The Feast of the Deus Absconditus

The Adoration of the Shepherds, Philippe de Champaigne, c. 1645 (Source)

It is customary to regard Christmas as a feast of divine manifestation. God has become man. He has entered the human story in a definitive and absolutely singular way. Grace, like a geyser, erupts from the cave at Bethlehem to inundate the whole world.

Our festivities have made this season merry. Our sermons and celebrations, our songs and specials, our gifts and feasting – everything seems to collude in a joyous conspiracy to rob us of our gloom at what is, by nature, a terribly depressing time of year. And there is much to rejoice in when we regard the Holy Infant surrounded by his Virgin Mother and foster-father. But I think we have missed something.

God is everywhere hidden – a Deus Absconditus. His Face, as it were, abides behind more veils than that which cloaked His glory in the Temple. In the depths of human sin, the heart fashions idols and chases phantasms. This is not merely true of those outside the Church; how often do we Christians find ourselves falling into the same wicked habits, preferring the things of earth to the things of heaven! I am not excused from this very charge. I, too, am in need of mercy.

Christmas is not so much a feast of divine manifestation as a testament of God’s enduring hiddenness. The Infant King has no caparisoned herald to announce him in the highways and byways, so as to bring the mighty to pay their homage. Instead, He sends His angels to summon the lowly and humble from afar off in the fields. Why were the shepherds summoned first, and not the townspeople of Bethlehem? Only a few souls received this extraordinary grace. We do not know their names. We have no idea what happened to them in the end. We have no sense of whether the peculiar privilege granted to them bore fruit in their own salvation. But I would like to believe that they did achieve the Beatific Vision. I hope they are in a high choir of Heaven. As deep calls to deep, so does the Hidden God love those elect souls who remain hidden in pious obscurity. In a beautiful passage, Fr. Faber calls these souls, which exist even today,

a subterranean world, the diamond-mine of the Church, from whose caverns a stone of wondrous lustre is taken now and then, to feed our faith, to reveal to us the abundant though hidden operations of grace, and to comfort us, when the world’s wickedness and our own depress us, by showing that God has pastures of His own uunder our very feet, where His glory feeds without our seeing it.

Fr. Frederick William Faber, Bethlehem, 228.

How then is this a divine manifestation? If anything, God draws the shepherds into the very obscurity in which He always abides. It is a manifestation that negates itself. They share His hiddenness, so similar to the dim glory of the Holy of Holies. The shepherds become human extensions of His sacred obscurity. Each one is a living shroud of the Divine Presence. Their lives, already hidden from the proud eyes of the world, are now forever hidden in God’s and written into His story.

God led the shepherds to that bed by the grace of an angelic call. He led the Magi instead by a less glorious, if no less effective, grace. They saw a marvel in the sky and followed it. Strange phenomena are another of God’s many veils, though not so beautiful and not so clear as revelation. We do not even know if the star they followed was supernatural or just a prodigy of nature. Directly or indirectly, Providence used it as a beacon to light their way to the dark and holy cave.

Nativity, Philippe de Champaigne (Source)

But the shepherds were first. And surely in this we discover a truth confirmed throughout the long history of the Church’s experience in the world. God does not reveal Himself to the learned and those wise in the judgment of the World. The Incarnation, like all the works of grace, is “unto the Jews indeed a stumblingblock, and unto the Gentiles foolishness” (1 Cor. 1:23 DRA). Our Lady sings as well that “He hath shewed strength with his arm: he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He hath put down the mighty from their seat: and hath exalted the humble and meek” (Luke 1:51-52, BCP 1662).

Worldly learning is totally bereft of access to God. It is little better than blindness. Thinking otherwise is mere pride and vanity, and only deepens the darkness. St. Paul tells us that “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known” (1 Cor. 13:12 KJV). Natural reason can help us see that there is a God, as well as to illuminate a few of His basic features. But no sage, however wise, and no scholar, however learned, grasped the mystery of the Incarnation of the Logos. Still less could they have foreseen that this holy child was, as it were, born as a sacrifice. Even the Prophets were entrusted with signs alone, and not the true substance of the mystery they preached. That was reserved first for the Virgin Immaculate in holy poverty, then for St. Joseph her Most Chaste Spouse, then the family of the Holy Forerunner, and then to the humble shepherds. Only after all of them did the Magi arrive to gaze upon the faze of God Incarnate. In delaying the Magi, Providence teaches us that the mysteries of grace are a crucifixion of natural reason. But in condescending to let them enter and adore the Divine King, He shows us that He will crown our earnest efforts to reach Him, as only He can, with His mercy.

