ST THOMAS AQUINAS says that God is the one in whom essence and existence are the same. “Ipsum Esse Subsistens” (Summa Theologiae, I, q. 4, a. 2) is the phrase in Latin. It’s part of a larger discussion where St Thomas is discussing the absolute simplicity of God: there is no part or “smaller portion” of God. God is infinity and there is no “smaller infinity”. God’s being and essence, God’s action, God’s will, it’s all one. Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One. I’m not a mystic that can elaborate on this, but it’s important to hold this one fact: God is totally, ultimately, unity. In God his “beingness”, if you’ll pardon the neologism, is his act of being. Being and Beingness are the same in God. This quality has the singularly euphonious name of “Aeseity“. Among the Eastern Church Fathers, St Gregory of Nyssa uses the term Αὐτουσία autousia which sometimes gets rendered as unchanging, but parses out into “self (auto) essence (usia)”. Since we’re using verbs here, I hope it’s not too far to render this as self-essencing and to want to say “Tom, meet Greg…”.
Because God is the act of being all things that “be” are somehow sustained by God in that being. We have no power to “be” in ourselves. Our beingness is sustained by God. Please note that that does not make us part of God. As I noted above, God is simple, infinity, and unified. We are neither unified, simple, nor infinite. We are not God nor part of God. We do not participate in the Divinity of God. But our act of being is not from us: it requires God’s action at every moment. It’s not only that God willed for you to come into being in your mother’s womb. God is actively, continually, willing your ongoing being. As Christians, we believe your life is eternal and so – even in purgatory, hell, or heaven – your existence is sustained by God’s active will. You are because God is.
- What is that being? We’ve already drawn all the lines over the course of three posts so let’s review:
- God is love expressed as self-gift (kenosis).
- That love, on the human scale, can be best expressed in the love between husband and wife. It is physical and spiritual self-gift.
- God’s being (love) is the root cause of all the beingness in creation because all being is sustained by God’s active will.
- That love is you. Your fullness of being is expressed in kenotic love.
You come into being as the image of God (Father, Son, Holy Spirit) whose jam is kenosis. God’s love. That’s the fire that draws you into being, holds you, propels you, and calls you forward deeper into God. When Abba Joseph says, “Become wholly fire” the fire he means is love. When Third Day sings about being a “Soul on Fire” the fire they mean is love. When you exist, when you eat a steak, when you dance with your spouse, when you give away yourself fully: the fire you feel is love.
You are the image and likeness of a God who is love. Your very beingness is this love. This has some implications.
Morality is about kenosis. We’re used to thinking about lists of rules. Did I break or keep a rule? Even very “progressive” morality is about rules: did you use the correct pronoun or recycle/compost bin? Did you break a rule when you voted? We are all very legalistic. But if the source of beingness is kenotic love then actions that thwart this self-gift are intrinsically disordered, they are contrary to the reality of our beingness – not just in the first person, but for all beings. When you take an action or attitude that moves away from self-gift, you cut off not only yourself from God’s love (being) but also all around you who would have received that life mediated through your properly-ordered actions.
Depending on our gifts we might each see this problem most clearly in different areas. But it applies to all areas we think of as morality, sin, ethics, and the common good.
On the “lighter side” of this is talking as giving. One common piece of feedback I have received in work evaluations as an adult is that I do not speak enough in meetings. I’ve had to struggle with this including discussing it with therapists and clergy. It seems it’s related to being one of the “smart kids” in school, coupled with having poor filters, or maybe being “on the spectrum” somewhat – although we did not use that language in the 1970s, nor have I any diagnosis to back that up. Anyway, in school, I always knew the answers. My reading comprehension was several grades above my peers (12 grade reading in 4th grade). The only thing I could not do (and still cannot do very well), was spell! I remember once asking a teacher how to spell the word “of” because I kept trying to write it with the v and I knew that was wrong. The result of this loquacity was that some kids always commented on it in a negative way. I got beat up and called names because of it. And so I learned just to shut up and lay low in class. I kept getting good grades on tests and things and so that was okay. I carried this into adulthood where I just did my job as well as I could and tried not to get beat up. As a result, I never had the opportunity to develop filters or social skills so when I spoke out about anything it was awkward and sometimes painful for others. Shutting up was generally better than not. Yet the feedback given to me by supervisors was always along the lines of asking me to share my knowledge with others. Holding in my knowledge was not helping others do their jobs to the best of their abilities nor allowing them to benefit from my experience. Working on this issue has been one of the more rewarding parts of deciding to grow up – helping me not only to see my value but also to learn not to be awkward in communication.
We do not get to decide what is self-gift. We are entirely dependent on God. Jesus says the Son can only do what he sees the Father doing (John 5:19). We rest, like the beloved disciple at the Last Supper, against the bosom of the Son. Our gaze is thus toward the Father. Jesus calls us friends (John 15:15). As CS Lewis notes in The Four Loves, “Lovers are normally face to face, absorbed in each other; Friends, side by side, absorbed in some common interest.” With the Son as our Friend, we gaze, side by side, toward the Father. We, too, can only do what we see the Father doing. It is not possible to call “self-gift” what the Father refuses to accept.
By way of something a bit more weighty, our choices in the area of sex are often failures in kenosis even though we try to convince ourselves otherwise. The use of sex as a method of self-gratification is such an example: any removal of sex from its divine telos is disordered to selfishness. We’re not giving our full self, others do not benefit fully. As I noted in my earlier post: letting someone else go to hell is not loving them. All sexual sins involve the loss of (at least) two souls. When we cut ourselves off from self-gift we do the same for those around us. When, in our pride, we imagine we’ve come up with a new definition of “self-gift” we’re making ourselves out to be wiser than God, we pretend – in error – that we are “self-essencing” (Αὐτουσία) and thus we cut ourselves off from the stream of beingness that is God. We no longer mediate life to others.
Self-gift is what we are born to do. This is what God does (even when we turn away) and we are called to do the same thing. As U2 says, “give yourself away, and you give, and you give, and you give”. It’s not important if the other person is “deserving” or even thankful. When Jesus calls us to be perfect (in Matthew 5) he drives this point home:
You have heard that our fathers were told, ‘Love your neighbor — and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! Then you will become children of your Father in heaven. For he makes his sun shine on good and bad people alike, and he sends rain to the righteous and the unrighteous alike. What reward do you get if you love only those who love you? Why, even tax-collectors do that! And if you are friendly only to your friends, are you doing anything out of the ordinary? Even the Goyim do that! Therefore, be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.Matthew 5:45-48 (CJB)
Engaging in this kenotic love makes us like God, makes the Divine Fire in us shine forth. It is evangelistic in that it brings others to see God. “In the same way, let your light shine before people, so that they may see the good things you do and praise your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16). This is what makes us fully human. Anything less is to miss the mark and fall short of the kingdom of God.
Repent, then, and believe the Gospel! That is, give yourself away: pour out yourself as fully as God does because the divine fire within you is infinite. Your self-ness comes from God and the more you pour out the more you will have to give away. To believe – to act in trust on what God says – is to say, “not my will but Thine be done” and then just keep giving. Mind you, I’m not good at this yet. But that’s what sainthood means: to keep going until this becomes all you do: burn with the fire of divine love until you become all fire. Many of us (most?) will not become all fire in this life and so will need to keep working on it by God’s grace.
We work through this life (and the next) with what St Gregory of Nyssa says is the one thing, truly worthwhile: becoming God’s friends. We come to see as God sees, to love as he loves, to pour out as he pours out. We come to share in his nature as Christ shares in ours.