Theology

‘The Lord will fight for you, and you must be silent’

Those who still fear the war against the passions and dread the assaults of invisible enemies must keep silent in their struggle for virtue they must not enter into disputes with their enemies but through prayer must entrust all anxiety about themselves to God. To them apply the words of Exodus: ‘The Lord will fight for you, and you must be silent’ (Exod. 14:14). Those, secondly, who have been released from the enemy’s attacks and who genuinely seek instruction in the ways of acquiring the virtues, need only to keep the ear of their mind open. To them Scripture says, ‘Hear Israel’ (Deut. 6:4). Thirdly, those who as a result of their purification ardently long for divine knowledge may commune with God freely. To them it will be said, ‘What is it that you are calling to Me?’ (Exod. 14:15. LXX). Thus, he who is commanded to keep silent because of his fear should seek refuge in God; he who is commanded to listen should be ready to obey the commandments; and he who pursues spiritual knowledge should call ceaselessly to God, beseeching Him for deliverance from evil and thanking Him for communion in His blessings.’

[St Maximus the Confessor, ‘Two Hundred Texts on Theology and the Incarnate Dispensation of the Son of God’, no. 30]

I will look at just the first point, because I know I’m not one of those who have been released from the enemy’s attacks, so this is probably the most important for myself.

Many spiritual writers have written about how, in the battle against sin, we must not trust in ourselves at all but trust entirely in God, and never argue with the devils that are tempting us. In fact, some say that we fall precisely because we begin to trust in ourselves, and so God allows us to fall so that we will learn to distrust ourselves and trust in Him.

Through prayer we must entrust all anxiety about ourselves to God. The truth is that we are not strong enough in ourselves, but He is more than strong enough. It is absurdity for us to try to be self sufficient, self supporting, self made, when God desires to be our all. We should entrust all to Him, and let Him take care of us, especially in the spiritual battle.

We have to learn to let go. We have to learn how to fight by not fighting. We have to learn silence. We have to learn to trust in God alone, and not in our learning or our trusting or our virtue or our strength or our systems. Trust in God alone.

Saints are not people who have mastered themselves or their own lives, they are people who entrust all anxiety about themselves to God.

God bless you

The Logos destroys the tyranny of the evil one

The Logos destroys the tyranny of the evil one, who dominates us through deceit, by triumphantly using as a weapon against him the flesh defeated in Adam. In this way he shows that what was once captured and made subject to death now captures the captor: by a natural death it destroys the captor’s life and becomes a poison to him, making him vomit up all those he was able to swallow because he had the power of death. But to humankind it becomes life, like leaven in the dough impelling the whole of nature to rise like dough in the resurrection of life (cf 1 Cor. 5:6-7). It was to confer this life that the Logos who was God became man – a truly unheard of thing – and willingly accepted the death of the flesh.

-St Maximus the Confessor (On the Lord’s Prayer)

Happy Easter! CHRIST IS RISEN!

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]

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.

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…

The only sin is failing to trust God

Holiness means abandoning yourself to God. If we look at the life of any saint and ask what makes him/her a saint, we will always find it is because they handed themselves over to God, placing themselves in His hands and not their own. This abandonment of self is what drove St. Francis’s poverty, St. Ignatius’s obedience, St. Therese’s confidence, the chastity of the holy virgins, the courage of the martyrs, Mary’s fiat, and Jesus’s whole life and death upon the cross.

I don’t think there is anything more to it. We must abandon ourselves entirely to Him: our desires, our wills, our happiness, our security, our struggles, our fears, our loved ones, our futures, our pasts, our weaknesses, our strengths, our ideas, our beliefs, our good deeds, our sins, our salvation, and our everything else. That is it. Everything else is contained in this.

If we fail, then we must get up right away, and hand this failure over to Him also. We have to entrust to Him our failures to trust Him. Place everything right away in the hands of His merciful love.

And if we fall greatly, over and over again, we still can’t be discouraged. The only sin is failure to trust God. His mercy is always greater; He is always trustworthy; He is our Father, and we are His children.

In this self-abandonment, we are surrendered to God’s love for us revealed upon the cross, and we are united to Jesus’s total abandonment to the Father upon the cross.

God bless you!

How do we cooperate with grace?

I’ve been rereading Pope Francis’s Gaudete et Exsultate recently, and it’s got me thinking about grace (mainly the section about the modern day pelagianism secretly undermining the gospel).

The gospel opposes the basic assumptions of the world: we’re not saved by our special knowledge (gnosticism) or by our own efforts (pelagianism); not by what we possess nor by what we do. We are saved by Jesus, and by Jesus alone.

