[The following is an essay written two years ago but never published or otherwise presented.]
Crucified Lord, you swim upon your cross
and never move. Sometimes in dreams of hell
the body moves but moves to no avail
and is at one with that eternal loss.
You are the castaway of drowned remorse,
you are the world’s atonement on the hill.
This is your body twisted by our skill
into a patience proper for redress.
I cannot turn aside from what I do;
you cannot turn away from what I am.
You do not dwell in me nor I in you
however much I pander to your name
or answer to your lords of revenue,
surrendering the joys that they condemn.
In the above work, Geoffrey Hill outlines the lonely distance between the despairing sinner and the suffering Christ. His poem captures the weary malaise of modern sensibilities, a world desirous of redemption yet hopeless for an answer. This is not atheism; this is not agnosticism. It is a deeper, more difficult problem. An older problem: the apparent triumph of sin in the face of the cross. For all the power of the redemptive work on the cross, the “No” of the sinner can and does thwart grace. Here, at the center of Hill’s sorrow, rests a thoroughly Christian dilemma. His despair, though ultimately antithetical to Christian values, manages to force open the door to an urgent question: how do we authentically approach the problem of sin and grace in the life of the believer?
It is not enough to side with an ultimate victory in view of the Resurrection. Though Christ’s triumph assures the world’s, it does not assure the individual’s—not if there is the possibility of an ultimate rejection on our part. We must tread carefully here, must consider the full breadth of the question. It is a particular problem, one addressed to the believer. To one who has professed faith, yet remains mired in sin. We cannot separate ourselves from such a person, since, to greater and lesser degrees, we stand in the same position. “All suffering is unique—and all suffering is common.” There remains an abyss between who we are and who we ought to be, a chasm of painful proportions—experienced in the confessional. The sinner desires forgiveness and at the same time remains attached to sin, and neither disposition can long stand the other. As Hans Urs von Balthasar has the sinner confess in Heart of the World:
You [Lord] have suffered, made atonement in my place, paid for everything in advance down to the last drop. But there is one thing you can’t do, and this is something I can’t do either. I should…but I cannot. I should want to, but I don’t. I wish I could want to, but I don’t want to want to. How do things stand then? How can this be? I don’t understand it. They say you blotted out sin and made atonement for it. They say you effaced sin, not just covered it over, and that henceforth it no longer exists in the eyes of God. And yet sin is precisely this: that I do not want what God wants. And I can’t see how this opposition on my part could be broken. I can’t see how this prison wall which holds me captive could be pierced through.
A theological answer ought not only assure us of Christ’s objective victory, but also address the question of its subjective experience in the individual. We must refute Hill without dismissing him. We must indicate the manner in which the Christian tradition is both sympathetic yet not beholden to his sentiment.
“You do not dwell in me nor I in you.” Hill’s statement rips apart St. Augustine’s famous dictum of the sinner: mecum eras et tecum non eram. If sin holds sway, then Christ is “seeking the heart that will not harbour” and his “passion’s ancient wounds must bleed anew.” In such a situation, it often seems that Christ and the sinner stand at an impossible impasse.
These perceptions remain imprecise and incorrect, suffering from a deficient understanding of the Incarnation. God became man in order to unite us to himself by our very nature, and so stands with us as both God and man. Augustine’s sentiment is thus more accurate than Hill’s and, even as “Jesus will be in agony even to the end of the world,” he remains interior intimo meo.
This can seem of little consequence to the sinner, who is nevertheless personally responsible for every sin save Original Sin. Indeed, in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, the individual must admit responsibility in order to gain absolution. So, what are we to do if the sinner must admit responsibility for grave sin again and again? Here we have perhaps the crux of Hill’s problem and the crux of the sinner’s problem: even if faith is professed, mortal sin can still take hold. The fight can begin to seem futile. “Burning burning burning burning/ O Lord Thou pluckest me out,”; “I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.” Here is a darkness that imitates the Dark Night without its heights of sanctity, a third “night,” beneath both that of the soul and the senses.
And it, too, purifies.
It purifies with what it demands, and that is hope. Faced with habitual sin, which extends deep into the soul of the sinner and requires considerable toil to root out, we can either give in or keep fighting. “…a habit is like a second nature, and yet it falls short of it. And so it is that while the nature of a thing cannot in any way be taken away from a thing, a habit is removed, though with difficulty.” Only a faith founded in hope can respond to the frustrations of habitual sin.
Where, then, can we find hope? Where, when we stand at conflicted odds with Christ himself, can we see the possibility of victory? “Comforter, where, where is your comforting?” We find hope in the Assumption. If we look to the Assumption, we begin to understand that in Christ “we have been given hope, trustworthy hope, by virtue of which we can face our present.” In the Assumption, we comprehend the full “breadth and length and height and depth” (Eph 3:18) of Christ’s saving work. We see the triumph of grace and the triumph of the human will in grace. We see not only the possibility that we can surrender to grace, but also we see one who has accomplished this surrender.
Mortals, behold a Woman,
Rising ‘twixt the Moon and Sun;
Who am I the heavens assume? An
All am I, and I am one.
Multitudinous ascend I,
Dreadful as a battle arrayed,
For I bear you whither tend I;
Ye are I: be undismayed!
Where Mary goes, the rest of the Church follows. In her, we see—as in a mirror—who we are and, through this same mirror, we see who her Son is. She is a “pool so clear, so pure, that even her own image—created only for the sacred joy of the Father—was not to be reflected.” Her glory is a reflection of Christ’s glory. “By coming closer to the inaccessible Beauty you have yourself become beautiful, and like a mirror, as it were, you have taken on my appearance.” We sinners, made ugly by sin, look upward and see the beauty grace would carve from our hearts of stone. Mary’s perfection, rather than driving the sinner to despair, drives the sinner forward. Her beauty pulls us closer, lulls us enough to finally grasp—beyond grasping—the One who remains interior intimo meo. “Down below in the lowest part of you, in the lightless disgrace of your impotence and refusal, there have I chosen my abode. As a small root cracks the heaviest stones apart, so have I softly caused your prison walls to waver.”
It is not enough to say that Christ has won. We are too weak for words alone. In the Assumption we see, body and soul, Christ’s final victory.
Cadent fails the stars along:-
Mortals, that behold a woman
Rising ‘twixt the Moon and Sun;
Who am I the heavens assume? an
All am I, and I am one.
 Geoffrey Hill, “Lachrimae Verae,” in Tenebrae (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1979), 15.
 Henri de Lubac, Paradoxes of Faith, 171.
 Hans Urs von Balthasar, “Jailhouse and the Cocoon,” in Heart of the World, trans. Erasmo S. Leiva (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1979), 133-34.
 Saint Augustine, Confessions, Liber X, Caput XXVII. You dwelled in me and I did not dwell in you.
 Geoffrey Hill, “Lachrimae Amantis,” in Tenebrae (Boston: Houghlin Mifflin Company, 1979), 21.
 Blaise Pascal, Pensees VII, 553.
 Augustine, Confessions, Liber III, Caput VI.
 T.S. Eliot, “The Wasteland, III, Fire Sermon.”
 G.M. Hopkins, “Carrion Comfort.”
 St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica Part I of II, Question 53, Article 1.
 G.M. Hopkins, “No worst, there is none.”
 Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi, 1.
 Francis Thompson, “Assumpta Maria.”
 Georges Bernanos, Diary of a Country Priest.
 St. Gregory of Nyssa, Commentary on the Song of Songs, trans. Jean Danielou, 170-171.
 Balthasar, Heart of the World, 142.