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.

IF THOU fele the in any of thise ygreved,
Or elles what, tel on in Goddes name;
Thou seest, al day the beggar is releved,
That syt and beggith, crookyd, blynd, and lame;
And whf? for he ne lettith for no shame
His harmes and his povert to bewreye
To folk, as thei goon bi hym bi the weye.

THOMAS OCCLEVE, De regimine principum
(Proem) [written 1411-1412].

"I thirst."--ST. JOHN 19: 28.

IS IT NOT NOBLE to ignore the body? Not many years ago we had been accustomed to think of religion as concerned only with the "spiritual," against which the "material" was supposed to be set in active hostility. Time and again, when I was a young and inexperienced priest, I was completely blocked in my attempts to instruct people about the Blessed Sacrament by this word "spiritual." After I'd laboriously tried to explain the Real Presence to converts, I was up against their rejoinder: "O yes, you mean a 'spiritual' presence"--by which I had an uneasy suspicion that they meant the opposite of real, a kind of subjective, vague, cloudy presence dwelling in a world apart from any cognizable reality save that of individual belief. Below the surface there lurked this antithesis: spiritual vs. material, conveying also the contrast--"good" vs. "not-so-good" or even "bad." A generation ago popular non-Catholicism was in practice dualistic. It was all part of a quasi-Puritan outlook that inheres in the tradition of American Christianity, and is apparent in innumerable places in our customs, viewpoint, assumptions, and deep-lying convictions.

Recently the revolt against "Puritanism" has become vociferous. Since the War especially the revolution in the outlook of the intelligentsia has developed in overweening measure. Due to a variety of causes--the consequences of the War as regards the upset of our presuppositions, conventions, and codes of behavior; the inroads of half-understood New Psychology; the shallow naturalism popular in pseudo-scientific circles, and the discrediting of bibliolatry--we are now confronted with an active, popular, and militant hedonism in some quarters, together with a fine type of Neo-Stoicism in others. Both alike are mechanistic; both claim to base their convictions on a passionate realism, and each has its votaries and propagandists.

The two views of the relation of spirit and matter which now lie before us--(a) that matter is evil, and spirit, good; and (b) that the quality "good" is outworn, irrelevant, and meaningless--so that determinism has supplanted the old notion of free-will, eliding gracefully the whole notion of responsibility as traditionally understood--have dogged the path of the Church from the beginning. The early Church had as its pagan environment both an Oriental dualism and a philosophic Stoicism. If the former represented roughly the practical religion of the many the latter offered itself as a substitute for religion to the few. In this early pagan environment also appeared hedonism of various types--a practical equivalent of the similar movement of the present day. Nothing new has appeared save the allegedly scientific argument for a determinism which was in the early years of our era both pragmatic and philosophical.

Silhouetted, then, against the drabness of the horizon of the world on the first Good Friday the Saviour proclaimed the need of His physical body: "I thirst." Had sundry representatives of the then schools of heathen thought observed Him, their responses would all have evinced the same reaction: such a one could not be either a god, or even a wise man. The Hedonist would have thought Him a fool who had allowed Himself to be maneuvered into a position of such indignity and suffering. The Stoic would have denounced Him as an incompetent master of the art of living. The dualist would have said that in thus giving voice to a physical need, He had convincingly demonstrated His incapacity to cope with the problem of life. As between the opposite extremes--denying the body's needs as evil, or satisfying them as vitally important demands--our Lord chose neither. At all events, the spectacle of a God Man crucified and athirst would fail to commend itself to any pagan.

It is not otherwise today. The Christian recognition of the need of the physical is neither dualistic nor hedonistic, neither based on determinism nor upon an unresolved dualism. We are accused of being at once too ascetic and too lax, too indulgent and too strict. Within Christianity there have been since the beginning the two vocations--one the strictly ascetic, and the other the life in the world. "John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, He has a devil. The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, Behold a man gluttonous, and a wine-bibber, a friend of publicans and sinners" (St. Matthew 11:18-19). Yet the same Son of Man taught hard doctrine, proclaimed the teaching that "there be eunuchs . . . for the kingdom of heaven's sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it" (St. Matthew 19: 12). No other form of Christianity has so exalted the virgin state as has Catholicism, nor has any form of Protestantism elevated marriage into a Sacrament. In fact, the whole of the underlying philosophy of Catholicism is latent in the extension--far-reaching, and ultimate--of the fact of the Incarnation. If God could use human nature as a not inadequate vehicle wherewith to manifest and express Himself to men, that nature itself--both physical and spiritual--is thereby shown to possess capacities hitherto undreamed of. The Incarnation is not only a Revelation of God to man. It is also a Revelation of Manhood to mankind.

