Project Canterbury Holiness: A Note of the Church
By the Reverend J.G.H. Barry
New York: Gorham, 1915
THE UNIVERSAL VOCATION TO HOLINESS
In the preceding lecture it was my object to emphasize the fact that the life of the Body of Christ is a holy and supernatural life, flowing out from Christ, the Head of the Body, and through the action of the Holy Spirit communicated to all members of the Body by means of media instituted for that purpose, in such wise that all who are in the Body are partakers of that life in proportion to their receptivity. We must now go on to consider the holiness of the Body of Christ as a holiness to which all members of the Body are called, the ideal aim of their Christian activity. The universal vocation of Christians is a vocation to sanctity.
This admits of no doubt. "The Saints" was the earliest designation of the Christian community, and this designation regards not simply their separation from the world, but their separation to God. There can be no complete account of the life of these primitive Christian communities which fails to take note of the aim, the movement of their life, as ideally tending toward a fuller appropriation of that gift of eternal life which Incarnate God came that they might have. "I am come that they might have life and that they might have it more abundantly." As we read Saint Paul's letters to those groups of converts which he had brought together to be the Church in such and such a place, we often have the feeling that he is soaring far over the heads of his readers in his development of the meaning of the Christian life. But I doubt if he actually did lose touch with them. Those fundamental conceptions of the Christian life which seem to us so difficult of appropriation are precisely the conceptions with which they would have been most familiar. Just because they were fundamental to Saint Paul's thought, they would have been what they were first taught in being instructed for baptism and the Christian life. It is indeed exceedingly instructive to remember, when we lay down one of Saint Paul's Epistles finding it difficult to understand, that it is not a theological treatise for advanced students, but a pastoral letter addressed to a congregation, and that Saint Paul certainly expected them to understand it. One suspects that the modern congregation to which Saint Paul's letters are read, often fail to follow his thought, and that the reason is that they are uninstructed in just those fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith with which Saint Paul's first readers were familiar. To the average modern congregation Christianity is a set of rules for the ordering of its social relations, combined with a few rites which are vaguely thought of as "means of grace,"--grace again being a term of quite indefinite content. Saint Paul's hearers would have conceived Christianity quite differently, as the gift of eternal life through Christ into Whom they had been incorporated and Whose life-experience they were to recapitulate and express in their own living. They would have understood that the end of their religious experience was not to make them men and women of good moral lives, and therefore valuable citizens of the social state, but that it was to make them saints and full-grown citizens of an Heavenly Kingdom. Their fundamental relation was a relation to God in Christ, and their essential life was the life lived with Christ in heavenly places. Holiness would have been to them not the rare acquisition of certain select souls, but the indispensable characteristic of the Christian as such.
Let us put it in this way: The essential holiness of the Body of Christ, of which each Christian is a member, must be reproduced in the experience of the individual, and is the complete and only complete evidence of his healthy functioning as a member of the Body. It is fatal to our understanding of the New Testament conception of a Christian to allow our minds to be distracted to any other conception of what constitutes Christianity in action, as that it is the imitation of certain external details of the life of our Lord, or the aiming to follow certain rules which may be deduced from his teaching. The constant human tendency is to substitute some lower and easier thing for the full ideal of the Gospel life. The present time in particular is witnessing a widespread presentation of the gospel as a gospel of good works. As a revival of the conviction of the obligations and value of the corporeal works of mercy, as an application of the Gospel of Christ, this would be encouraging; but it is not in the least encouraging if our duty to our neighbor, as emphasized, has taught us to obscure our duty to God. It would indeed seem that our duty toward God is our duty toward our neighbor. This emphasis upon a religion of good works is no doubt due to the widespread interest in sociology which has been so marked a feature of the last few years, but that religious teaching and practice has been so responsive to a special trend of contemporary thought is due to the fact that the confused state of divided Christendom makes theological thinking difficult and makes man eager to seize upon an alternative which seems to afford a way of escape from mental entanglements. One fears that this presentation of the Gospel as a Gospel of service to the brother, as a process of changing the Kingdom of God into a Democracy, is ultimately motived by weariness of controversy and division, by the conviction that Christendom ought to be one, and that if Christians cannot be brought to unity on any theological platform, it is well to take another platform on which they can stand. That this basis of unity is an abandonment and not a solution of our problem seems not yet to be considered.
