Loving the unknowable God

All good Catholic theology and philosophy acknowledge that God is beyond knowing. He is utterly beyond our understanding, and beyond every concept we could ever come up with. It is to the point that, according to St Thomas Aquinas, we don’t even know what it means when we say that God exists.

So then, how are we supposed to love the Lord with all our hearts, minds, souls and strength? How can we love what we cannot know? What would such a love even look like?

To love is to desire the good of the other. That is, it is to desire the good that the other themselves are, to desire them to exist more fully, to come into their perfection and fulness. It also includes the desire of this good for ourselves.

What can we know of God? We know God as He reveals Himself, firstly in creation, in which every creature reflects something of God; secondly in the inspired scriptures, in which we see God moving and hear God speaking throughout history; thirdly in His Son, Jesus Christ, the fulness of God’s self revelation and action in history. And yet, all of this revelation does not negate the truth that God is completely beyond our power to know. So what does all of this revelation even reveal?

It tells us that God is love. That creation is loved into being, and exists as a reflection of His boundless goodness. That He cares for us, and moves within our history. That He is totally with us, joined in our joys and sufferings, giving Himself to us entirely.

We cannot grasp what God is. In fact, God is not a what at all. We cannot grasp Him because He is perfect self emptying love, pouring Himself out through all of eternity. You try to grasp Him and He has already gone, already fully emptied. We only know that He is, because we see how He fills up everything else.

So what is it to love the unknowable God? It is to desire His love to be fully expressed and received, both within ourselves and within all of creation. It is to surrender ourselves to His love for us, and be immersed in and transformed into His indiscriminate love for us all.

God bless you!

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.

[1 John 4:7-12]

Duty, authority and freedom

I was recently described as being lawful-good. If you’re unaware of alignment charts, it’s a way of summarising characters as the combination of two scales: lawful to chaotic, and good to evil. At first I felt offended by my new label, like I’d been called boring right to my face. I tried feebly to argue it, but quickly realised they were right (which just reaffirms my lawful-goodness).

And then, I discovered that I like it. I like authority and I like rules, and I find actual fun in establishing or amending both. I regularly come up with new rules and find new principles to live by. I like when things are well ordered and I dislike when they are disordered. I actually like seeing authority being exercised (when done well). I love the idea of duty, and of living by a strict code (like batman, or a samurai).

And yes, I’ll accept that I’m “good” as well. By which I mean, I largely believe that others’ good is generally my good. I believe that being good to others is the best path to happiness, and so I try to be good to others.

With this in mind, I have to ask myself, is duty and authority contrary to freedom? Am I less free than my chaotic friends? Does lawfulness and or goodness make me a slave?

No. In fact, the opposite is true: the fulfillment of duty and submission to authority is absolutely necessary to freedom – for the individual as well as for society.

Why? Because freedom is simply life according to truth. The truth of who and what I am, and the truth of my situation. And duty is the truth of who I am in relation to others, while authority is the truth of the relation of the whole to its parts.

While you can violently force people to live contrary to truth, deception is far and away the best way to enslave someone. You tell them you are their benefactor, or that their friends are their enemies, or that they are worthless, or that their suffering and work is actually for their own benefit etc. We are forced to live confined to an unreal world, denied the opportunity to be who we truly are, in the world as it truly is.

If we want liberation, for ourselves or for others, the first point must always be to expose the lie. Generally, it is some variation of that we are worthless, or powerless, or alone, and usually a combination of all three. When we realise that we are beloved children of God Himself, that all of Heaven is on our side, and all of creation is our brother and sister and mother, we are set free from these lies, and we enter into the freedom of the children of God.

To do our duty is to live the truth of not being alone. I serve you and you serve me, because we are united. We are something to each other; we mean something to each other. I am a son, a brother, a friend, an employee, a colleague, a citizen, a fellow human, a fellow creature, and much more. And to play these roles well, is no more than to be myself.

Similarly, to obey authority is to live the truth that we are part of something greater than ourselves, and that our own greatness lies in playing our part well. The part must submit itself to the whole in order to be realised. We humble ourselves for the unity and the good of the whole of which we are a part, like the individual instruments in an orchestra, each giving way to the others, such that the beauty of all together and of every one singly is magnified.

There will be times when those in authority must be opposed however, and on the same basis. When they oppose the unity and the good of the whole, they lose their real authority, and are left with an empty facade, ready to crumble. When they no longer serve harmony, those who seek harmony will no longer serve them.

God bless you!

