The Pursuit of the Flaming Sonnet

As we have said, from the instant we are baptized, grace is hidden in the depths of the intellect, concealing its presence even from the perception of the intellect itself. When someone begins, however, to love God with full resolve, then in a mysterious way, by means of intellectual perception, grace communicates something of its riches to his soul. Then, if he really wants to hold fast to this discovery, he joyfully starts longing to be rid of all his temporal goods, so as to acquire the field in which he has found the hidden treasure of life. This is because, when someone rids himself of all worldly riches, he discovers the place where the grace of God is hidden.

All God’s gifts of grace are flawless and the source of everything good; but the gift which inflames our heart and moves it to the love of His goodness more than any other is theology. It is the early offspring of God’s grace and bestows on the soul the greatest gifts. First of all, it leads us gladly to disregard all love of this life, since in the place of perishable desires we possess inexpressible riches, the oracles of God. Then it embraces our intellect with the light of a transforming fire, and so makes it a partner of the angels in their liturgy. Therefore, when we have been made ready, we begin to long sincerely for this gift of contemplative vision, for it is full of beauty, frees us from every worldly care, and nourishes the intellect with divine truth in the radiance of inexpressible light. In brief, it is the gift which, through the help of the holy prophets united the deiform soul with God in unbreakable communion. So, among me and among angels, divine theology – like one who conducts the wedding feast – brings into harmony the voice of those who praise God’s majesty.

Once the spiritual way has become a reality for us, we shall find it proper and helpful to follow the Lord’s commandment and sell our possessions immediately, distributing the money we receive, rather than to neglect this injunction on the excuse that we wish always to be in a position to obey the commandments. In the first place, this will secure our complete detachment, and a poverty which is in consequence invulnerable and impervious to all lawlessness and litigation, since we no longer have the possessions which kindle the fire of crime in others. Then, more than all the other virtues, humility will warm and cherish us; in our nakedness she will give us rest in her bosom, like a mother who takes her child into her arms and warms it when, with childish simplicity, it has pulled of what it is wearing and thrown it away, innocently delighting more in nakedness than in pretty clothes.

A person who is not detached from worldly cares can neither love God truly nor hate the devil as he should, for such cares are both a burden and a veil. God is not prepared to grant the gift of theology to anyone who has not first prepared himself by giving away all his possessions for the glory of the Gospel; then in godly poverty he can proclaim the riches of the divine kingdom.

I have been captivated since childhood by that line in the hymn “Come Thou Fount” in which we pray, “Teach me some melodious sonnet / Sung by flaming tongues above!” For as long as I have known that written language and, more specifically books, exists I have wanted to be a writer. “Come Thou Fount” contains the only reference I know of in liturgy or hymnody to a specific literary form – which is not to say that there are not others, only that my experience is limited – and so it has been my life-long, church-given prayer to the Christian muse, the Holy Spirit. O God, O Spirit, let me write. Give me words. And someday, please give me the sonnet sung by flaming tongues.

The story of each Christian life is both complex and simple. The simple form is this: Our Father, in His mercy, draws us nearer to Himself through the wound in the side of His Son Jesus Christ. As the blood and water and Spirit pour out, we, through Jesus, are drawn deeper and deeper into the Father’s heart. I will spare out the more complicated version of my story for now, save its most recent development. Some of my brothers and sisters in the House of St. Michael have told me that they believe that to come to know the melodious sonnet might be one of my callings in life. And that I ought to begin pursuing it. Now.

Now? But how? Ah, but in the Faith, allowing God to make us something often comes before our being it. Abraham was a father through faith long before he was a father through the flesh. And whether baptized as Christians or as adults, we were all Christians before we had a very good idea of how to be them. Similarly (I suppose) one decides to be a Christian writer before one may become one. At any rate, I decided, and, tentative as that decision may have been, God responded to my choice with mercy.

Enter Diadochos: Pursuit of the Flaming Sonnet, Lesson One.

In the passages I have excerpted above, Diadochos gives a basic outline of the development of Christian life. It is the story of the treasure hid in the field. We are the field, and the treasure is grace, hidden by God at our baptism deep within our intellect. While grace remains hidden, we look like any other field – both to the world and to ourselves. But then one day, as we are walking along, God allows us to catch a glimpse of the treasure poking up through the soil. Perhaps we have been gardening in the field. Perhaps pesky moles have been digging up the garden we have been trying to make in it. Perhaps our field is on the coastline and a storm came – a storm we thought we would never survive – and washed away the soil. At any rate, suddenly, we see the treasure. And from that moment, nothing will ever be the same.

