Hear Israel the Lord Our God, the Lord is One. (Please note that LORD indicates the divine name was used in the Hebrew text.)
Reading the Gospel we are often used to hearing “the Scribes and Pharisees” as the Bad Guys challenging Jesus, trying to trip him up. But today we hear of one that he is “not far from the kingdom of God.” That may seem unusual if we miss the cultural clues here. There is a surprising conversation going on for those who have ears to hear: when the scribe asks what is the greatest commandment, he’s echoing a common story in the rabbinic literature which parses out the “party politics” of the time.
A man came to one of the great rabbis, Shammai (who was alive during Jesus’ time – he died in the year 30), and asked him to teach the entire Torah while standing on one foot. Shammai sent him away thinking him to be irreverent. The same man when to Rabbi Hillel (who died in the year 10) and asked the same question. The Rabbi said this would be easy, and standing on one foot he said, “What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbor: that is the whole Torah, the rest is the commentary; go and learn it.” It was said of Hillel that he taught with gentleness and that his gentleness brought many others to faith in the God revealed to Israel.
The conversation in today’s Gospel seems a parallel with the scribe asking to hear it all in one go. And Jesus – gently, like Hillel – responds with the commandment of Love of God, love of neighbor. The scribe recognizes that Jesus is right. Scribes are often of the party of Sadducees, in this case, it seems the scribe was a Pharisee – like Hillel and Shammai, both, and St Paul later – and Jesus answer (and the scribe’s reply) and be read as a sort of Pharisee-like greeting and reply. To be this underscores that Christianity grows out of a particular branch of rabbinical Judaism rather than out of the Temple worship (which was run by the Sadducees).
As I was listening to this conversation (and Moses’ teaching in the first reading) I found myself thinking about another line in Zechariah 14:9:
In that day the LORD shall be king over all the earth, and the LORD shall be one and his name one.
What does it mean that in that day the Lord shall be one and his name one?
Jesus breaks this open with his parallel of Love of God and Love of Neighbor: that somehow Love of Neighbor is Love of God. (As we do to the least of Jesus’ brothers we do to him.) This process of mediation, that makes God present in the act of loving our neighbor is made real in our works of charity, of love. Worship of God (faith) without works is dead.
By a coincidence of timing, the 31st Sunday of Ordinary Time is also the 31st of October and the eve of All Saints Day. The homilist today used language that would be familiar to anyone who has read certain authors in the “spiritual but not religious” section of the bookstore, speaking of how the separation between the worlds (of the living and departed) might seem thinner at this time of the year. He missed, I think, that the separation is entirely removed at the Mass. I think his constant patter of improv on the text of the missal made that clear, too: the Mass for the homilist today was only a banquet, not a miracle. But it is there, in the elevation of the Consecrated Host and Chalice at the end of the anaphora that the Liturgy is done – before eating happens. One communion of one body achieved and offered at the hands of Jesus (the priest) to the Father. We are one body of Christ, the living souls and the departed ones together around the throne at that moment which is in all moments, all times, all worlds, one: Calvary ever-present in the hands of the one priest.
In that day the Lord shall be one and his name one.
Then swing over to 1 Corinthians 15:28, “And when all things shall be subdued unto him (Christ), then shall the Son also himself be subject unto him that put all things under him, that God may be all in all.”
The one revelation of God to Moses – the LORD is one – echoes through all of this in the action of Love: Love of God is love of neighbor. The Living and the departed are united in Christ. Christ is one with the Father, all things become one gesture of self-emptying generosity pouring out to all things.
In the synagogue liturgy after the Sh’ema is recited, the response, whispered in near silence in the heart is “Blessed be his glorious name…”
בָּרוּךְ שֵׁם כְּבוֹד מַלְכוּתוֹ לְעוֹלָם וָעֶד
The Glory of God’s name… the glory of God… we know this. Hear St Ireneaus saying, “The glory of God is man fully alive…” but the whole quote in the Catholic Catechism (¶294) weaves all of this together for us. “The glory of God is man fully alive; moreover man’s life is the vision of God: if God’s revelation through creation has already obtained life for all the beings that dwell on earth, how much more will the Word’s manifestation of the Father obtain life for those who see God.” Yes, here in Creation we can get a foretaste of God’s glory (as I write I’m watching the great display of Northern Lights on YouTube, live from Lapland) but that’s not it. Man is not fully alive – not fully the glory of God – until we participate in the vision of God. We can have a foretaste in the Mass, we can experience the oneness of it, but only on the Last Day, can we see the full glory of God – which will include us.
Hear, Israel, the Lord our God is one. And we shall love.
Several things presented themselves to your host this morning for contemplation and synthesis. They span several decades in terms of life experience, wrapping themselves around a playlist called “sacred heart”, wherein we avoid the sentimentality of many “Jesus is my boyfriend” praise and worship songs by going right for the eroticism of popular love songs. It was k.d. lang’s “Constant Craving” that triggered this line of thought. “Maybe,” she sings. “A great magnet pulls / All souls to what’s true.” St Thomas, the realization dawns, agrees: this “constant craving has always been.”
C.S. Lewis’ The Four Loves is perhaps known to the reader. This seminal work explores four different Greek words used in the Bible, all of which can be translated as “love”. Lewis explores the meaning of each and their application to the Christian life. Briefly they are:
Eros or erotic desire Storge, familial or affective love Philia, friendship Agape, divine, disinterested charity
It is this last which Lewis ranks highest. On a scale of one to ten Agape is at infinity and beyond. Lewis may have missed how the other loves can be divine or, more to the point, the part they play in our salvation.
In Catholic teaching all love, properly ordered, is divinely gifted to us to draw us to God. God is love, as St John says. The Catechism agrees – but it uses all the Latin words for love:
218 In the course of its history, Israel was able to discover that God had only one reason to reveal himself to them, a single motive for choosing them from among all peoples as his special possession: his sheer gratuitous love (amorem). And thanks to the prophets Israel understood that it was again out of love (amorem) that God never stopped saving them and pardoning their unfaithfulness and sins.
219 God’s love (amor) for Israel is compared to a father’s love (amori) for his son. His love (amat) for his people is stronger than a (amor amore) mother’s for her children. God loves (amat) his people more than a bridegroom his beloved (dilectam); his love (amor) will be victorious over even the worst infidelities and will extend to his most precious gift: “God so loved (dilexit) the world that he gave his only Son.”
