From The Path of Eternal Wisdom, written under the pseudonym, John Cordelier
The Eternal Wisdom Shares the Utmost Weakness of His World
There are four steps, says Richard of Saint Victor, upon that steep stairway of love by which the soul climbs up to its home in the heart of Reality. Their ascent involves a transmutation of that soul: a purging and readjustment of its qualities, that it may live and breathe in the rarefied air of the heights. The last, the most astonishing of these changes, that which heralds our actual attainment of God, he declares to be a complete humiliation, a glad and willing conformity to the ineffable lowliness of Christ. Suddenly, unexpectedly, the soul that was almost transmuted in the image of God is here utterly abased. Where she looked perhaps after her labors for a participation in the spiritual world, she is cast down to Earth, emptied and stripped of all her hard-earned merit, and, “accepting the form of a servant, is found again as a man.” She descends in her ecstasy of love and abnegation below her own proper powers till she has reached the common measure of the race.
The last step, then, on this love-path of the soul and life-path of the universe is once more a fall in respect of our own nature and strength: a making naught of ourselves and our hard-won spirituality, a rebuke to the individualist, however ardent. So the story of the cross assures us that our lovely forerunner, the Eternal Wisdom himself, fell prostrate, was humbled to the earth, in the very moment when the summit of Calvary was at last attained. He came forth from the earth: his life was the life of men. He shared the weakness of that life, submitted to the necessity of its surrender before God. This is the consummation of the folly of the cross. The sentiment of our own sufficiency cannot live in the presence of a Divine Humanity who was content to share with us that most ignominious of all failure: utter and helpless collapse in the supreme hour of sacrifice.
Since love means self-merging in another, and the act of love – in all its grades a mystic initiation – is always a mingling of ecstasy and pain, of profound humiliation and rapturous joy, how in the last resort could we hope to attain God but by a complete self-loss, by some adventure in which “the I, the Me, the Mine” should be utterly abased, and the boundaries of our selfhood – however spiritual – done away? In the end we must stoop to conquer. “Grow, that you may feed on me!” says one table of our law: but on the other is the paradoxical commandment, “Become as little children, if you would enter in.”
This lesson of failure, of littleness, it seems, is to be hammered into us: forced on us, as the beginning, the middle, and the end of the way on which Creation moves from the lower to the higher life. It seems a sad and hopeless creed to those who do not practice it – this creed which is the quintessence of romance – and the Striving Christ, faint with self-spending, an impotent God to those who have not looked him in the eyes. Yet the initiates of reality, who live with both hands, and treat firmly and steadily upon the way, find a strange exhilaration in this reiterated lesson of our human inadequacy; of weakness at the source of our truest strength. They see in it the very mark of our attainment – our union – the supreme, the bridal gift of Love to love. “He whose nature,” says Eckhart, “descends here into the deepest abasement, his spirit flies up into the heights of the Godhead; for joy brings sorrow and sorrow brings joy.” Nothing less than this could quite satisfy us: nothing else mark us out as his, and him as ours. It is an implicit of Divine Humanity that it should spend its vitality generously and heedlessly in Life’s interest: give all, keep nothing, and fall exhausted if need be at the end.
He who did most, shall bear most: the strongest shall stand the most weak.
‘Tis the weakness in strength, that I cry for I my flesh, that I seek
In the Godhead! I seek and I find it. O Saul, it shall be
A face like my face that receives thee; a man like to me,
Thou shalt love and be loved by, for ever: a hand like this hand
Shall throw open the gates of new life to thee! See the Christ stand! (Saul, by Robert Browning)
Then at last, when by our own losses, our humiliations, our total self-surrender to the strange purposes of his will, we have gained a standard whereby to measure the infinite humiliation of God accepting the limitations of the flesh – then we know once for all that we had never loved him, had never dared the intimacy which alone can satisfy our craving, if he had not fulfilled this last demand of quixotic chivalry, had not fallen with us by the way.
What, then, is it to mean for us – this last fall of the climbing, striving spirit as it comes within sight of its goal? It means a coming up to the frontiers of the spiritual country, where our own wills fail, helpless, and God alone can work. It means the ending of our strenuousness, our separate and personal endeavors: the hard confession of our utter impotence, the giving up of ourselves into his hands. With “the true lovely will of our hearts” we have loved and chosen. We have worked, we have responded, we have done what we could. Now is the more difficult moment of our passivity, in which the Transcendent works its will. The spent soul is cast down. It can do no more: lies prostrate beneath the burden of its love. But the larger life enfolds it: carries it on through the last stages of its journey. In the language of the mystics, the “active night” is over; the more dreadful “passive night” begins.
A glad endurance is now to take the place of our glad efforts. Not by any exercise of its own will, but in accordance with the great movement of the spiritual plan, the soul is to be stripped and crucified, raised up to God. We, who have gone to school with Christ in order that we may learn the process and secret of that great and cosmic life to which it is our happiness to conform, must now be taught that we cannot of ourselves bring the divine adventure to its term. This is not the easiest of our lessons. Love longs to serve: it is restless and eager. Now it is introduced into a place of being on which it can do nothing but submit to the “terrible initiatory caress of God.”
In this disconcerting failure in spiritual activity consists the passive purification of our spirit: the hardest – the least expected – of our falls upon the way. “Here,” says Saint John of the Cross, “the soul, on account of the great love it has for God, is in great pain and suffering because of the scantiness of its service.” We long to work for him: and lo! we can do nothing at all. Transcendent standards come into sight, give us the measure of our inadequacy, increase our consciousness of impotence. Hence, we seem to ourselves as we go on to be weaker instead of stronger: less, not more real. A strange dimness invades us. We know not where we are, what we can do; and God himself seems very far away. As Everyman, when he came to the journey’s end, saw depart from him his strength and his five wits, so do we. Never does man know himself weaker, smaller, less adequate, than here in this final drastic purging of the very citadel of self.
We are come up at last to Golgotha: to the place of death where the tree of our truest life is to be planted. All the eager vitality that helped us onward will not avail us here. It has done its business: it is spent. It seems to us that our very manhood, our initiative is taken from us. Instead of the victory we have striven for, we perceive ourselves to be utterly undone. We are come to the summits, to find there an air which we can hardly breathe. We swoon in this all-encompassing atmosphere, this still and dreadful desert of the Godhead: fall in virtue of all those eager powers that we brought with us – now, their work done, their energy exhausted, precipitated to the Earth where they belong – that our diviner selves may rise unfetterd, to “energize enthusiastically” upon another plane.
This pure surrender, then, this annihilation of I-hood, this utter blotting out of our separate and willful activity, is the very gage of our initiation into the “great life of the All.” It is the beginning of that death whose “face is toward the Sun of Life,” whose “truer name is Onward” – not in virtue of our own separated powers, our ardent spirituality and industrious love, but in virtue of a more difficult stillness and acquiescence in the slow, eternal, forward sweep of God.