Monday, November 04, 2019


It is easy to see in the Christianity of any time a tendency to degenerate, to lose touch with its source, to exchange interior and spiritual character for material activity in church affairs, to become a department in a more and more elaborate world-movement.  Each parish church must become the centre of a multitude of activities and each member is expected to take part in all its ventures.

It is by the multitude of activities it engages in that the church begins to become recognised as passing from the condition of religious deadness to religious vitality.  In the first place, the clergy must be active; the services of the church must be made attractive, or else people will not come to church; and this attractiveness cannot be kept up without activity in every area of its life.  The activity of the clergy must rouse people, and an active congregation will help the clergy in their role.  There is no time or place for anything but activity; we must be always starting something new.   We do not expect the clergy to be learned now, because learning isn’t compatible with that restlessness which the times demand.  Learning is waived in order that priests may be well to the front in all the external improvements in the church which are in fashion.  And so activity comes to be generally regarded as the test as to whether a church grows or dies; and it follows that, in popular religion, people reference activity as the foundation of Christian character.

In our youth we remember it used to be faith that saved; now it is practical energy, efficiency in religion.  We take our faith for granted now; what we really want to know is whether you can organise, manage people, run a committee, invent new ways of raising income for the needs of the Church without any one having to feel the least discomfort of self-denial.   

Circumstances force this activity on us; one step in advance requires another.  No one knows what it is advancing to; we only know that we must be growing. 

One result of this phase of Church life is spiritual weariness.  Health and strength are overtaxed and exhausted buy the perpetual nervous strain of a life which has no rest; and the body breaks down causing a reaction upon the mind, which is left to bear the burden of both.  When I have finished my share in the Church’s business, organization etc. I have little time left, and less inclination, to pray.  Whatever strength of any kind there was in me is used up in the continual needs of religion.  The interior life I must leave to others.  But I have my reward: the Church is successful, money comes in, congregations grow; if we can keep up the pace will certainly make an impression, perhaps we’ll be able to afford another member of staff, and that would crown the work.  Or sometimes the whole fabric comes crashing down; but supposing it lasts, you will find symptoms of spiritual dry rot in the foundations; people may be wonderfully familiar with the details of what we do, and with the externals of religion, who are heartily tired of it all.

St. Paul gives a different note of the Catholic church in its best state – the note of sanctity: “For this is the will of God, your sanctification.” (I Thess. 4.3)   Let us keep in mind the contrast between these two ideals: the sanctity of the Church of the first age, and the activity of today.  Sanctification, sanctity, holiness: the idea seems to belong to another world.  It is difficult to see where its place is in this great machinery at the Church today, what place there is for it among the committees, groups, meetings, festivals and scandals of today.  But all this activity cannot touch the interior world of sanctity, of the holiness of God, which is an essential note of the Body of Christ, the Catholic Church.  It is a quieting and encouraging thought ( … ) to realise that the All-Holy God nowhere requires us to belong to a popular and external ecclesiastical movement: but “this is the will of God, your sanctification.”

“You shall be holy, for I am holy.” (1 Peet. 1.16)   It is hard to think of this as a quality of God: we are not satisfied to say, God is good, or loving, or faithful; but we are not satisfied to say God is goodness itself, God is Love, God is Light, God is the Truth.  So perhaps we may say that God’s holiness is His very being and essence.  Not only is there not any defect of good in God, but He is Himself the very substance and source of all perfection that ever has been or can be.  And when this essential goodness of God shines out before them in the splendour of the Eternal Son, the angels veil their faces and cry, Holy, Holy, Holy.  Holiness has no meaning for us unless it means what God is, what He gives to His creatures, but is inseparable from Himself.  Every gift of God is holy, and, if used for its true purpose, will be a link for us to the All Holy.  Holiness will then be our true end, because we were made by the All Holy for Himself.  And for us to attain external activity and results, and miss holiness, is to miss his aim completely, and to lose everything, for it is to lose God

And God the Creator’s claim upon us is, not principally for any work that he can produce, but for a human being themselves, and for the whole of them.  Our true service to God is sacrifice, in the highest sense, not the mixed service of which part is offered to God, and part to other masters: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind, with all your soul, and with all your strength.”  The perfection of our gift to God is not any worldly effectiveness or importance it may have, but the wholeness of the love of the giver, who gives to God in it all that they have and are.

