Project Canterbury

Selfhood and Sacrifice
The Seven Problems of the Atoning Life

Addresses on the Words from the Cross

By the Reverend Frank Gavin

Milwaukee: Morehouse, 1932.

BUT I need, now as then,
Thee, God, who mouldest men;
And since, not even while the whirl was worst,
Did I--to the wheel of life
With shapes and colors rife,
Bound dizzily,--mistake my end, to slake Thy thirst;
So, take and use Thy work!
Amend what flaws may lurk,
What strain o' the stuff. What warpings past the aim!
My times be in Thy hand!
Perfect the cup as planned!
Let age approve of youth, and death complete the same!

ROBERT BROWNING, Rabbi ben Ezra.


"My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?"
--ST. MARK 15: 34.

IF WHEN WE CALL UPON GOD in our darkest hour of need, and He answers us not at all, does the experience not show conclusively either (a) that there is no God, (b) or if there is, He cannot help us, or (c) if He can, that He does not care enough to help us? All of us experience something like a "dark night of the soul." All the saints have had thus to suffer. As we have seen, those nearest to Jesus are not exempt from but rather are compelled to participate in this awful mystery of spiritual desolation. In respect of no other Word from the Cross do we plunge into so great a mystery as the Fourth brings before us. Dereliction from God: how is it possible? Men's support, affection, faith, interest, care, and help may fall away, but does God's? When the final anchor of life is pulled up, by which we are moored to eternity and the unchanging, is not life itself torn apart from all that gives it sense, rationality, and meaning?

There's no point in dodging the issue. When one hears a much perplexed hitherto devout person ask, "Why does God let me down?" what answer can be given that will be both true and satisfactory? The fact must first of all be admitted. There comes to so many of us--as we grow in the spiritual life by virtue of a greater detachment from all that is not God, to a firm adhesion to His will in every respect--an agonizing time of desolation. The bottom drops out of the simplified fabric of our spiritual stability. We are left desolate by the absence and silence of Him for whose sake we have left all to obey Him. Is life to issue in the vast senselessness of dark desolation? Does its path, tortuous and difficult, have as its term nothing but a blank wall? Is the soul's journey into a cul de sac? A modern writer interprets part of the mind of St. Augustine in the words:

"Sunshine let it be or frost,
Storm or calm, as Thou shall choose;
Though Thine every gift were lost
Thee Thyself we could not lose."
[Mary Elizabeth Coleridge, After St. Augustine.]

Is this really true? Can we not lose God?

The experience is no less a fact to us than it was to our Lord. He has passed by the same road. As Bishop Ken describes it:

"... God's co-equal undergoes
The quintessence of sinners' woes."

The experience of utter desolation is then a phenomenon of advanced sanctity (though a spurious sort of the same is often adduced by others which we shall consider later). To remember these true facts--that our Lord endured to the full what those of our race experience who have progressed far in the path of penetration into His Passion--will give us our orientation. What comes to the best cannot then be a peculiar sign of God's displeasure or lack of care for me. It is the duty of spiritual candor frankly to acknowledge the fact, to face it squarely, and to use it properly.

Spiritual desolation is one of the supreme tests of our soul's life. If we rest in things we fail of attaining God. If we seek Him for the rest He affords we have yet further to go. There is an exquisite bit of verse on this stage of the spiritual pilgrimage by George Herbert, called The Pulley, of which I quote two stanzas (Rest alone had God not given men):

"'For if I should,' said He,
'Bestow this jewel also on My creature,
He would adore My gifts instead of Me,
And rest in Nature, not the God of Nature:
So both should losers be.

"'Yet let him keep the rest,
But keep them with repining restlessness;
Let him be rich and wearie, that at least,
If goodnesse leade him not, yet wearinesse
May tosse him to My breast.'"

To seek God for what we get out of Him is not the purest motive. It may suffice to lead our feeble steps in His direction, but as our strength grows and our desire, so must our motive be purged of all dross. In the first chapter of her book, Man and the Supernatural, Evelyn Underhill makes much of the need today for us all to consider the feeble motive of much of our piety. All too largely is our religion centered on ourselves--our interests, our needs, and our satisfactions. Until we shall with cruel kindness have shifted the whole point of its interests we shall have failed to touch the Reality which is God. God leads us to seek Him condescending to accept whatever motive we may bring to the task. His cooperation is certain. But we must grow up into that spiritual adulthood by which in the splendid humility and magnificent self-abnegation we can cry with Job, I "Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him."

Can we penetrate still more deeply into the significance of this mysterious Fourth Word? Was our dear Lord aware of the utter desolation which His words imply, or was His self-consciousness of such a sort that while part of Him cried out in agony, the true self of Him was still in untroubled poise and calm? There is nothing in the synoptic record of Him to suggest that His consciousness was other than our own in this respect. The experience He had was precisely like ours, only more poignant, as He was sinless. The withdrawal of God's presence from His awareness was a desolation incomparably more appalling and awful to Him whose every act and thought had deserved it. Sin clouds our vision of God, and when we fail to see Him we can often intelligibly perceive why. But to Him, the Sinless One, no such recourse was open. Was His anguish but the desolation of one in whom the

"Desperate tide of the whole great world's anguish
Forced through the channels of a single heart"?