Our Lord became Man--not "a man." He took our nature upon Him. Generic humanity with all its weaknesses and strengths, all its limitations and possibilities, was assumed by Infinite Deity. The physical part of us, therefore--our bodies, parts, and passions, the whole deep-lying complex of inherited psychical impulses and desires, the vast mass of inherited propensities latent and sunk below consciousness--all this was assumed by the Incarnate One. Ponder over the implications of that fact. Let it sink deep into your consciousness. Whatever you have as man, having once been united forever to the Godhead is therefore not unfit for fellowship with Him. If Christ took my nature so that He could have fellowship with me, then at my most human I am enabled to have fellowship with Him.

We all have difficult times with the sins, perplexities, and temptations that seem to arise from the bodily side of us. He who was "tempted in all points like us save for sin" is not "incapable of suffering with our infirmities" (Hebrews 4: 15), "inasmuch as He suffered, being tempted, He is able to aid those who are being tempted" (ibid., 2: 18). He understands to the full the terms of our life. He has no illusions, no lack of comprehension. Nay more, St. John was convinced that "God is greater than our heart, and knoweth all things," hence His would be a less stringent verdict than that of the enlightened Christian conscience (I John 3: 20). He who "increased in wisdom and stature" came by the same way of human growth as ours to experience our lot to the full. As by an anti-climax to the fully human life He lived, He cried from the Cross: "I thirst."

In the collect for the beginning of this season of penitence, now coming to its end with our meditation upon His Passion, we prayed that we might "use such abstinence that our flesh being subdued to the Spirit we may ever obey Thy Godly motions." Note the thoughts that Mother Church put into our minds: it is not that the flesh is to be repressed, or destroyed, or ignored, or repudiated--but "subdued." Flesh and spirit, body and soul, form one unity which constitutes human nature. We are neither disembodied spirits, nor are we animals. The body has its rightful claims, and its proper place--it must, however, be "subdued to the Spirit." In the hierarchical organization of the Christian life the body is ennobled as is the soul, by their mutual relationship with the Spirit of God. Our bodies are "temples of the Holy Ghost" (I Corinthians 6: 19), "members of Christ" (ibid., vs. 15), hence cannot be thought to be evil or bad. The desires of the body, like those of the soul, need to be recanalized and realigned so that they serve God's will. Nowhere does the New Testament suggest that the source of sin is the body. As a matter of fact, our Lord places it in the heart of man: "Those things which come forth from the mouth of the heart these defile a man. For from the heart come forth evil conversations, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witnessings, blasphemies" (St. Matthew 15:18-19. St. Luke 5:21-22). The body is the organ and outward means of the soul. The "self" expresses itself through its body, inextricably conjoined with it. Our Lord pays His recognition of the body's needs from the throne of His Cross: "I thirst." He fasted at the beginning of His ministry, and thirsted at its end. Once He said no to the demands of the body; now He says yes to its needs.

This same alternation of method should characterize our own ascetic lives. Without the ascetic temper Christianity cannot be practised. This same principle is being increasingly recognized as necessary in the ethical conduct of rational adult living. Mr. Lippmann asks: "What significance was there for us in the fact that men have so persistently associated the good life with some form of ascetic discipline and renunciation? The answer is that asceticism is an effort to overcome immaturity. . . . The ascetic discipline, if it is successful, is a form of education. . . . Asceticisms and moralities are at best means to an end. . . . They are often confused with virtue, but they are not virtue. For virtue is the quality of mature desire" (Preface to Morals, pp. 191-192). Dr. Jung approaches the same question from a different point of view. "Self-sacrifice" is the word he gives to the process of progressive independence from the bonds of childish immaturity into adulthood. In either case spiritual freedom must be attained. "The quality of mature desire" of Mr. Lippmann is not an inadequate expression for the ethical ideal. Self-discipline as well of soul as of body is imperatively necessary, if we would learn that spiritual maturity of desire by which we will to obey the Spirit's "Godly motions in righteousness and true holiness."

