In her new jazz album Bewitched, Laufey (pronounced “lāy-vāy”) has gifted our world a rare treasure that seems to be almost lost in our culture. Her music simultaneously captures the power of Ella Fitzgerald’s love ballads, Nat “King” Cole’s heartfelt spirit, and the reflective sadness of Sinatra’s “In the Wee Small Hours of Morning.” Upon my first listen, I was brought to tears, and I walked around in a mystified stupor for over a week.
Laufey has managed to penetrate the depths of human emotion, showcasing the sublime beauty and heartache of falling in love. The album is astonishingly passionate, and it refuses to compromise or tame itself, reaching into the extremes of sadness (“California and Me”) and love (“While You Were Sleeping”). Like a breath of clean air after years in a polluted environment, Laufey’s words, instrumentation, and vocal cadence are an unapologetic, full-throated sincerity. Her music—simultaneously angelic and concrete—puts to shame the trollish and ironic dispositions of our current milieu, where authentic human emotions are obscured for non-committal niceties. The ghouls haunting the climate of contemporary romance discourse—“situationships,” incel culture, red-pillers, heartless hookup culture, and the like—are far gone from the world of Bewitched. In short, the album is a testimony to the depths of the human spirit for a disenchanted age in which many of us have lost sight of the beauty and spiritual vibrancy of love. “Bewitched” is not merely a once-in-a-lifetime artistic achievement, it is a spiritual masterpiece.
To expand upon the spiritual reality Laufey captured, I will turn to an explanation of the Romantic era, the sublime, and the link between romance and religious experience.
Romanticism and the Sublime
The Romantic era of art, which spanned from the late 18th to the mid-19th century, was characterized by a profound shift in artistic expression. It emerged as a reaction against the quasi-mechanical rationalism and restraint of the Enlightenment, instead embracing emotions, nature, and mystery. At the heart of this movement lay the concept of the sublime, a powerful and often overwhelming aesthetic experience that evoked both terror and awe. Experiencing the sublime is like looking over the edge of the Grand Canyon. The sight is overwhelmingly beautiful but simultaneously terrifying because the canyon is so deep that one could fall to one’s death if not careful.
Caspar David Friedrich, a prominent figure in Romantic art, expertly exemplifies this connection between the Romantic era and the sublime. Friedrich’s works, such as Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (c. 1818) and The Monk by the Sea (1810) are quintessential examples of the sublime in art. His landscapes are vast and majestic, depicting untamed nature in all its glory, but saturated with deeply spiritual themes and undertones. In his paintings, human figures are often minuscule compared to the grandeur of the natural world, emphasizing the finitude of humankind in the face of nature’s (and, for Friedrich, God’s) sublime majesty.
The Romantic artists sought to capture the sublime not only in nature but also in the human spirit. Emotions, often intense and tumultuous, were celebrated in their works. Friedrich’s use of symbolism, such as the solitary figure gazing into the abyss or standing on a precipice, conveyed the individual’s quest for self-discovery and spiritual connection with the sublime. Furthermore, Friedrich’s manipulation of light and shadow created an atmosphere of mystery and transcendence. His technique intensified the emotional impact of his paintings, inviting viewers to contemplate the vastness of the universe, their place within it, and how it all pointed back to the Creator.
The term “romance” in the Romantic era originally referred to medieval tales of chivalry and adventure, often involving heroic knights and heroic deeds. These stories were marked by a sense of wonder, idealism, and a focus on individual passions and quests. The Romantic era drew inspiration from this idea of individualism and the pursuit of intense, personal experiences, which is why it came to be associated with the term “romance.” However, I believe this artistic movement also sheds light on the romance of falling in love, and the qualities of sublime love are captured quite powerfully in Laufey’s album.
The Spiritual Dynamics of Falling in Love
Falling in love is both the greatest catastrophe and the purest ecstasy. Hence, someone overcome with romantic emotions is said to suffer from lovesickness. One wants to cry bitter tears when on the mountaintop of joy and sing joyous melodies when in the valley of sadness. A romance into which one fully surrenders oneself is vulnerable, raw, and terrifying—but it is the sacrifice necessary to most intimately glimpse the divine light in the Other. It is, in short, sublime.
Moreover, similar to the spiritual themes saturating Caspar Friedrich’s paintings, the feeling of falling in love is akin to a religious experience. It is rapturous and overtakes us without us necessarily preparing for it, such as looking over a mountainside and suddenly recognizing our own finitude and contemplating the Infinitude of the Divine.
