Descent of the Dove
Charles Williams

Charles Williams

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III–V (here)

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Descent of the Dove

A Short History of the Holy Spirit in the Church

Copyright © 1939 by Charles Williams


Chapter III.
The Compensations of Success

Christendom had set out to re-generate the world. The unregenerate Roman world was now handed over to it. [...] All insincerity became Christian; neither Constantine nor the Church was to blame. Time had been a problem, and the Church had organized to deal with it; now space and numbers had become a similar problem. Christendom had been expanding within the Empire, and the acceleration had already become greater than the morality of Christendom could quite control. The acceleration and the corresponding loss of morality were highly increased.

Unfortunately they were so increased at the very moment when one of the profoundest divisions broke out—one can hardly say (by definition) within the Church, but within the apparent Church. [...] The grand Arian controversy had opened.

That this should have been possible at all, three centuries after Christ, shows how slow the Church had been towards exact dogmatic definition; it had been, and always has been, engaged on something else.

The doctrine of Arius had denied the possibility of equal exchange to God—outside creation. It is true that Arius, as well as Athanasius, held the other doctrine of free-will, and that in that sense every soul has it at choice to make exchange with God. But Nicaea went farther. Fourteen hundred years later, the doctrine was epigrammatized by an Anglican doctor when Dr. Hawarden, before the Queen of George II, asked Dr. Clarke: “Can God the Father annihilate God the Son?” That the question is, so to speak, meaningless is precisely the definition of orthodoxy. The Divine Son is not only “of God”; he is “God of God.”



It is due to Manichæanism that there has grown up in Christendom—in spite of the myth of the Fall in Genesis—the vague suggestion that the body has somehow fallen farther than the soul. It was certainly nourished within the Church by the desert ascetics—especially in their ingenuous repudiation of sex. [...] It was no more than a part of their general passion for singleness of soul, even when that singleness tended to become a singularity. Sex—the poor ignorant creatures thought—was one of the greatest, most subtle, and most lasting of all distractions; nor had the Church—at least since the suppression of the subintroductæ—shown any striking sign of intending to exhibit it as sometimes the greatest, most splendid, and most authoritative of all inducements. Yet even in the Thebaid the rejection was, at best, regarded as no more than a method of the Way.
Rejection was to be rejection but not denial, as reception was to be reception but not subservience. Both methods, the Affirmative Way and the Negative Way, were to co-exist; one might almost say, to co-inhere, since each was to be the key of the other: in intellect as in emotion, in morals as in doctrine. “Your life and your death are with your neighbour.” No Affirmation could be so complete as not to need definition, discipline, and refusal; no Rejection so absolute as not to leave necessary (literally and metaphorically) beans and a wild beast’s skin and a little water. Those who most rejected material things might cling the more closely to verbal formulæ; those who looked most askance at the formulæ might apprehend most easily the divine imagery of matter. The Communion of the Eucharist, at once an image and a Presence, was common and necessary to both. The one Way was to affirm all things orderly until the universe throbbed with vitality; the other to reject all things until there was nothing anywhere but He. The Way of Affirmation was to develop great art and romantic love and marriage and philosophy and social justice; the Way of Rejection was to break out continually in the profound mystical documents of the soul, the records of the great psychological masters of Christendom. All was involved in Christendom, and between them, as it were, hummed the web of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, labouring, ordering, expressing, confirming, and often misunderstanding, but necessary to any organization in time and particularly necessary at that time in the recently expanded space.
Arius came back to Alexandria, fell from his mule, and died, but his death did not put an end to his doctrine. Accidents to such distinguished leaders were, to their opponents, nearly always miracles of judgment, and during this period there was encouraged in Christendom the view which attempted to discern in exterior events an index to interior and spiritual truth; the false devotion which in a later day invented terrifying death-beds for atheists and agonizing diseases for Sabbath-breakers. This in itself is dangerous enough; it is made worse by that fatal tendency in men to hasten God’s work and to supply, on his behalf, the deaths and the agonies which they think his inscrutable patience has rashly postponed.
When St. Monica drove Augustine’s eighteen-years paramour, the mother of his son, back from Milan to Africa, something went with her which perhaps Christendom and Augustine needed almost as much as they needed St. Monica, though not as much as Christendom needed Augustine. Christendom did not then get her. It got the style of Augustine instead, and that style never seemed quite to apprehend that a man could grow, sweetly and naturally—and no less naturally and sweetly in spite of all the stages of repentance necessarily involved—from man into new man. He certainly is the less likely to do so who dwells much on the possibility. But the movement exists and the great Augustinian energy of conversion, contrition, and aspiration lies a little on one side of it. Formally Augustine did not err; but informally? He also, for all his culture, followed the Way of Rejection of Images, and he inspired later centuries to return to that Way. He has always been a danger to the devout, for without his genius they lose his scope. Move some of his sayings but a little from the centre of his passion and they point to damnation. The anthropos that is Christ becomes half-hidden by the anthropos that was Adam. In Augustine this did not happen, for his eyes were fixed on Christ. But he almost succeeded, in fact though not in intention, in dangerously directing the eyes of Christendom to Adam.

