STATIONS OF THE CROSS: First Station — Jesus Christ Is Condemned To Death, by Evelyn Underhill

Underhill stations of the cross

From The Path of Eternal Wisdom, written under the pseudonym, John Cordelier

The Eternal Wisdom Judged by His Creatures

The Eternal Wisdom, since he comes in one disguise or another before each one of us, is judged by each one of us: for in his presence it is beyond our power to remain indifferent. Where the living Christ is concerned, our very assumption of apathy is really a taking of sides.  “He that is not with me, is against me.”  Sooner or later, in one form or another, this forced option confronts us.  Our will inclines – be it ever so little – this way or that, towards the self or the non-self, the unreal or the real: and, hardly aware perhaps of the awfulness of the moment, we have delivered our verdict upon God.

It is in accordance with the paradoxical nature of the spiritual life as it is seen from below by the human intellect, that by this our judgment upon him, we too are judged.  “Guilty or not guilty?” says Earthly justice.  “What think ye of Christ?” says the voice of Truth.  In one language or another, under one symbol or another, every man is asked this question: and reveals himself inevitably in his reply.  “What we are, that we behold: and what we behold, that we are.”  The implacable judge of the old theology no longer thunders from the heavens, but speaks without utterance in our own heart.  We pronounce our own sentence, irrevocably, in the moment in which that heart pronounces sentence upon reality – says what it thinks of God.  It declares, in this action, its own measure of goodness and truth; and against this awful self-judgment there is and can be no appeal.

We are confronted, in that hour, by the divine word: by that life in whom is the life of men.  Sometimes the encounter is like that of Pilate – none of our seeking.  Sometimes it is that of Herod – the disappointing, hardly recognized satisfaction of our vague and selfish curiosity about spiritual things.  Sometimes it is that of Caiaphas – deliberately sought for evil ends.  God comes to us, for the most part, so gently and willingly, his advent conforms so humbly to the conditions of his creatures, the freedom of our spirits is so great, that we may choose almost any part in the world’s tragedy.  The only thing which is beyond our power is to remain wholly apart from it.  It is open to us to betray, to judge, to mock, to deny; to follow his footsteps, to watch him from the roadside, to serve him on the way.  Some, when he confronts them, still go through the solemn farce of washing their hands; refusing all responsibility.  In vain.  In this very act they send Perfect Love to the cross.  In the choosing of our part in the moment when he stands before us, we judge him, and he us.

There are three forces within the self, three aspects of our being; which, if we place any one of them upon the judgment seat, will judge him unjustly.

Caiaphas, the High Priest, the conserver of our prejudices, will judge him unjustly because no formalist can perceive God when he works in and through life itself, instead of in and through the symbols we have chosen for ourselves.  Jesus of Nazareth, the free spontaneous incarnation of the Godhead in human life, cannot be known and loved by the timid and prejudiced reactionary which lurks in each man’s soul; which sets up egoistic standards of truth, and is beset by evil fears when they are threatened by the onward sweep of the unresting Spirit of Life.  Caiaphas is afraid of life: envious of life.  Its simplicity and freedom evoke his malice and distrust.  He looks for a messiah who will conform to his own formulae: all others are but pretenders.  Caiaphas worships creeds and laws – the traditions and definitions of theology or of science – but not a living God.  When life, disconcerting in its creative liberty, thwarts tradition – when experience runs counter to science – he cries “Blasphemy!”  When the Divine Nature is manifested under an unexpected form, disappointing us by its humility of circumstance, confusing us by its defiance of all our ancient standards, amazing us by the secret and insistent power which is yet so different in kind from all that our imaginations had persuaded us to expect; then he is filled, not with awe, but with terror and wrath.  His is the first voice to send the Eternal Wisdom to the cross.

Herod will judge unjustly because he is delicate, supercilious, self-indulgent: because his attitude towards the spiritual universe is one of egoistic curiosity.  He is, as we say nowadays, “interested in all these things”; and, by this very fact, hopelessly separated from them.  He is a taster of life, not immersed in it.  No amateur of the marvelous is capable of recognizing the living Christ: at most, he will deck him in the gorgeous robe of condescending approbation and send him away.  Herod never condemns God: he only finds him rather commonplace and uninteresting.  To him the Eternal Wisdom seems folly: more, in the bottom of his heart he knows it to be dangerous folly, which would destroy forever his sleek comfort, his tolerant curiosity, his passive and amiable interest in the marvelous, did he but listen to its voice.  But the voice speaks ordinary and simple things: the speaker seems poor and ineffectual to one who demands an atmosphere of wonder as a necessary ingredient of supernatural reality.  There is little to tempt Herod to exchange a tepid and comfortable curiosity for the harsh and dreary actualities of spiritual experience.  It is the horror of the situation for the Herod in our souls that there is no third choice: we leave Perfection to its fate, or take up the cross ourselves and follow it.

