When I was eight years old, I had an experience that I have never forgotten.
I was lying in bed with the radio on – this was the 1970s – when I heard Springsteen’s anthem from that era, “Born to Run,” for the first time. He was singing about this place he wanted to get to, and he was running to get there with a girl named Wendy. After assuring Wendy in the final words of the song that someday they’d make it, Springsteen let this cosmic cry come out of his heart – it was a wailing bellow that unleashed Bruce’s existential longing…and mine, too. Listening to Bruce’s cry, it was like the sky split open and some crack of eternity’s lightning struck my soul. Then came the thunder, and as it rumbled through my bones, I wondered what the heck had just happened to me.
This song was not only inspiring, it was prophetic. Little did I know that 18 years later I would actually marry a girl named Wendy and would be on a path of discovering St. John Paul II’s theology of the body. At one point I read that a 7th century monk said that the Angel Gabriel had “evangelized” Mary at the Annunciation; he had shown her her ache. I look back now and believe my 8-year-old self was evangelized in the same sense – except the “angel” who showed me my ache was Bruce Springsteen.
I discovered from St. John Paul II that that “ache” had a name. The Church, borrowing her language from the Greeks, calls that fundamental human hunger “eros.” But, John Paul II warned, if we are to understand eros correctly, we must never confuse it with another Greek word, porneia. Our pornographic culture has grievously bastardized the erotic, twisting it into a base quest for selfish gratification. And we make a heart-crushing mistake when we confuse these gross distortions with eros itself. As I learned from St. John Paul II, Christ does not want us to repress or annihilate eros. Rather, he wants us to experience the “fullness of ‘eros,’ which implies the upward impulse of the human spirit toward what is true, good, and beautiful, so that what is ‘erotic’ also becomes true, good, and beautiful” (TOB 48:1).
St. John Paul II would tell us that when we’re drawn to something beautiful – a flower, a sunset, a dewdrop, a starlit night – that’s eros. When the truth of something just rings in our heart and makes us want to sing – that’s eros. When we watch a movie that grabs hold of our insides and won’t let us go – that’s eros. When we experience something so good, kind or loving that it puts a lump in our throat – that’s eros. Or when I was lying in bed and Springsteen hit me at my core – that was eros.
St. John Paul II also helped me understand that, while the beautiful things of this world are meant to awaken eros, they are not meant to fulfill it. The splendors of this world, especially the human body, serve as icons or signs that point to something far, far greater. When we ignore what’s greater and expect only the things of this world to take away our ache, we turn icons into idols and miss the fulfillment our Creator longs for us to know.
The Angel Gabriel evangelized Mary by showing her that her ache was destined to “be filled with all the fullness of God” (Eph 3:19). So is my ache. So is yours. And so is Bruce Springsteen’s.
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