Bridging Heaven and Earth
On May 1, 2015, Fr Jonathan Robinson, the Provost, made the following chapter address to the community.
My dear Fathers and Brothers:
May always seems to be a more difficult month than we anticipate. We all know this at one level, but it often comes as a surprise to find out just how difficult it can be – both in relation to each other and internally as well. I don’t want to talk about this directly, but I do want to say a couple of things, inspired by St Catherine of Siena, about the life of prayer. I do this to try to provide a bit of context for this experience of our common life in May without getting too particular.
Catherine likens progress in prayer to crossing a bridge from earth to heaven; the bridge she says is our Lord’s humanity which stretches from heaven to earth by reason of the Divine nature having joined itself to our humanity. This bridge from earth to heaven has three stairs, and the three stairs correspond to the classical divisions of the purgative, the illuminative and the unitive way.
At the first stair, the soul, lifting the feet of her affections from the earth, strips herself of sin. At the second she dressed herself in love for virtue. And at the third she tasted peace.
The danger about these sort of classifications – whether we call them stairs, or stages is to think about them following one another in temporal succession; and, I think, worse than that, understanding the stages as over and done with when we arrive at the subsequent one. First I fight sin, then I develop virtue, and then perhaps I am united to God – and my troubles are over. I’ve tried to write about this, and have suggested that St Thomas’ use of the word studium, which can be translated as a focus of attention, is the best way of understanding what the tradition is expressing.
It is clear that St Catherine understands the steps in this way; and she teaches this is a striking way. The humanity of Christ that serves as our bridge is the humanity of Christ nailed to the cross, and progress in the life of prayer is marked by concentrating, or become aware in a deeper way of different part of Christ’s body.
The first stair is the feet, which symbolizes the affections. For just as the feet carry the body, so the affections carry the soul. My Son’s nailed feet are a stair by which you will climb to his side, where you will see revealed his inmost heart. For when the souls has climbed up on the feet of the affections and looked with her mind’s eye into my Son’s opened heart, she begins to feel the love of her own heart in his complete and unspeakable love. Then the soul, seeing how tremendously she is loved is herself filled to overflowing with love, So, having climbed the second stair, she reaches the third, This is his mouth where she find peace from the terrible war she has had to wage because of her sins.
The nailed feet, the pierced side, the opened heart, and the love of Christ are all aspects of the experience of the life-giving passion of the Saviour, and they are all before our eyes at once. Nonetheless we can focus our attention on one aspect more than another as we move from the feet, to the side, to the mouth.
Furthermore, it is also clear from what she teaches, that the movement is not linear; for even for those whose life with Christ is best described by his kiss of peace often suffer from both the wayward affections of the feet and the ill-regulated love of the heart, and these do not disappear but can reappear in new and more painful ways. And it will be like this until the end, and that is why St Philip taught us to pray for perseverance. We need to remember these things in May.