ND   Christ in the Church / by Robert Hugh Benson





We considered in the previous pages the manner in which Christ is rejected in the Gospels and in the Church; how every ideal which is not for Him, every ideal placed outside Him, is against Him. The followers of the Good tolerate the followers of the True; the Artists tolerate the Law-givers; but all are combined against Him. Herod and Pilate are made friends together. Caiphas and Pilate hold long consultations together, as soon as Christ appears on the scene. "The Kings of the earth stand up, and the rulers take counsel together. . . ."

Our first point to-day is the magnitude of the failure of Christ, in the Gospels and in the Church. Not only, as has been noticed before, does He not convince the world, but He cannot even keep his friends faithful. Peter, on whom the Church is built, denies Him; John, who lies on His breast at supper, is silent when this friend is accused. There was never any failure so stupendous as that of Calvary.

In history it is precisely the same story, over and over again. It is possible for the enemies of the Church to point to period after period in history, and to show, with at any rate some reason on their side, that the failure of Catholicism is due to the failure of Catholics. "Your principles are splendid," they tell us; "at least they sound splendid. But why are they not put into practice? The Sermon on the Mount is an exquisite ideal, but why do you not try to realize it? What is the matter with Christianity is that there are no Christians. You are always making good beginnings, but you never live up to them. You were magnificent under Nero and Diocletian; but so soon as you seemed really to have conquered the world, you allowed the world to conquer you. You saved others; yourselves you cannot save. You were unworldly so long as Nero burnt and tortured you, but you became as worldly as everyone else so soon as Constantine tolerated you. You made a fine effort in the thirteenth century; you really produced some saints; but as soon as your Religious houses were built, they began to corrupt. You had glorious ideals when you began to Christianize Europe; but as soon as you Christianized it you began to become pagan again yourselves in the Renaissance. Considered as a human Society you certainly are a success, you have astonishing vitality and energy; but as a Divine Society, which you claim to be, you are an amazing failure."

Now, this is precisely the story of the Gospels. Again and again there came moments when the success of Jesus Christ seemed almost assured. There were moments when the whole world went after Him who seemed so perfectly to meet its ideals; when the world itself would come and take Him by force and make Him a King; when the kingdoms of the world seemed laid at His feet; and yet, somehow or another, it all came to nothing. His whole life on earth was a kind of crescendo of popularity, up to the last moment; and then, in an instant, it all crumbled down again to nothing. Palm Sunday immediately preceded Good Friday. The procession of one was almost a replica of the procession of the other. There were a few details different; the spear-shaped palm leaves became palm-shaped spears; but the crowd was the same, the cries were the same, acclaiming the King of the Jews; the central Figure was the same. But the triumph turned to failure so soon as His central claim was made. He was welcomed and honored as a mere earthly King; He was rejected and condemned as a Heavenly King. Humanly considered He was something of a success; Divinely considered He was a failure. As a demagogue He would have triumphed; as a God He was crucified.

Now, all this is very largely true. We may regard the progress of Christ in the Gospels and in the Church as a triumph which fails, or as a failure which triumphs. Non-Christians take the one view, and Christians the other. It depends entirely on our standpoint -- whether this world is our platform, or the next.

This, then, brings us right up face to face with the problem of Suffering and Failure.

1. This problem of Suffering is the one problem of all ages. Every age produces a new solution. It was once thought, with extreme simplicity, that it was merely a matter of accurate reward and punishment -- "Be virtuous; and you will be immune from suffering" -- that God fought not with the largest battalions but with the most pious. And, again and again, the theory broke down. "In spite of my beautiful theories," cries David, "I see the wicked flourishing like green bay-trees. They come into no misfortune like other folk, neither are they plagued like other men. Then thought I to understand this; but it was too hard for me. Until" -- but the rest comes later.

Or again, men have thought to solve the problem by suggesting that interior consolations always compensated for the exterior sufferings of the virtuous; that they really felt happy, in spite of appearances to the contrary. This lasted tolerably well as a theory until men really began to know their own souls; and then they found that interior sufferings were just as real, and even more poignant than exterior. They found, moreover, that it was actually the good who suffered in this way more than the bad; that the sensitive, delicate conscience and perceptions were tormented in a manner of which the superficial animal knew nothing; that suffering was not just a question of external scourge and nails, but of a Gethsemane agony so acute that the soul herself sweated blood. So they were driven from this stronghold too.

Finally, it has been suggested by one of the most recent and most prosperous of the American sects that the problem of pain is no problem, because there is no pain!