For it would seem to be clear that it is only in a very restricted sense, and in the way of a by-product, that it is the function of the Gospel to produce good citizens. It is impossible to assent to the degradation of the ideal of the saint to that of the ideal social man. The notion of sanctity does indeed contain that of social integrity and usefulness, but it is by no means exhausted by it. The vocation of the Christian is to the Kingdom of God, in which he should bring forth the fruits of the Spirit. That the Earth is the better for his action is a detail and an accident. We have been so browbeaten by the edicts of materialism, so taunted with indifference to this world, and with the sin of other-worldliness, that we have felt compelled to vindicate our characters from the old charge of being enemies of the human race. We have forgotten in the campaign for self-vindication that in a true sense indifference to the world, and other-worldliness, are precisely what should characterize us; that we are pilgrims and strangers here, having no abiding city, but that we seek one to come; that our citizenship is in Heaven.
We need to disentangle our thought from the ambiguity of the expression "this world." Taking the world to mean human society, trying so to organize and to govern itself that life shall be a tolerable thing for all its members, Christians are not less but more interested in this than other men. Such organization and government is requisite to the successful appeal of the Gospel. As at present organized, or perhaps disorganized, the appeal of the Gospel is effectively hindered by the poverty and degradation in which large sections of humanity are compelled to live. They can neither understand nor practice the Gospel under their conditions of life. It is useless to say that the Gospel is for the poor and will enable them, if they will accept it, to live Christian lives under whatever social conditions. To say that is to play with the facts. What the New Testament means by the Christian Life, that Eternal Life which is hid with Christ in God, and is here evidenced by the practice of the Sermon on the Mount and the production of the fruits of the Spirit, does, it may be, sporadically exist in tenement houses and slums; but that the population of tenement houses and slums will, or even can, show such a life, no one who knows them will believe. It must remain forever unintelligible to them. That this state of things should be changed, Christians are not less interested but more than other men. But they are more interested precisely because they see in the unfortunate inhabitiants of these places not possible comfortable citizens, but the potentiality of children of God, and saints, and they feel eager for the improvement of life. The world to the Christian means more than human society well organized and well governed, sleek and comfortable. It means that society energized and vivified by the operations of the Holy Spirit, and looking beyond material comfort for the end of life; still under whatever imposed conditions, living in the pilgrim state, with eyes eager for the vision of the city where their true citizenship is. And furthermore we must as Christians insist and expect that any permanent improvement of human society, here and now, will be brought about and made permanent by those whose aim it is to improve it for Eternity. We are at present witnessing an appalling demonstration of the outcome, and I believe the necessary outcome, of the attempt to organize human society on the basis of materialism. Such things as we see in the world to-day would be impossible in a society ruled by spiritual motives.
Hence we must look on the saint, not only as the exemplification of a certain spiritual ideal, which is one among the many ideals to' be found among a widely diversified humanity, and tolerated as the outcome of a certain psychic trend, but we must look to him as the one possessing the supreme secret of life. He and he alone can tell us what life really is in its possible fulness and completeness. He alone can show us what to do with life and how to do it. The man who views life from the standpoint of materialism may be anxious for life's betterment, but he will fail because human beings are unable to make life better if they have no motive but that which materialism supplies. Materialism can never get rid of selfishness, and it is selfishness which defeats all programmes of social advance. Man is a "creature of a very nimble dishonesty," and there is nothing in materialism to make him honest. It is only the man to whom this world is but a passing incident in God's activity who can find what goes on here important enough to sacrifice himself for its welfare.