But this, which to Pelagius seemed so scandalous, seemed to Augustine merely truth. Chaste was what the law had bidden him to be and what he had not been able to be. The law was precisely impossible. Man precisely was not in a situation—not even in a difficult situation. He was, himself, the situation; he was, himself, the contradiction; he was, himself, death-in-life and life-in-death. He was incompetent.



There were in Augustine two points of farther greatness. He had carried the Redemption back, as it were, in man’s nature almost—quite—to the point at which man’s error began. The very sin which a man had committed in Adam before his own birth was the starting-point of the predestinating grace which, before his own birth, awaited the moment of his birth to begin its immediate operation. The City of God leaps upon its citizens, presiding like the god Vaticanus over the first wail of the child, separating it for ever from the transient earthly cities, making it a pilgrim and a sojourner. The Equity of Redemption is immediately at work; it predestinates whom it chooses, and it does not predestinate whom it does not choose. But its choice is (beyond human thought) inextricably mingled with each man’s own choice. It wills what he wills, because it has freedom to do so. Predestination is the other side of its own freedom. [...]

And this heavenly state was a sphere of operation. The equity of predestination was to a state of love.

Chapter IV.
The War of the Frontiers
It had been, in fact, one of the objections to the Faith that it originally offered itself particularly to slaves and small shopkeepers. Its modern antagonists denounce it still as a bourgeois superstition; and certainly St. Paul and St. Augustine themselves demanded precisely that their converts should become the bourgeoisie of a City. The difficulty has generally been to prevent the bourgeois mind from supposing that it satisfactorily understood all the heavenly experiences which the bourgeois soul endured.

In fact, it is doubtful whether Christendom has ever quite recovered from the mass-conversion of the fashionable classes inside Rome and of the barbaric races outside Rome. [...] It is at least arguable that the Christian Church will have to return to a pre-Constantine state before she can properly recover the ground she too quickly won. Her victories, among other disadvantages, produced in her children a great tendency to be aware of evil rather than of sin, meaning by evil the wickedness done by others, by sin the wickedness done by oneself. The actuality of evil does not altogether excuse the hectic and hysterical attention paid to it; especially to those who appear to be deriving benefit from it; especially to benefits which the Christian spectator strongly disapproves or strongly desires. Even contrition for sin is apt to encourage a not quite charitable wish that other people should exhibit a similar contrition.




Jews and Mohammedans might disagree about Mohammed. But they equally rejected not merely the Gospel of Christ but the very Nature of Christ. The growing devotion to the Mother of God was an abomination to both; the intense complex of the union of Manood—that is, of matter—and of Godhead was an outrage to both, and to the awful Otherness of Deity in which they both believed. No doubt Jew, Mohammedan, and Christian could live comfortably enough together, so long as nothing happened. But the least sneer—and the fires and the massacres might everywhere begin. [...] The finished and finite clods of the three Creeds might be untroubled by heavenly sparks; they were prone to be lit by earthly.
Is there a point at which idolatry tends to begin? a point at which the attention paid to the Person begins to be paid to the Representation, at which fervour begins to aim at the image instead of the idea? All the purer consciousness of man answered that there was. [...] Ought not the danger then to be removed? The common sense of Christendom refused that solution; the purer consciences would have to make the best of the bad job that humanity undoubtedly was.
Chapter V.
The Imposition of Belief

In II84 the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa and the Pope Lucius III promulgated the Edict of Verona. The Pope commanded the bishops to search out heresy, and to hand the guilty over to the secular power for punishment; the Emperor proclaimed punishment against them. It might almost be said that here the Church Militant underwent her most serious dangers, and that she deliberately accepted a mode of action difficult to reconcile realistically with the Kingdom towards which she aspired. It is true that heresy was believed seriously to harm man’s capacity to live and to love; the heretic outraged the law and method of exchange—nay, by insisting on his view as against the authoritatively-expounded view of the Church he refused the common fact of supernatural exchange. It was perhaps bound to seem necessary that he should himself be cut off. “Life is the means by which man enters beatitude,” and heresy spoiled it.

But, that being admitted, it is clear also that new temptations of the greatest energy were now assailing the organization. There has never yet been found any method of driving out one devil—except by pure love—which does not allow the entrance of seven, as Messias had long ago pointed out.

The great problem, and the great excitement, for the early medieval minds was quite different from ours. We have the questions—say, What is going on, if anything? or Does God exist?—but no answers until we discover them, if we do. But even then we have no means of checking the answers. The Middle Ages supposed themselves to have both the questions and the answers. They had ordinary things on one hand; they had the highly technical language of ritual and doctrine on the other. What was the relation between the two? The excitement lay in pointing out that your opponents’ arguments, if prolonged, would result in a denial of the formally correct answers with which he was supposed to concur. The excitement also, no doubt, sometimes lay in yourself using arguments which “made Truth look as near a lie As could comport with her Divinity.”



