From The Path of Eternal Wisdom, written under the pseudonym, John Cordelier
Death as the Gate of Life
It is surely the strangest, least-to-be guessed-at paradox of the spiritual life, that Wisdom’s path should lead – so far as our poor vision may trace it – not to those hard-won heights of the spirit which are reached by the bridge of the cross, but back again to the bosom of Earth, our mother. Earth to earth. Not even those courageous souls who aspire to the final, utmost transmutation – who have paid the dreadful price of their adoption as hidden sons of God – escape this. Humility, the law of the cross, sees to it that we find our level: that death be tasted in its fullness by every postulant of life. Those who attempt the supreme adventure of the spirit ride in the lists under Saint George’s banner. From first to last, courage is the essential condition; courage to face all without flinching, even corruption itself – to face the hateful possibility that the end for which we ride, the final secret, may after all be found in earth and not in Heaven. The squire of the Eternal Wisdom must not elude, but rather endure in a more drastic sense, the fetters, the destinies, the hardships, the disillusionments of the race.
There is in Aquitaine an old cathedral whose portal is the very picture-book of faith. To those who will read it with attention, it offers one deeply significant gloss on the Christian creed. On each side of its doorway, guardians of the threshold, its sculptors have placed no angels; no hints as it were of a supernatural world, adorable and ineffable, awaiting the initiate within. But they gave to Christian chivalry, to Earthly knighthood, the honor of keeping this symbol of the Gate of Life. Not Saint Michael with his legions, not Saint Peter with his keys: but Saint George and Saint Martin – selfless fighter and free giver – stand at the entrance: as if they would warn neophytes of life’s mysteries that courage and charity, not knowledge and will, hold the veritable keys of the kingdom and admit to the altar of the Lamb.
Courage and charity – love and pain – with these two hands Christ our forerunner conquers death, pushes open the double doors which shut us from eternity, and lets the soul pass through. The Eternal Wisdom, going by way of cross and grave into the atmosphere of reality, showed us this path, this secret: and confided to us the Cosmic Word of Power, the “open sesame” of the spiritual world.
Modern Christian sentiment has somewhat lost touch with this: it deprecates austerity of doctrine, mocks at ascetic practice, no longer loves the sepulcher of Christ. It demands soft things of its prophets: and looks for an Easter morning without an Easter eve. We need life’s harshest lesson before we can comprehend that mystery: the lowest deep touched by the Eternal Wisdom in his redemptive way. But the light of the world had done little for us had it failed to illuminate the darkness of the grave, to sanctify the horror of contract between the wonder of flesh and the inexorable tomb. “Venite et videte locum”: come, see the place where Perfect Love has lain. Come, says the church to her trembling children. Come, says the Spirit to the soul of the contemplative who falters, amazed, upon this unpromising roadway to the Real. Come to the mouth of the grave, that I may show you my final secret. Solve et coagula [Dissolve and gather together]: die that you may live. Here, in this home of corruption, is the crucible of the Divine Alchemist. Here, and here only, can the tincture of eternity be distilled from the common stuff of life. The path of wisdom passes through the sepulcher: but here death and birth are one, for it is the sepulcher of the Living Christ. He, who came and ever comes that we might have life more abundantly, could find no better way than this. “Mors and vita duello conflixere mirando: dux vitae mortuus, regnat vivus.” [Death and life strove marvelously together. The King of Life being dead, yet living reigns. (Roman Missal: Easter Sunday: Sequence.)]
At the mouth of the tomb, in the dark hour before dawn, the drama of the church draws to an end. This is, she says, her “last station.” Her pageant is dissolved, her journey done. As Beatrice, dolce guide e cara [sweet guide and dear], resigned her care of Dante when he was lifted to the immediate vision of the essence of God: so here the Mother and Mistress of Souls lays down her office – “the work of the church ends where the knowledge of God begins.” She turns to make her final act of faith, crown, and conclusion of her mystery, before the Presence within her tabernacle altar; as if here alone she can find the corollary of the Easter sepulcher, here catch a glimpse of the Transcendent Life of Easter’s dawn.