But still, so very few are the witnesses of this God who remains, as it were, quite hidden! A handful of Jewish shepherds, and three pagan scholars with their retinue. He is brought to the Temple and circumcised – a prophetess and a priest, both soon to depart for eternal life, are entrusted with the secret. Anna and Simeon are a reminder that “salvation is of the Jews,” (John 4:22 KJV) and comes from no other people on earth. The gratuitous particularity of this chosen people, this priestly nation among all others, comes from the newborn babe that Simeon held in his hands. Perhaps, looking upon that smiling face, he suddenly saw all the covenants telescope into one, all collapse into themselves and center upon and magnify this child. Perhaps he knew he was holding the heavenly High Priest, of which his own office was merely a shadow.

The Presentation in the Temple, Philippe de Champaigne (Source)

Quite soon, the Lord departs from Bethlehem when a wicked and impudent king seeks His life. Then those martyrs, the Holy Innocents, water the ground of Bethlehem with their sainted blood. That grisly dewfall covered the steps of the escaped God who, in His Mercy, made them a very different kind of witness to His Incarnation. But their names are also covered in obscurity. They, too, remain in a kind of holy hiddenness.

There is a common thread between these four groups – or at least, explicitly in the first three, and only implicitly in the last. Contact with the Divine Presence, hidden for so long, brings forth adoration in the soul. The shepherds adore, the Magi adore, the dwellers in the Temple adore, and the Holy Innocents join Him in an oblation of their very blood. This grace of adoration is not given to all souls, but is nevertheless a defining characteristic of the Christian life. It is the sine qua non of Heaven. It is the essence of Christian life. Wherever one adores Our Lord in truth and earnestness, even a soul very imperfectly purified, we can be sure that grace is working there.

This Christmas, let us pray that the Incarnate Lord will grant us the graces of humility, of adoration, and of an earnest search for the God who remains always hidden from our mortal eyes.

On Joy

Le Christ aux outrages, Philippe de Champaigne, 17th c. (Source)

“Jesus Christ will be in agony until the end of the world” – Blaise Pascal

We shall not be blamed for not having worked miracles, or for not having been theologians, or not having been rapt in divine visions. But we shall certainly have to give an account to God of why we have not unceasingly mourned.” – St John Climacus

Recently I have had occasion to consider the role of joy in the Christian life. While I don’t believe that any particular emotions as such are intrinsic to Christianity, I sometimes feel that there is in the Church’s culture a kind of low-level idolatry of affective joy that makes it a good in itself and, more poisonously, demonizes those who do not share in it. This rather shallow (and ultimately false) view of joy as relentless and mandatory happiness has at times eclipsed the demands of the Cross, and has little to offer the suffering, the infirm, the distressed, the depressed, the sorrowful, the anxious, and the temperamentally gloomy. Are they to be excluded from heaven if they cannot force a smile? This soft and implicit Pelagianism of the emotions is a greater discouragement to souls than an honest reckoning with the sorrows of life and the terrible demands of the Cross.[1]

So, I thought I would put down a few very brief meditations on true and false joy. I would not wish to speak in absolute and general terms, but rather, out of the fullness of my heart, and all that I – a mere layman – have gleaned from seven years in the faith, the reading of Scripture, and the study of the Church’s spiritual history.

St. Paul tells us that joy is a fruit of the Spirit; he does not promise us that we shall have all those fruits at all times, or that they grow in us for own profit alone.[2] If I may alter the metaphor a bit for illustrative purposes (without in any way denying the truth St. Paul teaches), I would say that joy is the flower, and not the root or the fruit, of the Christian life as such.[3] It is chiefly given to us by God so that we might advance His Kingdom. Like the pleasant blooms of spring, joy is meant to attract souls who do not yet know the grace of God, and thereby to spread the life of the spirit. As soon as we have it, we must give it away. It is like an ember in our hands – giving light and heat, but liable to burn us if we hold on to it. For who are we to keep it, we who are nothing? And so, we should not be surprised if even this true joy is fleeting, and given to us only in rare occasions as a special grace. For the joy of God is not like the joy of the world. The former is rare as gold, and the latter as common as fool’s gold.

