Descent of the Dove
Charles Williams

Charles Williams

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VI–VII (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 VI.
Consummation and Schism

The end of the Middle Ages can be variously regarded as a break-down, a break-up, or a break-through. The last is the least probable; the Middle Ages were not so precluded from intelligence that the discovery of a number of new facts or even of other methods of enjoyment need have much destroyed their balance. They were not, as we now realize, enclosed in narrow dogmas; the dogmas in which they were enclosed were as broad as creation, as high as the topmost movement of the soul, as deep as the genesis of the blood, and as remote as Adam and the Day of Judgment. Such, whether considered macrocosmically or microcosmically, the principles of Christendom must always be; whether they are seen through all times and all places, or in a single human shape. It is true that there were certain things the Middle Ages did not stress, and perhaps the lack of those things contributed to their wreck; as, for instance, they did not habitually encourage the principle of disbelief. The faith of the Middle Ages accepted Reason as implicitly as it accepted Christ; a later age was to be led by the Holy Spirit into the realization that faith can take pleasure in the defeat of rational support while taking advantage from rational support. All this, however, hardly supports sufficiently the image of the Middle Ages “breaking through” into a happier intellectual state. Nor do we normally now believe that they did.

In the general effort of establishing and maintaining a settled civilization marriage had become rather a fixity of social life than a dynamic of divine things. It is extremely doubtful whether monogamy can be defended on the grounds of its being a cultural success; and to do the Church justice she never has tried to defend it primarily on any such unsatisfactory grounds. She has based her defence on the supernatural, and the supernatural and the cultural do not, always and habitually, agree. But for long, affected by her early passion of devotion and her later passion for Reason, she deprecated sexual passion altogether. [...]

From this point of view passion towards a man’s wife was as bad as passion towards somebody else’s wife.

The idea of marriage as a way of the soul became a possibility. Passion was no longer to be only a morally dubious because un-intellectual quality of marriage, which was itself but a degree of justice working itself out in the world. The discovery of a supernatural justice between two lovers was passion’s justification, and yet not only justification, but its very cause. There was vision (or conversion) and there was co-inherence and there was faith and hope and the Christian diagram of universal good-will. [...] In certain states of romantic love the Holy Spirit has deigned to reveal, as it were, the Christ-hood of two individuals each to other. He is himself the conciliator and it is there that the “conciliation”—and the Reconciliation—begins. But this is possible only because of the Incarnation, because “matter is capable of salvation,” because the anthropos is united with the theos, and because the natural and the supernatural are one Christ.



Dante is a Ghibelline; that is, he attributes as much authority as possible to secular rule, as he attributes as much theophany as possible to individual vision. Neither, however, is allowed to derogate from the business of the official organization of Christendom. He attributes to the clergy their function, and he demands that they shall exist for their function, as the Emperor for his, and he himself for his, and all lovers for theirs. All things exist by each other, and each thrives according only to its fulfilment of its function.

It is not without some relevance to the history of Christendom to notice that when the little book which recounted that original start, when the New Life, was at last printed—in I576—the ecclesiastical authorities censored it. There had been some difficulty over Dante altogether; which is not surprising so far as the political De Monarchia is concerned. That had been taken up by some of the Reformers, and one edition (it is said) had even been seen through the press by Foxe of the Protestant martyrology. But the New Life was not noticeably Calvinistic, nor do the eyes of Beatrice in the Comedy flash with Lutheran, though they do with reforming, fire. No; but the language of the New Life was extreme and dangerous. The officials got to work on it. [...] In short, they took immense care to alter the whole point of Beatrice; they laboured to explain that this was merely an ordinary love-affair, and that no love-affair could be more than an unilluminated love-affair. In a positive terror of the flesh they abolished everything but the flesh. It was their bad luck, though by I576 they might have known they were dealing with Dante, and by I576 they might have known that most lovers feel as Dante felt. It is one of the drawbacks of a celibate priesthood that they are bound to the personal rejection of that particular image.



Lordship and dominion belong only to those in a state of grace. And who is in grace? Those who follow righteousness and the will of God. And who . . .? alas, the old danger follows—“those who do what I think they ought to do.” Dominion and the right to obedience were to depend on character. It is to be admitted that the character of Urban seems to excuse, if any could, the refusal of obedience. Yet if obedience is to depend on character—it was but a variation on the old Gnostic theme: there is a superior set of people in the Kingdom of God. It looks as if Wycliffe thought there were.

