HE WHO KEEPS HIS WORD, TRULY IN THIS PERSON THE LOVE OF GOD IS PERFECT. (1John 1:5) St. John wrote these words which are, as it were, a short definition of love, at a time of serious crisis that bore heavily upon the churches under his care. To conceive of love as fidelity to the word revealed by God will strike many of us as surprising even disconcerting. However, when we look into the whole of this epistle and look carefully into his other two letters we discover that he regularly speaks of love and fidelity to the truth. He is, then, quite deliberate when he links faithful acceptance of God’s word and saving love of God. We moderns are more inclined to have something of a romantic view of love as involving personal attraction, sharing of interests among persons bonded by affectionate ties. Certainly, such features are not excluded by John’s teaching, but they are not given prominence, whereas obedience and fidelity are considered the essential proof of love. 

When these words were written, some sixty years or so had passed since the death and resurrection of Jesus. The Gospel had spread widely among the Gentiles as well as among Jews of the diaspora. A number of those who had received the Gospel message with faith had, after a time, given an interpretation to it that distorted the true nature of Christ’s teaching and the apostolic traditions. John’s epistle warns against false teachers and stresses the necessity to make truth and love the guiding forces of life.  The need to emphasize this point was felt all the more keenly in that John’ community had recently suffered a schism as a result of such heresy and the lack of charity manifested as this unorthodox belief took hold of some members of the church..  

The problem of falsification of the Gospel teaching was not new. Already in the time of Paul, there was need to resist those who were preaching a private, distorted version of the Gospel. The apostle to the Gentiles accordingly warned his closest collaborator, Timothy, to “guard the deposit” entrusted to him (1Tim 6:20).   The truth as revealed in and by Jesus had been entrusted to the apostles by our Lord. They in turn interpreted his teaching and developed its content as new situations arose in the course of time under the influence of his Holy Spirit. An important expression of love for the flock entrusted to the care of the bishop, St. Paul explained, is to teach the revealed truth concerning Jesus. Such care for preserving the genuine doctrine is a service of love, for when that truth is no longer understood, divisions, jealousies and mistrust arise. (1Tim 6: 1 -5) Moreover, salvation depends on faith in Jesus as the Son of God who gave himself for our sake and so it is imperative to have a proper relation to our Lord as the divine Redeemer, true man and true God. 

Already in his lifetime Jesus himself had associated obedience to his word with love. He had even described the defining expression of love precisely as the keeping of his word. In the Gospel of John we read : ”If you keep my commandments you will remain in my love….You are my friends if you do what I command you….What I command you is to love one another.”(John 15:10,12, 17)  In this same context Jesus added an important explanation that reveals that he understood that love is a form of knowledge. “I shall not call you servants any more because a servant does not know his master’s business; I call you friends, because I have made known to you everything I have learnt from my Father.”

Centuries later, St. Gregory the Great was to affirm this same teaching in a well turned Latin phrase: Amor ipse notitia est (Love itself is knowledge) [In Evangelio Hom 27.4 PL 76:1207). St. Bernard followed Gregory on this point as in so many others and cites him by name in a sermon on the Love of God (De div. 29.1, Obras VI, Madrid: BAC 1988, 242). St. Maximus the Confessor also treated of these topics in the 7th century. “The whole purpose of our Lord’s commandments is to rescue the spirit from chaos and hatred and lead it to love of him and love of one’s neighbor. From this springs forth, like a flash of lightening, holy knowledge (Centuries on Charity IV.56, cited in O. Clement, “The Roots of Christian Mysticism”, 277) 

These themes of obedience to revealed truth, love and knowledge, then, were closely bound together in the New Testament and were taken up and developed further precisely by those Fathers who played major roles in the contemplative tradition of the Church, both East and West. One the functions of the contemplative life is to contribute further to purity of heart and thus increase our desire for God. As desire and purity grow we are drawn more spontaneously to seek God and prayer becomes easier because we taste something of God’s truth and beauty and goodness. St. Augustine has pointed out how this cycle operates in favor of advancing in the knowledge and love of God. “It is not enough to be drawn by the will; you are also drawn by the sense of pleasure. What is it to be drawn by pleasure? ‘Delight in the Lord and He will give you your heart’s petitions’”.

