Much more might be written that would throw helpful light on the nature of the Mystical Body of Christ, considered in its total aspect; but we must pass on to consider the mystery—for it is a mystery—from the point of view of the individual Catholic, since it is his spiritual life and partnership with Christ that is our main concern in this book. It is by baptism that one is made a member of this Mystical Body of Christ. The ancient ceremonies used in the administration of this sacrament, in which the neophyte was completely immersed in the water to come forth regenerated in a newness of life, have a very real significance. Our Lord Himself did not wait long in His public life before warning us: “Unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (Jn 3:5). Baptism, then, is a rebirth, but it leaves the roots of the old life still within us, so that really it is only the beginning of a process of putting off the old man and putting on the new, which will only reach its normal and natural end with our death.
If we have lived properly—indeed, one might say, if we have died properly—throughout our life, we go straight to heaven after death. If not, then the work of our transformation and renewal must be completed in purgatory or else eternally regretted in hell as no longer possible. Its very impossibility then, in fact, is hell. St. John the Baptist sums up the whole process in a few words: “He must increase, I must decrease” (Jn 3:30). St. Paul frequently speaks of “putting on Christ.” In fact one cannot help noticing the almost excited eagerness of this inspired writer, carried away as he is by his vision of the magnificence of God’s plan, searching for words and multiplying images in his endeavor to express some shred of the wonders of Christ. Uninspired pens may be pardoned if their efforts to express it lack clarity.
By this rebirth of baptism we are made living members of the Body of Christ, sharing in all its riches, in His merits and His sonship, so much so that an infant who dies immediately after Baptism enters heaven by the title of inheritance, not of personal merit, for he is a son of God and therefore heir to His kingdom. Being living members of Christ, it follows that Christ is in us, and also that the Holy Ghost is in us. As the Holy Father points out, St. Paul often says: “That Christ is in us and we are in Christ.” This double point of view might lead to confusion. However, the confusion will disappear if we remember that God is a Spirit, and the presence of a spiritual being is not like corporeal presence. When a material body is present in a particular place, each part of it is in a part of that place, but the whole body is not completely present in each part of the place. Nor is the body present at that time in the same way in any other place. A spiritual being like the soul is, on the contrary, either completely present in a place or not there at all. The whole human soul is in the finger, and the whole human soul is in the eye; of course, it exercises different activities in each organ. The Holy Ghost is the soul of the Mystical Body and is wholly present in each member. So also Christ is wholly present in each member.
Baptism then is the beginning of the soul’s vital partnership with Christ and His Holy Spirit, who descend into the soul and take up in it their abode. They regenerate it and transform it and raise it up to a newness of life, and endow it with all the powers necessary for the performance of the actions involved in that vital partnership. To realize how extraordinary is this “new creature,” the baptized soul, let us remember that our Lord insisted that its food must be His own Flesh and Blood; and He warns the Christian that unless he eat of this Flesh and drink of this Blood, he shall not have life everlasting. In fact, the Blessed Sacrament of the Body and Blood of our Lord is the sacrament of union par excellence, to which baptism is only, as it were, the gateway. Let it then be clearly understood that Christ and His Spirit are not present in the soul inactively, merely as in a dwelling; Their desire is to share and to animate every single action of our lives. It is true that God, as our Creator, has the right to demand that every action be done for Him and according to His will; but even apart from that right, Christ, as our crucified Redeemer, has earned such a right by His Passion and Death. For we were partners in His crucifixion. And here we meet with a still more difficult mystery.
The writings of St. Paul leave us in no doubt that from the time of His Passion, there was a very close partnership between our Lord and ourselves. In passing, let it be remembered that it is perhaps more than a coincidence that it was only after the celebration of the First Holy Communion, at which our Lord entered into such an extraordinary union with His apostles, that He reminded them that this that is written of Him must yet be fulfilled in Him: “And with the wicked was he reckoned” (Lk 22:37); and on His reaching the garden immediately afterwards, we are told “He began to fear and to be heavy, saying My soul is sorrowful even unto death” (Mk 14:33–34). Then began that mysterious agony in which He seems to have felt in Himself the effect of His Father’s horror for the sins of men, “with whom He was reckoned,” culminating in that extraordinary anguish of dereliction on the cross, when He cried: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Mk 15:34).
Before enlarging on this particular point, let us first quote the present Holy Father, who writes:
By means of the beatific vision, which He enjoyed from the time He was received into the womb of the Mother of God, He has forever and continuously had present to Him all the members of His Mystical Body, and embraced them all in His saving love. . . . In the manger, on the cross, in the eternal glory of the Father, Christ sees and embraces all the members of His Church, and He sees them far more clearly and embraces them far more lovingly, than does a mother the child of her bosom—far better than a man knows and loves himself.
