Love Making

‘Make love’ we say, and so here indeed is the fruit,
Our love made flesh and bone and blood, life
From love, and love from life. ‘Receive
The body of Christ’ we sing, love in spite of all
In flesh and blood for us, becomes us, and we Him.
Eucharist, this, the swell of thanksgiving in hearts and veins,
Lifting on the ethereal incense, and also as I rest my hands
On my wife’s body, feel this new life stretch and stir within her.
Love is an easy word to say and feel, but the real doing takes
Weight and density, runs along a rough contrary grain—
The pull of a baby in the womb, the push of rock and earth in tilling,
The crooked holy timber of the Cross, splintered and sorrowed.
In the end the only true loves are those that are made and that make,
The work of hand and heart in our slow but surely hallowed places.

Even When He Chatters a Lot

One can never be faulted who speaks of Love and Beauty,
For however far his speaking goes, it will never reach the end.
A child speaks to his parent with love,
While his father listens affectionately to all that he says to him.
And when he hears the questions that are posed to him,
He accepts them just as if someone were speaking of serious things.
Even when he chatters a lot without making clear what he is saying,
He is happier with his speech than he would be the speech of philosophers.
So I, like the child before his father,
I am going to speak now before God with great love.
Now I am going to speak, and if I say too little- oh, I will not say too little!
For it is easier for love to speak too much, as much as it desires!

Jacob of Serug (d. 521), Homily on the Judgment of Solomon, ll. 37-48, trans. by Stephen A. Kaufman

This Is The Very Nature of Love

And now I give you an example from the Fathers. Suppose we were to take a compass and insert the point and draw the outline of a circle. The centre point is the same distance from any point on the circumference. Now concentrate your minds on what is to be said! Let us suppose that this circle is the world and that God himself is the centre; the straight lines drawn from the circumference to the centre are the lives of men. To the degree that the saints enter into the things of the spirit, they desire to come near to God; and in proportion to their progress in the things of the spirit, they do in fact come close to God and to their neighbor. The closer they are to God, the closer they become to one another; and the closer they are to one another, the closer they become to God. Now consider in the same context the question of separation; for when they stand away from God and turn to external things, it is clear that the more they recede and become distant from God, the more they become distant from one another. See! This is the very nature of love. The more we are turned away from and do not love God, the greater the distance that separates us from our neighbor. If we were to love God more, we should be closer to God, and through love of him we should be more united in love to our neighbor; and the more we are united to our neighbor the more we are united to God.

St. Dorotheos of Gaza, On Refusal to Judge Our Neighbor

On Cultural Relativity, Scripture Exegesis, and the Rule of Love

Re-reading St. Augustine of Hippo’s On Christian Teaching, I have been struck- again- at just how much the great North African saint is able to cover in a relatively small space, and within what seems like a fairly circumscribed and particular topic- the proper technique of scripture exegesis. Yet St. Augustine covers everything, it seems like, and it’s a joy to read: he works through sign-theory of language, how to confront the Zeitgeist and come out the richer, the role of art and science in the life of the Christian, the healing power of Christ- along with the expected exegetical techniques. It’s a little breathless at times, as he weaves in and out of topics while continually drawing the conversation back to exegesis and scripture. He often times manages to feel remarkably contemporary to our own concerns, while also quite clearly transcending (well, transcending is obviously anachronistic) our usual categories for thinking about scripture, exegesis, epistemology, and so on. St. Augustine is neither a ‘fundamentalist’ nor a ‘liberal’ in thinking about scripture: scripture is inspired, inspired through the writing of the human authors, who are clearly agents and not mere autodidacts. Scripture can have multiple, simultaneous senses, and St. Augustine is remarkably comfortable with conflicting translations even, on some levels (some translations are just bad, he suggests, and easily enough corrected). The ultimate rule for exegesis is a little startling: whatever encourages love of God and other people, is the best- the true- interpretation. And if an exegete arrives at an edifying meaning not intended by the original author- well, that’s good too.

