actus purus


Posted By on May 19, 2014

(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...

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(Fr. Cyprian) How many times has this very same passage come up during the Easter season? And yet I never tire of it, this exchange between Philip and Jesus: ‘Just show us the Father!’––‘Philip, have I been with you all this time and you still don’t understand?! If you’ve seen me you’ve seen the Father!’ In some ways this statement is at least as profound if not more than the great ‘I AM’ sayings in the Gospel of John. You want to know what God is like?, Jesus says. I’m what God is like! If you’ve seen me you’ve seen God! This is what God is like and this is what God does… God travels light, God is merciful, forgives and reconciles, God spreads healing, God brings people to an understanding of their own dignity, God overturns the wisdom of this world, the wisdom of expediency and usefulness and power and authority and instead God rules with love, with mercy, from within and from behind, through service and what looks like weakness––the very opposite of what all the success seminars teach us. God is someone who washes your feet. God is not afraid to be broken up and crushed and passed out. God is crucified love, unconditional acceptance, as the Muslims say ir-Rahman ir-Rahim­­––All-Merciful, All-Compassionate, as our Jewish forbears would say, a veritable womb of mercy. That’s what Jesus was like; that’s what God is like. Paul’s definitions of Jesus are the ones I rely on the most if I need to succinctly explain who we believe Jesus to be, even though they are more like koans than formulas: He is the image (ikon) of the unseen God… and in him the fullness of the godhead dwelt bodily.[1] This is an amazing assertion, that this is what God is like, wrapped up in a Palestinian Jewish man who walked dusty roads and ate and drank with us. And this is our justification for gazing at the image of Jesus––If you’ve seen me you’ve seen the Father! And it’s the reason we spend so much time mulling over the scriptures, especially the gospels, to catch a better glimpse. There’s an old piece of wisdom that we become what we gaze at, and that’s why we do it too, not just to figure Jesus out, but to become what he was so as to do what he did, and even greater things, to carry on the work of the kingdom. As Jesus was the image, so our tradition tells us that we are the “image of the image.” Doesn’t John say, We shall be like him when we see him as...

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(Fr. Cyprian) We hear sections of Jesus’ farewell discourse often in the liturgy during the Easter season, and as we gets closer to Pentecost we hear it more and more, phrases of it used even as the Communion Antiphon. It’s as if the apostles and disciples themselves after the resurrection are remembering the words that Jesus said just before he died, understanding them in a whole new light. It’s especially poignant to celebrate an apostle during this Easter season, and in this particular passage from the same discourse chosen for the feast of Saint Matthias (Jn 15:10-15) I’m imagining the apostles sitting around and reciting these words to Matthias, after he has been chosen to join the apostolic band to replace Judas: “This is what he told us it means to be a true disciple of his.” This time reading it I’m particularly focused on the word “joy”––‘…that my joy might be in you and your joy be complete’––and I realized that I don’t often think of Jesus’ joy. I suppose it lives right next to Jesus’ gratitude, along with his wonder and his amazement. And, like gratitude, joy is a power that spills over. I think of the smile of Pope John XXIII who they say lit up a room every time he walked in, or the innocent unguarded joy of a giggling infant. Joy spills over. And of course I was thinking too of the Holy Father’s Apostolic Exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel” and I want to quote that a bit, especially appropriate on the feast of an apostle. In this gospel passage, according to Jesus joy is intimately connected with going out of ourselves, with service, with love of others, with active love. ‘Greater love has no one than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.’ I guess we could say as well that’s where true joy lies. On the other hand, Pope Francis says: Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others… God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of [God’s] love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades. This is a very real danger for believers too. Many fall prey to it, and end up resentful, angry and listless. And that is no way to live a dignified and fulfilled life; it is not God’s will for us, nor is it the life in the Spirit which has its source in the heart of the risen Christ. [#2] I especially liked his use of the word “listless” there; it reminds me of the specifically...

