ND   The Friendship of Christ / by Robert Hugh Benson


Christ in the Church

I am the Vine; you the branches. -- JOHN xv: 5.

Up to the present we have been considering what may be called the Individual Friendship of Christ for the soul -- the relationship with Himself directly, as God dwelling in the heart, as the God-Man in the Blessed Sacrament -- that is to say, we have been considering the spiritual life of the individual as developed by the Individual Friendship of her Lord.

I. 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 nature 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."

The result is that appalling shipwrecks occasionally occur -- or at least lamentable mistakes are made -- among souls of whom at any rate it cannot be said that they have not taken great pains with the cultivation of the inner life. There is no obstinacy like religious obstinacy; for the spiritual man encourages himself in his wrong course, by a conviction that he is following Divine guidance. He is not, to his own knowledge, wilful or perverse: on the contrary, he is persuaded that he is an obedient follower of a Divine interior monitor. There is no fanatic so extravagant as a religious fanatic.

It is chiefly, then, from amongst those who have seriously cultivated the inner life that the sharpest criticisms of Catholicism come. Catholics are told that they have substituted a System for a Person; that they are too exterior, too formal, too official. "I possess Jesus Christ in my heart," says such a critic. "What more do I need? I have God within me: why should I go about to seek for a God without me? I know God: does it then matter so much whether I know about Him? Is not a child nearer to his father than a biographer can be? To be 'orthodox' is not so great a matter after all: 'I had sooner love God than discourse learnedly about the Blessed Trinity.'"

The Catholic system, then, is denounced as tyrannical and clumsy. Conscience illuminated by the Presence of Jesus Christ in the heart must be the guide of every man. Any attempt to set up a system, we are told, to lay down limits, any endeavour to guide souls authoritatively, to "bind and loose," -- all these things are a practical denial of the Supreme Authority of Christ within.

What is our answer to this?

Our first observation is the familiar controversial statement -- (controversial yet undeniable) -- that those Christians who most strongly insist on the sacrosanctity of the inner life, and its sufficiency as a guide, are those who are least able to agree on religious matters. Every new sect that comes into existence in these latter days takes its stand always upon this claim -- a claim that has been made incessantly ever since the sixteenth century -- yet has never been justified by that unity amongst its supporters which ought, if it were true, to be the result. If Jesus Christ intended to found Christianity upon His own Presence in the heart as a sufficient guide to truth -- then Jesus Christ has failed in His Mission.

The next remark that must be made leads to the main subject of our present consideration. It is this, that that very system which is denounced as usurping Christ's Prerogative is a great deal more than a system -- that it is in fact, in one sense, actually Jesus Christ Himself, doing that work exteriorly and authoritatively which cannot be done with any certain success in the interior life -- subject as that is to a thousand delusions and misunderstandings and complications for which there is no other remedy.

II. It has been pointed out that in the Gospels Christ again and again utters His desire to form a Friendship with souls. It is equally clear in the Gospels that this is not to be merely an interior relation. Certainly He comes to the heart of every man who desires it; but He makes promises that are far more explicit and far-reaching than these, to souls who do not isolate themselves with Him, but unite with other souls. His Presence "where there are two or three gathered together in His Name";{1} His special accessibility to those who "consent upon earth concerning anything whatsoever they shall ask"; {2} His promises in fact to guide those who corporately seek Him -- are indefinitely more emphatic than any pledge He expressly gives to any single soul.

But the affair is much greater than this. For in the words "I am the Vine, you the branches"{3} He actually announces a certain identity of Himself -- and not merely His Presence -- with those who corporately represent Him; and He interprets and formulates all this finally in His tremendous statements: "He that heareth you, heareth Me{4}. . . . As the Father hath sent Me, I also send you.{5} . . . Whatsoever you shall bind on earth, shall be bound also in heaven.{6} . . . Going therefore, teach ye all nations.{7}. . . I am with you all days."{8}

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 than 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 it is exceedingly difficult for that soul, even in matters of life and death, always 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 upon 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.

It is obvious, then, that a soul which seeks the Friendship of Christ cannot find it adequately in the interior life only. We have seen how strong and intense this interior life may be; how souls who cultivate it can really and actually enjoy the personal individual Presence of the Divine Friend, even though they may know little or nothing of His action in the world. But how enormous become the possibilities before a humble soul who not only knows Christ in herself, not only studies His character in the Gospel -- the written record of His natural life on earth -- but has her eyes opened to the astounding fact that Christ still lives and acts and speaks upon earth through the Life of His mystical Body -- that the Divine Character sketched in a few lines two thousand years ago is being elaborated and developed through all the ages, under the guidance of His own Personality, in the terms of that Human Nature which He has mystically united to Himself.

The subject is too vast to be spoken of here. Two or three considerations, however, directly concern us.

III. (i) The Catholic soul, considering all this, must develop her Friendship with Christ-in-Catholicism. Indeed, one of the most remarkable facts in the Catholic Religion is the manner in which this is almost instinctively done by persons who perhaps have never deliberately meditated upon the reason of their action. We feel, by a kind of intuition, that the Church is something more than the largest empire on earth -- more than the most venerable Society of history; more than the Representative and Vice-gerent of God; more even than the "Bride of the Lamb." All these metaphors, however sacred, fall short of the complete Divine reality. For the Church is Christ Himself.

