Love: Julian of Norwich

​During a time of severe illness, Julian (1342-1413) had a series of sixteen “showings” that all revealed to her some aspect of God’s love.  These were great comforts to her, and when she wrote them down, ‘Revelations of Divine Love’ became a source of ongoing blessing that has continued for over 600 years.

The richness of her experiences of God’s love cannot be captured in a blog post.  We must read her book for that, and even then we are left gazing into Mystery. Her visions are beyond words, even thkugh she did her best to write about them.  But it is Mystery which created in her (and in us) the desire to dwell in, grow in, and share the love of God.

Some have seen this statement as a summary of Julian’s experience, “Would you learn the Lord’s meaning in [the revelations]?  Learn it well: Love was the meaning.  And who showed [them] to you?  Love.  What were you shown?  Love.  Why were shown Love?  For Love.” [1] For Juluan, Love is the origin, motive, and content.  It is Love from start to finish.

God is the source of Love: “I Am the might and the goodness of the Fatherhood.  I Am the wisdom of the Motherhood.  I Am the light and grace that is all-blessed Love.  I Am the Trinity. I Am the Unity.  I Am the sovereign Goodness of all things.  I Am the One who moves you to love.  I Am the One who creates your longing to love and to be loved.  I Am the endless fulfilling of all true desires.” [2]

Julian’s contributions to our theology of love are many. But at the core is her reminder that God is the “All-in-all” of love.  Whenever we receive love or give it, it is God, God, God, all the way through. 

[1 Grace Warrack, ed.,] ‘Revelations of Divine Love’ (Methuen &Co., 1914), 29.  The book is available in a variety of editions and formats.  Because the original is in old English, I have modernized the quotations for this post.

[2] Ibid., 147.

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Love: Sts. Francis & Clare

​When we come to Francis (1182-1226) and Clare (1193-1254), we see another mountain peak in a theology of love.  Each of them sought to be instruments of God’s peace, sowing love in a multitude of ways throughout their lifetimes.

Looking at their respective theologies of love as a singular reality (as it largely was), we are plunged anew into Trinitarian love, which they saw as the heavenly Community of Love, which is meant to be the paradigm for earthly communities.  Love, for Francis and Clare, is at the core of individual and collective life, and it is a radiating core that offers love to everyone everywhere.

With respect to Francis, his writing, “The Prayer Inspired by the Our Father” most clearly shows how love runs as the golden thread through all of Francis’ thoughts, words, and actions. [1]  Like others before him, and since, Francis wrote a prayer based on each of the phrases in the Lord’s Prayer. Love is the central idea from beginning to end, expressing the love called for in the two great commandments.

With respect to Clare, we see her commitment to love illustrated in the third letter she wrote to Agnes of Prague, reminding her that she was a “dearly beloved lady in Christ,” and exhorting her to “love Him totally Who gave Himself totally for your love.” [2]

Together they incarnated an intense love of God with an extravagant love of others, which has come to be summarized in the prayer attribute to Francis, a prayer that teaches us that compassion is the inevitable result of contemplation, and that the creation of Beloved Community is the inevitable proof of love.

 Francis and Clare’s deep commitments to love became the cornerstone of the Franciscan order which arose from their leadership.  The disposition of their communities love all creation through vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience was a natural outflowing from the cave of the heart—that soul-place where the Lover and the Beloved dwell in deep communion. [3]

[1] Regis Armstrong & Ignatius Brady, tr., ‘Francis and Clare: The Complete Works,’ in The Classics of Western Spirituality series (Paulist Press, 1982), 104-106.

[2] Ibid., 200-201.

[3] John Michael Talbot, ‘The Lover and the Beloved’ (Crossroad, 1988).


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Love: Bernard of Clairvaux

​When we come to Bernard (1091-1153), we arrive at the highest point so far in church history with respect to a Christian theology of love.  He not only incorporated everything we have looked at previously, he also added new brush strokes to the canvas.

Like those before him, Bernard saw the primacy of God’s love: “It is so important for every soul among you who is seeking God to realize that God was first in the field, and was seeking you before you began to search for Him….He loves both more than you love, and before you love at all.” [1]  Here Bernard is echoing St. John’s words, “We love because God first loved us” (1 John 4:19).

With the primacy of God’s love established, Bernard went on to describe our love to God in four degrees. [2]  In the first degree we love ourselves for our own sake.  And while this is the lowest degree of love, Bernard believed it was a sign of the naturalness of love and a recognition of the imago dei.  This is the level of love charscterized by appreciation.

The second degree of love is loving God because God is useful to us.  In this degree, we do not love God for who God is, but for what God does.  This too is genuine love because it shows we recognize that God is the Source of all goodness and the giver of good gifts.  This the level of love characterized by thanksgiving.