And as fool’s gold will not purchase what true gold can buy, so does a false joy fail in this paramount duty of conversion. We should not force ourselves to seem happier than we really are; a certain virtuous attempt at good cheer in the face of sorrow is always welcome, and we generally should not air our griefs too freely. I believe this virtue, built upon a detachment from our worldly disposition, is what the Apostle refers to when he tells us to “Rejoice always.”[4] But let us not delude ourselves into thinking that this human cheer can ever compare with the supernatural joy that comes only from God, and which many just souls have not been granted. To do so approaches dishonesty, both to ourselves and to our neighbor. Let us not pretend that our faith cheers us more than it really does; let us instead recognize that it promises us suffering, and a yoke that, though light, is nevertheless still a yoke.[5] And under that yoke, someone else will lead us where we do not wish to go.[6]

Joy is only true if it comes from, is ordered to, and brings us back to the Cross. The joy that God gives is always stained with the Precious Blood. But even then, we are not entitled even to this joy in our present life; rather, we are given the Cross as our inheritance. For what is the world if not a land of false joys? They come from nothing, they come to nothing; in their essence, they are nothing. Well and truly does the Sage condemn it all as vanity.[7] Well and truly does the Psalmist speak of it as “the valley of the shadow of death.”[8] Well and truly do we address the Mother of God from “this valley of tears.” We can do no other.

This life of the Cross is a gradual annihilation – what the French call anéantissement – a fearsome but salutary tutelage in humility and in the growing recognition of our own nothingness. To live and die on the Cross is to say every day with St. John the Baptist that “He must increase, I must decrease.”[9] Yet how hard this is! We lose sight of the fact that at the end, when we are nothing again, we can grasp the God who is No-Thing, the One who is beyond the traps, illusions, trinkets, clutter, disappointments, and, indeed, the joys of this world. We efface ourselves now so we may one day face Him. We mourn our sins today so we may rejoice in attaining God on the last day.

That is the true joy of the Cross – that, in mounting it, we can see God. But how rare is such a grace in this life! Most of us are caught up into the business of the world. Most of our lives are a long distraction. Most of us will only achieve the vision of God after the sorrows of this life and the pains of purgatory. And so, let us never forget that to be a Christian is to let Christ suffer and die in us, so that one day, we too may rise with Him.[10]


[1] James 4:4.

[2] Galatians 5:22-23.

[3] The root is faith, and the fruits are redemptive suffering and acts of charity.

[4] 1 Thessalonians 5:16.

[5] Matthew 11:28-30.

[6] John 21:18.

[7] Ecclesiastes 1:2.

[8] Psalm 22 (23): 4.

[9] John 3:30.

[10] Galatians 2:20; 2 Corinthians 4:11; 2 Timothy 2:11; Philippians 1:21

The Clock of the Passion

What follows is an original translation of L’Horloge de la Passion, a brief meditative text written by the Solitaire of Port-Royal, Jean Hamon (1618-1687), a doctor of medicine, mystic, and exegete. Hamon wrote L’Horloge for the sisters of Port-Royal to use during perpetual adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, perhaps during the Triduum. Perpetual adoration was a central feature of life at Port-Royal from 1647, when Mère Angélique returned from the unsuccessful venture of the Institut du Saint-Sacrement.

Each hour represents a different mystery of the Passion and is calibrated to follow the Passion narrative in real time. Hamon concludes with several prayers, probably composed first in Latin and then put into the vernacular. I have take the liberty of reproducing the Latin below while translating from the accompanying French.

This document, though originating from the heyday of Port-Royal, was only published in 1739 in the post-Unigenitus ferment of Jansenist print culture. It remains a very edifying text and a testament of the vitality of the spiritual life that characterized those wayward ascetics clustered around Port-Royal. I offer it here both out of historical interest for those who, like me, look at Port-Royal for academic reasons, and because I felt that such a text may be of some use and consolation to the faithful in this very unusual Holy Week, when death hedges us all around.

Christ on the Cross, Philippe de Champaigne, before 1650 (Source)

L’Horloge de la Passion

At six o’clock in the evening: Jesus Christ washes the feet of His Apostles. Humility. Help to our neighbor.

At seven o’clock in the evening: Jesus Christ institutes the Most Blessed Sacrament. Recognition and perpetual memory of this benefit.

At eight o’clock in the evening: Jesus Christ prays to His Father for the salvation and union of His Elect. To renounce everything that can stops us from being one with Jesus Christ and our brethren.

At nine o’clock in the evening: Jesus Christ is sad even unto death. Confidence in the weakness of Jesus Christ, who is our strength in our dejection and our miseries.

