ND   The Friendship of Christ / by Robert Hugh Benson


The Purgative Way

Wash me yet more from my iniquity. -- PSALM 1: 4.

THE initial stage of the Friendship formed with Jesus Christ is usually one of extraordinary happiness. For the soul has found for the first time a companion whose sympathy is perfect and whose Presence is continuous. It is not, necessarily, that the soul consciously attends every instant to this new intimate, so much as that she is never wholly unconscious of him. As she goes about her ordinary business, paying to each detail of it as much attention as ever, the fact that He is present within her is never entirely forgotten: He is there as is the sunlight or the air, illuminating, freshening and inspiring all that she experiences. From time to time she turns to Him with a word or two; at times He speaks gently to her. She views all that she sees from His standpoint, or rather from her standpoint in Him; lovely things are more lovely because of His loveliness; painful things are less distressing because of His consolation. Nothing is indifferent, because He is present. Even when she sleeps, her heart wakes to him.

Yet this is only the initial stage of the process; and it is sweet largely because it is new. Certainly she has experienced a tremendous fact, yet so far she has but just entered upon it. There outstretches before her a road that ends only in the Beatific Vision; but there are countless stages to be passed before that end is attained.

For the Friendship, as so formed, is not an end in itself. Christ's desire is indeed to consummate it as soon as may be; yet it cannot be consummated by His mere desire. The soul herself must be educated, must be purified and cleansed so perfectly as to be united with Him by nothing except His grace. She must be first purged and then illuminated, first stripped of herself and then adorned with His favours, before she is fit for her final union. These two stages are named by spiritual writers, the Way of Purgation and the Way of Illumination, respectively: and our subject now is the Way of Purgation.

I. At first, as has been said, the soul takes extraordinary pleasure in all those external things which, it appears to her, are sanctified by Christ's Presence, and more especially by those which are most directly connected with His grace. For example, a soul that has just formed this Friendship -- that has, perhaps, either just entered the Catholic Church by conversion, or has, for the first time, consciously and deliberately awakened to the glories of Catholicism, or even to some imperfect form of Christianity, as that system through which Christ has approached her -- finds an overwhelming joy in even the most exterior details of that system. The human organization of the Church, her methods, her forms of worship, her music and her art -- all these things seem to the soul as wholly heavenly and divine.

And, extremely often, the first sign that the Way of purgation has been really entered, lies in a consciousness that there is beginning for her an experience which the world calls Disillusionment. It may come in a dozen different ways.

She may, for example, be brought face to face with some catastrophe in external matters. She may meet with an unworthy priest, a disunited congregation, some scandal in Christian life, in exactly that sphere where Christ seemed to her evidently supreme. She had thought that the Church must be perfect, because it was the Church of Christ, or the priesthood stainless because it was after the Order of Melchisedech; and she finds to her dismay that there is a human side even to those things that are most associated with Divinity on earth. Or it comes to her, perhaps, in forms of worship. The novelty begins to wear off, and the sweetness of familiarity has not yet had time to form; and she finds that those very things which had seemed to her to be the most directly connected with her new Friend are in themselves external, temporary and transitory. Her love for Christ was so great as to have gilded over all those exterior matters which He and she had in common; now the gilding begins to wear thin, and she sees them to be but earthly after all. And, the more acute her imaginative love at the beginning, the more acute her disappointment now.

This then is usually the first stage of Purgation; she becomes disillusioned with human things, and finds that however Christian they may be, they are not, after all, Christ.

Immediately the first danger presents itself; for there is no cleansing process which has not within it a certain destructive power; and if she is, after all, but a superficial kind of soul, she will lose her Friendship with Christ (such as it was), together with those little gifts and enticements of His with which He wooed and pleased her. There are wandering souls in the world who have failed under this test; who have mistaken human romance for an internal love, who have turned back again from Christ so soon as He has put off His ornaments. But if she be stronger than this, she will have learned her first lesson -- that Divinity is not in these earthly things, that the love of Christ is a deeper thing than the mere presents He makes to His new friends.

