Project Canterbury

Discerning the Lord's Body
The Rationale of a Catholic Democracy

By Frederic Hastings Smyth, Ph.D.
Superior of the Society of the Catholic Commonwealth

Louisville, Kentucky: The Cloister Press, 1946.

Chapter V. Metacosmesis


THE EFFECTS OF THE TRANSIT of the perfected but contingent pattern of the individual human unit called Jesus into the level of the divine nature of the eternal Christ are most readily seen in His own death and resurrection. Yet once we have grasped this function of the union of the two natures in Our Lord, we are in a position to discern something of this same kind of dynamic interchange between them even before His death, throughout the whole course of His earthly life. His two natures, from the moment of His conception, were completely distinct. But, because they are perfectly conjoined in Him, every experience and action which was added to the content of His pattern as a man, also underwent at once that transit which conveyed it into the absolute level of His divine nature. As Our Lord the Man lived and moved and recreated His own fresh individual unit of humanity out of the materials presented to Him within our world, the first stage of human salvation was at once made absolute in that completing second stage which His divine nature at every instant im-mediately supplied.

Because during His earthly life the senses of men had direct access only to the manifestation of Our Lord's earthly human nature, this kind of ever-present and continuing consummation was not readily apparent to human observation. It became openly clear only after the resurrection. Nevertheless, we can gain at least an inkling of such a process of interchange between the respective levels of the two natures when we study the really extraordinary quality of the individual humanity of the Man Jesus. For although we properly describe this humanity in terms of Perfect [41/42] Man, it does undeniably have certain characteristics which we have never found associated with any other man. For there radiate from this humanity a power, an authority, a command over men's minds and wills and imaginations, an insight into the deepest realities and needs of the human heart, which appear to transcend the gifts and wisdoms of all other known men, not merely quantitatively, but qualitatively. Furthermore, Our Lord performed many mighty works, miracles of healing and even of over-ruling control in the presence of the forces of nature. At one point in His life, His physical body itself seems to have assumed in the presence of human witnesses a definitely super-physical property and appearance. And crowning all this He made the extraordinary claim, as the Son of Man, that He had power on earth to forgive sin. And whatever may have been the precise technical meaning of the expression Son of Man in this context, there seems little doubt that although the authority of this forgiveness did not originate in Our Lord's humanity alone, nevertheless the absolution given to other men did come in and through that humanity. [The Jewish Scribes who were present when Our Lord made this claim seem to have understood that Our Lord presumed to attribute the power of forgiveness of sin to Himself as mere man. They were shocked-and quite properly. They termed this claim a blasphemy. The power to forgive sins can originate only with God.] Such phenomenal powers as those of the performance of miracles, of the transfiguration of the natural body, and above all, of the dispensing of forgiveness of other men's sins here on earth, are not associated with what we might call "normal" humanity.


For this reason it is often widely assumed that these seemingly super-human powers which Our Lord not only claimed in words, but exercised in amazing deeds, resulted from a kind of sporadic but direct irruption of the divine through the natural level of His normal human life. The difficulty with this view is that it seems unavoidably to imply that Our Lord while on earth was not describable [42/43] completely and accurately in terms of Perfect Man alone. At some moments at least He was a superman. For sometimes He could call in at will a divine power which seems to have lurked somewhere in the background of His life in order as it were, to eke out His merely human powers which, although humanly perfect, were sometimes inadequate fully to meet the requirements of His peculiar mission among men. And a view of Our Lord which would allow that He thus injected divine elements directly into and through the content of His true humanity in such wise that the divine overrode the human, and that divinity impinged im-mediately upon the natural world, places the historical Man Jesus in such an exceptional category from all other men that He becomes a being apart. He becomes a pattern of "human" nature inaccessible to ordinary men. His perfection becomes a thing too lofty for the rest of us, not only in degree but in kind. If the perfection to which He calls us, as exampled in His own human achievement, requires this kind of divine intrusion to complete it, He calls us not to joy and hope in Himself, but to a kind of despair. For He seems to be calling us to a redemption which is not based initially on a genuine reperfection of human nature alone, but rather to a kind of super-perfection. At any rate, it is a kind of perfection open to no man other than Himself, since no other man in difficult moments can ever have the power of Very God thus conveniently on tap. Fortunately, Our Lord has made it clear that this was not His own view of His extraordinary powers as a man among He implies that the remarkable qualities of His humanity are under certain circumstances proper to the potentialities of all humanity. He startles us by suggesting that the powers which emerge in Him as man ought not to be thought of as uniquely confined to His single case. When the disciples marvelled over the withering away of a fig tree at a word from Him, He replied: If ye have faith, and doubt not, ye shall not only do this which is done to the fig tree, but also if ye shall say unto this mountain, Be thou removed, and be cast into the sea, it shall be done. [Matt. 21: 19-21. Cf. also, 17:20; Luke 17: 6; Mark 11: 23.] These [43/44] are certainly strong words.

