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.

I SAW the Son of God go by
Crowned with the crown of Thorn.
"Was it not finished, Lord?"
I said, "And all the anguish borne?"

He turned on me His awful eyes:
"Hast thou not understood?
Lo! Every soul is Calvary,
And every sin a Rood."


"Father, into Thy hands I commend My spirit."
--ST. LUKE 23: 46.

"WHAT hast thou," asks St. Paul of the Corinthians, "which thou didst not receive? And if thou didst receive, why dost thou vaunt thyself as if thou hadst not received?" (I Corinthians 6:7). We all begin life as recipients: from parents, grandparents, ancestors come our bodies with all their characteristics and distinct family traits; from them, too, are a number of inherited mental and emotional reactions, which in some fashion seem to be transmitted. From God comes the soul. From our environment, our warmth, clothing, shelter, food, drink, and care. We begin life in debt. All that we started off with--all that we were and had and experienced--was given to us. Where then, since all was given to me, do I come in? Where, when, and how does the self arise? The newborn baby is hardly a "self" in any but a legal sense, though it may become a self. As life goes on the infant begins to sort out experiences as pleasant and unpleasant. It is an easy assumption for him to perceive the universe as all of a piece--and he is the piece. That will serve him until he discovers, by having to put up with the thwarting of his wishes, that the "vast, buzzing, booming confusion" about him is really not "him" at all, but another than he. Having got that far he explores the ways of maintaining the same safe, secure, certain, and effortless satisfaction of his wants that he started out with. In a modest way he begins to size up his environment to the end of his own comfort and satisfaction. In a very limited degree he will exert himself to come to terms with it, not because he is at all interested in it in itself, but because he must take account of it for his own comfort's sake. Rebuffs, if by any chance he experiences them, still more sharply emphasize the edge of demarcation sundering him and the world. He can when frustrated put up with the frustration, or he can pursue a crab-like method of retiring rapidly--by regression to the old state of helplessness and dependence. At least that way security lies. If he is not satisfied he speedily discovers effective methods of attracting attention and securing care of his needs. Provided that his environment makes no demands on him, and that rebuffs and frustrations be not too generously showered on him, there's no particular reason why he shouldn't continue the same tactics indefinitely. Some supposedly grown-up people still do!

But--where in the cycle of child growth does the "self" begin to emerge? When does the infant begin to be a person? We're fairly clear now about one thing: that selfhood is not an endowment, and not a gift. None of us springs into selfhood at birth. We're really not given a self at all. What we are given is the raw materials out of which we are to make a self. Selfhood is not acquired but achieved. Let us think about that for a few moments: persons become persons, they don't start off by being persons. There are people whom we can think of whose "personality" is chiefly negative, and there are others who are called "strong personalities." Why the distinction? What is the criterion? Personality in this positive sense does not depend upon beauty of face or figure, or upon assertiveness and self-esteem. Some of the most genuine solid and pronounced personalities we know are extremely quiet, self-effacing individuals. It does not necessarily depend upon achievement. Some people manage to do a good deal--usually, in this case, a good many different things, and still can remain blanks to all outward intent. If we had known all the story of the development of a true "personality" we could trace out the origin of that selfhood which is now so manifest. The endowment at birth, of heredity and environment, was not unlike that of millions of others. How was selfhood achieved, since it was not acquired? By what method were the raw materials of selfhood worked up into a person?

There is a very small sentence imbedded in our Lord's eschatological discourse as worked over by St. Luke (21: 19) which throws great light on this question. The parallel verses in St. Matthew (24:13; also 10:22) and St. Mark 13: 13 give a quite different reading ("he who endureth unto the end, he shall be saved"). The words given in St. Luke are well known to us in mistranslation as "In your patience possess ye your souls." That isn't at all what they mean. The words are not easy to turn into good English, but as this clue is so important, we shall attempt it in the words: "By your persevering endurance shall ye come into possession of yourselves." "Patience" has the advantage and disadvantage of brevity, but it suggests only part of the idea enshrined in hypomone: it means "putting up with things," and suggests an even more positive conception--"putting things through." Selfhood, according to St. Luke's record of our Lord's maxim, is an achievement made possible through "sticking it out." It is curious that in the gospel reputed to be of him whom our Lord told to "tarry till He came," this word is never used, though it does occur in Revelation, is frequent in St. Paul, and appears in other books as well. It is a very common word in the New Testament. St. Paul makes much of the virtue of persevering patience. It seems to have been one of the chief virtues aimed at in the devotional régime of primitive Christianity. "Sticking it out," hanging on, literally--for dear life, when every instinct rebels and most of you is crying out in repudiation, this takes the kind of consistent courage of which martyrs are made. It is the hardiness of the temper which refuses to admit that it is beaten, the persistent stick-to-it-iveness of the staunchly loyal devotion which has often, against all expectation, wrung victory from defeat. It makes heroes, and--builds a character. It creates the self.