What is the saint? What is this holiness to which we are called? It is the manifestation of the life of Christ in the life of His members. Those who are called to holiness are called to union with the risen and ascended Lord, and to participation in His Divine Life. So much we have already seen, but what of the development of the life of the individual? What do we mean by the spiritual life?
The spiritual life is not simply a life which takes account of spiritual things, which recognizes the existence of a spiritual world from which flows motives which affect our lives here, if we will let them. The spiritual life is not ordinary human life governed by a special set of principles. It is not a series of acts,--the practice of such and such things. The spiritual life, which is the life of sanctity, is a distinct creation of God. Man is made a spiritual being when he is regenerated and taken into the life of God and endowed with the gift of eternal life. The end of our Lord's mission is that they might have life. His insistence is constantly upon eternal life as a distinct gift. This eternal life is of course not immortality, though it has been so conceived. Those who lack it are not the less immortal, but eternal life is the Divine Life imparted to man, whereby he becomes a new creation and is raised to a new plane of spiritual living. It was that this might be possible that God became incarnate, the other ends of the Incarnation being subordinate to this. It is therefore a dependent life, drawing constantly upon the incarnate life of our Lord with whom it is in union. And this union is not a union of thought or idea, of faith or love, but an organic union which can never be completely destroyed, though it may remain undeveloped. Baptism cannot be repeated, because the union effected with our Lord in baptism can never be utterly nullified.
It is by virtue of this union that we have come to be in Christ, and He in us. The sphere of spiritual operation is not outward.
"In Christ" is one of the characteristic phrases of the New Testament. It denotes precisely the fact of organic union, in that the Christian and Christ are one, so one that the life of Christ is manifested in and through the life of His members. As a thing lived by us, the Christian life is the externalization of this fact of union. The spiritual life is the process of the manifestation of the life of Christ in the life of His members.
The evolution of the saint, then, is the process of his appropriation and expression of the life of the indwelling Christ from the moment of his union with Him in baptism, till his spiritual powers are so matured as to be capable of the unveiled glory of the Beatific Vision.
What we may perhaps call the programme of the life of those who are called to sanctify is found in the Sermon on the Mount, which is but the statement, in set propositions, of what the human life of our Lord was in living reality. It will be admitted by all that the best comment on the Sermon on the Mount is the life of our Lord himself. He alone has fully practiced what He preached.
We turn, therefore, from beatitude after beatitude to its concrete illustration in the life of Jesus. We cannot mistake the meaning of humility and meekness and purity and the rest, because we have them exemplified before our eyes. And yet there comes even to sincere Christians the feeling that as a programme of life the Sermon on the Mount is impossible. It has been lived to be sure, but by one who is God as well as man.
It is one of the radical difficulties of our thought to understand the humanity of our Lord. We are constantly yielding to the temptation to make it something fantastic and unreal, something more or less than human. We substitute for the truth of God, perfectly united with humanity, a God, if I may so express it, hiding behind humanity, a God who appears fitfully in our Lord's life to enable Him to do what otherwise would be impossible for Him. Our Lord thus becomes a kind of sublime magician who controls the power of God when He needs it to perform startling things. When it is put thus baldly, we disclaim this description, and deny that this is indeed our notion, but what else can we possibly mean by our objection, when we are urged to action, on the ground that our Lord did so and so, that He is God as well as man. Whatsoever our Lord did in His Incarnate life He did through humanity united to God. He acted in a perfectly human way. All His acts were human acts. The Holy Spirit dwelt in Him in all fulness and His human nature was sustained by that indwelling power; and through our union with Him we have access to the same source of Divine strength. Our weakness IF the outcome of non-use of the source of strength which is ours. It follows that the programme of the life of sanctity is not impossible, because it has been already put in operation. We can follow it by living in Christ.