This it was at least. But yet more: the attainment of spiritual maturity is now for the first time accomplished in human history. Manhood can bear the strain of desolation and emerge unswerving in obedient love for the Father's Will. This great triumph is evinced in the cry of agony and desolation. Man is able to follow, obey, and sustain all burdens that God may allow to be laid upon his nature. Obedience has finally claimed the victory, where disobedience had always triumphed. Man has grown up. He can serve God and love Him even without the support of His felt Presence. The victory of Calvary is the cry of anguish, "My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?"

His cry from the Cross calls us to review our prayer life in the light of His Passion. For many of us praying means petition. We think of prayer in terms of requests to Him for help of all sorts. The greater our need the less disinclined we are thus to pray. Our Lord does not discourage us in bringing our needs to the Father, though we often overlook the conditions His words lay down. As in this part of living so in others, our ultimate and actual beliefs determine our action and condition its results. After years of exposure to the Gospel--read, preached, and enacted on the altar--we discover sometimes with horror and shame, in the revelation afforded by a sudden temptation, that we have not really assimilated what we have heard with our ears and professed with our lips. The God we actually believe in, whose dealings with us we wish to control to our own interest, is quite other than He whom we would like to think that we believe in. For a good many Christians, as a matter of fact, God is a kind of Public Service Bureau of the universe, to which one complains if one is not getting what he wants, if things do not go right, or if he suffers from slights, indignities, or other mischances. Some people pray in precisely this mood. Dr. Johnson had the spiritual insight to discern the false note in many Christians' prayers. Whenever, for example, we seek to force God's hand and try to coerce Him, by trapping Him or getting Him into a corner, we pray falsely. The devout Tory gentleman in his Vanity of Human Wishes wrote:

"Still raise for good the supplicating voice,
But leave to Heaven the measure and the choice.
Safe in His power whose eyes discern afar
The secret ambush of a specious prayer."

Often from our own better faith we fall into the lower level of religion from which we do seek to lay in ambush for God. The non-fulfilment of such praying often leads to a parody of our Lord's cry from the Cross, and the posing of such questions as we first mentioned: Does God care? If He does, then He apparently cannot do anything about it, can He?

It is as hard to retain the sense of the reality of spiritual truths as to keep our eyes open wide to all the other realities of life. In our lower moments we retreat from reality, to foster our own small soul's own concerns. Having thus retired into ourselves we cannot be content until we go back to the childish conceit and imagine the world all centered about ourselves. God, of course, may be there--as an over-kind and over-indulgent Parent, looking after us, busily engaged (by His special providence for us) in arranging circumstance and people to suit our convenience, overruling the order of events in order to afford us satisfaction, and cherishing us with a fostering care which disposes of the need of any efforts on our part. These retirements in the face of obstacles, challenges, or repudiations of our activities or desires are regressions which it is vitally necessary for us to train ourselves to forego. Whenever we thus indulge our weaker selves we inevitably discredit the God we serve and deny His world. Then are we prone to think of both God and His world solely in terms of what they do for or against us: our subjective judgments cloud our vision, and truth becomes measured by the proportion of pleasure it affords. The priest sometimes hears a perplexed Christian, lost in the woods of childhood, practically tell God that if He doesn't do this or that, "I won't believe any longer in You." Self-examination will yield for us all a sufficient crop of illustrations of such resorts of weakness, as to give us a sense of that humility on which alone true faith can be grown.

When God's Otherness, His sheer "There-ness," His absolute existence and character are realized, ground into the spiritual perceptions, constantly brought again and again to the active attention of the soul, we shall not be in so grave danger of acting as if we thought ourselves the center of the universe. Do you remember Mr. Podsnap, who with a gesture dismissed all that which conflicted with his own notions, as non-existent? Our prayer life should be concentrated on worship, the recognition and full, free re-affirmation of God's own holiness, beauty, splendor, and compassion. He who worships well will not easily confound his desires with fact. When once God is the central fact in the horizon of life, proportion and balance become natural and inevitable. We shall not pray endeavoring to conform His will to ours, but seek through prayer to unite our will with His. This so simple and obvious step in spiritual discovery may not be thoroughly mastered for years of effort in the devotional life. Some crisis, some calamity, some bewildering, devastating catastrophe may serve to destroy more of our own spiritual illusions than any amount of reasoning or debate. Meanwhile, prepare for the crisis before it arises. Make God the most effective and real thing in life. Orientate all your devotional practices about Him. Conduct the day's work in the light of the first four words of the English Bible: In the beginning God. Deliberately detach an increasing proportion of your prayer motive from any consideration of self. Be encouraged by the rebuffs of dryness, apparent unresponsiveness on God's part. Seek no longer for consolations and fervors. Come to prayer to yield, offer, give, rather than to seek, require, request, or demand.

