Monday, October 24, 2016

"Reformations" - 500 years ago - following the Church of the first 1500 years of Christianity

Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450–1650
by Carlos Eire: Yale University Press

Following are excerpts from a review by noted historian Prof. Eamon Duffy; wherein he summarizes some of the more compelling re-interpretations of the various ‘reformations’ that have shaped the modern world. The bolding is mine. JH

Next year marks the fifth centenary of one of the few precisely datable historical events that can be said to have changed the world forever. In 1517, an unknown German professor from an undistinguished new university protested against the sordid trade in religious benefits known as “indulgences,” which were then being peddled around Germany to fund grandiose plans to rebuild St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Martin Luther’s protest initially took the form of a public challenge to an academic debate on a swathe of theological niceties. But this was the first age of print, and Luther was a publicist of genius. His list of topics for debate, in the form of Ninety-Five Theses, was printed as a broadsheet (though the legend that he nailed them to a church door is, sadly, probably untrue). The theses nonetheless became the world’s most improbable bestseller. What might have been a technical academic exercise in a Wittenberg lecture hall rapidly escalated into a fundamental questioning of the theological underpinning of Western Christianity. 

In its wake, Europe divided, roughly north and south, and the peoples of Europe were pitched into a series of murderous ideological wars in which tens of thousands died, and during which the religious, cultural, and political map of Europe was redrawn. We are all still living with the consequences.

This religious and cultural earthquake has traditionally been known as the Reformation, a loaded term with which Catholics have never been comfortable. To dub these transformations as a Reformation implies that something that had gone radically wrong was put right, that a good form of Christianity replaced a bad one. The fact that the term has traditionally been capitalized and used in the singular also poses a problem. The new religious identities and communities which emerged from these conflicts—Lutheran, Calvinist, Anglican, and the more radical groupings often lumped together under the name “Anabaptist”—did indeed share some beliefs and attitudes in common. 

They all prioritized the written Word of God in the Bible over traditional Church teaching and discipline, and they all vehemently rejected the papacy and the allegedly materialistic religious system which the papacy headed. But they were divided among themselves—often lethally—on almost everything else. Within a single generation of Luther’s protest, “Protestants” were excommunicating, fighting, and persecuting each other, as well as the common Catholic enemy, and many were calling for a reform of the Reformation.

Even the timescale traditionally assumed has now been challenged. In the older and mainly Protestant historiography, the overthrow of Catholicism almost everywhere in Northeastern Europe, and its replacement by “reformed” versions of Christianity, was seen as a swift process. Since medieval Catholicism was believed to have been corrupt, decadent, priest-ridden, and therefore unpopular with the laity, it was taken for granted that it could have offered little resistance to the reformers’ message. And so histories of the Reformation were conventionally histories of events in the early and middle sixteenth century. Only recently has the notion of a “long reformation” gained currency. Studies of the problems that Protestant officialdom encountered in uprooting deeply entrenched popular beliefs, practices, and loyalties, and in inculcating new beliefs and disciplines, have brought home the realization that after the first energies of “reformation” had passed, consolidating new religious identities at the grassroots level was almost everywhere a difficult and painful process, stretching over decades and even centuries. This realization requires a drastic rethinking, still very much in process, of much that was taken for granted in the older accounts. Some of that rethinking has been done under the rubric of the history of “confessionalization,” a term used to denote the deployment of religion to create or reinforce social and political identities. But this approach has brought its own problems, tending as it does to reduce religion to an instrument of social control and political manipulation.