Now, I need hardly say that I do not propose to suggest another solution of my own; but I think it is worth while to point out the solution that Jesus Christ offers. His solution of suffering is to suffer.

Indeed, this is not so fatuous as it sounds, if it will be remembered that the intellect is only one department, and that a very small one, of our being. We noticed, when we considered Christ before Herod, that Herod's mistake was that he tried to compress the question before him into the single point of sensation or emotion. He did not judge Christ with the whole of his being, but with a part only. He condemned Him because He did not satisfy an arbitrary emotional test. Now, it is just as foolish to judge the problem of Pain by an intellectual test. If pain were a mere matter of intellect, it might be reasonable; but pain affects the whole of our personality at once -- physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. Pain therefore, like Religion itself, is a thing that has to be judged by the whole of our personality. In a word, it has to be experienced; and somewhere in this total experience, not in any mere intellectual explanation, the solution lies.

Now this was the solution of Jesus Christ. "He learned obedience," says St. Paul, "by the things that He suffered." He solved pain by enduring it. He opened every fiber and nerve of His Human Nature to pain; there was no whole spot in Body or Soul. Physical and spiritual thirst were alike parts of His experience. " I thirst! . . . Why hast Thou forsaken Me? . . . My soul is athirst for the living God." He experienced solitude -- the solitude of failure. "Of the people there was none with Me." "He came to His own and His own received Him not." He was obedient unto death: He tasted Death, and therefore He conquered it. But the great point of all is that with His Will He did all these things -- "I lay down my Life of Myself." He did not merely bear the Cross; He took it up -- first, interiorly in Gethsemane; then exteriorly at the steps of the Praetorium.

He did not, therefore, argue about pain; for you can no more compress pain into mere argument than you can compress Religion, or exactly analyze Love. These really great things must be experienced; you have not all the data of the problem of pain, until you have suffered all of it. And is it not, after all, a solid fact, that it is not the sufferer who is most perplexed by the problem of pain, but the people who look on -- in fact, the people who regard it merely intellectually? You can no more solve the problem of pain by the intellect alone, than you can explain the beauty of a sunlit sea or the augustness of a thunderstorm by chemical analysis of sun and sea-water and electricity. Men do not say, "I will not believe a sonata by Beethoven is beautiful unless I can smell it. I will not consent that theft is a crime unless I can taste it to be so." Yet people do have the effrontery to say, "Unless I see I will not believe," or " Unless I understand I will not believe." Or, "Unless I can intellectually apprehend the meaning of pain I will not submit to it without a protest." The actual sufferer therefore, if only he will not try to be too clever -- which is another word for trying to be narrow-minded -- the actual sufferer is not nearly so much puzzled by pain as his friend who looks on; and the willing sufferer -- he who actually coöperates with and welcomes pain -- is not puzzled at all. He cannot explain it: he cannot, that is, throw the experiences of his whole personality into terms of a part of it; but he is no longer puzzled. He knows. It is like a man in love: he cannot put it into words; he bursts out in sonnets, it may be, or serenades; he will talk about it for hours together; but he will also end by saying that words and music are no good, that you must experience it to understand it. It is much bigger than any analysis that can be made of it. That is why lovers, and contemplative monks who scourge themselves for joy, are considered the monumental fools of the world. It is because they cannot put into words what is utterly incapable of being put into words -- because they grow incoherent and ecstatic, as they are bound to do -- because they cannot translate into terms which the poor, narrow-minded world seems to think are the only terms worth using -- because they cannot write down with pen and ink -- what all the blood of the human heart cannot describe. It needs the Blood of God, forced from Him in Gethsemane, torn with scourges from Him in the Praetorium, sucked from Him by nails and thorns, and finally tapped by the spear, to its very last drops, from a Sacred Heart -- it needs this Blood, offered willingly, adequately to experience and to show what is the solution of the problem of pain -- which is, in fact, the very same thing as the problem of Love.

Now this, I think, very closely touches the point of Christ's agelong " Failure of the Cross." By the word "success" the world means intelligible success -- success that can be expressed in terms of intellect, and therefore not at all wonderful, since we "wonder" only at that which we can apprehend, but cannot comprehend. And that is exactly the kind of success that, to one who understands that nothing except complete Personality is worth anything, is the kind that is not worth having. Divine success -- a success, that is, that is larger than man's intellect, larger even than man's whole being -- that must always appear paradoxical. It must, that is to say, be continual failure -- a failure so complete that it ought to be the end of the enterprise, and yet not be the end of the enterprise. Its success must be expressed in terms of failure; as a sunlit sea, or lovelit eyes, must sometimes be expressed in terms of a black lead pencil. The Divine Cause must simultaneously appear to have failed, and yet not have done so. It must just survive, always, in spite of any possible argument and demonstration to the contrary.

