We may hope with the poets that the further we fall, the higher we can rise
George Herbert (1593-1633) wrote the following pretty lines in the shape of a pair of wings to signify our final aspiration to soar heavenwards in Christ’s triumphant Easter train:
Lord, who createdst man in wealth and store,
Though foolishly he lost the same,
Decaying more and more,
Till he became
O let me rise
As larks, harmoniously,
And sing this day thy victories:
Then shall the fall further the flight in me.
The last line is a little puzzling at first: I take him to mean that the further we human beings fall, the higher we can ascend by God’s grace.
More than two centuries later Gerald Manley Hopkins came up with a complementary thought:
Build His church and deck His shrine,
Empty though it be on earth;
Ye have kept your choicest wine—
Let it flow for heavenly mirth…
…Beauty now for ashes wear,
Perfumes for the garb of woe,
Chaplets for disheveled hair,
Dances for sad footsteps slow;
Open wide your hearts that they
Let in joy this Easter Day.
The second line “Empty though it be on earth” could have been written with the 21st century in mind, at least in the Western world. Many of our churches now are almost empty, and religious houses are often neglected and even abandoned. It’s a sad prospect, but as Herbert thought, the further we fall the higher we can rise. Let’s cleave to that hope.
But is our situation really all that grievous today? Was there ever really an “Age of Faith” when most Christians lived mostly Christian lives? From our point of view there have certainly been better times than now, and there’s a lot going on that might lead us to think that things are getting worse. Certainly, the situation of Christians and Muslims in China (and many other places) has deteriorated in recent years. Even in Australia persecution is already in the cards if authorities think you hold basic “fundamentalist” views on certain issues of faith and morals. Remember Israel Folau?
There’s a lot of truth in the protestant doctrine of “the invisible church” (Catholics have never been very comfortable with it), which says in effect that saints are always pretty thin on the ground, that God knows who they are even if we generally don’t, and that most of us are deeply tempted by material pleasures and constantly prone to succumb to them. In a way nothing changes, though a world like ours, with material expectations that go far beyond anything that earlier generations could imagine, makes it easier than ever to dismiss ultimate reality and imagine, as John Lennon said, that there’s no heaven.
Here’s a more comforting thought, though: As the pendulum falls on its down-stroke and gathers momentum for its swing upwards, so let us hope that the Church’s reserves of energy, boosted by the Holy Ghost, will launch us into dizzying flight. There’ll be no permanent triumph in this world, but (to vary the metaphor) it would be wonderful to get some good runs on the board again!
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