The Conquest of the BrideHANS URS VON BALTHASAR
My kingdom is invisible, but I want to establish you, my Bride, before the eyes of men so visibly that no one will be able to overlook you.
I want to establish you upon iron foundations, and your structure is to be a true and distinctive sign that I am setting up a memorial to myself upon the earth. You will be my witness to the very edge of the world, a witness that I was in the world, and I will not forsake you until the end of time. You will be a sign of contradiction among the peoples, and no one will even as much as whisper your name, O my Church, without shuddering.
Over you men will have to part their ways, for many will love you and squander everything for you, but very many will hate you, and these will swear an oath not to rest until they have exterminated you from the land of men. And you will be despised like no man or thing, except myself, has ever been despised on earth. They will stand in line for the privilege of spitting in your face, of wiping off on your garments the mud from their shoes.
On all walls they will scrawl caricatures of your mystery, and in the bars, writhing with laughter, they will sing obscene songs about you. They will set you in the pillory and, after they have bound and gagged you, they will accuse you of every vulgarity and demand that you wash yourself clean.
No means will be left untried to bring you under suspicion and every one of your shortcomings will be inflated to monstrous proportions. You will know hard times, nor will there be any assigned place for you. Wherever the path seemed to lie open before you, you will, before long, find a landslide and a roadblock, or perhaps a wall.
"Impossible!", you will say. You will have to live on earth, yet without possessing a home. You will have to acquaint yourself with both the good and the evil customs of every people and with all of men's distresses. But, although you will be in their midst, men will make sure to exclude you from both their trust and their confidence.
They will let you feel that you remain the foreigner in the house, at best tolerated, never truly loved. No matter what you may attempt in order to make yourself of service, they will not be satisfied. If you make yourself one of them, they will scorn you; and, if you keep to yourself, they will say: "You see, she knows herself where she belongs. Let's then put an end to the affair and drive her out once and for all."
For a time it will seem as though you have attained to well-being and success among them. They will rally around your banner and make themselves at home in the great shadow of your cathedrals. Your word will be their nourishment and your blessing will transfigure their lives.
But then it will be as if your children had outgrown the milk of your breasts. The more clever among them will shake themselves loose of your heavenly bonds, and the avalanche of their apostasy will gain momentum through the centuries, until the masses, inexorably dragged along by this irresistible pull towards the earth, will also desert your fold.
You who wanted to gather up humanity in order to present it to me as the one fruit in the libation-cup of your prayer: See how you now stand leafless like a tree in the autumn. No harvest has been brought in, and the commandment to go forth which burns within your heart is today still less fulfilled than on the first day when you set out. At that time everything was still possible, even in the midst of the heathen's immense darkness.
A light had gone up, and all faces turned automatically towards this New Thing. But now it seems as though your song is becoming a hurdy-gurdy. Whenever you appear in a street all windows are shut, and the little which people's ears nonetheless still unwillingly perceive excites in them nothing but disgust and infinite boredom.
You can no longer conceal the disgrace of having failed totally, of having lost the game for good. People's distress may still fill a couple of your bombed-out churches... But just wait for the day of prosperity to return and you will be more forgotten than a corpse of a thousand years. You have not recognized the signs of the time. The rushing stream of love that you once released over a thirsty world (the slave raised up a hopeless eye, women lifted their veils, all the disinherited felt the breath of a more-than-earthly mercy): this rushing stream, I say, is now dammed up.
Your administrators stingily dole out through well-run pipe-systems and institutions the precious liquid of my grace. The bark of the tree which once blossomed in the wild has now turned to cork. You have become such an established household that even the catastrophic storms of the times, and persecution rattling at your gates and windows, can hardly awaken you from sleep, and a slap in your face can elicit from you but an embarrassed smile. Disgrace covers the length of you, all the more poignantly as you try to deny it, pretending nothing is amiss.
So there you stand, my Bride, truly a sign over the peoples at which fingers point, a widely known but little loved sign. Your failure redounds to me, since on your account my name, too, is blasphemed among the heathen.
Many a man who sought me with a sincere heart came to a terrified halt on his way as he suddenly caught sight of you, and he turned away. And many a one who saw how troublesome is the life of your faithful, how little redeemed they appear to be, how pitifully the glow of their hearts smothers under the ashes, how strictly they judge the world while being themselves secretly full of the world; has turned resolutely to the innocence of the heathen.