And God Himself says: “I have loved thee with an everlasting love” (Jer 31:3). And, as we have already pointed out, our Lord’s love is infinite, and, therefore, it is not lessened by being shared, so that each of us can say with St. Paul: “He loved me, and delivered himself for me” (Gal 2:20).
If, then, you who now read this book say that you were in our Lord’s thoughts, in His mind, in His heart, throughout all His life—that your salvation was a motive of all His actions—you say truth. Because our Lord would have done it all for a single soul. In fact, you can say that if it were necessary for your salvation, that He would have suffered it all over and over again. It is, however, not necessary, for He has done more than enough to save the whole human race. And when speaking of “saving,” the word must be taken in its broadest sense, for our Lord has, in fact, lived your life for you. He has saved you not merely from original sin, but from each of your personal sins. He has saved you not merely from your own mistakes, but also from the mistakes of others. He has saved you not only from your own willfulness, but also from the malice of your enemies; so that you can truly apply to yourself the words of St. Paul “To them that love God, all things work together unto good!” (Rom 8:28) and in doing so you must remember St. Augustine’s comment: “All things—yes—even your sins!”
One other point must be noted before considering the special stage of this partnership which depends on the Passion and Death of Christ; namely, that peculiarity of the Mystical Body which we have called “four-dimensional.” It is not subject to the limitations of time. Leaving aside for the moment the special aspect of the Passion, one can take the whole of Christ’s life and put it, so to speak, alongside the life of any one Catholic, in such a way that the two are in perfect partnership and harmony. Not only is it true that there is a reciprocal association between each point of the soul’s life and some point of Christ’s life, but also each moment of the life of the soul is connected with every moment of the life of Christ, and each moment of the life of Christ is connected with everymoment of the life of the soul. It is not our intention here to assert that this relationship is always of the same type; but what we do stress is that the time sequence of either life, and the time sequence intervening between the two lives must be completely disregarded if one is to come at all near the proper notion of the connection between them.
Suppose we represent the two lives—that of Christ in Palestine in the first century, and that of the reader here and now—by two slips of paper or by two rulers. They can be laid side by side and can be moved along each other so that any point in one can be put opposite any chosen point in the other. So far the similitude is true of the two lives. But the reality goes further. Either life can be folded up—so to speak—or even condensed into a single point, and put opposite to, and in full union with, any point in the other. And this is what happens in Holy Communion. Our Lord, so to speak, “folds up” His whole life and death and sacrifice into the Sacrament of the Eucharist, re-enacts His sacrifice sacramentally on the altar, and comes to us in Holy Communion with His whole self and all His riches as God and Man. Why? St. John Chrysostom gives us the answer. Because: “He wants to show us the ardent desire that He has for us. On which account, He pours Himself into us, intimately unites Himself to us, and mingles His Body with us, so that we may be unum quid—one thing, one entity—as a body joined to a head; for this is the very desire and longing of ardent lovers.”
The life of Christ in us begins at baptism. But something of our life in Christ seems to have begun at His Passion. There are two points in St. Paul’s treatment of the subject that are full of a significance which calls for a more authentic exposition than is here possible. The first is his association of our baptism with the death of Christ. “Know you not,” he writes to the Romans, “that we who are baptized in Christ Jesus are baptized in his death?” (Rom 6:3–7). The second is that famous collection of unusual words which St. Paul either invented or adapted, in his efforts to show our union with Christ, and which cannot be translated into single words in English. The list would include: “To suffer with Jesus Christ; to be crucified with Him; to die with Him; to be buried with Him; to rise from the dead with Him; to live with Him; to be made alive with Him”; and many others, all of which are marked with the prefix con in Latin. He seems to be unable to find words that will give adequate expression to the closeness of our ineffable union with Christ and in Christ.
Prat’s interpretation of this text leads us to believe that there is a special mystical union with Christ, which “does not extend to the mortal life of Jesus; it originates only at the time of the Passion, when Jesus Christ inaugurates His redemptive work; but from that moment on, it is continuous and the communicatio idiomatum (that is, the sharing or pooling of merits and demerits, and the opening of what might be called a ‘joint spiritual account’) is henceforth complete.” He further suggests: “That if we go back to the source of this union of identity, we see that it exists by right and potentially at the moment when the Savior, acting in our name and for profit of guilty humanity, died for us, and causes us to die with Him, but it is realized, in fact and in deed, in every one of us, when faith and baptism graft us upon the dying Christ and make us participate in His death.” And the Holy Father Pius XII states that: “It was by His death that our Savior became, in the full and complete sense of the word, the Head of the Church.”
