Love/Eros for God 2: Beyond Commandments

1 09 2014

In Matthew 22, Jesus reiterates the Old Testament commandment to ‘love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ It is, He says, the first and greatest commandment. But love, I think, should go beyond commandments.

Do you love your friends because you are commanded?

Do you love your spouse or boyfriend/girlfriend because you are commanded?

Do you love your children because you are commanded?

Do you love your parents because you are commanded?

No, of course not.

Although the ongoing maintenance of love and the display of love in human relationships may be things that require conscious choices and thoughtful actions, the affection that tends to undergird our love relationships is a spontaneous response to something, usually something ineffable, in the other human person that draws us to them and causes us to wish the best for them, to spend time with them, to help them when they are troubled, to do all the things that love requires.

If we are to love God, then, we must do more than be faithful to the commandment. That is, in order truly to fulfil this commandment, we must move beyond commandments.

Indeed, ‘loving’ God as a commandment may be one of the most terrible things we can do. We go to church because we ‘love’ God, we help the poor because we ‘love’ God, we read the Bible because we ‘love’ God, we go to Bible study because we ‘love’ God, we pray because we ‘love’ God, but actually … actually … sometimes we do these things because we are commanded to. We do them out of obligation. And certainly, obedience to a friend or lover is a sign of love. But joyless obedience is not especially loving.

If we are possessed by divine eros, we do all these same things — but, at least from what I see in the Scriptures, the Fathers, the Saints, and the spiritual theologians, we do them because in them we find ourselves spending time with the God we love. God is there, so we are attracted to them.

Eros, as I learned reading Plato’s Symposium in Greek class back in 2007, is not simply ‘love’ or ‘sex’ or ‘romantic love’ or whatever simple and easy translations people have foisted on us in the past. As with all words, it is an idea with shades of nuance. Eros is desire for something. Longing. Passion. In the Symposium, Aristophanes makes it about romance and sex. And Socrates (inevitably?) makes it about to kalo, the Good.

According to Jesus, none is good but God alone (Mk 10:18). He is the ultimate quest of these Greek philosophers — to kallisto, the best, even. The summum bonum of the Latin interpreters.

I think our fulfilment of this commandment goes beyond commandment by urging us to find something better and deeper than commandment — this eros, this powerful love and desire that will pull us beyond ourselves and mere obedience to great joy and love for the God who is as near as our breath, in whom we live and move and have our being. And this is the insight of the mystics, as shall be seen as we move forward.





Love/Eros for God 1: Preliminary thoughts

31 08 2014

Recently, things have been aligning in the direction of the love we are to have for God. First, it was my discovery of Poems of St John of the Cross in Aberdeen, which I tried my best to ration over a few weeks. Then two Sundays ago I was asked to lead my Wednesday evening study group for church, which was on Question 7 of the New City Catechism, whose verse is Mt 22:37-40:

OUR Lord Jesus Christ said: Hear O Israel, The Lord our God is one Lord; and thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength. This is the first and great commandment And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets. (Book of Common Prayer trans.)

Then the swirl of circumstance brought me to my devotional reading after the poetry of San Juan de la Cruz, Wounded by Love: The Life and Wisdom of Elder Porphyrios. I’d already read the autobiographical section and the first of the teachings, on the church. What do you think the second chapter of Elder (St) Porphyrios’ teachings is on? Divine Eros, of course.

And then, just a couple of days ago, I pulled out Medieval English Verse, a lovely Penguin Classic translated and edited by Brian Stone. This book’s selection of poetry on the Passion inspired my series of poems for Holy Week — in particular this one. The next section of the book for me? Poems of Adoration.

Assuming there are no coincidences — or exploiting the circumstances if I were an unbeliever — I think a message is coming through to me. I thought, therefore, I might share on this blog some thoughts on Divine Eros, on love for God.

First of all, Mt 22:37-40 has been a part of my life for ages. It is embedded in the Canadian 1962 BCP and usually used in place of all Ten Commandments. I grew up at a church that used the modern Book of Alternative Services, but it also comes fully equipped with these verses at the appropriate moment, just in a modern translation. The command to love God with all that makes me myself has thus reverberated through me for years, having been recited once a week for almost thirty years of my life.

But what does this love of God mean? What is divine eros? How can we love the Lord with all our heart, soul, mind, strength? These are the questions that this verse makes bounce around in my head.

Over the next while, I hope to explore such questions as well as sharing with you from the texts that have brought them to mind. As a result, I hope we can love God better, filled with passion and desire for Him and His Kingdom.





