Project Canterbury

The Priests’ Convention

Philadelphia, April 29-30, 1924

From The American Church Monthly, June, 1924, Vol. XV, No. 4.

Edited by Selden Peabody Delany, D.D.

Transcribed by Wayne Kempton
Archivist and Historiographer of the Diocese of New York, 2012

Sermon Preached by the Rev. Dr. Bell
at St. Clement's Church
at the Opening of the Priests' Conference
April 29th, 1924


THESE words, spoken by Our Lord in that long talk with His disciples which preceded Gethsemane, surely express what is the fundamental spiritual note of that great convention of priests whose meeting this service is intended to preface. We know that this is our attitude of mind; it is well that others should realize it, too. We do not come together to controvert other people's beliefs or lack of beliefs. We feel the largest love for those who are seeking God in other ways than ours. We are not seeking to demonstrate against anybody, or indeed to argue with anybody. We come together not to deny anything, but rather to affirm that we have found a burning, vitalizing faith; that humbly we try to love, as He deserves to be loved, a very real Deity, One who has won us by His love. This God we do adore. In adoring Him we find nothing which imprisons or enslaves our minds. Freely and gladly we accept the concluded and proven facts discovered by physical investigation and by scientific Biblical and historical criticism. We are not obscurantists; we are not fundamentalists; we are Catholics. We know Him in whom we have believed. He is the dearest thing in life; and He has made us free and living men. Joy and gratitude we feel toward Him; and toward mankind a true and unfeigned affection, and a longing to help men find the God who for us is making all things new. Of all the aspects of the Sacrament that is the one nearest to our hearts this morning. It is the great Thanksgiving, the Eucharist.

Surely God has been good to us beyond all hope. Out of the conventionalism of Anglicanism, from beneath that formal coldness which made Wesley impatient and Newman despairing, has emerged in its strength and beauty the joyful Catholic religion of the ancient days. With every passing month this comes forth more clearly as the genius of the Church, its true but sometimes [252/253] hidden nature. Despite misunderstanding, within the Church itself and from outside it, the great evangelical heart of the Catholic movement burns ever warmer. And by that warmth we too have been enriched in life. Like the trees in springtime, our old Church buds once more. How can we help rejoicing, we to whose souls has come such happiness and peace, in the midst of this troubled day?

For it is, indeed a troubled day. Mankind is discovering the inadequacy of those things in which it has put its trust. It is disillusioned, increasingly cynical. Materialism, one of the great religions of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, has failed us. We have labored for a meat that perishes, for a food that satisfies not. Gradually our generation is admitting that man's life consists not in the abundance of the things that he possesses. Man has vainly worshipped, too, at the altar of force, followed the cult of the strong man, sacrificed wealth, enthusiasm, youth to Moloch; and, despite the continued, almost frantic chatter of the Chanvinists, most of us have ceased to hope for much from the mailed fist, from hysterical nationalism, from war and hate and all that go with them. For years, also, men have followed the earnest preaching of those who have sought to persuade us of the deity of human intellect, who have bade us serve cold reason in the hope of salvation, who have told us that in the mere training of the mind lies all the future. The cult of education we have followed with pathetic hope. But, although God forbid that we should cease to reason, most of us who think, by our very thinking, have come to know that reason is not enough. Modern psychology has taught us that we are not mere brains. We are men, whose hearts beat, in whose veins pulses red blood; men responding to deep instincts and subtle emotions, as well as to reason; essentially beings of personal contacts, damned by our hates and fears, ennobled by our loves and the love of others for us. We honor reason still; but we can no longer hope too much from it. If upon reason alone we must depend, there is no future for the race. We read the latest of Mr. Wells' Utopias, with his supermen of the future who have subjected all life to rational control; we find them jolly tales but no more credible anthropologically than Mr. Burroughs' red and green and black warriors of Mars. Whatever the future [253/254] has in store for the race, our descendants will still be human beings. Education may change the accidents of life. The species still will remain. Man will never be, essentially and primarily, rational. We know all this. Easy Victorian optimism, the sort that Herbert Spencer had, is quite impossibly naïve today.

The demi-gods of wealth, and force, and reason, then, have failed us. Their feet are of clay. The world's disaster has dethroned them from their altars. I know that men and women, huge masses of men and women, still do them homage; but less and less those who think. Every day sees new recruits to that army of souls who have tried them out and found them wanting.

And so men are crying out again for God. They are saying and meaning it, ''There is no hope for the world save in religion." Back of life, they are sure, there must be something, some One, true and serene. Life can find its meaning only in His terms. Men are asking those who claim religious knowledge to lead them once more into truth and peace and joy. We, too, have been among those seekers. We know that hunger. We understand.

Many of us have looked to Protestantism and, with all desire to find, have received but little help. Protestantism has outlived its day. It was based on two things: an appeal, for knowledge of God, to an infallible Book; and a confident trust in the adequacy of the individual intellect. The impossibility, in the face of modern criticism, of our believing the Bible an inerrant repository of all truth, has shaken Protestantism, has undermined it, is destroying it. The Book alone will no longer do. Protestantism still points us to this puzzling, varied literature—for that is what the Bible is—and to the extent that it does so, it fails to give us modern men and women the help we need. Indeed, it hinders and repels us.

