Christian Life/Personal Holiness: January 2006 Archives

This is probably premature as I have not yet read the entire encyclical, and yet when a Pope moves toward the Song of Songs (as in section 6, which precedes the excerpt below), it seems to call for comment.

from Deus Caritas Est
Pope Benedict XVI

7. By their own inner logic, these initial, somewhat philosophical reflections on the essence of love have now brought us to the threshold of biblical faith. We began by asking whether the different, or even opposed, meanings of the word “love” point to some profound underlying unity, or whether on the contrary they must remain unconnected, one alongside the other. More significantly, though, we questioned whether the message of love proclaimed to us by the Bible and the Church's Tradition has some points of contact with the common human experience of love, or whether it is opposed to that experience. This in turn led us to consider two fundamental words: eros, as a term to indicate “worldly” love and agape, referring to love grounded in and shaped by faith. The two notions are often contrasted as “ascending” love and “descending” love. There are other, similar classifications, such as the distinction between possessive love and oblative love (amor concupiscentiae – amor benevolentiae), to which is sometimes also added love that seeks its own advantage.

In philosophical and theological debate, these distinctions have often been radicalized to the point of establishing a clear antithesis between them: descending, oblative love—agape—would be typically Christian, while on the other hand ascending, possessive or covetous love —eros—would be typical of non-Christian, and particularly Greek culture. Were this antithesis to be taken to extremes, the essence of Christianity would be detached from the vital relations fundamental to human existence, and would become a world apart, admirable perhaps, but decisively cut off from the complex fabric of human life. Yet eros and agape—ascending love and descending love—can never be completely separated. The more the two, in their different aspects, find a proper unity in the one reality of love, the more the true nature of love in general is realized. Even if eros is at first mainly covetous and ascending, a fascination for the great promise of happiness, in drawing near to the other, it is less and less concerned with itself, increasingly seeks the happiness of the other, is concerned more and more with the beloved, bestows itself and wants to “be there for” the other. The element of agape thus enters into this love, for otherwise eros is impoverished and even loses its own nature. On the other hand, man cannot live by oblative, descending love alone. He cannot always give, he must also receive. Anyone who wishes to give love must also receive love as a gift. Certainly, as the Lord tells us, one can become a source from which rivers of living water flow (cf. Jn 7:37-38). Yet to become such a source, one must constantly drink anew from the original source, which is Jesus Christ, from whose pierced heart flows the love of God (cf. Jn 19:34).

To clarify his point, and to unite it with some of the earlier ruminations, I simply offer this definition proposed in section 3:

That love between man and woman which is neither planned nor willed, but somehow imposes itself upon human beings, was called eros by the ancient Greeks.

So, the holy Father talks about a love that is neither planned nor willed. Further, he goes on to say that this love, the so-called ascending love of the cited section is critical to our advance in love and in the spiritual life. This ascending love is the arrow of desire. Desire may start with a worldly or human object, but that is not the ultimate aim of desire. The target of desire is always to return home. Desire points the way to something missing. Too often people stop at the point of obtaining what is desired, which is unfortunate because obtaining Earthly desires will never be satisfying.

The Holy Father points out that the fullness of love is in giving and Receiving. That is, the fullness of love is in the outward travel of the arrow of desire and in the shower of agape that comes down to us as the manna of Heaven. Anything less falls short of true love, true caritas.

I find this passage particularly comforting:

The more the two, in their different aspects, find a proper unity in the one reality of love, the more the true nature of love in general is realized.

What it says to me, in a roundabout way is that the human lot is to be tempted by desire. Desire is the siren-call of God, call us upwards, encouraging each person to transcend his earth-bound desire and to heed the desire that gives life and is behind all earthly desire. So, those of us who constantly complain about bodily temptation--yes, it is a very difficult passage to endure, but what it says, indirectly, is that we still hear God's call even though we are yet distant from Him.

Eros is answered by and intertwined with agape. In our present situation, the two are intrinsically bound and cannot be separated without doing radical harm to the very nature of love itself. Eros severed from agape parts passion and sympathy from service--it damages both will and desire.

I'll continue to read, and if other thoughts occur, I'll be happy to share them, but so far in this brief transit, I have met Pope Benedict XVI mystic or protomystic whose first encyclical calls us to a closer relationship with out Lord. The nature of the letter seemed to surprise a great many in Rome, and yet there was no need for it to do so. After all, he was chosen by the Holy Spirit, and we will assume that he has consented to be guided by Him, so what could be more practical than telling a world drowning in the diminution of eros that God is reaching out and calling each person home?