220 God’s love (Dilectio) is “everlasting”: “For the mountains may depart and the hills be removed, but my steadfast love (misericordia) shall not depart from you.” Through Jeremiah, God declares to his people, “I have loved (caritate) you with an everlasting love (dilexi); therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you (misericordia).”
221 But St. John goes even further when he affirms that “God is love” (caritas): God’s very being is love. (ipsum Dei Esse est amor). By sending his only Son and the Spirit of Love (Spiritum amoris) in the fullness of time, God has revealed his innermost secret: God himself is an eternal exchange of love (Ipse aeterne est amoris commercium), Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and he has destined us to share in that exchange.
Notice there how many times “Amor” or erotic love is used. Yes, Caritas (charity or agape) is mentioned as is “dilexi” which can be rendered “like” or “fondness for”. But it is “Amor” that becomes the very nature of God, the very being of God is Amor, and he is an “eternal exchange of Amor”. There’s something here about divine desire for us – about our desire for God
This quest goes way back. My former (Episcopal) Pastor, Donald Schell, pointed out in a class on the Church Fathers that St Ignatius of Antioch says in his Epistle to the Romans, “ο εμος ερως εσταυρωται,” “my eros has been crucified…” He is not speaking of his eros being “turned off” or killed. Who or what is his eros? Is he speaking of Jesus as his eros? Or is he speaking of his personal desire being made cruciform? “I desire the bread of God, the heavenly bread, the bread of life, which is the flesh of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who became afterwards of the seed of David and Abraham; and I desire the drink of God, namely His blood, which is incorruptible love and eternal life.”
Properly ordered, our very desire is turned to God-ward. We yearn for God. We thirst for God.
When it is properly ordered, our eros draws us to God. Pope Benedict wrote in 2005, “eros is somehow rooted in man’s very nature; Adam is a seeker, who “abandons his mother and father” in order to find woman; only together do the two represent complete humanity and become “one flesh”. The second aspect is equally important. From the standpoint of creation, eros directs man towards marriage, to a bond which is unique and definitive; thus, and only thus, does it fulfil its deepest purpose. Corresponding to the image of a monotheistic God is monogamous marriage. Marriage based on exclusive and definitive love becomes the icon of the relationship between God and his people and vice versa. God’s way of loving becomes the measure of human love. This close connection between eros and marriage in the Bible has practically no equivalent in extra-biblical literature.”
But more than our desire, it is also God’s desire for us. Yes, his disinterested love (Caritas) is showered on all of us, but in his desire for unity with us, he is supremely interested in each of us as persons. His love for me, for you, for each of us as a person is not disinterested at all. It is Amor.
733 “God is Love” (caritas) and love (caritas) is his first gift, containing all others. “God’s love (caritas) has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”
734 Because we are dead or at least wounded through sin, the first effect of the gift of love (caritatis) is the forgiveness of our sins. The communion of the Holy Spirit in the Church restores to the baptized the divine likeness lost through sin.
735 He, then, gives us the “pledge” or “first fruits” of our inheritance: the very life of the Holy Trinity, which is to love (diligere) as “God [has] loved (dilexit) us.” This love (the “charity” of 1 Cor 13) “Hic amor (caritas de qua 1 Cor 13)” is the source of the new life in Christ, made possible because we have received “power” from the Holy Spirit.
736 By this power of the Spirit, God’s children can bear much fruit. He who has grafted us onto the true vine will make us bear “the fruit of the Spirit: . . . love (caritas), joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” “We live by the Spirit”; the more we renounce ourselves, the more we “walk by the Spirit.”
About 6 months after I first came to St Dominic’s the parish hosted a Called and Gifted workshop part of which is a sort of “theological MBTI” to determine what charisms one has. Those who know the writer’s history may be surprised to learn that the highest-scoring charism was celibacy (tied with writing and teaching). Then followed long conversations with my spiritual director and with the priest who gave the workshop (who later became my new director). What I took away from those meetings was that the evil one often uses our gifts to trip us up and that where there is the greatest gifts there can be the greatest fall. And then – “but what are you going to do about it now?”
People with homosexual tendencies are to be helped to admit these feelings to themselves and to others who will not reject or harm them. They are to seek assistance in discovering the specific causes of their homosexual orientation, and to work toward overcoming its harmful effects in their lives.
Synodal Affirmations on Marriage, Family, Sexuality, and the Sanctity of Life
As an aside, it was that counsel to “seek assistance” that led me to join Courage and – eventually – the Roman Catholic Church. It is to be noted, though, that it’s only described as feelings – and love is not a feeling. Love is an act of the will. So one can act-of-the-will (dare I say “choose”) to do something else.
All of these things struck me this morning listening to “Constant Craving”, to return to the top of this post. “A great magnet pulls / All souls to what’s true.” What is true, of course, is God. What is true is Love. But that love (caritas) is expressed to each of us personally as desire – our ascending desire for God and his descending desire for each of us personally. Benedict XVI follows the Church Fathers in using Jacob’s ladder as a typological sign of this. We might also see Dante’s final vision of all the saints in glory flying around God.
Now, what to desire? Dante points us in the right direction: all desire, all constant craving, is for the Good. It is impossible to love evil for evil’s sake – we only mistake something for Good. We love the Good… and sometimes we are led astray by lesser Goods. But even they can lead us to the Highest Good.
So it is that when we find ourselves pulled towards the Truth as if by a great magnet we might be redirected, but we will turn, eventually, towards the source of our greatest happiness, indeed the fulfillment of our greatest desire. Once we achieve that happiness – that fullest vision – we will not turn away. Thomas says “man is not perfectly happy, so long as something remains for him to desire and seek” (2nd Part, Part 1, Q 3, Article 8, Answer.) We won’t back down from the greatest happiness… but on the way there we can be misled.
And so, this morning, it dawned gradually that being misled in Eros is only fixed by crucifixion, by cruciformity: to be crucified with Christ is to properly order one’s desires to God. Our desire – ascending to him – is, itself, an answer to God’s desire not for “us” in general, but in the first person: God’s desire for one’s own uniqueness, meness.