Pilate, the ultimate tribunal of the unregenerate mind, implicitly indifferent to God, will judge unjustly because he represents the convention which regards culture and civilization as more important than reality, the keeping of rules as safer than the seeking of truth, and the ideals of government as taking precedence of the expression of life.  It grieves the aesthetic instincts of the Pilate in us that the Beautiful, the Innocent, the Ideal, should be hurt.  He loves order and moderation, hates the fanatics of all creeds, and feels an impatient disgust for the vulgar and ignorant minds which insist upon the condemnation of interesting, picturesque, and harmless things.  But it is the way of the world: and so, he supposes, beyond his control.  His business is to manage the world in the interest of law, peace, and comfort – concrete matters, to which clear benefits are attached.  Life, says Pilate, is inevitably a matter of compromise.  There is no use in forcing on a community ideals which is does not understand.  For himself, he finds no fault in the Eternal Wisdom.  But the people prefer Barabbas.  So he washes his hands, ostentatiously, in the presence of the crowd which he both despises and fears; and – obedient to the wishes of the majority – releases to them the Evil and sacrifices the Good.

Caiaphas, Herod, and Pilate, then, stand for those three great forms of disharmony between man and the transcendent which will lead to the condemnation of the living Christ.  “The Word of God,” says Ruysbroeck, “is none other than See.”  The Word is alive, says Boehme, and no form can contain It; because It is infinite, like God.  All the unjust judges in man’s soul bring with them their containing formulae, the demands of the traditional, the marvelous, the rational: and because the Eternal Wisdom cannot conform to them, they cry, “Art thou the Son of God?” and condemn him to the cross.

But he is the creative logos, and his word to us is the gift of spiritual vision; in which, for an instant, we transcend the scattered, partial images of the churches and the thinkers, and see him in his own light.  There is a moment in every life in which he is thus seen standing before us.  He does not plead with or explain himself.  He stands and waits to be judged.  To each of us comes this transcendent opportunity, this decisive if momentary touch of divine love upon our eyelids, healing if we will the blindness of our Earth-born sense.  At that moment we see Christ before our judgment seat, and to each human soul is given the awful choice between the crowning and the crucifixion of its God.  The deep and urgent love of the Creator for the creature brings him thus to our doors; places him in his fullness and beauty at the mercy of each one of those separated spirits whom he has made for himself, and who have no rest apart from their goal.

Then it is that, because of those things within us which are violently antagonistic to the divine, we fail to recognize the personality who stands before us.  Judged by the world’s standards, seen by unloving eyes, the quietness and simplicity of reality seem inadequate to its stupendous claims.  So we take sides with the concrete certainties of life; and in this act – unconsciously almost – we trace the way of the cross and leave him to tread it alone.

This, then, is and has ever been the attitude of the natural, Earth-encompassed self towards the striving Christ: these are the conditions of the everlasting duel between man’s separated will and the will of God.  But when, for the individual, that duel is over, when Love has made a wound in the hard crust of selfhood and permitted the inflow of the divine, the relation is altered.  Then, as the mystics say, the “New Birth” takes place: man, stung to new life by this tincture of eternity, comes forth from the cave of illusion into the amazing atmosphere of reality.  Then Christ’s experience becomes ours.  We are swept from the judgment seat into the vortex of life: are made squires of the Eternal Wisdom, and must ride with him in the lists.

Each of us, when we thus deliberately accept the life of divine chivalry, must expect in our turn to be judged by that world which our new simplicity defies.  It is the first condition of our initiation into the secret society of the friends of God, that we take our place with him before the judgment seat of the world; and are with him mocked, patronized, and misunderstood by the world’s religion, the world’s culture, the world’s power – all the artificial contrivances that it sets up as standards by which to condemn reality.  In the very moment in which we declare that it cannot give us that intangible kingdom to which we aspire, we alienate its sympathy, insult its common sense.  It goes up into the judgment seat, prepared to deal wisely with the rebel in us, tolerantly with the fool.  Then ignorance, idleness, and cowardice condemn us at their ease, as they once condemn the First and Only Fair.

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