During the sermon on Sunday, November 14, 2010, my COS paper was reviewed with the members. The post here is the paper completed for the COS class.
The Celtic Cross, even the various knot patterns, have long appealed to me. Maybe it is because I do have some genetic connections with Ireland, Scotland and Wales, but the three simple links create a visual image representing a Trinitarian God—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit—is at the base of my personal faith. As one ponders upon the design, there appears to be three fish, also an early sign of Christianity, and at no point does there seem to be a beginning or an end to the design.
Reading Roberta C. Bondi’s book, To Love as God Loves, I found my thoughts wrapping around the three major points of love, humility and the passions in a very similar manner as if I were meditating on the Celtic Cross: one thought wondering around, intersecting with another, and even flowing into the third concept. I found it very difficult to see any separation of these three concepts as they build upon each other, support each other and connect each other.
First, consider love, especially since God is love. Love needs to serve as the very foundation of any discussion on Christianity. Bondi discusses love from the point of view that if God is love and God is perfection, then the goal of living a faithful life is to find perfection. This idea is one of the reasons that early Christians joined the monastic movement, going out into the desert to live a life devoid of possessions and relationships. Choosing to live in the desert apart from society was a way of seeking perfection in love. Today such a severe interpretation of perfection seems legalistic or overly literal. The discussion of living in a monastic lifestyle centers on the discipline of one’s practices of reading, studying, praying and reflecting on scripture attempts to separate an individual from real-world, human experiences. In a sense, living a monastic lifestyle presumed that one is more perfect–more holy–than others who professed faith in God.
Today, and for generations, the monastic lifestyle has lost its appeal for most Christians. Bondi steps away from the discussion of the desert life, and focuses on two human definitions of love—one emotional and a second as a disposition. The emotional form of love, according to Bondi, comes with the statement:
I cannot love you with your flaws; I am only human.” [The author states, ] “I am only human” carries with it the implication that we have no more control over our ability to love than we have over our ability to go a month without sleep. . . . [and] keeps a lot of people feeling inadequate, guilty, helpless, and angry all at once. (Bondi, p. 24)
Monastic followers really felt that by following strict disciplines and removing themselves from society, they could reach perfection in loving one another.
As the early understanding of Christianity grew, the shift from love and perfection moves to the two forms of love as emotion and as a disposition. Understanding love as an emotion may seem like a simple concept to understand by today’s standards, but Bondi attempts to define these two forms in order for us to consciously expand on Christian love. Continuing with the emotional form of love:
. . . the word “love” commonly describes a whole range of emotions that we feel in many different situations, including “falling in love.” Love as an emotion is spontaneous. . . . It is a kind of mood that we experience as coming upon us, bringing with it warm and positive feelings. . . . This kind of love does not entail action on our part to be real; though our feelings may push us to act in a certain way, there is no necessary reason why we have to act on those feelings. (Bondi p. 30)
The second form is love as a disposition. Upon initial reading of this, the choice of ‘disposition’ was difficult or uncomfortable for understanding. Disposition typically implies a characteristic, a personality trait, or a tendency over which you may or may not control. Yet, Bondi’s explanation makes this into a conscious decision, even an action—a verb rather than a noun:
. . . the word “love” in English to mean a deep attitude of heart, or as a disposition directed at something or someone with which or with whom we are in a long-term relationship of commitment. . . . it is by a commitment we make that shapes our ways of seeing, understanding, and acting. . . . [Love as a disposition] is a habitual attitude of heart that wishes for and seeks to provide for his well-being in concrete acts of kindness, consideration, and service, every single day, in small ways as well as large ways. (Ibid.)
Bondi sees love as an action more than a state. The most current literature available within our denomination focuses on the actions that demonstrate love. For instance, consider Bishop Robert Schnase’s five practices: radical hospitality, passionate worship, intentional faith development, risk-taking mission, and extravagant generosity. These practices or disciplines move our understanding of Christian love from an emotion into a disposition.
Returning to the concept of the Celtic cross, consider the principle of humility and its interaction with love. There can be no separation. In order to fully love one another, self cannot be the primary focus but rather as a well-maintained tool to carry out love, as a disposition. As Bondi works to explain love, who is to be loved must be defined. First, we must have a healthy sense of self. A healthy self-love makes it possible for us to love God and one another.
The early Christians who chose to join the monastic movement, the emphasis on following such a severe lifestyle may not have indicated a healthy self-love. At least by today’s standards, the strain of the lifestyle would not necessarily be identified as healthy. In today’s viewpoint, a healthy self-love means taking care of the body so it can perform well. It means not beating up on one’s self emotionally or judging one’s actions against the perfectionist’s images which the monastics tried to maintain.
Humility, as outlined by Bondi, is currently “countercultural.” Today society rewards those who prove successful on the job, who create new ideas, who can step out in front of others with solutions, with money, with power. The monastic culture saw humility in a different perspective:
Those who chose the monastic life, however, believed that for themselves only radical renunciation of the external as well as the internal patterns of their cultures could put them in a position where they would be able to begin to love. This was why they did what may seem so self-destructive to us in the present: they sold their property, refused marriage, gave up careers, and turned their backs on everything their culture valued. . . . [all were seen as] to be a constant source of self-deception and temptation. (Bondi, p. 41)
This standard of humility places individuals into a subservient position to others. That, today, is seen as an unhealthy state; it indicates that one’s self-image, self-love can damage the ability to demonstrate Christian principles.
