Essay

The Church as Mystery

“Die Kirche als Mysterium.” Schweizer Rundschau, vol. 52, no. 11/12, Feb.-Mar. 1953, pp. 613–16 (our trans.)

When a man begins to believe in earnest, he knows the supreme good is love –– Paul makes this powerfully clear. He knows, too, that love has to become an integral part of his faith, that he can’t increase and deepen his faith except by loving. His first attempts will be tentative and unsatisfactory, because, while having a certain notion of love, he still lacks experience. He understands that he is given to love because God has loved him first –– not only God in heaven, but God incarnate out of love for him –– and also because many people have followed God on this path out of love for the Son and for the Trinity. But the whole circle of love remains rather theoretical for him, like an isolated outlier beyond the reality of human life. When he hears talk about love, he seems to be hearing an exhortation whose meaning he never quite manages to grasp. He tries to love, he performs loving acts, but they collapse in on themselves. They lack permanence. They seem to depend on a passing mood. And when it dawns on him that he’ll never be able to love as he ought, he asks for love. He begs God, the Mother of the Lord, and the saints for this gift. And he begins to contemplate the mysteries of love. He observes how a saint like Therese fulfilled her most mundane duties within the will to love. He sees how she did small favors for her neighbor, how she offered small sacrifices to the Lord out of love, how she believed he would accept them, perfect them, and use them where he needed them –– giving them a higher value that, though invisible to her, was efficacious in the realm of invisible mystery. Above all, the believer contemplates the life of the Lord and sees that it consists entirely of love: love for the Father and the Spirit, love for the Father’s work, love for man. Here, every word and deed is from beginning to end an expression of love. Eventually, he realizes the essential point. He understands that he can love only by starting from where God himself has engaged his love. And God hasn’t exercised love only in the small and mundane or in the hidden mystery of his triune life; he has also given men the gift of love in the Church. The Church, in her essence, is nothing other than the expression of the Son’s love for human beings. This is why she goes from the Cross to the Cross: from the Cross, because it’s from there that the Lord releases the primordial cell of the Church, namely, his Mother and John –– John enriched with the gift of the Lord’s Mother, the Mother entrusted to the disciple of love. The law governing this community, its foundation, and its life has nothing to do with the law of nature, and it would necessarily remain incomprehensible unless the inmost mystery of ecclesial love –– unveiled for a fleeting moment –– shone through from its hidden source. This is the mystery of a Church that takes every believer into her bosom so as to make him into a lover who is rich in relations of love. This incorporation into the Church, this gift of loving within the Church, is replete with mysteries having to do both with the Lord and with the Church. If an individual were to examine himself to see whether his faith, his Christian life, or his reception of the sacraments entitled him to take part in the circle of the Church’s life, he would have to answer in the negative. Above all, he would have to say “No” if asked whether his membership in the Church increased its treasury of love. He would at best feel that he was squandering what was offered him. And so love in the Church also becomes a mystery of the individual in her: He knows he is ensheltered within this life of the Church, but he no longer has the faintest understanding of it.

God has loved men to such an extent that his love suffices and has the power to transform their actions; his treasury of love so exceeds every measure that it can never be depleted. Indeed, it needs each of us precisely in order to squander itself as it’s meant to do –– and so to give itself away after the un-measure of God’s Son.

The supreme mystery of love, which no one will ever entirely get to the bottom of, touches and determines the whole of life in the Church. It ennobles ecclesiastical office, it fills the sacraments, it places an active force of love in every prayer, in every sacrifice, in every Christian thought. It also unites people, making them, just as they are –– and the very notion would be laughable if they weren’t aware of this mystery –– into a communion of saints. It’s not that the Christian stands over here as a sinner and over there as a saint. The point is rather that, thanks to the power of God and of those who love in the Church, thanks to the power of the self-communicating, self-diffusing mystery, love is so alive in him as to create a unity between the saint he is yet to be and the sinner he still is. This mystery of transformation is a mystery intra muros: The space of the Church is just broad enough to receive it, just broad enough to keep the Lord’s love alive in itself. This love cannot grow cold or feeble. Nor can it become unfaithful. It is, and lives, and remains. Indeed, one can feel it in the acts of the Church itself. We can recognize it where Peter is, where he fulfills his office; we can recognise it as a love that is perhaps definable, in the sense that it’s possible to talk about it, express it, and verify its effects. But this love is also alive where Peter steps back to give John the priority, where love for the Lord almost takes on the character of a friendship, where the official ministry fades from view and only trust, faith, and hope remain in the limelight. Love is in the sacrament of Confession, in the sacrament of the Eucharist, but also in the sacraments meant to be efficacious over a whole life-time –– in marriage and orders –– or else at the point where man separates himself from earthly life in order to come before God’s judgment.