Over all is the rule of love, as exemplified in the passage I present below. Love of God is the centering point for human life, and when we love God we will love ourselves and others properly, not dominating and controlling them but embracing them in kindness and knowledge of our mutual places in God’s divine economy. There is, I think, an implicit critique of pretty much all forms of human authority and domination of each other going on here, even if St. Augustine does not fully articulate it. He envisions life lived under the sign, the rule of Love, in which human relationships are properly ordered, not through the pride and lust of the powerful and dominating (or ourselves attempting to be powerful and dominating), but through a love-centered orientation towards God. Even the task of exegesis, as he argues at the beginning of this work, is a love-centered task. The very existence of exegesis forms community, as we need each other to truly understand the sacred text; we are not to boast over our special knowledge of the text nor hoard it or lord it over others. Even commentary ought to be done under the rule of love- agaparchy, we might call it- though of course there is no ‘system’ here, since love is particular, is oriented first towards the Person of God, then to those we live with, our neighbors.

But anyway- one could spend pages (and plenty of people have!) on the many things St. Augustine is doing and saying in these pages and in others. I am always amazed at the scope, and the frequent bursts of beauty and sense of love, even as in other places St. Augustine’s fallibility and limitations are equally in sight. But throughout I find that he presents possibilities and points of thinking- and doing, loving, acting- that continue to be full of potential and possibility, and, I suspect, will be for years to come.

This example comes from Book Three, and in it we see a good instance of St. Augustine’s welding of seemingly extra-exegetical concerns- here, what we might identify as ‘cultural relativism’- with explicitly exegetical and theological concerns. The exegetical concern is to explain the seemingly odd or even shocking behavior of Old Testament figures; the theological concern, so far as it is separate from the exegetical, is to reconcile the apparent relativism of cultural convention with an over-arching moral order. Obviously, St. Augustine’s words do not fully sum up the issues we might raise here- but they’re remarkably deft and penetrating, and within a quite short space. There is lots to think about, and not just to think about- the rule of Love, St. Augustine would tell us, is not a political program or an abstract problem. It is a way of life, realized in the love of Christ, and lived out day-by-day, step-by-step.

*

‘Whatever accords with the social practices of those with whom we have to live this present life- whether this manner of life is imposed by necessity or undertaken in the course of duty- should be related by good and serious men to the aims of self-interest and kindness, either literally, as we ourselves should do, or also figuratively, as is allowed to the prophets. When those who are unfamiliar with different social practices come up against such actions in their reading, they think them wicked unless restrained by some explicit authority. They are incapable of realizing that their own sort of behavior patterns, whether in matters of marriage, or diet, or dress, or any other aspect of human life and culture, would seem wicked to other races or other ages. Some people have been struck by the enormous diversity of social practices and in a state of drowsiness, as I would put it- for they were neither sunk in the deep sleep of stupidity nor capable of staying awake to greet the light of wisdom- have concluded that justice has no absolute existence but that each race views its own practices as just. So since the practices of all races are diverse, whereas justice ought to remain unchangeable, there clearly is no such thing as justice anywhere.

To say no more, they have not realized that the injunction “do not do to another what you would not wish to be done to yourself” can in no way by modified by racial differences. When this injunction is related to the love of God, all wickedness dies; and when it is related to the love of one’s neighbor, all wrongdoing dies. For nobody wants his own dwelling to be wrecked, and so he should not wish to wreck God’s dwelling (which is himself). Nobody wants to be harmed by anybody; so he should not do harm to anybody. So when the tyranny of lust has been overthrown love rules with laws that are utterly just: to love God on his account, and to love oneself and one’s neighbor on God’s account. Therefore in dealing with figurative expressions we will observe a rule of this kind: the passage being read should be studied with careful consideration until its interpretation can be connected with the realm of love. If this point is made literally, the no kind of figurative expression need be considered.’