God bless our good Pope, and thanks be to God for the message He inspired of the Holy Father.

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Love Walks on Two Legs


But let's get back to love. Love walks on two legs. It needs both--will and feeling. They are not always operating. Just as when you take a step both feet are not simultaneously on the ground, so it may be with love. There are times when both are operative, but more often one or the other aspect predominates. For some, love hops around on one leg--will. There is a distrust of the emotional world, of the dimension that really is the consolation of God that helps to feed and "restock" the will. Love that seeks to operate on will alone will soon run dry. The emotion is the lubricant, rather like the fluid in the knee that keeps the joint moving smoothly--it is critically necessary. But we must also acknowledge that too much fluid is also a bad thing, the knee swells up and ceases to operate well.

Love as a human faculty has these two equally important, mutually intertwined branches. They feed each other, will and emotion. If I will someone good, the emotion will tend to fall in line. If I like someone, I am inclined to will good things for them.

Likewise, we do not say that God is will, we say that He is love. Nevertheless, God is His will just as He is His love. In God they know separation or boundary, but in humanity they do. Indeed, even in the spiritual world apart from God, they must know division or a fall from grace would not be possible.

Love walks on two legs, which like all legs, are a gift from God. The will is strengthened by the grace that is partially expressed in the consolation of emotion. We can will to love what we are not attracted to, but this will is a feeble thing and only held in place by His overwhelming grace and favor. Likewise, emotion fades, and without the will to hold us steady to the course our "love" becomes nothing more than our lust.

When we say God is Love, we must also acknowledge that God is Justice, Mercy, Prudence, Temperance, Grace, Kindness, Will, etc. etc., no part separate from any other nor extricable from it. Nevertheless, God sanctified the divided human person when He took human form and deigned to experience and participate in the full spectrum of what it meant to be human. And this means love--emotion and will, will and emotion, the two bringing to fullness the greatest of the three theological virtues.

Love is patient (will--to wait), love is kind (emotion--meeting the needs of another with empathy for the situation). . .

More later as I can think more about it, but I'm sure you're all tired by now. Hope I can make it to sentence two of the encyclical. But if not, it has already proven a great gift for me.

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Love is Patient. . .

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I have not read more than the introduction to the new encyclical, but the title alone was enough to make me think and to consider all of the misconceptions and difficulties that center around the idea of love.

When we begin to talk about love there tend to be two very strong reactions. Amongst the intellectuals and those who are emotionally distant, we tend to get the "Love is an act of will," school of thought. Among those who find things too rigorously logical and emotionally sterile, we get the notion that love is an emotion. On the part of the first opinion, I find the thought of God conforming to that definition of love frightening and off-putting. Gritting one's teeth and enduring despite the desire to be elsewhere is certainly an act of will, and it can encompass one motion of love, but it certainly doesn't define the fullness of love--one grits ones teeth and endures because there is a link or a bond there worthy of preservation. On the other hand, the "love is emotion" school, leaves us abandoned to the vagaries of whim. When the feeling of love comes over us, we'll pay attention, otherwise, you're left on your own--there's a bond, but where the will is not united the bond is merely how I feel at the moment. Neither extreme gives us a very appealing notion of what it might mean when we say that God is love.

Neither of these perceptions is entirely correct on its own. Rather it is the combination of the two that gives us some sense of the dimensionality of love. It is interesting that the word used for love with respect to God is not "amor" but "caritas." In fact, this caritas, for a very long time, was translated as "charity." And charity is perhaps closer to the spirit of what is intended than is "amor," linked as it is to eros. Caritas and charity both carry with them the very word "caring." Caring is love in action--it is both an act of will and a movement of will toward the other. Caring implies a bond--in some cases a bond of emotion, but certainly a bond of duty, depending upon the nature of the caring. A nurse might not be emotionally bonded to her patients, but one of the reasons many people become nurses is that there is a deep seated desire to help others. A priest may not particularly like all of his parishioners, but out of duty he cares for each one to the best of his ability.