Even though the first two degrees of love are genuine, it is in the third degree when we enter the level of loving that God has in mind for us: loving God for who God is—loving God’s being apart from God’s acts.  This is love characterized by adoration.

The fourth degree of love is one Bernard believed existed, but felt it is rare compared to the first three degrees.  The fourth degree is loving God alone, with no regard for our self on the one hand or God’s gifts on the other.  It is higher than adoration because even in adoration we remain conscious of our self.  In the fourth degree, we transcend the self and dwell in the love of God alone—what Charles Wesley called being “lost in wonder, love, and praise.” [3]. This is love in which God is the sole focus of our life.

The fourth degree is difficult to describe because words cannot grasp it.  One word Bernard used to point to it is ‘harmonization.’  The fourth degree of love is an experience of deep oneness—akin to Paul’s words, “for me to live is Christ” where even the attempt to distinguish our being from God’s being diminishes the love experience. In this degree of love, the union of our spirit with God’s Spirit is so complete that it is pointless to speak of them as separate.  In God we are also most in our true self. [4]

The four degrees of love root Bernard in the mystical tradition, but the love he described did not make him so heavenly minded that he was of no earthly good.  Quite the contrary.  He also lived in and taught the importance of the second great commandment. The love of others meant that whatever love we experience on the mountaintop must be lived in the valley.  For Bernard, love is not only contemplative, it is active.

His image to describe this was the reservoir. It fills first, but only in order to give out. Bernard wrote that our desire to be “shown God’s holy Will at every moment [is so] that He may tell us what to do and how to do it.” [5]  Love is obedience and service.

It is not an exaggeration to say that Bernard’s theology of love became the reference point for subsequent Christians who sought to make love their aim, and today his views still shape a theology of love that aspires to love “God alone,” and in doing so, acts to love others as an agent of God’s love.

[1] ‘Bernard on he Song of Songs’ (Mobray & Company, 1952), 261.

[2] E.G. Gardner, tr., “The Love of God,” ‘ Book of St. Bernard’ (Dutton, 1915).  It remains available in multiple editions and formats.  

[3] Hymn, “Love Divine All Loves Excelling”

[4] This does not mean the God/human distinction disappears.  Even our deepest love recognizes that God is God, and we are not.  But in the fourth degree of love, the need to spend time figuring out “what is God” and “what is me” is set aside in a pure experience of being loved and loving.

[5] ‘Bernard on the Song of Songs,’ 184.

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Love: Benedict’s Rule

​Written in the sixth century a.d., the Rule of St. Benedict soon became the guide for cenobitic (communal) monasticism, and I write about it today because the Rule continues to direct the common life of many communities to this day.  Like the Didaché and the desert abbas/ammas, it is rooted and grounded in love.  Chapter 4 of the lists forty five good works the monks are to do, and the list begins, 

“First of all, love the Lord God with your whole heart, your whole soul and all your strength, 2 and love your neighbor as yourself (Matt 22:37-39; Mark 12:30-31; Luke 10:27).”  And lest they miss it, about halfway through the list (#21) the monks are told again, “the love of Christ must come before all else.”  With the first great commandment at the core, the other forty three good works are variations of the second great commandment, the love of others.

Not surprisingly then, monasteries and convents became known as “schools of love.”  Through daily worship (oratio) and work (labora), these communities served to illustrate that living together in love was indeed possible.  This witness was/is the heart of monastic evangelism, a kind of “if we can do it, you can do it” testimony.

To many people, the cloistered life seems to be irrelevant, due largely to its isolation.  But it is the “stepping away” (detachment) from the world that creates the sacred space for “entering into” (attachment) the love of God and others.  In this sense, the monastic life is an invitation to pattern our lives according to the same detachment/attachment rhythm as a means for growing in love even withoout a full-time commitment to monasticism.

The Rule of Benedict remains a manual of devotion for us all.  Reading and pondering it is a discipline that will effect the increase of love in our lives. [1]

[1] The oft-used text of the Rule is ‘The Rule of St. Benedict in English’ (The Liturgical Press, 1982). In addition to it, several contemporary versions connect its timeless wisdom to life today: (1) Joan Chittister, ‘The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages (Crossroad, 1982), (2) Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, ‘The Rule of Saint Benedict: A Contemporary Paraphrase (Paraclete Press, 2012), and (3) Basil Pennington, ‘Listen With Your Heart: Spiritual Living with the Rule of Saint Benedict’ (Paraclete Press, 2007).

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Love: Abba/Amma Love

The early Christian spiritual guides were called abbas and ammas, people who incarnated Trinitarian (”Abbba/Amma”) love.  Their central teaching was perfection (completion) in love in keeping with Jesus’ teaching of it in Matthew 5:48. The context for their theology of love was the two great commandments.

