Where, then, can anyone go or where can he flee to escape from him who embraces everything?

~ 1 Clement 28.4

Today we Orthodox Christians commemorate St. Clement of Rome, who knew the Apostles, wrote a letter (1 Clement) on behalf of the Church in Rome to the Church in Corinth, and was martyred for his faith by being bound to an anchor and cast into the sea. The anchor, because ancient anchors often had a sort of cross shape at the top, was an ancient Christian symbol, thus those who persecuted him and other Christians out of xenophobia, envy, and rivalry unwittingly honored him in his death. His epistle to the Corinthians is a beautiful exhortation to peace and unity in the face of envy and rivalry. In the passage above, he reminds his readers of something no Christian would deny, but many (myself included) forget in practice: God “embraces everything.”

St. Clement writes this after quoting Psalm 138:7-8 (LXX):

Where could I go from your Spirit?
Or hide from your face?
If I should ascend into heaven, you would be there;
If I should descend into Hades, you would be there….

Given the form of his martyrdom, the following two verses are worth adding:

If I should take up my wings at dawn
And pitch camp at the furthest part of the sea,
Even there your hand would lead me,
And your right hand would hold me.

Though cast into “the furthest part of the sea,” as a Christian I believe him to be in the company of the saints and the presence of God.

And how powerful are his words even today, 2000 years later? He writes to warn of judgment—God is just, no one who persists in evil can escape it. As St. Ambrose says, “The wicked man is a punishment to himself, but the upright man is a grace to himself.” I am ignorant of any other recompense for evil. Evil is anti-natural, an existential (if not ontological) emptiness.

There may be some other chastisement for evil, but I know that vices are their own punishment. They cut us off from communion with God, from others, even from ourselves. They sever us from the source of true joy. They are schisms of the heart. God is still there, but as St. Isaac the Syrian says,

As for me I say that those who are tormented in hell are tormented by the invasion of love. What is there more bitter and violent than the pains of love? Those who feel they have sinned against love bear in themselves a damnation much heavier than the most dreaded punishments. The suffering with which sinning against love afflicts the heart is more keenly felt than any other torment. It is absurd to assume that the sinners in hell are deprived of God’s love. Love is offered impartially. But by its very power it acts in two ways. It torments sinners, as happens here on earth when we are tormented by the presence of a friend to whom we have been unfaithful. And it gives joy to those who have been faithful.

Thus, St. Clement’s saying necessitates its opposite as well: just as no evil deed goes unpunished in this sense, so also “the upright man is a grace to himself.” God “embraces everything” in love; we suffer to the extent that we resist his irresistible embrace. Would that no one would resist that love unceasingly!

God, though beyond all things, unknowable, inconceivable, mysterious, terrifying, and hidden, yet interacts with us and embraces us. With pure hearts we see clearly that “God is love” (1 John 4:16).

That love is boundless and uncontainable: no one can escape it, not in the heavens, nor anywhere on earth, nor deep within the sea, nor in death itself.

… love is as strong as death,
Jealousy as cruel as the grave;
Its flames are flames of fire,
A most vehement flame.

Many waters cannot quench love,
Nor can the floods drown it.
If a man would give for love
All the wealth of his house,
It would be utterly despised. (Song of Songs 8:6-7)

Today my home parish also commemorated a one year memorial for our last choir director. The Rule of Colmcille—an ancient Celtic monastic guidebook—directs its adherents, “Be very constant in your prayers for the faithful departed, as if each dead person were a personal friend of yours.” I doubt it was difficult for anyone this morning to follow this wise exhortation. She taught us all to sing, “Memory eternal”; how could anyone not sing it for her from their hearts? And who would doubt it? For God does not forget anyone, but remembers them by embracing them with his love.

This weekend my wife and I have four visitors, children of some good friends. The house has been very busy and exciting; it has been nothing but a joy so far.

Their parents, meanwhile, are in Bulgaria, meeting for the first time in person their fifth child, a boy with special needs they are adopting, because they know that if God will not forget this boy or withhold his love from him, so neither ought the human race.

However it works, their hearts have been pierced with love for him. Most people would think of four children as a full house, but they see room for one more. Embracing the Love who “embraces everything,” they embrace this boy in love. It reminds me of a saying of Blessed Mother Theresa of Calcutta: “I have found the paradox, that if you love until it hurts, there can be no more hurt, only more love.”

Why, I wonder, do we (or at least I) so easily fail to believe this? Sometimes, I know, I behave as if love must be rationed, as if it has limits. Sometimes, though I find it very insightful, I want to utterly reject St. Augustine’s concept of a hierarchy of loves: Can it really be that if I love my brother or friend or neighbor or enemy or all creation that I could fail to be loving God? “Where could I go from [God’s] Spirit?” “Where … can anyone go or where can he flee to escape from him who embraces everything?”

This world is so full of division. Tragically, this applies to Christians as well (most of all?). As we continue to approach the descent of Love into the coldness of the Christmas cave this Advent, perhaps the most important lesson we can learn from St. Clement is that all division is a failure to love, or at least—if St. Augustine is correct—a failure to love rightly.

Writing a generation earlier to the Corinthians, who at that time also struggled with internal divisions, St. Paul wrote his famous love passage that is often read at weddings today (“Love is patient. Love is kind.”—See 1 Corinthians 13). St. Clement echos this passage with one of his own, perhaps to demonstrate that we need constant reminders of the beauty of love. I will let his eloquence be my conclusion:

Whoever has Christian love must keep Christ’s commandments. Who can describe the bond of God’s love? Who is capable of expressing its great beauty? The heights to which love leads are beyond description. Love unites us to God. “Love hides a multitude of sins.” Love puts up with everything and is always patient. There is nothing vulgar about love, nothing arrogant. Love knows nothing of schism or revolt. Love does everything in harmony. By love all God’s elect were made perfect. Without love nothing can please God. By love the Master accepted us. Because of the love he had for us, and in accordance with God’s will, Jesus Christ our Lord gave his blood for us, his flesh for our flesh, and his life for ours.

You see, brothers, how great and amazing love is, and how its perfection is beyond description. Who is able to possess it save those to whom God has given the privilege? Let us, then, beg and implore him mercifully to grant us love without human bias and to make us irreproachable. All the generations from Adam to our day have passed away, but those who, by the grace of God, have been made perfect in love have a place among the saints, who will appear when Christ’s Kingdom comes. For it is written: “Go into your closets for a very little while, until my wrath and anger pass, and I will remember a good day and I will raise you up from your graves.” Happy are we, dear friends, if we keep God’s commandments in the harmony of love, so that by love our sins may be forgiven us. For it is written: “Happy are those whose iniquities are forgiven and whose sins are covered. Happy is the man whose sin the Lord will not reckon, and on whose lips there is no deceit.” This is the blessing which was given to those whom God chose through Jesus Christ our Lord. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen. (1 Clement 49.1-50.7)