The Christian Year furnishes us with a symbol of the method of alternation: all Fridays--save Christmas or Epiphany--are fast days, and every Sunday is a Feast. There are times to say no to the clamorous desires of the flesh, and times to say yes to the legitimate needs of the body. The ascetic principle means the control of both body and soul to the Glory of God and the good of men. The ascetic principle operates throughout the whole scheme of Christian living, whatever be the form of one's particular vocation. The virgin state, the life of consecrated celibacy, is an affirmation of man's spiritual independence from the overwhelming demands of the body. The Religious life is a typical example of a vocation which surrenders legitimate and good, wholesome, and normal ways of living, for the higher dependence upon God alone. The note which most distinguishes the Religious whom most of us know best is their joy. Again, Holy Matrimony is itself a consecration and dedication of the lives of two people together, in ascetic self-discipline, towards the fulfilment of a vocation from God. Both types of social life are essential to the life of Christ's Mystical Body. There is neither Manichaeism in the former, nor hedonism in the latter. Body and soul together work for good to those who love God, whether in the Religious life or outside it.

"I thirst." In the person of the Crucified Saviour we see all those who have need. He is their representative in His Passion. All our needs--the physical needs of home, shelter, clothing, food, and drink--are gathered up in His, who "had nowhere to lay His head," who was born in a stable "because there was no room for Him in the inn," and now stands in need of a cup of cold water. "Inasmuch," He tells us, "as ye have done it unto one of the least of , these My brethren, ye have done it unto Me" (St. Matthew 25: 40). Most of us would like to fancy that had we been on Calvary that dark first Good Friday, we would have had the courage to brave the snarls of the mob and their ferocity to give His parched lips a drink. But--today all about us are men and women and children in need. There are hungry and thirsty people in this city. There are necessitous cases beyond number in this land of ours. Let us not delude ourselves by the appalling magnitude of human misery. Do not be bluffed by numbers and size: big does not mean great, in this or any other respect. What is nearest at hand to you of human misery is for you the thirsty Christ on His Cross. Do not be stunned by the inadequacy of what you can do to the whole need. That stroke of paralysis which our "helplessness" in the face of widespread need imposes is but a specious and false thing. Declare your freedom from it. Refuse to be reduced to inaction. Take the case nearest to hand, concentrate on the concrete. After all, the whole Gospel is so absurdly concrete and personal! A naked man dying on a Cross was God in His earthly Passion. Any hungry, thirsty, naked person is but a reproduction of Calvary today. Do not let yourself be led astray by the viciousness of the general. God comes to men through Man. You received your faith from a person--or persons. Evince it then, as a person to a person, as one man to another in need.

"I thirst." There often appeared in monastic refectories the one Latin word Sitio over the table where the Religious partook of food and drink. We have enough--yes, and to spare. He once had need for drink and often for food. It is high time that the modern Catholic make his fasts more real and genuine. Read over the directions in the Prayer Book. See what our fasting is for. In primitive Christianity the believers fasted and saved the amount which they would have expended for food and drink, to give it to the poor and needy. Two aims are held before us in our fasting: as a means for a better development of our spiritual lives, and as a means of saving money to be given to the needy. A proper fast is but an extension of our hospitality to the needy. When the agape or love feast of the early Church had to be abrogated, the principle of self-denial and self-sacrifice as a means was carefully retained. If we do not invite a poor man regularly to our table (as did the early Christians who had enough for themselves and somewhat more for a needy man), we can restore our fasting to its old purpose. That purpose was not primarily--or even secondarily--selfish. Even fasting had a social and corporate reference. It is to be deplored that we today have lost sight of this social end in the disciplinary means which is fasting. There's not much point--though there may be some--in a Friday lobster dinner, which costs more than a modest meal of flesh meat. Dollars and cents can be made sacramental. A true day of abstinence or a genuine fast will have in view the needs of Christ's hungry and thirsty brethren, not chiefly our own spiritual self-culture.

"I thirst." By a further extension of this same Word, Mother Church calls us finally to see in our Lord's expressed need, the yearning of His soul, as well as His Sacred Body, for its necessary satisfaction. He thirsts not only for drink, but for the loving response of loyal affection, allegiance, and trust, for human compassion, sympathy, and fellowship. The Cross is, after all, a lonely place. There were plenty of people about, but few who owned Him. His lonely soul had touched one heart--a thief's--and it knew its place in the lives and souls of our Lady, the Beloved Disciple, and the Magdalene. But that is never enough for the Sacred Heart. All mankind must come home to Him: "And I, if I be lifted up ... will draw all men unto Me" (St. John 12: 32). St. Paul rebukes the Galatians with the words: "O foolish Galatians, who hath bewitched you . . . before whose eyes Jesus Christ was placarded up in His Crucifixion?" (Galatians 3:1). The final appeal of God is the plea of His need. He calls us to Him because He needs our love. His heart will never be satisfied until men shall give Him love. God's tactics are not ours. Which of us would so sorely have wounded his self-respect as thus to plead with his fellows? Which of us would have had the magnificent humility to proclaim that need? But God has no pride. There is no "self-respect" in the Almighty. God became a lonesome, naked man condemned to death with felons, to touch our hearts and pull us out of our cold selves to Him in His extremity.