It is not your love — that overcomes the world — which is a scandal to them; for that is a scandal which you should give! Their scandal, rather, is your luke-warmness and your unbridled lack of love.
You were meant to be for men an image of the unity between me and the Father, and it was for this that I sent you our Holy Spirit, the bond of unifying love; for this it was that I established you on the all-embracing unity of baptism, doctrine, and the uninterrupted succession from Peter to John Paul II. Your very essence is unity, and each of the tokens by which you are recognized and by which you can prove your identity is founded on unity.
And you will not succeed in falling away from this unity. You will not succeed because I myself put this unity within you and burnt this indelible mark into you. You will not succeed because I have entered into you with my Spirit and, as your one heart, I move you towards unity from within.
But you are always in a state of revolt against yourself. No people is more torn asunder than yours, none so pervaded by discord down to the very foundations. Every person within you who holds an office, everyone who has charge of a mission or who administers a task I have given him, constantly tends to consider the part that he is as if it were the whole. He sees the small wheel he turns as if it were the power that moves everything else, or the worthless service he performs as if it were indispensable.
All of you are members, and as members all of you should serve so as to complete one another, thankful that your brothers possess what you yourself do not have. in the love which does not seek its own you would possess the whole. For I am the whole, I who am the Head of the Body and the soul which unifies it.
But no! Down the centuries you quarrel over the better places, forever tearing up and mangling my Body to the bone. And when you do not succeed in tearing a whole member, a whole land, away from the community of the Church, when you, blinded by spite, do not set up a new — the thousandth! — sect alongside my real house, then you strive, insatiable and agitating burrowers that you are, to hollow out like mice the walls within the house, and like moles to shake the foundations.
Your priests' enviousness has become proverbial, and the fights among your Orders, the rivalries among your organizations, make them the subject of derision. Each individual thinks his own limited program is the best and only valid one, and so the members become detached from one another and my holy, life-giving Blood can no longer flow through them. Long before a new part of your house caves in, long before an external schism is sealed, the sap of love has already become stagnant within; stealthy heresy and omnivorous sin have already made the terrible events inevitable.
It is with you, my Body, that I am forever fighting the great, apocalyptic battle. Whatever remains far from me and my heart is nothing but hollow flesh, lost in itself. But I do not find it difficult to save such flesh: it puts up no resistance and lets itself in due time be brought into the fold.
Whoever stands closer to me, however, has been initiated into my mystery and, belonging to my Body, perceives the throbbing of my Heart as it resounds throughout the Body's internal vaulting: this person has received the Spirit and is, therefore, awake and able to choose freely. Only he truly knows the meaning of sin.
Thus, I am endangered within my own Body; it is within me that my deadly enemy lies in wait. I have suckled a snake at my breast, a worm that does not die. In this, too, have I become like you: just as temptation rises within you from your own flesh, so, too, does the deepest threat leap up against me from my own flesh. The spirit is willing and strong, but the flesh is weak, and where the spirit borders on the flesh it is vulnerable, having come to terms with weakness. That is a borderline where the spirit has always betrayed itself, giving itself away.
For, if the spirit had nothing of flesh, how could it come to form one being with the flesh? In the same way, I, the strong God, have betrayed myself to you — my Body, my Church — and in the place where I did this I became weak: there alone could I be wounded to the death.
In that place I yielded, I surrendered to the temptation of loving a body within my own Body (for who can hate his own flesh?); the temptation of delivering myself up to the obscure chaos of a body, of plunging below the shiny surface of the flesh; the temptation of passing over into this world — this simmering darkness, opposed to the Father's light; the temptation, I say, of passing over into this adventure of the senses, into this unknown virgin forest called Mankind.
Just as you, passionately, with throbbing pulse, cross over temptation's boundary, so, too, have I crossed over the boundary of the flesh with a quivering heart, fully conscious of the danger. I dared to enter the body of my Church, the deadly body which you are. For the spirit is mortal only within its own body.
And so, from now on, we are no longer two but, together, only one flesh which loves itself and which struggles and wages battle with itself even to the point of death. For your sake I became weak, since I could experience your being only in weakness.
No wonder you realized your advantage over me and took my nakedness by storm! But I have defeated you through weakness and my Spirit has overpowered my unruly and recalcitrant flesh. (Never has woman made more desperate resistance!) In order to put a seal on my victory and exploit my triumph, I have engraved a mark upon you, O my flesh: on your carnal weakness I have engraved the mark of my own carnal weakness, and on your sin the mark of my love.