A man who, at the age of I2, had entered the University of Paris and heard the first news of the Second Election in I378, would have been forty-eight when the Council met at Constance. But a man born in I378 would have been thirty-six. A whole generation had grown up to manhood and to theological thought in the presence of the Schism, the Two Concurrents, the efforts of the National meetings and of the Kings. He had been used to denunciations and excommunications; he had been used to regarding half-Christendom (his own or the other) as out of regular communion, and in a state of revolt. He had been used to Withdrawals and Restorations of Obedience. He had been used to hearing from, say, Paris or Oxford, that he was to do this or the other ecclesiastically. He had been used to arguments and sermons on the Nature of the Church, of the Hierarchy, of the Papacy. Belief admitted its principles, but their visuality wavered; reason had to find a way round itself. Necessity triumphed; it was denied, but it could not be forgotten. Since its beginnings the Western Church had known no such contradiction—not of theory—but of practice. An ambiguity of apparent fact troubled the whole organization; actuality and reflection were confused. It is inconceivable that the generation—and much more than a generation—which received the shock and the continuity of disunion should not have eased men’s minds towards dispute and hostility. The split of the Reformation was prepared.

Chapter VII.
The Renewal of Contrition
[...] the effort of converting disobedience through obedience to a love of Reconciliation in obedience had failed, and the effort of compelling obedience by the force of the mere organized means of Reconciliation had failed. It was not, of course, surprising; it was what had always been foreseen. Christendom had betrayed itself again, as, since St. Peter, it was always doing. There was to be, as there always has been, a sharp and violent recall. It was not for nothing that Messias had uttered one of his most appalling and ambiguous sayings: “Behold, I am with you always.”

The traditional figure of the Renascence used to be Alexander VI. It is impossible not a little to regret the rehabilitation of the Borgias. To remember that the family produced saints is one thing; to make their other members nothing more than respectable worldly princes is quite another. The magnificent and magical figure of Alexander had once, for those who could accept it, a particular attraction. [...] Wicked bishops and wicked kings were common enough. But that the concentration of wickedness—avarice, pride, murder, incest—should exist in the See; that the infallible Vicar should possess the venom and be in love with his own uncanonical daughter; that that daughter should be throned in the Chair itself over adoring Cardinals, and that the younger of her two brothers should assassinate the elder, and the awful three—the Pontiff and the two children—should wind the world into their own skein of lust and cunning . . . this was the kind of thing that demanded the implicit presence of the whole future Roman development. The incarnation of Antichrist (romantically speaking) must be in the See of Christ. The Scandal of the Church had to be a scandal of the True Church, or it lost half its lurid glory.

It seems it was not so. Lucrezia was less lovely and more moral than had been supposed, and Cæsar, if as brilliant, was almost always excusable, and Alexander himself is no more than a great Renascence statesman, and it was most unlikely that he poisoned cardinals or even died of the venom himself; alas, only Christian rites took place in the Pontifical chapels, even if the tapestries were a little pagan. The myth, however, had this to be said for it—it was contemporary. [...] It was accepted by pious and credulous chroniclers of the day.

The Middle Ages paid their normal attention to the ordinary affairs of men, as all normal attention must be paid, semper, ubique, ab omnibus. When, however, they thought about those affairs, they imagined them in terms of God and grace. And eventually their energy could not live up to the dazzling circle of dogma within which it operated. God was everywhere the circumstance of all lives. Men had been over-nourished on such metaphysics, and the Renascence abandoned the idea of that universal Circumstance to attend to lesser circumstances. Change, sin, and intelligent delight in the creation had all been at work, and now they did not so much break bounds as withdraw from the bounds. The thought of the Middle Ages was not limited, but perhaps its philosophical vocabulary was.
[...] even the imaginative acts of the Renascence did not reach to “the top of speculation,” except perhaps in the effort of Leonardo to measure the very angle of creation itself. The Mona Lisa is the effort of art to discover and pattern the very first creative movement of a smile; the whole superb labour of its painter discovered in creation the mathematical motion towards a similar ostentation.



As was said earlier, co-inherence had been the very pattern of Christendom; we were not to be merely inheritors but “brethren and fellows and co-inheritors of the name of salvation.” And as Augustine had taught that that co-inherence stretched back to Adam, so Christendom had carried it forward and beyond into all relationships, up to the last point of the active blessed. The invocation of Saints had arisen from it, and the practice of indulgences had defined it in action. The first Indulgences had been declared to the early Crusaders; all temporal penalties of sin were remitted to those who fought. This was but a method, and two steps were still to be taken before the whole superb and dangerous knowledge became defined. In the thirteenth century Alexander of Hales defined the Treasury of Merits, and in I343 the doctrine was accepted by Clement VI. In I457 Calixtus III formally declared that the exercise of such powers was applicable beyond this world, so mightily had the organization become conscious of itself. It was indeed rather a new manner of measurement and a ratification which was then proclaimed, since prayer had always been believed to be effective in the Divine Will. But an accurate method of exchange was then presented to the faithful; by doing this, that would be achieved. Indulgences were “applicable to the souls in purgatory.” Acts of love could be, definitely and locally, offered to the dead; the visible and invisible worlds co-inhered in that grace; the great means of substituted love became as visible on earth as it was in heaven. Money was, on earth, a means of artificial exchange, and could be, now, a means of the art of heavenly exchange—money given in repentance, in faith, in love. As the intention was struck into act—“as the money chinks in the box”—the effect was achieved—“the soul springs from purgatory.”

