Tag Archives: St. Augustine

Love, Fire, and Blaise Pascal

There’s a passage in scripture that we all know, in fact, it’s probably so common that’s simply faded far into the background. It’s the story of the woman with the purfume, and while familiar, it’s worth quoting in its entirety:

36One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. 37And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was reclining at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, 38and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment. 39Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.” 40And Jesus answering said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he answered, “Say it, Teacher.”

41“A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?” 43Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt.” And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.” 44Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 45You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. 46You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” 48And he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” 49 Then those who were at table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this, who even forgives sins?” 50And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

– Luke 7:36-50 (ESV)

The first question that comes to mind is: what just happened? She poured what where? Followed quickly by: that seems like quite a waste. It’s true, this is a strange passage, it’s rooted in the customs and moires of an ancient culture and can be a bit obtuse to modern readers. It also seems a bit irrational, why would she waste so much money on a trivial action? Aren’t there better ways to spend ones resources in service of the kingdom?

The problem is, this isn’t a story about rationality, it’s a story about love.  This is what all those endless country songs are about. This is the ending to all those movies. This is every drawn out metaphor that Mark Helprin ever concocted. If you’d asked this woman why she did what she did, she would’ve stared back at you, puzzled, and ask: why wouldn’t I?

But it also goes deeper, this is not simply a woman in love, this is a woman forgiven. This is a woman who has been redeemed from the depths of despair and given a new hope. For her, there is nothing in the world that can even possibly compare to the gift she’s been given. If I may dip into pop culture for a moment, and decidedly coarsen the dialogue, it reminds me of this.

Actually, that doesn’t even come close to what it means, but it’s a funny distraction. The real problem with this scene, is that we’re not supposed to see it. This is not a public act for the enjoyment of all, this is a private moment. A gesture of deep love that resonates strangely with the other people in the room. But Jesus responds. He doesn’t condemn her, he defends her. He doesn’t suggest improvements as to how she might better frame her emotional responses within the accepted sociopolitical context, his response is simple.

“Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

– Luke 7:50

For whatever broken, painful, awkward form her love took, whatever emotional baggage, or unrealistic expectations she brought with her, Jesus didn’t care. He saw her heart, he knew her love.  If people could simply wrap their minds around the idea that God takes our imperfect, weirdly dysfunctional love and affection, and welcomes us as we are, here and now; well, I don’t think things would quite be the same.

As I was reading, my mind immediately went to two other stories from the annals of time. Two other stories of drama, and emotion. Two other expressions of love, two other glimpses into hearts renewed. While they may be familiar, even over played at times, they’re worth quoting in full. As you read them, don’t let them simply be more words on the digital page. Imaging the words as pouring from the hearts of the authors. Or if it helps, imaging Hunter Hayes singing it. Or you know, someone better.

Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would have not been at all. You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace.

– St. Augustine ‘The Confessions’

 

From about half past ten in the evening until half past midnight.

Fire

‘God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob,’ not of philosophers and scholars.
Certainty, certainty, heartfelt, joy, peace.
God of Jesus Christ.
God of Jesus Christ.
My God and your God.
‘Thy God shall be my God.’
The world forgotten, and everything except God.
He can only be found by the ways taught in the Gospels.
Greatness of the human soul.
‘O righteous Father, the world had not known thee, but I have known thee.’
Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy.
I have cut myself off from him.
They have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters.
‘My God wilt thou forsake me?’
Let me not be cut off from him for ever!
And this is life eternal, that they might know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent.’
Jesus Christ.
Jesus Christ.
I have cut myself off from him, shunned him, denied him, crucified him.
Let me never be cut off from him!
He can only be kept by the ways taught in the Gospel.
Sweet and total renunciation.
Total submission to Jesus Christ and my director.
Everlasting joy in return for one day’s effort on earth.
I will not forget thy word.

Amen.

– Blaise Pascal ‘The Night of Fire’

Both these men saw God. And they saw him in their own way, in their own language. Pascal came to the end of his reason, truly saw Jesus, and suddenly everything around him paled in comparison. In fact, he sewed this vision to the inside of his coat, so it would be with him always. Augustine came to the edge of the world, to the end of everything this earth could provide, and found nothing. Except, him who his heart had been searching for all along.

But the story doesn’t end there, in all three vignettes, the beloved do not remain the same, they are changed. Though they came with broken hearts, twisted love, and captive minds, they left changed by the person and love of Christ.

This is a powerful story. This is a stunning story. This is a transformative story. As we read it, we cannot allow the text to become dry and dead. This is not a factual recounting of mythic history, this love as real as anything the great romantics ever dreamt of. When you read it, feel the heartbreak, feel the passion, and feel the overwhelming sense of peace, joy, and awe that comes in the glorious presence of Jesus Christ.

Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you!

Let me never be cut off from him!

“Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

Increase/Decrease

He must increase, but I must decrease

-John 3:30 (ESV)

Tonight I worshipped at University Presbyterian and watched as the church discovered a ‘new’ song (Beautiful One by Tim Hughes copyright 2004) and experienced a strong move of the spirit. It was awesome (in the truest sense of the word). The pastor spoke out of John and this verse formed the fulcrum of his sermon, as he spoke I wondered to myself (and now I wonder to you) ‘what does it take for someone to to minimize the self for the benefit of another?

