actus purus

(Fr. Cyprian)

Whoever has my commandments and observes is the one who loves me… Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love them and we will come to them. I used to feel so daunted by this passage (Jn 14:21-26), thinking of all the little scrupulous micro-rules that I had to follow growing up as a Catholic boy—“If I only do all these things God will love me!”­­­­—until I realized that Jesus really only had two commandments: love God with your whole heart, your whole soul, your whole mind…, and love your neighbor as yourself. And the proof of the first is that we do the second––This is my new commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. The proof that we love God is that we love one another. The sign that we love God is that we love one another. Not only that: the way that we love God is to love one another.

The thing is, to “keep” the commandment to love, I have to keep reminding myself, is much more than a feeling; it’s an action! Both Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas are very clear about this. Augustine says there is a difference between an emotion and a moral action. We won’t be judged on our feelings; we are only held accountable for our actions. Aquinas says that even if there isn’t the emotion there––even if I don’t feel loving––love is or can still be an act of the will and an assent of the intellect, not just a passing feeling. Sadness, anger—those are emotions that come and go. Love is a fundamental choice, an action. Only in God is there such a thing as a pure act, an actus purus, where being and doing are the same thing. In some way though, that is what we are aiming for too. It’s just that sometimes we have to do in order to be. I have my Mom’s voice in my head from when I was a little kid. When she said, “Be nice!” she meant, “Do nice things.” So for us too being and doing are intimately connected. We have to find something more than a feeling. In some way a feeling isn’t deep enough. There’s something more fundamental, my will, my love. To “keep” the commandment to love means to do loving things––no matter what we feel like. If you love me you will keep my commandments…, and you will experience God’s love which is already there, too, at the core of your being.

This comes down to being very practical: I’m angry with you, but I’m still going to treat you kindly and with respect; I’m feeling impatient, but I’m going to choose to be patient by doing patient things. When Saint Paul says, Put love first, he doesn’t mean “feel” something; he means do something––do loving things; just as when Jesus says Love your enemies, pray for your persecutors, clothe the naked, feed the hungry, there’s something active there. Even if I feel like you are my enemy, even if I feel as if you are persecuting me, even if I am repulsed by you––think of Francis kissing the leper––, I need to turn my will and my mind away from my so-called instincts, what I think of as my natural reactions, and do loving things, and the promise is I’m going to find a deeper part of me, deeper than my emotions. That’s Jesus’ word, that’s Jesus commandments, that’s Jesus’ way, that if we do things we will feel the Father’s love.

Thing is––and this may be one of our main enterprises in life––we are often not free to choose the loving thing! Why? Back to Evagrius’ teaching again, so practical: the problem isn’t our emotions; the problem is that our emotions are disordered; that’s what Evagrius calls the passions. I read a modern day psychologist who wrote once that we think we have emotions, but usually emotions have us! That’s where the will and the intellect come in. If we did everything we felt like doing, most of us would either be dead or in prison by now. Emotions are like the bridge between body and soul. They’re half chemical reactions in the body, with varying degrees of control or choice involved. This is especially the case with teenagers who are going through all the chemical changes in their bodies. Hopefully we have a little more control by our mid-50s, but we adults often find the same thing: we don’t have feeling­­—the feelings have us. Hence the slow, painstaking work of re-ordering our passions through prayer and our ascetical practices, as the Upanishads say, “Training the senses and stilling the mind.” That’s what we are looking for: the freedom to choose to do the loving thing in the hope that that will lead us to feel the presence of God, God’s love at the core of our being. And the proof that we have reached some level of apatheia––ordered passions––is agape (back to the top!), when we love as God loves, when we can choose love. The sign that we have reached equanimity is when we are loving, when we are compassionate. We’re almost at our own actus purus now, when being and doing are not two different things: compassion leads to equanimity which leads to compassion; agape leads to apatheia which leads to agape.

There’s a saying from Thich Nhat Hahn, the Vietnamese Zen master: “There’s no way to peace; peace is the way.” The journey and the goal are not two. And just so: there is no way to love: loving is the way. We don’t wait until we’re holy or enlightened to be loving; being loving––doing loving things––is the way to holiness, the way to enlightenment, because it means going beyond our small selves, breaking out of the prison of my little world, being relieved of the bondage of self. If you love me you will keep my commandments; and this is my commandment: that you love one another… And the promise is from this we will experience the love of God within us, as the very core of our being, and discover that it has been the grace that had led us all along anyway.

This passage from Ilia Delio:

Love lines in persons not ideas. Love is not a concept but a powerful transforming energy that heals, reconciles, unites and makes whole. Love draws together––heart to heart, center to center. Love is not what God does; love is what God is. Love is the Godness of God. That is why the cross is significant not [just] as a mystical object of devotion, but as the theological center. It is the most revealing statement about God.[1]

Crucified love! And so we pray today that through this sacrifice of crucified love we would be given the strength, the grace to do love, to choose love, to act in a loving way, so that we would experience God’s love, which is the very center of our being, so that we could make room in our hearts for Jesus to make his dwelling with and in us.


[1] Delio, The Unbearable Wholeness of Being, 85-86. Some of the above thoughts on Augustine and Aquinas were inspired by this chapter as well.

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