From Fr Robert Hugh Benson’s Seven Last Words:
THE FIFTH WORD
Our Lord continues to reveal His own condition, since He, after all, is the key to all Humanity. If we understand anything of Him, simultaneously we shall understand ourselves far better.
He has shown us that He can truly be deprived of spiritual consolation; and the value of this deprivation; now He shows us the value of bodily deprivation also. And the Paradox for our consideration is that the Source of all can lose all; that the Creator needs His creation; that He Who offers us the water springing up into Life Eternal can lack the water of human life—the simplest element of all. In His Divine Dereliction He yet continues to be Human.
I. It is very usual, under this Word, to meditate on Christ’s thirst for souls; and this is, of course, a legitimate thought, since it is true that His whole Being, and not merely one part of it, longed and panted on the Cross for every object of His desire. Certainly He desired souls! When does He not?
But it is easy to lose the proportion of truth, if we spiritualize everything, and pass over, as if unworthy of consideration, His bodily pain. For this Thirst of the Crucified is the final sum of all the pains of crucifixion: the physical agony, the fever produced by it, the torrential sweat, the burning of the sun—all these culminated in the torment of which this Cry is His expression.
Bodily pain, then, since Jesus not only deigned to suffer it, but to speak of it, is as much a part of the Divine process as the most spiritual of derelictions: it is an intense and a vital reality in life. It is the fashion, at present, to pose as if we were superior to such things; as if either it were too coarse for our high natures or even actually in itself evil. The truth is that we are terrified of its reality and its sting, and seek, therefore, to evade it by every means in our power. We affect to smile at the old penances of the saints and ascetics as if we ourselves had risen into a higher state of development and needed no longer such elementary aids to piety!
Let this Word, then, bring us back to our senses and to the due proportions of truth. We are body as well as soul; we are incomplete without the body. The soul is insufficient to itself, the body has as real a part to play in Redemption as the soul which is its inmate and should be its mistress. We look for the redemption of our body and the Resurrection of the Flesh, we merit or demerit before God in our soul for the deeds done in our body.
So was it too with our Lord of His infinite compassion. The Word was made Flesh, dwelt in the Flesh, has assumed that Flesh into heaven. Further, He suffered in the Flesh and deigned to tell us so; and that He found that suffering all but intolerable.
II. In a well-known book a Catholic poet describes with a great deal of power the development of men’s nervous systems in these later days, and warns his readers against a scrupulous terror lest they, who no longer scourge themselves with briers, should be neglecting a means of sanctification. He points out, with perfect justice, that men, in these days, suffer instead in more subtle manners than did those of the Middle Ages, yet none the less physical; and puts us on our guard lest we should afflict ourselves too much. Yet we must take care, also, that we do not fall into the opposite extreme and come to regard bodily pain, (as has been said) as if it were altogether too elementary for our refined natures and as if it must have no place in the alchemy of the spirit. This would be both dangerous and false. What God hath joined together, let no man put asunder! For, if we once treat body and soul as ill-matched companions and seek to deal with them apart, instantly the door is flung open to the old Gnostic horrors of sensualism on the one side or inhuman mutilation or neglect on the other. [Footnote 1: Health and Holiness by Francis Thompson.]
The Church, on the other hand, is very clear and insistent that body and soul make one man as fully as God and Man make one Christ; and she illustrates and directs these strange co-relations and mutual effects of these two partners by her steady insistence on such things as Fasting and Abstinence. And the saints are equally clear and insistent. There never yet has been a single soul whom the Church has raised to her altars in whose life bodily austerity in some form has not played a considerable part. It is true that some have warned us against excess; but what warnings and what excess! “Be moderate,” advises St. Ignatius, that most reasonable and moderate of all the saints. “Take care that you do not break any bones with your iron scourge. God does not wish that!”
Pain, then, has a real place in our progress. Who that has suffered can ever doubt it again?
Let us consider, therefore, under this Word of Christ, whether our attitude to bodily pain is what God would have it to be. There are two mistakes that we may be committing. Either we may fear it too little—meet it, that is to say, with Pagan stoicism instead of with Christianity—or we may fear it too much. Despise not the chastening, on one side, or faint on the other. It is surely the second warning that is most needed now. For pain had a real place in Christ’s programme of life. He fasted for forty days at the beginning of His Ministry, and He willed every shocking detail of the Praetorium and Calvary at the end. He told us that His Spirit willed it and, yet more kindly, that His Flesh was weak. He revealed, then, that He really suffered and that He willed it so…. I thirst.