How fair are your tents, 0 Jacob! How fair your dwellings, Israel! – Numbers 24:5 (Jerusalem Bible, 1968)
The chant “Ma Tovu, Ohehlecha Yacov” is often used at the beginning of the Friday Evening synagogue service. The congregation chants slowly and gently, as if chewing on a text for meditation. Sung in Hebrew, to a traditional tune, it seems almost like a line of the Psalms. The quoted text, though, is from a gentile: Balaam, who is called a prophet in Numbers. He would not have spoken in Hebrew – although the tex is recorded thus. What is sparking the writer’s interest though is that Balaam uses the name of God. In the Jerusalem Bible (1968) this is driven home by rendering the name of God as “Yahweh” in the text. This translation also notes when Balaam uses “Shaddai” (almighty). Balaam’s later history is not so good: in Deuteronomy, he is slain for his leading the Israelites astray. In Revelation, Balaam is described as a stumbling block, showing King Balak how to seduce the people. Without regard to the historicity of the text, it’s interesting that, despite conflicts in later sections, the final form of the story included in Numbers posits a major prophetic revelation outside of Israel.
Balaam is one of several important speakers in the Bible who are not members of or ancestors of Israel: Job, Balaam, Jethro, Melchizedek, and King Cyrus are each given very important functions in the story of the Hebrews. Collectively these seem to add a depth of complexity to Israel’s identity as “the Chosen People”. God is clearly working through other nations as well.
What does it mean that the Jewish scriptures allow for this Gentile to know the Name of God? Genesis 4 says that Enosh was the first to invoke the name of God – Yahweh is mentioned by name in Genesis 4:26 of the Jerusalem Bible – but the same Chapter puts the divine name first in the mouth of Eve. According to an article on Wikipedia, which the writer quotes with some trepidation, the Divine Name occurs 165 times in Genesis.
The implication seems to be that the knowledge of the Divine Name is spread throughout the human family and we need only be reminded of it. Israel seems, thus, to foreshadow the Church is in the world as “the Sacrament of Salvation” (Catechism of the Catholic Church ¶780), with Israel serving as a sacramental of the Name. The term is taken on purpose for a sacramental is more of a reminder of the thing, than a mystical conveyance of the thing itself. Balaam singing “Ma tovu…” then becomes a prayer of the Gentile. “Israel, you are so beautiful: you call me to remember the true God.”
Balaam knows he can say nothing but what Yahweh tells him to say. He can say neither more nor less (Gen 22:20, 22:35, 22:38, etc), even though Balak asks him to curse Israel. Balaam says, “How shall I curse one when God does not curse? How shall I denounce when God does not denounce?” (23:8) Although only tangentially related to this essay, we might well ask the same thing today regarding the Saints of the Church whom we are asked to curse in the name of political correctness.
The Prophecies of Balaam are now of note: “See, a people dwelling apart, not reckoned among the nations. Who can count the dust of Jacob? Who can number the cloud of Israel? May I die the death of the just! May my end be one with theirs!” (Gen 23:9b-10). God promised to make Israel’s children to be numbered like the sands of the sea. Balaam is seeing the measuring rod by which all nations are judged. They are a people “dwelling apart”. In fact, the boundaries of the nations are based on the numbers of Israel (Deuteronomy 32:8).
I have seen no evil in Jacob / I marked no suffering in Israel. / Yahweh his God is with him; / in him sounds the royal acclaim. (Gen 23:21) His God is with him – but His God is our God as well. As I noted, they are the sacramental of the name.
Now Balaam becomes “the man with far-seeing eyes.. one who hears the word of God.” (24:3-4a, 15-16a) and he sees what God commands. Yet the prophecies in chapter 24 are Messianic! A Gentile is making these prophecies of the coming king. A hero arises from their stock, he reigns over countless peoples. His king is greater than Agag, his majesty is exalted. (24:7) I see him-but not in the present, I behold him-but not close at hand: a star from Jacob takes the leadership, a scepter arises from Israel. (24:17) Again this seems to underscore Israel’s position as among the nations of the world by virtue of this coming king. Here it is being confessed by someone not from the Twelve Tribes and so adding importance. Even those “out in the world” recognize our importance.
If Israel serves as a sacramental of the Divine Name in the world then the ways others know the name mark moments of grace present and active. Melchizedek can bless Abraham because they both know the same God – even though Abraham is seemingly closer to God (in terms of their relationship) than the priest-king. Jethro knows of Yahweh (Ex 18:10), so that Moses can be ready when the Burning Bush happens. Rahab’s awareness of God (Joshua 2:8ff) opens her eyes and heart to helping the Hebrew spies. In various ways, these Gentiles serve as sacramentals for Israel: reminding Israel of his duty to God, or reminding Israel of God’s faithfulness.
These passages call out to the present writer because he has journeyed long in other paths, seemingly rejecting God. These passages seem to be signs of hope! God can speak through these other people and traditions. This is echoed in writers from the Eastern Orthodox tradition who can hear Christ in the “old testaments” of other religions, for a good example, see Christ the Eternal Tao by Fr Damascene, a very “traditionalist” Orthodox Monk. This book is a favorite of the present writer as it bypasses syncretism yet shows well how God used another religion to prepare for Christ. Likewise, Missionaries, when meeting a new people, search for connections in the local culture so that the Gospel can be preached using local signposts.
As noted, in later books of the Bible Balaam is not a “good guy”: quite the opposite. So it’s clear that having the right ideas about God (at least sometimes) does not prevent one from going astray. In fact, it might be argued that Balaam’s nearness to what Israel was learning about God made it easier for them to follow him into his own errors. We cannot heed every word of every person outside the faith who uses the Divine Name. It is not those who say to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ who will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the person who does the will of my Father in heaven. (Mat 7:21). There are a lot of shenanigans caused by people who use the Name of Jesus or Christ. A Course in Miracles is a good example of how bad things can get if one is outside the faith and just misusing the faith left and right! Yet Balaam shows us it is possible for someone outside to be “connected” (even if for a moment). His song is still sung in the Synagogue.
If Israel is seen as a sacramental of the Divine Name, a reminder that God is “the One who Is” or “the Existing One” as he is named by the Byzantine liturgy, all of us can sing, How fair are your tents, 0 Jacob! Israel has shown us all the way to the Tabernacle of God. Balaam, though, indicates that even it is possible for those outside the community to be faithful in their own way. They can – on occasion – even be used by God to show the community her own mistakes. It could be possible for God to use non-Christians to correct our missteps.
