“Pour out so that you may be filled. Learn not to love in order that you may love. Turn away, so that you may be turned towards.”
Sermon on Isaiah 50:4-9; James 2:1-5, 8-10, 14-18; Mark 8:27-38
Any guesses as to who these words came from? It all sounds rather paradoxical, maybe even a bit to Zen, no? The middle bit is particularly tricky, isn’t it: learn not to love? Something like the quote attributed to the Buddha, “he who has 100 loves has 100 sufferings?” Well, to give you a clue, it is in fact a Christian spiritual teacher I’m quoting here. You could be forgiven for thinking that it was Meister Eckhart, because it sounds like the sort of paradoxical thing that he might say, and I do quote him quite often. But it’s not. Nor is it one of the Eastern fathers.
And the answer is… St Augustine.
I know, in some circles Saint Augustine is blamed for all sorts of things, and particularly for his take on original sin, but I will persist in insisting that he is one of the greatest spiritual teachers of the Western Church, and well worth reading. Believe it or not, he can be very enjoyable to read, especially his famous Confessions, which is easily available, and doesn’t need higher degrees in theology to understand: I recommend it if you haven’t read it already, especially the accounts that he gives of his spiritual experience which drew him to the Christian faith.
But to come back to the quote at hand – pour out so that you may be filled, learn not to love in order that you may love, turn away so that you may be turned towards – I think S Augustine is really talking here about what Jesus calls being poor in spirit, taking up your cross, and so becoming like Christ, who, in the words of the ancient Christological him ii Philippians 2, “emptied himself and took the form of a slave.”
To quote Augustine’s Easter forefather S Athanasius, in Christ, God became human, so that we humans might become God: that is to say, as far as possible, to become one with God. And since Christ bears the fullest imprint of the divine nature, to become one with God we must become like Christ: that is to say, like the divine word who poured himself out, emptying himself all of his glory to become born a tiny baby, a nothing in the eyes of the world; who poured out even his Incarnate human nature, by the ignominy of execution on the Cross, the Lord of Creation a criminal among criminals; who poured out his divinity by descending to hell, and so reaching to the depths of utter absence of divinity, reality embracing nonbeing, absolute nothingness. And yet it is in that pouring out, that emptying, that becoming nothing, that Our Lord manifested the fullness of the Resurrection and eternal life. To take part in the Body of Christ is to be poured out, so that you may be filled.
But what about that difficult middle sentence? Learn not to love? Surely Christ is all love, all compassion? Well, yes, but that rather depends on what you love, and how you love it. Now there’s nothing parishioners hate more than when the clergy use Jesus is commands to take up your cross as a way of asking for more money, so that’s not what I’m going to do. It is, after all, not money that is the root of all evil, but the love of money, and by extension, the love of material things for their own sake rather than for the sake of the gospel. Neither James nor Our Lord command us to despise material things, but they do call us not to heed them. If we pay more attention to the man in the Rolex watch then the woman in stinking rags who wanders into our church, then this is a clear sign that we love the wrong things, or perhaps better, we love things wrongly. We have become trapped by them, or as the Elder Zosima in Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamasov puts it rather more forcibly, enslaved by them:
“which of the two is more capable of upholding and serving a great idea: the isolated rich man or one who is liberated from the tyranny of things?”
How clearly these words speak to us in an age which flaunts its addiction to material things, especially to the glowing rectangles which we carry in our pockets and tap away at to isolate ourselves from one another when we’re sitting on the train. All of these things can be put to good use: the question is whether we use them for our own glory, the glory of having the latest and the best things or having more than everybody else, or whether we use them for the glory of God. Because if it is the former, then we need to learn to unlove these things, so that we learn the love which gives us all things in the first place and which we call God.
This, I think, is where the pub or dinner party critic of the church comes unstuck, when they point that’s the fine buildings and works of art that the church owns, and say it should all be sold and given to the poor, not thinking for a moment that perhaps their luxury holidays, designer goods and expensive cars could be faced with the same accusation. I’d say that it is absolutely right to honour God in the church by offering him the finest and most beautiful things that human ingenuity can devise, whether it is richly ornamented vestments and gold candlesticks and stained glass windows, or the very best music that we can offer, especially since anyone, however rich or poor, can come in and enjoy it all. There can be no higher use of material things than to return them in thanksgiving to the one who gives us all. It is to learn to love things as gifts rather than as possessions:
If the loss of external things causes me pain, then this is a clear sign that I love external things and thus, in truth I love suffering and despair.Meister Eckhart
We must learn to unlove external things in order that we may love Love Himself, the divine word of love who dwells unutterably beyond us, and yet more intimately within us than we dare to imagine.
And this is why, finally, we must turn away, so that we may be turned towards. As we say at our Baptism, we turn away from the world, the flesh, and the Devil. In the ancient liturgies of the Church, those about to be baptised words literally turned away from the West door towards the mystical East, where the altar stands, where the body and blood of Christ are made present before us, and where the Sun of Righteousness dawns. Spiritually speaking, yes, we turn away from the things of this world which, as it were, exercise a gravitational pull our souls away from God and down towards Hell and nonbeing. We turn away from the external things and instead we turn within, so that in truly knowing ourselves, we might know the One in whose Image we are made. And yet here is a great paradox. For it is precisely in turning away from the world, the flesh, and the devil, and towards their luminous Source, that we come to turn towards them, and to see them in the light of the love that will transform them, and make them lovable in turn: the world, the flesh, and yes, even the Devil, cannot escape the loving, transfiguring luminescence of God.
This, I think, is something of the meaning of James’s discourse on faith and works. As Meister Eckhart puts it,
“insofar as it is something external that prompts you to act, to that extent your works are dead, and even if it is God who prompts you to act from outside, then such works too are dead.”
Like material riches, the external riches of the Law are to be loved not for themselves, and not for the pride of possessing them, but for the virtue of their internal assimilation, which comes only from self-emptying and illumination by God. Self-emptying, rather than mere obedience to externals, is the Christ-like faith which emptied and filled the hearts of S James, S Paul, and all the great mystics and martyrs. Without it, all our works are dead.
If we want the God who creates from nothing to make anything of us, then we must become nothing. To take up the Cross is to empty the self that we might receive, to pour out that we might be filled, to silence and to still our desires that we may truly love, to turn away from the world that we may become vehicles and instruments of its redemption, to turn from the Devil and to offer him our back. The salvation of the world does not begin with the redistribution of external goods and the rearrangement of the social order: it begins with the inward turn and the emptying of our hearts.
Taking up the Cross is an act far more radical than giving away all our money and every material thing that we own, though for some Christians it does include both of those things.
It is the absolute and unconditional gift of self – body, soul, heart, will, imagination – that we may become one with the One who is giver, gift and the very act of giving, in Whom we live, and move, and have our being. Amen.