St Catherine of Siena: ‘Eternal Trinity, you are a deep sea’

Reading II in Benedictine Daily Prayer for today — the feast of St Catherine of Siena (1347-1380) — included a selection from the following passage of the Dialogue on Divine Providence. Here is the translation available at the CCEL. The paragraphing is mine.

I confess and do not deny that You loved me before I existed, and that Your love for me is ineffable, as if You were mad with love for Your creature.

Oh, eternal Trinity! oh Godhead! which Godhead gave value to the Blood of Your Son, You, oh eternal Trinity, are a deep Sea, into which the deeper I enter the more I find, and the more I find the more I seek; the soul cannot be satiated in Your abyss, for she continually hungers after You, the eternal Trinity, desiring to see You with light in Your light. As the hart desires the spring of living water, so my soul desires to leave the prison of this dark body and see You in truth.

How long, oh! Eternal Trinity, fire and abyss of love, will Your face be hidden from my eyes? Melt at once the cloud of my body. The knowledge which You have given me of Yourself in Your truth, constrains me to long to abandon the heaviness of my body, and to give my life for the glory and praise of Your Name, for I have tasted and seen with the light of the intellect in Your light, the abyss of You—the eternal Trinity, and the beauty of Your creature, for, looking at myself in You, I saw myself to be Your image, my life being given me by Your power, oh! eternal Father, and Your wisdom, which belongs to Your only-begotten Son, shining in my intellect and my will, being one with Your Holy Spirit, who proceeds from You and Your Son, by whom I am able to love You.

You, Eternal Trinity, are my Creator, and I am the work of Your hands, and I know through the new creation which You have given me in the blood of Your Son, that You are enamored of the beauty of Your workmanship.

Oh! Abyss, oh! Eternal Godhead, oh! Sea Profound! what more could You give me than Yourself; You are the fire which ever burns without being consumed; You consume in Your heat all the soul’s self-love; You are the fire which takes away all cold; with Your light You do illuminate me so that I may know all Your truth; You are that light above all light, which illuminates supernaturally the eye of my intellect, clarifying the light of faith so abundantly and so perfectly, that I see that my soul is alive, and in this light receives You—the true light.

By the Light of faith I have acquired wisdom in the wisdom of the Word—Your only-begotten Son. In the light of faith I am strong, constant, and persevering. In the light of faith I hope, suffer me not to faint by the way. This light, without which I should still walk in darkness, teaches me the road, and for this I said, Oh! Eternal Father, that You have illuminated me with the light of holy faith.

Of a truth this light is a sea, for the soul revels in You, Eternal Trinity, the Sea Pacific. The water of the sea is not turbid, and causes no fear to the soul, for she knows the truth; it is a deep which manifests sweet secrets, so that where the light of Your faith abounds, the soul is certain of what she believes. This water is a magic mirror into which You, the Eternal Trinity, bid me gaze, holding it with the hand of love, that I may see myself, who am Your creature, there represented in You, and Yourself in me through the union which You made of Your godhead with our humanity.

For this light I know to represent to myself You—the Supreme and Infinite Good, Good Blessed and Incomprehensible, Good Inestimable. Beauty above all beauty; Wisdom above all wisdom—for You are wisdom itself. You, the food of the angels, have given Yourself in a fire of love to men; You, the garment which covers all our nakedness, feed the hungry with Your sweetness.

Oh! Sweet, without any bitter, oh! Eternal Trinity, I have known in Your light, which You have given me with the light of holy faith, the many and wonderful things You have declared to me, explaining to me the path of supreme perfection, so that I may no longer serve You in darkness, but with light, and that I may be the mirror of a good and holy life, and arise from my miserable sins, for through them I have hitherto served You in darkness.

I have not known Your truth and have not loved it. Why did I not know You? Because I did not see You with the glorious light of the holy faith; because the cloud of self-love darkened the eye of my intellect, and You, the Eternal Trinity, have dissipated the darkness with Your light.

Who can attain to Your Greatness, and give You thanks for such immeasurable gifts and benefits as You have given me in this doctrine of truth, which has been a special grace over and above the ordinary graces which You give also to Your other creatures? You have been willing to condescend to my need and to that of Your creatures—the need of introspection. Having first given the grace to ask the question, You reply to it, and satisfy Your servant, penetrating me with a ray of grace, so that in that light I may give You thanks.

Clothe me, clothe me with You, oh! Eternal Truth, that I may run my mortal course with true obedience and the light of holy faith, with which light I feel that my soul is about to become inebriated afresh.

Love/eros for God: We love because he first loved us

Unexpected reminder of the story: A 1526 dish representing the Flight into Egypt in the Ashmolean Museum
Unexpected reminder of the story: A 1526 dish representing the Flight into Egypt in the Ashmolean Museum

At some level, the desire (eros) for God is built in at the base, the foundation, of human existence. As the famous Augustine quote puts it, ‘Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.’ (Confessions 1.1.1) Yet so often, our hearts are still restless, aren’t they?

I mean, it’s all well and good to read the hesychasts and hermits who engage in a lot of omphaloskepsis (navel-gazing) and find God in their cell, in birdsong, in the sound of silence, in a still, small voice. But some days, we aren’t all that interested in God, even at (sometimes especially at) festal seasons.

It’s hard to reach for the invisible God, much easier to rest in the visible and tangible — in house, hearth, home, family, spouse. In good food, good art, good music, and so forth. To enjoy these gifts with nary a thought for the Giver.