In Christ we receive all that God is; there is holiness imparted: we cannot give to God in return less than all our creative being; there is the response of holiness from humanity to God.  Our  imperfect and divided gifts have their value as training us to rise with greater courage towards the ideal of God's perfect giving, who gives us all - the ideal of sacrifice.  Our perfect gift to God will be that which carries back to Him together with all the perfections of Christ, who is our treasure and possession, all other good that God has ever given to us, with all our heart and will.  That is the act in which we partake as much as is possible of the Divine holiness.  All Christian life is a training for it; Christian teaching seriously undertakes to learn it; a holy death attains it; then we retain no interest which does not unite us to God; in Christ our consecration is complete; we are holy in the truest sens, at last, because nothing can separate us for ever from the All Holy.

One objection to exaggerated external activity in religion is, that it does not assist us in attaining our true end – which is union with God in Christ – but, on the contrary, tends to hide God from us, and confuses our aim.  It tends to satisfy our conscience by an offering of apparently solid service an important material results, obtained at the cost of prayer: service, that is, which is offered instead of love and the sacrifice of the heart.  That kind of service implies a divided life, mixed, profane; in part reserved for self-love, in part sacrificed daily to routine, and the strain of endless necessity, a life like a desecrated church turned into a shop, one remote chapel only left empty, where Love was once worshipped; but no hymn is heard there now, and the lamp has gone out  over the desolate Altar.

One point in which Christian sanctity contrasts with popular religion, is its hiddenness: “the hidden purpose of the Lord is for those that fear him.” (Ps. 25.13)   Sanctity consists  of the union of the soul with the Invisible and Ineffable: it seeks nothing but God.  Popular religion plays to the world, seeks results which are to win its favour, can be measured by its standards and set forth in a report.  But sanctity is always a secret, as love or prayer is; it is unknown even to itself, but goes out invisibly as the odour of ointment poured out, seeking the Beloved in that solitude where the soul meets God alone.  The truth, perhaps, is that faith in any Christian is conscious of two opposite tendencies: one inward, towards God, the other towards all good outward developments of Christian civilization and society; and that true Christianity is not the even balance between these two tendencies, but that which recognise the authority of the interior attraction towards God; and having chosen God as its aim, once for all serves Him with an energy of which He Himself is the source, and which naturally tends to Him as it’s end.  The activity in God’s service which springs from the manifestation of God in the heart, will have a character of its own, distinguishing it from the activity of nature and self-love, that is pleased to occupy itself with good works.  Any life may be distinguished by activity or quiet living; neither determines the character.  The question remains whether the activity or the quietness spring from within or from without; from sanctity, that is, from a heart united to God, or from a natural inclination, the mere force of self will, or from external pressure of circumstances.  Here is an example of endless activity, unwearied because it is the activity of true life springing from the contemplation of God.


It was August, and the fierce sun overhead
Smote on the squalid streets of Bethnal Green,
And the pale weaver, through his windows seen
In Spitalfields, look thrice dispirited.