Against the background of these shifts in historical understanding, an avalanche of biographies of Luther and histories of the religious revolution he launched has begun ahead of next year’s quincentenary. Few of them will rival the sheer scale and ambition of Carlos Eire’s new survey. Eire is one of America’s most distinguished historians of early modern religion, and his absorption of the newer historiography is proclaimed in the fact that his book is entitled Reformations, in the plural. His book “accepts the concept of multiple Reformations wholeheartedly,” and seeks to deepen the concept by paying equal attention “to all the different movements and churches that emerged in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, stressing their interrelatedness.” The ambition to present a synoptic account of the multiple sixteenth-century movements for religious “reform,” Catholic and Protestant, has led some historians to search for a single interpretative framework for the reform impulse, to suggest that fundamental similarities underlay sixteenth-century religious reform wherever it occurred. So, the French Catholic historian Jean Delumeau proposed that we should understand both the emergence of Protestantism and the transformation of Catholicism after Trent as twin aspects of a process of “Christianization.” On this account, both Catholic and Protestant reformers laboured to replace the inherited half-pagan folk religion of late medieval Europe with something more authentically Christian, focused on the person of Christ rather than often legendary saints, prioritizing orthodox catechesis and preaching over quasi-magical ritual, and imposing religious and moral discipline on a reluctant populace.

Rejecting the negative judgments implicit in Delumeau’s notion of “Christianization,” the English historian John Bossy, himself by upbringing and education a Catholic, offered a rather less benign overarching analysis of the Catholic and Protestant reformations of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The central contention of Bossy’s short but scintillating Christianity in the West was that medieval Christianity had been fundamentally concerned with the creation and maintenance of peace in a violent world. “Christianity” in medieval Europe denoted neither an ideology nor an institution, but a community of believers whose religious ideal—constantly aspired to if seldom attained—was peace and mutual love. The sacraments and sacramentals of the medieval Church were not half-pagan magic, but instruments of the “social miracle,” rituals designed to defuse hostility and create extended networks of fraternity, spiritual “kith and kin,” by reconciling enemies and consolidating the community in charity.

But in the Renaissance era, and even more so in the Reformation period which followed, reliance on symbol and image gave way to the privileging of the printed or spoken word . . . .  Christianity became a system of beliefs and moral behaviours. By 1700, “the Christian world was full of religions, objectives and moral entities characterized by system, principles and hard edges.” And above that multiplicity loomed “a shadowy abstraction, the Christian religion.”

Both Delumeau and Bossy feature in Eire’s bibliography, but he has little sympathy with these attempts at an overarching morphology of “Reformation.” For him, what characterizes the religious transformations of the sixteenth century, and their out-workings in the seventeenth, is not a single unifying energy, good or bad, but their variety and multiple incompatibilities. The occasion of his book is the upcoming Luther anniversary, and he does justice to Luther’s unique role in triggering the collapse of the medieval religious synthesis. But he is keen to emphasize that Luther was just one, if the first, of the agents of the dramatic upheavals of the period, and in the long term, by no means the most important. Zwingli, a former humanist whose abandonment of medieval Catholic orthodoxy predated Luther’s, gets extended treatment, as does Calvin, who built on Zwingli’s initiatives . . . .  alongside a meticulous analysis of the theology we get ample quotation illustrating Luther’s disconcerting penchant for scatological insult and a preoccupation with excreta aimed indiscriminately at Catholics and the devil.

Eire’s final chapter on the great Reformer is headed “Luther the reactionary . . . . Luther’s fear of anarchy and horrified determination to distance himself from the rebels elicited some of his least appealing writing: “Let everyone who can smite, slay, and stab . . . remembering that nothing can be more poisonous, hurtful, or devilish than a rebel. It is just as when one must kill a mad dog. . . . Stab, smite, slay, whoever can.” He never retreated from this position. Years later, he would tell admiring disciples, “It was I, Martin Luther, who slew all the peasants . . . for I commanded them to be slaughtered. All their blood is on my head. But I throw the responsibility on our Lord God, who instructed me to give this order.”

