A Rebirth of Romance

The Infinite Desire for Beauty

by Michael Enright, appearing in Volume 26

In a talk at Wheaton College a few years ago, Gil Bailie outlined the beginnings of our modern Western idea of romantic love. You might think that all cultures have always shared our ideas about romance and love, but this is not the case. Think of the arranged marriages of India, or marriages based on something like the need for a housekeeper or for someone to work the fields or to provide children. Somehow in our modern American culture we have a different idea about love. This idea came from somewhere. It has profoundly influenced our views on love, on beauty, on who we are, and on how we are put together.

Bailie traced the origins of our thinking to the troubadours. This movement began sometime around the year 1000. You might not have heard of these singers, but they began singing these tremendously romantic, over-the-top songs about their ladies. Imagine knights in armor, ladies in castles, princes and kings, and jousting over honor. Imagine King Arthur, Lady Guinevere, and young knights hopelessly in love—singing songs about maybe someday touching their lady’s handkerchief. That’s the picture! Bailie posits that this kind of thinking and feeling became possible only in a culture that had been influenced by the grace of Christ and knowledge of the Trinity. G.K. Chesterton thought that this movement was far more important to the development of Western culture than the Renaissance. He thought that compared to the tsunami of grace that moved the troubadours, the Renaissance was just a ripple in the pond. It is interesting to note that half the troubadours ended up becoming Cistercian monks! This thing was so far beyond the physical that they went off in the crazy hope that they could actually experience the indwelling of the Trinity in their bodies. And they did, and do even today. The reason these monks seem so happy and peaceful is that they are. In their prayer lives, they connect directly with God.

Medieval troubadours play for Meister Heinrich Frauenlob in a scene from the illuminated Codex Manesse manuscript. Photo: wikimedia commons

The Trinity is our Christian conception about the nature of God. We speak about the three Persons of the Trinity, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. There are some essential things we know about these three Persons. One is that they are continually giving and receiving love, one relating to another. They are also in heaven and totally full of joy and light. We also know we are made in the image and likeness of God; and so, somehow, the Trinity dwells in us. We have this infinite desire in us to give and receive love. And that is what makes us into romantics! Being made in God’s image and likeness enables us to be moved by music, to appreciate art and beauty, and to create culture.

Because we are made in God’s image, we have romance hard-wired in us. Married people experience this in their romantic love and even in their physical relations with each other. Saint John Paul II wrote about this in the Theology of the Body. Somehow married people in their physical lovemaking can touch the essence of who they are and go far, far beyond that. They can be touched by the presence of God. And this brings forth life, and so much more. Being that I am not married, I once asked some married people if they ever just start laughing out loud when they are intimate. They told me they did, once in a while. “Aha!” I thought—the joy of it! It made me want to get married!

And so, we are romantics. We see the sunset and stop in awe (some days!). We marvel at the wonders of God’s creation. Music moves us, beauty touches our hearts, and so on. We are romantics. Not everyone has those feelings. I was looking at a sunset a while ago and commented to a Tanzanian friend, “Look at that sunset. Isn’t it beautiful?” He answered, “You Americans are always going on about things like that.” He did not see what I saw. His eyes had not been opened and he could not see through the clouds into the beauty. Not everyone has experienced romance, not everyone perceives beauty, not everyone enjoys music. Some people have a kind of spiritual autism—nothing moves them. But many of us do have these experiences. And I think we ought to be missionaries, trying to help our brothers and sisters open their hearts to the joy of the romantic life of faith!

Bailie thinks we have arrived at this place in human history because of the influence of the grace of God. I agree. The Kingdom of God is being formed all over the world. But we have to ask ourselves what is happening in America. Is it being formed here? Are we romantics? Do we love beauty? A deeper and more troubling question would be, if we lose our capacity for beauty and romantic love, can our culture survive?

