-by John M. Grondelski

“When it comes to love, English is impoverished. It’s not that English-speakers don’t love but that our language is so limited. “I love God,” “I love my wife,” “I love chocolate ice cream” all use the same verb, but that word cannot mean the same thing in all three cases.

Sociologists speak of the Sapir-Whorf thesis. Put simply, it explains differences in language based on users’ need, which, reciprocally, shape or limit the speaker’s way of seeing reality. Like “love,” English has one word for that white powdery thing that falls from the sky: “snow.” Eskimo languages, by contrast, have many words for snow. English has to approximate them by multiplying adjectives. Muruaneq is “soft, deep snow,” which is different from ughugesnaq, “wet snow that is falling”—each of which will require different actions to get home. A quick but precise noun conceptualizes X and distinguishes it from Y, enabling rapid life decisions.

So why is English a one-word “love” language?

C.S. Lewis wrote a book called The Four Loves, which explains the four Greek words for “love.” They range from attraction (including physical attraction) to affection (emotional attraction) to friendship to benevolence.

I’m stressing the differences in “love” because it’s relevant to an image I want to discuss from another C.S. Lewis book, The Great Divorce. It has to do with “love” as eros and its deformation in lust.

The Great Divorce discusses the dead who come from a “city” on a bus trip to the outskirts of heaven. The identity of that “city” is fluid: for those who, on their heavenly peripheries day trip, are attracted to stay, it is purgatory. For those who choose to take the return bus, it’s hell.

Don’t be surprised that the return bus is usually full. One of the tragic consequences of the mystery of sin is that, having grown accustomed to it, we feel naked and insecure without its familiarity. It’s like that natty, worn out sweater with holes that should have been thrown out long ago but you still wear because “it feels good.”

I was particularly gripped by a scene in which an angel encounters a soul with a lizard on its neck. The soul is headed back to the bus. He’s a little put off by the angel’s presence because he knows that the reptile—which symbolizes lust—has not kept its promise. The lizard promised not to keep whispering dirty ideas into his ear, since the soul knows that “his stuff won’t do here,” but it “won’t stop.” So the soul is ready to take his inappropriate companion and go back to hell.

The angel proposes another way, albeit by steps.

“Would you like me to make him quiet?” The soul seems enthusiastic about the prospect.

“Then I will kill it.”

But, on approaching them, the soul already feels uncomfortable. “You’re burning me,” the soul bellows, “retreating.” When the angel asks whether the soul really wants the pest killed, the latter begins to temporize. “You didn’t say anything about killing him at first.” That’s so “drastic.” All the soul wanted was lust’s “silence,” not necessarily its separation. And he wanted its “silence” because, well, its overt visibility is “so damned embarrassing.”

The angel isn’t diverted. “May I kill it?” The soul parries: let’s talk “later.” Really, thank you, didn’t mean to be a bother. See you.

But the angel doesn’t give up. “There’s no time.” Now is the time (literally, since heaven is the eternal now).

The soul keeps multiplying excuses. “I shall be able to keep it in order now.” A “gradual process” is better than a nip in the bud. I’ll feel better about it tomorrow.

In the end, the soul admits its fear: in killing it, you’ll kill me. The angel assures the soul that’s not true. But “you’re hurting me now.” The angel is clear: “I never said it wouldn’t hurt you. I said it wouldn’t kill you.”

In the end, after further hemming and hawing, the soul finally musters himself enough to agree. As the angel’s hand approaches, lust grows louder, pleading, “You’ll be without me for ever and ever. It’s not natural!” At last, in the end, comes the soul’s decision: “Damn you and blast you! Go on . . . get it over. Do what you like. God help me. God help me.” (He will!)

The angel then plucks the lizard from the soul’s shoulder and fatally twists its neck. At the same time, the soul “gave a scream of agony such as I had never heard on earth.”

What then happens is amazing.

The soul begins to grow in stature, “not much smaller than the Angel.” His beauty emerges.

The lizard, too, changes. From an ugly reptile emerges a vigorous white stallion, which the soul approaches and nuzzles. Then the soul hops on its back and, together, both ride off to the mountains—the heights—of heaven.

Human beings are sensory creatures. The world comes to us through our senses, including touch (which includes sex). Eros is that love which most directly affects the senses. It is powerful. It gives us “lust” for life and love. It drives us forward.

In itself, eros is very good. It’s when its power is directed in the wrong ways that the powerful stallion becomes the creepy lizard hanging on our necks.

St. Augustine was an erotic man. His misdirected eros led to many sins and wasted years. But when his lizard was killed, he became a saint whose spiritual vigor outdid many.

Catholicism does not ask we deny the senses. It does ask that we put them in the service of the good. The failure to control them leads to lust; their discipline supports love. “Love” and “lust” are not cousins. They are just two four letter words.

Our sensual world confuses them. One example: think of the wreckage pornography brings to so many lives, damage that seems irreparable. And think of its ubiquity, along with the sexualization (“pornification”) of our world.

Now, imagine what great saints would arise if that eros were channeled into true love instead of lust. If we stopped making excuses and snuggling in our sins. If, by God’s grace, we cast off the lizard and mounted the white stallion.

Our Lady, Queen of Purity, pray for us!”

Love, His will be done!