True, we have to cooperate with grace, but this too is only possible because of God’s grace. Our part in our salvation is still more truly His part. It’s all His gift.

I’m not sure what this means practically for us still trying to work out our salvation with fear and trembling… If we aren’t saved by self-improvement, what are we meant to do? And yet, “faith without works is dead”.

What is grace even? In my imagination, it’s always a sort of bright, glowing, golden liquid, flowing in people’s bodies. But I’m thinking now that this quasi-magical thinking is off. I think it’s God’s giving of Himself. It’s God moving, I think. God’s conversing with the world and in the world and through the world, maybe.

We have absolutely no power in/of ourselves to cooperate with grace. But there is grace already in us. God is already living and moving within us. He is giving us life and He will give us life.

Still, “what must I do to be saved?” Can the answer be nothing? What is first, grace or my openness to grace?

Is grace separate from me? No, not really. God is not really separate from us. He is the non-other because He is the completely other, and He is the completely other because He is the completely non-other. In Him we live and move and have our being. We exist only by participation in Him.

Still, salvation is by grace, and not by me. God is moving through me for my salvation, not like a liquid, but like a dance moving through my body. It is not me, but it is not separate from me – not while it’s in me.

Our cooperation with grace is not the cooperation of business partners. It’s perhaps closer to that of dance partners, except the one leading is the dance itself.

I think I’ve found it: the way to cooperate with grace and be saved is to stop worrying about it, and just enjoy God’s grace! Dwell with Him, converse with Him, dance with Him!

God is in love with each of us, and yet we forget to enjoy His company (and so to really be in His company), because we’re focused on earning our place with Him. We’re so focused on being perfect that we forget to be real.

(I know this is for some TV thing, but what a great image for salvation falling out of the Heavens with power and might!)

As so often happens, I have spent ages working out what I’m trying to say on this, only to discover that St Paul has handed me the answer right there in the scriptures:

Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.’ (Philippians 2:12-13)

(NB: This is immediately after Paul’s fantastic canticle about Christ’s self-emptying and glorification)

What is there to fear or tremble at then? I believe we must fear and tremble before Christ’s grace to us – before His humility and His glory. The light of Christ is brighter than a billion suns. The one we have received is the King of the Universe.

We ought to tremble at how close He draws to us. The babe in the manger, the body hanging from the Cross, the bread and wine upon the altar, these are more than the entire universe.

And He will judge us according to our deeds. He will tear this universe apart like paper, and reveal everything in the incredible and unbearable light of His grace.

His closeness should terrify us, because we are absolutely unworthy. All we have and all we are is from Him and owed to Him, and so we can make no just reparations for our crimes; we have less than nothing before God. In this terror, this experience of our nakedness before God, we can submit to His perfectly free grace, and be set free. Gaudete!

God bless you!

Summa Says – You don’t know what “God exists” means

FOURTH ARTICLE [I, Q. 3, Art. 4] Whether Essence and Existence Are the Same in God?

Obj. 2: Further, we can know whether God exists as said above (Q. 2, A. 2); but we cannot know what He is. Therefore God’s existence is not the same as His essence–that is, as His quiddity or nature.

Reply Obj. 2: “To be” can mean either of two things. It may mean the act of essence, or it may mean the composition of a proposition effected by the mind in joining a predicate to a subject. Taking “to be” in the first sense, we cannot understand God’s existence nor His essence; but only in the second sense. We know that this proposition which we form about God when we say “God is,” is true; and this we know from His effects (Q. 2, A. 2).

I love this. How can God’s existence be the same as His essence, when we know He exists, but can’t know what He is? St Thomas doesn’t hold back, and tells us that we don’t know what it means that God exists, even if we know it to be true.

God’s existence is not the same as the existence of you or me or the angels or numbers or anything else in existence. He doesn’t exist as a thing that could conceivably exist or not. Existence as we know it is something subsequent to God; He created it. He is so far beyond all, that He is even, as Dionysius puts it, “beyond being”.

We know that He exists in an unknowable way. Our every attempt to grasp His existence is doomed to fail. We could even say, taking existence as just the existence we know, that God does not exist. But we’d also have to say that He doesn’t not exist. He is above existence and non-existence.

For things, all existence occurs within a space, and makes that space occupied rather than unoccupied, like adding a drawing to blank paper. Their existence realises some possibility. But God’s existence is logically prior to everything, or else He isn’t God, and so there is no space that He occupies, no possibility for God’s existence that is realised. He just is.

Why does this delight me so much? I think it’s because it means that, since we can’t know God in Himself through our minds, we must rely entirely on another, more intimate, way. We must love Him. We must be one with Him.

God bless!