ND   The Friendship of Christ / by Robert Hugh Benson


Christ in the Average Man

As long as you did it to one of these my least brethren, you did it to me. -- MATT. xxv: 40.

WE have seen that it is comparatively easy to recognize Christ in the Priest and the Saint. In the Priest He sacrifices; in the Saint He is transfigured -- or, rather, transfigures humanity once more with His own glory. And the only difficulty in recognizing Christ in the Sinner is the same as that which makes it hard to see Him in the Crucifix -- a difficulty which, when once surmounted, becomes luminous with the light which it sheds upon the Divine Character. We have seen, too, that those who do not see Christ in these types of humanity lose incalculable opportunities of approaching Him and of apprehending the fullness and variety of that Friendship which He extends to us. But Christ has even more strange disguises than any of these; and that which is perhaps more strange than all is that which He indicates to us when He tells us that not merely this or that man in particular, but the "average man" -- our "neighbour" -- is His representative and Vicar on earth as fully (though in wholly another sense) as Priest or Pontiff.

I. He reveals this fact to us in the parable in which He describes His own return to judge mankind.{1} On the one hand, He tells us, stand the saved; and on the other the lost; and the only reason He actually assigns, in this particular discourse, for that eternal separation between the two companies, is that those in the first have ministered to Him in their neighbour; and those in the second failed so to minister. "As long as you did it, or did it not, to one of these my least brethren, you did it, or did it not, to me." These then enter into life; and those into death.

Immediately we are puzzled by the apparent ignorance -- it would seem genuine and sincere ignorance -- of both one class and the other as to the merit or demerit of their lives. Both alike deprecate the sentence of acquittal and condemnation respectively: "Lord, when did we see thee hungry, . . . or thirsty, . . . or naked . . . or sick or in prison?" . . . "We have never knowingly served Thee," say the one. "We have never knowingly neglected Thee," say the other. In answer our Lord repeats the fact that in serving or neglecting their neighbours, they have, respectively, served or neglected Himself. Yet He does not explain how actions done in ignorance can either merit or demerit in His sight.

But the explanation is not so difficult. It is that the ignorance is not complete. For it is an universal fact of experience that we all feel an instinctive drawing towards our neighbour which we cannot reject without a sense of moral guilt. It may be that owing to ignorance or wilful rejection of light a man may fail to understand or believe the Fatherhood of God and the claims of Jesus Christ; it may even be that he sincerely believes himself justified intellectually in explicitly denying those truths; but no man ever yet has lived a wholly selfish life from the beginning, no man has ever yet deliberately refused to love his neighbour or to deny the Brotherhood of man, without a consciousness, at some period at least, that he is outraging his highest instincts. Christians know that the Second Great Commandment draws its force only from the First; yet, as a matter of fact, in spite of this, it is perfectly certain that though some men fail, for one reason or another, to feel the force of the First, no man has ever yet, without a sense of guilt, totally rejected the Second.

For Christ is the Light that enlightens every man.{2} It is actually the Voice of the Eternal Word, although His Name and His historical actions may be unknown, that pleads in the voice of conscience. In rejecting, therefore, the claims of his neighbour, a man is rejecting the claims of the Son of Man. It is no excuse to plead ignorance as to the fact that the historical figure of Christ demands our worship; that is not the point. It remains true that to neglect one's neighbour is to reject an interior impulse, imperious and judicial, which, in spite of the man's ignorance as to its origin and as to its identity with the Voice that spoke in Judea, for all that has a claim upon his sense of moral right. Pilate was not condemned for not knowing the articles of the Nicene Creed, and for not identifying the Prisoner brought before him: he was condemned because he rejected the claims of justice and of the right of an innocent man to be acquitted. He outraged Incarnate Truth because he outraged Justice.

Here then is an undeniable fact. The man who does not keep the Second Commandment cannot even implicitly be keeping the First: the man who rejects Christ in man cannot accept Christ in God. "He that loveth not his brother whom he seeth, how can he love God, whom he seeth not?"{3}