The devotion to prayer of the abbas/ammas confirmed their love of God, but their emphasis was on the second commandment, their love of others.  John the Short’s statement summarizes how the abbas/ammas understood that to remain in the love of God meant to “suffer injury without anger, remaining peaceful, and not rendering evil for evil, not looking out for the faults of others.” [1]

The hallmark of love was humility.  Amma Syncletica taught that “a ship cannot be built without  nails and no one can be saved without humility.” [2]  Humility was nothing other than being “poor in spirit” (self-surrendered) as Jesus described it in the first Beatitude.

The sign of love for the abbas/ammas was compassion.  They practiced it through two key means: encouraging others and bearing others’ burdens. [3] These acts were shown to all, but especially to those who were weak, marginalized, and negatively judged by others.  An unnamed abba put it this way, “it is by encouragement that our God bears people,” so they went out of their way to do this through their words and deeds. [4]

As a Christian in the Wesleyan tradition, it is clear that John and Charles Wesley’s theology of love is drawn from the abbas/ammas of early Christianity.  But it is also important to note that the New Monasticism and Emergent Christianity are drawing on abba/amma wisdom as well.  [5]  Leaders in these movements are calling us to a renewal of love, and doing so with reference to the early Christians, who indeed surround us like a cloud of witnesses, urging us to run the race set before us—the race of outdoing one another in showing love to all.

[1] Benedicta Ward, ‘The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks’ (Penguin Books, 2003), 4.  This is Ward’s translation of the ‘Verba Seniorum,’ compiled around 550 a.d.

[2] Ibid., 161.

[3] Douglas Burton-Christie, ‘The Word in the Desert’ (Oxford University Press, 1993), 282-291.

[4] Ibid., 283.

[5] Brian McLaren, ‘Finding Our Way Again: The Return of the Ancient Practices’ (Thomas Nelson, 2008).

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Love: The Didaché

​The Didaché is the oldest surviving catechism, likely written between 90-110 a.d. The centrality of love is seen at the beginning, where the “two ways”—life and death—are described.  Concerning life, it says,  ”Now the path of life is this — first, thou shalt love the God who made thee, and thy neighbour as thyself” (1:2).

The way of love is equated with life, and it is a path, which means it is a journey of love that we make over the course of our lifetime.  It is a life which manifests the two great commandments.  Coming at the beginning of the Didaché, love is the context for everything else.  And as a catrchetical document, the Didaché shows that baptism was a declaration by  new Christians that they would live the life of love as they walked the path of life.

The simplicity of the Didaché’s message of love must not be underestimated.  It is the early Church’s witness to the continuation of what we saw in last week’s post about the New Testament, i.e. that love is the pervasive element in the Christian life.  Love is the defining and directing quality of all our attitudes and actions.  Our baptism marks us as lovers.  What we say and do after we’re baptized shows whether we live as those who remember their baptism or as those who forget it.   

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In-Sight: Collision Course

​Lent is the season in the Christian year when we take a prolonged look at ourselves in relation to Christ.  It is a time for remembering the radical nature of the Gospel, and an opportunity to recommit ourselves to it.

We don’t read far into the Book of Acts before we see that the church was on a collision course with “the principalities and powers”–the religious/political collusion between Israel and Rome. It continues the story of Jesus’ own collision course which led him to crucifixion.. Acts confirms Jesus’ words that if he was persecuted, his disciples would be too. (John 15:20) [1]

The stage in Acts was set almost immediately after Pentecost, when the authorities hauled the apostles into court and told them to cease and desist from “stirring up trouble” by preaching and teaching about Jesus, and recruiting others to follow him.  In the opening round of controversy, Peter and John set the norm which played out until the end of the book (indeed, until the end of the New Testament)–“we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard….we must obey God rather than any human authority.” [2]

This conviction has wound its way through history to the present day, expressed clearly in these words of Martin Luther King Jr in his letter from the Birmingham jail, “There are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws.  Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” [3]

From Jesus, the early Christians in Acts, the ensuing Gospel tradition, and contemporary witnesses we have our marching orders. [4]  It is a pattern that emerges from two foundational principles: resistance and reconstruction.  Within the context of the Christian church both of these things, which occurred in Acts, must be lived today.

With respect to resistance, we face the same twofold task the first Christians did: calling out falsehood in the Body of Christ and calling out imperialization in the culture.  In Acts the former action was highlighted by the church’s dealings with Ananias and Saphira.  In the second task we see repeated manifestations of subversion as the early Christians incarnated values and virtues of the Kingdom of God (in contrast to “the kingdoms of this world”) and personified the courageous declaration, “Jesus is Lord!” not the emperor.

