Reflections on John 15:9-17

Here are my reflections on yesterday’s Gospel reading, prepared for my worshipping community, Thunder Bay’s Urban Abbey.

This week, we have another encounter with that word abide – I translated it last week with the simple definition of remain. My old Greek prof from undergrad reviewed my reflection and the passage, and tossed out a few more of these simple translations, saying that this verb also has the sense of persisting and standing fast. Hold tight; don’t let go, that sort of thing. Allow me to break all the rules of defining words and translation practice and bundle all of these together. Here, then, is John 15:9:

As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you;

abide in

persist in

stand fast in

remain in

hold tight to

don’t let go of

my love.

How are we to abide in Jesus’ love? He tells us in John 15:10 – keep his commandments. This doesn’t sound particularly … gushy? gooey? lovey? Indeed, it even sounds harsh to our ears, living in an age of democracy, of questioning everything, of failed authorities at every turn. Show our love to Jesus by keeping his commandments? The dictionary game won’t get us out this time – indeed, injunctions and orders sound almost worse. Let’s look at how Jesus considers our keeping of his commandments — If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.

In English (and Greek), that’s a very straightforward future more vivid construction. It’s not saying anything about how much he loves us or about earning his love or whatever, but simply cause and effect. “If x, then y.” – “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love.” These two things are mutually feeding off each other. Christians are disciples of Jesus the Christ. We are his apprentices; he is our master. He has given us, through the apostles and apostolic writings, commands – “turn the other cheek”; “love your neighbour as yourself”; “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s”; “give to everyone who asks”; “pray like this”.

If we consciously choose not to follow his commandments, not to do those things that please him or that we know he knows are best for us, to what extent can we be said to be abiding, persisting, standing fast, remaining in his love? When we are wilfully disobedient to the teachings of our master, are we really holding tight to his love? Or have we let it go?

Here, we can easily start lengthy moralising. I will save us from such (although all of us need to hear some moralising sometimes—and recall that Jesus’ commandments are not burdensome, as we read today in 1 John 5:3). I want to circle back to the love being discussed here, that love we are abiding in. Let’s put both verses 9 and 10 together:

As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.

First of all, in verse 9, Jesus compares his love for us to the love the Father has for him. And then, in verse 10, he inverts it and speaks of his keeping of the Father’s commandments and abiding in the Father’s love. God is love; that was in last week’s reading from 1 John 4:8, in fact. I have spent a significant portion of 2021 teaching the Trinitarian theology of the ancient church—names like Athanasius, Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine (you’ve met them in these reflections!). Absolutely foundational for us to understand the Trinity is the fact that God is love. Love requires three elements, according to St Augustine:

  1. The lover.
  2. The beloved.
  3. The love that exists between the two.

If God is love, there has never been a time when he did not exist as Trinity—love requires a beloved. God the Father is eternally begetting the Son outside of time through the fullness of His love, and the love of the Father and the Son together is made perfect as the Holy Spirit in that timeless eternity proceeds from the Father. God, moreover, is perfect, spotless, sinless, stainless. He is unfailing in his love.

Jesus says that he loves us in the same way that God the Father loves him. A perfect, unfailing, spotless, unwavering, steadfast, superabundant, unfathomable love. And consider what he chose to do for us out of this love: he left his eternal throne in glorious perfection and endless beauty with the Father, took on flesh, was hungry, tired, sore, pooped, was spat upon, abandoned, slandered, beaten, stripped naked, hung upon a cross. And then God died. This is how much God the Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ, love us!

This is Good News!

And the moral exhortation part of this reflection is simply this: Go and do likewise. Keep Jesus’ commandments out of love for him, as a means of abiding in his love. And how do we keep his commandments? Let’s just consider John 15:12-13:

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.

Let us love one another. To the death.

More St Anselm

Image of an Archbishop from Anselm’s Prayers and Meditations found in Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS. Auct. D. 2. 6 (12th c)

This past week in Bible study, our minister arranged a sort of potpourri study. We studied two short Scripture passages and, unexpectedly, a prayer of St Anselm (another of which I blogged a couple of weeks ago)!

Lord, because you have made me,
I owe you the whole of my love;
because you have redeemed me,
I owe you the whole of myself;
because you have promised so much,
I owe you my whole being.

Moreover, I owe you as much more love than myself as you are greater than I,*
for whom you gave yourself
and to whom you promised yourself.
I pray you, Lord,
make me taste by love what I taste by knowledge;
let me know by love what I know by understanding.

I owe you more than my whole self,
but I have no more,
and by myself I cannot render the whole of it to you.
Draw me to you, Lord, in the fullness of your love.
I am wholly yours by creation;
make me all yours, too, in love.

This comes from Meditation 3, ‘On Human Redemption’. Thematically, it is linked to the previous Anselmian prayer — that we are called to love God with a most superexcellent love, but our love for him is paltry.

I like the close of the third section as printed here, ‘Let me taste by love what I taste by knowledge; let me know by love what I know by understanding.’ The Latin is elegant:

Fac precor, domine, me gustare per amorem quod gusto per me reddere totum. Sentiam per affectum quod sentio per intellectum. (ed. Schmitt, vol. 3, p. 91)

St Anselm is, of course, famous for the motto, ‘Fides quaerens intellectum’, faith seeking understanding, adapted from St Augustine (as I’ve blogged on before). Here we see it turned a bit on its head — he is seeking the union of the mind with the heart. For those of us who study theology, whether professionally or personally, these lines are of vital importance for our spiritual health, I’d think.

