It’s embarrassing to admit that I spent the better part of my freshman year falling in love. My plunge was total, unexpected, effortless, instant. He and I came together so forcefully, so naturally, that my only way of explaining it to bewildered friends back home was the transformation of a two-dimensional world into a three-dimensional one. Seemingly overnight I became a new creation.
I would love to dismiss that period of my life and the mistakes I made during it as the deluded sentimentality of a two-star movie plot. I would love to claim it was all a product of my naiveté and the proximity of my particular object of affection. I would love to laugh lightly, smile ruefully, even issue a little sigh at the memory and disregard it as an exaggeration. The reality is that I can’t. Try as I might to deny it, the feelings I had were not petty and they were not fleeting. In truth, what I felt for him was, for a long time, as real to me as the existence of God.
C.S. Lewis affirms that all this is not mere illusion: romantic love, eros, displays a godlike grandeur that we ought not to ignore. “[Eros’] total commitment, his reckless disregard of happiness, his transcendence of self-regard, sound like a message from the eternal world,” Lewis wrote, “this love is really and truly like Love Himself.”1
The problem, Lewis wrote, is in the promise. Love’s power—a very real power—goads us to make vows of eternal happiness we have every intention but no power to fulfill. It asks us to surrender all and we do so blissfully, forgetting that eros is rooted in feelings whose intensity is only matched by their volatility. “And all the time the grim joke is that Eros whose voice seems to speak from the eternal realm is not necessarily even permanent,” Lewis wrote. “To be in love is both to intend and to promise lifelong fidelity…[but] Eros is driven to promise what Eros of himself cannot perform.”2
What I remember best about the beginning of that time is, strangely, the elevator. It was the site of my first late-night phone call home about him and it was where, a few days later, our relationship officially began. The strength of our feelings made placing any boundaries on them appear foolish, and we used to laugh about the irrelevance of time as we talked late into the night, told every story, every secret, uncovered every hidden part of ourselves. The time he and I spent together was like that self-contained metal box: suspended in air, insulated from all other reality.
Without realizing it, I soon made the relationship an idol for myself by assuming that nothing love goaded me to could be wrong. In myriad small ways I started to choose him over God and everything else. Yet even at the deepest moments of intimacy in the relationship, I had the persistent feeling that something—or Someone—was missing. I found myself praying at the most unorthodox times, trying to invoke God by calling on His name even as I ignored His Word. Couldn’t I, by the force of my love, win God’s sanction for us?
Even after time uncovered our many flaws, our devotion to each other did not flag. What did it matter that he sometimes spoke maliciously, that I was stubborn and demanding? Love meant a complete surrender. I stood at the top of Widener steps and through my tears forgave him for throwing away the people most precious to me. We comforted each other as we struggled under the terrible burden of trying to be each other’s fulfillment. We summoned broken smiles and rode the elevator home. We were the best—indeed the only—thing we had.
Soon I found myself walled off from the people around me and, in my despair, walled myself off further from God. Out of fear that He would confirm to me that I was wrong, leaving me with nothing, I stopped my ears and slowly plunged into depression. By the time the relationship ended—a process that took months to finish—both he and I had lost our footing completely. Even then, the cables holding us suspended did not snap. We had to slowly, painfully cut them ourselves. After the ecstasy of the initial connection with this boy, God gave me a terrifying vision of what love looks like when separated from Him.
The danger of love, Lewis warned, is in being deceived by eros’ godlike qualities into believing that eros can take the place of God. “Eros, of himself, will never be enough—will indeed survive only in so far as he is continually chastened and corroborated by higher principles,” Lewis argued. Like us, love is at its best when it surrenders its own strength to seek God’s grace. Even more, “Eros, honoured without reservation and obeyed unconditionally, becomes a demon.”3 God is love, but love—eros—is not God. Without God at its center, love demands sacrifices for covenants we cannot or should not keep.
With time God showed me that every transcendent feeling I had glimpsed in that relationship was real, but only lasting in Him. In truth, love requires Christ as a mutual foothold in order to stand: “We love because He first loved us.”4 It was God’s love, not his or mine, that was “the most excellent way” I’d been searching for all along.5
I am no enemy of eros. Still, having tasted the best that worldly love has to offer, I gladly turn my eyes first to God. I hope that others will be wiser than I was. In the end, it is by leaning into Christ that we draw closer to each other. Only when He becomes the beginning and the end of all our love can we escape Eros’ endless rise and fall and, at long last, arrive.