In the Protestant bodies there has been a reaction from Protestantism into what calls itself ''liberal Christianity" or "Modernism;" and to that, too, some of us in our day have looked with hope. But, much as we honor all sincere and reverent Modernists, it has been a vain hope; for Modernism, while it has abandoned belief in a literal Book, has retained its faith in the adequacy of the individual intellect. It trusts too [254/255] much to mere reason. Most of the race including many very intelligent people cannot find in its cold, vague, and often negative philosophy a dynamic for life. It is too much of the study. We long for the vital friendship of Deity; and Liberalism gives us beautiful thoughts. And so we have turned away from it, with a wistful regret.

Then some of us have looked to Rome; and have found there a vital faith, true, but hedged about by iron walls of protective uniformity. If the Roman Church were really the fine, free thing she was in the thirteenth century, how gladly would we be her children. But Rome is different nowadays. Rome too has suffered dreadfully from the Reformation. That great movement forced her, for protection, into a regularizing, a militarizing of her being. Ultramontanism has been her increasingly harmful curse. Order in her system has usurped the place of life and freedom. Only grudgingly has she admitted the validity of scientific investigation. New dogmas, either unknown or else mere pious opinions in former ages, she has clamped down upon her people. She has frequently stifled her powerful moral voice for political advantage. Many there are within her fold who know all this and are sorry about it and hope for better things to come; but, at least in our day, she cannot be the nurturing mother of most of us who wish to be humble children of an universal Church.

And then, in our despair, we have found in our own Communion renewed realization of the ancient Catholic faith and practice; and she has brought us home again to God. In the midst of a confusion almost maddening she has enabled us to find God in His glorious simplicity.

Yes, it is a divine simplicity which characterizes our Catholic religion. What, asks the world, do you call your religion simple? Is this service, for instance, with an altar ablaze with light, with solemnly moving priests in garments of strange hue, amid clouds of odorous incense, with music and strange silences punctuated by ringing bells—is all this simple? Yes, it is simple. Simplicity is not baldness. A great cathedral, ornamented, with unexpected carvings, varied glass, strange gargoyles and all the rest, may yet be simple—if there is a vital, central, architectural idea around which it integrates. A symphonic movement in [255/256] which scores of instruments speak various messages, is made simple by its central theme. So it is with our religion. All its glory and beauty surrounds one central fact; that God comes seeking man in terms of our own humanity. Therein is our joy; and therefore do we honor Him with all this beauty.

No longer do we need to seek God in the vastnesses beyond our ken. We may live as men and yet know Deity. We may not escape from the realm of sense. It is not possible for us to break the bondage of our incarnation. And God, who knows our inability really to live without Him, and who knows, too, that we cannot find Him in His limitless reality, has in His divine compassion come seeking us. The Lord Jesus is God-made-man. He is the revelation of Deity in terms of our life here and now. He is the resistance-box which transforms eternal energy into such voltage as overpowers rather than consumes us. He is the merciful tempering of divine truth into terms perfectly true yet within our comprehension. For us men and for our salvation from despair and failure he has come out of the invisible, to work and love and suffer and die and triumphantly to continue living the resurrected life; to share our lot; to make God to us not a vague idea but a vitalizing, glorious Friend, to teach us the Divine will, to give us the Divine companionship.

Nor is He, we have come to know, one who did all this and then went away again, to become for all practical purposes once more disincarnate, once more apart from us, only a memory, only a story of what once has been. No, we have found Him a living Christ and one who still pities our infirmities and limitations. He who understands us men with divine insight knows the law of sacramental friendship.

There is such a law governing us men here in the body. No friendships do we human beings have except sacramental friendships. You and I have never known anybody except through the medium of the flesh. I never met or knew a disembodied spirit. Nor did you. We know about Abraham Lincoln but we do not know him. We cannot. He is out of the flesh. We are within it. Life abounds with sacraments. A mother's kiss is a sacrament. Through it her soul and her child's soul make known their love. A handgrasp of two comrades is a sacrament. Through it their invisible souls make their friendship known to [256/257] one another. Marriage is a sacrament, because its physical union is the sign and seal of the comradeship of two spirits. Even when spiritualists seek to find touch with the dead they instinctively use physical means—a tipping table, an ouija board, a ghostly wraith. Human friendships are not possible save with the aid of sacramental touches, physical but deeper than the merely physical. God knows this law of sacramental friendship. And so He continues His incarnation. He makes His spiritual Being known to us by the broken bread and poured out wine. As once men touched His flesh and felt through it the life-pulsing blood of Him, so we and all men feel His touch in the Mass. And having felt the burning, glowing Presence of Him there at the altar and adored Him there, and offered His supreme self-sacrifice as the only truly decent thing our race has ever seen, we go out into the world of our temptation, our pain, our labor—no longer alone. He does in truth abide with us. And behold, He makes all things new.

That we are unworthy of Him, alas we know. His work is mighty and yet to do, and we are insufficient laborers. But more than else we would, we who touch Him dare to do His will, and stumblingly, repentantly, but joyfully we follow on where He may lead.

The Incarnation and the Mass. That is the heart of our religion. It is simple. A child may understand. It is simple. Yet not long ago in New Haven one might have seen four of the most learned laymen of our Church, doctors of philosophy, professors in our greatest American Universities, with glad humility carrying in procession a silken canopy beneath which was uplifted the consecrated host. It is simple. The wisest of us find it good and ennobling and challenging, a treasure beside which is no other. Let us rejoice, my brethren, in Him and all that He means to us. If we do rejoice sincerely, other stumbling souls may find Him too. For in Him is light, and the light is the life of men.

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