Never again will your sinful battle against me be anything other than the long wrestling of love. This is the meaning I confer upon it, and now it can have no other meaning. Precisely because you, O wretched one, knowingly sin against love, precisely for that reason is your sin enfolded by my love. And because I, who am at once Spirit and Love, am myself the battlefield between God and the world, the battle is already and eternally won in me. Our wrecked covenant — - our blood-wedding, the red wedding of the Lamb — - is already, here and now, the white bridal bed of divine love.
Do what you will, you remain the captive of love. I raised you up, wild one, when you were struggling and weltering in your own blood. I have washed you in the bath of my Blood, in the water-bath of my baptism and in the Word of Life, and I have fashioned for myself a glorious Church, without blemish or wrinkle, holy and unspotted.
You may behave like a wanton courtesan and daily betray me with another: still, you will never be what you in this way pretend to be. For all eternity you are my pure Body and my chaste Spouse. I am going to clothe your disgrace with such holiness that the aroma of your garments will fill the whole earth, and no one will be able to deny that he has really and bodily sensed your fragrance.
I will deposit such love into your hands — love for you to distribute — that your name among the peoples will be called "The Lovable" and "Love's Watchtower." And I will put in your heart such concern for the world and for my lost sheep that the dull herd will smell their shepherd and run to you almost against their will. The insults which you are preparing for me will not be as great as the disgrace that I will bestow upon you from the treasury of my Cross. The mockery they will pile upon you will be nothing compared with the mockery I will entrust to you as my precious gift and my priceless wedding present, taken from the storehouse of my divine sufferings.
The inglorious weakness with which, in this century of collapse, you stand before the world unable to transform it: this weakness is already a part of the mystery of my own inglorious weakness, for when was I ever strong enough to renew the face of this exterior world? Thus, it is my will to give you a worth which does not properly belong to you, and to fashion you solely from the might of my heart, as Eve was fashioned from Adam's rib.
The source of your life, O Church, is both a demand and a promise. Live not from yourself: live solely in me and from me. Think of yourself no longer as of the one you used to be. Think no longer of your heart, but rather let my Heart alone be sufficient for you — the heart which I have planted in the center of your body.
You ought, in this way, to be my Bride and my Body, and it is my will to redeem the whole world in you, exclusively in you. Be my handmaid. Renounce your will and nestle, like Ruth, at my feet. Become obedient even to death.
Be for the world my embodied obedience, shown forth visibly and sensibly throughout all ages. Be so obedient that to say "Church" will be to say "obedience"; for redemption is found in obedience, and whoever proclaims me must depict my obedience even to the death on the cross. Thus it is that I want to exalt you to be Queen of the World, and all peoples and ages will have to bow before you. You, however, yourself obeying, are to exact obedience in my name, for it is my will to rule the world in none other than you, and in no other body but yours does my Heart throb. This is the demand and this the promise.
Bind yourself to me so irrevocably that I will be able to descend to hell with you; and then I will bind you to myself so irrevocably that, with me, you will be able to ascend to very heaven. Empty yourself out into me so completely that I can fill you with myself. I will spare you no extremity — not the heights and not the depths — for I wish to have no secret from you. Where I am, there you too are to be. What I do, that are you to do in me.
So it is that I wish to teach you my obedience: a blind obedience leading you to abandon your every insight, your every love, your every faith, and through this obedience they will recognize who has my Spirit and who belongs to my Body. But this obedience will be but the pledge of my love for you and of your love for me, and in the midst of your slavish service you will experience the freedom of the children of God coming upon you like the ray of a light from above.
You will experience how greatly servitude follows the coercion of love. In all of this you will fare as I did when I, by being my Father's slave, was only bound the more intimately to his love, and every creaturely distance from my Father revealed itself as a means and a detour and a more cunning ruse leading towards unification.
I now repeat with you the same game which the Father played with me. I dismiss you, out into the world; I leave you behind on earth, widowed, only in order to unite myself to you from heaven in a more interior, more spiritual, more divine manner.
I leave you as if bereft of soul in the grave of the world, with your spirit wandering among the shades of the underworld, only to deliver you from death suddenly, abruptly, thus again proving to the world that you live and that I live in you. For your existence in the world is an incessant miracle, and no one can ignore the fact that you drink from an alien spring, that a table other than theirs nourishes you.