This past Sunday our church hosted its annual Carol Service. The opening song was something relatively new, probably from the last couple of years.* I don’t actually know which song it was or who it was by or, frankly, any details. But it spoke of the romance God has for us. That, unlike any of the gods, unlike the great men and women of this worldly existence, he gave up everything for us. For you.

For me.

Silly, sinful me. Who has so much trouble resting in the peace of God.

If you believe the Bible, and believe God is true, words such as these, whether in story or song, in Scripture or Sacrament, are part of how we join with God. We recall the verse, 1 John 4:19 — We love him because he first loved us.

Simply reminding ourselves of these eternal truths in the midst of this temporal life can help us burn with greater love for God. The good liturgies do that — the truth of God’s love and sacrifice for us is blazoned across the Book of Common Prayer. The Scriptures do that — they are primarily the story of God’s love and sacrifice for us, from Creation to the Cross to the Rider on the White Horse. The creeds do that, the great hymns do that, the worthy artwork does that.

Remind yourself of this love God has for us.

Today is one of the ancient Ember Days of Advent. Take this solemn fast to feast on God’s love for you. It is a delightful and certain means for quickening your own love for Him. And next week is Christmas — listen attentively to the Scriptures, to Luke 2, to Matthew 2, to John 1. Revel in their truths, remembering that angels and shepherds and Magi are not fairtytales (although fairytales can carry extraordinary truths within them) but Truth.

And then delight in the God Who first loved you. Rejoice that love came down at Christmas.

*Unlike a friend of mine, I don’t count Beethoven as ‘too modern’. New is new.

Love for neighbour: The key to love for God

Elder St Porphyrios writes:

Love towards one’s brother cultivates love towards God. We are happy when we secretly love all people. Then we will feel that everyone loves us. No one can attain to God unless he first passes through his fellow men. For the person who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen? (1 John 4:20) We need to love and sacrifice ourselves selflessly for everyone without seeking recompense. A love that seeks something in return is selfish. It is not genuine, pure and sincere.

Love and have compassion for everyone. –Wounded by Love, p. 180

We can search the Scriptures, meditate & contemplate, think on the lives of the saints, sing the songs of the liturgy, fast, and all these things, but we will never love God without loving our neighbour.

The Penitent Saint Francis by Annibale Caracci, Capitoline Museum
St Francis, a man who loved God and neighbour (my pic)

So let’s ask ourselves, can we love God if:

  • Because of ISIS we don’t love our Muslim neighbours?
  • Because of differences in belief we don’t love Mormons?
  • Because of a stance on marriage we don’t love homosexuals? Or, because of a stance on marriage, we don’t love those who support traditional marriage?
  • Because of an old wound we don’t love a colleague?
  • Because of 500-year-old wounds we don’t love Roman Catholics? Or Protestants?
  • Because of loud, shouty preachers we don’t love evangelicals?
  • Because of wounds in our hearts we don’t love fellow parishioners?

If we have not love, we are nothing. And if we love not our fellow humans, we do not love God.

Love/eros for God: Elder St Porphyrios, ‘Christ is our love, our desire’

The second chapter of the teachings of Elder St Porphyrios (d. 1991) in the book Wounded by Love is on nothing other than divine eros. If we were somehow fully in love with Christ, what would it look like? Elder Porphyrios writes:

If you are in love, you can live amid the hustle and bustle of the city centre and not be aware that you are in the city centre. You see neither cars nor people nor anything else. Within yourself you are with the person you love. You experience her, you take delight in her, she inspires you. Are these things not true? Imagine that the person you love is Christ. Christ is in your mind, Christ is in your heart, Christ is in your whole being, Christ is everywhere. …

One thing is our aim — love for Christ, for the Church, for our neighbour. Love, worship of, and craving for God, the union with Christ and with the Church is Paradise on earth. (97)

The entire chapter on divine eros is quotable. Indeed, my own commentary can add nothing.

However — how on earth do we get there?? I have spent years being inspired and stirred up by writings like this and by the examples of holy men and women — by St Francis of Assisi, St John of the Cross, St John Cassian, the Desert Fathers and Mothers, Lady Julian of Norwich, St Gregory of Nazianzus, St Teresa of Avila, St Gregory of Nyssa. But when do I move beyond commandments to such love as this? How do I? How can I?

Elder Porphyrios acknowledges this reality with hope:

I try to find ways to love Christ. This love is never sated. However much you love Christ, you always think that you don’t love Him and you long all the more to love him. And without being aware of it, you go higher and higher! (99)

His recommendations for entering into the love of Christ are to expend energy through ascetic effort, but remembering that all things come through Christ. He recommends praying and seeking to simply live in grace. He also recommends reading the Scriptures and the Fathers and spending time with the liturgy of the church and seeking to truly mean the words of the prayers.

Perhaps this, joined with love of neighbour, is sufficient? To find Christ in the Holy Scriptures, in the advice and teachings of others who have loved Him, and to truly mean our prayers whether liturgical or spontaneous. In such conditions may love/eros for the unreachable God grow.

****

Other posts in this little series on divine love/eros:

Love/eros for God 1: Preliminary Thoughts

Love/eros for God 2: Beyond Commandments

Love/eros for God: St John of the Cross

Love/eros for God: St John of the Cross

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.

Love/Eros for God 2: Beyond Commandments

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

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.