To see the whole question from another angle; when we turn our attention in on ourselves we can, if we wish, let slip the leash of conscious direction of our thoughts--and they pour out in a stream of extraordinary richness. There's no coherence to the tumbling chaos of ideas as they jostle each other and dart about. Are we--the real selves who are observing this rapidly-moving stream--that stream itself? There is no consecutiveness there, and less rhyme or reason to the pointless medley of things which rush by. What is it which makes of this stream of consciousness something consistent? It is as if there were a quart of beads before you on the table. Stringing them will give some consecutiveness to them: after all, a necklace is but a string of beads. Where does the self come in? Is there anything fixed enough to be constant, consistent enough to give coherence to the mind's ceaseless activity? If so, what has given it that very quality of constancy and consistency?

Character does not grow like a turnip. It can only be acquired by surmounting obstacles and confronting difficulties. The beauty of the charm of childhood is absence of disillusionment, but the richness of mature character is the ripeness of hard experience. Character is made by many a blow sustained, and many a conflict won. Its self-consistency is obtained solely by that dedication to an ideal, through thick and thin, in comfort and adversity, in calm and storm--unswervingly, undauntedly, and unchangingly. It is a hard school, this school of life. Our Lord we are told was "made perfect through suffering" since it was fitting that such an one, through whom and for whose sake are all things, should lead many sons to glory (Hebrews 2: 10). He is not only our preceptor but our example too. He did what He said, and achieved by the very means He inculcates what He desires us to emulate.

As we noticed, when sketching out the beginnings of the child's life experience, self-consciousness apparently first begins to arise when the infant meets with rebuffs or obstacles. Two courses lie open to us grown-up children in the face of similar rebuffs of circumstance, opportunity, or people. We can decline to play the game--for example, the oft-heard reactions: "It is intolerable! I won't put up with it! I cannot stand it! It is more than flesh and blood can bear!" and the like. The New Psychology tells us that this is just the cause of many of our most difficult psychical twists, for when we say "it is intolerable" we Podsnap the objectionable and unpleasant thing out of the conscious--but, it is only kicked downstairs into the cellar of the unconscious. That is just about as sensible a procedure as to put a burning wastepaper basket into a closet and shut the door on it. We are assured that most of our psychical ills come from just this way of handling--or declining to handle--the unpleasant and painful. There is another way to deal with the rebuffs of the environment and the painful experiences which we meet: Undeterredly, frankly, and straightly to look facts in the eye, recognize them for what they are, and to decline to surrender. It is sometimes called accepting the situation. It is also described as accepting reality. We do not have to approve, or disapprove: the fact remains--that the fact remains. That is all. We also remain--and we are determined to put up with things as they are, seeing them in the cold light of present reality, but we shan't surrender our hope and energy to make them different. By your enduring perseverance shall you achieve selfhood. We may shrink from them in their grim, stark, somber ghastliness--but we shall steel ourselves and, with the courage of faith and humble perseverance, carry on to the end.

That is just what Jesus did. He shrank from what He knew was coming. It was like Him not to tolerate any illusions--about Judas, about the horror to come on Friday. He saw it all with the same detached certainty of truthful vision--and He quivered with the understanding of what it would all be like. "Father, take away this cup from Me, but--not what I will but what Thou wiliest" (St. Mark 14: 36). Gethsemane saw the victory before the Crucifixion. Like the other, His first temptations, the crisis was met before it arrived. The result was decided before the issue was joined. "How am I straitened till it be accomplished": the program lay clear before His eyes, but while emotions and keen perceptions felt the agony even before it came, the self--in complete organic harmony--had but one great motif: to do the Father's will. Submission to and wholehearted acceptance of that will was the very essence of the character of the Incarnate One. All things were subordinated to it. The self was perfect for that its complete submission to and cooperation with God was perfect. Cui servire regnare est: "whose service is perfect freedom." Jesus was the only perfectly free self who ever walked among men. His was the only self which was completely mature and adult, for human stature at its noblest is capable of union with God.

We are, after all, stewards of life, not its possessors. "What hast thou that thou hast not received?" Before we have achieved ourselves they belonged to God. Before they become "ours" they were His. It is only in the act of restoration to Him that we realize the fullness of our selfhood. So, as the great climax of His words from the Cross, the Lord said: "Father, into Thy hands I commend My spirit." Achievement is now accomplished. Humanity reached its goal, for Man gives himself to God in the Son of Man. The Atonement is a fact, and God and man are reconciled.