Cardinal Newman cites this text in a sermon on Purity and Love. 

There is a certain pleasure of heart, when that heavenly Bread is sweet to a man. Moreover, if the poet saith, ’Every one is drawn by his own pleasure’, not by necessity, but by pleasure, not by obligation, but by delight, how much more boldly ought we to say, that man is drawn to Christ, when he is delighted with truth, delighted with bliss, delighted with justice, delighted with eternal life, all which is Christ? (Sermons and Discourses, 140, ed. C. F. Harrold, 1949, N.Y.) 

The life of a monk is ordered to union with God in Christ. Because such a union requires great purity of heart and soul and a love of spiritual goodness and beauty, the monk must strive manfully to obey God’s commandments as the only path that leads to purity. He must also seek to know the Lord through meditation on his word and through prayer.  These two paths supplement once another and as time advances the support they provide merges so that the activity the monk engages in takes on the character of prayer as he learns to work and to deal with others while remaining conscious of God’s presence within himself and in others. At the same time, in proportion as he succeeds in remaining in God’s presence throughout the activities of the day, prayer becomes spontaneous and simple, that is to say, it requires less effort of thought and takes on the character of a communion in the Spirit. A taste for the things of God develops and grows more sensitive so that prayer leads to a stronger conviction of God’s love and a clearer insight into his beauty.  

Early on St. Basil and St. Gregory Nazianzus gave the title “Philokalia” (“Love of Beauty”) to their carefully selected excerpts from Origen‘s works, in which they avoid all passages of doubtful orthodoxy. Following this lead two Byzantine scholars, St. Nikodemus of the Holy Mountain and St. Makarios of Corinth, collected various writings of spiritual masters who were active from the fourth to fifteenth centuries. What all these texts have in common is that treat of the life of quietude and of contemplative prayer or of the discipline that prepares for and sustains such a hesychastic life. They published this extensive collection of works in five volumes, in Venice in 1782, giving it the title “Philokalia”. They added a subtitle that states that by this love of the morally beautiful “the intellect is purified, illumined and made perfect”. They chose this title precisely because the contemplative life is a search for a divine, transcendent beauty that alone can satisfy the human spirit. As the subtitle states, the mind and heart must be cleansed first and this cleansing is integral with contemplative striving and realization. These editors well understood that those who seek to develop a love of the beautiful as it exists in God must effectively desire to prepare themselves to behold it by strenuous self-denial.       

All of the works included in the Philokalia were published in Greek, though two of them were originally written in Latin by two men who represent some of the most traditional and most influential spirituality of the Latin Church, John Cassian and Gregory the Great.  These volumes evoked a ready interest, especially in the Eastern Churches. Very shortly after their appearance they were translated in part into Slavonic and published in Moscow in 1793 by Paisii Velichkovskii with the title ’Dobrotolubiye. This was the version used by the Pilgrim who speaks in the now famous “The Tale of the Pilgrim”. In 1857 a Russian version appeared under the same title by a well known scholarly Bishop. Ignatii Brianchaninov.  A fresh Russian translation , with some additional texts included, was made by the erudite Patristic scholar and mystic, Bishop Theophan the Recluse and was published by the Russian monastery in Mt. Athos in 1877-1890, and often reprinted. More recently other translations have made these texts available to French and Romanian readers; a partial English version from the Russian appeared in 1951 and 1954. In addition there is an English translation from the Greek in 5 volumes, four of which have already appeared beginning in 1979. 

This publication has contributed to an important interest in the life of prayer in the West as well as in the Eastern Churches. It continues to offer access to the monastic way of life that is ordered to contemplative prayer and which the Easterners call Hesychasm. Prominent in this tradition as well is the teaching on The Prayer of Jesus. While these texts cover most of the topics that concern the inner life in all its breadth, they present the whole of the inner life as an expression of the love of the beautiful and good. In other words, true love is the broad theme of this contemplative tradition.  