The objections directed against the Sermon on the Mount, result from misconceptions of its nature. It is not a series of rules of conduct but enunciates principles of spiritual living. The method of our Lord's teaching differs markedly from our habitual method. We lay down a law, a rule, and deduce the individual cases from it. Our Lord teaches through a concrete case and leaves us to deduce the principle employed in it and illustrated by it. The case he cites is usually an extreme case, inasmuch as the extreme case brings the principle into greater clearness. We have turned the case into a rule and then declared the rule impracticable. The demonstration of this is, that if the cases our Lord cites are rules of conduct and not illustrations of principles, they are useless as being of no universal or even widespread application. It does not happen to the average man, after his school days at least, to be smitten on any cheek, right or left. Probably no one has even attempted to compel you to go a mile with him, or taken away your cloak; but the principles involved in these cases are of daily use and application. They are the principles the practice of which results in the development of the character-qualities enunciated in the beatitudes. And the practice of them is the practice of the Christ-life. The extent in which we practice them is the measure of our success in the life of holiness, for to gain that life is the realization in experience of the human life of our Lord; and strictly speaking the Christian is not called to the imitation of the Christ-life, but to the reproduction of it. A misunderstanding of this fact lies at the root of many failures. The vision of Jesus of Nazareth going about doing good is so fascinating that many have been led to think that going about doing good is an adequate expression of his life in the life of the disciple; but the disciple does not reach the secret of the Christ life by doing good, but he does good as the result of having read the secret. The Tolstoian theory of the Christian life, which fascinated so many to admiration, though it fascinates few to actual imitation, embodies this same misconception. We do not accept the life of Jesus by making ourselves poor, or by working at manual labor. Such things are the mere accidents of life. It is a curious blunder to make them its substance.
The practice of the Christian life does not take certain characteristic forms of expression, those which have already been noted as summed up in our Lord's teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, but they flow forth, as from a hidden source, from the central fact of our union with him, resulting in the reproduction of His life in us. The life of Christ is recapitulated in the life of the disciple. The disciple passes through the same experiences as the Master, the member as the Head. When Saint Paul comes to set out in detail what must be the experience of those he calls the saints, that is the members of the Christian community, what he dwells upon as of primary importance is not their good works, or virtuous conduct, but their spiritual experience. To him Christianity is an experience which must be passed through, the experience of the life of the indwelling Christ. Recall for a moment how he states this. We were buried with Him, by baptism, into death, that like as Christ was raised up from death by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. Buried with Him in baptism, wherein also ye were raised with Him. But God forbid that I should glory save in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, whereby the world is crucified unto me and I unto the world. Grow up into Him in all things which is the Head, even Christ. Even when we are dead in sin hath He quickened us together and made us sit together in Heavenly places in Christ Jesus. And Saint Peter adds, being born again not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible by the word of God which liveth and abideth forever.
The birth, growth, crucifixion, death, burial, resurrection and ascension of the Christian, are spiritual experiences which constitute the life of Christ in him, which are his reproduction of the Christ life. These things admittedly take place in the saint in the process of his development from his initial calling to sanctity to his actual attainment of it. Those forms of Christian living which aim at an imitation of the externals of the Christ life, or a following of moral rules deducible from Christ's life and teaching, remain hopelessly exterior and fall far short of Christian reality.
Furthermore these are not ideals of a future life. The New Testament puts them in the past. We pass through them with the result that our life is now hid with Christ in Heavenly places. It makes all possible difference with our religion whether we realize this. The religion of external imitation is rooted in the past. What Christ was, and said, and did, is important to it. It is a backward looking religion to which Christ is a Supreme Teacher, and which has great difficulty in finding any place for the Living Christ. Christ was manifested, and worked, and taught, and returned to the Heavenly state from which He emerged. Such a thought of Christ and His work abundantly explains the widespread difficulty which men feel about our Lord's divinity, His virgin birth, His resurrection and ascension and His sacraments. Men find difficulty about these things because they do not fit in with what they understand as present Christianity. They are not helps but hindrances, useless dogmas which are awkward to deal with; they do not correspond with anything that at present exists; they are irrelevant to our Christian life. On the other hand, to the Catholic Christian, the emphasis of religion is on the present work of Christ. His religion is not a reminiscence of what Christ did, but a present work of the living and ascended Christ. Christ is repeating His life through him. He is externalizing the entire Christ experience. He cannot construe Christianity in terms of morals, but only in terms of a vital, spiritual process, Christ is being formed in him, and that formation is expressed in his living in the form of sanctity.
