Love of God and Love of Man

[This is taken from Robert Hugh Benson's Paradoxes of Catholicism.]

Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart ... and thy neighbour as thyself.—LUKE x. 27.


It is a very common complaint against Catholics, laymen as well as clergy, that they are overzealous in their attempts to proselytize.  True and spiritual religion, we are told, is as intimate and personal an affair as the love between husband and wife; it is essentially private and individual. “The religion of all sensible men,” it has been said, “is precisely that which they always keep to themselves.” Tolerance, therefore, is a mark of spirituality, for if I am truly religious I shall have as much respect for the religion of my neighbour as for my own. I shall no more seek to interfere in his relations with God than I shall allow him to interfere with mine.

Now Catholics are notoriously intolerant. It is not merely that there are intolerant Catholics, for intolerance is of course to be found in all narrow-minded persons, but it is Catholic principles themselves that are intolerant; and every Catholic who lives up to them is bound to be so also. And we can see this illustrated every day.

First, there is the matter of Catholic missions to the heathen. There are no missionaries, we are told, so untiring and so devoted as those of the Church. Their zeal, of course, is a proof of their sincerity; but it is also a proof of their intolerance: for why, after all, cannot they leave the heathen alone, since religion is, in its essence, a private and individual matter? Beautiful pictures, accordingly, are suggested to us of the domestic peace and happiness reigning amongst the tribes of Central Africa until the arrival of the Preaching Friar with his destructive dogmas. We are bidden to observe the high doctrines and the ascetic life of the Brahmin, the significant symbolism of the Hindu, and the philosophical attitudes of the Confucian. All these various relationships to God are, we are informed, entirely the private affairs of those who live by them; and if Catholics were truly spiritual they would understand that this was so and not seek to supplant by a system which is now, at any rate, become an essentially European way of looking at things, these ancient creeds and philosophies that are far better suited to the Oriental temperament.

But the matter is worse, even, than this. It may conceivably be argued, says the modern man of the world, that after all those Oriental religions have not developed such virtues and graces as has Christianity. It may perhaps be argued that in time the religion of the West, if missionaries will persevere, will raise the Hindu higher than his own obscenities have succeeded in doing, and that the civilization produced by Christianity is actually of a higher type, in spite of its evil by-products, than that of the head-hunters of Borneo and the bloody savages of Africa. But at any rate there is no excuse whatever for the intolerant Catholic proselytizer in English homes. For, roughly speaking, it is only the Catholic whom you cannot trust in your own home circle; sooner or later you will find him, if he at all lives up to his principles, insinuating the praises of his own faith and the weaknesses of your own; your sons and daughters he considers to be fair game; he thinks nothing of your domestic peace in comparison with the propagation of his own tenets. He is characterized, first and last, by that dogmatic and intolerant spirit that is the exact contrary of all that the modern world deems to be the spirit of true Christianity. True Christianity, then, as has been said, is essentially a private, personal, and individual matter between each soul and her God.

The second charge brought against Catholics is that they make religion far too personal, too private, and too intimate for it to be considered the religion of Jesus Christ. And this is illustrated by the supreme value which the Church places upon what is known as the Contemplative Life.

For if there is one element in Catholicism that the man-in-the-street especially selects for reprobation it is the life of the Enclosed Religious. It is supposed to be selfish, morbid, introspective, unreal; it is set in violent dramatic contrast with the ministerial Life of Jesus Christ. A quantity of familiar eloquence is solemnly poured out upon it as if nothing of the kind had ever been said before: it is said that “a man cannot get away from the world by shutting himself up in a monastery”; that “a man should not think about his own soul so much, but rather of what good he can do in the world in which God has placed him”; that “four whitewashed walls” are not the proper environment for a philanthropic Christian.

And yet, after all, what is the Contemplative Life except precisely that which the world just now recommended? And could religion possibly be made a more intimate, private, and personal matter between the soul and God than the Carthusian or Carmelite makes it?

The fact is, of course, that Catholics are wrong whatever they do—too extreme in everything which they undertake. They are too active and not retired enough in their proselytism; too retired and not active enough in their Contemplation.

Now the Life of our Divine Lord exhibits, of course, both the Active and the Contemplative elements that have always distinguished the Life of His Church.

For three years He set Himself to the work of preaching His Revelation and establishing the Church that was to be its organ through all the centuries. He went about, therefore, freely and swiftly, now in town, now in country. He laid down His Divine principles and presented His Divine credentials, at marriage feasts, in market-places, in country roads, in crowded streets, and in private houses. He wrought the works of mercy, spiritual and corporal, that were to be the types of all works of mercy ever afterwards. He gave spiritual and ascetic teaching on the Mount of Beatitudes, dogmatic instructions in Capharnaum and the wilderness to the east of Galilee, and mystical discourses in the Upper Chamber of Jerusalem and the temple courts. His activities and His proselytisms were unbounded. He broke up domestic circles and the routine of offices. He called the young man from his estates and Matthew from custom- ouse and James and John from their father’s fishing business. He made a final demonstration of His unlimited claim on humanity in His Procession on Palm Sunday, and on Ascension Day ratified and commissioned the proselytizing activities of His Church for ever in His tremendous charge to the Apostolic band. Going, therefore, teach ye all nations ... teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you; and behold I am with you all the days, even to the consummation of the world.

