Life and Death

By Robert Hugh Benson

As dying, and behold we live.—II COR. VI. 9.


We have considered, so far, a number of paradoxical phenomena exhibited in the life of Catholicism and have attempted to find their reconciliation in the fact that the Catholic Church is at once Human and Divine. In her striving, for example, after a Divine and supernatural Peace, of which she alone possesses the secret, she resists even unto blood all human attempts to supplant this by another. As a human society, again, she avails herself freely of human opportunities and aids, of earthly and created beauty, for the setting forth of her message; yet she can survive, as can no human society, when she is deprived of her human rights and her acquired wealth. As human she numbers the great multitude of the world’s sinners among her children, yet as Divine she has produced the saints. As Divine she bases all her gospel on a Revelation which can be apprehended only by Faith, yet as human she employs the keenest and most profound intellects for its analysis and its propagation. In these and in many other similar points it has been attempted to show why she offers now one aspect and now another to human criticism, and how it is that the very charges made against her become, when viewed in the light of her double claim, actual credentials and arguments on behalf of that claim. Finally, in the meditations upon the Seven Words of Christ, we considered very briefly how, in the hours of the deepest humiliation of His Humanity, He revealed again and again the characteristics of His Divinity.

It now remains to consider that point in which she most manifests that double nature of hers and, simultaneously therefore, presents, as in a kind of climax, her identity, under human terms, with Him Who, Himself the Lord of Life, conquered death by submitting to it and, by His Resurrection from the dead, showed Himself the Son of God with power.

I.    Death, the world tells us, is the final end of all things, and is the one universal law of which evasion is impossible; and this is true, not of the individual only, but of society, of nations, of civilization, and even, it would seem, ultimately of physical life itself. Every vital energy therefore that we possess can be directed not to the abolition, but only to the postponement of this final full close to which the most ecstatic created harmony must come at last.


Our physicians cannot heal us, they can merely ward off death for a little. Our statesmen cannot establish an eternal federation, they can but help to hold a crumbling society together for a little longer. Our civilization cannot really evolve an immortal superman, it can but render ordinary humanity a little less mortal, temporarily and in outward appearance. Death, then, in the world’s opinion, is the duellist who is bound to win. We may parry, evade, leap aside for a little; we may even advance upon him and seem to threaten his very existence; our energies, in fact, must be concentrated upon this conflict if we are to survive at all. But it is only in seeming, at the best. The moment must come when, driven back to the last barrier, our last defence falters ...  and Death has only to wipe his sword.

Now the attitude of the Catholic Church towards Death is not only the most violent reversal of the world’s policy, but the most paradoxical, too, of all her methods. For, while the world attempts to keep Death at arm’s length, the Church strives to embrace him. Where the world draws his sword to meet Death’s assault, the Church spreads her heart only to receive it. She is in love with Death, she pursues him, honours him, extols Him. She places over her altars not a Risen Christ, but a dying One.

If thou wilt be perfect, she cries to the individual soul, give up all that thou hast and follow me. “Give up all that makes life worth living, strip thyself of every advantage that sustains thy life, of all that makes thee effective.” It is this that is her supreme appeal, not indeed uttered, with all its corollaries, to all her children, but to those only that desire perfection. Yet to all, in a sense, the appeal is there. Die daily, die to self, mortify, yield, give in. If any man will save his life, he must lose it.

So too, in her dealings with society, is her policy judged suicidal by a world that is in love with its own kind of life. It is suicidal, cries that world, to relinquish in France all on which the temporal life of the Church depends; for how can that society survive which renounces the very means of existence? It is suicidal to demand the virgin life of the noblest of her children, suicidal to desert the monarchical cause of one country, and to set herself in opposition to the Republican ideals of another. For even she, after all, is human and must conform to human conditions. Even she, however august her claims, must make terms with the world if she desires to live in it.

And this comment has been made upon her actions in every age. She condemned Arius, when a little compromise might surely have been found; and lost half her children. She condemned Luther and lost Germany;

Elizabeth, and lost England. At every crisis she has made the wrong choice, she has yielded when she should have resisted, resisted when she should have yielded. The wonder is that she survives at all.

Yes, that is the wonder. As dying, behold she lives!

II.   The answer of course is easy. It is that she simply does not desire the kind of life which the world reckons alone to be life. To her that is not life at all. She desires of course to survive as a human society, and she is assured that she always shall so survive. Yet it is not on the ordinary terms of ordinary society that she desires survival. It is not a natural life of which she is ambitious, a life that draws its strength from human conditions and human environment, a life, therefore, that waxes and wanes with those human conditions and ultimately meets their fate, but a supernatural life that draws its strength from God.  And she recognizes, as one of the most fundamental paradoxes of all, that such a life can be gained and held only through what the world calls “death.”


