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Reflections on Division

In St Luke’s Gospel, Christ speaks not of peace but of division. And He says that this division is something which He has come to bring about.

These are certainly disconcerting words. In order to begin to understand them, we should put them in relation to another passage in the New Testament, from the Letter to the Hebrews. There we are told that the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. In this passage, we once again have not peace but division. But this time the division is not between one person and another but is situated within a person – we might call it a division of himself from himself – and it is this interior division that the word of God accomplishes.

Now in this passage we should, I think, interpret the word of God as pre-eminently the Incarnate Word, Christ Himself, Who ultimately contains and surpasses every written or spoken word that God addresses to us. So it is Christ Himself, according to the Letter to the Hebrews, Who accomplishes, with a piercing intimacy, an interior division in the human person; and I suggest that we should understand the division between people, which in St Luke’s Gospel Christ says He has come to bring about, as originating in and unfolding from this first, inward separation of a person from himself. In Christ, a person is divided from himself, and therefore from others.

Now of course there is division and division. Not every division is the same, and in these passages the New Testament speaks of a particular kind of division, which we shall try to specify and describe.

If one thinks of division in general, however, one might well think that human life already exhibits quite enough of it, both within people and between them, without religion adding to it all. And of course it is a common thought these days that religion not only adds to already existing divisions, but in fact is responsible for many of them: in other words that religion is a deep source of divisions within and between us, which if we care about healing and togetherness it is therefore our duty to expose and uproot. From this point of view, Christ condemns Himself out of His own mouth, and if we take this line we are not surprised to find Him saying that He comes to bring division: human dividedness is an all too evident effect of Christianity and of religion in general. Underlying this way of thinking is the assumption that such division is something both unnecessary and bad, which can nonetheless be surpassed, giving way to a new integration of human beings with themselves and with each other, once religion, including the religion of Christ, is finally overcome.

Well there is perhaps something right about this. Religion can divide people in bad ways, Christianity itself can do so – or more precisely, what is sometimes said and done in the name of Christianity can do so – and we cannot assume that every kind of division within or between people which has been created and sustained by claiming it to be the will of God, has, in fact, reflected God’s will.

In acknowledging this, we are faithful to an essential element in any theologically deep understanding of the Church, which is that, in so far as she is inescapably a human institution, she stands always under the judgment of God, in need of repentance and forgiveness. In the history of Christianity this is an ancient realization which, in our own day, St John Paul II recovered and enacted very powerfully, and we find it once again in the thinking and practice of the present Holy Father.

It isn’t always something which Catholics receive very favourably, however, because it seems to imperil belief in the sanctity of the Church. But far from undermining her sanctity, acknowledging the Church Repentant arises from a theologically informed understanding of what her sanctity consists in.

We can think of it this way. In so far as the Church is the Body of Christ, she can be viewed as a continuation of the descent of the Son of God into the flesh; and just as in His personal flesh the Son took the burden of our sins upon Himself, so He also does so in His ecclesial flesh, which is the Church. He, the sinless One, dwells in the midst of sin, bearing its burdens from within and calling to Himself, in repentance and conversion, those in whom He dwells.

For even as He dwells within them and draws them to Himself, so they also pull away from Him and seek to establish themselves and to live outside Him. This interior tension, being drawn to the centre and also being drawn away from it, in flight from it, is lived out not only in each one of us, individually. In as much as the Church is a human community, with all the failures to which human communities are prone, the interior tension is lived out in her as well: she too finds herself drawn towards her centre, the indwelling Lord, but sometimes also in flight from Him. That He is her centre is, indeed, the whole source and meaning of her sanctity; but precisely because He is her centre, and not the whole of her, she can also find herself de-centred, moving ec-centrically – never abandoned, of course, for Christ’s promises to her cannot fail, but nonetheless erring; and hence her need for repentance, not in the sense of being called to become something new, but rather recalled, to being what she is.

Her need of repentance is not a contradiction of Christ indwelling her, but a consequence of it. It is a consequence of His taking flesh, individually and collectively: in each one of us, and in His Body, the Church.

Now this reflection on the Church has simultaneously brought to light what is meant by speaking of the interior division which Christ brings about in individuals. We have already described this as a division of a person from himself: and we can now begin to understand this a little better by suggesting that within a person who lives in Christ a new centre is set up, a new ground or foundation of being and action, which is not to be thought of as alongside his existing centre, juxtaposed to it, as it were, but as interior to it, inhabiting and reforming it from within.

