06 April 2019

The Religion of the Incarnation



From Robert Hugh Benson's Confession of a Convert. Wherein he discovers the meaning of the Incarnation. Christ took flesh of his mother, the Church is his body, ergo...

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§ 3 In Rome I learned one supremely large lesson, among a hundred others. It has been very well said that Gothic architecture represents the soul aspiring to God, and that Renaissance or Romanesque architecture represents God taberna cling with men. Both sides are true, yet neither, in the religion of the Incarnation, is complete without the other. On the one side, it is true that the soul must always be seeking, always gazing up through the darkness to a God who hides Himself, always remembering that the Infinite transcends the finite and that an immense agnosticism must be an element in every creed; the lines of this world, as it were, run up into gloom; the light that glimmers through carved tracery and heavy stains is enough to walk by, but little more. It is in silence that God is known, and through mysteries that He declares Himself. “God is a spirit,” formless, infinite, invisible, and eternal, and “they that worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth.” Here, then, is mysticism and the darkness of spiritual experience. 

Then, on the other side, God became man – “the Word was made flesh.” The divine, unknowable Nature struck itself into flesh and “tabernacled amongst us, and we beheld His glory.” What was hidden was made known. It is not only we who thirst and knock: it is God Who, thirsting for our love, died upon the cross that He might open the kingdom of heaven to all believers, Who rent the veil of the Temple by His death-groan, and Who still stands knocking at every human heart, that He may come in and sup with man. The round dome of heaven is brought down to earth; the walls of the world are plain to the sight; its limitations are seen in the light of God; the broad sunshine of Revelation streams on all sides through clear windows upon a gorgeous pavement; angels and gods and men riot together in an intoxication of divine love; the high altar stands plain to view in a blaze of gilding and candles; and above it the round brazen and silken tent of God-made-man stands that all alike may see and adore. 

Now, this side of the religion of the Incarnation had hitherto meant almost nothing to me. I was a Northerner pure and simple, educated in Northern ways. I loved twilight and mysterious music and the shadow of deep woods; I hated open spaces of sun and trumpets in unison and the round and square in architecture. I preferred meditation to vocal prayer, Mme. Guyon to Mother Julian, “John Inglesant” to St. Thomas, the thirteenth century — as I imagined it – to the sixteenth. Until towards the end of my Anglican life I should frankly have acknowledged this; then I should have resented the accusation, for I was beginning to understand and, therefore, thought that I entirely understood — that the world was as material as it was spiritual, and that creeds were as necessary as aspirations. But when I came to Rome I acknowledged to myself once more how little I had understood. Here was this city, Renaissance from end to end, set under clear skies and a burning sun; and the religion in it was the soul dwelling in the body. It was the assertion of the reality of the human principle as embodying the divine. Even the exclusive tenets of Christianity were expressed under pagan images. Revelation spoke through forms of natural religion; God dwelt unashamed in the light of day; priests were priests, not aspiring clergymen; they sacrificed, sprinkled lustral water, went in long, rolling processions with incense and lights, and called heaven Olympus. Sacrum Divo Sebastiano, I saw inscribed on a granite altar. I sat under priest-professors who shouted, laughed, and joyously demonstrated before six nations in one lecture room. I saw the picture of the “Father of princes and kings and Lord of the world” exposed in the streets on his name-day, surrounded by flowers and oil lamps, in the manner in which, two centuries ago, other lords of the world were honoured. I went down into the Catacombs on St. Cecilia's Day and St. Valentine's, and smelled the box and the myrtle underfoot that did reverence to the fragrance of their memories, as centuries ago they had done reverence to victors in another kind of contest. In one sentence, I began to understand that “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us”; that as He took the created substance of a Virgin to fashion for Himself a natural body, so still He takes the created substance of men — their thoughts, their expressions, and their methods — to make for Himself that mystical body by which He is with us always; in short, I perceived that “there is nothing secular but sin.” Catholicism, then, is “materialistic?” Certainly; it is as materialistic as the Creation and the Incarnation, neither more nor less. 

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