It is true that most of what we know of the Albigenses comes through their enemies, and that not one mind in a thousand can be trusted to state accurately what its opponent says, much less what he thinks. The orthodox testimony cannot be trusted more than, though perhaps it may be trusted as much as, that of anthropologists regarding savage races. It seems clear that Languedoc had become a centre of culture, of luxury, of heresy, and of sterility. A kind of “waft of death” went out there, and an oriental separation from the flesh and the co-inherence; the Eros was crowned, but it did not fructify. At first Innocent sent missionaries; the great Dominic sent himself. But the missionaries failed; the papal legate was murdered; and Innocent “proclaimed, for this invasion of Languedoc, all the indulgences that could be earned by the far more difficult and dangerous campaign in the Holy Land.” [...] By I2I5 the thing was finished, and the doctrine that matter was incapable of salvation was, until the coming of Mrs. Eddy, a fallacy of the past.
The great Arthurian romances had grown up and spread during the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. The energy of courtly love had gone into Lancelot, Merlin had come into existence, and so had the grand myth of the Grail and the Wounded King. It is supposed that a Cistercian or a group of Cistercians set to work both to concentrate and to undo the cycle of the Matter of Britain. There was built up, in the romances called the Lancelot and the Queste del Saint Graal, a world of chivalry and love in order to be overthrown by the creation of another world of religion, contrition and sanctity; and as in that world the Grail shone defined, the same as and yet (in effect) other than the Eucharist, so in proportion to its pure glory Lancelot was barred from achieving it. But by what has been one of the greatest moments of imagination every permitted to man, he was allowed and compelled, in an enchantment and supposing himself true to the queen, to beget on the predestined mother the shape of the High Prince. Galahad, accompanied by Percivale and Bohort (as if in different offices of a single sanctity), achieves the Grail. No doubt, at that time, Galahad presented, as it were, the Way of Rejection of Images as against the mistaken or sinful affirmations of images in the court of Camelot. But there is—to us, especially since Malory—a great ambiguity about him. He has no concern with any mortal affirmations, and yet he is the child and climax of the greatest of mortal affirmations, of a passionate, devout, and tragic double love. He owes his very existence to Lancelot, and he never forgets his father. “Fair lord, salute me to my lord Sir Lancelot my father.” The absurd nonsense that has been talked about his being “unhuman and unnatural” misses altogether the matter of the mystically enchanted fatherhood. [...] The High Prince has remained as an intense symbol of the two Ways; he is not on them, but they are both in him. He is flesh and blood in the union with the Flesh and the Blood.

The recovery of Aristotle at the end of the twelfth century, at first repudiated and prohibited as a public danger, provided eventually the armour of the grand philosophical minds of the day. Certainly there had been systems of thought before St. Albert and St. Thomas, and certainly St. Thomas himself was not adequately received for fifty years or so after his death; his championship of Aristotle nearly ruined his reputation. But presently Aristotelianism was accepted; it became the panoply of those mammoth systems, for when we contemplate the work of Duns Scotus crashing against that of Aquinas it is of some such conflict of totalitarian minds that we are reminded. Nor has the victory been always to one side; the thought of St. Thomas has been subtly modified by the sensations aroused by Scotus. As, for example, in the effect on our view of matter encouraged by the Scotist opinion that the Incarnation would have happened, had there been no Fall.

“Reason,” as Chesterton said, “is always a kind of brute force. . . . The real tyranny was the tyranny of aggressive reason over the cowed and demoralized human spirit.” There is, certainly, a way by which Reason can avoid that brutality; it is not a way that St. Thomas took, but it exists. It consists of saying, at the very beginning, as that other great rationalist Euclid said: “Let us suppose. . . .” What we agree to suppose is another matter; it may be that logic can be trusted, or that things exist, or that I can think, or anything else. We cannot begin to prove anything without supposing something. The great Scholastics hardly ever said: “Let us suppose. . . .” Siger of Brabant, who seems to have held that there were two modes of truth, and that one could indeed believe what one knew was not true, may have been trying to get at it. Aquinas defied Siger, but Dante made Aquinas praise Siger. But then poetry can do something that philosophy can not, for poetry is arbitrary and has already turned the formulæ of belief into an operation of faith. We have often been shown how Dante followed Aquinas; it would be of interest to have an exhibition of their differences.1 For poetry, like faith, can look at the back as well as the front of reason; it can survey reason all round. But the towering castles of the Scholastics would not deign to suppose: it is why the Inferno is readable, while the chapters on Hell in the Summa are unbearable and unbelievable.

1 Thus for instance, St. Thomas (Part I, Q.92, Art. I) says that woman was created as a helper to man “in the work of generation,” for in all other works man “can be more efficiently helped by another man”. This is hardly the doctrine of the Comedy.

text checked (see note) Sep 2012

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