To discuss in what sense we were sharers and partakers with Christ at that moment would be a difficult task and would only end in uncertainty. But what we have already said above about the time-defying nature of this union, is sufficient to make it clear that we can regard our actions at any moment as performed in partnership with Christ on the cross. In fact, the life of our Lord, and in particular His Passion and Death, may be regarded—if the comparison be not irreverent—after the manner of an incomplete motion picture, which has to be re-taken to allow some character to play his part in the different scenes. There is, for example, some such technique in use to allow one actor to play two parts. Our part in Christ’s life and death is being played now; the rerunning of the film starts with our baptism and ends with our death, and we have to fit in our actions in the place left vacant for us in the original taking of the film and to make our part harmonize with Christ’s when He lived His part. Anything we do that is out of its proper place or out of harmony with His plan is useless and harmful.
But that does not mean that our Lord does not adapt His work in the partnership to our needs and limitations. He is our Savior; that is something that must never be forgotten. And it is as our Savior that He enters into partnership with us. In fact, it is by that very partnership that He saves us. He comes to us full of perfect knowledge and unlimited love. He knows exactly what we are, and He knows exactly what our life will be. He knows all our defects and weaknesses, those that are natural to us, those that are the result of circumstances and those that are the result of our own sins. He knows all that has happened or will happen to us. He knows all that might have been done for us or by us, but which has been neglected. He knows all our mistakes and all our sins; He knows all our misfortunes and all our miseries. He knows all these things in advance, but being the perfect lover, He comes with the power of God to heal all these ills. He is perfectly prepared to repair our life completely if we do not prevent Him. “And God is able to make all grace abound in you; that ye always, having all sufficiency in all things, may abound to every good work” (2 Cor 9:8).” Our sufficiency is from God” (2 Cor 3:5). He is our perfect supplement.
Just as the two torn pieces of a sheet of paper fit perfectly together, so Christ fits perfectly into our life and fills it completely. It does not matter how small is the part of the page which represents our life—or if you prefer it, our lack of life—He can and will supply all the rest of the page. He is our full complement; He is our perfect supplement. And that is true, not only of His coming in baptism, but also of His help at any time of our life, most especially in Holy Communion. In one Holy Communion we can receive the perfect complement of all our wasted past and our damaged self. “Of His fullness we have all received,” says St. John (Jn 1:16). our Lord Himself tells us: “I am come that they may have life and have it more abundantly” (Jn 10:10). And St. Paul, filled with this vision of the Body of Christ, writes to the Corinthians giving thanks, “for the grace that is given you in Christ Jesus, that in all things you are made rich in him . . . that nothing is wanting to you in any grace” (1 Cor 1:4–7).
It is of capital importance that we should be convinced not only of the completeness of God’s work for our salvation, but also of His readiness to bestow its superabundant fruits on us at any time we approach Him with suitable dispositions. There is no moment in our life in which we cannot turn to Him and find in Him not only the perfect complement of our self, no matter how much we have lost, but also the perfect restoration of all our past. For He is God, and He is our Savior.
In the beginning of the partnership at baptism, when Christ and His Holy Spirit come into our souls, the fundamental effect is the infusion of sanctifying or habitual grace. The best way, perhaps, to regard grace is as a new nature—a participation in the divine nature—which is superimposed upon our old nature. A “nature” is a principle of operation, and by this new nature, the soul becomes capable of living in a higher order and of becoming the agent of acts which are completely beyond its natural possibilities. If a plant were given a true power of sensation, or an animal a true power of reason, we would have some example of the radical transformation that is produced in the soul by grace, but still the example would be quite inadequate. Only God would have thought of such a gift as supernatural grace, and only the love of God would have given it.
Of course, for action in this new and higher sphere, something more than grace is required. And so, we are given also the infused theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity, which are called theological because they deal directly with God; the infused moral virtues, which depend on prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude; and the seven gifts of the Holy Ghost. Grace, however, is the fundamental thing. What must be stressed here in connection with our partnership with Christ is that grace does not destroy human nature, nor does it remove all the consequences of original sin.
This point is of capital importance for a correct understanding of the spiritual life. At baptism, God restores to us, through the merits of Christ, the supernatural life that we lost through the sin of Adam; but He does not take away the weaknesses, especially that of concupiscence, which remain as a result of Adam’s fall. What God actually does is to give us the means to fight against those weaknesses, and He also enables us to gain merit by doing so; but the fight depends on the use of our own free will for its continuation; God will not force our free will.