Sicut Patres Nostri – of Huw, A Lament sitting on the dock of the Bay
AS OUR FATHERS before us So we sit by the waters As by Babylon of old by the waters of the Bay Do you remember us, Lord?
The Saints have told us Of your faithfulness, your love Your power You came with them to defeat their enemies You swept before them in victory That the Gospel might triumph But we reap a different harvest As we are despised not for your love But for our victory Their statues are toppled Their names slashed And your Name then slandered Do you remember us, Lord? We retrench and advance but you do not go with us And we fail Do you remember us, Lord?
Our Fathers told us Of days recently passed Millions gathered in the park Rosaries waving, families praying Cameras filming Yet now we cannot get permits To pray without masks To walk without harassment To save children Do you remember us, Lord?
We know naught happens but you allow it Naught comes to pass but your will Our semantics quibble over Permissive or possitive But it comes from you Make us to know our sins Give us contrition That we may repent Send us here our purgatory That we may be purified
Our Fathers have told us that it was by your might Trusting too much in princes hoping in strength Did we fail in your name Failing to offend those who offend you Because of their power? Have we forgotten our way? Our new weakness your ancient Gospel Our new death the way to renewed resurrection Do you remember us, Lord?
Our Lord spoke to us saying we would not be loved We would be rejected and hated for his Truth Which is only ever Love The world rejects us because of our sins. Our pride in our power. Have we forgotten you, Lord?
Your weakness is our strength Trusting the might that was ours formerly We lost our way in Babylon And here, we mourn by the waters The Bay laps our feet as we pray
We have sinned against heaven and before you As our Fathers repented so do we And as bread is lifted and cup is raised Again. The work of human hands. Show us the light of your love That we may know the way That we may walk with you That we may know the way to walk That the world may see you As we see you That the world may know you As we know you As you know us
We will praise you Not for our power but for our weakness Which is like yours Weak even to death Not for our passage of laws But for our love winning hearts When you then sweep before us in victory Your Gospel will triumph Even to resurrection And we reap your harvest From a world craving your love That men may see our good works And praise you And we will know you then as you are Again as you are always Amen. Amen.
FROM the Office of Readings for the Blessed Virgin Mary on Saturday:
The cross is our trophy raised against the demons, our sword against sin and the sword Christ used to pierce the serpent. The cross is the Father’s will, the glory of the only-begotten, the joy of the Spirit, the pride of the angels, the guarantee of the Church, Paul’s boast, the bulwark of the saints, and the light of the entire world. – St John Chrysostom
It’s not only Jesus’ cross of which he speaks! Each of us have a cross to bear, our trophy against demons, our sword against sin. It is the Sword (of our lives) that Christ uses to pierce the serpent.
This Cross – which is pain and sorrow for us, which is different for each of us, which may be a “thorn in the flesh”, an addiction to sin, a sexual temptation, or a disordered affection, or a disease – this cross is the Father’s will, the glory of Christ, the joy of the Spirit, the pride of the Angels, the guarantee of the Church, our own boast, the bulwark of the saints, and the light of the entire world… if we but let God use it as he would.
EACH STAR HAS A field of energy that is going both outward and inward. The outward energy we call a “wind” because it is unseen and “blowing” outward from the star: it is the light, itself, actually. If you can see the star you are “in” the wind from that star. Our star, Sol, being closest we are in this wind the most, of course. There are eddies and cross-currents, and shadows, if you will. It would be possible to “sail” on this wind. In fact there are designs for such ships: they are as beautiful and graceful as sailing ships on our seas. As much as there is outward, there is also the inward energy which we call gravity. The mass of the star literally curves space and pulls things towards it. Again: if you can see the star’s light, the gravity is also present. Sol’s gravity is closest to us and affects us the most, but all objects have gravity so the gravity from our nearest neighbor, Luna, has a heavier pull on us. Gravity – although it holds everything together – is a weak force and it is made weaker by distance. Light and wind go much further.
Every once in a while a star’s gravity might “catch” a passerby, even millions of miles away and that object begins a long journey inward, towards the star. If the item is small it may – eventually – just get pulled into the star and consumed in the fire. If the item is a bit larger and moving fast enough, its velocity and trajectory may take it around the star and shoot it back out into space, only to slow down later and come back for the same trip. This might take millions of years to complete, but the same process will repeat. As it comes in, pulled by gravity, the solar wind will push off bits and pieces. The object will, over much time, get smaller and smaller. Eventually it will not be able to escape the star again – and it will get pulled into the fire. Else, it may – somewhere out in space – just disconnect from the gravity, get pushed away in the wind, and never come back. If the item is frozen, covered in some gas or liquid, it may melt at high speed, throwing off a tail of reflected light and so, instead of an asteroid, we have a comet. These things may pass us, here on Earth, as we go on our own way and we see them and smile, gaze in awe, or make a wish. We, too, are held in place by gravity against the solar winds, our home’s size, trajectory, and speed keeping us just where we need to be to live.
Now, let us consider the comet and the star, as a sign of the soul’s journey to God.
For this image, though, God would be the only star in all the universe. Yes, we have other things that we think are stars, but they are not really stars at all. As the comet gets closer in love, the tail is all that is superfluous blown away – think of confession, the struggle for virtues, the acts of self-sacrifice, the withering of the ego. Each time the comet circles closer, losing its speed and trajectory, and the orbit grows smaller. The away and return gets shorter. In the end, all refuse jettisoned, it falls into the fires of eternal love.
And even for far-distant things, the choice is only to ride the gravity in or to let the solar winds blow one into distant eternities away. Coming closer means the fires get hotter, the winds stronger. If the soul holds on to anything here, she will be blown further away. She must let it all go, let it all go, let it all go behind as she falls closer and closer to the star. And she is a she, passive, drawn forward, as the star is a he, the active drawing forth. With God, the entire cosmos is she, passive before the one active mover of all.
