Continuing Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson’s Lenten sermon, “The Seven Last Words”, Parts IV & V
THE FOURTH WORD
“My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?”
Our Blessed Lord in the revelation He makes from the Cross passes gradually inwards to Himself Who is its centre. He begins in the outermost circle of all, with the ignorant sinners. He next deals with the one sinner who ceased to be ignorant, and next with those who were always nearest to Himself, and now at last He reveals the deepest secret of all. This is the central Word of the Seven in every sense. There is no need to draw attention to the Paradox it expresses.
I. First, then, let us remind ourselves of the revealed dogma that Jesus Christ was the Eternal Son of the Father; that He dwelt always in the Bosom of that Father; that when He left heaven, He did not leave the Father’s side; that at Bethlehem and Nazareth and Galilee and Jerusalem and Gethsemane and Calvary He was always the Word that was with God and the Word that was God. Next, that the eyes even of His Sacred Humanity looked always and continuously upon the Face of God, since His union with God was entire and complete: as He looked up into His Mother’s face from the manger, He saw behind it the Face of His Father; as He cried in Gethsemane, “If it be possible”, even in His Sacred Humanity He knew that it could not be; as He groaned out on Calvary that God had forsaken Him, He yet looked without one instant’s intermission into the glory of heaven and saw His Father there.
Yet simultaneously with these truths it is also true that His cry of dereliction was incalculably more of a reality than when first uttered by David or, since, by any desolate sinner in the thickest spiritual darkness. All the miseries of holy and sinful souls, heaped together, could not approach even afar off the intolerable misery of Christ. For of His own will He refused to be consoled at all by that Presence which He could never lack, and of His own will He chose to be pierced and saturated and tormented by the sorrow He could never deserve. He held firm against the touch of consolation every power of His Divine and Human Being and, simultaneously, flung them open to the assaults of every pain. And if the psychology of this state is altogether beyond our power to understand, we may remind ourselves that it is the psychology of the Word made Flesh that is confronting us…. Do we expect to understand that?…
II. There is a human phrase, however, itself a paradox, yet corresponding to something which we know to be true, which throws some faint glimmer of light upon this impenetrable darkness and seems to extend Christ’s experience upon the Cross so as to touch our own human life. It is a phrase that describes a condition well known to spiritual persons: “To leave God for God.”
The simplest and lowest form of this state is that condition in which we acquiesce with our will in the withdrawal of ordinary spiritual consolation. Certainly it is an inexplicable state, since both the ordinary aids to our will — our understanding and our emotion — are, by the very nature of the case, useless to it. Our heart revolts from that dereliction and our understanding fails to comprehend the reasons for it. Yet we acquiesce, or at least perceive that we ought to do so; and that by doing so — by ceasing, that is, to grasp God’s Presence any longer — we find it as never before. We leave God in order to find Him.
The second state is that in which we find ourselves when not only do all consolations leave us, but the very grip of intelligent faith goes too; when the very reasons for faithfulness appear to vanish. It is an incalculably more bitter trial, and soul after soul fails under it and must be comforted again by God in less august ways or perish altogether. And yet this is not the extremest pitch even of human desolation.
For there is a third of which the saints tell us in broken words and images….
III. Our final point, for application to ourselves, is that dereliction in some form or another is as much a stage in spiritual progress as autumn and winter are seasons of the year. The beginners have to suffer one degree, the illuminated another, and those that have approached a real Union with God a third. But all must suffer it, and each in his own degree, or progress is impossible.
Let us take courage therefore and face it, in the light of this Word. For, as we can sanctify bodily pain by the memory of the nails, so too can we sanctify spiritual pain by the memory of this darkness. If He Who never left the Father’s side can suffer this in an unique and supreme sense, how much more should we be content to suffer it in lower degrees, who have so continually, since we came to the age of reason, been leaving not His side only, but His very house.
THE FIFTH WORD
Our Lord continues to reveal His own condition, since He, after all, is the key to all Humanity. If we understand anything of Him, simultaneously we shall understand ourselves far better.