Looking at our culture with the eyes of faith, there is reason for concern about our young people and our culture in general. We are wounded by original sin, and we can forget who we are and how we are made. In the 1500s, Saint Teresa of Avila wrote that she worried that the young Carmelite nuns she was forming could be like silly little shepherdesses frolicking around and forgetting the tremendous river of grace the Lord had put inside them. I think there is a danger that some of our young people are forgetting who they are. They turn into “players,” swapping partners and going from one lover to another like animals in the woods. It is sex without romance. Where is the joy in that?

Without romance, there is not enough power to sustain the culture as a whole. This kind of sexuality does not have enough strength to move men and women beyond themselves into giving life to children (and sustaining and caring for them as they grow up). Fathers and mothers have to learn to respond to the demands of love and focus on what is good for their children. That is the way married people imitate Christ, Who emptied Himself and took on the form of a slave. Without the grace of God, there is no possibility of romance. Without romance, there is no possibility of life for the next generation. After all, only a hopeless romantic would think that changing diapers and cleaning up snotty noses and on and on would all be worth it in the end! By the same token, only a romantic would build a beautiful church or worry about creating a ballet or put paint to canvas. Our capacity for romance and beauty and joy is tied to our nature, tied to our being made in God’s image.

Zwettl Cistercian Abbey on the Kamp River, Lower Austria. The eighteenth-century tower was designed by Matthias Steinl. Photo: Wolfgang Sauber, wikimedia commons

We modern Americans need to let go of our bad thinking about all kinds of things, and there is one strain of thought we ought to learn to recognize as coming straight out of the shadows of the underworld. It is the kind of thinking that kills beauty and romance and leads to death. It leads us to pity the poor.

Walker Percy, in The Thanatos Syndrome, has Fr. Smith argue “that the problem of contemporary life is that morality is based on so-called tenderness, not on justice or a sound idea of the human person or the dignity due to the least of us.”1 There are a couple of great lines of dialogue:

“‘Don’t you know where tenderness leads?’ 
‘To the gas chambers.’”2

Percy is echoing Flannery O’Connor. She writes that, in the absence of faith, “we govern by tenderness. A tenderness which, long since cut off from the Person of Christ, is wrapped in theory. When tenderness is detached from the source of tenderness, its logical outcome is terror. It ends in forced-labor camps and in the fumes of the gas chamber.”3 This is the kind of thinking that led Margaret Sanger (the foundress of Planned Parenthood) to write that “the most merciful thing that a large family does to one of its infant members is to kill it.”4 God save us from this kind of mercy!

We have to imagine this strain of thought over against the work of the Little Brothers of the Poor. I remember hearing years ago that in their soup kitchens, they have flowers on the tables. In fact, their motto is “Flowers before Bread.” What? A waste of money. Only a romantic would think that someone eating at a soup kitchen might need a flower. The Little Brothers would think that only someone who has forgotten our common humanity would leave the flower off the table! Fr. Smith would call it “the dignity due to the least of us.” How silly it is for us to think the poor are somehow different from us. After all, the fact that we do not have to eat at a soup kitchen is only due to God’s grace.

Compare the thinking that puts a flower on a table to the thinking that built high-rises in Chicago to house the poor. Someone thought it would be a good idea to “help” the poor by knocking down their dilapidated housing and building them some high-rises. Look what it leads to when we forget that we are all made in God’s image. A smoking disaster of dehumanization and death. There is no room for beauty or joy or romance in this kind of thinking. If you have ever seen a picture of these high-rises, you have to wonder what the architects were thinking. How ugly they were. Clearly these social planners and architects were not romantics or people of faith.

The thinking that gives flowers to the poor also creates beautiful music, glorious churches, and children too! Only a romantic would believe in the power of beauty or music or love to change the world. We should pray for our young people, for an increase of faith and beauty and a rebirth of romance! Only people who can dream impossible dreams will be able to change the world. Only hopeless romantics will be called to priesthood, religious life, and marriage—to create art and beauty and children and culture. We need a wave of art and grace and beauty and life! May the Lord God in His mercy send us this grace! And the joy that goes with it!