Hence a certain "friendliness" with the Church is not difficult. No Catholic, for example, who even attempts to practise his religion, is ever altogether homeless or an exile. He feels, not only as a subject of a kingdom or an empire may feel, protected by his country's flag -- but as one who is in the society of a friend. He wanders into churches abroad, not only to visit the Blessed Sacrament, not only to reassure himself as to the hour for mass, but to get into the company of a mysterious and comforting Personality, driven by an instinct he can scarcely explain. He is perfectly reasonable in doing so; for Christ, his Friend, is there, present in that centre of humanity whose members are His.

(ii) But this is not all. In a true friendship between two persons, the weaker of the two must always, little by little, become conformed not only to the habits of life, but to the habits of thought, of the stronger. Little by little the process goes on until that state of mutual understanding is reached which we call "perfect sympathy."

In the interior friendship with Christ this is essential. We must so dwell with Him, as His Apostle tells us, that at last, "bringing into captivity every understanding"{9} to His obedience, we lose, in a certain sense, our own identity. We lose our limited personal way of looking at things, our selfish schemes and ideas, and finally, since our "life is hid with Christ in God,"{10} we no longer live; it is Christ that liveth in us.{11}

Precisely the same thing, therefore, must be aimed at with regard to our friendship with Christ-in-Catholicism.

When a convert begins his Catholic life, or when one who has been a Catholic from the cradle wakes to a deliberate consideration of what his religion means, it is enough to believe all that the Church expressly teaches, and to conform his life to that teaching: just as, in the first stage of a new acquaintanceship, it is enough to be polite and deferential and to refrain from offence. But as time goes on, and the relationship deepens, this is not enough. What is courtesy in the first stage, is coolness in the second. As the relationship deepens, it is absolutely necessary, if relations are not to be marred, to begin to conform not only words and actions, but thoughts; and even more than thoughts -- instincts and intuitions. Two really intimate friends know -- each of them, without a question or word of explanation -- what would be the judgment of the other upon a new situation. Each knows the likes and dislikes of the other, even though they may not be expressed in words.

Now this is precisely what a Catholic soul must aim at. If friendship with Christ in the Church is to be real -- and without this knowledge of Him, as has been seen, our relations with Him cannot be at all adequately what He intends -- it must extend not only to scrupulous external obedience and formulated acts of faith, but to an interior way of looking at things in general; an instinctive attitude; an intuitive atmosphere -- such as we see again in simple and faithful Catholics, usually uneducated, who, while knowing little or nothing of exact dogmatic or moral theology, yet detect with an almost miraculous swiftness heretical tendencies or dangerous teaching, which perhaps not even a trained theologian could analyse at once.

There is no more a short cut to this intimate sympathy with Catholicism than to the parallel intimate sympathy with Christ interiorly. Humility, obedience, simplicity -- these are the virtues on which the Divine Friendship, as well as mere human friendships, alone can thrive.

And yet, again and again, however well a soul may know all this, she will find herself filled with a kind of repugnance to this attitude which looks so much like servility. "Was I," she will be tempted to ask herself, "was I, after all, only created, and endowed with a temperament and an independent judgment, and personal preferences, and, it may be, the divine gift of originality, merely that I may crush them out, sacrifice them, throw them back, offer them to be reabsorbed in the common stock from which, by my very creation, they were distinguished?"

Ah! Consider it again. Was not your free-will given you that you might, with it, choose to have no will but God's? Your intellect, that it might gradually learn to bring it into obedience with the Divine Wisdom; your heart that it might love and hate those things which the Sacred Heart Itself loves and hates? For in a soul's union with God nothing is lost which she unites with Him. Rather, each gift is transformed, glorified, and lifted to a higher nature. True, she "no longer lives"; but instead it is "Christ that liveth in her."

And if this is true of the soul and God, it is true in whatever form God chooses to present Himself. No higher life can be lived on earth than one of entire and abject imitation of the Life of Jesus Christ: no freedom is so great as that of the children of God who are fast bound by the perfect Law of Love and Liberty.

Once grasp, therefore, that the Catholic Church is Christ's historical expression of Himself: once see in her Eyes the Divine glance, and through her face the Face of Christ Himself: once hear from her lips that Voice that speaks always "as one having authority";{12} and you will understand that no nobler life is possible for a human soul than to "lose herself"{13} this sense in that glorious Society which is His Body; no greater wisdom than to think with her; no purer love than that which burns in Her Heart who, with Christ as her Soul, is indeed the Saviour of the world.

{1} Matt. xviii: 20.

{2} Ibid. 19.

{3} John xv: 5.

{4} Luke x: 16.

{5} John xx: 21.

{6} Matt. xvi: 19; xviii: 18.

{7} Matt. xxviii: 19.

{8} Ibid. 20.

{9} II Cor. x: 5.

{10} Col. iii: 3.

{11} Gal. ii: 30.

{12} Matt. vii: 29.

{13} Matt. x: 39.

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