Thursday, June 20, 2019

Monsignor Ronald Knox preaching on Corpus Christi 1939

A Corpus Christi sermon preached by Monsignor Ronald Knox in 1939, and published in The Tablet on 10th June that year:

“It is said to me daily, Where is thy God ? “ (Ps. xxxxi. 4.)

“Shew me, 0 thou whom my soul loveth, where thou feedest, where thou Rest in the mid day.” (Cant. i. 6).

“They said to him, Where dwellest thou ? He saith to them, Come and see. They came and saw where he abode, and they stayed with him that day. Now it was about the tenth hour.” (Jno. i. 39).

If it may be said with reverence, what a bad story-teller is St. John! His gospel is a series of fragments - infinitely precious fragments, but fragments nevertheless - preserved from the hoarded memories of a very old man, who follows his own train of thought, as old men will, not stopping to consider what details it is that his hearers want to know. Nobody, you might say, would have been a worse journalist. He just recalls for us those unforgettable hours when he and St. Andrew paid an afternoon call on Our Blessed Lord in His own lodging-place, and put the sun to rest as they sat talking with Him. On that memory his mind reposes, and he tells us no more - what manner of habitation it was, whether Our Lord was staying with friends, or with His Mother, or quite alone, what His habits of life were, all the things we want to know. He lodged with Zacchaeus, he lodged with Martha and Mary; otherwise the gospels, I think, give us no picture of the entertainment earth gave to him, who had not where to lay his head. For once, we think we are to hear more, and we go away disappointed.

And yet St. John himself had felt just that curiosity, long before. What a natural instinct it is, when we meet somebody casually whose personality impresses itself on us, dominates us, to want to see more of him, and to want to see him in his own setting, against his own background, where he lives! The pictures on the walls, the books that lie on the shelves, the very knick-knacks on the mantelpiece will have something, surely, to tell us about him; they will make a frame for his personality, and we shall feel that we know him better. So it is with the bride in the Canticles; “ Shew me, 0 thou whom my soul loveth, where thou feedest, where thou Rest in the mid day”—in those voluptuous airs of King Solomon’s harem, he is out of place, he does not fit into the picture; let her see him among his flocks in the still, midday countryside, and she will know him as he is. So it was with St. John and St. Andrew; they know Our Lord only as a passer-by in the crowded ways; they follow as if to track him down to His lodging, and He divines their purpose, and invites them to pass the rest of the day there. 

What kind of picture are we to form of it ? 

Possible, no doubt, that when Nicodemus came to see Our Lord by night he found Him in some rich dwelling where a devout host made everything comfortable for him. But I think we are all inclined to imagine the scene of that sacred hospitality as a more makeshift affair; a deserted house, perhaps, with the windows half boarded up; a straw mattress in a corner and not much else in the way of furniture; or just a cave in the cliffs, beyond Jordan. And this is the Prince who has come to suffer for His people; this is the palace which suffices for His earthly needs! That was the kind of picture, I imagine, that conjured itself up in the memory of the old apostle, and he did not tell us about it; why should he ? After all, it is what we should expect.

At the same time, I think St. John will have read in that old question of his, “Master, where dwellest thou ? “the echo of a much older question which has been tormenting humanity since man’s eyes were first troubled with a human soul. King David complains of those enemies who mocked at his misfortune by asking him, “Where is thy God ? “ And we, because the age in which we live is impatient of old formulas, because the set of its mind is against the supernatural, share, often enough, that confusion and hesitation of his. “Where is your God ? “they ask us. “Men of science have swept the heavens with their telescopes, and they have not found Him. They have peered with their microscopes into the very heart of being, and they have brought us no word of Him. Does He dwell in infinite space ? But we are not sure, any longer, that space itself is infinite. Where is He, that we may worship Him ? Where is He, that we may reproach Him for all the unhappiness that He suffers to mar His creation ?”

These questions of theirs, though it be only at the back of our minds, disconcert us; we know that they are foolish, based on a wrong apprehension of what it is that spirit means, and how it is related to matter. But for all that, the imagination, tied down as it is to the world of space and of sense, will not be satisfied by the answers which commend themselves to the reason. We demand that, somehow, we should be allowed to locate the presence of God as concentrated and focussed in one particular spot. “Master,” we cry, “where dwellest Thou ?“

We know, of course, that He is everywhere, that He cannot be confined in space, but still we ask for evidences of, His presence, and would trace the influence of it, if we might, here rather than here. When a storm of wind howls about our ears with unaccustomed fury, we catch an echo, as it were, of His omnipotence; when a sunset paints the sky with unwonted richness of colour, it seems like a mirror, however imperfect, of His uncreated beauty. But the illusion only lasts for a moment; when we think about it, we realize that this is a trick of the fancy; we are isolating an experience and making something divine of it; God is not in fact any nearer to us - how could He be nearer to us ? - in the storm than in calm, in the cool of evening than under the brazen sky of noon. God is everywhere, but He is not here or there, that we should find Him here or there more than anywhere else.

