Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

The Friendship of Christ, Chapter 6: Christ in the Church

 Previous: Erin on Chapter 5, Christ in the Eucharist


I am the Vine, you the branches. (John 15:5)

For no one hates his own flesh bur rather nourishes it and cherishes it, even as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. "For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh." This is a great mystery, but I speak in reference to Christ and the church. (Eph. 5:29-31)

Benson emphasizes at the beginning of the chapter that, from a human perspective, focusing solely on our individual relationship with Jesus can lead to "spiritual disaster".

Now there is scarcely anything so  difficult of diagnosis and so easily misunderstood as certain impulses and instincts of the spiritual life. Modern psychologists remind us of what St. Ignatius taught three centuries ago, with regard to the bewildering difficulty of distinguishing the action of that hidden part of our human natures not usually under the direct attention of the consciousness, from the action of God. Impulses and desires rise within the soul, which seem to bear every mark of a Divine Origin; it is only when they are obeyed or gratified that we discover that often, after all, they have risen from self -- from association, or memory, or education, or even from hidden pride and self-interest -- and lead to spiritual disaster. It needs a very pure intention as well as great spiritual discernment always to recognize the Divine Voice; always to penetrate the disguise of one who, in the higher stages of spiritual progress, so often presents himself as an "Angel of Light".

Sartre famously proclaimed that "Hell is other people", but I would posit that Hell is being trapped in one's own head. We cannot see ourselves rightly solely from the inside. We are not made to be seen solely from the inside. "It is not good that the man should be alone" (Genesis 2:18).

Julian of Norwich, the great English mystic, reveals a vision of Christ saving humanity in which all people are seen as one, as Adam. God does not see humanity as fractured, but as a whole, each human as an essential and irreplaceable element of the one Man. When Adam fell, all fell. When Christ, the perfect Man, came and fulfilled his Father's will, all were saved. We are, corporately, one body.

The Church, too, despite her appearance to our fallen eyes as a banal and unsavory collection of sinful humans, is, corporately, One Body, and Benson emphasizes: that Body is Christ. The Church is Christ. When we interact with the Church, we interact with Christ. And Christ bears a thousand thousand wounds, and sometimes there is "no form or comeliness that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him" (Is. 53:2). People grow to hate the Church, because of what its human members have done; they grow to hate it as anorexia makes a woman hate her own body, or depression makes a man hate his every thought and impulse.

But Jesus does not hate the Church, and indeed speaks of it not just as an entity, but as an individual. It is his bride; it is himself: the two become one flesh. We, corporate humanity, are the bride, and the Church is the marriage through which Christ continually gives himself and joins himself to us. 

This, then, is the Catholic position; and it is one not only necessitated by common-sense, but declared by our Lord's own words even more explicitly that is any promise of His to "abide" with the individual. To no single man did Christ ever say explicitly, "I am with thee always," except, in a sense, to Peter, His Vicar on earth.

Here, then, we have the only possible reconciliation of the fact that Christ is with the soul, and speaks to the soul, and the fact that is is exceedingly difficult for that soul, even in matters of life and death, alway to know certainly whether it is the Voice of Christ which speaks, or some merely human, or even diabolical, impulse. According to the Catholic system, there is another Presence of Christ, to which the soul also has access, to which He has promised guarantees which He never promised to the individual. In a word, He has promised His Presence on earth, dwelling in a mystical Society or Body; it is through that Body of Christ that His Voice actually speaks, exteriorly and authoritatively; and it is only by submission to that Voice that we can test these private intimations and ideas, as to whether they are indeed of God or not.

Benson proclaims: it is not enough to know Christ interiorly, when he has given himself to us also in an exterior form, the Church; that the Christ of the Gospels and the Christ of the Church is the same person revealing himself to us over time.

Thus, the process of conforming our minds to the teaching and traditions of the Church. Our judgment is not infallible; we see that every day in a million minor ways. Our desires, though sincere, though educated, though acute, must be tested. Our love needs a foundation if it is not to be blown away in the first storm. 

This foundation is friendship with the Church, with the Church as Christ himself. It is not enough to delude ourselves that we love the Church because we follow one charismatic preacher who claims to speak in her name; because we agree with one sharp prophet who claims to puncture all her false pride in the name of love; because we are part of some faction which holds itself a purer expression of Catholicism. It is the Church we must be friends with, learning her teachings, tracing her through history, loving humanity through her as Christ does.

Benson's last point is addressed to the person who rebels against this submission as an obliteration of his judgment and gifts, his individuality. He frames it in intellectual terms, as perhaps his own experience of converting in the scholarly setting of the Oxford movement warrants, but today I wonder if a more common objection might be to befriending the Church when it seems a place to shelter evil, an institutional cover for child abuse and sexual control. The glamor and mystique of the institution seem designed to blind the faithful and take advantage of them.

Yet, if the Church is Christ himself, the glamor is like the purple mantle the soldiers draped over Jesus, covering his torn body. And when the robe is ripped off, each wound is torn open and revealed in its horror. The mantle must be ripped off. The soldiers will gamble for it as Christ hangs dying. But that is not the end. Christ's resurrected, glorified body is beautiful and whole. His transformed garments are more dazzling than the tawdry Roman cloak. The wounds must be revealed before they can be healed. But Christ, whether bleeding and stinking on the Cross, or glorified and majestic, is the same, and his body must be loved always.

Next: Erin on Chapter 7: Christ in the Priest

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