I met a preacher there, I knew, and said:
‘Ill and o’erworked, how fare you in this sense?’ –
‘Bravely!’,  said he;  ‘for I of late have been
Much cheered with thoughts of Christ the Living Bread.’
Matthew Arnold
*        *        *        *        *        
Activity like this, springing from the contemplation of Christ, has its root by the rivers of water – it’s leaf will not wither.  It will never lose its spiritual freshness, it’s beauty, it’s joy.  It will also have its own interior repose in the midst of the perpetual strain, it's balance in the midst of fierce extremes, because God who is it’s life is also its authority and security.  And we have known quiet lives, that seem withdrawn from all useful activity by special vacation or by bodily infirmity; some who never saw a newspaper, never travelled or were touched by the ever-varying tides of human life that ebb and flow – but we knew, perhaps, that their still life in the interior Castle was the secret of the courage and of the victories of many fighters below in the plain, because their life was not merely withdrawn from human beings but was given to God.   They were separated from others in order to strive for them with God in the solitude of prayer.  The true activity and the true inaction, spring for the same source, the simple consecration of the soul to God according to His Will. 

“Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy; for I am the Lord your God.” (Lev. 20.7)
The substance and source of sanctity is the everlasting God Himself in Heaven, revealed to us on earth through His Word, by the Holy Spirit –  God whose being is the secret of the mutual  love of the Eternal Father, Son and Spirit.  When God revealed Himself to the young prophet, it was by the proclamation of the holiness of Three Blessed Persons, that He was made known.  The seraphim cried one to another, and said: “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of Hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory.” (Isaiah 6:3)  The Glory of God is the splendour of the Divine holiness; and the idea of holiness seems to be the perfection of mutual love in the being of God.  There is a complete consecration of love in each Divine Person: the Eternal Father giving himself completely to the Son in love; the Eternal Son consecrating His whole being to the Father in the response of love; the Eternal Spirit perfectly uniting, and one with both, in the unity of their undivided love.

If it is Our Lord’s absolute separation from every shadow of evil, His positive fullness of grace and truth – in a word, His holiness – that so supremely impresses every age, then we learn in the Gospel to trace the mystery of His holiness , His perfect consecration of every faculty,  to the ultimate mystery of His union with the Father by the Spirit in love.   His human habit of looking up to Heaven, His long retreats for prayer, His calmness, His speech, His silence, constantly suggesting the mystery of His unity with the Father.  The Father consecrated Him: He consecrated Himself, in order that those His Father has sent Him to save, may share His consecration in union, in love.  “That they may all be one.  As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (John 17.21)  “that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” (John 17.26)  The idea of human holiness seems to be that of consecration to the goodness, or essential love which God is, by showing the consecration of the well-beloved Son who gives Himself to us in our nature. 

“For this is the will of God, your sanctification” (I Thess. 4.3)  - that you should be consecrated by sharing the interior consecration of God Himself, as members of His only begotten Son.  “Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy; for I am the Lord your God.” (Lev. 20.7)   There is no sanctification for us but the supreme sanctification, God’s interior perfect holiness, the mutual love and beatitude of the holy and undivided Trinity. …

Within this splendour of God’s holiness we live our little lives.  It is all around us, like the  transparent sun-suffused air on a spring morning; and we may be unconsciously moving about in its cleanness, while all the time shut up fast in our own stained, dark, unhappy thoughts.  But God’s nature is to desire to communicate all his Divine Goodness.  And by the Sacraments He has been seeking to evade and overflow our barriers, and fill our emptiness,  by Baptism, Confirmation, Holy Communion, and every Absolution.  The precious Blood of Christ cleanses us in our repentance; and Christ comes to the penitent, not merely to drive out sin by forgiving it, but to drive it out by taking its place; so that in Absolution Christ with all His holiness is set free to work within us, body and soul, by His Spirit.  He communicates Himself to each penitent as to become our own possession. …  So that the sanctity, the character of holiness in the Christian, is no legal formula, or external reflection of God’s holiness, but is a real interior participation of it.  The Christian is holy because they carry the All-Holy God Himself, in his body and soul: “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you … “ (1 Cor. 6.19)  