One of my favourite prayers (from St Anselm)

At the back of my Book of Common Prayer I have this Post-It note:

It says, for those with difficulty reading text of images:

Hope of my heart, strength of my soul, help of my weakness, by your powerful kindness complete what in my powerless weakness I attempt. My life, the end to which I strive, although I have not yet attained to love you as I ought, still let my desire for you be as great as my love ought to be. (trans. Benedicta Ward from The Prayers and Meditations of Saint Anselm)

I cannot tell you where in St Anselm’s prayers and meditations this is to be found. I found it originally for Evensong one year when I was precenting and it was the feast of this Archbishop of Canterbury (although he wrote this when still a monk at Bec).

Nevertheless, it has been a go-to prayer of mine ever since, and I am glad that I stuck this Post-It in the back of my prayer book — the expectation was a single use, but grace decided otherwise. I hope it can similarly inspire you.

Do you have any favourite prayers? I’m thinking of sharing some others here over the coming weeks.

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: Contemplation beyond reason

ELEHSON ME KYRIEYesterday and the day before, I blogged about an encounter I had with some Mormon Missionaries and the reasons I gave for rejecting the Mormon position as well as some reasoned reflection on some Mormon beliefs. The main proclamation the young missionary had was, ‘I read The Book of Mormon and I felt the Holy Ghost telling me this is true.’

While not much of an argument, it is not a thought to be entirely ignored when we start discussing belief at any level — why one believes (or not), or how one believes (or not), or what one believes (or not), or how one acts in light of belief (or not).  Many of us, if we were to be honest, will admit that, whatever reasons we may marshal on behalf of our chosen worldview, there is always an element of the irrational in how/what/why we believe.

There are even atheists who admit this.

Besides these posts about reason and Mormonism, I have also discussed the reasoned study of Scripture and philosophy recently, specifically in the questions of providence and predestination. I think reason is a gift from God that enables us to interpret our world and the events in our lives and the Holy Scriptures and all sorts of things. There are even applications of reason to the philosophical question of God’s existence.

At the end of the day, though, all belief reaches beyond reason.

Love/eros for God, the deep-seated desire in the human soul, one of the basic facts of human life, is one area where Christian belief and human experience step beyond reason. This has also been a recent topic.*

When we start trying to reach for the invisible God, however, the non-rational aspects of how we live are to become entwined with our reason. We should seek a union of the mind in the heart (cf. Theophan the Recluse). We can reason that He exists, we can maybe ascertain some of his attributes from nature, we can reason truths about him from the Scriptures, we can formulate systematic theology about him, we can apply reason to the writings of the theologians and the history of the church.

And then we should step beyond that, into contemplation.

Here, I think, we will meet God’s love and start to love him.

Contemplation in the Christian tradition isn’t just thinking about stuff, like how sometimes I contemplate the terrible horror Captain Picard must have gone through as Locutus of Borg at the Battle of Wolf 359. It is seeking to apply the affective aspect of our spiritual self to the encounter with God. Sometimes it includes meditating on passages from and truths of Scripture — like thinking about Capt Picard only setting our minds on higher things. At the meditative stage, all those truths and aspects we have reasoned about can be avenues to God.

But contemplation also calls us beyond the rational. It involves a clearing of the clutter of the mind, an ignoring of the many dissonant, flapping thoughts (logismoi) that constantly plague the human mind. In this respect, it looks like Buddhism,** but it goes where Buddhism tends not to go. Thomas Merton considered the practices of Zen Buddhism as essentially psychological, as a way of calming the psyche; Merton, of course, is a slippery fish, and his ideas changed as his life went on, as discussed here.

But the Christian does not seek to empty the mind to stay empty (I understand that at least some Buddhists do, based upon conversations with a Buddhist).

The Christian wishes to fill him/herself with love of the Holy Trinity, with the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, with the love of Christ himself, experienced by clearing away the clutter, by entering into peace, into what Greeks call hesychia.

When we practise contemplation, all those things we have reasoned about go beyond mere thoughts we hold. God become more than an object of study — he becomes a subject to encounter. He becomes the Subject to encounter.

This is what those mediaeval mystics I’ve blogged about were seeking; what Carmelites like St John of Cross, St Teresa of Ávila, and Brother Lawrence found; what Theophan the Recluse and Elder Porphyrios are discussing in relation to the Jesus Prayer. Contemplation is a path to love of God.

Thus, through the mystics and their ways, we can enter into a life suffused with the greatest commandment — love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength.

*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: Elder St Porphyrios, ‘Christ is Our Love, Our Desire’.

**I am thinking here of the Jesuit Anthony de Mello in particular and his book Sadhana: A Way to God. De Mello argues that Greek philosophy gave ancient Christianity the intellectual apparatus to speak accurately of God, and that Buddhism can give modern Christianity the techniques to come nearer to him. I think the Christian tradition is self-sufficient in this regard, but the simple parallel with Buddhism may be helpful to some readers.

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 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.