But she knows her limitations. Before that Supernal Life she can but bow her head, abashed and silent. Its wonder and its mystery enfold her: the very source of her true being. Its spirit inhabits her; so that she even dares to call herself the Mystic Body of her God. But she cannot tell its nature, disclose its secret. That last gift of Love, the supreme encounter with Reality, is given only in the “still wilderness,” the solitude where heart speaks to heart.
The way that she has trodden was the Way of Life Triumphant. It began before the judgment seat of consciousness. It ends in the secret garden of the soul. Thither, like the Magdalene, alone and through the darkness, that soul may come to the divine encounter which is the reward of her labor and her love. We ask her what she has seen, and she answers in the words of Mary, “Sepulchrum Christi viventis: et gloriam vidi resurgentis.” [I saw the grave of the Living Christ, and the glory of his resurrection. (Roman Missal: Easter Sunday: Sequence)] She has seen the tomb and the victor, death and life, the glory and the abyss: has been initiated into the transcendental plan. It is a dark saying, but clumsy human speech can tell no more: only beneath the veils of music and of poetry can it hint the nature of that meeting in the dawn.
When the first morning air
Blew from the tower and waved his locks aside,
His hand with gentle care
Did wound me in the side
And in my body all my senses died.
All things I then forgot,
My cheek on him who for my coming came;
All ceased, and I was not,
Leaving my cares and shame
Amongst the lilies and forgetting them.
(John of the Cross, Dark Night of the Soul)
That garden still awaits us, its primal freshness yet untarnished. Still its transcendent secret, new, amazing, ever lovely, is given to those whose “true and lovely will” has led them in.
. . . Chi prende sua croce e segue Christo
Ancor mi scuserà di quell ch’io lasso,
Vedendo in quell’ albor balenar Christo
[Whoso taketh his cross and followeth Christ shall yet forgive me what I leave unsaid; when he shall see Christ lighten in that dawn. (Dante, Paradiso)]
He who has courage to tread in its entirety the bitter path of wisdom shall know the Heart of Life, the “light untellable, lighting the very light”; suddenly, irrevocably, transmuting by its rays his very being, “when he shall see Christ lighten in that dawn.”
Wide-eyed we gaze into the zenith, poor amateurs of the supernatural, looking for some abrupt and devastating glory coming in clouds of Heaven; some “mystic revelation,” shattering our Earth-bound sense. But it may be that his coming to us will be gentle and natural as the daylight: that first we may discern his radiance low down on the horizons of the world. His very resurrection was as silent in its beauty, as natural in its wonder, as the coming up of his own flowers out of the earth: death giving way before the inexorable pressure of transcendent life. His risen life itself was a perpetual showing of himself to his lovers in simple, natural ways.
He went down into the earth, mother of all fertility, and hallowed it forever for us. He came back from it again bearing the banner of our redemption: the rosy cross of his passion seen against the white light of the real. This utmost identification of Christ with his world is implicit in his continued life amongst us. Earth to earth: and he comes back to us still, not from some strange far-off and spiritual country, but gently, from the very heart of things. “And he was in the midst of them.” The Eternal Christ is with us by the sea-shore and in the garden: in the assembly of his lovers, in the breaking of bread, in the most secret chamber of the soul. He meets us by the tomb; and at first we know him not. He walks with us, and we think him a pilgrim like ourselves. But when he reveals to us the wounds of his passion – when he takes bread and feeds us – then, dim-eyed as we are, we recognize Divine Perfection, the heart of our life, the one object of our craving: and say with Thomas, “My Lord and my God.”
O Oriens, splendor lucis
aeternae, et sol justitiae:
Veni, et illumine sedentes
in tenebris, et umbra mortis.
[O Oriens Antiphon: O Morning Star, splendor of light eternal and sun of righteousness: Come and enlighten those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.]