This is a question that has moved far beyond the circles of the religious, in fact, it forms a central tenant for John Rawl’s seminal treatise A Theory of Justice

Each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of sciety as a whole cannot override.

In other words, there is something within us that refuses to be compromised even for the sake of others. But is this really a bad thing? It’s something so primal and basic that it is litteraly coded into the adrenergic receptors of the human body, the so called ‘fight or flight’ response, but as much as it’s primal it is also barbaric, human society has been the cumulative struggle to surpress the animalistic in favor of a higher social order, which is of course, a good thing.

But it has its limits, socialist theory works to remove the sense of the self, the sense of ownership in favor of collective rights, in favor of a society where the individual is fully subjected to the will of the community. While on the surface a noble goal it has resulted in complete (or attempted) suppression of the individual (complete selflessness) this has in fact not made a more ‘human’ culture but one devoid of that which separates us from the animals. The outworking of this as been ‘lost years’ for societies and a crumbling economic system that masks a deeper thread of social collapse and moral poverty (for a more detailed look enjoy Chapter 6 of Allan Greenspan’s The Age of Turbulence).

As Christians we should also be aware of the dangers of collectivism and blind ‘selflessness’, our selves are in fact something special, something to be protected and cherished.

Whoever sheds the blood of man,
by man shall his blood be shed,
for God made man in his own image.

– Genesis 9:6 (ESV)

Being made in the image of God has far greater implications then we perhaps realize, consider the greatest commandments:

And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

– Mark 12:30-31 (ESV)

Here the phase ‘as yourself’ is often overlooked, we are called to love others to the same measure that we love ourself, which for some (myself included) is still a momentous task. Still, the theme continues, our selves are something worth loving, something worth preserving.

By this point there are probably a few people who are quite miffed with what I’ve written so far. ‘Bollox! We are to be selfless in our love, just as Christ was’ ‘You’re just building an abstract argument in order to justify your own self preservation and success!’ To which I reply, I agree with you, it’s a paradox, because we are called to be both selfish (to borrow a phrase of Ayn Rand, which means to be full of self) and selfless (in the biblical sense of putting others first), so how do we do this?

The traditional answer has been to force submission either by social guilt or social contract, neither of which has proven to be particularly effective. I submit to you that society’s failure to compel selflessness has been because it has a tremendous history of abusing that sort of sacrifice or trust. Socialism destroyed the individual identity because it was unable to handle the complexities of the human nature, utopian communities abused the voluntary communitarianism by forcing individuals to go beyond what they wished, they   fractured the traditional social bonds that always seem such a nuisance to social reformers, yet never seem to be overcome. Through this we’ve arrived with a society in which people can at times perform selfless acts, but as whole seem unable to become something greater. True, oikos (to borrow the term) has long been an illusion.

But it seems to me, that if there was some higher power, some binding force that could be a trustworthy guardian of sacrifice, some commonality that bound people not only to it but also to each other, something that promised to value the individual along with the community and could compel even greater levels of self sacrifice without violating trust, well dear friends, that might just be something.

When discussing selflessness invariably the conversation turns to the parental bond (though again, social reform has historically taken a battering ram to the familial structure, but I digress) it seems the ideal relationship is one of mother/child, father/child, parents who would sacrifice everything for their child, who would risk it all for their safety and success, that is the ideal social picture, if we all felt that way towards others, the world would be a much nicer place. The problem has always been exporting that time of bond to society as a whole but what we’ve found is that this type of relationship is driven merely by genetics or social placement, but my love. True love, deep love, is what compels sacrifice, when push comes to shove, we as humans will always react stronger to those we love then to others, it may not be ideal, but it’s a fact of life, and one that I’m afraid is unlikely to change in the near term.

There is; however, another answer.

Too late loved I thee, Oh thou Beauty of ancient days, yet ever new! too late have I loved thee!

– St. Augustine ‘Confessions’

The answer to the hatred of the world, to the selfish society is complete, loving surrender to the Almighty God. In him we find love, love that compels us to follow, that compels us to worship, and compels us to die to the sinful flesh, to become ever new in him.

I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

– Galatians 2:20 (ESV)

Only in Christ can we find complete surrender of ourselves and not lose that image of the divine, because only in Christ are we fully known.

Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.

– Jeremiah 1:5

Only in Christ can we find that surrender does not absolve us of our uniqueness, for in Christ we are not called to the generic ‘betterment of humanity’, but to a unique and purposeful life.

For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

– Ephesians 2:10 (ESV)

And so we arrive by the long path to this simple statement, the love and beauty of Christ compels us to surrender our selves for his glory. Only here do we find the answer we’ve been searching. The world has tried to create a counterfeit ideal, one where man is pitted against himself in an unending struggle to be better then he is (the proverbial ‘pulling one’s self up by one’s bootstraps’), he alone, by his own power, a trial that is destined to fail (if it’s even begun).

Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.

– Matthew 11:29 (ESV)

The promise of rest, the promise of purpose, the promise of unviolated love, that is what Christ offers, and that is the hope that is in the world. Society requires sacrifice, but only through Christ can this sacrifice be made complete.

He must increase, but I must decrease

-John 3:30 (ESV)