In Laufey’s case, her album begins with a song (“Dreamer”) in which she promises to not open her heart again—“And no boy’s gonna be so smart as to / Try and pierce my porcelain heart.” But the album ends with her experiencing a rapturous pull into the beauty of love once more:
I try to think straight but I’m falling so badly
I’m coming apart
You wrote me a note, cast a spell on my heart
And bewitched me
The rapturous power of falling in love is perhaps why many religious people wish to shun the passion of romance, fearing that the ebb and flow of infatuation will replace God in one’s life, resulting in a form of idolatry. However, if we look to the artists of the Romantic era and to the insights of Georges Bataille, Rudolf Otto, and John Behr, we can see why romance is religious without needing to bring charges of idolatry.
The romantic artists understood that instances of the sublime brought about a keen awareness of one’s own finitude. The overwhelming beauty cascading over oneself—as beautiful as it is terrifying—has a way of breaking one’s consciousness. However, this breaking is by no means traumatic. Instead, it is the necessary expansion of one’s awareness to perceive new depths of truth. A whole new reality is opened to oneself in such moments.
Georges Bataille recognized the link between beauty, terror, and the loss of self in his work Erotism: Death and Sensuality. Within this book, he develops a theory of limit-experiences. A limit-experience is brought about by the intense combination of the erotic (not necessarily just sexual) and the terrifying: limit-experiences entail a loss of self and a dissolution of individual boundaries. In these moments, one transcends his or her individuality and merges with a larger whole, experiencing a sense of continuity and connection with the universe. Batailee noted that both encounters with eros and moments of terror (such as witnessing death) bring about this loss of self into the broader world, like pouring water into the ocean. For Bataille, such limit-experiences provide a means for understanding religious experiences as well—especially the mystical and rapturous experiences reported by many saints. Such moments are the loss of self into the divine, an encounter with the sacred and mystical that disrupts the everyday order and opens up possibilities for profound transformation.
Thus, we can see that true romance—the catastrophic joy of falling in love—bears structural resemblance to the sublime, to limit-experiences, and hence, to religious experience. It is thus similar to what Rudolf Otto called a “numinous experience”—an encounter with a sacred mystery that is unable to be fully captured or apprehended, producing simultaneous sensations of wonder, awe, terror, mystery, and longing. One is, as Laufey says, “bewitched.” Romantic love involves the boundary-breaking, vulnerable expansion of self into the realm of the Other. One is overtaken by a force higher and stronger than oneself. One falls hopelessly into a stuporous state of vulnerability. And yet, it is likewise a force that empowers one to show more courage, determination, resolve, and faith than one could previously imagine. We find examples of this courageous moving beyond oneself both in the love songs of the great poets and in the deepest ecstasy of the mystics, for even a casual reading of the mystics will thrust one into a romantic spirituality full of passion, rapture, and the sublime.
Because of this, I disagree with the de facto charge that one falls into passionate romantic love merely because one is too immature to keep his or her emotions in check. The truncated immanence and secular materialism of our culture often discourage higher forms of spiritual rapture. But the vulnerable strength it takes to risk pain for the sake of love reveals something deeply true about reality, which one cannot learn in the abstract. Falling in love might instead be a sign that one’s soul is alive.
Moreover, from my own Christian perspective, enduring vulnerability and even pain for the sake of love is at the heart of Christ’s incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection—which is the ultimate statement about the character of Being Itself (God).
In his work on the theology of marriage and gender, Father John Behr has described this love as a form of martyrdom, which is the highest Christian calling. Often, it is only through eros that we can learn agape, because eros is one of the only forces powerful enough to push us beyond ourselves into the Other. One who experiences the apocalyptic numinous of love is willing to die to oneself (see also Luke 9:23) and become devoted to a higher mutuality, reconciliation, and communion. Here, one gains a small glance into the Trinitarian foundation of all reality—the eternal kenosis of Lover, Beloved, and Loving.
If we cannot muster the courage to endure the simultaneous love and fear that accompanies the sublime of falling in love, then we might not reach the higher stage of beauty found in the life of mutual love, lived out in the sacredness of the everyday. Laufey’s album is a call to this courage and to a willingness to be once again enchanted by the beauty of love in a disenchanted world. For none of the fears and heartaches associated with love in this life can supplant its boundless joy. As Sergei Bulgakov said in his Spiritual Diary,
Love is bliss insatiable, thirst unquenchable, jealousy as fierce as the grave [Song of Songs 8:6]. And this love is never satisfied, it is ever flaring up and filling the soul to the brim. Such is my love for my Lord and such is my Lord’s love for me, for every one of his creatures. Love is Divine—it is a boundless ocean; an unsearchable abyss; a flame inextinguishable, blazing for eternity. Love is the joy of joys, the bliss of bliss.
Through her music, Laufey allowed me to experience a real human soul once again. Bewitched is powerful because it is so vulnerable. It is coherent because it is emotionally contradictory. Laufey has pulled back the curtain and shown us once again what it means to be a spiritually alive human—to fear, to hurt, and to love simultaneously, beyond the boundaries of self.