This simple view of holiness makes us feel that is something which no amount of external activity in the Church can create, or supply the place of.  It is not something we can do; it is a Divine gift which we receive – the indwelling of God.  But that gift of God does not complete our sanctification; it demands and draws forth from the receiver the gift of self to God in return.  The person receives and possesses God in Christ, by the operation of the Holy Spirit through Sacraments, and by the same Spirit lifts up to God in sacrifice of grateful love all that they are and have.  In the consecration, or our gift of ourselves we make “holiness perfect in the fear of God.” (2 Cor. 7.1)  And this sanctification will be a continually advancing operation of the Holy Spirit, purifying the penitent from evil of flesh and spirit; conforming his will to the Will of God, transforming his habits and character, according to the likeness of Christ.  And this energy of the spirit will not operate in any mechanical way, conforming someone to an external ideal, but vitally and inwardly, by bringing every faculty of their nature into a personal relationship of love with the Blessed Trinity, enabling every faculty to work in holiness, because invigorating it with the love of God.

We have to keep clearly in mind that sanctity or holiness is no more negative quality, no mere separation from evil , nor even doing certain good works; but it is the Christian’s personal love of God: if it consists in doing anything, it must be in doing it in the fellowship of Christ, instead of doing it independently and alone.  Think how much the sadness of a life without the joy of fellowship has to do with sin – unholiness.  We are right to challenge a joyless life, a life that is really lonely and gloomy: that is certainly a blank contradiction of God’s image in us, and all that God made us for.  Such a life, if it doesn’t result in depression, means its separation from God; means, that is, its sin.   And the soul cleansed from sin, restored to holiness in Christ through repentance, is restored to the joy of fellowship with God and humankind for which it was created.

The more we consider our Christian calling, the clearer it becomes that in Christ we are not called merely to live a good life, to a decent life, to one that creates a civilised world, but to holiness.  It is exhilarating on a Sunday morning to look again at the full extent of what we are called to; we are not called to be ‘hewers of wood and drawers of water’ (Joshua 9.23), not to be harmless, or even merely useful people, but called to be Saints, called to become what God is, to receive Him, to be partakers of the Divine nature.  And then as we respond to that high calling, not merely church activities, but all the movement of everyday life in business, in recreation, at home, will be contributing to the process of our sanctification; conforming of our will to the Will of God; the learning through faithfulness in love to God in all the details of the day, to know Him personally as He would know us – to live in Him and He us, - to know the love of God, and to grow like Him by secret process of interior conformity of heart and will.

But if the development of sanctity in the Christian is a secret from beginning to end, because it is union with Him whose name is secret, it will demand of each of us the reverence, the reserve, the privacy which belongs to love.  This secret work of sanctification, of the love of God, can hardly, perhaps, develop much in a character that doesn’t have a private life, who doesn’t go into retreat or seek solitude of time and place for meeting with God.  Here in the solemn celebration of the Holy Mysteries, we have this solitude for half an hour in the presence of God.  But the music of this silence round the Altar needs to go further than this half-hour, and to penetrate our whole life.  The morning prayer every day needs it’s silence, it’s solitude of time and place; the mid-day prayer, and the evening prayer also, - the sacrifice of going apart for prayer is part of the price of holiness.  And then thre are accidental solitudes in the day which we, perhaps, often occur when travelling, or kept waiting; what we should practice is not to be impatient or weary of being left alone, nor always to want distraction, but welcome a few minutes when we find ourselves alone, in order to be with God in them.  You have noticed that when in the middle of work or society, you have welcomed such a solitude or gone apart for private prayer, and coming back to work, or to happy company full of conversation,  you have found a result of your prayer is a changed spirit, a lighter heart; you were more fit for this fellowship of others, because you have sought communion with God: ‘Look upon him and be radiant.’ (Ps. 34.5)   You looked just now into the perfect law, the beauty of holiness; and you brought back with you the power and joy of that holiness, to carry them into all your relations and the ordinary circumstances of life.

But we cannot bring the All-Holy in our hearts into the week’s work without the sacred solitude of the Altar, the Christian service at the Lord’s Day, the offering of the Holy Sacrifice, – and a daily solitude of our private prayer.

(The Christian Life: A Response, Fr. George Congreave SSJE, 1899)

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