Sunday, February 4, 2018

Fruits of the EDI Symposium: The Friendship of Christ

I have read and reread Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson's historical novels of the English Reformation and blogged about them (The King's Achievement, By What Authority, Come Rack! Come Rope!), but this is first of his books of spirituality I have read. The Scepter edition which I bought from Eighth Day Books at the Eighth Day Institute's Eighth Annual Symposium, features a foreword by Ignatius Drostin from the 1991 Thomas More Publishing edition (with a little mistake: The Lord of the World is not an historical fiction novel!).

From the publisher (an excerpt from the book):

It is at once the privilege and the burden of Catholics that they know so much of Jesus Christ. It is their privilege, since an intelligent knowledge of the Person and the attributes and the achievements of Incarnate God is an infinitely greater wisdom than all the rest of the sciences put together.

To have a knowledge of the Creator is incalculably a more noble thing than to have a knowledge of His Creation. Yet it is a burden as well; for the splendour of this knowledge may be so great as to blind us to the value of its details. The blaze of the Divinity to him who sees it may be so bright as to bewilder him with regard to the humanity. The unity of the wood vanishes in the perfection of the trees.

Catholics then, above all others, are prone -- through their very knowledge of the mysteries of faith, through their very apprehension of Jesus Christ as their God, their High Priest, their Victim, their Prophet and their King -- to forget that His delights are to be with the sons of men more than to rule the Seraphim, that, while His Majesty held Him on the throne of His Father, His Love brought Him down on pilgrimage that He might transform His servants into His friends. For example, devout souls often complain of their loneliness on earth. They pray, they frequent the sacraments, they do their utmost to fulfil the Christian precepts; and, when all is done, they find themselves solitary.

There could scarcely be a more evident proof of their failure to understand one at least of the great motives of the Incarnation. They adore Christ as God, they feed on Him in Communion, cleanse themselves in His precious Blood, look to the time when they shall see Him as their Judge; yet of that intimate knowledge of and companionship with Him in which the Divine Friendship consists, they have experienced little or nothing.

They long, they say, for one who can stand by their side and upon their own level, who can not merely remove suffering, but can himself suffer with them, one to whom they can express in silence the thoughts which no speech can utter; and they seem not to understand that this is the very post which Jesus Christ Himself desires to win, that the supreme longing of His Sacred Heart is that He should be admitted, not merely to the throne of the heart or to the tribunal of conscience, but to that inner secret chamber of the soul where a man is most himself, and therefore most utterly alone.

This was a very successful book, based upon sermons preached in Rome in the Church of St. Silvestro-in-Capite, during the year of 1911. Some of them were also preached in the Carmelite Church in Kensington in 1910, and first published in 1912.

The contents:

Part I. Christ in the Interior Soul
I. The Friendship of Christ. [General] Gen. ii: 18
II. The Friendship of Christ. [Interior] Gen. ii: 18
III. The Purgative Way. Psalm l: 4
IV. The Illuminative Way. Psalm xvii: 29

Part II. Christ in the Exterior
V. Christ in the Eucharist. John vi: 35
VI. Christ in the Church. John xv: 5
VII. Christ in the Priest. John i: 17
VIII. Christ in the Saint. Matthew v: 14
IX. Christ in the Sinner. Luke xv: 2
X. Christ in the Average Man. Matthew xxv: 40
XI. Christ in the Sufferer. Colossians i: 24

Part III. Christ in His Historical Life
XII. Christ Our Friend Crucified [The Seven Words]
XIII. Christ Our Friend Vindicated [Easter Day] John xx: 17

Although this is book based on sermons describing crucial progress in the spiritual life, Benson brings many of his talents as a writer of fiction to his examples. He sketches the character and life of men and women wanting to know and love Jesus with as much skill, although on a simpler scale, as he does the men and women of Tudor England. The chapters on the Seven Words of Christ from the Cross and on Easter Day would be perfect reading for Good Friday and Easter Sunday morning, as Benson leads the reader to meditate deeply on the victory of the Cross and Resurrection.

This was, indeed, the perfect book to read the week after a weekend of prayer and consideration of the meaning of friendship in the Christian life. I enjoyed spending several hours each day in the company of good friends, hearing some great speakers, and thinking about how important friendship is in my life. My late parents often said two things about friendship: 1) that your spouse should be your best friend as well as your lover and companion, and 2) that you will have only a few very good friends whom you can count on and who should be able to count on you, and I suppose a third thing, 3) that you have to work on friendship. Monsignor Benson outlines how to work on friendship with Jesus, remembering that even that desire to work on our friendship is a grace that only God can give:

Human friendships usually take their rise in some small external detail. We catch a phrase, we hear an inflection of a voice, we notice the look of the eyes, or a movement in walking; and the tiny experience seems to us like an initiation into a new world. We take the little event as a symbol of a universe that lies behind; we think we have detected a soul exactly suited to our own, a temperament which either from its resemblance to our own, or from a harmonious dissimilarity, is precisely fitted to be our companion. Then the process of friendship begins; we exhibit our own characteristics; we examine his: in point after point we find what we expected to find, and we verify our guesses; and he too, no less, follows the same method, until that point is reached (as it is reached in so many cases, though not, thank God! in all), either in a crisis, or after a trying period, when we discover either that we have been mistaken from the beginning, or that we have deceived the other, or that the process has run its course; the summer is come and gone, and that there are no more fruits to gather on either side.

Now the Divine Friendship -- the consciousness, that is to say, that Christ desires our love and intimacy, and offers His own in return -- usually begins in the same manner. It may be at the reception of some sacrament, such as we have received a thousand times before; or itmay be as we kneel before the Crib at Christmas, or follow our Lord along the Way of the Cross. We have done these things or performed those ceremonies dutifully and lovingly again and again; yet on this sudden day a new experience comes to us. We understand, for example, for the first time that the Holy Child is stretching His arms from the straw, not merely to embrace the world -- that would be little enough! -- but to embrace our own soul in particular. We understand as we watch Jesus, bloodstained and weary, rising from His third fall, that He is asking our own very self in particular to help Him with His burden. The glance of the Divine Eyes meets our own; there passes from Him to us an emotion or a message that we had never before associated with our own relations with Him. The tiny event has happened! He has knocked at our door, and we have opened; He has called and we have answered. Henceforth, we think, He is ours and we are His. Here, at last, we tell ourselves, is the Friend for whom we have been looking so long: here is the Soul that perfectly understands our own; the one Personality which we can safely allow to dominate our own. Jesus Christ has leapt forward two thousand years, and is standing by our side; He has come down from the painting on the wall; He has risen from the straw in the manger -- My Beloved is mine and I am His. . .

II. The Friendship has begun then. Now begins its process.

The essence of a perfect friendship is that each friend reveals himself utterly to the other, flings aside his reserves, and shows himself for what he truly is.

My review is perforce incomplete, because anyone reading the book is led to think of her own progress, or lack thereof, in becoming a true friend of Jesus. Although Monsignor Benson published this more than 100 years ago, his book of sermons convicts the reader today.

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