ND   Christ in the Church / by Robert Hugh Benson





The whole of Nature exists on the principle of vicarious suffering; and to reject Christianity because of the doctrine of the Atonement is to reject Nature itself on the same account. To turn from Christianity in high-minded repudiation of the "injustice" of the dogmas of Pain as preached by her, and to seek peace and reassurance in the song of birds and the blossoming of flowers is, almost literally, to jump from the frying-pan into the fire. For the frying-pan at any rate stands for an attempt to use the fire intelligently, and the fire, unused, stands for mere destruction. Christianity at any rate suggests an endeavor to face facts and to interpret them; Nature offers the same facts without any interpretation. The shrike crucifies his food alive; flowers bloom on corruption; robins kill their parents; all life comes with birth-pangs, and exists only on terms of death. Man feeds on beasts; beasts on herbs; and herbs on minerals. These are facts, whether we like them or not. And Christianity at any rate encourages us to face them, and to say that minerals, by destruction, pass up into herb-life; herb-life into animal; animal into human. Christianity goes even further and completes the cycle by giving us reason to believe that man, by suffering, becomes elevated, and rises even to be "partaker of the Divine Nature" from whom all proceeds. If then these facts are contrary to our ideas of justice, we had better correct our ideas of justice, for they are simply untrue to life --whether of Religion or Nature.

In every world-religion,{1} therefore, vicarious suffering plays a prominent part. No religion which does not in some manner deal with that which is the very principle of the universe as we know it, can possibly command for long any important proportion of the human race.{2} A religion which does not recognize Pain as a redeeming or satisfying power is simply untrue to life and experience. Through the Old Law, therefore, sacrifice ran like a scarlet thread. In supernatural relations, as in natural, bulls and goats must die if man is to live. But it is reserved as the supreme and unique achievement of Christianity to recognize that the pain of Creation must involve the pain of the Creator -- (since Love, and not mere force, is the mainspring of all life) -- and to understand that God Himself out of His own Self-compelling Love becomes a Lamb in order that He may die for the lost sheep -- that "the Son of God became a Son of Man, in order that the sons of men may become Sons of God"; that the Son of God dies that the sons of men may live.

We have seen how Jesus Christ lives in His Church; we have further to see how He dies in His Church. And first it is necessary to remember that Pain is not laid upon Him as upon an unwilling or unintelligent Victim; but how, before suffering externally, He stretches out His Hands to receive it -- how He welcomes and takes down into the depths of His being, that He may first embrace it with His Will, that very pain by which He is to redeem the world.

In the Catholic Church this recognition of the principle of Pain is evident enough.

1. There are first the ordinary sorrows of the inner life in general.

Amongst non-Catholics pain is something of a puzzle. Non-Catholics usually seem to think that whatever else religion may fail to do for them, at least it must not fail to make them feel happy. If a man renounces the pleasures of sin, and accepts the limitations and restrictions of the Divine Law, he demands at least that his religious emotions shall compensate and console him. But amongst Catholics it is a commonplace -- and especially amongst Catholic mystics{3} -- that the Spirit of God is a sword that enters into the very deepest parts of the interior life; that desolations of soul, an agonized conscience, "dark nights of the soul," and the rest, are as normal accompaniments of true progress as are the exterior inconveniences and sorrows that greet the beginner.

Amongst the contemplative orders all this is, of course, the main part of their regular business. They go apart from the world, not, as shallow self-seekers seem to think, in order to escape Pain, but in order to seek it. They are specialists in suffering -- not merely in physical suffering -- in weariness, in the scourge, the hair-shirt, the plank-bed -- these are scarcely more than symbols -- but in interior desolation, in "derelictions," in the loss of all consciousness of God, of all consolation and comfort, and above all in a sense of sin of which the world is simply unable even to form a conception.

2. Amongst Catholics alone, again, does it seem to be recognized that the sufferings of the individual benefit the world as a whole; that is to say, that the Pain-principle of Nature is a principle of Grace. If the Carthusian went into his cloister merely in order to save his soul, there would be something in the sneer of "selfishness" with which he is always assailed. For non-Catholics -- as a rule (and quite naturally) -- seem to be unable to regard themselves as anything but detached units, each wholly self-contained and self-seeking. They are entirely without any glimpse of the vision of the Body of Christ, that vast supernatural organism in which the Lamb of God mystically suffers always -- that organism in which the agony of one member draws off the poison from the rest -- that organism of which the most honorable members are those in which Gethsemane manifests itself continually.

This principle, then, runs through the whole of the Catholic Church from head to foot. In her not only is the exterior sacrifice of the Cross offered without ceasing, in the august mystery of the altar -- (since what Christ did once He does always) -- in one mode; and, in another, in the exterior sufferings of her members; but the interior pains of Gethsemane are similarly perpetuated. Every true priest in the confessional knows something of the sense of sin borne by him on behalf of the penitent -- " I weep." sobbed the Curé d'Ars, "because you do not weep"; every well-instructed Catholic knows how to offer his own sorrow for the sake of another soul; for in the Catholic Church alone is manifested that Nation of Priests of whom the first Pope writes;{4} for in the Catholic Church alone is that vast principle of vicarious Pain welcomed, recognized and used, on which the whole chain of life, even in the physical order, hangs together.

3. We have then, in all this, one more amazingly vivid sign of the identity of Christ and His Church. Each alike may use the same words; or, rather it is He Himself who, under two modes, uses the same words: "All ye that pass by, behold and see if there be any sorrow like to My sorrow!" "Here in My Church, and here alone, I reenact to the full, willingly and intelligently, that agony recorded of Me in the Gospels. Here, in the cell of the Contemplative, in the confessional of the worthy priest, in the bedroom of the selfless sufferer -- in every interior agony bravely borne, I once more lie in the garden, bathed in blood, torn from Me, not by scourges, but by grief. Here, in the torturing sense of sin, borne by the innocent, once more the Prince of this world manifests His coming, though He finds nothing in Me; here, in every interior desolation, in the loss of friends accepted for the Great Friend's sake, in the lack of sympathy acquiesced in for the Great Love's sake -- in all the loneliness, the misery of isolation, the silence, and the fierce resistance of the flesh against the spirit that holds it in check, is once more reënacted the tragedy of the garden of long ago. See how My Diaconate of Three lies sleeping for sorrow, a stone's throw away, and my Subdiaconate of eight at the garden door; while I lie here, alone and misunderstood, suffering that interior Passion of the Soul of which the exterior Passion of the Body is scarcely more than a shadow and a symbol. Here, in the Catholic Church alone is the agony of Gethsemane understood and felt, for in the Catholic Church alone is it willingly and deliberately planned and welcomed."

{1} As a rough definition of a "world-religion" I suggest, A religion that has numbered among its adherents at least a hundred million persons for a period of at least a thousand years.

{2} It is significant that Protestantism, as one of its main negations, rejected the Sacrifice of the Altar; and that Protestantism as a system is crumbling away.

{3} The mystics, it must he remembered, are not a "school of thought" in the Church. They are only those who see a little deeper than others into the dogmas which they hold in common with, and in the same sense as, other Catholics.

{4} Pet. ii. 9.

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