And so, in spite of everything, you will be my sign among the nations. To them you will remain a very implausible thing, so much so that they will daily prophesy your death. And you will indeed die after a fashion. But see: we live, you and I, for I have died once, and whoever eats of my death will live eternally and I will awaken him on the Last Day — - and each day is the last.
I have died once, and only once does my Body, my Church, pass over from death to life. This is the one turning. Each of your members must make it a reality in union with me, each in his own place, in his own century, but in the unity of the one change, in the transubstantiation of this world into the other world (they are the same).
There is but one turning wherein earth becomes heaven, and this turning point is the Church. Here the occluded (closed up) world opens up and awaits the promised grace. Here man confesses his guilt and recognizes his truth. By the very act of becoming exposed, man's truth is effaced and in its place he receives the truth of God.
Here the old man is replaced by the new. Here the world dies and another world rises. Here the two eons intersect. Here every ending becomes a be ginning, every impasse becomes the pledge of a hope. Here springs forth out of the hardest rock the water of eternal life. Here ends the road of reason and faith sprouts wings. Here the puzzle of the world is solved through the mystery of God. Here is bridged the chasm between heaven and earth, because your faithful live in both realms at once.
Blessedness is no longer a distant promise: this, rather, is eternal life — that in love they have come to know you, Father, and also me, whom you have sent. And no human flinching concerning salvation will constitute such shaky ground that the Rock of Faith will not outdo instability with firmness. "For my sheep hear my voice and I know them, and they follow after me, and I give them eternal life, and they will not in all eternity be lost, and no one will snatch them from my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all others, and no one can steal from the Father's hand. I and the Father are one."
This is why I myself am the Resurrection and the Life, and whoever believes in me, whoever drinks from the source that flows from my open side, from him a new source will spring forth which will be inexhaustible, for it flows from eternal life into eternal life. And, Martha, it will not be on the Last Day that I will awaken him, for whoever believes in me has already passed over from death to life. His grave has already burst open and he has risen to eternal life. This is eternal life, that believing, loving and hoping, they come to know you, Father, and also me, whom you have sent.
To you, my Church, have I entrusted this fountainhead. Out of you, who are my Body, out of your open side does it flow forth to refresh all peoples. Just as you, as the new Eve, have sprung forth from my sleep, so do I, who am divine life itself, spring forth from you. Your hands distribute me as the Bread of the World.
For, to be sure, the woman derives from the man, but the man is then born of the woman. Everything, however, derives from God. Being God, I am the Source and am before every being, and for this reason the man is the glory of God and the source of the woman, and God-become-human is the man, while the Church is a woman, since the woman is the glory of the man.
But, because I became the Son of Man, I have been born from human beings and am your child, O Church. For everyone who does the will of my Father is not only my brother and my sister, but my mother as well. You have sprung forth from my Heart and I have rested under your heart. You, to whom I gave birth with much suffering at the Cross, will be prostrate in painful labor with me until the end of the world.
Your image mysteriously blurs to merge with the image of my virginal Mother. She is an individual woman, but in you she becomes the cosmic Mother. For in you my individual Heart, too, widens to become the Heart of the World.
You yourself are the holy heart of the nations, holy because of me, but unifying the world for me, making my Blood circulate throughout the body of history. In you my redemption ripens, I myself grow to my full stature, until I, two-in-one with you, and in the bond of the two-in-one flesh — you, my Bride and my Body — will place at the feet of the Father the Kingdom which we are. The bond of our love is the meaning of the world. In it all things reach fulfillment. For the meaning of the world is love.
Hans Urs von Balthasar. "The Conquest of the Bride." from chapter 12 in Heart of the World (Ignatius Press, 1979).
This article is reprinted with permission from Ignatius Press.
Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-88) was a Swiss theologian and widely considered to be one of the most important Catholic intellectuals and writers of the twentieth century. At his Requiem Mass, Cardinal Ratzinger declared von Balthasar the most learned man in Europe. His works include over a thousand books and articles. Von Balthasar died on June 26, 1988, one day before he was to be made a cardinal by Pope John Paul II.
Ignatius Press has been the predominant publisher of Hans Urs von Balthasar's writings in English, having published over sixty of his books (see here).
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