 . . . . Among the greatest merits of Eire’s survey are its remarkable clarity in expounding difficult theological ideas and complex political changes, its calm comprehensiveness, and its sober judgments, expressed with an unemphatic evenhandedness. Eire first made his mark as a historian in 1989 with The War Against the Idols, a study of Reformation iconoclasm and the theology that underlay it. His ease with difficult theological concepts, not least his immersion in the thought of Erasmus and the long line of thinkers and activists who took Erasmus’s ideas in a more radical direction, is evident throughout his account of the early Reformation. Though Eire recognizes and explains the political and practical considerations that often drove religious change, he insists on the centrality of theology in any explanation of the power and appeal of the Reformation. His analysis of Luther’s complicated and often inconsistent theological development is a model of lucid exposition. Eire has an eye for the telling quotation, and he punctuates his narrative with lists designed to help the reader through the tangle of intellectual complexities—the five key influences on Luther’s early theological development, the five core beliefs underlying the apparently endless variations of the so-called “radical reformation,” the four indicators of the religious dimension of early modern violence, and so on. His adeptness with this sort of exposition is especially on display in his chapter on the “left wing” of the Reformation, the dissident radicals who rejected any alliance between the “world”—and hence the state—and the Church, on the grounds that Christian faith was above everything else a personal religious choice for the individual . . . .

Another notable feature of Eire’s survey is the space he allocates to the Catholic Reformation . . . . Though he starts this section with a chapter entitled “Facing the Challenge,” and recognizes the realities encoded in the older designation “Counter-Reformation,” Eire treats the internal transformations of early modern Catholicism, and its missionary outreach east and west, as expressions of “reformation” in their own right, and not mere reactions to Protestantism. This emphasis is of course neither unique nor new. The debate about how Catholic reform should be characterized is an old one, but the extended attention given here to the multiple energies of early modern Catholicism is welcome. An especially valuable feature is Eire’s alertness to changing attitudes toward the supernatural and the miraculous in the period, and the significance of such shifts for understanding the parting of ways between Catholics and Protestants. So, some of the most absorbing sections of the book deal with the place of miracles and mysticism in post-Tridentine Catholicism, with the role of demonology and witchcraft in the new landscapes of belief in seventeenth century Europe, and a fascinating—and hair-raising—treatment of the importance of hell in Baroque religious culture.

. . . . Though he provides a vivid account of Pascal and Jansenism to illustrate the divisions within seventeenth century French Catholicism and emphasizes the violent opposition encountered by Catholic reformers like Charles Borromeo and John of the Cross, Eire’s treatment of the divisions within Catholic reform in general is less vividly realized than his treatment of the corresponding tensions with Protestantism, though Catholic reform could be every bit as fiercely contested and divided. Eire never mentions, for example, the so-called “Spirituali,” the remarkable group of reform-minded Italian Catholics, which included Michelangelo and was loosely associated with the Englishman, Cardinal Reginald Pole, while he was governor of the Papal Legation of Viterbo in the 1530s and 1540s [influenced by St. Thomas More and Erasmus]. 

This group became suspect as it inclined dangerously towards the doctrine of justification by faith alone. The group patronized outstanding preachers like Bernard Ochino and Peter Martyr Vermigli who later seceded to Protestantism, and was responsible for the distribution of tens of thousands of copies of the notorious tract Beneficio di Cristo, written by a Cassinese protégé of Pole’s, and which incorporated without acknowledgment swathes from the first version of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. Some of Pole’s closest associates in this group, including his friend Cardinal Giovanni Morone, would be arrested and imprisoned in the 1550s on suspicion of heresy by the fanatical Carafa pope, Paul IV. Carafa tried unsuccessfully to recall Pole himself from his crucial role as Archbishop of Canterbury and papal legate in Mary Tudor’s England, in order to burn him. 

Released on Carafa’s death, Morone would go on to become a dominant figure in the final sessions of the Council of Trent, and some of the reform measures Pole devised for England, including the establishment of seminaries, found their way via Morone into the Council’s proceedings. But Morone doesn’t even make it into the index of this book, and it would be hard to gather from Eire’s account that the Council itself was at times a cock-pit for contested conceptions of Catholic reform, disagreements which would persist and issue, among other places, in the quarrels over Jansenism.