But the disciples and the early Church with them were at least willing to take them at their face value. This is proved by the words attributed to Our Lord when the early Christians supplied a written passage to take the place of the so-called lost ending of St. Mark's Gospel. We gather that to the Christians of the early second century it seemed quite fitting that Our Lord should say to them that they should take up poisonous serpents with impunity, that if they drank any deadly thing it would not hurt them, and that they too should heal the sick. For St. John had already reported Our Lord as saying: He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do. [Mark 16: 17-18; John 14: 12.]


What then is this humanity? It does not seem to be ordinary humanity; yet we do have the surprising assurance both of Our Lord and His immediate followers that powers and masteries over the elements of our world which we almost unhesitatingly label super-natural, are potentially normal to that human nature which is the possession of all other men. It would seem then, that we are here in the presence of the manifestation of a pattern of true human nature. But it is a humanity which, having been perfected within the natural level of this world, has been received and made absolute within the level of the divine nature. From this super-natural level it has been returned to the natural level to continue a further growth, to garner in a still larger contingent content within this world. Our Lord's humanity is certainly a true humanity. It is not a humanity which from its beginning had always been potentially higher, in some unique and qualitative sense, from that of other men. But it is a humanity which, as we view it at any point in His earthly life, has been in and out of eternity. It is a humanity which has been perfected in pattern in the first [44/45] stage of the redemption process of the Incarnation, which has been im-mediately consummated in the second stage, but which (since Our Lord still lives His human life within this world) is then returned in order that its contingent content may be enlarged by further growth within the still continuing first stage. And this kind of back and forth transit of a perfected human accomplishment from the level of Our Lord's human nature to the level of His divine nature, and then back again to the natural level for further activity and growth, results in a humanity which has the remarkable qualities shown by that of the Man Jesus. In Him, at any chosen moment of His human life, we see a unit of humanity perfectly re-created in pattern under the conditions of this natural world. We see this contingent accomplishment made absolute, up to that point, in His divinity. We see this absolutely perfected accomplishment returned to the level of our world, as a basis for the continuation of whatever future contingent creative work is still allotted to Our Lord before the time shall come for His human death upon the Cross.

A pattern of humanity which has been contingently perfected in the level of our nature; which with its content has been absolutely perfected by being received into the level of divinity; which has then been returned to the same individual human being who first perfected it while He still continues to function further within this world, gives to that particular human being the extraordinary characteristics of Our Lord as Man. It is, nevertheless, a true humanity--not a super-humanity. Although it has been received into the divine level it does not remain withdrawn from the world of men; neither is it continually held above it. Neither does it return trailing some admixture of the divine nature mingled with the human. It is still a genuine humanity; but one which has been consummated in eternity and then returned to the world of time. There it continues to function again, with certain uncommon properties to be sure, but none the less re-emerging as a unit of that true human nature which is potentially proper to all other men. Our Lord as Man is a unit of humanity first perfected as an [45/46] ordered structure within this world. But in His case, even before the final conveyance of this unit into the absolute perfection of His risen life, its content is receiving, continuously and at every point, a kind of interim consummation of a sort equivalent to that consummation which is so clearly manifest in the great final event. But this kind of interim consummation must proceed behind the veil, as it were, of Our Lord's still continuing earthly life. And while His earthly life endures, this consummated, absolutely perfected portion of His creative accomplishment is always given back into the level of His continuing human activity. It there imparts to His human life its seemingly superhuman qualities.

But these qualities are not super-human. The miracles of Our Lord are not a direct action intrusion of His divinity, interrupting cataclysmically the course of His purely human activity. The miracles are wrought by a genuinely human being. They are wrought by a truly human unit, but one which has traversed both of the necessary stages of man's redemption, yet which still continues to grow and work within the natural world.

This kind of human individual can work the miracles recorded in the Gospel accounts. This kind of human individual has that pre-eminent control over the material circumstances of life which permits the event of the transfiguration, when we find His absolutely perfected humanity shining for a moment through the veil of its this-world, contingently perfected, but still not finally consummated structure. This kind of human individual can mediate God's own healing of body to die cure of the bodies of other men. This kind of human individual, as Son of Man within this world, can dispense God's forgiveness of sin to the cure of other men's souls.