We are human. Duty fails, bonds are strained, emotions come and go, the strength of desire and will fluctuate. God is God. He is, in this sense the unmoved mover--not that He is emotionally distant, but rather, none of these things that strengthens or weakens the bonds that join humans change His universal caring one iota. The horrors of a Hitler, a Pol Pot, or a Saddam Hussein do not alter God's intense salvific love one bit. His desire, His bond, and His will to save and care for are just as strong for these people as it is for Mother Teresa. I know, there is something frightening about the notion. Is it fair that He should love these who have spread so much sorrow as much as He loves His saints? Fairness is an odd human concept that attempts to right the balance of things. God is a God of justice, mercy, and love. And He is the God of all of these at once without any bars or separation. Remember, God is not the God of parts, but the God of the whole, undivided unity and simplicity. His Love, Justice, Mercy, caring--all of these things are one thing in God, indivisible, uniate. God cannot help but care for all of His children with equal fervor. There are some who cannot return the love and there are some who are exalted to great heights by it. How high we rise in God's kingdom is not so much predicated on how much God loves us (He did so even unto death) as by how much we are willing to respond to that love--by how much precedence that love takes in our own lives. Each is made differently, but God loves all equally. He will welcome any prodigal with the joy that He welcomes any saint. It's just that prodigals, thought they may realize their sin, often repent only insofar as is necessary to get back into good graces. (Being one myself, I speak with authority.)

I'll stop for the moment and gather together the rest of this thought which I may post later; however, for the moment, I think it is sufficient to leave with the thought that love is not a things of extremes in human experience, rather it is the perfect balance of bond and caring with action of will. One must have both the tie and the willingness to accept and act upon the tie for love to exist and grow.

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12 Apostles

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Not a novel observation, but one that occurred to me as I was listening to the homily at Mass.

12 is a number of completeness. So why didn't Jesus pick 11 apostles? Why 12?

12 is the number of completeness, the completeness of the body of Christ and as its head, Christ leads the body but is more than just another part of it. When He ascended to His Father, tweleve were still left--completeness, headed by Completeness.

Not astounding, but well worth considering.

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Exhortation and Encouragement

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I have probably written about this before, but sometimes my mind turns on the same tracks and I think it's important to remind myself of things I rediscover.

When I was with the charismatic renewal, I was identified among the group as a prophet or as having the prophetic gift. But honestly, I didn't feel like a prophet and I didn't act like a prophet. I did not warn of the coming wrath nor did I convict others of their sins.

Over time I considered what I knew of what I had done with the group. (The experience was odd because it would no sooner come out of my mouth than I would forget what it was I had said, so I had to rely on the few notes I had taken and others had given me.) I discovered that there was nothing at all of the prophet about me. I did not announce God's wrath to come, I did not identify the sins of others and encourage them to renounce them and lead a straight life.

Rather then, as now, I announced the Father who loves us, the Savior who cherishes us, the God who slaughters the fatted calf to welcome us back, time and time and time again. At one time I gave the word "exhortation" to this gift. But an exhortation is a hair's breadth from a harangue. I think of my gift now in terms of encouragment.

Time and again people come to me despairing of themselves, of God's love, of God's help, of others, and it is my pleasure and my privilege to remind them of the God who loves each one of us as if we were each the only child He had. Encouragement, always to turn from our present ways which satisfy neither ourselves nor God and rejoice in our privilege of conversation, of deep and abiding love.

I hope always to hold on to this great gift. I derive encouragement from places people see none (St. John of the Cross for one) and I hope always to be a source of encouragement to those who feel that they cannot go on, they cannot progress, they cannot grow. Of course one can't if that is how one approaches the question.

No one can will him or herself to heaven. No one can even will him or herself to better prayer. All that one can do is pray, rely on God, and when the grace comes, seize it and live it. God will perfect our prayers, He will give us the words. He will help us lead lives pleasing to Him, all we need to do is turn to Him and ask. The grace is always there and He rejoices in our little requests. He is the Father who loves us above all things--even above His own self.

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Frightening Steps to Loving God


1. God is simple.

St. Thomas Aquinas "discovered" this and the Church teaches this (so far as I can tell.) God is simple. He is not made up of parts. He is one complete unity--one cannot take away a "part" of God. As such God has separable attributes--no qualities apart from Who He is. That is God's will is God, God's love is God, God's mercy is God, God's justice is God. He is at once all of these things and these things are at once all the same in God because God is simple. People make distinctions between these things because humanity is not simple--there are component parts. (By the way, don't ask me how this is true, I haven't a clue. But I do understand that it is true, and I am trying to piece out the implications of this solid and confusing truth.)

2. Loving God Means Loving God's Will
As pointed out above, God's will is His being. God is God's will and at the same time God's love, justice, mercy, patience, power, etc. But in the very real sense God is God's will--they are not separable. Thus, truly loving God means loving God's will. Loving God's will is more than saying , "Thy will be done/on Earth as it is in heaven." We must also seek to do it. When we do God's will, because His Will is Himself, we incorporate ourselves into God in a substantive way that in unmatchable. This is one of the reasons why Jesus tells us, "If you love me, you will keep my commandments." His commandments are an expression of the will of God. To love God, we must love His will.