This union of the spiritual personality of man with Incarnate God, wherein the experience of the member recapitulates the experience of the Head, is the life of holiness. It is the process which goes on through life, and after, reaching its consummation only in the vision of God. If even that is a period to its growth, it certainly is not to its activity. As sketched for us by the masters of the spiritual life, that process goes through certain well-defined changes which, taken together, define the growth of the child of God in the life of holiness. They are the stages in the building of the saint. They are, together, one form of the expression of the holiness of the Body of Christ. To our understanding of what the holiness of the Church is, it is therefore necessary that we follow these steps in the development of the saintly life.
The first, the most elementary, stage is that of purification. It is that stage which is characterized by death unto sin. We can perhaps get at it best by leaving the beaten path of books, and asking ourselves what death is. Death, physical death, is marked by failure to correspond to environment. We only know life through its correspondence, its reactions, and when these cease utterly and no stimuli any longer provoke reaction in the organism, we say that the organism is dead. The friend by whose familiar body we stand looks with unseeing eyes, no longer smiles us a greeting, returns no pressure of the hand,--he is dead. And death unto sin exhibits the same lack of correspondence to the appropriate environment. It is dead to sin, to the world, conceived as a set of influences opposed to God. The stimuli of sin no longer call out correspondences. The appeals of the world are made in vain. The temptations which once stirred us to febrile activity are displayed uselessly. We turn with indifference from what once fascinated us. But as physical death does not prove the ceasing of consciousness, but only its ceasing to respond to certain stimuli, while we believe that it has actually awakened to a larger life and a more intense consciousness, so this death unto sin, death with Christ and to the world, means not a ceasing of spiritual consciousness but the transfer of it to other objects. Those who are so dead have become alive to God, and to all things which belong to the spiritual order. It is the awakening to a larger life.
We express this truth otherwise when we speak of it as a process of detachment and purification. This is the ordinary way of doing it, and in most of us it is a process which consumes much time. The breaking of sinful habits and inclinations, which in most men are developed before the time of conscious spiritual living, is a difficult task. The dying to sin is a lingering death except in rare cases. But the important thing is the will to die. We die in intention long before we die in fact; and it is this difficult and painful process of making the spiritual will dominant in the life which is the process of spiritual crucifixion. We must experience the Cross as our Head experienced it, and no soul come to maturity is spared it. Our spiritual discipline in this stage, not that it is confined to this stage, is a going out after Christ, bearing His Cross, and the Cross signifies the voluntary limitation of life for His sake and the Gospel's. It is a thing that we voluntarily take up, and we take it up purposely to associate ourselves with the dying of the Son of God, that through participation in His death we may become partakers of His resurrection. All must go,--all things that restrain from purification of life must go,--and they go hard. There is no easy way of being crucified.