In any survey on this scale, however distinguished, specialist readers are bound to find something to criticize: All the same, it seems to this British historian that the least satisfactory sections of Eire’s book are quite certainly those dealing with England. The main contentions of his account of the English Reformation could have been written thirty years ago, embodying as is does many of the familiar tropes of an older historiography. This is clearest in in his portrayal of the Elizabethan settlement as a deliberate via media between Protestantism and Catholicism, an interpretation which has been the target of much of the best writing about the period for more than twenty years. In this account, Puritans feature essentially as dissidents whose leaders tended towards separation. But most recent writing on Puritanism has followed the late Patrick Collinson, unquestioned expert in Puritan studies, in seeing Puritanism as part of the mainstream of the Elizabethan church, which was more decidedly Protestant than Eire contends.

What does Eire think was the outcome of two centuries of Reformations? War, of course, the division of Europe into more or less self-contained Catholic and Protestant camps, intractable ideological confrontation, and the growth of skepticism and doubt in the face of sometimes murderously self-confident orthodoxies, whether Catholic or Protestant. “By 1648,” he writes, “it had become all too clear to far too many Westerners that religion was no longer a social glue binding civilization together, but rather something corrosive and explosive which in the long run would have to be circumvented, perhaps even ignored.” Eire is cautious in offering judgments about the distinctive outcome of the Protestant reformations. Here he differs strikingly from another distinguished American Catholic historian of early modern religion, Brad Gregory. Gregory, like Eire, is an authority on the radical reformation, and author of Salvation at Stake, the best study of Reformation martyrdom, Catholic and Protestant. In his brilliant but controversial recent study of the consequences of the Reformation, The Unintended Reformation, Gregory has no doubt that its outcomes were, on balance, negative. The principal of sola scriptura and the rejection of the Church’s teaching authority in the end, he thinks, led to a “market of values” in which all certainties dissolved.

The abolition of the vowed religious life of monks and nuns removed a powerful institutional witness to Christian ambivalence about material prosperity, and opened the door to the acquisitive society. By contrast, the intractability of post-Reformation religious disagreements contributed to the emergence of societies which found their rationale in purely materialistic concerns such as the protection of property and the contractual guarantee of the rights of the individual. In the pioneering early modern secular states, notably the Dutch Republic, Gregory argues, men and women decided to stop killing each other over what seemed hopelessly irresolvable religious differences, and went shopping instead. In the long run, because there were no universally accepted norms for truth, religion became a private matter, and this privatization became one of the building blocks of Enlightenment social theory. “It does me no injury,” declared Thomas Jefferson, “for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” Here, Gregory thinks, lies the origin of a rootless modern “hyperpluralism,” in which there is no objective basis for shared value, and in which good and bad become matters of arbitrary personal preference, or, as Gregory expresses it, “whatever.”

Eire shies away from overarching assessments of this kind, preferring “to allow the past to be understood on its own terms, free from teleological trajectories or presentist agenda.” All the same, his conclusions, though expressed more restrainedly, seem not so very different. Eire sees the Protestant revolutions as having brought about an underlying set of “paradigm shifts,” similar to those Gregory identifies. Protestantism “desacralized” the world by accepting an essentially binary division of reality into spirit and matter. That division was expressed in Reformation iconoclasm and the rejection of the notion that material objects—the bread and wine of the Mass, relics, images—could be vehicles of spiritual reality. The Reformation, Eire suggests, restricted the supernatural “to heaven and the ancient past.” It thereby changed “the very essence of the Christian religion as it had been lived for the previous 1,500 years.” By outlawing prayer for the dead and denying that the saints could pray for us, the Reformation “stripped religion of mediation and intimacy . . . with the dead,” transforming it into “something strictly for the living. . . . more pragmatically focused on this world.” The result was the emergence of two “very different kinds of Christianity, and of two worldviews within Western culture.” And it was this fragmentation, inaugurated by contested reformations, that gradually turned religion “into a private concern rather than a public one.” Western Christendom “ceased to exist,” leaving Christians in their various camps “warily keeping an eye on one another and on the rising tide of unbelief and materialism.”