At ten o’clock in the evening: Jesus Christ prays to His Father to take away the chalice of His sufferings. Submission to the will of God.

At eleven o’clock in the evening: Jesus Christ enters into agony. To resist sin with courage.

At midnight: Jesus Christ, after having turned back the Jews by a single word, allows himself to be caught. To see God in all that man cause us to suffer.

At one o’clock in the morning: Jesus Christ allows himself to be carried off by the Jews. Sweetness and humility in ill-treatment.

At two o’clock in the morning: Jesus Christ is presented to the High Priest. To revere God in secular and ecclesiastical authorities.

At three o’clock in the morning: Renunciation and penance of St. Peter. Fidelity in confessing the name of Jesus Christ. Humble return to Him after our falls.

At four o’clock in the morning: Jesus Christ is presented before the Council of the Jews. To listen to the word of God as being truly His word. To adorer the Truth, never to raise ourselves against it.

At five o’clock in the morning: Jesus Christ mocked and outraged by the servants of the Priests. To suffer humbly both scorn and injuries.

At six o’clock in the morning: Jesus Christ is brought before Pilate. Adoration and imitation of the silence of Jesus Christ, when we are accused.

At seven o’clock in the morning: Jesus Christ is sent to Herod. To pass as foolish before men even though we be truly wise.

At eight o’clock in the morning: Jesus Christ is scourged. To take part in the sufferings of Jesus Christ and His members.

At nine o’clock in the morning: Jesus Christ is crowned with thorns. To adore Jesus Christ as our King. To suffer with him, is to reign.

At ten o’clock in the morning: Jesus Christ is condemned to death. To die to one’s self is to live in Jesus.

At eleven o’clock in the morning: Jesus Christ carries His Cross. Let us carry ours after him; he carries it with us.

At noon: Jesus Christ is crucified. To attach ourselves to Jesus Chris, and to desire to be attached by Him to the Cross.

At one o’clock in the afternoon: Jesus Christ is lifted up upon the Cross. To raise our eyes and heart towards the mysterious and divine Serpent.

At two o’clock in the afternoon: Jesus Christ speaks to His Father, to the Blessed Virgin Mary His Mother, and to St. Jean. Attention to these divine words that comprehend our duties.

At three o’clock in the afternoon: Jesus Christ gives up the ghost. To adore His death; to unite ours to him.

At four o’clock in the afternoon: The open side of Jesus Christ sheds blood and water. Rest in the Side and in the Wounds of Jesus Christ. To honor the Sacraments established in the Church.

At five o’clock in the evening: Jesus Christ is buried, and placed in the tomb. To be buried with Him. To hope for the Resurrection.

Prayers – That one can say in adoring the Death of Jesus Christ

Ut beatam horam Mortis tuae adoramus, Domine, da nobis ut horam mortis nostrae, quam solus nosti, perfecto corde & vivendo & moriendo adoremus.

Vouchsafe unto us grace, O Lord, that in adoring the hour of Thy Death, we might adore, in living and dying with a heart perfectly submitted to Thine commands, the hour of our death, that is known to none but thee.

Domine Jesu, qui mori voluisti ne moreremur, sed de morte ad vitam transiremus, recordare Mortis tuae in tempore mortis meae, cum nec tui nec mei recordari potuero.

Lord Jesus, who hast desired to die to deliver us from death, and to cause us to pass from death to life, remember Thou Thy Death at the hour of mine, when I will be no longer in a state to think of either myself or Thee.

Mortem meam quae poena peccati est, tutetur & protegat Mors tua, quae tollit peccata mundi, ut jam pie cogitando quia mortuus es, tunc moriendo non moriar.

May Thy Death that nullifies the sins of the world be my protection in death, which shall be the penalty of sin; and in thinking with piety that Thou art dead, in dying even may I not die.

Versetur semper ante oculos meos tempus Mortis tuae, quae mihi sit fons vitae, cum vita mea defecerit, ut in Morte tua vitam invenire possim qui in vita mea mortem singulis diebus invenio.

May Thy Death always be present to me, so that it may be unto me a source of immortal life when I will lose this corruptible life; and instead of often finding death in my life, may I find life in Thy Death.

Fac, Domine, semper conjungam cogitationem Mortis tuae cogitationi mortis meae, ut quod in morte mea amarum esse potest, benedictione Mortis tuae dulcescat; sicque vitae permanentis amore, mortis transeuntis levem ictum non reformidem.

