Today is Fat Tuesday, Shrove Tuesday, Mardi Gras or the day before Ash Wednesday. If you know anything about me, you know that Lent is the most important Christian season to me and Easter is my favorite holiday. I have been drawn to the penitence of Lent since a young age, because it gives me a chance to contemplate my shortcomings while also focusing on the grace that will come through Holy Week, Jesus’ death and resurrection.
This morning I asked Bec if she was going to go to Ash Wednesday service with me, and she said,”I know that’s important to you some years, but I don’t really need to go.” There’s a lot of truth in the first part of that statement, but it correlates to my closeness or desire for Christ and my ability to feel God’s presence in my church. Since the first Sunday of Advent when I stepped into Grace Episcopal, I have felt at home, more at home than I’ve felt in a church setting a good long while. The theology is right, the service is perfectly liturgical and monastic feeling, Fr. Tom is intelligent and challenges us, and the people are friendly and open to all folks. So, of course, this year I feel a draw to celebrate Lent in all of its capacities, starting with Ash Wednesday tomorrow. I’m not entirely sure how fasting and contemplation will look for the course of Lent this year, but I will do as led during the service tomorrow.
During my morning contemplation this morning I read a bit from The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism and I came across this quote by Richard of St. Victor a 12th century monastic who wrote The Four Degrees of Violent Charity: “So, we now have the four degrees of violence in burning love that I have set forth above. The first degree of violence is when the mind cannot resist its desire; the second degree is when the mind cannot forget it; the third degree is when it cannot taste anything else; the fourth and last degree is when that desire cannot satisfy it. Therefore, the first degree love is insuperable, in the second inseparable, in the third singular, in the fourth insatiable. Insuperable love is what does not allow other attractions; inseparable love is what cannot be forgotten; singular love is what admits no companion; insatiable love is what cannot be satisfied.” Richard applies this same set of four degrees to romantic love (which will create a deity of a lover), Christian love (which creates the most perfect union between a person and God), and familial love (which culminates in the parents’ love for the child).
What I am drawn to is the idea that perfect love is violent, charity is violent. With some quick refreshment of my biblical languages, I find that charity (caritas) is frequently the way that love (agape) is translated in the vulgate, so the idea of love being violent fits right in with the idea that we should simultaneously love and fear God. The idea of violence never really appeals to me, and yet, when I look at the biblical text, I see repeated examples of God being violent and God’s followers being violent. In fact, that violence looks a lot like the four stages or degrees of love outlines above.
1) Insuperable love: “For the Lord your God is a devouring fire, a jealous God.” —Deuteronomy 4:24
2) Inseparable love: “Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” —Deuteronomy 6:7-9
3) Singular love: “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.” —Song of Solomon 6:3
4) Insatiable love: “O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.” —Psalm 63:1
While contemplating this ideas of violent caritas/agape, I began thinking of the ways in which each level is presented in the biblical text. I am convinced that every biblical concept can come back to a new testament woman, and this one comes back to the woman who washes Jesus’ feet with her hair. Here’s the story
One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.” Jesus spoke up and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” “Teacher,” he replied, “speak.” “A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.” And Jesus said to him, “You have judged rightly.” Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” Then he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
Maybe it’s whimsical thinking, but this woman seems to exhibit all four degrees of love for Jesus in a way that humbles me and makes me wish I could put aside my self-consciousness and worldly concerns and fall at the feet of Jesus, only Jesus, and pour myself out until I can only be filled up with him. Total love, total grace, total peace, and total beauty. Four degrees of caritas/agape: insuperable, inseparable, singular, and insatiable.