Tuesday, 27 September 2016

‘Let us love one another,
that with one mind we may confess’

The tomb of Father Sophrony in the crypt in Saint John’s Monastery in Tolleshunt Knights (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

I am all ‘weddinged-out’ … one in Co Meath, one in Co Carlow, and now another one coming up in Co Wicklow that involves my special pleading when it comes to a busy weekend timetable.

At one recent wedding, and not necessarily one of these, I heard one reading being introduced as a reading from the ‘First Letter to the Romans.’ I know I can be too attentive to the way readings are introduced. But on that occasion I wondered whether the Second Letter to the Romans had just been discovered, perhaps in some library on Mount Sinai or in the Vatican.

In fact it was not from the Epistle to the Romans at all – first or second. It was that chapter (I Corinthians 13) with Saint Paul’s oft-quoted words on love, which are not about marital love but are still a popular at weddings: ‘Love is patient … love is kind … love never ends … and so on, to the conclusion that faith, hope and love abide, but the greatest of these is love’ (I Corinthians 13: 13).

The command to love, to love God and to love our neighbour, is at the heart of the Gospel. It is summarised in the two great commandments in Matthew 22: 36-40 and Luke 10: 27 (see Leviticus 19: 18). In Matthew alone, Christ says, ‘On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’

But Saint Paul, on more than one occasion, reduces it all down to one great commandment:

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments … are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law (Romans 13: 8-10).

And again:

For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’ (Galatians 5: 14).

In other places, he writes:

The only thing that counts is faith working through love (Galatians 5: 6).

Or:

Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in harmony (Colossians 3: 14).

And:

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, and compassion and sympathy. Make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind (Philippians 2: 1-2).

With Father Nikolai Sakharov in the Monastery of Saint John, Tolleshunt Knights, Essex

My experiences over the past few weeks in churches and monasteries in Greece and in a monastery in England remind me that in the Orthodox Liturgy the priest introduces the Creed with the words: ‘Let us love one another, that with one mind we may confess.’ In other words, our statement of belief, in ‘Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Trinity consubstantial and undivided,’ is confirmed, realised and lived out in our love for one another.

To love our neighbour as ourselves means to love them as we are ourselves, as being of the same substance – created in the image and likeness of God. The Church Fathers teach that we find our true self in loving our neighbour, and that love is not a feeling but an action.

Recently, I have been reading or re-reading two books that deal with love as an important theme in Orthodox theology and practice. Some years ago, I came across I love therefore I am, by Father Nicholas V Sakharov (Crestwood NY: Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2002); and more recently I am reading Father Andrew Louth’s Modern Orthodox Thinkers (London: SPCK, 2015), which I am using at the moment for my end-of-day devotions and reflections.

Father Nicholas is a monk in Tolleshunt Knights, and his great uncle, Father Sophrony, was the saintly founder of the monastery. Father Sophrony talks in La Félicité (p 21) about ‘the absolute perfection of love in the bosom of the Trinity’ and he says: ‘Embracing the whole world in prayerful love, the persona achieves ad intra all that exists.’

In Andrew Louth’s book, love is an all-pervading theme in the writings of each of the 20th century theologians he portrays. For example, he summarises Mother Maria of Paris as saying that it is all too easy to sidestep the demands of love, to seem to be loving, when really love itself has been set aside, or turned into a means to an end. This is avoided by realising the complementarity of the two commands to love.

Mother Maria says there are two ways of loving to be avoided: one which subordinates love of our fellow humans to love of God, so that humans become means whereby we ascend to God, and the other of which forgets love of God, and so loves our fellow humans in a merely human way, not discerning in them the image of God, or the ways in which it has been damaged or distorted.

Yet, despite all this, I find a more difficult commandment is the third and great neglected commandment: to love our enemies (Matthew 5: 44). As theologians, we spend a lot of time helping people to talk about God; we all have a good idea of who our neighbour is; but when do we ask: ‘Who is my enemy?’

Do I define who my enemy is?

Or does the other person define me or himself, or herself, as the enemy?

And so I conclude with a non-Pauline passage:

God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them … Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also. (I John 4: 16, 20-21).

This reflection was prepared for a faculty meeting at the Church of Ireland Theological Institute on 27 September 2016.

A former hunting lodge is one
of the oldest houses in Rathgar

No 114 Rathgar Road is said to be one of the oldest houses in Rathgar (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

In his history of Rathgar, Maurice Curtis says that someone of importance lived in practically every house along Rathgar Road. I am familiar with the street and its houses since my childhood, when my uncle and godfather lived on Rathgar Road, and later in the 1970s and 1980s, the Student Christian Movement house at No 168 Rathgar Road was a hub for many initiatives supported by SCM Ireland, including the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), Christian CND and Dawn, the nonviolent direct action magazine.

I continue to enjoy walking along Rathgar Road, before or after Church meetings nearby in Rathgar, and many of the houses, which are protected or listed buildings, are getting facelifts as they are transformed from flats and apartments into single-family homes.

One of those houses, No 114 Rathgar Road, which is said to be one of the oldest houses on this road, is currently on the market, and I stopped to look at one evening last week as I was walking home from one of those Church meetings in Rathmines.

This house is a double-fronted Regency-style villa. It was built as a hunting lodge in the 1820s, making it almost 200 years old and one of the oldest houses in Rathgar and in Dublin 6.

The house once stood on several acres, and these grounds were so expansive that Christ Church Presbyterian Church, was built on its grounds on a prominent site at the nearby junction with Highfield Road. The church was opened in 1862. It is said the Church of Ireland first turned down the opportunity to acquire this site for a new suburban parish church.

Over the decades, the house has lost all of this land, although it still has small gardens to the rear, sides and front. The white-painted stone lions sitting atop the walls on either side of the house, over the arched timber doors leading to side passageways, hint at its grand past.

In the 1920s and the 1930s, No 114 was the home of the Atkinson family. Later, the house was known as Mullach Bán, and Maurice Curtis records that it once belonged to members of the Andrews family, an Irish political dynasty.

The house, close to Rathgar village, is tucked away off Rathgar Road behind high griselinia hedging, making it difficult to photograph in the late evening light. But from the street, No 114 Rathgar Road still looks like the imposing period house it once was, with its symmetrical design.

The wide front door and entrance at the top of a short flight of granite steps is flanked by tall windows on either side, each with patined shutters. The front door opens into a hallway that runs from the front to the back of the house. On each side there is a reception room on either side, one used as a formal dining room, the other a living room. Each room has a high ceiling and decorative plasterwork as well as a feature fireplace.

The house is single-storey to the front, and two-storey at the back. There are two double bedrooms up a few steps off the hall, and three smaller rooms downstairs.

The house is now on the market through Douglas Newman Good with an asking price of €1.1 million.

Christ Church, Rathgar, built on grounds that were once part of No 114 Rathgar Road (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)