She does not, then, want merely the life of a prosperous human state, whether monarchy or republic. There are times indeed in her history when such an accompaniment to her real existence is useful to her effectiveness; and she has, of course, the right, as have other societies, to earthly dominions that may have been won and presented to her by her children. Or through her ministers, as in Paraguay, she may administer for a while the ordinary civil affairs of men who choose to be loyal to her government. Yet if, for one instant, such a responsibility were really to threaten her spiritual effectiveness—if, that is, the choice were really presented to her between spiritual and temporal dominion—she would let all the kingdoms of the world go in an instant, to retain her kingdom from God; she would gladly suffer the loss of all things to retain Christ.

And how is it possible to deny for one instant that her success has been startling and overwhelming—this fructification of Life by Death.

Are there any human beings, for example, who have been more effective and influential than her saints—men and women, that is to say, who have died daily, in order to live indeed? They have not, it is true, prospered, let us say, as business men, directors of companies, or government officials, but such a success is simply not her ideal for them, not their own ideal for themselves. That is precisely the kind of life to which they have, as a rule, determinedly and perseveringly died.  Yet their effectiveness in this world has been none the less. Are any kings remembered as is the beggar Labré who gnawed cabbage stalks in the gutters of Rome? Are the names of any statesmen of, let us say, even a hundred years ago, reverenced and repeated as is the name of the woman of Spain called Teresa of Jesus who, four hundred years ago, ruled a few nuns within the enclosure of a convent? Are any musicians or artists loved to-day with such rapture as is God’s little troubadour, called Francis, who made music for himself and the angels by rubbing one stick across another?

Or, again, is any empire that the world has ever seen so great, so loyally united in itself, so universal and yet so rigorous as is that spiritual empire whose capital is Rome? Is there any nation with so fierce a patriotism as she who is Supernational? Earthly kings speak from their thrones and what happens? And an old man in Rome who wears three crowns on his head speaks from his prison in the Vatican and all the earth rings with it.

Has her policy, then, been so suicidal after all? From the world’s point of view it has never been anything else. Her history is but one long example of the sacrifice of human activities and earthly opportunities; she has expelled from her pulpits the most brilliant of her children, she has silenced or alienated the most eloquent of her defenders. She has cut off from herself all that she should have kept, and hugged to her arms all that she should have relinquished! She has never done anything but die! She never does anything but live!

III. Turn, then, to the life of her Lord for the solution of this riddle. Last week He was going to His Death. He was losing, little by little, all that bound Him to Life. The multitudes that had followed Him hitherto were leaving Him by units and groups, they who might have formed His armies to seat Him on the throne of His father David.  Disloyalty had made its way even among His chosen body-guard, and already Judas is bargaining for the price of His Master’s blood. Even the most loyal of all are dismayed, and presently will forsake Him and flee when the swords flash out in the garden of Gethsemane. A few weeks ago in Galilee thousands were leaving Him for the last time; and when, once again, a company seemed to rally, He wept! And so at last the sacrifice was complete and, one by one, He laid down of His own will every tie that kept Him in life. And then on Good Friday itself He suffered that beauty of His Face to be marred so that no man would ever desire Him any more, silenced the melody of the Voice that had broken so many hearts and made them whole again; He stretched out His Shepherd’s Hands with which alone He could gather His sheep to His Breast, and the Feet that alone could bear Him into the wilderness to seek after that which was lost. Was there ever a Suicide such as this, such a despair of high hopes, such a ruin of all ambition, a dying so complete and irremediable as the Dying of Jesus Christ?


And now on Easter Day look at Him again and see how He lives as never before. See how the Life that has been His for thirty years—the Life of God made Man—itself pales almost to a phantom before the glory of that same Life transfigured by Death. Three days ago He fainted beneath the scourge and nails; now He shows the very scars of His Passion to be the emblems of immortal strength. Three days ago He spoke in human words to those only that were near Him, and limited Himself under human terms of space and time; He speaks now in every heart. Three days ago He gave His Body to the few who knelt at His Table; to-day in ten thousand tabernacles that same Body may be worshipped by all who come.

In a word, He has exchanged a Natural Life for a Supernatural in every plane at once. He has laid down the Natural Life of His Body to take it back again supernaturalized for ever. He has died that His Life may be released; He has finished in order to begin.

It is easy, then, to see why it is that the Church dies daily, why it is that she is content to be stripped of all that makes her life effective, why she too permits her hands to be bound and her feet fettered and her beauty marred and her voice silenced so far as men can do those things. She is human? Yes; she dwells in a body that is prepared for her, but prepared chiefly that she may suffer in it. Her far-reaching hands are not hers merely that she may bind up with them the broken-hearted, nor her swift feet hers merely that she may run on them to succour the perishing, nor her head and heart hers merely that she may ponder and love. But all this sensitive human organism is hers that at last she may agonize in it, bleed from it from a thousand wounds, be lifted up in it to draw all men to her cross.

She does not desire, then, in this world, the throne of her Father David, nor the kind of triumph which is the only kind that the world understands to be so. She desires one life and one triumph only—the Risen Life of her Saviour. And this, at last, is the transfiguration of her Humanity by the power of her Divinity and the vindication of them both.




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