Once we know there’s a treasure in the field, our life becomes about the acquisition of the field. We must go and sell all we have to buy the field. We must follow Jesus’ command to the rich young ruler: “Go, sell all you have, and, come, follow me.” Twice the Scriptures tell us that we must sell all we have. We must sell all we have to buy the field. We must sell all we have to follow Christ. To buy the field, which is ourselves, we must follow Christ. And the purchase of the field, the following of Christ, is the field’s transformation.

Before the field was known to contain a treasure, what was its value? The value of a piece of land is determined by many things: its potential or apparent fertility, the natural resources it contains, its location. Before the discovery of the treasure, the field may have been worth something. But it was not worth Everything. But the future of the field before the treasure is discovered and the future of the field after it is discovered are two different things. After its purchase the field with the treasure must become not a barren wasteland or a parking lot or a gas station or a shopping mall, but the sort of field owned by one who owns a treasure and a field—and nothing else. For the one who owns the field sold all she had to buy it. What else will the owner of the field improve then with the riches she has gained, if not the field itself? And the riches she has gained are not in diamond or emeralds or long-lost gold, but in the person of the Holy One Himself. This means that the field, in its improvement, must become grounds for a temple. And there is no temple save the One Temple of the One Throne of God of which the Father sits, and Jesus with the Father, and we with Jesus. And round that throne, the angels sing the flaming sonnet “Holy, Holy, Holy.”

This is the destiny of those in whom the grace of God is hidden through their baptism.

But “God is not prepared to grant the gift of theology to anyone who has not first prepared himself by giving away all his possessions for the glory of the Gospel; then in godly poverty he can proclaim the riches of the divine kingdom.”

Think of this not as a forbidding, but as an invitation. Jesus loved the rich young ruler, and the rich young ruler would have been the Lord’s servant as soon as he had desired in his heart to sell his possessions – though he still possessed them all. For possession of the body is nothing compared with possession of the heart. Matthew was a disciple as soon as he stood up from the tax collectors table, for in Jesus God does not refuse to dwell with sinners. Indeed, in Jesus God came to us in the likeness of sinful flesh, selling all He had to buy the field of the world so that co-heirs with Christ might benefit from His purchase. When we make the costly purchase of the field of ourselves, we make no purchase not already made through Jesus’ blood. Do you understand? The purchase is already made. We have been bought with a price. But through the gift of free will, the Master hands us the money that we might have the honor of paying for our freedom with our own hands, that our former “masters” might be grieved at the honor and love bestowed on us by God.

Let us be clear, however: we must give all and sell all to buy all. The Scriptures and the saint are clear. The things of this world are snares and traps, waiting to occupy the space in our heart that God would occupy. If we let them, our possessions will occupy the very throne of our heart. Greed is idolatry. God, in His great desire for us, is very happy to give us Himself and receive some of us in return. Indeed, God died for us while none of our hearts were fully His: “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for the ungodly.” But Jesus will never be satisfied until He has all of us and we all of Him. And as long as we insist on having any thing, we cannot be fully His. We may begin by knowing less than the fullness of truth and life. That is normal. But in Jesus our journey must be always forward and never back. If we ever become content with less than the fullness of truth and life ­– if we ever come to realize that we want to keep a thing more than we want Jesus and, seeing that, do not cast that thing away – the truth which we possess will become an empty lie and our lives living death. The choice is not whether we will sell all to buy the field or keep our many possessions. The choice is whether we will have Jesus, who is all in all, or, in the end, have nothing.

The gifts are great and the stakes are high. A field with the treasure of hidden grace. The flaming sonnet sung in the temple of our breasts. Look around your room, then, and begin letting go – not in theory, but in practice – of the tangible things of this life. I cannot tell you how to journey into the desert, for I do not yet know how myself. But I am looking around my room. Hard. But from teacups to laptops to houses and cars, let us keep nothing that will separate us form the love of God, nothing that would keep us from owning, in Jesus, the field of the Holy Temple.

Pray for me. If I am going to serve God as a writer, it is going to cost me my life.

Pray for me. If I am going to be a Christian, it is going to cost me my life. “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?”

“Come Thou Fount of every blessing / Tune my heart to sing thy grace.”

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