May I state that once more in other terms?

Any truly Divine scheme -- any scheme, that is to say, that is not human and finite -- must always overlap any human criterion that can be applied to it. It must, that is, judged by purely human standards, be an apparent failure. But it must never be such a failure that it ceases to exist. You must be able to say of it, It has failed intellectually and emotionally; it does not correspond with the demand. And yet it survives. That is, it has not really failed at all.

Now it is a very significant fact that even human love, as we know it, must express itself in pain; that is to say, that the highest human happiness must express itself in terms of the deepest human misery. No human lover, in the real sense, can possibly describe love as being unmixed sweetness. Such words as "fever," and "smart," and "arrows" are always associated with love -- in fact, they describe its very essence. The reason is not far to seek. Real love seeks not to possess, but to be possessed; not, so to speak, to devour the beloved, to satisfy self with the beloved, but the exact contrary -- to be devoured and to satisfy. (That is why the Love of God, naturally greater than human love, insists upon the Sacrament of the altar.) Real love, then, is a continual emptying and slaying of self, a continual immolation of self on the altar of the beloved. This is simply a commonplace of human experience, described by every poet and artist since the world began. It is exactly this that distinguishes it from its caricature -- its antichrist -- from lust or liking. Lust and liking desire to acquire and to win; love to be acquired and to be won.

Now look at our two points together, and see how the Christian hypothesis exactly fits and explains the record of the Gospel. It is a record of Love expressing itself in Pain. Here is One who yearns for sacrifice -- not on behalf of merely this or that person -- but for all persons. "How am I straitened," cries Jesus Christ. " How am I compressed and confined, until this be accomplished! How am I held back and restrained until I am set at liberty by the fettering nails of the Cross -- until I can empty myself wholly and entirely of every drop of blood, of every spiritual consolation -- until I am indeed, in my Humanity, so utterly dry and wrung out that indeed I may be said to thirst -- until I am so utterly lonely, in so appalling a solitude, that I have bidden even my mother farewell, have been forsaken of all my friends, and have lost even the perception of my Father's love. I am not truly possessed by my friends, until I have ceased to possess them." In one sentence, Christ could not be said to have succeeded in His object, until He had, down to the very least detail of His plan, completely failed. With Him, and Him alone, nothing succeeds like Failure.

Now, this identity of what the world calls failure and what God calls success is illustrated by many of Christ's deeper sayings, and lies luminous in the very heart of the darkness of Calvary. It is this surely that reconciles ultimately such paradoxes as -- "Except a man lose his life, he cannot save it." "Blessed are they that hunger and thirst, for they shall be filled." "Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted." "Except a man hate not his father and mother, he cannot be My disciple," and "Except a man take up his cross" -- reach, that is, the very lowest disgrace and failure that this world can conceive -- "he cannot be My disciple." It seems, as we regard it, almost painfully obvious that, as I said just now, Divine Love cannot be said to have won any victory -- cannot, that is, have fully expressed its own nature of Sacrifice, until it has undergone what the world reckons failure in every point. For Love must have pain, -- more, it must become Pain -- or else it dies indeed. Here, too, is the reconciliation of that most mysterious saying of all -- "He that believeth in Me shall never die," -- that is, "He that is really united with Me, finds Death to be the ultimate satisfaction of Love -- and this is Life."

2. As we turn, then, from the record of Christ's Life in the Gospel to his Life in the Church, we find precisely the same phenomenon repeated over and over again.

Here is St. Paul first, crying in an ecstasy of Love -- " I die daily"; "As dying, yet behold we live"; " I live, yet not I, but Christ liveth in me"; and above all, that phrase so often quoted before -- " I fill up . . . what is lacking of the sufferings of Christ."

As we regard the Church, then, as the Body in which Jesus Christ leads a mystical life, a thousand difficulties are explained: --

1. First, What is that strange passion, which we have already considered in the chapter on Gethsemane, known only among Catholics as a wholesome and recognized instinct, by which men and women -- even boys and girls -- in the very height of vitality and strength, think that the one thing worth doing is to immure themselves in a cell, in order to suffer? What is the instinct that makes the Carmelite hang an empty cross in her cell, to remind herself that she must take the place of the absent figure upon it -- and yet keeps the Carmelite the most radiantly happy of all women. The joy of a woman -- I might say the gayety of a woman -- over her first child is but a shadow of the solemn joy of a Carmelite, the irrepressible gayety of a Poor Clare -- women, that is, who have sacrificed every single thing that the world thinks worth having. Certainly it is not the same as Oriental asceticism, for the object of the Oriental is to escape from being, to be released from the Wheel of Life -- and the object of the Catholic ascetic is to be bound to it more closely, to realize and express himself more fully -- at least that kind of self-expression that is called self-sacrifice.