Has He done nothing, then, to make it easier for us to find Him ? Why yes, surely; in the mystery of His Incarnation, so full of His condescension, this is perhaps the greatest condescension of all - that He who is without limit should be limited, as Incarnate, to one position in space. When Moses drew near to the burning bush, when Elias heard from his cave a whisper of the Divine voice, God manifested His presence in a special way, but that was all. When Our Lady bent over the crib at Bethlehem, God was there. It was not necessary for her to say “Show me, 0 thou whom my, soul loveth, where thou feedest, where thou liest in the mid day”; He lay in her arms, He fed at her breast. It was no use for the scornful unbeliever to challenge St. John or St. Andrew with the old question, “Where is thy God ?“ - those first apostles could say, and did say, “Come and see.” For thirty-three years of human history it was possible to say, “There is God! Look, where He feeds, with publicans and sinners! Look, where He lies, asleep in the forepart of a ship which the waves threaten with destruction!“

Yes, for thirty-three years, but afterwards ? We can make our pilgrimage to the Holy Places, pass by the roads which were once trodden by Divine feet, mount the hill on which Our Lord suffered, worship, perhaps, at His very tomb. But it is all a story of yesterday; what use is it (we complain) that God should draw near to us in space, if He does not also draw near to us in time ? It is not enough that our God should make himself present to us; why does not my God make himself present to me ?
As we know, God has foreseen that complaint of ours, and has condescended to make provision for it. 

Everything else about the Blessed Sacrament may be obscure to us; we do not see Our Lord as He is, we cannot fathom the mystery of that change which is effected in the consecrated elements, we have no clue to the manner in which Holy Communion imparts its virtue to our souls. But one thing we can say, without bewilderment or ambiguity - God is here. Like those two disciples when they heard St. John the Baptist acclaim the Lamb of God, who should take away the sins of the world, we, taught by the Church that all salvation is to be found in Christ, are eager to know more of Him, to see Him in the most representative light possible, to catch a glimpse of Him in the setting, in the surroundings which most truly manifest His character. “Master” we ask Him, “where dwellest Thou ? “ And He points to the tabernacle with the invitation, “Come and see.”

Let us look at Jesus Christ in His home, in the tabernacle, and see how those surroundings fit Him, illustrate His dealings with us. First, He dwells in a very public place. The lodging in which the two disciples found Our Lord was in the wilderness, I suppose;beyond Jordan; but it was a place of coming and going, for all Jewry went forth to John, we are told, to be baptized by him. Our Lord was near the centre of things, then; and so He is today; in the heart of the greatest city in the world, you can find Him without difficulty. So great is His desire to be of use to us that He throws Himself in our way, makes Himself cheap by familiarity. He is not afraid of irreverence, so long as He can be there when we want Him. When they ask us where our God is, we do not have to map out the route of some far pilgrimage in foreign parts; He is close by, at the end of the next street. 0 Thou whom my, soul lovethwe should do ill not to love Him, when He makes Himself so accessible as that.

Yet He lives there very quietly, a Prince in incognito. He walked beyond Jordan for all the world to see; but it was the tenth hour when He invited the two disciples to follow Him; it was an evening interview; and it was under cover of night that He talked to Nicodemus. Easy to find out where Our Lord dwells; but if we would converse with Him, be intimate with Him, it must be in the obscurity of faith—the veil of the sacramental species hides Him from our sight. He demands something of us after all; we must make a venture of faith in order to find Him. So accessible to all, and yet such depths of intimacy for those who will take the trouble to cultivate His friendship!

And when He makes the tabernacle His home He dwells among us very humbly, in great simplicity. St. John tells us nothing, as we were complaining just now, about the hospitality he and St. Andrew enjoyed that evening. But everything we know about Our Lord’s life and Our Lord’s attitude makes us feel certain that it was only a mean lodging to which He brought them; I picture Him as stooping low, and warning them to stoop in their turn, as they entered the door of it. So in the tabernacle He lives a life of utter humility. Oh, we try to make the best of it with gold and marble and precious silk; but He has chosen simple things, common things, to be the hiding-place of His majesty. And as He has stooped, so we must stoop if we are to keep our appointment with Him in His chosen meeting-place. We must come to Him in abject consciousness of our own unworthiness. For, see, there is something more He wants to tell us about the lodging He has chosen on earth.

Master, where dwellest Thou? Come and see, He answers - and bids us look into ourselves, into our own souls. It is there that He has chosen His lodging’: there, amid all those tainted ambitions and unholy desires, there, in the heart of our warped nature, He dwells in us, and what we are! 0 Thou whom my soul loveth, show me where Thou dwellest - heaven knows we need a guide to assure us of it, before we would dare to guess that He is content to dwell here.

If by chance thou e’er shalt doubt 
Where to turn in search of Me, 
Seek not all the world about; 
Only this can find Me out— 
Thou must seek Myself in thee.
In the mansion of thy mind 
Is My dwelling-place; and more 
There I wander, unconfined, 
Knocking loud if e’er I find 
In thy thought a closed door.

A door closed, to Him? Not here, Lord, not in these hearts; come, take possession of them, and make them more worthy to be Thy home.


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