ND   Christ in the Church / by Robert Hugh Benson





It must be remembered that, in discussing the characteristics of the Catholic Church, it is impossible to do more than to touch very lightly now and then upon the contrasts or resemblances to be found between her and the great non-Christian world-religions -- Buddhism, Confucianism, Mohammedanism, and the rest. That there are these contrasts and resemblances is indisputable; yet it is impossible for one reason, if for no others, seriously to regard these rivals of hers as serious claimants to represent Divine Truth. It is an arguable proposition that there is no such thing as a Divine Revelation or a Divine Society -- with that point I am concerned elsewhere, again and again, throughout these papers. My point here, however, is that if there be such a Revelation and such a Society, it cannot seriously be looked for in these world-religious. For they do not exhibit that characteristic which must mark the supreme Revelation whenever it appears -- I mean the mark of serious and unfaltering proselytism. It is possible to understand how an exceedingly broad-minded human society, which knows that it is only human, may deliberately refrain from missionary effort, believing that one kind of faith is good for one race, and another for another. But a Society that believes itself, rightly or wrongly, but sincerely, to possess the one Truth, cannot possibly rest content until it has done its utmost to convey that truth to all men. Now these Eastern religions have not even made the attempt to proselytize with any seriousness. If they do not claim, practically, by proselytism, this unique prerogative for themselves, how can it be claimed for them by others? Mohammedanism has done a little, with fire and sword, and so far has proved it own sincerity; but Mohammedanism has not attempted seriously to convert the West. Neither has Buddhism, ancient though it is. It has been in the world, its Western admirers delightedly tell us, for a quarter as long again as has Christianity; yet to-day, and always, from St. Thomas the Apostle downwards, it has been the Christian missionary who has bothered and disturbed the Buddhist -- never the Buddhist the Christian. As for Confucianism, I do not suppose that there could be found five persons in any average thousand who could give even the vaguest sketch of its tenets. These religions simply do not possess what we may call Divine Self-consciousness; and therefore, although in many respects they have magnificent characteristics -- notably this Hiddenness which I now propose to discuss -- they surely are lacking in what the Divine Truth must have first and foremost, if it is Divine. Secondly, though this is comparatively a small point, we cannot keep noticing that the East, for all its religion, its patience, and its virtues, has not, as a matter of fact, developed as has the West. These developments are, many of them, deplorable no doubt; yet they are evidences of activity and life; and it is a remarkable fact, exactly in accordance with what we should expect, that Christianity, and Christianity only, has in the past proved the justice of Christ's simile of the leaven hidden in the dough. Human nature has seethed, bubbled and boiled, even to the overflowing of the pans, wherever Christianity has found entrance.{1}

The subject of the present chapter is the Hidden Life of the Catholic Church -- the mark of Hiddenness, enjoyed certainly in a very deep degree by certain Eastern religions, yet unaccompanied, in them, by that fierce and restless activity of proselytism, which must be its correlative and companion in any Society that claims to be Divine.

As we look round Western religions, whether forms of Christianity or not, we cannot help seeing that external activity -- together, of course, with obviously necessary virtues -- is considered almost the sole mark of a prosperous denomination. Certainly we Catholics heartily agree that it is one mark -- that a religious Society that is inactive has no claim upon our attention; indeed, we Catholics are usually accused of too much zeal in this respect. But Catholicism stands alone, I think, in regarding its exact opposite -- I mean retirement and contemplation -- as being at least equally important; in fact, the Church goes even further than this, and tells her children that the life of complete seclusion, undertaken rightly, is the highest life that can be lived on earth. She permits, for example, any monk or nun professed to an active or semi-active life, to enter, without question, any contemplative order that will receive them; but not the reverse process. Here, too, it must be noticed, that such a life is not undertaken with a view to greater external activity afterwards; it is not retirement for the sake of rest and refreshment; it is the life in itself that is the object. Now this is the extreme example of what may be called the element of "hiddenness"; but it is illustrated in innumerable other ways. The duty of every priest and every man in Holy Orders to recite the Divine Office every day in public or private -- a duty occupying about one hour; the practice, though not the actual duty, of every priest to celebrate mass every day; the immense stress laid upon meditation and what is called "Recollection" in the case of the devout laity; the obligation of all alike to hear mass every Sunday -- those and countless other similar points are all examples of what I mean. Some of these, no doubt, have a bearing upon the active life, but they are certainly not instituted to that end, nor, prima facie at least, are they the most economical employment of time from this point of view. The object of them is the direct worship of God. When we add to this the enormous stress laid altogether upon the cultivation of the inner life -a cultivation brought to the very highest pitch in the branches of theology called Ascetic and Moral, we have a phenomenon singularly unlike that produced by any other form of religion. I do not mean, of course, for one instant that other denominations do not produce often exceedingly spiritual lives; but in the various systems, as systems, there is not anything like the same emphasis given to this point, nor any machinery so elaborate and so forcible as in the Catholic Church. Take the single point of the purely contemplative orders. Until comparatively recently in the Church of England there was not the smallest attempt to reproduce this life; and at the present moment I am acquainted with only two such attempts, comprising in their adherents not more than thirty souls all told. In other Christian bodies the very idea of such a life is despised and reprobated. So, too, with worship generally. In non-Catholic bodies there is not present the same obligation to worship God at stated times and in stated manners -- in short, the direct worship of God, as distinguished from hearing sermons about Him, does not find the same place in other systems as in Catholicism.