Briefly, then, we can discern three phases, or stages, in Our Lord's creative action while He lives within this world. First, the Divine Logos, by virtue of His time-transcending, creative power, re-creates an individual pattern of true human nature by ordering the elements of that nature out of their fallen (i.e. from the merely human standpoint, [46/47] hopelessly disordered) state. These elements are taken into an individual human structure which conforms perfectly to the will of God for His creature, man. This is the proto-phase of what must be always the first basis of the redeeming work of God in the Incarnation of His Son.

But this first stage in the redemption of human nature results in a contingent perfection whose content, like that of our previously mentioned square marked out with imperfect apples, still has need of being perfected in an absolute sense. The second stage therefore consists precisely in this, the making absolute of that contingently perfected structure which results from the first stage of Our Lord's action. And this necessary completion of the redemption of human nature is accomplished by Our Lord by virtue of the fact that in Him the divine and human natures arc conjoined. Hence that ordered structure which is perfected in this natural world, under the conditions of our time and space, is conveyed im-mediately into the eternal level of Our Lord's divinity. It there receives that consummation of an absolutely perfected order which ultimate human redemption requires.

This fully redeemed structure is then returned (or re-conveyed) into the continuing human life of the Man Jesus, in such wise that His creative accomplishment, up to each moment of His earthly life, re-emerges in the natural level, but now as an absolutely perfected basis for His remaining, allotted future creative work within the still unfinished first stage of His redeeming mission.


We shall call this process a process of Metacosmesis. [Pronounced Metacósmesis; from the Greek meta, as a prefix expressing "change," and kosmhsiV, "an ordering." Plato (Laws, 892.A) uses metakomhsiV in the sense of a "new arrangement." The word occurs also in Plutarch (Moralia, 2. 75 E) in the sense of "a conversion." The Sacramental application, of course, greatly extends the classical sense.] Metacosmesis, then, is a kind of trans-ordering, a conveyance of structural order from the level of contingency in [47/48] time and space to the level of an absolute and eternal order; and then back again to that contingent level where it originated and to which it returns for further creative, ordering, growth.

Metacosmesis might be called by its Latin equivalent, Trans-ordination. The difficulty with the Latin term seems to be that it suggests merely a change in purpose or use of our renewed structural order, an ordaining it to a new end. But we are dealing here with a process of radical, creative structural re-ordering. "Trans-ordering" would be a nearer equivalent to the Greek word. We shall here retain the term Metacosmesis. [In a previous book (Manhood Into God, 1940), I have attempted to make the traditional theological term Transubstantiation cover the whole process now described as Metacosmesis. I have come to the conclusion that this stretching of a highly technical term, one which has been so carefully defined by St. Thomas Aquinas, and so thoroughly enshrined in a limited Catholic usage, is inadmissible. That particular process which is described by the word Transubstantiation is certainly a necessary part of Catholic belief. I by no means reject the truth which it so accurately enshrines. It is impossible to see how the full truth concerning the movement of the process of the Blessed Sacrament could be otherwise expressed. The concept of Metacosmesis presupposes Transubstantiation. But I have ceased to think it feasible to try to make this latter term do double duty, and to cover the entire process now described as Metacosmesis.]


During the course of Our Lord's earthly life, it was not alone the strictly individually perfected structure of His humanity which underwent this process of Metacosmesis. As a matter of fact there is no strictly individual content of any individual humanity. All human beings are social beings. The practical experiences, intellectual analyses, and emotional attitudes which fill in the structures of individual lives almost without exception have connections with other members of the social environment within which individual lives are passed. Every man or woman is a focus or center of a life-structure which diffuses socially outward. It thus involves within itself and as a part of its individual [48/49] content, the converging ends of a vast system of connecting social links whose other ends are enmeshed and involved within the content of other individual human life-structures. Every individual, of course, has private knowledge of the character of the central ordered psychological structure of that human unit which is himself. He has private knowledge of most of the relationships and psychological attitudes which fill in its content. But he cannot avoid being conscious of the fact that the whole pattern of his individual humanity is inextricably intertwined with--or conditioned by--his relationships with others. And he must acknowledge that the items which give content to this structure also have had their first origins in the surrounding world, having been appropriated into the individual's own structure by means of one or more special sense organs of the body.