The spiritual person reaches the confines of the second stage of his development before he has utterly passed out of the discipline of the first stage. That second stage is the stage of spiritual knowledge and illumination. What is characteristic of this stage is a more direct knowledge of God, His will and purpose for us. Where before we have heard with the ear, and believed the report of others, we now see and know for ourselves. The religious consciousness, which has always been to some extent operative though dim and clouded, is now purified and capable of more energetic action. The Christian at this stage has direct knowledge of God,--is conscious of His presence and action upon himself. He can now be said to know God by direct spiritual intuition. I would not be understood as maintaining that all good Christians have this direct intuition of God, and that it is the indispensable test of their advance in sanctity. There may be something to be considered in matter of temperament,--of psychic make-up. There is a certain relevancy in the distinction between the once-born and the twice-born, but I would express my belief that our unconsciousness of God and the spiritual world is often less a matter of incapacity than of inattention. After all, even in physical matters, we see what we are looking for, and what we do not expect to see we miss, and more of us would be conscious of God, and of our Lord's presence and action, if we were alert to spiritual possibilities. These things have been known, and are known, to multitudes of Christians whom we would be far from calling saints in the conventional sense, but who are obviously far on the road of sanctity. I am not speaking of visions and ecstacies of the extreme mystic type, but simply of that consciousness of God's presence in dealing with us which it appears to me is one of the notes of a life lived with Christ in God. It is not to be expected that this consciousness should be continuous,--even in the highest saints it is not that,--but those who are living in Christ should certainly be aware of His indwelling, at least from time to time, and feel the certainty of His guidance. I am certain that this is the experience of many who have never learned to describe their experience, or who hold it too precious and intimate to be described. We construe our experiences in the terminology which we have learned, and translate it in words become habitual, and if our vocabulary be faulty our expression of our experience will be faulty too. This would not matter if it were not that the limitations of our expression serve to block our vision of greater things possible to us, for we grow towards our ideal, and an imperfect ideal prompts only to meagre efforts toward growth.
The growth in the knowledge of God, as in other things, is the result of effort,--the effort to co-operate with the work of the Spirit. The terms through which we express to ourselves our religious life are apt to become dead terms. It requires ever renewed effort to get at their meaning. Many of them are of inexhaustible meaning, and the energies of our spirit may be constantly spent in the effort to get deeper into them. But the result of this effort is well compensated by our increase in spiritual knowledge and experience,--the soul is illuminated by the Divine presence and we learn the Source of its light.
It is then that the soul enters the third stage of its progress and finds itself in a deeply realized union with God. This we may regard as the stage of those who attain great holiness in this life and whom we are wont to think of, in our ordinary conceptions of the Christian life, as the saints. Their lives have become nearly perfect expressions of the Christ life. They have passed upward from the region where sin is a common experience, through the path which is lit by God's manifested presence to consummated union with Him. They walk with God here, and have come to the borders of the land of far distances and glimpse the walls of the city which is the end of their pilgrimage. In them we see, so far as we may see it on this Earth, the complete expression, of the life of holiness, which it is the mission of the Incarnate to create. In them we read the meaning of our Lord's life and work,--that spiritual creation which He died that man might be. In these children the Divine Wisdom is justified and the ways of God with man made plain; and in them we learn the truth of the saying that "God became man in order that man might become Divine."
Such, roughly enough and in poorest outline, is that aspect of the holiness of the Body of Christ, the one Holy and Catholic Church, as the fact is expressed and embodied in the life of individuals. Holiness so understood is the dynamic power of the Incarnate Life of the Son of God. Laying hold upon and eliciting response from the lives of men, it views human life not as capable of obeying certain rules which result in conduct pleasing to God, but as created with the potentiality of knowing God, and loving God, and being raised to the Divine friendship through participation in the Divine Nature. Such a view makes human life intelligible,--makes all its upward struggle through the darkness and tragedy of human experience possible to contemplate without horror. The journey of the soul to God is a glad pilgrimage, whatever the roughness of the way, and so understood human life is not only a pilgrimage to God, but a pilgrimage with God. God joins us at the outset, in the impartation of Himself in our baptism, and leaves us never, but is with us to administer the viaticum as our eyes close in death. He is the Indweller who has been the strength of all our strength, the virtue of all our virtue.
All that we can claim of our own is the ready will wherewith we welcome Him, and even so "we could not have found Him if He had not first found us." When we have been nailed upon the Cross, He has been nailed beside us, and when we have been buried He has shared our tomb. He too has been our resurrection and our life and has lifted us up to the Heavenly Places where our expanding life is more and more lived with Him. He is our Alpha and Omega, our first and our last.