There is a further realization, for God is everywhere present, filling all things. There is not “distance” from God: there is no center. There is no place towards which the gravity draws or from which the winds blow. That a soul is not flooded with fear at the light, or blown apart by the wind, that a soul is not burned instantly, and still must move forward to see more is, itself, an act of grace. God has hidden himself that he may be found. He woos us, but we must allow ourselves to be wooed. God’s action of withdrawal is the opening for us to follow. His hiddenness calls us to find him. His fading light in the distance becomes the dawn of our faith and that faith becomes the light for others. “Just as it is better to enlighten than merely to shine, so is it better to give to others the fruits of one’s contemplation than merely to contemplate.” (Summa Theologiae, II-II Q. 188, A. 6)
We live and move and have our being in the star, yet the darkness, too, is real: as the comet moves forward, the refuse burns away and the light is more revealed. God is love. And we are nought but loved, even in the fire that cleanses us. And the refuse, itself, becomes our glory for we leave a beautiful passing.
YOU ARE ALL Arresting love and I cannot turn away from your light. The closer I get the more all other loves are revealed to be either actuallyyou or not worthy of my attention at all. And the light burns my eyes. Certainly the burning is only the darkness falling away, yes, I know. Certainly the healing is more like scabs falling off to reveal a healed human beneath. But there is, increasingly, moments of regret where it would be so much easier just to be normal again.
Normal for us, though, does not mean what you mean.
Your normal is perfection, your normal is love, your normal is light and eternity.
Our normal is twilight, and shrouds, and going to brunch on Sundays with friends instead of Mass. Our normal is workouts at the gym and worrying about taxes, shopping at Ingles and having beers on Friday night. Our normal wakes up to sex or a new partner or fighting over politics as easily as looking at art or watching the latest MCU with Popcorn for the price of feeding the poor a dozen lunches.
And we don’t really care.
Your normal calls us to be what we were always intended to be, our true selves, our seed grown to full maturity. Your normal calls us to be what our bodies long to be from within the very quarks that make the atoms of our DNA. We long to be your sons and daughters, the men and women you wanted from all eternity. Our normal calls us to follow our bliss by doing what we want. So instead of our longing, our ends, our proper work, we get roller coasters of fun, adrenaline, hormones, death.
Your normal actually is our bliss, what we are ordered to. Your normal reveals our ideas of normal to be disorder. And we refuse to see it – literally turn our eyes away by force because to see our true bliss to follow our true bliss which is only you is to drop everything and run towards your with all our hearts, all our loves, all our writing…
Yet everything else can be so fun.
And your normal cuts one off from everything, eventually: because pecan pies, burgers, sex clubs, cuddly kittens, hot days in the park, even friends, are all distractions from you. All these loves are either actuallyyou or not worthy of our attention at all. And all our lives is sorting out where you are – and are not. And letting go of both because we need to get to YOU. The source of all love, of all light, of all joy, of all normal.
So we back away.
Because your normal is so high above what we have come to enjoy.
A craving for a bit of respite is revealed as sloth: a desire to hide, only for a moment, from your normal. To be able to pretend that here for now, you who are everywhere present and filling all things, all times, all eternity, are not here, not filling my eyes. I can only hide for a moment and be alone. Yet you are here too. And I cannot unsee that, I cannot unknow that. I can only be your normal now because anything else is not normal at all.
And all our normals fall away until only you are there. And we cannot run or hide. You seduce us – but we have to let ourselves, I must let myself be seduced. And having been so ravished, anything else is just harlotry.
VEDIC ANTHROPOLOGY responds to the question of Divine Transcendence vs Immanence by way of the Mahāvākyas, the Great Sayings of the Upanishads. These are four in number and they highlight the lack of division between self (which is an illusion) and the universal consciousness. The wiki sums this up with, “They all express the insight that the individual self (jiva) which appears as a separate existence, is in essence (atman) part and manifestation of the whole (Bramha).” I did not know about three of the sayings until today, when I was researching the one that I did know: tat tvam asi तत् त्वम् असि. It means, colloquially, that is you.
A better translation is being-ness you is you-ing. तत् tat, indicates the essence of being, and I think gets at the sense of what St Thomas means when he says God is beingness, ipsum esse subsistens: in God Being and Essence are the same thing. For the Vedas, however, तत् त्वम् असि tat tvam asi means that same Being/Essence is true of all of us, because our individuality is an illusion: all is one thing. ἓν τὸ πᾶν hen to pan as the pagan Greeks would say, “all is one”. The deeper one delves into oneself the more one sees that one is that universal being-ness. It is in contemplation of this realization that one learns to let go of all illusion.
This is not Christian anthropology, however. Physical reality is not an illusion. Individual persons are not illusions. In fact, each of us retains an image of God: the Unique Individual who is being in his essence. In the Christian Revelation, God is not only the Unique Individual but, in his being, he is a community of persons, a superfluity of love and communion flowing outwards in creation. Each of us was made by intention for participation in this continual outpouring. As the Fathers say, all human beings (individual persons) share in one Human Nature. And, through the incarnation of God, our common human nature is now united with Divinity and seated at the Right Hand of the Father. We all share in this glory if we open ourselves to participation for we are closed off, pretending/insisting/deluded into feeling we are isolated and that our success or failure rests on our own actions, in this world only.
All of that by way of introduction, by way of setting up that for the Christain, the human beingness of the person is deeper than anything we can imagine, sense, touch, or see. As CS Lewis once wrote, “Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.” You are that as well. All human beings are that.
That’s what I want to turn a corner in this meditation. You know how Babies are Made: Egg meets sperm. Genetic material from Mom and Dad combine, like the Yin and the Yang in the Taoist symbol. Where each side (yin/yang) contains also their parents in a Yin/Yang combination as well. The Christian teaching is that at that moment God especially creates a soul for that person. All animals reproduce in some way, genetic material combining in some way, but for human beings it is different: for God gives a unique, individual soul to each meeting of egg and sperm. This is why, for faithful Catholics, that being cannot be killed from conception to natural death without offending the God who created it. It’s not about “viability” or “quality of life”, it matters not about the mental capacity or the social participation, about the cost or the pain. In short: from conception to natural death, each human being is 50% Mommy’s DNA, 50% Daddy’s, and 100% God’s. The Yin/Yang of DNA is Ensouled. (Mommy+Daddy)God. An animal is a fleshly being, an Angel is a spiritual being. A Human Being is another thing entirely: flesh and spirit in one beingness. Higher than animals, but lower than Angels, and seated at the right hand of God the Father in Glory. This is what it means to be human. Tat Tvam Asi. Then things happen to us.