It is hard to dissent from the detail of all this. Yet one may well feel that whether in Gregory’s stark dissection of the leading ideas of Protestantism as the unwitting corrosive which dissolved the moral and religious coherence of Christendom, or in Eire’s more hesitant and nuanced analysis, there is something left unsaid. The principle of sola scriptura and Protestantism’s consequent inability to arrive at workable criteria to determine Christian orthodoxy certainly contributed to the breakdown of Christendom and the emergence of a secular society. But so too did the repressive authoritarianism of post-Tridentine Catholicism, the emergence of a Catholic ecclesiology inimical to true communitas by its overemphasis on clerical power and centralized authority, and the acceptance into Catholic theology, philosophy, and anthropology of a dualistic Cartesianism every bit as inimical to the medieval intellectual and moral synthesis (if such a thing can be said to have existed) as anything that emerged from Wittenberg or Geneva. Nonetheless, Eire’s majestically comprehensive survey leaves no doubt about the enduring consequences, for good and ill, of the religious upheavals of the sixteenth and subsequent centuries. His readers will decide for themselves whether there is much to cheer about in 2017.

Eamon Duffy is professor emeritus of the history of Christianity at the University of Cambridge, and a fellow and former president of Magdalene College.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Faith - a Homily

19th Sunday after Trinity   (OT 27C)                                                                                 

STM/SVDP, Toronto Oct 2, 2016

“Because of his faith, the just man shall live.”

The prophetic voice of Habakkuk is echoed by St. Paul: rekindle the gift of God that is within you. (2 Timothy) Faith is central to our lives if we are to live with God and for God.

The Gospel tells us that we must live by faith in Christ who loved us and gave himself on the Cross for us. (Galatians 2:20).

The world, though, can seem to us like it did in the seventh-century B.C. as the situation in Judah seemed to Habakkuk— i.e. to be under the control of God's enemies. The control of mammon seems to be everywhere in secular society.  We face strife and discord and this can sometimes cause us to wonder, as the prophet does, why God doesn't seem to hear or intervene when we cry for help.

Everyone has had the experience of not being listened to – husbands/ wives/ children.

We are exhorted not to let our hearts be hardened by the trials we undergo.  Israel forgot God’s mighty works, lost faith in God’s promise. They tested God in the desert, demanding a sign.

But God didn't redeem Israel from Egypt only to leave them to die in the desert.  God didn't ransom us and give us what St. Paul calls "the good treasure entrusted to you" simply to abandon us in our struggles. God is our God and we are "the people of  his pasture and the sheep of his hand" even though at times both God’s mercy and justice seem long delayed.

If we call on the Lord, as the Apostles do in today's Gospel, God will increase our faith, and will stir the flame of the Holy Spirit who dwells within us from the day of our Baptism.  

Our faith must, then, be strengthened by practice, by corporal and spiritual works of mercy, by celebrating the sacraments,  by receiving Holy Communion regularly and by praying together for the needs of the Church and the world.

As Paul tells us in the Epistle, the Lord will always give us the love and self-control, "the spirit of power and of love" that we need to bear our share of hardship for the sake of the Gospel.  Our strength comes to us, as does our faith, as a gift from God.  Faith is not something we can conjure up on our own.

Our task is to continue doing what Christ has commanded us to do—to love and to build up God’s kingdom—trusting that the vision of Christ continues to press on to its fulfillment.

God’s  vision still has time. One day, even though we may be only "unprofitable servants," we will be invited to eat and drink at our Master's table. It is that day we anticipate with each celebration of the Eucharist.