Merry Christmas! (sorry it’s late)

Sorry for the recent radio silence. There’s no particular reason for it.

I just thought I’d deliver the yearly reminder that on Christmas day, approximately 2,019 years ago, God was born amongst us as a teeny tiny baby. Almighty God hid Himself in the Blessed Virgin’s womb. The Lord God of Hosts was wrapped in swaddling bands. The creator of the universe was nestled up in Joseph’s arms.

It’s true that this post has missed the big day, but the magi are running later still! The divine babe is still newborn, and hasn’t even received His name yet.

We shouldn’t shy away from the absurdity of the Incarnation. Who in their right mind would ever worship a newborn (or even, unborn) baby as the omnipotent creator of all? What kind of God would genuinely become a human, with all of our weakness and suffering and vulnerability? The God who is love would.

Love unites the lover to the beloved. Love condescends. Love is vulnerable. Love is weak. Love is small. Love is dependent. Love is almighty.

God is not a philanthropist, trying to better everyone’s lives from the outside: He is the lover of us, and desires to give Himself to us entirely. He loves us!

Can you imagine if we loved Him like He loves us? Can you imagine how differently we would live? Can you imagine how happy we would be?

May the Christchild bless you!

Jesus is the answer.

The difficulty of being a Christian is learning to really believe the above sentence. Jesus is the answer. It is not morality and it is not clever words and it is not any programme of action. It is not hidden from the masses and it is not available for a price. It is not something we earn or accomplish or even discover. It is not hard work and it is not natural gift and it is not good luck.

Jesus is the answer.

How am I meant to live? How can I make any sense of the chaos of my life? How am I to face my problems? Jesus.

By Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection, I am to live in this world. Accepting Him as my life, and following Him as best I can, and above all else, trusting Him, I am to face the world, with all of its confusion, indifference, and death.

And what’s more, we must reject every other attempt at an answer. No “Jesus + X”, whether it be a politics or a theology or a good work or anything else. Nothing else will do. Nothing else will ever save you.

As insane as this may sound, this, and nothing else, is Christianity. Hold on to this one truth no matter what.

Jesus is the answer.

‘True love is its own satisfaction’

‘Love is a going forth of the soul, not a contract; it is not the result of a convention, and is not to be acquired by agreement; it is spontaneous in its impulses, and likens us to itself; also true love is its own satisfaction. Its recompense lies in the object of its love; for whatever be that which we seem to love, if our real object be something else, it is really that something which we love, and not that by which our heart strives to attain it.’
– St. Bernard (On the Love of God)

Do we read the Scriptures or a translation of the Scriptures?

Is reading a translation of the Bible actually reading the Bible? Is it still the same books, the same inspired word of God? What if it’s a poor translation, or a paraphrase?

Translation will always be an exercise in interpretation and co-creation. There is no simple mapping of one language to another, not least because each language lives in the distinct, though overlapping, worlds their speakers inhabit. To faithfully translate is not just to avoid any additions, but to attempt to be united with the author, while inhabiting another world. It is a faithful translation as long as it is a co-creation, and unfaithful as far as it is a separate creation added onto the first.

An image of a pipe is not a pipe, and a translation of a book is not that book. However, to see an image of a pipe is to see a pipe, and no one has ever seen a pipe except by seeing an image of a pipe. We see the pipe through the image, even if it’s just the image in our own eyes. Similarly, we can read a book through its translation. We might also add, that even writings in our own language need to be translated into our own minds. The words may be the same, but still the meaning must be found, and every word has a slightly different meaning to every reader.

When we read our translations of the Bible, we are not reading it on our own, and that’s a good thing, because we’re actually reading it with and through the communion of the saints. Not just the translators, but all those who influenced their reading of the scriptures, and all the faithful who have together shaped how we will read it too, both by their teaching and just by their use of the same words.

The words of scripture take on new meaning in this process (though without losing the previous meaning), as often happens when we re-encounter a piece of art, and something new is picked up, perhaps even something with new meaning in our new context. It grows in meaning with each new listener, each new day, each new context. Or rather, its divine and eternal meaning is unfolded ever more fully.

With the Holy Spirit guiding our translations and interpretations through the saints, we can happily view our translations as an extension and development of the scriptures themselves.

Not one of us has ever read the Bible on our own. We are always reading with our own context, with our society, with the society that produced our Bible (the Church), and with the society it was written in. The New Testament was written by the early Church, from a common faith, through Greek and Jewish ideas and cultures, and translated and interpreted through Roman, Latin, European ideas and cultures, and then through the ideas and cultures of the New World, and then again through the modern world, always undertaken by the Church in dialogue with the world.

