Love/eros for God: St John of the Cross

20 09 2014
Ascent (my pic of the Storr, Isle of Skye)

Ascent (my pic of the Storr, Isle of Skye)

Our love for God is, at some level, tied up with what the Greeks call eros, as blogged previously. Eros is desire, and it drives us and pulls us and raises us up beyond the darkness and the mire of the world to ascend towards God — to kallisto, the most beautiful one; summum bonum, the highest good.

As guide to what this sort of erotikos love for God looks like, St John of the Cross is one of the more beautiful choices. He paints a picture that so many of us can relate to in these stanzas from his ‘Coplas about the soul which suffers with impatience to see God':

When thinking to relieve my pain
I in the sacraments behold You
It brings me greater grief again
That to myself I cannot fold You.
And that I cannot see you plain
Augments my sorrow, so that I
Am dying that I do not die.

If in the hope I should delight,
Oh Lord, of seeing you appear,
The thought that I might lose Your sight
Doubles my sorrow and my far.
Living as I do in such fright,
And yearning as I yearn, poor I
Must die because I do not die.

Is not this longing, desirous aspect of divine eros common to us all? We reach for the invisible God, but He seems to us illusory. We want to know Him, but He cannot be touched save in what? Bread? Wine?

Elsewhere, St John describes the relationship between God and the soul in terms inspired by Song of Songs, as of the Bride seeking the Bridegroom and lamenting her inability to find Him, and then they meet, and go up a mountain where He can reveal to her His secrets.

The soul is the Bride, and elsewhere, in the most famous of St John’s poems, ‘The Dark Night of the Soul‘, she steals away from home at night when everyone is sleeping. In secrecy she meets with and is joined to the Lover Who suspends her senses.

It has been years since I read St John of the Cross’ commentary on the poem, but this theme of being wounded by love recurs in his poetry. God reaches into the heart and wounds it for the purposes of cleansing and renewing and healing. We live in an impatient age that sees God in a therapeutic light. But our keen desire for God at times meets with His love in what may be termed ‘tough love’.

Yet we desire Him all the more. Elder Porphyrios refers to this phenomenon as well, and I think it is best thought of as unsatisfied satisfaction. We are satisfied with God when we finally find Him. But we want more. This is because of something I read of St Gregory of Nyssa (The Life of Moses, I think) — we are finite, God is infinite. The more of Him we find, the more will remain to be found. The more perfect we become, the more perfection lies ahead of us.

Today, as I think on our love for God, I want to emphasise — from the many themes of St John’s many poems — the theme of perseverance. The great mystics and holy men & women and spiritual theologians of the church often went through great perseverance to move forward in their lives. Let us persevere in the face of the Unseen God, knowing that He will be faithful and make Himself known to us in the ways that are best for us and that we can handle.

This, then, is a major part of our love for God: to persevere.





Origen on Genuine Love

9 09 2014

Beloved, let us love one another. For love is of God, and everyone that loveth is born of of God and knoweth God. He that loveth not, knoweth not God, for God is love.

-1 John 4:7-8

I’ve been busy trying to do my research as well as trundling off to London for the British Patristics Conference, so my series about Eros for God is still in need of more thoughts, but this morning I read this in the Ancient Christian Devotional:

I think that any love without God is artificial and not genuine. For God, the Creator of the soul, filled it with the feeling of love, along with the other virutes, so that it might love God and the things which God wants. But if the soul loves something other than God and what God wants, this love is said to be artificial and invented. And if someone loves his neighbour but does not warn him when he sees him going astray or correct him, such is only a pretense of love. -Origen of Alexandria, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, in Ancient Christian Devotional, Year A, p. 200.

But would the above mean that those who are not consciously in communion with God through Christ cannot love? I would say no for the following reasons: a. they are made in God’s image; b. God is love; c. Justin Martyr’s logos spermatikos working within them can keep the image and love of God alive enough to be true love.

However, perhaps what many of us think is love isn’t love? Perhaps it’s some sort of selfish feeling that has little to do with God or the good of the other person but makes us feel nice? Not always. But sometimes.





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.







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