Holy Communion: Private, public

There is much talk about and, especially with Protestants entering into the full communion of the Catholic Church, often misunderstanding about the corporate nature of communion and, in particular, Holy Communion.  
The individualism of our day and the inherent individualistic focus of Protestant theology makes it both intellectually and culturally challenging for many.  
The question is often framed in this way:
Why can't Protestants share in Holy Communion at Mass?
or more starkly:
Who should be barred from Holy Communion? 
The second question is especially pertinent regarding so-called “second unions” and “homosexual marriages.” 
An interesting article by Fr. Timothy Vaverek
at THE CATHOLIC THING explores these questions.
Here are some excerpts (bolding is mine):
The emphasis has been on Canon Law and the subjective guilt of individuals. These are important considerations, of course. But it’s also necessary to examine the underlying ecclesial meaning of Holy Communion, conscience, and Christian life – if we want to understand the intrinsic reason why certain persons ought to refrain voluntarily from receiving Holy Communion, as well as the true pastoral nature of the Church’s canonical and moral prohibitions.
Many preachers and theologians have noted that the Creed’s affirmation of the “communion of saints” (communio sanctorum) can refer to both the communion of the “holy ones” and of the “holy things.” In other words, our communion with the Trinity and redeemed humanity in Jesus is also our communion in the life of the Church through sharing the sacraments, the Apostolic teachings, and daily Christian life. (Act 2:42)
Receiving the Body of Christ in Holy Communion, therefore, is the personal and ecclesial act of someone who lives as a member of the body of Christ rather than merely as a private individual. This reception does not establish communion, but fosters the communion the person has already entered through Baptism and perseverance in the life of Christ.
Hence one who receives Holy Communion must be baptized, be truly penitent for all sin, and accept the faith and moral practice of the Church. Otherwise, regardless of intention, something is amiss – because the external, objective act of receiving Holy Communion does not correspond to the internal, subjective reality of the person’s relation to Christ and his Church.
In the Catholic understanding, conscience, too, is both a personal and ecclesial reality rather than a merely individualistic one. The origin of the word (con-scientia) means “to know within” oneself and to “to know with” others. For Christians, this is a sharing of the mind of Christ within the Church through obedience, which directs us to do or to avoid a specific action; and to make judgments according to God’s standards rather than man’s.
All this, so that we might become holy as he is holy. Everyone’s conscience is fallible and sin can further damage its judgments, to the point that repeated or unrepented sin can blind the conscience to the truth. (1 Tim 4:2)

. . . innocent error or a history of sin may lead Christians to embrace behaviors that are not worthy of the human person, without recognizing the evil of their actions. Inasmuch as their actions are in fact harmful and contrary to the mind of Christ (because objectively wrong), they deviate from the Gospel life and bear an objectively false witness within the Church and before the world.
For those with an innocently mistaken conscience, the reception of Holy Communion remains a means of grace, although there is a discrepancy that needs to be remedied to free them as children of God from the damage and constraint of disordered behaviors. For those guilty of unrepented sin, even if unrecognized due to a seared conscience, reception would be false, sacrilegious, and dangerous. (1 Cor. 11:27-32)
A rightly formed conscience is founded on the objective reality of the person of Christ and his teachings, not the subjective opinions, feelings, or criteria of an individual. Christians who substitute, knowingly or not, other criteria as the basis for moral judgments are not living according to the Gospel and are therefore bringing harm to themselves, others, and the Church.
. . .  receiving Holy Communion while knowingly rejecting the faith and life of the Church, even with an otherwise innocent but incorrect subjective conscience, would mean pretending to profess a way of life such persons actually reject. If they wish to believe and live differently than the Church, they should simply not receive. Even less “receive” on their own terms. Holy Communion is not a private entitlement; it is nourishment and medicine for those who acknowledge their sins and errors while intending to live the life of Christ within the Church.
The case of so-called “second unions” deserves particular attention. Whether a prior marriage is evaluated through an annulment or another approved method, a decision of nullity requires a “moral certitude” founded on the criteria of the Church (such as lack of freedom, knowledge, or intent when the vows were exchanged) rather than the “instinct” or “opinion” of a spouse or priest. The passage of time or the presence of children in a second relationship cannot serve as criteria since these do not remove the capacity or obligation to be faithful to the first spouse. Living as “brother and sister” may be a solution.
Recent appeals to “extenuating circumstances” that allegedly would open a path to Holy Communion in these cases by reducing subjective guilt to venial sin are similarly useless because reception requires the intention to avoid all sins, venial or mortal. This means whether mortally or venially sinful, the parties would have to intend never to have sexual relations again.
“Homosexual marriages,” like “second unions,” entail extra-marital sexual activity. Thus, entering either type of sexual relationship or asserting their morality contradicts the Gospel and places one objectively outside the faith and practice of the Church. Refraining from reception of Holy Communion is then merely an act of integrity since these relationships deny in belief and practice what reception affirms.
Pastoral clarity on the ecclesial nature of Holy Communion, conscience, and Christian life would assist in resolving these cases and reveal the Church’s canonical and moral assessments as merciful, liberating remedies rather than – as some regard them – harsh, pharisaical judgments.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Fr. Cleevely's Remarkable Funeral Homily