God bless you!

My life is not important

“What if my life isn’t important?”

This question came to me a few weeks ago, and I realised, of course it’s not important! Why would I assume that it was? How did I acquire such absurd and unjustified pride?

We can’t all be a “big deal”. Not even most of us can – there’s not enough space for so many big deals. So, what if in the course of my life, I don’t ever become a big deal? Who cares?

Why in the world would I care about being important? It doesn’t appear that many others do. At least no one else seems to have assumed they would be. It seems I’ve been thinking of myself in terms of how history will view me. But that’s not who I really am at all.

If my life is unimportant, does this mean my life is meaningless? No. But the meaning of life is no more than to live and to live fully. My purpose is not something outside of me.

We don’t have a mission from God – we are a mission from God. My mission is not to do something, but to be who I am and who I’m made to be. Our mission, our meaning, is to let God love us into being what we already are: His children. He asks nothing at all from us except ourselves. As Mother Teresa said “God has not called me to be successful; He has called me to be faithful.” St Therese understood this too, knowing herself as a worthless but beloved toy in the hands of the child Jesus, while also knowing that she would become a great Saint.

If God wills that we should become a “big deal”, even then it doesn’t really matter. No matter how “important” we may become, this will never be our purpose. To speak tongues and move mountains and work miracles without love is worthless. All of our importance is just grass in the fields, here today and gone tomorrow. Even work done for God, the only work that lasts, is entirely and solely His; our part is merely that of a child, in their father’s workshop, carefully guided and protected and supported at each step. We were allowed to cooperate by His grace, and should rejoice in that, but we are still just children at play.

‘The rose is without “why”; it blooms simply because it blooms. It pays no attention to itself, nor does it ask whether anyone sees it.’ – Angelius Silesius

God bless you!

What is happiness?

I had the shocking realisation a while back, that I didn’t know how to define happiness in a satisfactory way. I know that I have been happy, but what does that mean?

Is it having my desires fulfilled? Yes, but no… It has to be about more than my own will, or it is arbitrary, and I cannot be truly satisfied by something arbitrary. Is it feeling like smiling? Yes, but no… Happiness must be something more than its outward expression.

I looked it up in the dictionary, but was sorely disappointed. Finally, I have concluded that happiness is the (subjective) experience of (objective) goodness. I feel silly it took me days to work out.

This raises the question, what is goodness? I think the only decent answer to this is, that all things that are, are good, and “goodness and being are really the same, and differ only in idea” [Summa Theologica I, Q5, Art1]. (Goodness is being considered under the aspect of desire, and resides in things in so far as they are perfect, since we desire things as far as they are perfect.)

We either define goodness in terms of happiness, in which case both will be empty, and we will be miserable, or define happiness in terms of goodness, and find true happiness beyond ourselves.

So happiness is the experience of goodness, or even, the experience of being itself. Put this way, it seems absurd to ever not be happy. Why are we unhappy sometimes? Firstly, because we fail to experience. We hollow out reality, objectifying it, seeing everyone and everything only in terms of our own fears and desires, rather than loving each person/thing in themselves. We live in an illusion, and separate ourselves from reality. This is sin.

Secondly, we experience imperfection, the absence of goodness, and the brokenness of creation. Things are not as they were meant to be; we are not as we are meant to be. All things are good, but all are broken goods.

But by His life and death and resurrection Jesus Christ has overcome all unhappiness. He united Himself to us and to all in perfect love, giving Himself to us upon the Cross, suffering all of our sins, and offering us in His love to the Father. Then by that same love, that same offering, He defeated death, and rose from the grave, resurrecting all creation with Him. He has given us the absolute fulness of life. If we allow Him to love us, to unite Himself to us, we are set free from sin, and suffering itself becomes a way to unite ourselves with Jesus, uniting Himself to all and offering all to God. Evil itself has been turned to good. Jesus has won us perfect happiness.

We have access to true, divine happiness even now through Jesus, and will one day enjoy God’s own absolute, perfect happiness. By His cross and resurrection, He has set us free!

God bless you, and (sorry it’s late) happy Easter!

P.S. This wasn’t intended to be a Christian/Easter post, but it seems I can’t help myself

P.P.S. I find it strange it took me so long to find what happiness is, and wonder if it reflects how much I’ve absorbed a culture of meaninglessness…