II. The next stage of Purgation lies in what may be called, in a sense, the Disillusionment with Divine things. The earthly side has failed her, or rather has fallen off from the reality; now it begins to seem to her as if the Divine side failed her too.

A brilliant phrase of Faber well describes one element in this Disillusionment -- the "monotony of Piety." There comes a time sooner or later when not only do the external things of religion -- music, art, liturgy -- or the external things of earthly life -- the companionship of friends, conversation, business relations -- things which at the beginning of the Divine Friendship seemed radiant with Christ's love -- begin to wear thin; but the very heart and essence of them begin to fail also. For example, the actual exercise of prayer becomes wearisome; the thrill of meditation, so exquisite at first, when every meditation was a looking into the eyes of Jesus, begins to cease its vibrations. The sacraments, which, she has been informed, work ex opere operato, -- (confer solid grace, that is to say, apart from the fervour of the soul's own action) -- become wearisome and monotonous, and, so far as she can see, do not fulfil their own promises. The very things that were intended as helps, seem to become additional burdens.

Or she sets her heart, let us say, on some grace or favour, some positive virtue which she knows it must be her Friend's will to confer upon her; she prays, she agonizes, she strives, she pleads -- and there is no voice nor any that answers. Her temptations are what they have ever been; her human nature, she perceives, after all is unchanged. She had thought that her newly formed friendship with Christ altered once and for all her old self, together with her relations with him; and, behold! she is the same as ever. Christ has cheated her, it almost seems, with promises He cannot or will not fulfil. Even in those very matters in which she trusted Him most, those very provinces in which He must obviously be supreme, it seems that, after all, He is no more to her than He had been before she knew Him so intimately.

Now this stage is an infinitely more dangerous one than the preceding; for while it is comparatively easy to distinguish between Christ and, let us say, ecclesiastical music, it is not so easy to distinguish between Christ and grace -- or rather between Christ and our own imaginative conceptions of what grace should be and do.

There is first the danger of gradually losing hold on religion altogether, during a long lapse of discouragement; of turning with bitter reproaches upon the silent Friend who will not answer. "I trnsted You; I believed in You; I thought I had found my Lover at last. And now You too, like all the rest, have failed me." A soul such as this passes often, in a burst of resentment and disappointment, either to some other religion -- some modern fad that promises quick and verifiable returns in spiritual things -- or to that same state in which she had been before she ever knew Christ. (Only, it must be remembered, a soul that has once known Christ can never be quite as one that has not known Him.) Or there remains one further state more outrageous and unnatural than any -- the state of a cynical and "disillusioned" Christian. "Yes, I too," she tells some ardent soul, "I too was once as you are. I too, in my youthful enthusiasm, once thought I had found the secret. . . . But you will become practical, some day, too. You will understand, too, that romance is not truth. You will become ordinary and workaday like myself. . . . Yes, it is all very mysterious. Perhaps, after all, experience is the only truth worth having."

Yet, if all goes well; if the soul is yet strong enough still to cleave to what seems now a mere memory; if she is confident that an initiation so bewilderingly beautiful as was hers when the Friendship of Christ first came to her, cannot, in the long run, lead to barrenness and cynicism and desolation; if she can but cry in her sincerity that it is better to kneel eternally at the grave of the buried Jesus than to go back and mix again in the ways of the world; then she learns at least one lesson when Jesus rises again (as He always does) -- that she cannot hold Him in the old way, because He is "not yet ascended to His Father," and that, in one word, the object of religion is that the soul should serve God, not that God should serve the soul.

III. There follows, however, a third stage before the Way of Purgation is wholly passed. The soul has learned that external things are not Christ; that internal things are not Christ. She has become "disillusioned," first with the frame of the picture, and next with the picture itself, before she has reached the original. She now has to learn the last lesson of all, and become disillusioned with herself.