The importance of preaching for reform from the Carolingians to us

26 08 2014

Admonitio Generalis, Paris lat. 10758, fol. 50v

In 789, Charlemagne issued a General Admonition to the Frankish domains concerning a variety of aspects of church life and canon law. This text sets out the official, governmental impetus behind the Carolingian Renaissance. Driving this renaissance was a desire to see reform in the kingdom whereby people would live Christianly and virtuously, united in peace under the king.

Although this desire seems lost to the sands of time about a hundred years later, when Notker’s Life of Charlemagne portrays the king’s primary interest in church reform as being liturgical and conduct being tied primarily not to morality but to official church discipline, one of the core elements of Charlemagne’s proposed reform is preaching:

61. To all. Before all else, that the catholic faith is to be diligently taught and preached to all the people by the bishops and priests, because this is the first commandment of the Lord God almighty in the law: ‘Hear, O Israel, that the Lord your God is one God. And that He is to be loved with all your heart and with all your mind and with all your soul and with all your strength’ [Mark 12. 29-30: cf. Deut. 6. 4-5] (trans. P D King, Charlemagne: Translated Sources, p. 214)

In the final chapter (ch. 82) of the General Admonition, Charlemagne provides the content of the catholic faith which is to be preached, which is essentially an expanded creed with moral instruction. The text ends:

… let us prepare ourselves withall our heart in knowledge of the truth, that we may be able to resist those who oppose the truth and that, by the gift of divine grace, the word of God may flourish and become general spread, to the benefit of God’s holy church and the salvation of our souls and the praise and glory of the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Peace to those who preach, grace to those who obey, glory to our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen. (King, Charlemagne: Translated Sources, 220)

I am fully aware that there is much debate about reform in the Middle Ages and what it means, but it strikes me that the preaching of the catholic faith and the word of God has always been central to the activity of reforming the church. In the Carolingian world, even if St Boniface (d. 754, saint of the week here) may have exaggerated or misconstrued things in some of his letters from the years prior to Charlemagne, Christianity did not always go very deep. Rosamond McKitterick writes:

In a society half barbarous, with pagan customs still happily observed (especially among the country folk), with only a veneer of Christianity, and largely isolated pockets of scholarship, every reiteration of the urgency of being educated in the Christian faith, of inculcating and absorbing the wisdom of the church fathers, assumes an enormous importance. (The Frankish Church and the Carolingian Reforms, 789-895, 8)

To jump ahead four hundred years, preaching was central to the mission of the Dominicans and Franciscans at a time when lay knowledge of the faith all claimed to know was at an alarming low and when the powerful trod upon the weak and ecclesiastics were becoming great men of the world. The Gospel was taken by the friars from the pulpits to the streets.

In the Reformation, preaching again took centre stage. The sermon, ever an aspect of the Mass, was lifted back to a place of prominence, and the Scriptures were opened up yet again to a biblically illiterate laity. In England, Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer integrated preaching into the daily office as well as lengthening the lessons at Morning and Evening Prayer. Many of the Reformed rebuilt their churches with pulpits at the centre and would have preaching events every morning before the faithful went to work.

In the 1700s, the Wesley brothers, like the mediaeval friars, once again took the Gospel from the pulpits to the crowds, and pioneered open-air preaching to the working classes, revitalising the life of the Church of England while at the same time starting the Methodist movement.

Today, if we wish to see the church change itself and the world, preaching will still be central. Preachers will set forth the Gospel from their pulpits, from their podcasts, from their YouTube channels.  Open-air? Not so sure. But what I do know is that powerful preaching can transform the faithful who can transform the world. Let us all pray for our ministers as they take in hand that task each Sunday morning.





Judgement

23 08 2014

Judge not, lest ye be judged. -Mt 7:1

Elder Paisios (1924-1994) warns us not to judge others because we don’t know their hearts and are so often wrong ourselves. When he was a young man, he sang in the choir at his church. One Sunday, there was a woman at church who couldn’t take her eyes off of him during the entire liturgy. She just kept staring at him. Paisios began to feel uncomfortable with all this attention from the woman. Her focus was to be on the liturgy, on God, not on young men in the choir! It was shameless the way she kept staring. He wished he could disappear and escape her gaze.

After the divine liturgy, Paisios was informed by the priest that the two of them had been invited for lunch — to the home of this very same woman! Paisios wished very much to get out of it, but there was no way, not when the invitation included the priest! Therefore, he reluctantly went to lunch.

After lunch, the woman said she wanted to show them something. She went off into the next room and returned with a photograph of her son — who looked almost exactly like Paisios! Her son had died in the war, and when she saw Paisios in the choir, it was like having him back again.

You never know what someone else is thinking, do you?

