From The Path of Eternal Wisdom, written under the pseudonym, John Cordelier
The Eternal Wisdom Declares His Plan to Men
The mediaeval illuminators were accustomed to draw the Tree of the Cross growing out of the Heart of God. It bore seven roses; and in each rose was written the word, Love. In the midst of this divine inflorescence, Perfect Love hung and suffered for the salvation of men: as he may be felt, seen, and known by his lovers, hanging, suffering, dying every day. On every Christian altar we exhibit, not only the drama of faith, but this eternal process of the world.
It is plain, then, that this process must also be the process of the soul’s initiation. It is a death process; and a death not of the body alone. We are called to the paradox no less than to the folly of the cross. “Scias pro certo,” says à Kempis, “quia morientem te oportet ducere vitam. Et quanto quisque plus sibi moritur, tanto magis Deo vivere incipit.” [Know for certain that thou didst ought to lead a dying life. And the more any man dieth to himself, so much the more does he begin to live unto God.] The final death of this narrow self is the stern price of entrance into the heritage of the all: the soul’s invulnerable life in God.
All Christians lead a dying life; it is the secret of their strange vitality. They die daily in respect of the unreal and mortal world; and are daily reborn to a new and intense existence in respect of real and eternal things. But the mystical death, the true spiritual crucifixion to which the Inward Christ has urged us on, is a greater matter than this: it is a complete participation in the worst, the culminating agony of the passion – the loss and absence of God.
After long struggles, many bitter purifications, stripped of our every treasure, and completely surrendered to his will, we are lifted up at last – upon the cross that we have carried – towards the life of the spiritual world. At this long-hoped-for moment, as it seems, our very spiritual life receives its death-blow; the vision of that world is taken away. We have sought with courage and humility that uncreated light,
. . . che visible face
Lo Creatore a quella creatura
Che solo in lui vedere ha la sua pace.
[Which makes visible the Creator to that creature which only in beholding him hath its own peace. (Dante, Paradiso)]
But the Cloud of Unknowing broods upon the summit of the mystic Calvary: the light of sun and moon, divine and human radiance, is hidden by the thick darkness in which the cross is set. Thus, when the sacrifice of the flesh is consummated, the altar still waits for our souls. A desolating sense of the Divine Absence – of the withdrawal, the utter annihilation, of that for which we have agonized – here descends on us for the first time. All the glorious certitude of the pilgrim, the Heavenly knowledge of Responsive Love, goes in this dreadful hour. “Eloi! Eloi! lama sabachthani?” [My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?] There is no sincere and virile seeker after God from whom this cry has not been wrung, and who has not tasted something of the crowning anguish which the pattern of all manliness endured.
“The top of the cross,” says Tauler, “is the love of God: it has no resting place, for at all times it is a pure bare going forth, forsaken of God and all creatures, so that thou canst truly say with Christ, ‘My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?’ The sacred head of our Lord Jesus Christ had no resting place: if a man experienced divine love and a sweet consciousness of God’s presence in his absolute surrender, what would it matter to him though the whole world were against him?”
But it is to matter. There is to be no shirking: no easy slipping for us from this world to that. No love-token meets the Bride upon the threshold: only a dark and open door through which she must pass alone. All human love is left behind, puzzled and helpless, at this hour. Divine love, which we thought to satisfy and longed to serve, is amazingly and inexplicably withdrawn. Well might Dante say that only Poverty leapt to the cross: and she, not the glad giver of liberty whom Saint Francis knew, but the cruel bringer of spiritual destitution.
It is easy and pretty to embroider the mystical paradox that all must lose to find, and die to live: but a hard matter when we come to the cross and find that black despair as well as bitter suffering must be faced – that Hope has died, that the Charity in which we dwelt with God no longer glorifies the landscape, that only naked Faith remains. It is the last, supremest test of heroic character: of the completeness of our abnegation, the generosity of our love. Yet for the true lover of the infinite there is an austere joy even here; in this utter self-giving, this perfect consecration, with nothing given in return. By such a sacrifice the Lamb of God repaired the broken image of the world.
It is said in The Privity of the Passion, “Our Lord Jhesu whilst He hung on the Cross, to the hour of His death He was nought idle, but He taught great perfection.” What was the perfect that he taught? Supreme and selfless courage. The courage which faces the outer darkness, the terrible and empty spaces, risks the most awful desolation possible to the spirit of man: the selflessness which gives up the soul’s riches as easily as the riches of the world, surrenders its very vision to God’s will. “Losing to find” – losing all that made religion seem worthwhile, all our self-found relations with eternity, our knowledge of God, our power of contemplation, the inner peace which carried us through wars and griefs: losing all “merit,” all “spirituality,” all our separate will, however pure. Our very prayer taken from us, the horror of divorce from him made clear to us, till we can only cry in our extremity, “I thirst!” This is to be the final test of our faith and our detachment: this alone frees the soul from the last bonds of selfhood, lets it fly back to God, respond to his attractive power. The poor little human animal must be torn almost to pieces before Love, “half-angel and half-bird,” can spread its wings.
The valiant squire of the Eternal Wisdom must gladly face this call on his endurance. It is the greatest honor that his master can do him: this call upon a virile, unrewarded, naked faith, on his difficult loyalty, his utter trust. “Dominus illuminatio mea et salus mea, quic timebo?” [The Lord is my light and my salvation: whom shall I fear? (Psalm 27:1)] cries the enraptured soul upon the illuminative way; basking in its sense of spiritual security. What, indeed, should it fear? The little shadows of Earthly misfortunes are hardly, it thinks, noticeable in that “intellectual light informed with love.” But when the light is put out, the vision of salvation withdrawn; then, what room is left for anything but fear – the blind, black terror of the little child in the dark?
This moment of blackness and horror, then, this dark night of the soul – “shade of his hand outstretched caressingly” – must be endured by all who would walk in the path of Wisdom, attain to the divine abyss of God. It is our opportunity for the courageous and all-trusting step into utter emptiness; Nature’s benevolent dispensation over and done with, the beatific vision not yet attained. This awful darkness, this “obscure silence where all lovers lose themselves,” is the last step upon the King’s Highway of the Holy Cross. “He therefore who will not go into this dark night to seek the beloved,” says Saint John of the Cross, “who will not deny and mortify his own will, but seek him at his ease and in his bed. . . will never find him. The soul says here that it found him, as the soul says of itself that it found him by going forth in the dark, and in the anxieties of love.”
Here too, then, Eternal Wisdom, facing the hardest conditions of his own universe, showed us what we must do. By his sufferings he repaired the road, and bridged the gap between two worlds. He showed us the drama of our salvation, as no eager appropriation by us of the divine good-nature, but as a heroic business to the last. He showed death taken up to a higher term, endured in its completeness, spirit, soul, and body, and thus made the very instrument of life. All must die: but it is within the power of everyone to be the martyr of ideals instead of appetites.
“Let us then die,” cries Saint Bonaventura, “and enter into the shadows; let us impose silence on all cares, all desires and all fancies; let us pass with Christ Crucified from this world to the Father, so that when the Father is shown to us, we may say with Philip, It is enough!”