Regarding the use of earthly images, Christian spirituality has been of two minds: negation and affirmation. The first, because of God’s transcendence, stressed the grand dissimilarity between the Creator and all he ever made. It dismissed earthly images as inadequate, even downright misleading. God, said its best practitioners, is a thought beyond all thinking, a word beyond all utterance, a vision beyond all seeing, and a being beyond all existence. Finite things cannot and do not reveal God; they hide him, the negationists insisted. God is ineffably different from the world. Between it and him there exists no reliable analogy.
Not so, said the pilgrims of the other path. Just as something of the painter is revealed in the paintings, and just as something of the poet is revealed in the poems, so something of the Creator is revealed in the creation. Let those who have ears to hear, hear; let those who have eyes to see, see.
While both the paths have led, by quite different routes, to godliness and to God, my concern, like the concern of this book, is with the second, the way of affirmation. That path is wondrously indirect and differentiated. Some saints, like Bonaventure, and some poets, like Wordsworth, affirm and explicate the images of nature at large. They explain how nature and the multiform objects that it comprises are books, or ladders, or images that come from God and lead to God. These natural objects are, as it were, God’s own commentaries, or guidebooks, to himself.
Other Christian thinkers, like Dante and Petrarch, affirm a different set of images, namely the images of romance. So also does this book by Tyler Blanski. It charts for us today the path charted earlier by them. The details and genre are different; the point is not. He tells in contemporary prose the poetic tale told centuries ago by others.
Nature has been deeply interfused with a homing instinct. Natural things incline toward where they belong, their natural habitat. Because it is drawn by unseen magnetic forces, the needle of a compass, if unimpeded, always points toward magnetic north. Pigeons, some say by means of that same magnetic force, find their way home, often across enormous distances. I myself once knew a dog that, weeks after it was lost, somehow found its way home from the other side of a neighboring state, across the Mississippi River.
Even so the human heart, when unimpeded, tends toward God. It too has a natural homing instinct. The German mystics called it seelengrund, the Greeks synteresis, the Latins scintilla, and the English “the spark of the soul.” Whatever its name, because of sin it fails to work as it ought. It needs the grace of God. That grace comes in many forms and with many faces. The face God gives it is the face most congenial to your soul, the face most likely to open your eyes and awaken your sleeping heart. For many men, it is the face of a woman. For many women, it is the face of a man. That man, or that woman, because he or she is a human being and is beloved, is to us an image of the God from whom, by our evil, we have fled, but to whom, if we desire, we can return. As Dante showed us in The Divine Comedy, the difference between heaven and hell can be how well we follow our God-given images, how well we love our loves.
To see those images aright, we need to see three things accurately: the beloved as she is, the beloved as she shall be, and the Grand Love of whom she is the image. No delusions will do. The God who is Truth himself cannot be approached but by grace-induced clarity of mind and of vision. Put another way, because she is God’s picture to our souls, we need to study the image as carefully as we would, say, Thomas’s Summa or Calvin’s Institutes. But where those things are the abstract, the beloved is the living, though fallen, embodiment. She is the human portrait; they are diagrams. She is to our hearts, to use an ancient Christian phrase, the God-bearer. We learn to love her as she is, and we learn to love what she shall become, so that we can learn to love the God whom she reflects—and learn to love like the God whom she reflects. In that way, romance is the practice field upon which we learn to cherish our Maker by learning to love the living image and reminder of himself that he has set before us.
As Helmut Thielicke once observed, this world is a house, lit by God, to help us find him. For some, God has set that light in the beloved, in the image, and like a beacon on a rocky and windswept coast, she can, if we see in her the bright image that she is, lead us safely to harbor: Dante again.
I have said that we must see her as she is, and that she is flawed. Though her flaws are real and not insignificant (no sin ever is), for her to function as the heart’s image of God, those flaws are easily, almost naturally, overlooked. The world, after all, is full of love songs, all praising the perfections of imperfect persons, proving this is so. Lovers, like the mothers of delinquent children, seem naturally to find the lovely and the lovable in even the most unlovely creatures. In that sense, romance is like agape. It teaches us to practice, at least as regards one person, what agape desires for us to practice toward them all. It also teaches that while she might be more spirited than spiritual, might be careless and not just carefree, that she is the very image of the Eternal Love that made us and redeemed us. Romance helps us to see beyond what is to what shall be, to see the possible and the eventual in the actual, and to see that the dear perfections she now has will one day be all the more wonderful and all the more beautiful—because she will be all the more like God. Even more than she is now, she someday shall be more fully the image of the One Thing your soul delights in and longs for, though perhaps it does not know yet who that is or why.
God has wrapped his beauty, his love, his joy, and his compelling attractiveness in both the natural and the supernatural graces of the beloved. Because he has, the needle of our hearts’s compass, drawn as it is to the image, imperfect though she might be, begins to point a little more toward magnetic north than once it did. Through her, the Pied Piper of heaven pipes his magic song, and we are drawn closer to our eternal home.
For more of that story, read on.
Professor of Theology and Culture, Hillsdale College
Scholar in Residence, Summit Semester