Now the ordinary criticism of lives definitely consecrated to contemplation is perfectly familiar to us all. We are told that the hidden life is one of wasted powers; that "the man would be much more useful doing some honest work instead of shutting himself up and dreaming" and all the rest of it. Now, as I propose to speak more at length on this point in a later chapter, I will not say much now, except to make two observations.

1. This hidden life is a marked characteristic of the Life of Jesus Christ in the Gospels. If we believe that He was the Eternal Word of God, it appears to us at first sight simply inexplicable that that Word should have been silent for so long. He was to spend thirty-three years upon earth, and of those thirty-three He passed ten in silence, so far as the world was concerned, for every one of His public ministry. Further, even that public ministry itself was continually broken by silences. Again and again we hear of nights in prayer, and of withdrawals from the crowd. And, in the one incident in the Gospels where types of the Active and Contemplative lives, in the persons of Martha and Mary, are strongly contrasted, it is Mary, we are told, the silent worshiper, who has "chosen the better part," and who has "the one thing needful." If it is indeed a fact that Jesus Christ reproduces in His mystical Body that Life which He lived in the "days of his flesh," this huge and apparently disproportionate element of hiddenness is exactly what we should expect from a Church in which He really lives. Even after the Incarnation itself there is still truth in the cry of the Old Dispensation, "Verily Thou art a God that hidest Thyself."

2. Secondly, this silence is again markedly characteristic of a Divine Fact dwelling on earth. If the Church were but a human Society, it would be inevitable that she should busy herself primarily with humanity, that her highest commendation would be given (as indeed it is given in all other forms of Christianity) to those who are most active in ministering to the needs of men, that her workers should be judged by their activities and their external effectiveness, and that silence and retirement should only be commended so far as they ministered to such effectiveness. But if the Church is a Divine Society, if she looks always with inner but wide-open eyes upon celestial things, if she has the secret of eternity and dwells always seeing Him who is invisible, if indeed with angels and archangels she looks upon the Face of the Most Holy -- this silence and absorption are simply inevitable and vital to her very existence. Certainly the eye cannot say to the hand -- "I have no need of thee"; for the Divine Society has hands that must be work-worn as well as pierced; but neither can the hand have the nerve to labor without the guidance and inspiration of the eye. There must come moments when, as in heaven, there is "silence for about the space of half an hour" -- there must be in this Body certain appointed cells and tissues, etherealized almost up to spirit, whose sole duty and vocation is this, to look upon the Face of God and rest absorbed there in that vision for which the human soul was designed. If men were but units, each designed to be separately perfect, there might be some justice in the charge that a Contemplative "wastes his life and powers"; but if the Church is an organic body, in which each cell vicariously lives for his neighbor (and, in fact, for the whole organism), it is perfectly reasonable that those cells should be differentiated and specialized. "If the whole body were the hand, where were the seeing?" And this specialized hiddenness, characteristic of the Sacred Humanity of Jesus Christ, is characteristic also only of one Christian Society; and is explicable only on the supposition that to her eyes this world is not all; that human needs are not always the most imperative; that she lives, in fact, in the strength of a vision which none but she can fully perceive.

{1} This, however, is a very large subject, and I should like to refer all those who think that any of these religions have any kind of real claim to represent Divine Revelation to a very admirable book on the subject, written by the late Mr. Charles Devas, entitled The Key to the World's Progress (Longmans). For breadth of outlook, convincingness, and sweet reasonableness, as well as a real and technical knowledge of the subject, the book has no rival.

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