Up to now she has always retained a belief, however faint and humble, that there was something in herself, and of herself, that attracted Christ towards her. She has been at least tempted to think that Christ had failed her; now she has to learn that it is she who, all along, in spite of her childlike love, has been failing Christ; and this is at once the real essence and object of Purgation. She has been stripped of all her coverings, of her ornaments and her clothes; now she has to be stripped of herself, that she may be the kind of disciple that He wishes.

She begins then in this third stage to learn her own ignorance and her own sin, and to learn, too, that which ought to have been wholly incompatible with her ignorance and her sin -- her amazing self-centredness and complacency. Up to now she has thought to possess Christ, to hold Him as a lover and a friend, to grasp Him and to keep Him. Her previous mistakes came from this very thing; now she has to learn that not only must she relinquish all that is not Christ, but she must relinquish Christ -- leave, that is to say, her energetic hold on Him, and be content, instead, to be altogether held and supported by Him. So long as she has a shred of self left she will seek to make the friendship mutual, to give, at least, a fraction of what she receives. Now she faces the fact that Christ must do all, that she can do nothing without Him, that she has no power at all except what He gives her. What has been wrong with her up to now, she begins to see, is not so much that she has done or not done this or that, that she has grasped at this or that . . . but simply this, that she has been herself all along, that she has sought to possess, not to be possessed . . . that she has been herself, and that that self has been hateful because it has not been altogether lost in Christ. She has been endeavouring to cure the symptoms of her disease, but she has not touched the disease with one finger. She sees for the first time that there is no good in herself apart from Christ; that He must be all, and she nothing.

Now if a soul has come so far as this, it is extremely rare that sheer pride should be her ruin. The very knowledge of herself that she has gained is an effectual cure of any further real complacency; for she has seen plainly, at any rate for the time being, how utterly worthless she is. Yet there are other dangers that face her, and of these one at least may be pride under the very subtle disguise of extravagant humility. "Since I am so worthless," she may be tempted to say, "I had better never again attempt those high ifights and those aspirations after friendship with my God. Let me give up, once and for all, my dreams of perfection, and my hopes of actual union with my Lord. I must sink back again to the common level, content if I can keep myself just tolerable in His sight. I must take my place again in the ordinary paths, and no longer seek an intimacy with Christ of which I am evidently unworthy."

Or her self-knowledge may take the form of despair; and it is a burden which before now has broken down even the mental faculties themselves. "I have forfeited," cries a soul such as this -- a soul which has lost the excuse of pride, but yet clings to its substance -- "I have forfeited the Friendship of Christ once and for all. It is impossible that I who have tasted of the heaveniy gift should be renewed again unto repentance. He chose me, and I failed Him. He loved me, and I have loved myself only. Therefore let me go far off from His Presence. . . . Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord."{1}

And yet, if the soul only knew it, now is the very moment to which all the preceding stages have led. Now is the very instant in which the beloved soul, having learnt her last lesson of the Purgative Way, is fit to "cast herself into the sea"{2} to come to Jesus. And this she will do, if she has learnt her lesson well, and is conscious that it is exactly because she is nothing in herself, and because she knows it, that Christ can be her all. No longer can pride, whether whole or wounded, keep her from Him, for her pride at last is not wounded, but dead. . . .

The way of the spiritual path is strewn with the wrecks of souls that might have been friends of Christ. This one faltered, because Christ put off his ornaments; this one because Christ did not allow her to think that His graces were Himself; a third because wounded pride still writhed, and bade her be true to her own shame rather than to His glory. All these stages and processes are known; every spiritual writer that has ever lived has treated of them over and over again from this standpoint or from that. But the end and lesson of them all is the same -- that Christ purges His friends of all that is not of Him; that He leaves them nothing of themselves, in order that He may be wholly theirs; for no soul can learn the strength and the love of God, until she has cast her whole weight upon Him.

{1} Luke v: 8.

{2} John xxi: 7.

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