Deus Caritas Est: Abba Isaiah and John Wesley



I’m rather reticent about discussing my (unimpressive) personal life here. But I’m happy to let you know that I’m going to be married on June 3. To a Methodist. My beloved and I take very seriously our vocation to be an interchurch family. This is much joy in this calling. But, as Monsignor Giuseppe Chiaretti, Archbishop of Perugia, told a gathering of interchurch families, “You carry very visibly in your story a sort of ‘sign of contradiction’ which can be a warning to all Christians, a bit like Jacob’s ‘limp’ or Paul’s ‘thorn in the flesh.’” He continued, “You are in effect a continuous living and painful memorial of the torn robe of Christ.” We’d appreciate your prayers that we never shy away from bearing this cross.

One of the books that we’ve profitably read together has been the edited collection, Orthodox and Wesleyan Spirituality, published by St Vladimir’s Seminary Press in 2002. I’d like to share part of an essay in the book that compares the practical ways of holiness of the fifth-century monk Isaiah of Scetis and John Wesley. It is written by the Orthodox theologian Fr John Chryssavgis. Abba Isaiah has very good advice for those meeting with other Christians – his Ascetic Discourses remind us that, whether considering variant Scriptural interpretations or theologies, we should always be humble and compassionate, avoid “the desire to prove your faith right” or “the enjoyment of futile diatribe,” and only concern ourselves with our “personal education from God” and the “spiritual encouragement of the heart.” But, as we await the forthcoming encyclical from Pope Benedict about love, Deus Caritas Est, to be released on the last day of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, I’d like to share Fr Chryssavgis’ words describing how Abba Isaiah and John Wesley both hold that love must distinguish the life of a Christian community:

Not only are we to “love praying ceaselessly,” but Abba Isaiah notes that “we are to love to love.” Love is the purpose (telos), the climax (oros) of all virtue, while “the end of all passion is self-justification.” Nothing is more detestable and dangerous in the spiritual life, for Isaiah, than insensitivity towards others and towards God. When we are not sensitive to others, when we do not love, “when we bear hatred towards even a single person, then our prayer is unacceptable.” Love is identified with life; it is the other side of the same coin known as “dispassion,” and characterized as “blessed.” Love is “the seat of the soul,” “the image of Christ within us.” In his hymn “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” Charles Wesley adopts the same image:

Adam’s likeness now efface,
Stamp thine image in its place;
Second Adam from above,
Reinstate us in thy love.

Paradoxically, love is the highest expression of passion, as John Wesley notes in A Plain Account of Christian Perfection:

Thy soul break out in strong desire
The perfect bliss to prove!
Thy longing heart be all on fire
To be dissolv’d in love!

Often we reduce the concept of love to outward actions. Yet love may also involve the more “visible” dimensions of charity or counseling, as well as the “invisible” aspects of support and silence. Conversely, being silent when we are supposed to speak “can be the cause of our spiritual death”; at the same time, a words out of place “can also be the death of our soul” (Ascetic Discourses 5). The context within which Abba Isaiah perceives the virtue of love is the Pauline image of the body, wherein the least significant members deserve the greatest attention, and the most vulnerable are invaluable, indeed indispensable (1 Corinthians 12:12):

Again he said: if it comes to you, while you are sitting in your cell, to judge your neighbor, consider how more numerous your own sins are than your neighbor’s. If you believe that you are doing righteous things, do not think that these will please God. Every one of the body’s stronger limbs takes care of the weaker members in order to attend and care for them. But the cruel person who busies himself, asking: “What have I to do with the weak?” does not belong to the body of Christ, because the strong sympathize with the weak until the latter are healed; and they say: “I am the weak one.”

The path to perfection in Wesleyan spirituality is also connected to the fulfillment of the two great commandments: love of God and love of neighbor. And wholeness of heart is identified with oneness of soul by John Wesley in his letters. In 1738, he wrote:

Their faith hath made them whole. And these are of one heart and of one soul. They all love one another, and are knit together in one body and one spirit, as in one faith and one hope of their calling.

This is the way of love that we have learned directly from the Incarnate Son of God. John Wesley states this succinctly:

Where there is no love of God, there is no holiness, and there is no love of God but from a sense of his love for us.

And, in his hymn Wrestling Jacob, Charles Wesley repeats seven times:

Thy nature, and thy name, is LOVE.

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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