Knowing that, you can see the Christian response to racism: which is to remark on something decidedly besides the point. One’s culture, one’s skin color, one’s ancestry makes one no less a living image of God than any other human. To deny the humanity of another based on their skin color is to literally blaspheme the holiest object (other than the Host) available to us.
But I want to carry this conversation not forward to how we react to others (abortion and racism are a good conversation to have in that context, as are any other form of economic or political oppression of the weaker by the powerful). Let’s carry it backward to how we view ourselves: what do I add to this beingness that God has given me?
Paul’s comments about social position, ethnicity, and even sex are important. Paul notes that there is neither “Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male and female.” I think there might be a whole book to write on what Paul means by his two-fold neither/nor followed by one neither/and but I only want to point out that Paul pushes us all the way back to the beingness we all share from that instant of (Mommy+Daddy)God. We add a lot of things to that: national identities, race, sexualities, neurodiversities, class, politics, religion, wealth, education… and we divide people by these data points. Thing is, that’s not you. Those data points are not who you are. To paraphrase our Sanskrit, each of those things, Tat Tvam Na Asi. तत् त्वम् न असि That is not your being.
We create cultural identities for these data points and then we insist these are our realities, instead of the Fleshly Ensoulment of (Mommy+Daddy)God that is our divine right. That, and that alone, is the only thing that counts in the end. We know this and still we push those other things into what it means to be “me” on equal standing with our Divine Humanity.
Instead of trusting by faith what God has told us we look to our feelings, our desires, our passions, our pangs of hunger to define us. We fail to see the gift of the body God gave us as anything other than a tool to fulfill our desires. We think we can abuse it to get that fulfillment even when the abuse is not according to the obvious and natural use of our ensouled flesh. We treat our mind and our feeling as “more me” than our body. When it is body and soul that come together to make the person. We do this by pretending “some of my best friends are…” and also by pretending we can ignore the DNA coursing through every cell in our body.
We treat the body as not-me, and try to bring into alignment with what we imagine “me” to be. To this end entire industries have developed to keep us looking young or, indeed, keep us looking like anything other than the body God gave us. To imply God gave us such a body is an imposition on our rights but (Mommy+Daddy)God will not go away.
This is the oft-unspoken part of Christian anthropology, the Mystery of it. You’ve heard it misspoke at funerals, especially of children: dying to become an angel. “God wanted another angel.” But Angels are beings entirely of spirit. Death is the breaking of a human into two halves: for Human Beingness is flesh and soul. The Glory is that at the general Resurrection all souls and their bodies will be one again. Death is the final enemy of division that will be conquered. But already it is undone: for death is no longer the end for us, in Christ the Resurrection has already begun. So, even in eternity, (Mommy+Daddy)God will be with us. This is us fully. When we die we will be this still. Tat Tvam Asi.
The reason, however, why the philosopher may be likened to the poet is this: both are concerned with the marvelous. – St Thomas Aquinas
WHEN THIS QUOTE Surfaced in my Twitter timeline this morning, there was first an urgent recourse to Google. The reader is strongly advised to Google any random quotation: so many float around and around with no citation and no original source. Did you know that St Francis ever said nor wrote that bit about “use words if necessary”? Really. There is no source at all – except the internet. Google everything. Anyway… there was recourse to Google. This one is authentic. It comes from St Thomas’ Commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics, Book 1, Lesson 3. For a better context:
Further, he points out that perplexity and wonder arise from ignorance. For when we see certain obvious effects whose cause we do not know, we wonder about their cause. And since wonder was the motive which led men to philosophy, it is evident that the philosopher is, in a sense, a philo-myth, i.e., a lover of myth, as is characteristic of the poets. Hence the first men to deal with the principles of things in a mythical way, such as Perseus and certain others who were the seven sages, were called the theologizing poets. Now the reason why the philosopher is compared to the poet is that both are concerned with wonders.
Note that there is “concerned with wonders” instead of “the marvelous”. That seems to be a translation into English done by whoever translated Josef Pieper’s On Leisure into English. I don’t have the book handy, just this context from Wikiquote: And as for the close connection between philosophy and poetry, we can refer to a little-known statement by Thomas Aquinas in his Commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics [I, 3]: the Philosopher is akin to the Poet in this, that both are concerned with the mirandum, the “wondrous,” the astonishing, or whatever calls for astonishment or wonder. This statement is not that easy to fathom, since Thomas, like Aristotle, was a very sober thinker, completely opposed to any Romantic confusion of properly distinct realms. But on the basis of their common orientation towards the “wonderful” (the mirandum — something not to be found in the world of work!) — on this basis, then, of this common transcending-power, the philosophical act is related to the “wonderful,” is in fact more closely related to it than to the exact, special sciences; to this point we shall return. – Pieper, J. (2015). Leisure: The Basis of Culture. United Kingdom: Ignatius Press. (The translation itself is from 1963. I don’t own the book, so I’m not sure, but it’s possible the second half of the book, The Philosophical Act, is a different text? This Aquinas quote with “wondrous” is also the Epigram for the Philosophical Act.)
Update, my friend R. indicates The Philosophical Act “Was Heißt Philosophieren?” was a series of lectures delivered around the time he wrote Leisure, so they’ve been published together in English (as Pieper recommended).
Pieper says it’s not easy to fathom why poets come in here. Your host does not fancy himself a philosopher, but would love to be tagged with St Thomas’ phrase, “theologizing poet” and he has heard at least one philosopher divide between theology and philosophy. Perhaps Aquinas turned a corner here where Pieper was out of his ken.
So, venturing into Theology, let’s turn a corner ourselves to the Epistle of St James. In 1:22, James invites his readers to “be doers of the word, not hearers only”.
First, there’s Word, λόγος Logos. Logos here is the same word as is used in John 1: “The Word”. It’s the mind, the thought/plan/pattern behind everything. It’s the Wisdom of God active in the world and in each thing in the world. Every thing in the world has its own logos, it’s own participation in God’s wisdom. Contemplating the logoi (plural) in God’s creation eventually brings us to contemplation of The Logos, that is, Jesus himself.