St Paul, in his Letter to the Galatians, puts it this way: I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ Who lives within me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

The Son of God, who loved us and gave himself for us, is here not conceived as historically past and personally exterior to us. Rather he loves us and gives himself for us still, and He does this by coming to live within us. Giving Himself for us is ultimately to be understood as giving Himself to us, living in us in our very flesh, and thereby drawing us to live our own lives in intimate union with His own. The whole pattern of crucifixion, death and resurrection, uniquely His own, is now uniquely communicated and shared with each of us, unfolding from within our very own centre.

And yet this new centre, this re-centring of the centre, is not yet complete: the old centre, newly informed by Christ but not yet transformed by Him, persists in a kind of independence: and in its persistence lies the whole drama of our interior dividedness. The waywardness which seems to come most deeply from within us does indeed flow from a centre which was originally, in full possession, our very selves: the fallen self, the self fallen into self-love. But in Christ we now experience our old centre, our self-love, ambivalently. It persists even after being displaced, or re-centred from within; but it does so with much of its ancient intimacy to us intact, the potent familiarity of the unconverted self that sometimes moves us with an apparent inevitability and inescapability. Our new centre, our new lifehidden with Christ in God, as St Paul expresses it in his Letter to the Colossians – does indeed remain hidden: Christ, Who is our life, does not yet appear unambiguously to us as such. In this way His sanctifying and transforming presence within us divides us from ourselves in a most intimate and mysterious way: piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. 

Now this and this alone is the interior division which Christ brings about. Do we belong to ourselves alone, or to Christ in us? The answer of course is both; within our very selves we find ourselves divided. Do we inhabit the centre of self-love, or are we being drawn away from it according to the pattern of Divine Love, the eternal pattern manifested in the Paschal Mystery of the Son? The answer, of course, is that we inhabit both, oscillating between them out of the contending depths within us. And this is our condition in Christ – granted a new centre in Him, searching for it so as to bring it to light, repenting of our willful infidelities, and conscious too of an estrangement which isn’t or doesn’t seem willful, but which expresses our obscure but deeply instinctual nostalgia for pure self-possession.

And only in the context of this interior division, and in no other, are we to understand the division among us which Christ accomplishes – as opposed to all the many divisions we accomplish for ourselves. If the division among ourselves is not rooted in the interior division of sanctification, according to the hidden life of Christ expressing itself within us, then our estrangement from each other is profane, it is un-sanctifying division, which demands repentance, conversion and, as best as can be managed, a restored sense of solidarity.

The divisions between people which the work of sanctification truly requires are accordingly often difficult to discern. On the one hand, we cannot assume that a Christian lives more deeply in accord with Christ the more he separates himself from others; the possibility of being in some way tempted by them, for example, has always to be considered within the horizon of self-giving that Christian love demands. But on the other hand, we cannot assume that the life of Christ in us can unfold alongside every existing intimacy or identity we have embraced. The Christian life can require a painful loss of belonging, a separation from things that it may seem natural and familiar to seek in human community, and the readiness to endure a new and intangible difference – a distance that cannot always be adequately articulated – from those to whom we were once close.

So the secular rebuke that religion is divisive is, from the Christian point of view, undiscriminating.

At one level it can be faced and acknowledged, not as a concession to external critique but in fidelity to the deepest truth of Christianity itself. We have no need to concoct unpersuasive and alienating justifications for ways of speaking and acting in which the Church has needlessly divided people – and not only needlessly, but all too often harmfully, and at the expense of a certain loss of theological perspective on the mysteries of redemption which lie at the very heart of her own life. Thinking of the Jews as uniquely guilty of the death of Christ, and treating them in the light of this, is an obvious example: explanations for this can certainly be produced, and many counter-examples, but explanations and counter-examples, as we know, don’t necessarily close the space of repentance.

On the other hand, however, we have no reason to yield to the secularizing implication that, once people step away from Christ, healing and reconciliation will follow: the history of such attempted emancipations shows the opposite, with consequences of suffering and destruction that are inestimable and unthinkable.

No – the only way forward is a deeper and more purified immersion in that fire which Christ says in today’s Gospel He has come to cast upon earth: the fire of Trinitarian love which, lived through to the end, He calls His baptism, and which seizes Him until it is accomplished. The time of its accomplishment is not yet; the history of the world, from beginning to end, is that time. Our baptisms are the unfolding of His, our sufferings the unfolding of His, our dyings and risings are likewise His own, unfolded, in us. Only for this reason, the reason of Love, are the divisions He brings, within us and between us, received and endured.

By Fr Philip Cleevely, Cong. Orat.

St Philip's Seminary, Toronto
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