This is not to say that petition should not form an essential part of the rule of prayer. It certainly must have its place--but judging by such models of Christian prayer as our Lord gives us, or even by that of the penitent thief, the proportion should not be high. Our re-orientation of petition in a prayer rule, which is primarily of praise, worship, adoration, and thanksgiving, should largely deprive it of that dangerous self-interest which is so great an obstacle to spiritual growth. Even in petition there should be the corporate sense, alert, alive, and articulate. We pray "Our Father . . . give us ... lead us not ..." etc. For what I most need to ask for myself there are probably others of the same needs, whom I must keep in mind and prayer when I ask.

The fundamental faith of Christianity is thus a quest, and a dangerous quest. Faith challenges us at every step of our spiritual progress. We never grow up to its full demands. We never can rest on our oars as if conquest had been achieved. From the tiniest child just being taught the Our Father and Hail Mary to the aged saint nearing the end of his earthly pilgrimage, the characteristic quality common to both by which fellowship with God is achieved is faith.

Let me suggest, then, five characteristics of faith, the organ of our prayer life, the means whereby we both hope and love. It is, first of all, free. No one can compel me to believe, or coerce credence. It is a declaration and an affirmation of my own freedom to assert "I believe." It takes the same individual act of independence to believe as to embody any other quite intimately personal conviction. No matter on what authority I may act (and I should be an arrant fool to act without authority!) it is still I who act, freely and uncompelled, in affirming my faith. This act of freedom is, secondly, a charter of adventure, since faith is itself adventurious. We hear today ad nauseam of the "free souls" who are unbelievers or heretics, of the courage of unorthodoxy, of the high bravery of those who defy the Orthodox faith. Both theoretically and pragmatically I denounce this popular superstition as bosh. It takes more courage to be a Catholic, to fight for faith today than ever it has done since the earliest days of Christianity. It isn't fashionable to have firm convictions or to hold convictions firmly. No prestige or glamor invests the believer in these modern days! Nay, he who has the temerity to say credo must defy a second popular superstition--namely, that belief is a safe and sane thing, domesticated, subdued, and shy. It isn't. It is most emphatically not. It opens up the most exciting 'adventure in life, compared to which the explorer, the inventor, and the experimenter are on the prosaic level. There is nothing prosaic about the challenges of the Catholic faith: God--a Baby in Bethlehem and a Man crucified on Calvary! The pride of our origin as sons of God created in His image, and the ghastly horror of sin that befouls God's likeness. Life to be lived on earth and in heaven simultaneously; men to hold close to reality and never lose their ideals, at one and the same time! Believing is the adventure.

Then the free adventure which is faith is highly individual. We all say together "I believe"--and to each of us the same profession means something different! The creeds themselves, by which we proclaim our faith, are the result of God's giving to men and man's appreciation of His Revelation. Every believer has had his share in making the creed, though no one believer made it. God gave it--yet what we receive is other than what He gave, just as what we transmit is other than what we have received. The play of personality, the romance of the communication of experience, and the exciting power of stimulation are all enshrined in the creed. We are a part of what we believe, and what we believe is a part of us. The object of that faith is God in whom we trust. That is of the essence of the act of faith--the self-commitment which is trust, the self-surrender to what is other and greater than self. It is the outstanding illustration of the truth that self-realization is not possible within the limit of the self, and that "he who seeketh his life shall lose it, and he who loseth his life for My sake shall find it." Perhaps this aspect of faith is the hardest for us: to embark on a quest in which it is demanded that we trust in order to know (while it is an ordinary principle in our everyday life), becomes distinctly vast in its import when we must trust so much to Him who is all!

Finally, there is risk and danger and hazard throughout the whole personal relationship which is faith. (Of course, "faith" means belief in and about a Person, or Persons--God. It is not mere assent to theorems of theological geometry.) The element of hazard we often forget: we fail to remember that when we declare our faith we may be let in for more than we bargained for. The hazard is a constant element: faith pulls us out of ourselves; it enforces its own discipline upon our life; it doesn't ask us whether we like it or not; it has no eye to our approval; it demands exigently; it commands imperiously; it thwarts and violates our immature and petty foibles; it looks only to the Truth, regardless of consequences.

Remember, then, this simple acrostic, and ponder upon its meaning: Faith is free, becomes adventure, comes from the individual, shows itself as trust, and promises to be hazardous. Free, adventurous, individual, trusting, and--hazardous. Hazardous? Yes, to the last end it is hazardous. On the Cross hung the Son of Man whose whole life had been given not to do His own but the Father's will. As that life, pilloried and placarded for the world to revile, came to its ghastly close there came the cry: Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? Faith sustained to the end. Dereliction could not dismay Him whose life was faith enacted.

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