Today, we must call out the “high priests” who are propping up the fallen-world empire by erroneously alleging it has the blessing of God on it.  These leaders, like the 850 false prophets of Baal and Asherah, who ate at Jezebel’s table (1Kings 18:19) are being wined and dined by corrupt political leaders. We must call them out, and expose the pseudo-gospel they espouse. [5]  As we do this, we must also continue to declare “Jesus is Lord,” not the current President–or any other President in our past or our future.  These acts constitute the necessary core of ancient and modern Christian resistance.

The reconstructive task runs alongside the resistance.  The revelation of God moves from darkness to light, from death to life.  Criticism is not enough, construction is required.  In fact, resistance is not genuine if it is not accompanied by reconstruction. This example was set for us by the ancient prophets who began with judgment but ended with hope. [6]. Reconstruction begins inside the church itself (1Peter 4:17).  It then moves outward into the culture.  Reconstruction is defined by the phrase “new creation” where the old passes away (through life in Christ and the ministry of reconciliation) and the new comes (2 Corinthians 5:17-18 ).  

Using the Book of Acts as our focal point, we learn the basics of reconstruction from the church in Antioch.  It is the task of renewal that was/is characterized by caring, inclusion, diversity, transformation, godly leadership, and bearing with opposition–all centered in worship and prayer. [7]  When the church incarnated these qualities, the Holy Spirit moved on the believers to commission Paul and Barnabas to spread the gospel. They could go because they had lived the Message in Antioch and knew what authentic congregations anywhere should look like.

At the heart of the resistance/reconstruction combo is nonviolence, another contrast between the Gospel which commends restorative justice and the fallen-world ideologies (as illustrated in the Book of Acts) which rely on and survive by retributive justice. The calling out (resistance) and calling forth (reconstruction) must be accompanied by nonviolence. [8]  Nonviolence is the living out of Jesus’ beatitude, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5)

The collision course revealed in the Book of Acts has been repeated in every century since Christianity began.  The resistance/reconstruction dynamic is the pattern of Gospel renewal.  And it all comes to us, as it did for the first disciples and Christians since, as the call to “obey God rather than any human authority.”  God has created the path, we must get on it and walk.  Lent affords us a fresh opportunity to do so.

[1] Jesus’ main message–the Kingdom of God–put him and his disciples on this collision course.  Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan describe it in sobering detail in their book, ‘The Last Week’ (HarperCollins, 2006).  Walter Brueggemann expands the picture in nearly all of his his books.  I note especially, ‘God, Neighbor, Empire’ (Baylor University Press, 2016).

[2] Acts 4:20, 5:29.  Dr. Bonnie Thurston writes of these responses, “Peter and John articulate the principle of supremacy of conscience over even religious institutions.” (‘The Life With God Bible,’ HarperOne, 2005, 206nt).

[3] Unjust laws are those that do harm to others, those that promote the gain of the few at the expense of the many, and produce a retributive environment and result.  Unjust laws arise from a supremacist/arrogant mindset which then legislates policies that enhance and preserve its power.

[4] I use the phrase “Gospel tradition” to differentiate between the pre-Constantinian era of Christianity, (pre 313 a.d.) and the “institutional tradition” (i.e. imperialization of Christianity) which followed.  Just as the first apostles resisted in Acts, the desert mothers and fathers (and the 4th and 5th century rise of monasticism) shunned “churchianity” and preserved the Message which became compromised in the empire.

[5] Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s book, ‘Reconstructing the Gospel: Finding Freedom from Slaveholder Religion’ (IVP Books, 2018) is an excellent study of this longstanding tendency to adopt a gospel that is actually no Gospel.  His more-recent book. ‘Revolution of Values: Reclaiming Public Faith for the Common Good’ (IVP Boojs, 2019) continues the exposure of Christian nationalism, with an eye toward overcoming it.

[6] This is what Richard Rohr has called “the practice of the better”–the phrase which was my 2018 theme each Wednesday on Oboedire.

[7] E. Stanley Jones used the church at Antioch as the case study for his book, ‘The Reconstruction of the Church–On What Pattern?’ (Abingdon Press, 1970).  This book did not receive the attention that others of his books did, but it is a “live wire” for the reconstructive task today.

[8] The theme of nonviolence is itself a needed emphasis running as a thread within resistance and reconstruction.  I wrote a series about it on Oboedire from September through December of 2016.  The posts are archived on the Oboedire home page.  For today, I remind you to read the writings of Martin Luther King Jr, John Lewis, John Dear, and William Barber III, to be guided well into the mind and methods of nonviolence. The Pace e Bene ministry is an excellent resource as well.


Posted in In-Sight