St. Augustine of Hippo, On Christian Teaching, Book Three, XII-XIV

More Compassion Than Anybody We Ever Saw

When we were at the ninth mile-post from Alexandria, we visited the monastery of Abba John the Eunuch for the benefit of our souls. There we found a very old man who had been at the monastery for about eighty years. He had more compassion than anybody we ever saw, not only for men, but also for animals. What did this elder do? No other work but this: he would rise early and feed all the dogs at the lavra. He would give flour to the small ants, grain to the bigger ones. He would dampen biscuits and throw them up on the roof-tops for the birds to eat. Living like this, he left nothing to the monastery when he died, neither door nor window nor spy-hole nor lamp nor table. In brief (not to say it all and make the story too long), he left nothing whatsoever of the world’s goods behind. Not even for one hour did he ever possess books, money or clothing. He gave everything to those in need, investing his entire concern in those things which were to come.

John Moshcos, The Spiritual Meadow (Story 184 in Wortley’s translation)

The Door of Love To All Men

The soul which bears abundant clusters of fruit is the one which has divested itself of anxiety, uncertainty and dejectedness and put on calm, peace, and joy in God; has shut the door of perturbing thoughts, and opened the door of love to all men; has watched continually, night and day, at the door of its heart; has driven out of itself anything that says: ‘This man is good and that man is bad; this man is just and that man is a sinner.’ [It is the soul that] has sat on the high throne of its heart, and contemplated its armies and its helpers who are the mind, the intelligence, the intellect, the knowledge and the discernment; and has ordered and pacified them with meekness so that none of them should snarl with wrath, envy or wickedness, and that the mind should not be obscured by the thick clouds of perplexity. On the other hand the barren soul is the one which is clad in rancour, anxiety, perplexity, distress, dejectedness and perturbation, and which judges its neighbour as being good or evil.

Simon of Taibutheh (d. 680)

This Heart is Filled With Pity For All God’s Creatures

I am stealing the quotation below from Fr. Stephen; it sums up the way we must relate to a very unjust and violent world, stuff like this and this and this and…. Those injunctions about loving your enemy, putting down you sword- they seem easy enough when we’re just talking about personal enemies (not that they are easy in those instances, even), but they’re even harder when we’re talking about genuinely evil actions, systems and pervasive patterns of injustice- shooting wars, not just the personal verbal battles we fight all too often. What is the way the St. Silouan offers? Pick up the sword only when a really genuine revolution summons? No- pray for the evil people (yourself included), feel the deepest compassion for them. This is the only way, the only way really to truly and authentically resist evil. Lord knows I’ve often felt the urge to pick up the sword, to want to see the powerful evil-doers pay, here, now, to not get away with it. According to St. Silouan- and he has Christ Himself backing him up- that is the wrong spirit. Only love can overcome, forgiveness and compassion- for all- are the only real way.

Lord have mercy on us.

If you think evil of people, it means you have an evil spirit in you whispering evil thoughts about others. And if a man dies without repenting, without having forgiven his brother, his soul will go to the place where lives the evil spirit which possessed his soul.

This is the law we have: if you forgive others, it is a sign that the Lord has forgiven you; but if you refuse to forgive, then your own sin remains with you.

The Lord wants us to love our fellow-man; and if you reflect that the Lord loves him, you have a sign of the Lord’s love for you. And if you consider how greatly the Lord loves His creature, and you yourself have compassion on all creation, and love your enemies, counting yourself the vilest of all, it is a sign of abundant grace of the Holy Spirit in you.

He who has the Holy Spirit in him, to however slight a degree, sorrows day and night for all mankind. This heart is filled with pity for all God’s creatures, more especially for those who do not know God, or who resist Him and therefore are bound for the fire of torment. For them, more than for himself, he prays day and night, that all may repent and know the Lord.

Christ prayed for them that were crucifying him: ‘Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.’ Stephen the Martyr prayed for those who stoned him, that the Lord ‘lay not this sin to their charge.’ And we, if we wish to preserve grace, must pray for our enemies. If you do not feel pity for the sinner destined to suffer the pains of hell-fire, it means that the grace of the Holy Spirit is not in you, but an evil spirit. While you are still alive, therefore, strive by repentance to free yourself from this spirit.

St. Silouan