Bondi’s clarification of humility for contemporary Christians shows how challenging a standard of behavior really is. Humility has gone against the Western standards for several centuries:
[Humility] calls for the renunciation of all deep attachments to what the world holds dear: goods, social advancement, the satisfaction of appetites at the expense of others, the right to dominate others in any personal relationship. (Bondi, p. 54)
Why, then, is it so important to understand how humility in intertwined in Christian love? In order to follow God’s one commandment to love on another and to transform the world, all the worldly standards or measures of secular success need to be re-prioritized in our lives. God’s love for one another is now the operating system for today’s Christians. And in meditation of how these two concepts intertwine, an honest review needs to be made of the third of Bondi’s Celtic cross—the passions.
The passions are roadblocks to living a truly Christian lifestyle in which we honestly love one another and, by doing so, are transforming the world. Bondi identifies the passions as gluttony, avarice, impurity, depression/sadness, anger, acedia, and vainglory. Many of these terms certainly are not common, everyday concepts in today’s society, but Bondi’s explanations clearly outline how these “passions” interfere with love and humility. The seven passions take a simple Celtic design based on three and complicate the simplicity of God’s design for us.
On first hearing the term ‘passion,’ a modern Christian jumps to a definition that typically does not seem to fit the discussion Bondi leads. Passion typically implies a strong emotion connected to sex; secondly, today’s society also connects temper to passion. Yet, in Bondi’s conversation, passion is an extremely strong emotion that affects one’s judgment and interferes in the ability to love as God loves.
For United Methodists, an interesting connection appears in understanding how the passions were identified as a problem. According to Bondi, the early Christians borrowed an idea presented by Plato who used a metaphor about a chariot pulled by two horses. The charioteer and the horses represent the pull between emotion and reason.
Driving the chariot is reason. It is reason that enables human beings to see the world and respond to it not simply on a level of physical needs and desires, but consciously and morally. For the Christian monastics, this meant to see and know God, to see as God sees, and to love God and other people. . . . The horses provide the energy and power; it is the charioteer who sets the direction of the travel and puts the energy of the chariot in motion. (Bondi pp. 60-61)
Today’s United Methodists depend on the quadrilateral to keep a balance in understanding how to live as God lives. Using the four approaches to make sure that our understanding and our decisions are God-based, the element of logical reasoning is an essential factor. Reason helps keep human passions under control.
Reading the scriptures provides a base of knowledge of how God taught the faithful to live. Rules are laid out in the Old Testament to assure the people of Israel were healthy, were able to run their lives successfully, and to remain faithful. Then as Jesus arrived to replace the Old Covenant with the New Covenant, more instruction was needed and the books of the New Testament guide us further along the path of loving one another. Therefore, United Methodists use all four windows in the quadrilateral to assure that the passions are kept in control based on scripture, historical perspective, personal experience and rational thought, i.e. reasoning.
Looking back at the Celtic cross, the simplicity of the three, unending, infinite ovals can become extremely ornamental as it is expanded to fill a space, to provide more depth to the mystery of life, to show how God’s love can continue to grow. A summary of the passions causes modern Christians to pause and to meditate upon the message of the cross:
- Gluttony—overeating is only one form, but overdoing in any form becomes a controlling force in one’s life. The hunger interferes with the ability to love as God loves; the hunger has to be satisfied above all other—including God.
- Avarice—selfishness is another way to define this passion. If owning property or having control of resources takes over reason, God’s expectations are ignored.
- Impurity—defined as “lusting after bodies” continues to be widespread in today’s culture. The emphasis on sex as a physical element in a relationship and as a consumerism trigger has become so pervasive that love as a concept is twisted and has wrung God out of the fabric of our lives.
- Depression/Sadness—now clearly defined as a mental illness that takes control of one’s life is a passion because it prevents or interferes with one’s ability to love not only one another, but even God.
- Anger—temper; Bondi states that the monastic literature identified this as the most destructive passion. Today psychologists encourage patients to identify their anger and find ways to express it; unfortunately, anger often takes over all sense of reason and replaces love. With no love, God’s new covenant is broken.
- Acedia—an unfamiliar term in today’s culture, but during the Middle Ages it meant laziness. Today, though, acedia refers to the loss of enthusiasm for life. When boredom sets in whether within the family structure, at the jobsite, or even with a hobby, acedia is the controlling passion interfering with living life as God asks us to live—loving one another. If our focus on God is lost, life becomes boring and/or restlessness sets in.
- Vainglory—another unfamiliar term means vanity or egotistical. Monastics suffering from this passion wanted to be admired for their religious practices, but today it can feasibly be as simple as wanting to please a parent more than another sibling can or being recognized as the ‘top dog’ in any career.
- Pride—at the worst, this passion causes one to put down or devalue, as Bondi says, others; but regardless of which century it may be, pride interferes with one loving one another as God would love—it destroys humility. (Bondi pp. 71-76)
No discussion is complete without a final statement. The three loops of the Celtic cross continue to provide quiet testimony to how cultures can assimilate new ideas. The Celts were content in their practices; but as the Christians moved into their culture, the old ideas became new ideas. The wooden cross that Jesus drug up the hill and died upon symbolizes a revolution fueled by love. The Celtic cross translated a pagan tradition into a Christian symbol of unending, infinite love. Bondi shows us that the one commandment to love one another truly transforms the world as long as humans maintain humility and are alert to the passions that can separate them from God.
Bondi, Roberta C. To Love as God Loves. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987.