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.

Jesus is my boyfriend and other things that you should keep to yourself

Several months ago when I was in Leipzig, I made a careless remark on this blog about ‘Jesus Is My Boyfriend‘ worship music. I now give two examples. First is the chorus of the Vineyard song ‘Pour out My Heart’, which was very popular when I was a teenager:

Pour out my heart
To say that I love You
Pour out my heart
To say that I need You
Pour out my heart
To say that i’m thankful
Pour out my heart
To say that You’re wonderful

Second comes from Donnie Mcclurkin, and is far less salvageable from ‘Jesus is my boyfriend’ concerns than ‘Pour out My Heart.’ It is ‘Draw Me Close to You’:

Draw me close to You
Never let me go
I lay it all down again
To hear You say that I’m Your friend

You are my desire
And no one else will do
‘Cause nothing else can take Your place
To feel the warmth of Your embrace

Help me find a way
Bring me back to You
Bring me back, oh Jesus

You’re all I want
You’re all I’ve ever needed
You’re all I want
Help me know You are near

Vineyard put out a whole CD of such songs called Intimacy in 1998. Sometimes these songs or at least their titles make you feel absurd — and an old article from The Lark (like The Onion only evangelical) makes the point well, ‘Wal-Mart rejects “racy” worship CD‘, including this piece of comedic gold:

The ground-breaking — some say risqué — album includes edgy worship songs such as “My Lover, My God,” “Touch Me All Over,” “Naked Before You,” “I’ll Do Anything You Want,” “Deeper” and “You Make Me Hot with Desire.”

In the fake news article, the Vineyard spokesman says that the point of the album was to help Christians get more intimate with God. And this is the point of all the ‘Jesus is my boyfriend’ worship and popular songs — to express or help facilitate an intimacy with the living, Triune, eternal, immutable, just, holy God.

And we need a bit of help with that, because the idea of entering into close communion with a consubstantially united triad of persons Whose Being is Communion can, quite frankly, seem a bit daunting at times.

Coptic icon of Jesus and Apa Mena in the Louvre

Intimacy with God is possible. I believe in it. And the idea of a close love relationship with the Most Holy Trinity is not an invention of evangelicals, charismatics, or Pentecostals. All Christians are called to prayer, after all. According to Bishop Nikon of Volodsk,

in prayer man converses with God, he enters, through grace, into communion with Him, and lives in God. (in The Art of Prayer, ed. Igumen Chariton, 51)

Or hear St Dimitri of Rostov:

First of all it must be understood that it is the duty of all Christians … to strive always and in every way to be united with God, their creator, lover, benefactor, and their supreme good, by whom and for whom they were created. …

No unity with God is possible except by an exceedingly great love. (Art of Prayer, 46-7)

Or, to go places other than 19th-century Russia, St John of the Cross’ ‘Spiritual Canticle‘:

Where have you hidden,
Beloved, and left me moaning?
You fled like the stag after wounding me;
I went out calling you, but you were gone.

Shepherds, you who go
up through the sheepfolds to the hill,
if by chance you see
him I love most,
tell him I am sick, I suffer, and I die.

Since God is not less than a person, we want to enter into a relationship with Him. We want it to be ‘deep’ or ‘intimate’, and we want to be able to express this relationship of love we have for God as John Donne does in the masterful sonnet ‘Batter My Heart, Three-Person’d God’:

Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

So perhaps we should be slower to mock ‘Jesus is my boyfriend’ worship songs. However, I think we still have a problem here, and it is made evident in the last two poems:

Why are we corporately expressing personal intimacy that not all of us can hope to share?

That is to say, the sentiments of a John Donne or a John of the Cross or a Lady Julian of Norwich or a Teresa of Ávila are valid expressions of Christian piety, and often sound to our ears like ‘Jesus is my boyfriend’. But none of these is the liturgical, corporate aspect of Christian devotion.

These intense emotions, these expressions and outpourings of love to the Almighty are the personal devotions of these particular individuals. They were written down as aids for us, to be sure. And some of them we can even use individually as we gather corporately. But what if I’m not feeling today like Jesus’ touch is all I need? What if Jesus isn’t all I’ve ever needed? Like, some of us eat, after all. What if Jesus isn’t all I want? Sometimes I want Star Trek. Sometimes I want pizza.

These songs make liars out of us.

They also keep our corporate worship life at an emotional fever-pitch that is unmaintainable, and when people start wanting Star Trek or pizza or their spouse or a dog or anything other or, as happens, more than Jesus, and this recurs time and again, they feel themselves unspiritual and throw in the towel.

Now, Jesus should be what we want most. And he is what we need most.

But expressing what should be but is not through emotionally manipulative, fast-paced music is not the way to help us find true intimacy with God. And to help us realise the latter truth of what is but which we often forget to be the case, we need robust theology as well as catchy tunes.

In Matthew 6:6, Jesus tells us to go into our secret place and the shut the door when we pray. This prayer cupboard (or icon corner, if you’re into that kind of thing) is where we must engage in the hard, long task of moving into the deep, loving intimacy of the Triune God. This is a task of the inner person, and it is a daily task of labour and love, not a weekly task of easy emotions and cheap thrills.

It requires training of us; sin has marred us, so intimacy with God who once walked in the cool of the evening with Adam in the Garden is no longer ‘natural’. St Dimitri again:

Training … must … be twofold, outer and inner: outer in reading books, inner in thoughts of God; outer in love of wisdom, inner of love of God; outer in words, inner in prayer; outer in keenness of intellect, inner in warmth of spirit; outer in technique, inner in vision. (The Art of Prayer, 44)

The inner has been placed in the outer in modern worship. The new song writers must help us retreat back into our hearts as they give us the outer expressions of true theological hymnody that sings the glory and praises of the Triune God in all his majesty. And when we come away from these heady experiences, we can sit quietly in our room and hope with our inner expressions to meet with the living God, who powerfully comes quietly.

NB: I would also put dubious hymns based on Lady Julian of Norwich’s feminine imagery for God in the same category of ‘Jesus is my boyfriend’ — useful for the theologically-informed in their prayer closet, but not for Sunday morning.

Today, St Teresa of Avila

Ecstasy of St Teresa by Bernini

Just so you don’t miss it, today is the Feast of St Teresa of Avila (aka St Teresa of Jesus, 1515-1582), according to my 1946 Breviarium Romanum. I first encountered St Teresa due to her connection with St John of the Cross (San Juan de la Cruz — way cooler in Spanish).

How should you honour this Carmelite mystic?

Sit still.

Seek the Presence of God, Who dwells at the centre of your soul, in the Interior Castle. Ignore the lizards. Get within, and the God Who indwells everything will be found to be waiting.

Maybe do a little reading? Her two most famous works, The Interior Castle and  The Life of St Teresa are available online. I’ve only ever read the first. You could also read excerpts of her work.

I’ve written about her and St John of the Cross; she was saint of the week here, while he was saint of the week here. I’ve also written a post about the lizards of the Interior Castle.

To close, here’s a prayer from my breviary, translated by me:

Give ear to us, O God, our Salvation, so that, just as we rejoice in the feast of your Blessed Virgin Teresa, so also we may be nourished by the food of her heavenly teaching, and be instructed by the desire of pious devotion. Through the Lord …