ND   The Friendship of Christ / by Robert Hugh Benson

Christ our Friend Crucified


An hour perhaps has passed away. . . . The screams and the blasphemies of the two tortured thieves have died to moans, and the moans to the silence of exhaustion; and in the silence the Grace of God and the habits of the past have been at work together. The one on this side is still absorbed in his own pain, regarding it, contrasting it, turning it this way and that, seeking to adjust it: and the other is aware that there is something in the universe besides his own pain, that his pain is not the beginning and the end of all things. From time to time he has caught glimpses, as his head writhed this way or that, through blinding blood and tears, through the mist of dust trampled up by the surging crowds, of Another who hangs in the midst. His friend has seen Him too, but has seen His patience only as a reproach to His own torment. . . . "If thou be Christ, save Thyself, and us."{1} Yet this one sees more than a failure and a tragedy: he has heard, maybe, that first Word groaned out as the nails went through; and upon this detail and that and the other, his own darkened mind -- the mind of a savage child -- has been painfully at work.

And Grace has been at work too, in its mysterious operation, upon that defiled and undeveloped mind, like sunlight in a filthy slum. . . . We know almost nothing, after all our theology, of that Divine process; we know a little of its conditions, a fraction of its effects; we have labelled a few by-laws of its working; but no more. This, however, we know -- that the man to whom it came was not wholly self-centred; that there was still in him enough receptivity for Grace to enter.

I. So, little by little, the truth -- (we dare not say the whole explicit truth) -- began to filter in. That darkened mind began to catch glimpses, that came and went and returned, of the supreme Fact which the cultivated Pharisees overlooked. . . that the Criminal was not wholly a Criminal, that the Thorns were not wholly a mockery, that the title above the Cross was something besides a sneer. . . . Pain is a strange magician when Grace stands behind, an initiator into secrets, a High Priest who handles and dispenses mysteries unknown to those who have not suffered. . . .

At least we know that the thief spoke at last -- a greater miracle than Balaam's ass! -- that a murderer recognized the Lord of Life, that a liar spoke the truth, that an outlaw submitted to the King. "Lord, remember me when Thou shalt come into Thy kingdom."

He asks, therefore, for the least thing for which he could ask -- that a King who will some day enter into a kingdom will not wholly forget that there is such a creature as Dismas, who once suffered by His side. He no longer submits a doubt -- "If thou be the Christ" -- but he calls Him "Lord" outright. He no longer asks for relief -- "save Thyself and us"; but for some future remembrance. One day, whenever that may be, remember. . . .

And, upon the word, the miracle happens which always happens when a soul begins with shame to take the lower place. As soon as we have learnt to be servants we receive the place and name of Friend. "Friend, go up higher."{2} . . . "I will not now call you servants . . . but I have called you friends."{3} For He is the One, cui servire regnare est; whose service is perfect freedom. . . . "This day thou shalt be with Me in Paradise."{4}

II. Here, then, is one of the most profound laws of the spiritual life, and one of the most difficult to learn, because, like all the fundamental laws of grace, as well as of nature, it presents itself as a paradox. "If you wish to be high, you must aim to be low." . . . "He that humbleth himself shall be exalted."{5}

(i) Now, as long as Self reigns within the soul, our whole instinct is, obviously, in some manner towards self-assertion, even though that object may be disguised in terms of the Love of God. Certainly a soul can win heaven by continuing to desire it effectively; but it is equally certain that a soul cannot reach the highest place in heaven, still less the position of an intimate friend of Christ on earth, from such a motive as this. That is, so long as Self reigns, until Self has been denied and crucified, the soul cannot be, in the highest sense, Christ's disciple. We usually set out on our spiritual life, aiming to be proficient, to make progress, to accomplish something for God, to render ourselves, in a way, indispensable to the Divine Cause. We carry, that is to say, into spiritual things the same ambitions and emulations as serve to make a man eminent in worldly affairs. We attempt, in a sense, to force our friendship on Christ, and to insist on that relationship to Him on which we have set our heart. We seek to bend the Divine Will to ours, to accomplish our union with God by attempting to change Him rather than ourselves.

And we fail, of course, lamentably and ignominiously, every time. For in spiritual matters there must be a reversal of the usual methods, if there is to be success. Certainly "blessed are they that hunger"; blessed are they that are "ambitious"; but the ambition must be pursued not by self-assertion but by self-extinction; for "blessed are the meek"; "blessed are the poor in spirit"; "blessed are they that mourn."{6}

So, again and again, through a lack of the Christian spirit, even though we aim at the Christian life, we become disheartened and discouraged. We make no progress, and, even if we do not altogether give up the quest, we at least begin to falter in it.

(ii) But, on a sudden, the soul makes a blinding discovery; for the first time, perhaps, she sees Humility with her face unveiled, and in her eyes perceives the true image of herself. Then, in swift succession, follow discovery after discovery in addition. She understands, for example, that this self on which she has set her heart is simply not worth having; she perceives that there is not one of her good actions in the past that has been wholly good, for each that has not been done out of a merely natural generosity, has been done largely out of this very love of self; she learns that her "progress," for the most part, has been in the wrong direction altogether, that she has been accumulating merits that have scarcely a touch of meritoriousness, that she has been serving self throughout in those very actions which she had told herself were pleasing to God; in short, that her development has lain only in an increase of self-centredness, and that the self-control that she has learned by her efforts has been a "vicious victory" (as St. Augustine calls it) after all; since she has been striving all along to conquer God, instead of yielding to Him.

Then, indeed, the cry breaks from her spontaneously, "Lord, remember me when Thou shalt come into Thy Kingdom. . . . Lord, remember me . . . forget not altogether that such as I exist, in that far-off day which I had thought in my pride was already past, that day when Thou shalt take Thy power and reign even in this heart that so long has been a rebel to Thee. Remember me, when the supreme achievement of love has been wrought, and Human Nature has been made conformable to the Divine. . . . Dear Jesus, in that day be to me not a Judge, but a Saviour!"

And then, by one more bewildering paradox, all is done; and the soul in that instant has what she desires. She has prayed that she may learn to serve, and with the very utterance of that prayer finds that she has been taught to reign. For she has learned the lesson of Him who was made in the form of a servant that He might rule kings -- of Him who was meek and humble of heart -- and she has found rest to her soul. For His arms are that instant about her, His kiss is on her lips, and His Words in her ear -- "To-day thou shalt be with me in Paradise!" "O Soul that I have made and loved, who hast learnt at last to be my servant, come up higher, from my Feet to my Heart, O my friend! Now that thou last at last put thyself at my mercy, behold! in that instant I put myself at thine. Take my hand and walk with me, now that thou art willing to follow me; for see -- we walk together already in Paradise." . . .

Oh! this Friendship of Jesus for the Penitent! Just now there were three of Christ's intimates round His Cross -- the immaculate Mary and the stainless disciple whom Jesus loved, upon the one side, with the purified weeping Magdalene upon the other. Now the quaterion of His lovers is complete, for the brokenhearted Thief has joined them -- he who desired to serve, and therefore merited to reign. . . . And he, too, already hangs in Paradise.

{1} Luke xxiii: 39.

{2} Luke xiv: 10.

{3} John xv: 15.

{4} Luke xxiii: 43.

{5} Luke xiv: 11.

{6} Matt. v: 3 ff.

<< ======= >>