The use of this free will is, then, beset with all the difficulties that arise out of the insubordination of our passions. We must, first of all, by continued efforts, subject our reason and our will to God, and our pride resents that subjection. We then have to subject the desires of our animal and emotional nature to our reason and our will. The concupiscence which is left in us makes that a difficult task. St. John sums up the forces opposing our proper way of life under three heads: “the concupiscence of the flesh, the concupiscence of the eyes, and the pride of life.” St. Paul laments the continual rebellion that he experiences in his own body: “For I am delighted with the law of God according to the inward man, but I see another law in my members, fighting against the law of my mind, and captivating me in the law of sin that is in my members. Unhappy man that I am, who shall deliver me from the body of this death? The grace of God, by Jesus Christ, our Lord” (Rom 7:22–25).
This deliverance by grace demands our cooperation. If, therefore, baptism is considered as a death, it is a death to one’s self that only takes place gradually; the sentence of death is passed at baptism—for there we renounce the world, the flesh and the devil—but the carrying-out of that sentence is the work of a lifetime, and will end only in our grave. It is this need for dying to oneself that leads to the asceticism of the spiritual life. But if baptism is a death, it is also a resurrection. St. Paul writes to the Romans: “For we are buried together with him by baptism into death; that as Christ is risen from the dead by the glory of the Father, so also we may walk in newness of life. . . . So do you also reckon, that you are dead to sin, but alive unto God, in Christ Jesus” (Rom 6:4, 11). And he tells the Galatians: “And I live, now not I, but Christ liveth in me. And that I live now in the flesh, I live in the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and delivered himself for me” (Gal 2:20).
We may then think of Christ dying on the cross, and rising from the dead, to live again in us; for every single Christian, unless he reject Christ by mortal sin, can make St. Paul’s words his own. But this particular resurrection that takes place in us—let us call it the mutual resurrection of Christ and our new self—is also a gradual process, which will not end until we are one with Him in heaven. The old self in us struggles hard against its death, and in every single action we are confronted with the choice: Who shall live in this particular moment in me—myself or Christ? The self asserts its claim, but the choice rests with our free will, even though the grace of God comes to our aid. We can decide; we have the awful power of saying “No” to God, of denying Him life in us. It is true that we depend on His grace for the power to do good; but grace does not take away our freedom, nor can we thus escape responsibility for a refusal. The two lives are present in us; that of Christ which He wants to make ours, and that of the old Adam, our own independent self. In every single deliberate action we have to choose between them.
It might seem, then, that God’s redeeming work is imperfect inasmuch as it still leaves in us many of the effects of original sin. But this very fact only shows the completeness of God’s plan, and the extent of His merciful love and goodwill towards us. God’s plans are never incomplete; they provide for everything. But it is of great importance to notice how God has provided for the effects of original sin, since it reveals a pattern that is repeated many times in God’s dealings with men, particularly when He forgives them their personal sins.
In forgiving sin, God reconciles the sinner to His friendship, removes the guilt and takes away any eternal punishment due to the sin. But there is also a temporal punishment, which is not always completely remitted unless one’s sorrow and love are sufficiently intense. And there are a number of other consequences of sin; bad habits for example, embarrassment, losses of various kinds, and many others which vary according to the circumstances. These God does not remove, at least in connection with His pardon of the sin. But He does something else instead. As we have already said in regard to original sin, He attaches merit to the work of penance and of overcoming the difficulties that arise out of our sins, and to the patient bearing of their consequences; and He also offers us His grace—that is, a share in His own strength—for our task. The result is that we are put in a position where we can more than compensate for what we have lost by sin. “Where sin abounded, grace did more abound” (Rom 5:20).
The point will be discussed again in reference to the details of our spiritual life; but let us anticipate by saying that when God forgives sin, He does it in a manner worthy of God. He is always ready to give the repentant sinner all the help that is necessary to atone for his sin; but He will go further, He even offers him an opportunity of recovering more than he lost, and of supplying for all that he might have been or might have done. That does not mean that the second chance, so to speak, may not be more difficult; but its very difficulty is a means of the exercise of God’s mercy. In fact this opportunity to share in the work of one’s own restoration is but the result of the delicate tact that characterizes our divine Lover. To St. Peter, who denied Him thrice, He offers a threefold opportunity for the public profession of his love. To every repentant sinner He likewise offers an opportunity for acts of love that will supply for the failures of the past. But even that very love by which we are animated in carrying out our share of the partnership and in availing of the opportunities with which God provides us to make up for past failures—that very love is itself the gift of God. For the charity with which we love God is poured into our hearts by the Holy Ghost; He Himself is the subsisting Love of the Father and the Son, and it is, as it were, the glow of His presence and the echo of that Love that we make our own and offer to God.
Truly indeed is God the perfect partner; the tremendous lover. And the more we understand His attitude to us in our soul—the more do we cry out with St. Paul: “Gladly therefore will I glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may dwell in me” (2 Cor 12:9).