Following is a remarkable homily preached by Fr. Philip Cleevely, C.O. at the Funeral Mass for John Bentley Mays on Saturday, September 24 at the Parish of St. Thomas More OCSP.

Christianity, G. K. Chesterton said, is the only religion in which God Himself appears as an atheist. Chesterton is speaking of the Cross, and is considering the words of the Incarnate Son to His Father: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? This isn’t mere appearance, a kind of disguise, but the decisive time of revelation, of Divine Self-disclosure, the consummation of God-in-the-world. And there, or rather here, in the time and place of the Cross, God appears as an atheist: God forsaken by God, Love unloved even by Love. 

It is God Who opens out the distance between Father and Son across which this forsakenness is sustained. The Son dwells among us to be with us at the very limit of where we can find ourselves, the end-point which fulfills our dread, and our desire, of being without God. In traversing that distance, the Incarnate Son does not cease to be God; and so the distance He travels is measured by God’s capacity to separate from Himself, to be beyond Himself for the sake of what is other than Himself. In other words, the distance is measured by Love.   

Within that distance, our world takes place. Each of us lives and dies somewhere within the distance that separates the Son from the Father on Good Friday. Everything unfolds within God’s being  outside of Himself: all that draws, delights and compels us, everything which frightens and disgusts us; the good and the harm that we do, our monumental indifference, and the more or less settled places and patterns of our lives. The distance of the Son from the Father knows all this, embraces it, holds it and exceeds it. And so we can never be without God, in exhilaration or in sorrow, in darkness or in rebellion, more radically than God Himself has been. This and this alone makes redemption possible: God Himself sheltering and surpassing the extremity of our losses. The distance opened out on the Cross is always before and ahead of us, wherever we put ourselves or find ourselves. The Cross, the atheism of God, is the sign, and the price, of His unreserved solidarity with us. But ‘solidarity’ is a clumsy, indiscriminate term. We would be better off thinking of a lover’s visitation, paid to an uncomprehending beloved. 

And indeed how else could God show Himself, how else could Love speak, than by this unreserved visitation to the loveless?

To be touched, however glancingly, by the singular, seemingly impossible beauty of that visitation is to have been touched by God. It is an awakening and generative touch: slowly, so unsurely, we are brought to fall in love with Love, and with Love alone: to want, in spite of ourselves, to become what He is and to do what He does. God Himself originates eternally in the power of Love to generate: and what Love generates is not fulfillment for itself, but its likeness in another. And so we find God, and therefore ourselves - a finding which is perhaps never fully conscious, never fully realized - only by entering into Love’s likeness, which is to say, for us, only on the way of the Cross.