Yet this, it must be remembered, was not only not the whole of His Life on earth, it was not even a very considerable part of it, if reckoned by years. For three years He was active, but for thirty He was retired in the house of Nazareth; and even those three years are again and again broken by retirement. He is now in the wilderness for forty days, now on the mountain all night in prayer, now bidding His disciples come apart and rest themselves. The very climax of His ministry too was wrought in silence and solitude. He removed Himself about a stone’s throw in the garden of Gethsemane from those who loved Him best; He broke His silence on the Cross to bid farewell even to His holy Mother herself. Above all, he explicitly and emphatically commended the Life of Contemplative Prayer as the highest that can be lived on earth, telling Martha that activity, even in the most necessary duties, was not after all the best use to which time and love could be put, but rather that Mary had chosen the best part ... the one thing that is necessary, and that it shall not be taken away from her even by a sister’s loving zeal.

Finally, fault was found with Jesus Christ, as with His Church, on precisely these two points. When He was living the life of retirement in the country He was rebuked that He did not go up to the feast and state His claims plainly—justify, that is, by activity, His pretensions to the Messiahship; and when He did so, He was entreated to bid his acclaimants to hold their peace--to justify, that is, by humility and retirement, His pretensions to spirituality.

The reconciliation, therefore, of these two elements in the Catholic system is very easy to find.

First, it is the Church’s Divinity that accounts for her passion for God. To her as to none else on earth is the very face of God revealed as the Absolute and Final Beauty that lies beyond the limits of all Creation. She in her Divinity enjoys it may be said, even in her sojourn on earth, that very Beatific Vision that enraptured always the Sacred Humanity of Jesus Christ. With all the company of heaven then, with Mary Immaculate, with the Seraphim and with the glorified saints of God, she endures, seeing Him Who is invisible. Even while the eyes of her humanity are held, while her human members walk by faith and not by sight, she, in her Divinity, which is the guaranteed Presence of Jesus Christ in her midst, already dwells in heavenly places and is already come to Mount Zion and the City of the living God and to God Himself, Who is the Light in which all fair things are seen to be fair.

Is it any wonder then that, now and again, some chosen child of hers catches a mirrored glimpse of what she herself beholds with unveiled face; that some Catholic soul, now and again, chosen and called by God to this amazing privilege, should suddenly perceive, as never before, that God is the one and only Absolute Beauty, and that, compared with the contemplation of this Beauty—which contemplation is, after all, the final life of Eternity to which every redeemed soul shall come—all the activities of earthly life are nothing; and that, in her passion for this adorable God, she should run into a secret room and shut the door and pray to her Father Who is in secret, and so remain praying, a hidden channel of life to the whole of that Body of which she is a member, an intercessor for the whole of that Society of which she is one unit? There in silence, then, she sits at Jesus’ feet and listens to the Voice which is as the sound of many waters; in the whiteness of her cell watches Him Whose Face is as a Flame of Fire, and in austerity and fasting tastes and finds that the Lord is gracious.

Of course this is but madness and folly to those who know God only in His Creation, who imagine Him merely as the Soul of the World and the Vitality of Created Life. To such as these earth is His highest Heaven and the beauty of the world the noblest vision that can be conceived.  Yet to that soul that is Catholic, who understands that the Eternal Throne is indeed above the stars and that the Transcendence of God is as fully a truth as His Immanence—that God in Himself, apart from all that He has made, is all-fair and all-sufficient in His own Beauty—to such a soul as this, if called to such a life, there is no need that the Church should declare explicitly that the Contemplative Life is the highest. She knows it already.

The First Great Commandment of the Law, then, is inevitably followed by the Second, and the Catholic interpretation of the Second is thought by the world, which understands neither, to be as extravagant as her interpretation of the First.

For this Divine Church that knows God is also a Human Society that dwells among men, and since she in herself unites Divinity and Humanity, she cannot rest until she has united them everywhere else.

For, as she turns her eyes from God to men, she sees there immortal souls, made in the image of God and made for Him and Him alone, seeking to satisfy themselves with Creation instead of with the Creator. She hears how the world preaches the sanctity of the temperament, and the holiness of the individual point of view, as if there were no Transcendent God at all and no objective external Revelation ever made by Him. She sees how men, instead of seeking to conform themselves to God’s Revelation of Himself, attempt rather to conform such fragments of that Revelation as have reached them to their own points of view; she listens to talk about “aspects of truth” and “schools of thought” and the “values of experience” as if God had never spoken either in the thunders of Sinai or the still voice of Galilee.

Is it any wonder, then, that her Proselytism appears to such a world as extravagant as her Contemplation, her passion for men as unreasonable as her passion for God, when that world sees her bring herself from her cloisters and her secret places to proclaim as with a trumpet those demands of God which He has made known, those Laws which He has promulgated, and those rewards which He has promised? For how can she do otherwise who has looked on the all-glorious Face of God and then on the vacant and complacent faces of men—she who knows God’s infinite capacity for satisfying men and men’s all but infinite incapacity for seeking God—when she sees some poor soul shutting herself up indeed within the deadly and chilly walls of her own “temperament” and “individual point of view,” when earth and heaven and the Lord of them both is waiting for her outside?

The Church, then, is too much interested in men and too much absorbed in God. Of course she is too much interested and too much absorbed, for she alone knows the value and capacity of both; she who is herself both Divine and Human. For Religion, to her, is not an elegant accomplishment or a graceful philosophy or a pleasing scheme of conjectures. It is the fiery bond between God and man, neither of whom can be satisfied without the other, the One in virtue of His Love and the other in virtue of his createdness. She alone, then, understands and reconciles the tremendous Paradox of the Law that is Old as well as New. Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart ... and thy neighbour as thyself .





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