Vouchsafe unto me the grace, O Lord, of ever uniting myself to the thought of Thy Death in the remembrance of mine, so that what there might be of bitterness in my death might be sweetened by the blessing of Thine; and thus that the love of an eternal life might cause me not to dread anything of the blow, so light, of a voyaging death.

Bene vivam, Domine, ut bene moriar. Ut bene vivam, vivam de te. Ut bene moriar, moriar in te,. Vitam meam informet Vita tua, ut sancta sit; & mortem meam defendat Mors tua, salus nostra, ut sit salutaris,

Vouchsafe unto me the grace, O Lord, of living well, that I may die well. May I live in Thee, that I might live well: and to die well, may I die in Thee. May Thy life be the rule of my life, so that it may be holy; and may Thy Death, which is the cause of our salvation, safeguard my death so that it may procure unto me salvation.

Christ on the Cross. Another treatment of the Passion by Philippe de Champaigne. c. 1655. Given by the artist to his sister Marie, a Beguine in Brussels. (Source)

Mère Angélique Arnauld on Mortification, Adoration, and Providence

The great reforming Abbess of Port-Royal, Mère Angélique Arnauld (1591-1661), is chiefly remembered today for her memorable role in the early phases of the Jansenist controversy. This is somewhat unfortunate, as the reform at Port-Royal was considerable and widely admired by such eminent figures as SS Francis de Sales and Jeanne-Françoise de Chantal. Leaving aside any historical question of Mère Angélique‘s actions in the Jansenist affair, I put forth my own translation of what is, I believe, a salutary text published long after her death. I would add that a Catholic may believe that the five propositions are heretical while also believing the nuns of Port-Royal were very badly treated by the authorities of church and state. The text is excerpted from Entretiens ou conferences de la reverende mère Marie-Angelique Arnauld (1767), pg. 331-34.

Philippe de Champaigne’s iconic double portrait of (l-r) Angélique and Agnès Arnauld, sisters and Abbesses of Port-Royal. (Source)

To have a part in the inheritance of Jesus Christ, one must suffer with Him: and what suffering did He endure? He suffered pains in his body: He suffered in His goods, because He desired to be born poor, and to endure the inconveniences of poverty: in His honor, for all the world knows in what fashion He was treated. Thus, if we desire to enjoy glory with Him, it is necessary to suffer with Him and like Him. I say to you in truth, my Sisters, that whosoever does not embrace mortification, he piles up affliction on affliction, not only for the life eternal, but also for the present…

The greatest need that we have is to adore God, and the greatest fault that we commit is not to do so. If therefore we beg of God the grace to adore Him, we remedy our greatest need, and in adoring Him, we repair our greatest faults. I wish that we would be so truly in this spirit of adoration, that we would have no other thoughts than to offer all creatures and ourselves in continual sacrifice to God. This would be a holocaust that would be more agreeable than all the prayers that we know how to say. Believe me: this would be the true way to obtain all the graces that are necessary for us. It is properly that which Our Lord said unto St. Catherine of Sienna: Think of me, and I shall think of thee. Consider, I pray you, the Blessed Virgin: she knew God from the moment of her conception, and from that moment she never ceased adoring Him…She followed Him with simplicity in time: she allowed herself to marry with the same simplicity; she received the quality of Mother of God in a profound adoration of His divine grandeur: her whole life was nothing but a perfect dependence on God. At the wedding at Cana, she contents herself with representing to her Son the necessity that she sees; and after having understood His response, she says to the servants: Do whatever he tells you; as if she had desired to say: I do not know what He wants to do, but obey that which He commands of you; if he says nothing unto you, do nothing…

It seems to me that it suffices to know that God is our Father, and after that what anxieties can we have in this life? When one has a Father at once wise, rich, good, and powerful, one fears nothing: but if he comes to die, we pity these poor orphans, fearing lest a tutor dissipate all their goods; but this is what cannot happen with God. So I do not understand how it can happen that one has so much mistrust of the mercy and the providence of God; do we therefore lack faith? Many times I find myself in rather disagreeable affairs, and He has always granted me the grace of handing over the event to His divine providence. One time in particular I found myself in a situation that was entirely difficult, and that was of no small importance; it put me in a great anguish, because I could see no daylight there. A good person wrote to me that when we do not see any remedy for things according to human prudence, God knows that we don’t know. This calmed me very much, so that all my anxieties ceased, and I have always believed so firmly in the providence of God, that nothing could shake me, because I know that He guides everything.

Mère Angélique Arnauld (Source)