It was, however, the chink of the money that too much deflected attention. The Lord Leo X, acting within his Pontifical rights and (by definition) offering the faithful a new opportunity of concrete and calculated exchange, and no less profitable to all souls concerned for being concrete and calculated, issued a special Indulgence. That he wished to use the money obtained for building St. Peter’s was the Lord Leo’s own responsibility, and his own business how much piety went to the building. The arrangement made, however, did rather savour of simony. A particularly brilliant financial idea occurred to someone [...] The Archbishop of Mainz, Albert of Hohenzollern, had just been elected. He was not yet of canonical age to hold a bishopric, and he already held two others—he was Archbishop of Magdeberg and Administrator of Halberstadt. He offered the Pontiff ten thousand ducats for concession and confirmation. It was agreed that the money should be advanced by the great banking house of Fugger and paid to the Pope, who should then allocate to Albert, for the Fuggers, the receipts from the Indulgences. The Fuggers took over the management of the sale, arranged for commercial travelers—that is, preachers—sent agents with them to check the takings, and shared the results with the young Archbishop. Such was the idea, such was the arrangement. Unfortunately whoever thought of it dropped a lighted match into that unknown cellar of man’s mind which contains the heavily dynamic emotions known as “faith” and “works.”

In the miracle of co-inherence there is no reason to suppose that the Indulgences were not effectual for all the glad and aspiring ghosts to whom they were offered. But of that assistance offered by the Church militant to the Church in purification the earthly scandal was an unfortunate result.

The tales told of Tetzel would be incredible were it not that the thing happening is so often more like a fable than the thing supposed.

Even now it seems astonishing that one moment, as against so many others, should have set fire to so much. Luther was neither a great mystic nor a great theologian. He might have found all that he ever found in a thousand orthodox doctrines. He denied nothing, at least in the beginning, that a thousand orthodox doctors would not have denied. But two things combined against peace and reconciliation; the first was the immediate alignment of forces, the second was certain particular conversions permitted or encouraged by the Spirit.

The alignment of forces tended to be upon that old frontier of dispute, the argument on faith and works. It has often been regarded as a technicality of theology; in fact, of course, it is a matter like most theology—of everyday life. It is a matter of understanding and approach; it is almost a matter of style.

You are no nearer being love because you have done acts of love. But are acts of love then of no account? Much every way, so long as you do not claim them for yours. But can I then not exist as action in love? Yes; you exist precisely, at fullest, in the acts which, most intensely, are not yours. And apart from them? Oh apart from them you are corrupt, lost, perishing everlastingly. Your acts are only from the fullness of the treasury of the all-meritorious love of God.

So, roughly, the Faith party; the Works took another, and parallel, line. You exist in those acts—yes; it is up to you to produce them. No one and nothing can produce them except you; unless you do, they will be everlastingly and eternally lost. They are of intense value; their value is such that they are not only applicable to the present situation but to all situations. They affect those dead long since and those yet unborn, as you are affected by the deeds of love of those not yet born or dead long since. All the sacraments at least are communications of love to all—through you. They at least are certain where so much is uncertain. Act then; act now; act, you. Work while it is called day. Without you and your acts—so marvellously has he limited himself that you may be co-inheritor with him—the acts of Love himself are not yet full.

The alternating stresses were reconcilable enough—in the hearts of the saints, the rhythms of Dante, or anyone’s ordinary experience. Along both those parallel roads the columns of Christendom moved to take the kingdom of heaven by storm. [...] It was all very well for the Incarnate Glory to refrain from defining his gospel, but he left the task to his disciples, and all the infallibilities have not yet succeeded in making it very much plainer. St. Paul, it seems, was right; only the operation of “faith” succeeds.

It was this complete necessity which the genius of Calvin attempted to restore as the only basis of the universal Church. He desired to attribute all initiative to God, and to show that all things existed only according to the will of that initiative. [...] We have chosen necessity, and that necessity elects as it will, some to salvation, some to damnation.

Augustine had said almost as much [...] All the psychological doctors of the Mystical Way had assented. Calvin attempted to formulate that experience. But no such dogma has ever been satisfactory to the Church that does not involve free lives mutually co-inhering, and necessity and freedom (dare one say?) mutually co-inhering. In the Crucifixion of Messias necessity and freedom had mutually crucified each other, and both (as if in an exchanged life) had risen again. Freedom existed then because it must; necessity because it could.

text checked (see note) Sep 2012

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