II. Now we have considered how comparatively easy it is to recognize Christ under what we may call His more sensational aspects. The very wondering admiration that we feel at the superhuman exploits of the saints; the shuddering repulsion of which we are conscious in face of the inhuman degradation of the more appalling kinds of sinners -- these are, at the least, an unconscious homage on our part to the divine image and Presence within them, manifested by the first and outraged by the second. It is not so easy, however, to recognize Christ in the average man -- any more than it is easy to recognize the Divine will and guidance in humdrum circumstances. How, we ask ourselves, is it possible for the Unique to disguise Himself under the Ordinary, for the Fairest of the children of men to hide Himself under the merely unattractive, for the One "chosen out of thousands"{4} to be concealed beneath the Average? 'Yet, if the love of our neighbour means anything, it means exactly this. "Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me". . . (as well as in the heart of every man who never gives me a thought). "Christ in the mouth of every man who speaks to me. Christ in every eye that sees me. Christ in every ear that hears me."{5} The husband, for example, has to see Christ in the frivolous wife who spends half her fortune and all her energies in the emptiest social ambition. The wife has to see Christ in the husband who has no idea in the world beyond his business on weekdays and his recreation on Sunday. The middie-aged woman living at home has to find Christ in her garrulous parents and her domestic duties: and her parents have to find Christ in their unimaginative and unattractive daughter. The Benedictine has to see in every guest that comes to the monastery no one less than his own adorable Lord and Master. In our neighbour, that is to say, and in the average plane in which he and we move -- "in the fort, in the chariot-seat, in the ship"{5} -- we have to find Him Who inhabits eternity; or we cannot claim to know Him as He is.

III. To do this perfectly and consistently is Sanctity. To find Him here is to find Him everywhere. If we find Him here, how much more easily shall we find Him in the Saint, the Sinner, the Priest, the Church and the Blessed Sacrament. And there is no short cut to Sanctity.

Two considerations, however, are worth remarking:

(1) We have to remind ourselves constantly of the duty, and to remain discontented with ourselves until we are at least attempting to practise it.

For the very charms and allurements of what is usually known as "religion" have this extraordinary danger attached to them -- that we should mistake them for religion itself. Hardly any danger is so great as this, in these times of ours when religion calls to its aid so many beauties of art and devotion. We may go even further, and say that actual God-given consolations, given "for our health," may "become to us an occasion of falling." Christ caresses the soul, entices it and enchants it, especially in the earlier stages of the spiritual life, in order to encourage it to further efforts; and it is, therefore, a very real spiritual snare that we should mistake Christ's gifts for Christ, religiosity for religion, and the joys possible on earth for the joys awaiting us in heaven -- in a word, that we should mistake the saying of "Lord! Lord!" for the "doing the Will of the Father who is in heaven."{6} Continually and persistently, therefore, we have to test our progress by practical results. I find it easier and easier to worship Christ in the Tabernacle: do I therefore find it easier and easier to serve Christ in my neighbour? For, if not, I am making no real progress at all. I am not advancing, that is to say, along the whole line: I am pushing forward one department of my life to the expense of the rest: I am not developing my Friendship with Christ: I am developing, rather, my own conception of His Friendship (which is a totally different thing). I am falling into the most fatal of all interior snares. "I find Him in the shining of the stars. I find Him in the flowering of the fields. But in His ways with man I find Him not."{7} And therefore I am not finding him as He desires to be found.

(2) A second aid to this recognition of Christ lies in an increase of self-knowledge. My supreme difficulty is the merely superficial and imaginative difficulty of realizing how it is possible to discern the Unique beneath the disguise of the Average. Therefore, as I learn to know myself better, and learn therefore how very average I myself am, and, at the same time, discover that Christ still bears with me, tolerates me and dwells within me, it becomes easier for me to realize that Christ is also in my neighbour. As I penetrate deeper and deeper by self-knowledge into the strata of my own character, learning afresh with each discovery how self-love permeates the whole, how little zeal there is for God's glory, and what an immensity of zeal for my own, how my best actions are poisoned by the worst motives -- and yet, all through, that Christ still condescends to tabernacle beneath it all and to shine in a heart so cloudy as mine -- it becomes increasingly easy for me to understand that He can with even greater facility lie hid beneath that exterior of my neighbour whom I find so antipathetic, but of whose unworthiness I can never be so certain as I am of my own.

"Cleave the Wood" -- look down into your own wooden stupidity of head, "and you shall find me. Lift the stone " -- wrench out that rocky senseless thing that you call your heart "and I am there."{8} And then, having found Christ in yourself, go out and find Him in your neighbour too.

{1} Matt. xxv: 31 ff.

{2} John i: 9.

{3} I John iv: 20.

{4} Cant. v: 10.

{5} The "Breastplate of St. Patrick."

{6} Matt. vii: 25.

{7} Morte d'Arthur, Tennyson.

{8} From the "Logia of Jesus."

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