The way of the Cross is a secret way, hidden from public approbation, and very often from the grasp even of those who travel it. On this way, one draws nearer to God than one can ever know. In the atmosphere of the culture wars, some believers spend time and energy regretting and contesting their all too evident loss of public prestige, the erosion of the social and cultural credentials of their Christian faith. But rather than styling ourselves through regret and contestation, we can receive modernity’s ambivalence as a corrective, an opportunity, even as a kind of gift. For God and ourselves can be found there too, even in the social and cultural orders we too easily characterize as post-Christian.  

For after all what validation do we seek, in mourning the now deconstructed architecture of the so-called ages of faith? Didn’t the past in fact conceal an evasion, even an idolatry, no less potent than what faces and inhabits us today? How easily the truth of God was interpreted in terms of a lavish but also essentially secular iconography, a concentration upon sovereign power in which the way of the Cross is sublimated, made visible only as the emblem of a victory already adequately reflected in the social order. 

But no social order, not even the Church, can adequately reflect the Cross. The victory that the Cross makes possible is never present and possessed, but is encoded within an always renewed experience of destitution and defeat, of waiting and of being led, of anticipation and of hope. The way of the Cross, in other words, ought to render inescapable for us the mystery of God manifesting Himself in human weakness and limitation. And here ‘in’ means within. God does not exert Himself against human weakness, least of all by showing up the weakness of those around us whom we might be tempted to style as enemies. He manifests Himself not by disclosing and subjugating the weakness of the excommunicated other, but by inhabiting our weakness, our limits, if only we resolve not to flee from them: or, more realistically, once we are rendered incapable of fleeing them. Only then does the unsayable intimacy of the Divine with the human unfold. If we try, nonetheless, to say it, we will find ourselves speaking of the endurance of the unendurable. 

The unendurable can be nailed to us as if from the inside, in the afflictions played out within our minds and our bodies; it can seem to transfix us from without, in the simple consciousness of the burdens borne by others - even one other will do, once we begin to see truthfully, let alone the uncontainable burden of the sufferings and sins of the world. None of these is endurable - and so the alternatives can seem, in the end, to be either to hide from them or to succumb. 

But on the way of the Cross we can be given, and can be taught to live from within, an unforeseeable substitution for our incapacity. We will come to be aware of ourselves, simultaneously, as helpless and as being sustained. A language is forged in which God is at last able to speak with us, a language raised up (as the Cross is raised up) from within the unendurable, an exchange between God and ourselves that cannot be objectified and transcribed but only enacted

God’s visitation can seem, sometimes, as if it might as well mean unbelief, in as much as we are capable of laying hold of and inspecting it as a kind of talisman. And yet, in this very destitution, we can be led to acknowledge that what is real is indeed here, in the mystery of Love’s visitation, and not in things considered as objects to be known and used, of which the business of love could only ever be a decorative afterthought, bestowed or withheld as may be. 

We can be led to acknowledge, in other words, that what is real is Love alone. Only the Cross reads the world, only the Cross reads our lives. 

In an essay completed a few months before his death, John wrote of what he called the void - not just neutral emptiness, on the one hand, or an abyss of negativity, on the other, but instead an in-between state, a waiting condition, without finality, coming into view as a space of impermanence, a clearing attuned to receive and to host the shifting vulnerabilities and joys of living. 

In this characterization of the void he was chiefly considering architecture, but characteristically he was also thinking spiritually and theologically. I would like to think that we have, in John’s late consideration of the void, a metaphor for grace - for what I have been calling our visitation by Love. We cannot master the world or ourselves, but must be prepared to become a kind of emptiness, spaces of attentive waiting to receive what we need, and of yielding to what is asked of us, and in all the turns of happiness and vulnerability finding ourselves sustained and spoken to. 

We can ask that this applies to us, here today, as each of us, in his or her own way, tries, impossibly, to weigh what we have lost. And we must ask that it applies to John too, in death as it did in life. And the grounds of our confidence in asking these things, for John and for ourselves, could not be greater. For although an unthinkable distance now separates us, it is, even so, a distance contained between the Father and the Son on the Cross. In the Cross, Love has already given everything; and what Love gives, in time and in eternity, it never takes back.