The words of the anthem for this Evensong beautifully complement the glowing intimate sense of love that permeates the Epistle we know as 1 John.
O thou the central orb of righteous love, pure beam of the most High,
eternal light of this our wintry world,
thy radiance bright awakes new joy in faith, hope soars above.
You will notice how the anthem holds images of light, of brightness, against the implicit dark of a ‘wintry world’. John (who in the Gospel associated with his name speaks of light shining in darkness), in this epistle uses another image for light – but this he names as ‘love’ – and he holds this against that ‘darkness’ that he names as ‘the world’. Notice how he puts it: ‘let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts... you are from God... they are from the world.’ Against the images of darkness and world, John sets the images of light and love and maps out a whole way of being, a total orientation of the self.
The mental juxtapositions and inner dialectic inherent in the tensions that John works with should feel very familiar to us. What is the truth? Do we not wonder what life means, whether there is a God or not, whether there is anything such as ‘meaning’? Do we believe that the scepticism of our post-modernity is really so much more advanced than a reasonable thinker in the ancient world? Are our spiritual convolutions so unique? Obviously they are contextually different; the advance of science ensures that. But, in our raw humanity, I doubt that much has changed. Humankind still fears death, needs companionship, and struggles to make sense of the world and our place in it. We all come with questions. We hunt for truth – philosopher, scientist, theologian – we all seek to make sense.
This of course is the reality that lay at the heart of Professor Murray Rae’s inaugural professorial lecture at the university last Thursday evening when he spoke on ‘Theology and the pursuit of Truth’. From a well crafted lecture that began with Socrates I took away a real appreciation of what Rae suggested best describes the scholar’s attitude toward one’s discipline. He suggested, I hope I recall him correctly, that it was ‘love’. The word sounds surprising in the academic context but it ‘fits’. Love is a word that suggests a stance that is respectful and which regards the subject in such a way that there is no room for the intrusion of the ego and its follies, its posturing and arrogance. One may even say that love as we describe it here – and, goodness knows, the word ‘humility’ comes to mind - such ‘love’ is associated with an enhanced perspective on reality; it is open to the ‘truth’ whatever that may be or how that may appear. This is, of course, all disputed ground. What names we give to ‘truth’ and how we understand it all differ. We may not even be convinced that what we seek is ‘there’ – but each discipline pursues truth with that ‘love’ which provides the light essential to understanding.
Which brings us back to the light and love that John speaks of in his Epistle: it is a transforming way of being in the world and of approaching the truth. One way of illustrating this would be through the mystics of the church – and one immediately thinks of Dame Julian in her Revelations of Divine Love. Her calm, attentive and loving approach as an anchoress, simply waiting on God, ‘contemplating’ Christ, caused her to experience the series of ‘revelations’ that she recorded. I am particularly fond of what is one of the most famous of the revelations – one in which she is shown the ‘littleness of the cosmos’: (Chapter IV)
...He showed me a little thing, the size of a hazel-nut, lying in the palm of his hand, it was as round as any ball, and (I) thought, “What may this be?”
I was answered generally, “It is all that is made.”...
The loving orientation of Julian is a disposition of being that allows her to see herself and the universe in perspective against the immense otherness and mystery of God. There is no fear in this, no existential horror or vertigo at the abyss of being – instead she notes:
He (Christ) is our clothing: for love wraps us and winds us, embraces us and causes us, and hangs about us for tender love that He may never leave us.
In the deeply-felt knowledge of such love, no wonder – as the anthem puts it – ‘hope soars above’.