Then, consider Doer which here does not mean “someone who hears the gospel and responds with actions”. It’s a verb serving as a noun. It conveys the same difference as between, “you love me” and “you are my lover”. This is important because the word, in Greek, is ποιητής poietas, a maker or a poet. In today’s internet lingo we would say “creator”.
St James’ whole phrase, in Greek, is Γίνεσθε δὲ ποιηταὶ λόγου ginesthe de poietai logou: Become poets of the Logos.
Now, here’s where it gets interesting: poets are not always the Good Guys in philosophy. St Thomas must have known that Plato had banished almost all poets from the Republic. The reason being that poets tell mythological lies – think Homer, here. Poets that teach virtue can stay, though. These poets ov virtue are, perhaps, the ones to which Aquinas is comparing philosophers. But, of course, Aquinas is also a theologian. Thomas knows that poets of virtue are welcomed in the Heavenly Kingdom, but he does not know Greek so he doesn’t know about “poets of the Logos”. Yet, not only can we see the philosophers of the past and present as poets of virtue – dealing in the wondrous – we can also see them now as poets of the Logos as well. Yet there’s more here: for St James calls us all to do that. This poetic action is the vocation of all Christians! In fact, to not do so is to have failed to live the faith fully.
This means the Philosophical Act of Poetry is part of our Christian Action in the world: we are called to mark out the threads of Christian Poetry from the past (as I mentioned in my post yesterday) but also to weave those threads of wonder into the on-going tapestry of time today and going forward. We are creating soul for the world. We are not permitted to escape this duty. It is the real evangelism: to make the good news incarnate around us.
To speak in general terms, we may say that the Christian is to the world what the soul is to the body. As the soul is present in every part of the body, while remaining distinct from it, so Christians are found in all the cities of the world, but cannot be identified with the world. As the visible body contains the invisible soul, so Christians are seen living in the world, but their religious life remains unseen. The body hates the soul and wars against it, not because of any injury the soul has done it, but because of the restriction the soul places on its pleasures. Similarly, the world hates the Christians, not because they have done it any wrong, but because they are opposed to its enjoyments.
Christians love those who hate them just as the soul loves the body and all its members despite the body’s hatred. It is by the soul, enclosed within the body, that the body is held together, and similarly, it is by the Christians, detained in the world as in a prison, that the world is held together. The soul, though immortal, has a mortal dwelling place; and Christians also live for a time amidst perishable things, while awaiting the freedom from change and decay that will be theirs in heaven. As the soul benefits from the deprivation of food and drink, so Christians flourish under persecution. Such is the Christian’s lofty and divinely appointed function, from which he is not permitted to excuse himself.
When I first converted to Orthodoxy, entering the Church in 2002, I asked Fr Victor Sokolov (Memory Eternal!) to bless my apartment. Upon arrival, he did a sort of brief inspection of my space including a long perusal of my bookshelves. At that time my library was much larger than it now is, containing the accumulated reading of a couple of decades. (I sold my books slowly to used bookstores, including one massive, $600 buyout during a yard sale that paid for my relocation to Asheville, NC.) On the shelves at that time was a section I called “scripture” which, in addition to a KJV Bible, a JPS Tanakh, and several patristic texts, also included a Tao te Ching and a copy of The Book of the Hopi. Also on the shelf were The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia. Father – who knew my spiritual peregrinations – took the Narnia boxed set off the shelf and said “This is the Orthodox Truth. We say, ‘taste and see’ and no matter where you journey, looking for the Truth, you will end up in the Church if you are honest in your search.” He was referring to the Narnian story of Emeth, a young Calormene soldier who, despite never having worshiped Aslan a day in his life, finds himself in Aslan’s eternal Paradise. Aslan says to him, “I take to me the services which thou hast done to Tash [the false god]… if any man swear by him and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him.” The Wiki adds, Aslan’s comment can be understood as a development of Paul’s thought in 1 Corinthians 12:3: “No one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, ‘Jesus be cursed,’ and no one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit.” That verse will come back in a few paragraphs.
This whole incident came to mind in a conversation with a friend, R., who was schooling me in a subject I’ve never studied: Philosophy. This is of particular importance as I’m now taking my first class in the topic. Reading the textbooks, I’ve noticed that I have read works by many of the philosophers involved, but not as topics. Rather, I read for instruction: one of the books on my “Scripture” shelf was Number LXXI of the Bollingen Series: The Collected Works of Plato. I remember once, after reading the Phaedrus, that I was at work in a bookstore. A man purchased a copy of the same text and I tried to engage him in conversation about it: he was horrified to discover I had read the text for Plato’s (Socrates’) ideas about love (usages of which appear some 230+ times in the text, depending on the translation). Rather, he insisted, you should read the text to learn about rhetoric. I’m still not sure about that, but the idea of reading a text to only learn the style or means of the text – and not the actual content – seems silly. I read the Presocratics and the Pythagoreans in College, but I read them to “try them on”. What was it like to think this way? What does it mean that the Cosmos is based on Number? I have always read books that way. What if the answer really is 42? Another friend once asked me on Twitter, “Is there any religion you have not tried?” And yes, there are rather a lot, but the journey through my quest has been fifty-six years long.
Yet the style and means (if those are the right words) are important as well as the content: this all came up in a conversation on hermeneutics. This involves the interpretive framework.
When I was reading these works in college, trying them all on, seeing what worked for me, the interpretive framework was, exactly, me. I wanted to construct a system and a map that worked for me. At this time, wrestling with issues of morality and personal praxis, I wanted a religio-philosophical system that made room for all the choices I was making in that struggle. If I decided XYZ was good, I wanted my “religion” to support me. So, a bit of this, a bit of that, add a pinch of Plato and some Taliesin, and all was good… for a little while. Then, suddenly, something was off. So I would weave in some of the Vedas, and perhaps a soupçon of Hopi, with a large side of Mary Daly. Howsabout a bowl of Gnosticism, Kabbalah, and maybe some Táin Bó Cúailnge? Why don’t we try adding some Sufism, Hildegard of Bingen, and Fr Matthew Fox, OP, (as he then was)?
