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.

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