The noblest thing in life is Sacrifice. As we thought in another connection, Jung uses this word to denote the progressive acts of independence by which the resolute soul emancipates itself step by step into independence. Sacrifice involves the repudiation of the lower and the affirmation of the higher. It consists of a resolute no in one direction, and an equally resolute yes in the other. Fr. Bull defines sacrifice as "the rising of life to its highest level," and as God is that level, the term of sacrifice, as the Christian understands it, is union with God. The ultimate emancipation of the self is in complete self-oblation to God. There is at once utter self-realization and utter self-surrender. We are not free to accomplish that fuller realization of self until we can give it up whole and entire. Our spiritual development conducted on St. John Baptist's principle--"He must increase; I must decrease" (St. John 3:30)--is all ordered to this end. How may we more effectively achieve it?

The Christian vocation is the life of Atonement. Incumbent upon all believers is His atoning Priesthood: "As living stones be ye built up as a spiritual house into a holy temple, to offer up spiritual sacrifices well-pleasing to God through Jesus Christ. ... Ye are a chosen race, a royal priesthood" (I Peter 2:5, 9). "To Him who loveth us and redeemed us from our sins by His blood--and made us a Kingdom, priests unto God and His Father" (Apocalypse 1:6). His atoning work is still actively operated in us His members. That Atonement is in no respect the conciliation of an angry God, or the hoodwinking of the Devil. Our Lord paid no ransom to the Evil One to buy off sinners, nor did an all-righteous and loving God accept the suffering of Sinless Humanity and the death of the God-man to let off guilty sinners scot free. His Atonement once wrought for us must be achieved in and by us. The Atonement is an objective, not only a subjective fact. "God was in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself, not reckoning unto them their trespasses, and placing in us the word of reconciliation" (II Corinthians 5: 19). Were the Atonement solely an appeal to our feelings--to stir our imaginations with a new appreciation of the awfulness of sin and of the depth of God's love, and to stimulate our wills by touching our emotions--what would happen to those indisposed by temperament and predisposition of feelings to be so stirred? The Atonement was and is objective. One effective way to think of it is as the absorption and non-communication of evil.

The evil of evil rests not in the single instant but in its apparently infinite ramifications--to poison and embitter the heart, to create and propagate disillusionment, cynicism, and distrust, and to awaken self-seeking hostility. The Saviour atoned by absorbing into Himself all bitterness, hatred, malice; and by refusing to be embittered, to hate in return, or to descend to the level of self-interest, he was enabled to be a non-conductor of these very evil dispositions. No experience of human evil could swerve Him or deter Him or change Him: no resentment or impulse toward retaliation found lodgment in His heart. This is the atoning spirit. Here is the technique taught, evinced in practice, and empoweringly conveyed to us by Him "who for our sakes and for our salvation came down from heaven."

When we have come to possess that liberty from self wherewith Christ hath made us free, the new independence secured is for a fulness of life unthinkable under any other conditions. The time will come when by constantly beholding the true and the good, we become like what we contemplate: "we know that when He shall appear we shall be like unto Him, for we shall see Him as He is" (I John 3:2). Toward the end of his epistle to the Philippians, St. Paul exhorts them in the words: "Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are seemly, righteous, pure, whatsoever things make for affection and good report, if there be anything that is virtuous and praiseworthy--think on these things" (4.: 8). His life transplanted into us conveys both an empowering humanity in its perfection--eliciting new growth, stimulating and quickening new vitalities--and "enlightens our eyes" by developing and creating new areas of awareness and new sensitivenesses. All that is of the earth earthy is gradually detached from its hold upon us: fears vanish, for His "perfect love casteth out fear" (I John 5: 18), inhibitions and paralyses are progressively broken, and the full, free self, rejoicing in its powers of complete independence, seeks to wing its flight to the heart of God.

