monk becomes a way of using the energy of eros to achieve a spiritual goal. The mention of flowers and a bridal chamber in the last paragraph alludes to the biblical book The Song of Songs, an ancient love poem which he and others interpreted to be about the relationship between Christ and his own soul.
Some of us have dates or partners this Valentine’s Day. Others of us are single and alone. We who are alone have erotic desires too. What do we do with them? Should we grow frustrated, depressed? Aelred reminds us, as Anna Kartsonis says, “There are more uses of the erotic than just erotic ones.”
It is no mean consolation in this life
to have someone with whom you can be united
by an intimate attachment
and the embrace of very holy love,
to have someone in whom your spirit may rest,
to whom you can pour out your soul;
to whose gracious conversation you may flee
for refuge amid sadness,
as to consoling songs;
or to the most generous bosom of whose friendship
you may approach in safety
amid the many troubles of this world;
to whose most loving breast you may without hesitation
confide all your inmost thoughts, as to yourself;
by whose spiritual kisses as by medicinal ointments
you may sweat out of yourself the weariness of agitating cares.
Someone who will weep with you in anxiety,
rejoice with you in prosperity,
seek with you in doubts;
someone you can let into the secret chamber of your mind
by the bonds of love,
so that even when absent in body
he is present in spirit.
There, you alone may converse with him alone,
and once the noise of the world is hushed,
in the sleep of peace,
you alone may repose with him alone
in the embrace of charity,
the kiss of unity,
with the sweetness of the Holy Spirit flowing between you.
Still more, you may be so united to him
and approach him so closely
and so mingle your spirit with his,
that the two become one.
In this present life we are able to enjoy those whom we love
not only by reason
but also by attachment.
Among them, we especially take enjoyment
in those who are linked to us more intimately and more closely
by the pleasant bond of spiritual friendship.
Lest someone think that this very holy sort of charity
should seem reproachable,
our Jesus himself,
lowering [himself] to our condition in every way,
suffering all things for us
and being compassionate towards us,
transformed it by manifesting his love.
To one person, not to all, did he grant
a resting-place on his most sacred breast
in token of his special love,
so that the virginal head [of the beloved disciple]
might be supported by the flowers of his [Jesus’] virginal breast,
and the fragrant secrets of the heavenly bridal-chamber
might instill the sweet scents of spiritual perfumes on his virginal attachments
more abundantly because more closely.
So it is that even though all the disciples were cherished
by the sweetness of supreme charity by the most blessed Master,
still it was to this one that he accorded this name
as a prerogative of yet more intimate attachment:
that he would be called
“that disciple whom Jesus loved.”
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“There are more uses of the erotic…“: Quoted in C. Stephen Jaeger, Ennobling Love: In Search of a Lost Sensibility (Paper), xiii. Jaeger credits a conversation with Kartsonis as the source of the quote (p. xi).