I judge people a lot — for various reasons. Most often because I’m smarter than you. Sometimes because I have better taste than you in books/music/art/films. Maybe because I’m of a better class than yours. Or my theology is more accurate. Or maybe I live by higher standards than you do. Or you complain too much. Or, quite frankly, you are way too judgemental. Really, I have all sorts of reasons to judge.

This story from Elder Paisios reminds me to tame the thoughts and stay humble, hard though that is!





The Inheritance of Rome by Chris Wickham — my review available now!

22 08 2014

So, although I do have an actual article somewhere out there in editorial limbo, my first real, live book review has recently made an appearance in the online St. Francis Magazine. The book I review is the second volume of the Penguin History of Europe, The Inheritance of Rome: Europe from 400 to 1000 by Chris Wickham. I excerpt for you the opening paragraph, hoping you will go check out the whole thing!

Chris Wickham’s The Inheritance of Rome: Europe from 400 to 1000 is a tour-de-force of narrative history, bringing together scholarship from economic history, political history, military history, archaeology, literature, material culture, and other available evidence for the late and post-Roman
period not only in Europe, as the title claims, but in the whole Mediterranean world and the Middle East. Wickham starts us off by demolishing the grand myths of nationalism and modernism — the first that the states we see forming after Rome are the same thing as modern nation states that inhabit the same geographic space, the second that this was a ‘Dark Age’. Instead, he seeks to understand a transformative, influential period of history from the viewpoint of the men and women who lived it, not from any grand narrative, nor from a sense of inevitability. The story of this period as Wickham tells it is a good ride.




Ongoing intellectual life in the late 4th and 5th centuries

19 08 2014

Taking a brief break from reading about Roman law in under the Theodosians to write this. During an earlier break, I lurked a bit at Amazon, peering at reviews of AD 381. In the comments to one of the reviews, the author writes:

The main problem I have with this era of late Antiquity is that it is so difficult to find evidence for the continuance of creative intellectual activity and lots of evidence that it was ‘closed down’.

Assuming Freeman means life after 381, I am surprised!

Immediately upon reading that statement, I turned to my left and beheld City of God by St Augustine, famously written after the year 410. If ever Late Antiquity produced a creative intellectual endeavour, it is City of God. Not, mind you, that Augustine is the only creative, clever thinker out there in the period.

Down the shelf from Augustine I have volumes by St Gregory of Nazianzus, or ‘the Theologian’, who wrote subtle works of theology and profound works of poetry. Next to him I have his friend, St Basil of Caesarea, an equally creative thinker. The third of the Cappadocian triad, Basil’s brother St Gregory of Nyssa, should not go without mention — a man whose creative force and dynamic intellect are quite popular at present. Indeed, I would argue that one of the things that makes the Cappadocians special is their status as disciples of Origen who produce a vibrant — rather than rote, sterile, dead — interpretation of Nicene orthodoxy.

Perhaps the practicioners and champions of orthodoxy are not creative enough. Well, then, we need look no further than Evagrius of Pontus, another Origenist with Cappadocian connections who settled amongst the Egyptian monks and wrote daring, dangerous treatises on asceticism, prayer, and mystical theology that would get him into posthumous trouble.

In a book I read about Carolingians, the argument was put forward that an increase in heresy trials is evidence of greater intellectual activity — the more people experiment with philosophy and theology, the more likely they are to get into trouble with the church. The fifth century, therefore, supplies us with an ample supply of creative thinking as various people attempt to work through the philosophical and theological issues surrounding the accepted Nicene orthodoxy of the person of Christ — Theodore of Mopsuestia, who was in some ways a successor to Diodore of Tarsus (d. 390) and Theodoret of Cyrrhus stand out among those who got into trouble with official orthodoxy, while Cyril of Alexandria, for all his forceful personality and rigorous orthodoxy, was not uncreative himself. It has been argued, as well, that Leo the Great was a creative personality in his synthesis of the western tradition into what became Chalcedonian orthodoxy.

Avitus of Vienne was still writing respectable poetry, as was Sedulius. I’m even going to go out on a limb and say that Sidonius was not entirely lacking in his own creative impulse as a poet. I think the composition of panegyric poetry is a bold, daring thing that requires a certain amount of creative genius to remain true to one’s own voice as a poet while praising the imperial recipient of the text.

The lay writer Prosper of Aquitaine produces a lot of creative output, not only in his theological support of Augustine, but also in his epitome and continuation of Jerome’s translation of Eusebius’s chronicle and his verse composition.