Its work is, as was our Lord's, the work of Atonement. How may we practically set our present selves to that work? (i) Be a non-conductor of evil. In the divine economy Christians are set in society as the shock-absorbers, who take up within themselves the social poisons of evil and sin. Take unto yourself the evil that impinges upon you. Your soul is an alchemist's forge in which all that comes to its spacious spread of white heat can be transmuted. Let no evil that comes to you find lodgment in the inmost self: no embitter-ment, disillusion, disappointment, or cynicism must there have room. See that nothing evil passes out through you to the world outside. Absorb, quench, and blot out the evil. All evil stops short in you, powerless to go farther. You insulate the currents of bad motives, retaliations, pettinesses, and unworthinesses. The evil that evil generates lives, thrives, and flourishes only on that which nourishes it. No plant--not even a weed--can grow on rock. When evil can find no foothold, when the self has become impervious to the attack which might stimulate resentment and bitterness, self-pity, and self-love, then the atoning work is going on in your life. (2) Achieve a self that in union with our Lord's Humanity seeks the one thing He sought--the fulfilment of God's will. He furnishes us the example, and supplies the power. He will live in us if we allow Him to: "I am crucified with Christ. I live--yet not I, but Christ livcth in me. The life I now live in the flesh, I live by His faith who is the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me" (Galatians 2:20). Think over how often the Gospel couples love . . . give: for example, "God so laved the world, that He gave His only-begotten Son" (St. John 3: 16). Love never means "get," but always "give." The re-shipping of the center of gravity of the self is its only way out to full self-achievement and complete satisfaction. Sacrifice is the law even of our natural mental growth. Beyond the adulthood and the maturity urged by our modern writers of spiritual and moral insight is the full freedom of Christian perfection to which God calls every man. (3) The Atoning work of Christ goes on in you because you are a member of His Mystical Body. The Catholic religion teaches us that there are three foci in Christianity: God, men, and the individual. You have come to Christ through the Fellowship and its life; you live in Christ because you are in that Fellowship. You long for Christ, since that is your vocation as a member of that Fellowship. You share in the Atoning Work because that is the function of the Fellowship. "I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the tender mercies of God to offer your bodies a sacrifice--living, holy, well-pleasing to God, which is your rational worship. Be not conformed to this world, but rather be transmuted by the making-new of the mind, that you may evince what is God's will, that it is good, well-pleasing and perfect. . . . For just as there are many members in one body but all members have not the same functions, so we being many constitute one Body in Christ, and (therefore) are members one of another" (Romans 12: I, 2, 4, 5). It is as a member of the Body that therefore we are members of each other. No life in you but what belongs to the Body, and in the fulfilment of your vocation you function as a part of that Body. There is specialization of function in any biological organism, for "all members have not the same function." But all cells have common characteristics: their obligation--to borrow a figure from biology--to grow; to spend themselves for the whole; to reproduce; and to perfect the type, pure and unsullied. The Catholic life is the Christian life at its fullest. To us Catholics Christ's Church is His very self, alive, operative, yearning, atoning, suffering, and triumphing on earth now, just as "He ever liveth to make intercession for us," the Great High Priest in heaven.

"Father, into Thy hands I commend My spirit." There is absolutely nothing that is intolerable for the member of Christ. He begins with a bequest from the past out of which by patient self-denying pertinacity and perseverance the self is wrought. That self is given him in order that it may be an alter Christus--to show forth His redeeming life and love, and to accomplish His work of Atonement. Despite frailties and sins, difficulties and temptations, it reaches ever outward and onward to a fuller emancipation and the realization in itself of that freedom which Christ conveys to it. The ultimate term is the fulness of sacrifice--the rising of life to its highest level. Complete selfhood issues finally in the victory by which, in utter freedom, the self is committed into the hands of the all-loving God--its work complete, its realization effected, its share of atonement accomplished.

Of its chief problems the Master of Atonement has been showing us their solution this day. "Judge not, condemn not" He tells us and demonstrates to us--this is our answer to the puzzle presented by unrepentant and relentless unrighteousness. Forgiveness is dynamic since human nature is capable of infinite growth, and it is a law and principle of the Atoning Life. The welling forth of the self, in seeking and giving fellowship, is forgiveness. Privilege of intimacy with Him bestows no exemption: the closer to Jesus, the closer to His Passion. Pain, suffering, and evil are not dodged or avoided, neither denied nor ignored, but accepted, transmuted, and transformed by the Atoning Life. Spiritual desolation and dereliction was met by the Master. The acceptance and conquest is a final proof of the capacities of our humanity in union with God. In this human life the needs of our physical nature are but a symbol of the yearning thirst for satisfaction of the whole of humanity. Their assuaging is neither to be neglected nor over-indulged. Body and soul belong to God, and for the longing and craving for satisfaction God's atonement provides the means. The fulness of life is seen only in its incompleteness. The more well rounded a human life the less complete it must be in the larger terms of Eternity. Men's lives but hint at a fulfilment not realizable in the terms of time and space. Finally, the law of sacrifice is the ultimate self-realization--in God and in society. Triumph comes primarily in the attainment of the highest capacity of which we are capable--our winging home to God. Nothing can impede that flight, nor prevent it--not even sin. "Into Thy hands I commend My spirit" is the issue of maturity, the completion of the natural in the supernatural, and the realization of St. Paul's words: "Unto the building up of the Body of Christ, until we all arrive at the unity of faith and Knowledge of the Son of God, unto a Perfect Man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ" (Ephesians 4: 13).


LORD, who createdst man in wealth and store
Though foolishly he lost the same,
Decaying more and more,
Till he became Most poor:

With Thee
O let me rise
As larks, harmoniously,
And sing this day thy victories:
Then shall the fall further the flight in me.

My tender age in sorrow did beginne:
And still with sicknesse and shame
Thou didst so punish sinne
That I became
Most thinne.

With thee
Let me combine
And feel this day thy victorie,
For, if I imp my wing on thine,
Affliction shall advance the flight in me.


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