Holiness and Love: "The Alphabet of Devotion" (2)

Holiness comes to expression in love.

Celtic Spiritual Poetry (6)

It is when full of divine love that one is holy.
    He walks in divine love.
Every evil fears him;
    every good loves him.
He has honour on earth;
    he has glory in heaven.
Love God:
    everyone will love you.
Fear God:
   Everyone will fear you.
This is the rule of the clergy: devotion subject to moderation according to God’s will. The one who will learn it and fulfill it, he will have a hundredfold on earth and he will possess the Kingdom of heaven.

  - Colmán mac Beógnai, “The Alphabet of Devotion” (ca. 600 AD)[1]

Teach me Your way, O LORD;
I will walk in Your truth;
Unite my heart to fear Your name.

- Psalm 86.11

From holiness, Colmán moves on in his introduction to the evidence of holiness and the affections that produce holiness – love for God and fear of God. We will not make progress in holiness unless each of these affections is in place in our soul.

The first line of this section bridges from the opening pairs to a pair of quatrains. It restates the theme of holiness and introduces the theme of love. Colmán continues the pairing of ideas which he began in the introduction, but now he positions them in a new form: two pairs of four traits, linked together to enlarge the concept of holiness and love. By switching the form to match the switch in theme, Colmán makes this introduction to his “ABCs” of the Christian life easier to learn and remember.

Colmán seems to be saying that holiness flows from divine love, that is, from the love of God in our hearts. The more we experience God’s love, the more we want to be the kind of people for whom that experience is the norm. So we seek to increase in holiness, and thus we take that love into our everyday lives, all our relationships, roles, and responsibilities.

The more we know the love of God, the more we grow in holiness and express the love of God, and the more evil – here personified – wants nothing to do with us. We overcome evil with good, as Paul instructs (Rom. 12.21), and thus we gain the respect of people around us, to the praise and glory of God.

But we must actively love God, and not be content merely to soak up the manifold expressions of His love for us. We must tell Him we love Him, delight in His Word and presence, seek His glory in all the things He has made, and praise Him throughout the day. If we do, Colmán says, “everyone will love you.” He means everyone within the community of God’s people. God loves us, we bask in that love and return love to Him, and thus we are transformed to love our neighbors with the love of God.

But we must nurture the fear of God within us if we are to love Him truly. David prayed that God would unite all the affections of his heart in the fear of God. All true affections flow from the fear of God: “And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all His ways and to love Him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, andto keep the commandments of the LORD and His statutes which I command you today for your good?” (Deut. 10.12, 13)

We fear God because we know how powerful He is, and we know what we deserve from Him as those who continue sinning day by day. We fear His wrath, for we know that the discipline of the Lord is never pleasant (Heb. 12.3-11). But we fear and reverence Him as well, in His greatness, majesty, glory, and grace, so that our fear leads to obedience – to walk in all the ways of the Lord in love.

If we fear God, Colmán says, “everyone will fear you.” Because the fear and love of God issue in holiness and love for neighbor, it is likely that the people we know and love will respect and admire us, and will glorify God because of the hope they see in us.

Thus ends the introduction to Colmán’s “ABCs” of Christian community life. He calls on those who would be part of this community to learn this “rule” and to practice and fulfill it every day. Thus we may expect the promised blessings of the Lord.

The remainder of “The Alphabet of Devotion” will unpack in more detail these introductory exhortations to holiness, love, and the love and fear of God. So if we own these, everything else in Colmán’s rule will be easy to understand and make perfect sense as a rule of life.

Question for Reflection
1. The fear of God and love for God are two sides of the same coin. Explain.

2. How would you counsel a new believer to increase in holiness?

Psalm 86.1-3, 10-12 (Andrews: Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven)
Bow down Your ear, O Lord and hear me; I am afflicted and much in need!
Rescue my godly soul, be near me; save me, O God, all my crying heed!
Lord, be gracious to me, Lord, be gracious to me, all day long I pray and plead.

For You are great, You wondrous deeds do; You are the only and sovereign Lord.
Teach me Your way, let me give heed to, with all my heart, Savior, all Your Word!
Lord, be gracious to me, Lord, be gracious to me, praise Your Name forever, Lord!

I want to grow in love for my neighbors, Lord, so help me to…

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T. M. Moore, Principal
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All Psalms for singing from The Ailbe PsalterScripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[1]I will be drawing from two translation of “The Alphabet of Devotion”: John Carey, King of Mysteries: Early Irish Religious Writings (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1998), pp. 231 ff; and Thomas Owen Clancy and Gilbert Márkus,Iona: The Earliest Poetry of a Celtic Monastery (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1995, 1997), pp. 195 ff.

T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in Essex Junction, VT.
Books by T. M. Moore