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eucharist and martyrdom


Posted By on May 6, 2014

(Fr. Cyprian) We have the continuation of two different readings today, again on their own cycle––the culmination of Stephen’s martyrdom in the Acts of the Apostles and then a continuation of the Bread of Life discourse in the 6th Chapter of the Gospel of John. They are not picked for their similarity with each other except for the fact that deep into the Easter season they are both somehow still unfolding the mystery of Easter. But there is actually one other element that they have in common that we might not get at first glance, and that is the Eucharist. You see, we make a mistake if we only focus on the sacred species, the transubstantiated bread and wine, and think that that sums up the Eucharist. There is something going into Eucharist and something coming out of it that are equally important. Going in is thanks, thanksgiving, gratitude, even awe and wonder at the mirabili Dei–the wonder of God. That’s what makes us lay not the bread and wine but our very lives on the altar and ask that they be lifted up and accepted. And of course they are. But it doesn’t end there, and that’s the lesson of Holy Thursday we’re supposed remember still today on Tuesday of the 3rd Week of Easter. What goes in is thanksgiving; but what comes out is love; what comes out is action. We become Eucharist, like bread and wine, broken and passed out, poured out. Remember what we learned Holy Thursday: washing the feet is equivalent to Eucharist; gifts to the poor are equivalent to Eucharist; it was not just Jesus’ body, but his body as he said at the meal “my body given up for you”; not just Jesus’ blood but as he said at the meal, “my blood poured out for you.” So giving our selves over, pouring out our lives is equivalent to celebrating Eucharist, or how we become Eucharist. When Pope Saint Leo the Great prays, “Change us into what we receive” he doesn’t mean change us into transubstantiated bread and wine; he means change us into true servants. And this is Stephen, because this is the root of martyrdom, or at least martyrdom is this total self-donation writ large, a total handing of oneself over as sacrifice. Luke is at pains to make him another Christ: see hi forgiving his enemies; see him having Psalm 31 on his lips just as Jesus did on the cross: You’re your hands I commend my spirit. So, like Jesus, Stephen too becomes Eucharist here, commending himself to God and forgiving his persecutors, fulfilling both commandments––to love God...

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inviting and scolding


Posted By on May 1, 2014

(Fr. Cyprian) In the course of any kind of rhetorical rapprochement or exhortation, I quite often think about the difference between scolding and inviting, and I am always trying to remember to tend toward the side of inviting rather than scolding. I notice that Jesus saves his scolding for the religious authorities like the scribes and Pharisees, but with almost everyone else he is always issuing an invitation. An invitation can still be a challenge, but a scolding is usually based on shaming and the assumption of someone’s superiority over another. A lot of what I have experienced in religion in my life alternates between these two poles––either wagging our finger at someone and telling them to go to church, scolding our culture for its materialism or relativism on the one hand; or holding up a model, an example, on the other hand, showing someone their own dignity and calling them to their best self, an invitation to be part of something great, good, and beautiful. The first line of this particular passage from the Gospel of John (6:13) may be one of the most well known scripture verses in modern times, mainly because it appears on so many billboards and bumper stickers. It’s like a sound bite of the gospel. But I have the feeling that it is often used as a kind of a bludgeon to admonish non-believers, even as a condemnation, rather than an invitation. What I think gets left out of it often is those first words, where all this comes from: God so loves the world! That’s an invitation! And following on that, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world… In some way, God never does condemn us; we condemn ourselves by worshipping or serving something other than the Real (Who is God), and that leads us to subhuman behavior and defacing of the beautiful world that God loves so much. In doing that we relegate ourselves to a prison cell of subhuman life. And that word “subhuman” is key for me, because what it means to be fully human is to be in right relationship with the Spirit, which is what Jesus calls humanity to. God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world… God sent Jesus as an invitation, an invitation to fullness of life. The Eastern Christian tradition would call this also divinization––to be fully human is to be divinized. The Western tradition starts in the right place by speaking of each of us being created in the imago Dei––the image of God, but the East sings of this end, divinization,...

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