If one attempted to measure the love in the Church by a single yardstick accessible to, and meaningful for, everyone, one would never succeed in the undertaking. For the love of God in his Church spreads so ubiquitously, it so thoroughly penetrates every joint and crack, that it’s impossible to capture it in a single form or concept, and no balance has the scale required to weigh it. Picture for a moment all the praying people who seek the Lord and storm him with their personal –– and often so spiritless –– petitions, or who attempt to join in the prayer of the Church, or who try to give their recitation of words spoken by thousands and millions before them a meaning worthy of the faith, or who simply pray in order to be close to the Lord, to accompany him in a continuous readiness without dictating any outcome in advance: Contemplating this picture, one can’t help realizing that, in each case, every life and every thought, every spark and every of form of love, is enfolded within the encompassing mystery of ecclesial love. To some extent it’s possible to follow out the path by which a person surrenders into this embrace, but there comes a point where everything resolves into the mystery, and this mystery remains just that: a mystery. To the same extent that the Lord has revealed himself and his Church, he has also obviated our need to shrink in terror from the abysses of reality and the greatness of love; he has held back the mystery, which is filled with the divine life and the perfect efficacy accompanying it. He has held it in reserve so as to reveal it in eternal life, but also to keep men from feeling thrust away by the distance, to keep them able to obey God’s commandments and to preserve in themselves the living hope enjoined on them. The mysterious aspect of ecclesial life, along with the whole mystery of love in the Church, is something at once held and reserve and superabundantly revealed: something so fully revealed that the blessed and the angels feast their eyes on it and enjoy the vision of God in the context of it. For what they see in it is a vital reality that belongs to God, a reality which they are given to contemplate and in which they are granted to possess God. It’s superabundantly revealed, moreover, because it is the ultimate transparency and clarity of eternal life. And because these things exceed our senses, we will behold them when we are liberated from everything that hinders us and clouds the senses. It is this that will enable the mystery to appear in radiant evidence.

What’s veiled in the Church –– what’s reserved for heaven even while it’s truly communicated to human beings –– remains ungraspable. But even this ungraspability has a sort of ubiquity. We can enter into any church and try by keen observation to bring home to ourselves what there is to see: the building, its structure, the steps to the altar, the events taking place on it; the exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, the movements of the priests, the comings and goings in the choir, and the throng of the faithful who linger immersed in prayer and then depart, enriched by the moments they’ve experienced. Everything we see in this context has a visible continuation; everything signifies a beginning that is elevated to a further, hidden reality. Just as the faithful are taken up into the space of the Church and its visible actions, so, too, the entire visible Church is taken up into an invisible reality presupposed, believed, and guessed at without being grasped in all her being and acting. Everything means much more than we can consciously realize, even in faith. This greater meaning, this transvaluation of everything churchly behind the veil of the visible, is a sign that the Church lives where God alone is, which means: more deeply than what we can imagine even as ultimate, still just barely possible possibilities. For the joys that the Lord pours out derive from the joys that he experiences in his Ascension. They are joys of his return to the Father, and for us they are joys of the vision of Father, Son, and Spirit. The mystery of the Church is one of love and of joy in equal measure, and when it appears as suffering and seems a heavy burden, this is an economy for the present life, designed to strip away even more of what keeps us from God. This regards us as individuals, and us as the communion of saints: all those for whom the mystery of the Church is alive.