He has shown us that He can truly be deprived of spiritual consolation; and the value of this deprivation; now He shows us the value of bodily deprivation also. And the Paradox for our consideration is that the Source of all can lose all; that the Creator needs His creation; that He Who offers us the “water springing up into Life Eternal” can lack the water of human life — the simplest element of all. In His Divine Dereliction He yet continues to be Human.
I. It is very usual, under this Word, to meditate on Christ’s thirst for souls; and this is, of course, a legitimate thought, since it is true that His whole Being, and not merely one part of it, longed and panted on the Cross for every object of His desire. Certainly He desired souls! When does He not?
But it is easy to lose the proportion of truth, if we spiritualize everything, and pass over, as if unworthy of consideration, His bodily pain. For this Thirst of the Crucified is the final sum of all the pains of crucifixion: the physical agony, the fever produced by it, the torrential sweat, the burning of the sun–all these culminated in the torment of which this Cry is His expression.
Bodily pain, then, since Jesus not only deigned to suffer it, but to speak of it, is as much a part of the Divine process as the most spiritual of derelictions: it is an intense and a vital reality in life. It is the fashion, at present, to pose as if we were superior to such things; as if either it were too coarse for our high natures or even actually in itself evil. The truth is that we are terrified of its reality and its sting, and seek, therefore, to evade it by every means in our power. We affect to smile at the old penances of the saints and ascetics as if we ourselves had risen into a higher state of development and needed no longer such elementary aids to piety!
Let this Word, then, bring us back to our senses and to the due proportions of truth. We are body as well as soul; we are incomplete without the body. The soul is insufficient to itself, the body has as real a part to play in Redemption as the soul which is its inmate and should be its mistress. We look for the redemption of our body and the Resurrection of the Flesh, we merit or demerit before God in our soul for the deeds done in our body.
“So was it too with our Lord of His infinite compassion. “The Word was made Flesh“, dwelt in the Flesh, has assumed that Flesh into heaven. Further, He suffered in the Flesh and deigned to tell us so; and that He found that suffering all but intolerable.
II. In a well-known book a Catholic poet [Francis Thompson, “Health and Holiness”] describes with a great deal of power the development of men’s nervous systems in these later days, and warns his readers against a scrupulous terror lest they, who no longer scourge themselves with briers, should be neglecting a means of sanctification. He points out, with perfect justice, that men, in these days, suffer instead in more subtle manners than did those of the Middle Ages, yet none the less physical; and puts us on our guard lest we should afflict ourselves too much. Yet we must take care, also, that we do not fall into the opposite extreme and come to regard bodily pain, (as has been said) as if it were altogether too elementary for our refined natures and as if it must have no place in the alchemy of the spirit. This would be both dangerous and false.
“What God hath joined together, let no man put asunder”! For, if we once treat body and soul as ill-matched companions and seek to deal with them apart, instantly the door is flung open to the old Gnostic horrors of sensualism on the one side or inhuman mutilation or neglect on the other.
The Church, on the other hand, is very clear and insistent that body and soul make one man as fully as God and Man make one Christ; and she illustrates and directs these strange co-relations and mutual effects of these two partners by her steady insistence on such things as Fasting and Abstinence. And the saints are equally clear and insistent. There never yet has been a single soul whom the Church has raised to her altars in whose life bodily austerity in some form has not played a considerable part. It is true that some have warned us against excess; but what warnings and what excess! “Be moderate,” advises St. Ignatius, that most reasonable and moderate of all the saints. “Take care that you do not break any bones with your iron scourge. God does not wish that!”
Pain, then, has a real place in our progress. Who that has suffered can ever doubt it again?
Let us consider, therefore, under this Word of Christ, whether our attitude to bodily pain is what God would have it to be. There are two mistakes that we may be committing. Either we may fear it too little–meet it, that is to say, with Pagan stoicism instead of with Christianity — or we may fear it too much. “Despise not the chastening”, on one side, or faint on the other. It is surely the second warning that is most needed now. For pain had a real place in Christ’s programme of life. He fasted for forty days at the beginning of His Ministry, and He willed every shocking detail of the Praetorium and Calvary at the end. He told us that His Spirit willed it and, yet more kindly, that His Flesh was weak. He revealed, then, that He really suffered and that He willed it so …. “I thirst.”