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Your Servants Love Her Very Rubble

By Sam Keyes

On September 11, in our regular school chapel service, we made a general commemoration of that day’s historic events. Most of our students now were born after 2001, so none has any real personal remembrance of the day. It is therefore an opportunity to reflect, from something of a distance, on an important event that continues to affect our politics, our popular culture, and our religious imagination.

The hymn chosen for the morning was number 573 in The Hymnal 1982. It was strikingly appropriate to the day. I found myself moved by one verse after another. (It helps that the text so perfectly matches the gloomy atmosphere of the tune Langham.) If you’re not familiar with this hymn, I encourage you to listen to this recording from the RSCM Montreal, following along with the text used in the hymnal.

Track here with descant from RSCM Montreal:

Father eternal, Ruler of creation,
Spirit of life, which moved ere form was made,
through the thick darkness covering every nation,
light to our blindness, O be thou our aid:
thy kingdom come, O Lord, thy will be done.

Races and peoples, lo, we stand divided,
and, sharing not our griefs, no joy can share;
by wars and tumults love is mocked, derided;
his saving cross no nation yet will bear:
thy kingdom come, O Lord, thy will be done.

Envious of heart, blind-eyed, with tongues confounded,
nation by nation still goes unforgiven,
in wrath and fear, by jealousies surrounded,
building proud towers which shall not reach to heaven:
thy kingdom come, O Lord, thy will be done.

Lust of possession worketh desolations;
there is no meekness in the powers of earth;
led by no star, the rulers of the nations
still fail to bring us to the blissful birth:
thy kingdom come, O Lord, thy will be done.

How shall we love thee, holy hidden Being,
if we love not the world which thou hast made?
Bind us in thine own love for better seeing
thy Word made flesh, and in a manger laid:
thy kingdom come, O Lord, thy will be done.

This is not a 9/11 post — though certainly the hymn fits the occasion with its dark meditation on human division and the failure of the nations to confront the cross of Christ. Laurence Housman (younger brother of the poet A.E. Housman, known as much for his art and his politics as for his poetry) wrote it after World War I. One can see, perhaps, his Christian pacifism and socialism coming through in his indictment of corrupt rulers more intent to model the arrogance and violence of Babel (“proud towers which shall not reach to heaven”) than the patient discernment of the Magi at the Epiphany (“led by no star, the rulers … fail to bring us to the blissful birth”).

These complaints against worldly powers (which are hardly distinct from us in some way that denies our complicity) surely remain true, regardless of whether we share the political activism of Housman or his intellectual descendants. The decades since the 1920s have brought their further share of disillusionment with a naïve progressivism (or capitalism, for that matter) focused on inherent human goodness and generosity.

But this is not a political post either. I think one reason that “Father eternal” spoke to me that day is that my mind is still preoccupied with the unfolding scandals of the Catholic Church. As Mac Stewart wrote recently here, it is no good to act like the current scandals are somebody else’s problem (we, “sharing not our griefs, no joy can share”). At the same time it is possible to look with a kind of skeptical eye toward Roman triumphalism — not, mind you, the magisterium’s nuanced statements of ecclesiology, but the denials that the scandal are worthy of notice due to the nouveau-Ultramontanism of some of the pope’s defenders — and thus feel a combination of anger, confusion, and even relief (as in Matt Boulter’s recent “misery loves company” piece).

In other words, replace “nation/world” with “church” in the Housman hymn and you find a fitting lamentation for the bride of Christ as she sojourns in this troubled world:

How shall we love thee, holy hidden Being,
if we love not the Church which thou hast made?

It is a horrible, perverted, unjust Church that we see these days on all sides, whatever we might want to say theologically about the pure and immaculate bride in her essence (and I do think we need to say those things, as the Catholic Catechism in par. 823ff. does following Lumen Gentium and a long tradition of Catholic ecclesiology). But I’m reminded of an axiomatic pair of assertions Sam Wells once gave in a sermon at Duke: No Church without Jesus; no Jesus without the Church. The second is usually harder to believe, especially at times like these.

How can we love the bridegroom if we love not his bride? Easily, if we are speaking in human terms. But we’re not speaking in human terms. To speak this way at all is to enter into that whole mystical grammar of the tradition, for we are also at the same time part of the body of the bridegroom. We must therefore love the Church because Christ loves the Church and we are Christ. But we must also love the Church (which is more akin to saying we should love ourselves) because she is the body in which we receive the love of Christ.

If she is seen with “scornful wonder” because of her schisms and heresies (to borrow from another great ecclesiological hymn), if she is cursed by desolation from the “lust of possession,” if there is no meekness in her leaders, if her members cloak themselves in jealousies and refuse to take up their cross, we must love her all the same. For “your servants love her very rubble,” as the psalmist says (102:14).

Do we dare love such a Church in such a way? To love the Church in herself — that is, to love her in her eschatological purity and identity, beyond visible partitions and confusions — can never be separated from her visible form in the world even as that visible form is compromised by disunity and destruction.

Returning, by way of Zion’s rubble, to the 9/11 image, I think we face a series of choices about how to proceed. We have been attacked; from without, but also from within. As America has been, in various ways, chastened by the nations, the Church is being chastened by the state and further divided by her rulers.

Do we lash out — defend ourselves and our territory at any cost? Do we give in and accept the inevitability of decline, seeking new and subtle ways to remain relevant? Do we leave and find a fresh new territory and rebuild based on an ideal of the past or the future?

Or do we linger in, or perhaps even journey from afar to the ruins, weeping, before examining the lost structures in love, finding their weaknesses and their strengths, uncovering their hidden depths, and at last letting lament turn to praise as holiness and life begin to grow from the ashes?




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