Hence, if every individual unit of human nature focuses, and therefore partly includes within itself, at least something of the structural pattern of the social environment in which it lives and grows, certainly Our Lord's humanity came to include the structures of the lives of those with whom He surrounded Himself. He included these other patterns in a special, indeed a unique, sense. For in Him, through Him, and outward from Him, there worked the transcendent re-creative power of the Divine Logos Incarnate. And the group of people whom He began to form about Himself were brought by this creative power into a new social structure, not merely organizationally centered and focused upon Him, but organically rooted in Him, as every living organism is rooted in its parent stock and stem.

The members of the group which surrounded this new individual center of ordered human life were, through its superior divine power, made living, functional partakers of the new life-pattern which there emerged. The disciples and other friends, as Our Lord called them, were parts of an objective, functional, social extension of His own recreated humanity. They formed the first living social cell of that growing vine which should one day reconstruct and redeem God's fallen creation, in so far as the rest of the world should come to be taken into itself.

[50] Since, therefore, those who surrounded Our Lord shared a new and common social humanity in continuity and union with His individual humanity, the newly perfected social structure of their common life was organically one with His. Hence, it was not the individual structure of Our Lord's perfected humanity alone which underwent in Him the process of Metacosmesis. The newly created structure of His surrounding group also participated in this process in and through Him. The fruit of this participation is evidenced by the share which the group of disciples had in Our Lord's unusual human powers. For they too, according to the Gospel records, could work certain miracles, especially those of healing. Our Lord gave them explicit power and authority over all devils, and to cure diseases. And we are told that the disciples went through certain towns preaching the Gospel and healing everywhere. [Luke 9: 1, 6.] We are told that the Apostle Peter actually walked for a moment on the surface of the water when Our Lord, also walking on the water, came to the disciples as they were storm-tossed in the midst of the Sea of Galilee. [Mark 6: 48-51.]


The disciples were not always completely successful in their attempted exercise of the full powers of a metacosmic humanity. We note that even St. Peter started to sink after his first few steps and had to be lifted and saved. In another instance, when Our Lord came down from the Mount of Transfiguration, He was asked to heal a demoniac lad over whom the disciples had worked in vain. When they asked Him: Why is this? Why could not we cast the devil out? He replied: This kind can come forth by nothing but prayer. [Mark 9: 17-29; Luke 9: 37-42.]

From the fact of this only partial success on the part of the disciples, we may infer that the socially redeemed order now emerging and spreading into their lives was only derivative from that divine creative power which was as yet perfectly manifest solely in Our Lord's individual humanity. But this is the kind of thing which we might expect. The Order of the Incarnate Life does not act automatically upon other men. Neither docs it completely overrule, and so take the place of, a continuing free allegiance on the part of those who earnestly wish to give its creative power free course among them. As we have said, its method is not a fascist one. Even the most earnest of men, even men of the utmost good will and intention, are not perfected over night within the Incarnation by an overruling force. It is only Our Lord who, in His individual unit of humanity, achieved that complete perfection of structure which permitted it to be received, as a whole and without any exclusion, into the level of His divine nature and then to be returned in Metacosmesis to the level of His earthly life. Therefore, it is only Our Lord as an individual who shows the complete powers of the fully realized potentialities of a metacosmic human nature. The disciples and others who surrounded Him contributed to His individual accomplishment a newly ordered structure which was able only partially to enter into the process of Metacosmesis. In other words, the social structure re-created within the group of disciples was not merely contingent. It was partly imperfect in both pattern and content. Now imperfection is a very different thing from contingency. Imperfection here is a genuine disorder imported (according to circumstances, with or without the conscious, free consent of the human will) into the ordered structure of the Incarnation itself. Our Lord never permitted this in His own case, and this is what makes His creative work unique in its own right, and hence a worthy offering (or return gift out of natural creation) to God the Father. This is what has enabled Our Lord to initiate the further social process of the Incarnation, spreading from His individually perfected humanity as its seminal source.

All others who have followed Him in this creative work have (so far) failed, to a greater or lesser extent. Hence, as in the case of the first disciples, the further human contributions to the content of Our Lord's Incarnation have been defective as well as contingent. The disciples [51/52] themselves realized their own failures. [Cf. St. Peter's exclamation: "Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord;" Luke 5: 8.] And Our Lord seems to have laid a particular emphasis upon a deficiency of faith among His immediate followers. [Cf. Matt. 6:30; 17:20; 21:21; Mark 4:40; Luke 17:6.] In the case of the failure with the demoniac boy, He implies a defect in their prayer life. But the point is that in so far as the human contribution to the spreading social humanity of Our Lord is allowed to remain defective, by just so much is it impossible to take it into the process of Metacosmesis. By just so much is the resulting imperfectly metacosmic humanity lacking in those extraordinary fruits which are found in Our Lord Himself.

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