The thing is simply inexplicable except on one hypothesis -- that that unique thirst of Jesus upon the Cross is communicated to His members, that His ambition to suffer is perpetuated continually in that Mystical Body in which He reënacts the history of His Passion -- that these are the cells of that Body, which, like His Hands and Feet, are more especially pierced by nails, and who rejoice to know that they are called to this august vocation, by which the Redemption wrought on Calvary is perpetually reënacted on earth; who "fill up what is lacking of the sufferings of Christ," who are lambs of God whose blood mingles with the Blood on Calvary, victims whose sacrifice is accepted as united with His.

2. Again, as has been hinted before -- this conception of the Church as the Body of Christ is surely the one hypothesis which makes the sufferings of individuals tolerable to contemplate. I have attempted to indicate how, as it appears to me, the problem of suffering in general will be ultimately solved -- by arguing that Pain always is the expression of Love, that it is only an evil to those who do not love, and that it is a positive joy to those who, by love, accept and welcome it; and that Failure, as the world calls it, again and again corresponds to the necessary overlapping of the human by the Divine. But all this does not touch really the suffering of the individual who has not learnt how to welcome it. There still remains the problem of the little crippled child, and of the innocent girl who goes mad with melancholia.

Now if you treat those cases as individual -- if you regard the child as merely a complete entity in himself, the thing is and always must be inexplicable. Again and again we find ourselves asking, why should he suffer? He is not a Carmelite who understands; he is not a sinner to be reformed by discipline.

But if you reflect that Humanity as a whole is a great organism, used by God as the Body of His passion: and that in the sufferings of this Body He carries out, on the mystical plane, His Redemption, and satisfies His Divine thirst for pain; and that this child is one cell of the Body of pain; you are no more intellectually puzzled as to why this child should suffer in particular, than you are intellectually puzzled as to why your finger should ache, instead of yourself. Your finger does not ache instead of yourself: you ache in your finger. This child does not suffer instead of Humanity; but Humanity suffers in him, and Christ therefore in him. If, in short, you will insist upon treating each unit only as a unit (which is, in a word, Protestantism) -- you will never be satisfied; but if you understand that these units are more than units -- they are cells in a Body; and if, further, you understand that it is Jesus Christ who lives and acts in this Body, that He truly, therefore, identifies Himself with every one of His members, a host of difficulties become luminous. "Inasmuch as ye do it, or do it not, unto one of the least of these -- you do it, or do it not, to Me."

We have seen then, with a good many parentheses, that Pain and Failure must always be elements in the life of the Church. It must be possible for the world at any given moment to point to the Church and say, See what a failure! There must be a sense in which, judged by what is called "modern thought" -- that is, human opinions and standards current at any given moment -- the Church is condemned and crucified -- hung, that is, between earth and heaven as one that is unworthy either to live or to die -- as one that has failed to raise earth to heaven, or to bring heaven down to earth.

There must be a sense, in fact, in which the Church must not only be a failing cause, but a cause that has actually failed -- a cause that is both dead and buried. It must continually, according to these standards, be completely discredited, as one who has promised to accomplish much, but has accomplised nothing; one who has claimed to be King, but has only earned a mock crown of thorns; one who has professed to save others, but cannot save even himself.

Again and again that taunt must go up, "Come down from the Cross and we will believe. Relinquish that failure, and make it a success. Cease to claim to be Divine -- for you see how hopelessly you fail to justify it. See what happens to one who makes Himself Divine -- and be human instead. Come down to our level, and be a man among men; and we will believe, and accept you as at least our Master."

But that taunt cannot be accepted. The failure must be entire. The last spark of life must die out, obedient unto death -- that one irremediable disaster. "And Jesus cried with a loud voice, It is finished; and He bowed His head and gave up the ghost."

Finally, the Body must be laid in a tomb, and a stone rolled over it. "Christianity is a lost cause at last," must be the comment of what are called "all thinking men"; . . . and even His lovers must begin to despair. "We thought that it had been He who should have redeemed Israel, and now . . . !"

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