3. Loving God's Will Means Loving My Life

Things get even more frightening. Loving God's will means loving my life, here, now, as it is. That is not to say that we must be fatalistic and accept as inevitable our present circumstances. It does not mean we cannot hope and work for better. But unless and until things do get better, our present circumstances are, for whatever reason, God's present will for us. To love God means to love his will. To love His will means to rejoice in our present circumstances even as we look forward to even better circumstances. We can rejoice in who and what we are and what we have here and now and still hope for a better life. Indeed, the whole Christian vision is reaching for that better life here and now.

The most important part of prayer is loving God. But loving God comes with knowing God and we can know God (in part) by knowing ourselves and our present circumstances because they are manifestations of God's will. Loving our lives as they have been presented to us, as gift and gift alone, is a step toward knowing God intimately. It is a frightening step because it means I must see and accept my present limitations, circumstances, and conditions as God's abiding and loving will for me here an now.

I suppose for some this is not nearly so difficult a prospect as it may be for others. As one who is always looking forward to better times, it is a difficult first step. However, the necessity of this step follows from the logic and beauty of God's simplicity. I need to learn to embrace that simplicity in all of its apparent contradictions--love, will, mercy, justice, compassion, authority--everything that is God and makes up God, not as constituent parts but as a gestalt from which we derive our impression of these virtues and strengths.

Loving God is as simple as coming to know who we really are and always seeking to find what God has in store for us.

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It occurs to me that if the end is not Love, then it is not the end, but a stopping point.

In the past I have seen movies and read books that do not really end, they merely stop. If we act without love then we do not reach the End, we simply stop. I wonder if the sum of all this stopping is not the whole notion of purgatory, where all halting and stopping is consumed and we are finally purged of all the faults that do not lead to an end, but rather bring us to a stopping point and allow us to quit.

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My mortification should not mortify you.

Too often those who undergo strict regimes of mortification end up mortifying not only themselves but those around them. Their diets dictate all and cast shadows on what others eat. Their rules of behavior are the standard and anything less is unsatisfactory--even if nothing is said, it is clear.

I'm a bad mortifier--when I suffer I believe in sharing. But shared suffering often isn't efficacious, and mortification isn't merely about suffering, there is an end to the action--we deny ourselves some positive blessing or good not to deny ourselves, but to open ourselves to the greater good we would remain ignorant of.

Now, if only I remember to come back and look at this when I'm going through my next bout of mortifications.

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On this most glorious day of the revelation of Our Lord Jesus Christ to all the world as seen in the persons of the three wise men I am reminded that we do not work to earn leisure, nor do we work to earn the money to buy things, but, if we are working properly, we work for the glory of God, as a sign to all people. If in the process we have some leisure and some enjoyment of the things of this world, so be it. But it is important to remember that they are secondary, entirely secondary. And if I should be called to work every waking moment of every day with only the reward of getting up to work it all again, and yet I do that work in praise of God and the the Glory of Christ our savior, I have contributed more to the world than any amount of labor in a cause or leisurely creation of the arts.

Each day we are the epiphany for those who do not know Jesus. If I accept that role and act accordingly, I am living in the praise of glory and that is the only end I need.

And so I ask, why is this so hard to remember day by day. Why must I struggle so hard to keep focus and to remember that everything that is not for the glory of God is wasted effort--futile and meaningless?

I note it now for those times when I need to remember and cannot seem to get everything into focus. I note it now for those who have a similar difficulty with focus. And I note it now in great joy and peace because God is with us--He will support us with His grace and help us to work out our salvation and the salvation of the entire world.

Praise Him!

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I've read here and there about the proper means of defending one's faith. It occurred to me at some time that the most useful, most effective, most reliable means of defending one's faith is to live it as it is meant to be lived, without stint, without quibble, without making a point of it.

It also occurred to me that this is by far the most difficult means of defending one's faith--one that, while not reserved to Saints, certainly most effectively demonstrated by them. Some of these Saints also defended their faith in other ways--in physical battle, in intellectual battle, in protracted debate. But others did not so engage, and yet they still won the hearts and minds and souls of a great many. I guess I would say that living your faith in its entirety is a precursor to being able to defend it in any intellectual capacity.

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About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Christian Life/Personal Holiness category from January 2006.

Christian Life/Personal Holiness: December 2005 is the previous archive.

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