Broadway: lights, peppy music, dancing, and… metaphysics? I was probably the last holdout of my generation never to have watched Andrew Lloyd Weber’s The Phantom of the Opera– until yesterday. And I was surprised by what I found: not just ethereal singing with an interesting story, but a spiritual parable, a tale about the ego and the heart.
(Spoiler Alert!) Skipping right to the climax, we find the heroine Christine facing a terrible dilemma. The Phantom has given her an ultimatum: if she does not agree to spend her life with him, a man who has shown himself capable of violence and cruelty, the Phantom will murder her fiancé, the Count. The Phantom is a complex character: as a boy, he was put in a circus cage, abused, and labeled the “devil’s child” because of his disfigured face. Later, he escaped to hide in the sewers below the opera house, and in time, his genius became apparent. The Phantom composed operas and taught Christine to sing (from behind a screen). He fell in love with her, but his jealousy led him to kill, to burn down the opera house, and then to abduct Christine. But she diffuses the entire situation and avoids certain catastrophe by doing something unexpected: Christine feels pity for the Phantom. She tells him of her compassion and gives him a kiss. Suddenly, the Phantom reveals his better self, stepping aside and setting both her and the Count free.
The Phantom is a wonderful representation of the human Ego. It is like a wounded little child that causes all sorts of mischief. It craves honor and recognition; it continually compares itself to its rivals, turning jealous and possessive through its insatiable need for validation. If unchecked, it alternately begs and threatens the ones it would claim to love. The ego has the potential to strangle all love from grasping too tightly. But Christine– the Heart– reveals the way out. Through pity, the ego is able to step aside. Love is only possible when the ego, like the Phantom, lets go and sets the heart free to love unfettered.
In previous articles, I have written about St. John of the Cross and the crushing of the ego that goes along with the “dark night of the soul.” The goal of the spiritual life, the core of the gospels, is the cultivation of love: total and absolute love for God that is lived out in love for neighbors, strangers, even for enemies. But while the ego remains in power, worrying about its own honor, we can muster only a poor, half-hearted sort of love. At some point in our lives, by whatever means, we all must find a way to break the grip that the ego keeps on the heart. Only then are we free to love fully and truly. The nature of love is wholly free, unbounded, unconditional, heedless in its total self-giving. There is a kind of madness in genuine love.
God’s love, perfect love, is like this example taken from a children’s book on eagles: “The courtship flights and displays of African Fish Eagles are spectacular. Often the birds soar and grasp each other’s claws in midflight; then they tumble towards the earth, talons locked together in a grip which is released only moments before a seemingly unavoidable collision with the ground.” (Riley, Terry. “Eagles and Other Hunters of the Sky.” Dean & Son Ltd., 1982, p.8) Divine love is like that magnificent eagle which has been taken so far out of himself that he can hurtle right to the ground in total freefall. The radical love that God calls us to is like the madness of the merchant in the gospel parable who sells everything he has in order to obtain the one magnificent pearl. (Matt 13:45-46) Divine love is the insanity of the Divine Son of God giving up his very life.
The ego’s role is meant to be passive: by denying itself and moving aside, it unbinds the heart, setting it free to love as it will. Hebrews 12:29 describes God as a consuming fire. Like fire, the nature of love, and the nature of God-as-Love, is to spread and consume us utterly, as in the quote from the Desert Father Abba Joseph, who said, “If you will, you can become all flame.” But ego interferes in same the way that a rainstorm checks a forest fire.
In his classic work The Ladder of Divine Ascent, St. John Climacus (6th cent.) describes the goal of the spiritual struggle, the final rung of the spiritual ladder, as love. The first twenty-nine rungs are about overcoming the ego: defeating vices and cultivating virtues, all in order to make possible the ultimate and thirtieth rung which is love, the mad, all-consuming, and unbounded love for God: “He who truly loves ever keeps in his imagination the face of his beloved, and there embraces it tenderly. Such a man can get no relief from his strong desire even in sleep, even then he holds converse with his loved one. So it is with our bodily nature; and so it is in spirit. One who was wounded with love said of himself (I wonder at it): I sleep because nature requires this, but my heart is awake in the abundance of my love.”