He thirsts today in His brethren whose needs are more than the physical necessities of food, shelter, clothing, and money. Perhaps the grimmest tragedy in this populous world is the agony of lonesomeness. Self-contained people, people with queer inhibitions, the shy, diffident, and shrinking, the reticent and withdrawing kind--and all their opposites: the expansive, over-assertive, and boisterous, the dominating and "loud" folk, the irritatingly "cocky" persons, the disagreeably noisy and blustering sort--all these in their various ways are ill at ease because they are not yet at rest in the understanding comprehension of some kindly heart. Try to pick the lock of their hearts. Do not be put off, discouraged, or disgusted, or shocked, or surprised. Continue your attempts. Begin near at home. The world is peopled with lonesome souls--with thwarted, stultified, bewildered, and frustrated lives. They are warped and twisted, often by the same process as used to be in vogue in aristocratic China, where in infancy the baby girl's foot was bound down with a view to making the piteous monstrosity which fashionable custom thought elegant. Just so, many souls have been distorted and cramped and given a mold for the life to come; self-accusing, overcome with chagrin and remorse, the prey to a sense of guilt, to apprehensions and fears--and, the pity of it, they cannot change themselves. Here is a place for a real atoning Catholic ministry. It can be evinced by the manners and outward behavior of the believer. To take a homely example from every-day experience: have you never been "set up for the day" by the infectious cheeriness, the affectionate good nature of a kindly greeting, a few words of amiable blackguarding, a preposterous remark? If dismality and gloominess are as catching as measles, why not make gaiety, good humor, and affectionate interest a bit more of an epidemic? They are quite contagious!

Again and again, if we can look out of ourselves enough to become aware, a lonely face sends forth its appeal from the ranks of men about us. That constitutes a call to us, a call to give forth of our best: encouragement, understanding, sympathy, kindliness--the humanity of our dear Lord as the vehicle of His perfect selfhood, coming to heal, to feed, and give drink to the thirsty life. And in the lonely soul there is our dear Lord Himself. You give the cup of cold water--perhaps more. You've helped Him in His Passion. That is enough. It humbles you, and causes a warmth of joy to well up within you, compared to which no further reward seems relevant.

For us all, following the divine example, there is also the duty of making known our own needs. There are many who would help had they any suspicion that we had real need. As in the fragment of Occleve, the beggar is relieved:

". . . . for he no lettith for no shame
His harmes and his povert to bewreye
To folke, as thei goon bi hym bi the weye."

Our needs are to be expressed, not repressed. We owe that to the Body of which we are members, since we serve it ill who allow ourselves to be weakened through a pride which binds our lips. No thirst can be slaked till he who feels it lets it be known. Let us express our needs as freely and as frankly as He did who spake from the Cross: "I thirst." We can have no better teacher, who calls us to help and assists us to make known our own need of help.

"I thirst." The body is holy, and thrice holy: God made it, God the Son took it, and God the Holy Spirit sanctifies it. Yet its needs are never paramount, but they are subordinate, as the soul's must become, to the will of God. The holiness of the material world is shown by the Church's consecration of physical things, as a deduction from the Incarnation. Our natures as a whole are the means both of the Saving Passion and also of the Resurrection. They are more: through His Body our Lord suffered for all men once, as through His Heart now travels ceaselessly all the agonies of the needs of humanity. He calls us to assuage His thirst in doing the job nearest at hand of succoring the bodily needs of men. We slake the thirst of the dying Redeemer when we see and relieve the wants of men. "I thirst" is also the longing cry of humanity in its lonesomeness--apart from God and men. Here again, the sympathy of the faithful going out to Jesus in His Passion must be given to the sons of men who, in bitter want of companionship and understanding, with mute souls speak only from the Son of Man upon His Cross the words He uttered: "I thirst."

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