Indeed, it strikes me that the fourth and fifth centuries are an epoch of ongoing literary and philosophical/theological production in the Roman Empire, and while pagan thought may decline after 381 due to increasing restrictions on polytheist practice, to argue that orthodox Christians are unoriginal is quite silly, to say the least — for would not many a polytheist philosopher, regardless of how creative he really was, maintain that he was simply reiterating or building upon the ancient traditions of Plato, Aristotle, Diogenes, Zeno?

Perhaps what makes later fourth- and fifth-century Christian writing seem uncreative to us is that much of what survives was revered as centrally orthodox in years to come and has been oft-repeated by the intellectually uncreative. Sitting at this end of Christendom, Christianity seems traditional and hidebound. But what if, at the other end, it was ancient polytheism that did?

And, no doubt, I’ve misunderstood Freeman entirely. In which case, this was simply an engaging little mental exercise for me. Back to Roman law.





Readily available mediaeval mystics

19 08 2014

Angelic Choir by St Hildegard

Carl Trueman, back in 2008, penned a little piece about why evangelicals should read the mediaeval mystics. One of the reasons put forward is the fact that our friends who aren’t Christian but with an interest in spirituality are likely to be probing the mystics who are readily available from publishers such as Penguin as opposed to some obscure or pricey Christian publishing house.

The question arises: Which mystics can you or your friends easily get a hold of without breaking the bank or darkening the door of a theological bookshop? Here are a few, drawing from Penguin Classics, Oxford World’s Classics, and the HarperCollins Spiritual Classics series. I admit to my knowledge being incomplete; perhaps other popular translations exist!

In chronological order:

The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks, trans. Benedicta Ward, published by Penguin. More Late Antique in origin and ascetic in focus, this text is nonetheless one of the streams out of which mediaeval mystical theology and monastic thought flow, although a dense and difficult one.

The Prayers and Meditations of Saint Anselm with the Proslogion published by Penguin. When I read St Anselm’s 11th-century meditations, I can’t help but feel there is some element of the mystical to his devotional writings.

The Cistercian World: Monastic Writings of the Twelfth Century, published by Penguin. This anthology keeps tantalising me; from it, I have read some of St Bernard of Clairvaux’s sermons on Song of Songs, one of the most influential texts of mediaeval mysticism that made St Bernard Dante’s guide to the uncreated light and who was regarded by Thomas Merton as the last of the Fathers. Note there is also the volume Selected Works of Bernard of Clairvaux from HarperCollins Spiritual Classics.

Selected Writings of Hildegard von Bingen, published by Penguin. (12th c.) St Hildegard was almost the foundress of mediaeval women mystics in the 1100s, experiencing visions from an early age, and becoming abbess of a Benedictine nunnery. Her Scivias are commentaries upon the visions she had, but she also composed sermons, letters to important men, music, and art.

The Life of Christina of Markyate, published by Oxford. This is the story of a 12th-century woman who maintains her virginity in the face of incredible odds and goes on to become a prioress and have visions from God.

Francis & Clare of Assisi: Selected Writings from HarperCollins Spiritual Classics. Works from the 13th-century mystic founders of the Franciscan movement, some ascetic, some poetic, some mystical.

The Life of St. Francis by St Bonaventure, from HarperCollins Spiritual Classics. Bonaventure was himself a mystical theologian, and it is in the stories about St Francis of Assisi that we see the great saint’s life as a mystic most clearly.

Selected Writings of Meister Eckhart, published by Penguin. Meister Eckhart was a 13th/14th-century German mystic who has been recommended to me but of whose work I have read none. I understand that he is deeply profound but some of his ideas were condemned by the Church.

The Cloud of Unknowing, published by Penguin; also available in the series HarperCollins Spiritual Classics. This anonymous English work of the later 14th century is one of the many frequently-cited mystical books I’ve never read but want to …

Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich, published by Penguin; also available from Oxford World’s Classics. Julian (14th-15th c) is another major figure amongst women mystics of the Middle Ages of whom I’ve written here before. This book is a mature reflection of a visionary experience Lady Julian experienced in the 1300s.

The Book of Margery Kempe, published by Penguin. Also available from Oxford. Kempe travelled all over Christendom to pilgrimage sites and had some ecstatic visions and dreams in the 14th/15th centuries. Full disclosure: Some people find her annoying.

The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis, published by Penguin. This 15h-century treatise is not, strictly speaking, a mystical work. However, it is one of the most popular works of mediaeval spirituality ever written, and its ascetic bent is an essential pairing to the mystical enterprise.

Of course, many other mediaeval mystics and spiritual theologians have been translated into English, available in series such as The Classics of Western Spirituality or Cistercian Studies, but these are the ones I’ve found from popular publishers at affordable prices available at normal bookshops…








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