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.

Render unto God …

Denarius of Augustus fr. 19/18 BC, mint at Rome

Following from last night’s post, the passage in Matthew 22 that comes after the Parable of the Wedding Feast is that famous story where the Pharisees and Herodians try to trap Jesus by asking if it’s right to pay taxes to Caesar. Jesus proves himself the master:

‘Shew me the tribute money.’ And they brought unto him a penny [denarius].* And he saith unto them, ‘Whose is this image and superscription?’

They say unto him, ‘Caesar’s.’ Then saith he unto them, ‘Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s. (Matthew 22:19-21, KJV)

Many people have written various political theologies based on that final verse. I’m not into political theology, even when it’s not missing the point.

Instead, reading this in light of Chrysostom’s golden oratory on the Parable of the Wedding Feast, the emphasis does not come out on politics. Caesar is, in fact, completely sidestepped. The emphasis falls on the second part:

unto God the things that are God’s.

To prove that a denarius is property of Caesar, Jesus takes one in his hand and points out that the image and superscription are those of the princeps.**

What, on those terms, is God’s?

This is the real question, isn’t it? Not, ‘Should we pay taxes?’ But, ‘What are we to give to God?’

And one thing springs immediately to mind when we ask what bears God’s image:

The human person.

Genesis 1:26-27:

And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping that creepeth upon the earth.

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. (KJV)

Render unto God the things that are God’s?

That means the entirety of your self. You, by nature, by substance, are made in the image and likeness of the Creator God. This has many implications, including which: You are his.

How shall we render unto God today?

Prayer, scripture-reading, worship, thoughts of him, acts of mercy and compassion to strangers, friends, family, forgiving others, honouring our parents, prayer.

Somehow, we need to join the mystics, join Br Lawrence, in surrendering every moment of every day. Then, whether we’re doing taxes (rendering unto the Queen …) or eating breakfast or singing Psalms, we will be rendering unto God the things that are God’s.

*Fun non-Bible-related fact: The old abbrev. for ‘penny/pence’ is ‘d’ or ‘D’ because of this translation of denarius as penny.

**Awkward moment averted since the denarius had a Caesar on it. Imagine: ‘Whose is the image and superscription?’ ‘Mark Antony’s.’ ‘Well, then … render unto … Caesar? … the things that are Mark Antony’s??’

Chrysostom: The monk’s habit is the garment for the Wedding Feast

14th-c Russian icon of this parable

The other night I read the Parable of the Wedding Feast, Matthew 22:1-14, just before bed. Then I decided to think about it. I sort of understood most of it, but the end is not as straightforward as we all like to think the Bible is:

And when the king came in to see the guests, he saw there a man which had not on a wedding garment; And he saith unto him, Friend, how camest thou in hither not having a wedding garment? And he was speechless. Then said the king to the servants, Bind him hand and foot, and take him away, and cast him into outer darkness; there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. For many are called, but few are chosen. (Mt 22:11-14 KJV)

I wasn’t so much concerned with ‘outer darkness’ and ‘weeping and gnashing of teeth’ as with ‘many are called, but few are chosen’.

Chrysostom from Ayia Sophia

Since I am myself, I turned naturally to St John Chrysostom (d. 407), that great Doctor of the Church. I didn’t reallly find the answer to what v. 14 means exactly, although the short version is, ‘Sure, we Gentiles are all called. But just because you trusted in God at some point and got baptised doesn’t mean you have no responsibilities to live a holy life now.’

The orator bishop says:

Then in order that not even these should put confidence in their faith alone, He discourses unto them also concerning the judgment to be passed upon wicked actions; to them that have not yet believed, of coming unto Him by faith, and to them that have believed, of care with respect to their life. For the garment is life and practice.

And yet the calling was of grace; wherefore then doth He take a strict account? Because although to be called and to be cleansed was of grace, yet, when called and clothed in clean garments, to continue keeping them so, this is of the diligence of them that are called.

The being called was not of merit, but of grace. It was fit therefore to make a return for the grace, and not to show forth such great wickedness after the honor.

You can read this section of Homily 69 on Matthew here, beginning at the fourth paragraph on p. 932. As you proceed, it will be much as you expect — he berates the congregation for being too worldly-minded, for not living by Christ’s commandments, for caring more about who became governor of which province, for …

not being monks.

Unexpected, but not surprising.

Chrysostom pulls out some of his golden* prose for the ensuing description of life in the desert-made-city.** St John Chrysostom was a former monk, so he had first-hand knowledge of what life was like for the average fourth-century monk. And Syria, where he had been a monk before joining the ranks of the ‘secular’ clergy, was a hotbed for weird and wooly monasticism — some of the more extreme examples of Late Antique ascetic piety arose there.{See footnote ***}

I quote the beginning of his ensuing oration on monks:

3. Wilt thou that I show thee them that are clad thus, them that have on a marriage garment?

Call to mind those holy persons, of whom I discoursed to you of late, them that wear garments of hair, them that dwell in the deserts. These above all are the wearers of the garments of that wedding; this is evident from hence, that how many soever purple robes thou wert to give them, they would not choose to receive them; but much as a king, if any one were to take the beggar’s rags, and exhort him to put them on, would abhor the clothing, so would those persons also his purple robe. And from no other cause have they this feeling, but because of knowing the beauty of their own raiment. Therefore even that purple robe they spurn like the spider’s web. For these things hath their sackcloth taught them; for indeed they are far more exalted and more glorious than the very king who reigns.

And if thou wert able to open the doors of the mind, and to look upon their soul, and all their ornaments within, surely thou wouldest fall down upon the earth, not bearing the glory of their beauty, and the splendor of those garments, and the lightning brightness of their conscience.

For we could tell also of men of old, great and to be admired; but since visible examples lead on more those of grosser souls, therefore do I send you even to the tabernacles of those holy persons. For they have nothing sorrowful, but as if in heaven they had pitched their tents, even so are they encamped far off the wearisome things of this present life, in campaign against the devils; and as in choirs, so do they war against him. Therefore I say, they have fixed their tents, and have fled from cities, and markets, and houses. For he that warreth cannot sit in a house, but he must make his habitation of a temporary kind, as on the point of removing straightway, and so dwell. Such are all those persons, contrary to us. For we indeed live not as in a camp, but as in a city at peace.

‘Thebaid’ by Fra Angelico, Uffizzi, Florence. Ascetic Egypt = Chrysostom’s paradise

This moved me (go on, read it to the end!). I am, admittedly, frequently moved by tales of monks and the lives of holy men and women in their quest for God — whether mystics, monastics, or missionaries.

But what are we up to? Are we clothing ourselves in the garments necessary for the banquet? Are we ready to feast with the King?

I am not here talking about justification or grace or any such thing.

I am talking about daily life.

Do we live as the pagans around us?

Come, let us get on our knees and pray. For there is no better place to start getting dressed.

*Pun on Chrysostomos (lit. ‘Goldenmouth’) intended.

**Hm … stealing from Derwas J Chitty or Athanasius/Antony?

*** Because everyone likes to read about this sort of thing: Simeon the Stylite on his pillar (d. 459; English trans of Syriac Life of Simeon the Stylite), this one guy who wore an iron belt under his clothes that was wearing away his flesh (see Theodoret’s History of the Monks of Syria), people who lived off wild herbs and had no shelter (boskoi in the Greek), several guys who never lay down to sleep, I think Simeon lived in a well before the pillar. It’s been a while since I looked at this material, sorry there’s not more.