From The Path of Eternal Wisdom, written under the pseudonym, John Cordelier
The Eternal Wisdom stoops to the limit of His Creature
All pagan peoples have thought, as it were by instinct, of serene and comfortable gods: holders of power, with none of power’s penalties: givers of grief, who knew nothing of pain. Even those who most clearly manifested the Divine energy – as Apollo – did so by the easy and beautiful exhibition of strength without stress.
But the Christian ideal, it seems, is something very different from this: it is the holy Spirit of Life triumphing in weakness, matter racked to the uttermost in order that its divine potentialities may be brought forth. It is the bitter upward climb towards complete self-dedication, with God himself our pioneer upon the way. More, it is the Ineffable Majesty of God stooping to teach man the divine art of lowliness: Perfect Love falling, willingly making itself contemptible before men, that thus it may descend more nearly to the poor fallen status of the beloved.
This willing fall of God to a sharing of our limitations is the very center of that mystery which we call the Incarnation of the Word. “Thus,” said the Eternal Truth to Saint Catherine of Siena, “the height of the Divinity, humbled to the Earth, and joined with your humanity, made the bridge and reformed the road. Why was this done? In order that man might come to his true happiness with the angels. And observe, that it is not enough in order that you may have life, that my son should have made you this bridge, unless you walk thereon.” Christ the Roadmaker does not suffice, without pilgrim man to tread the road.
There can be no shirking, then, of the incidents of the journey if we are to attain the journey’s end. We are to walk the bridge manfully, risk the slippery places, submit in all things to the rough process of life. Not one fall by the way, for the humbling of the hero in us: the pattern of our perfection achieves his triumphs, his kingship in our hearts, by a pilgrimage of which failure, and continued agonizing effort under failure, is the beginning, the middle, and the end. Life, hard and evil to the creature, was hard and evil to the Creator, too. Then as now it brought no outward circumstance of splendor to adorn the spiritual adventures of man. Rather every station of the way outrages anew our conception of Eternal Beauty: at every step a fresh defiance is hurled at the prejudice and fastidiousness of the timorous flesh, which would suffer indeed, but only under self-chosen conditions of refinement.
But it is the whole pageant of life, not the interlude of beauty, at which the true initiate of Christianity is invited to assist; and life has no place for fastidiousness, few prizes for the dainty and refined. In all her most vital processes there is a strange element of squalor; a brutal directness, a willing alliance with the crude stuff of Earth.
In every incident of the Mystic Way the great Cross-Bearer of the Universe cries in our ears, “Accept, accept! Live boldly, dangerously, and completely, without fastidiousness. Accept the mud and slime, the heat and misery, the odious disabilities of the flesh. Accept the rabble, the ignominious struggles, and the falls. Wisdom’s path is no swept and shaded avenue, but the hard and beaten highway of the world. This is the straight way to God. Accept!”
It is the same voice which has said to us in another and more secret hour, “Accipite et namducate.” Accept and eat! What? The coarse and common bread of life, the crude unlovely substance of the Earth, consecrated for us by God’s passion that it may become, mysteriously, a mode of the Divine: pushed, as it were, by our prayerful activities into that spiritual world, where it is transmuted into the very substance of love. Take it, then, and shrink not from its accidents. “Hoc est enim Corpus meum.” [This is my body: Canon of the Mass]
Certain Gnostic philosophers have spoken of the fall of spirit into matter as the origin of all our griefs. It is the “fall of man” in another and more transcendental dress. But it may be that the fall of spirit into matter – rather its fall in and with matter, the self-limiting of God Immanent, the abdication of distant, separate, and imperial rights – is the occasion, not of Spirit’s failure, but of its most sublime success. The dogma of the incarnation, the drama of the passion, hint it. The sacrament of the altar exhibits it. Spirit, falling with matter’s feebleness, merged with our striving, ineffectual life, supremely manifests its own strength. Spirit, consenting to the limitations of matter – God consenting to the weakness of man – communicates to us its rarest secret, nourishes us with the very Bread of Life.
“Hoc est enim Corpus meum!” Here, indeed, is the deepest mystery of our faith; that the true and super-substantial bread should be given to us thus, deliberately, under the trivial accidents of material life. Not distilled from the world of grace, but pushing out from the world of nature, an implicit of the harvest-fields of Earth. More, the medium of the soul’s most secret nourishment is often the harsh bread of failure, of ugliness, of dismal impotence; made for us, actually, the Heavenly food of which Saint Ambrose said, with a boldness of imagery only possible to the saints, “Manducat te Angelus ore pleno; manducet te peregrinus homo pro modulo suo, ne deficere possit in via, tali recreates viatico.” [The angels feed on thee full-mouthed. Let pilgrim man feed on thee according to his measure: that, refreshed by this viaticum, he may not faint upon the way. (Roman Missal)] God nourishes his sons in divers manners; and often enough it is the food of failure which is the accident of our most complete communion with him.
In this incredible communication to us of the Divine Substance, given to us so mysteriously in the very moment in which we lie crushed, fallen on the road under his hand – when our striving is stilled by our very helplessness and he alone works and speaks – a strange ecstasy invades the wearied soul. To fall thus with Christ is a lover’s secret, and confers a bliss unknown to mere success. “I must rejoice without ceasing,” said Ruysbroeck, “although the world shudder at my joy!” He could not help it, for he had tasted of that transmuting food which is ministered to us by the wounded hand of God: the living, true, and pure bread “having all sweetness and all savor, which ever refreshes us and never faileth,” giving of its undying life to a dying world.
Ecce panis angelorum
Factus cibus viatorum.
[Behold! the bread of angels made the pilgrims’ food. (Saint Thomas Aquinas, Lauda Sion]
So little a thing as it seems: so bewilderingly lowly: yet the channel by which the Infinite flows in. It is the second fall of Wisdom, that he may reach his people’s hearts. So, as it seems, sparsely and coarsely fed with the hard crust and common cup of existence – in the midst of undignified grief, humiliating failure, incessant strife – “pilgrim man” eats, according to his measure, of the one true viaticum; breaks bread with Christ.
The chalice and the host, then, go before us on our journey: an eternal memorial of Wisdom’s willing fall to the redemption of man’s foolishness, of the transcendent humility and unsearchable love which dwells upon our altars behind the battling veil of common things. “Qui edunt Me, adhuc esurient, et qui bibunt Me, adhuc sitient,” [They that eat me shall yet hunger: and they that drink me yet shall thirst. (Ecclesiasticus 24:29)], said the Eternal Wisdom. We are bidden at this feast to partake of the Divine craving for Perfection: to the communion of Insatiable Love. But we must take all: the very bitter chalice of his tribulation along with the life-giving bread. “Multi Jesum sequuntur usque ad fractionem panis, sed pauci usque ad bibendum calicem passionis.” [Many will follow Jesus to the breaking of bread, but few to the drinking of the chalice of his passion. (Thomas à Kempis, De Imitatione Christi) His friends cannot refuse to drink with him the cup of failure: which is often more bitter than the cup of death. “Calicem Domini affectanter bibe, si amicus ejus esse, et partem cum eo habere desideras.” [Drink of the chalice of the Lord with eagerness, if thou desirest to be his friend and to have part with him. (Ibid)