At any point, as you might expect, I came out of the buffet line with a plate piled higher than my eyeballs with stuff, but no way to eat it except all at once. If you’ve ever been to a Golden Corral you know just exactly what I mean here. I’d eat it all – or toss it out – and start again. Sure, none of this was intended to fit together, but it was all true in a way. The one thing needful was a binder or mortar. Imagination can provide that or any one of several newagey text books. In situo this was a Quest for the Holy Grail, but – as I came to realize – it was really the spiritual version of Hoarding. With myself as the only measure of what was true or not, I would pick up anything that would fit and hope that later it would be possible to iron it all out into something fabulous. Later never comes though, and at a certain point, you get tired of making up stuff.
So I dropped it all. Only to find myself reading some of them again in class. Confusing, to say the least. The last time I read The Republic it was to imagine a better world. The last time I looked a Pythagoras it was to learn Sacred Geometry – as if it were true, mind you, not as a way to make really nice pictures. (TheCloisters Apocalypseas well as almost all pre-modern Christian Cathedrals are designed using these methods, for example.) What is going on now?
So last night’s phone conversation with R.
Is there Truth in there at all? Then it is our, Catholic truth. This is not some newagey relativism. This is the Catholic Faith from the earliest days:
But lest some should, without reason, and for the perversion of what we teach, maintain that we say that Christ was born one hundred and fifty years ago under Cyrenius, and subsequently, in the time of Pontius Pilate, taught what we say He taught; and should cry out against us as though all men who were born before Him were irresponsible — let us anticipate and solve the difficulty. We have been taught that Christ is the first-born of God, and we have declared above that He is the Word of whom every race of men were partakers; and those who lived reasonably are Christians, even though they have been thought atheists; as, among the Greeks, Socrates and Heraclitus, and men like them; and among the barbarians, Abraham, and Ananias, and Azarias, and Misael, and Elias, and many others whose actions and names we now decline to recount, because we know it would be tedious. – St Justin Martyr, First Apology, Chapter 46, From the 2nd Century
And St Thomas Aquinas too – pulling in the “Emeth” verse I mentioned above: Commenting on the text, “And no man can say the Lord Jesus…” (1 Cor. 12:3), Ambrose says: “Every true thing, no matter who says it, is from the Holy Spirit.” Augustine says: “The true is that which is.” But every act of existing is from God. Therefore, every truth is from Him. Just as the one is interchangeable with being, so is the true, and conversely. But all unity is from the first unity, as Augustine says. Therefore, every truth also is from the first truth. – Questiones Disputatae de Veritate Q1. Article VIII. Is every other truth from the first truth?
Let’s run with that Ambrose line… Every true thing, no matter who says it, is from the Holy Spirit. Omne verum, a quocumque dicatur, a Spiritu Sancto est. In my Freshmen year Western Civ class at King’s College a group of students argued with the professor that only Christianity had any truth, and I said, “If a Hindu man tells me it’s raining, I’m going to take an umbrella with me.” That was before I even knew what Church Fathers were, or went off on my religious hoarding phrase.
The proper framework, though, is not oneself but rather Truth – that is to say – the Church’s teaching, Christian Orthodoxy. The Truth: Jesus. We do not read someone in a vacuum, to learn how to become a follower of Philosopher X. Rather we read X in the light of the fullness of Truth revealed in Christ and known to the Church. We read to see if Philosopher X may lead us into deeper truths or to see how other people – from outside of the church – grasped hints of the Truth later revealed. It seems some writers have nothing to offer because they start from horribly mistaken assumptions (such as “there is no truth at all”). Yet, even then, if we read them from within the interpretive framework of the faith we may find something of value. Or not.
St Thomas Aquinas did this work for us already. The Summa is, of course, predicated on the work of Aristotle. To understand Aristotle, though, Aquinas spoke with Muslims and Jews in his day and learned from them. He also critiqued them. Pagan, Jewish, and Muslim thought went into St Thomas’ brain and out popped Christian theology. That’s not all. His work is a summation, yes: it documents the Sine Qua Non of Catholic theology. But it’s not the faith itself. It’s not a schematic to which all things must conform.
There are two ways to work with St Thomas, then. Here’s the cheap Thomism of the title: You can study his content, or you can work with his interpretive framework. You can cite chapter and verse in the Summa (Cheap) or you can take what you learn there and go do things with it (Valuable). The latter gives us a way forward while the former seems to be inimical to the spirit in which St Thomas worked and to the spirit of his teachings. Yes, cite the truth in his content and grow, but also his style, and his means. We need to see that Thomas is writing about Love, but also we need to see how he is writing, and what work he does to get there. We need to emulate all of this process. This is costly work – and of great value.
There are those who leave the church (or refuse to come in) for a lot of reasons that have more to do with “rejection” than with “seeking Truth”. There are a lot of things out there that call to them: pleasure, money, power, and perceived freedom. In our conversation, R. noted that the faith is an organic composition, like a tree growing wider and branchier, leafier and fruitier with every day. In contradistinction, creating one’s own framework for things requires an ongoing manual process, a continual work of construction: a techne rather than a fide. Every inbound item must be edited, simplified to fit into the framework we’re building. We must constantly organise and evaluate. The end result may be a well-constructed edifice but it will be infinitely more an “organized religion” than Catholicism. It can be laid out in spreadsheets and analyzed for data. It’s a mental map forced into reality: a pattern of things seen filtered through one’s own, very personal, very subjective choices; tables of correspondence that are meaningless to others and communicate nothing.
In the organic and divinely biological framework provided by the Incarnation of God, what some of my more hippie forebears called “The Christ Event”, the entire world is an “Old Testament” leading mankind to Truth or, to paraphrase The Bible Project, we believe that all of human culture and history is a unified book that leads to Jesus. Like Father Victor said, no matter where you journey, looking for the Truth, you will end up in the Church if you are honest in your search. Jesus takes all truth to himself – for he is the Truth. Only taste and see: you cannot help but be drawn deeper into his Love. If you set out for Truth, at first your choices don’t matter one bit: you’ve made the ultimate choice already and all other things must fall in line. Eventually, you’ll find that every little choice is conformed to that initial act of your will. Find the Truth. Your freedom to do whatever you want becomes the Freedom to Achieve the Truth. Having decided to seek the Holy Grail, you find Jesus.
Where we go from there is entirely up to us: as long as we have that framework, we are resting in the Everlasting Arms, safe and secure from all alarms.