Interestingly, though the focus is on prayer, Hesychasm does not neglect the place of obedience as a condition for pure prayer. Evagrios, who figures prominently in the first volume of the Philokalia and whose insights were taken up by so many others in this tradition, states early in his work On Prayer: “When the soul has been purified through the keeping of all the commandments, it makes the intellect steadfast and able to receive the state needed for prayer.” (The Philokalia, I, tr. Palmer et al. [London: Faber and Faber, 1979] 57) Obedience, the keeping of the commandments, then, is a preliminary to attaining to the perfection of the mind through prayer. This purification and elevation of the mind through contemplative prayer is the form that love takes in this hesychastic tradition, for as the mind is enlightened in prayer by grace, it is proportionally united with Christ in God. Love is unitive not only on the emotional level, but above all at the level of being. By obedience, the believer is made capable of those graces which transform the mind, becomes wholly light. This light of the intellect being activated in prayer comes to conform the mind to the light that is God’s glory so that these lights readily unite to form a single whole, without confusion of their distinct beings.  

As the translators of the English version of the Philokalia underline, the spirituality set forth in this tradition presupposes an active sacramental life. Although the Prayer of Jesus was adapted to lay persons yet the works comprising these tomes were addressed primarily to monks living in solitude and following a full monastic regime. In our own times, Centering Prayer represents a serious effort to adapt this tradition, at least the Cistercian incorporation of many elements of Hesychasm, to persons living in the modern world.  [This should be appreciated so that monks do not reduce their prayer to a narrowed interpretation of the contemplative life through approaching the prayer life primarily through Centering Prayer, a technique deliberately evolved in order to accommodate the needs of persons who do not have the helps provided by silence, solitude, celibacy, fasting and the other monastic disciplines.] 

In any case, the right understanding of love is central to the life of contemplative prayer  and to the Christian life wherever it is lived. Rightly to appreciate the nature of love we can do not better than to consider what our Lord taught on the subject. If Jesus consistently interpreted love in terms of faith and obedience it is because through putting trust by faith in his words we allow the thoughts and desires, the love and dedication of his Spirit to enter into our own heart and mind. Words, in the measure that they are true, function as conveyors of love in that they convey knowledge. St Thomas Aquinas analyzed the cause and conditions of love and concluded that: “Knowledge is the cause of love for the same reason as good is, which can be loved only if known.” (1a2ae 27 a.2)  

Words create as well communion between persons, binding hearts as well as minds together. This mysterious feature of words makes them a source of new life. Through words spoken in sincerity and flowing from the spirit of truth abiding in the soul of the speaker enhance life itself, create fresh capabilities, open up horizons undreamed of earlier. So characteristic is this power of words that words retain this power even when they are written as well as when spoken. Nonetheless, the spoken word carries in itself a peculiar energy and enhanced capability for effecting such mingling of spirits in a communion of hearts. 

To keep the words of Jesus is to allow them to fashion the character and serve as a spring  of thought and action; it is to carry out his commandments by our actions. Such effective reception of his teaching is an indication of love. There is no more sure proof that we have opened out minds and hearts to him than to act in keeping with his words. Acts, in turn, performed in response to his words, result in a greater conformity to the Spirit from which they proceeded in the first place. 

Obedience, accordingly, is a source of life and of life as well as a proof of faith and of sympathy with the Lord whom we obey. There is none more sure as Jesus himself affirms. Consequently, nothing purifies the heart and frees the soul from selfish passion more readily and so prepares us more effectively for contemplative union with God in prayer than fervent obedience and the keeping of his word. These are the features of love that the world has had so much difficulty in appreciating or even grasping. Not intensity of sentiment, which comes and goes with changing circumstances, not the attraction of charm and wit but faithful and fervent obedience is the best expression of love and, in a certain way, its very essence. For obedience from the heart is the fruit of communion in the Spirit and unity of life and desire. May our community grow in this obedience to the word of our Lord and so merit to be united with him in Spirit even here in our life of prayer. And may the Spirit who inspires us to keep his inspired word bring us to its fulfillment in that kingdom where God is all in all.

Abbot John Eudes Bamberger

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