Monsignor Ronald Knox (1888-1957) converted to Roman Catholicism in 1917, having spent five years as an Anglican cleric in Oxford (a conversion which led his father to cut him out of his will). Knox was a contemporary of G.K. Chesterton and in many ways they prompted each other to convert. In 1926, Father Kearney, then Parish Priest of Corpus Christi, Maiden Lane, invited Msgr. Knox to preach the Forty Hours Homily, which he then continued to do for thirty years. This particular homily was preached in 1945, at the end of the Second World War, just a few weeks after VE Day.
That they too may be one in us, as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee. John 17.
Our Lord, on the eve of his Passion, quoted the words, “I will smite the shepherd, and the sheep shall be scattered.” The prospect of being deserted by his apostles in the hour of danger does not fill him with a sense of loneliness; he is well prepared to face, alone, the false verdict, and the mockery, and the shame of crucifixion. The tragedy is rather that these friends of his, who for three years past have been united in so close a bond of companionship, because they were his friends, are to lose that centre of common loyalty, and be scattered every man to his own. The compact little society will become a rabble of self-contained units, each fending for itself; the link that bound them together will have gone. Somehow, we do not know why, man is born for fellowship, and the breaking-up of any human circle demands its tribute of tears. By way of fortifying their human hearts, fortifying, perhaps, his own human heart against the strain of this parting, our Lord prays such a prayer as no merely human leader would have ventured to conceive. He prays that the disciples may be one with that very unity which binds together the three persons of the Godhead itself.
And we, year by year, recall to ourselves that prayer of his by celebrating two feasts in close conjunction. The Thursday after Trinity Sunday is for us what you might call Unity Thursday; we keep the festival of Corpus Christi, and in doing so we cast our minds back to the Upper Room and the first Eucharist, when our Lord incorporated his friends into a society by incorporating them into himself. Always the liturgy remembers what we, who use the liturgy, are so prone to forget – that the Holy Eucharist is a sacrament of unity. When the consecration takes place, what happens? The substance of the bread and wine is withdrawn from them; the accidents remain. And yet, in our ordinary experience, it is the substance and the substance alone which lends any natural thing its unity. Shape and size and colour and smell and the resistance which it offers to the touch come together in a single principle of unity, the substance; it is the lynch-pin which holds them all in place. Take away the lynch-pin, and the wheel flies off. Take away the substance, and, by a miracle so stupendous that our minds can hardly conceive it, the accidents do not fall apart; they remain there to be the garment and the vehicle of a quite different and a far greater substance, that of our Lord’s own Body and Blood. His word upholds them; the same word which prayed, at the Last Supper, that the apostles might remain one; might remain one, even when their Master, the focus of loyalty by which their fellowship maintained itself, was taken away. The unity which unites three persons in one Godhead, the unity which preserves in being a set of accidents which have lost their substance – that is the unity we Christians pray for, and claim as our own, when we gather round our Father’s table at the Holy Eucharist.
Again and again you will find the language of the sacred liturgy dominated by this idea of oneness in Christ; a supernatural oneness which triumphs over every disparity, every separation. That is, I think, the idea which underlies one of the most beautiful, and at the same time one of the most obscure, petitions which we make during Lent; when we ask Almighty God ut congregata resaures, et restaurata conserves, “that thou wouldst bring together and mend, mend and for ever preserve, what now lies broken.” Bring together and mend, mend and for ever preserve, what now lies broken – is it possible to not feel like that about the cruel divisions introduced into the world, into states, into families by these six years of war? So many millions of men torn away from their homes; and of these a great number, even now, unable to go home because circumstances have changed at home, and they find themselves outlaws. So many nations torn by bitter internal feuds, that will hardly be healed in our lifetime. And the world in general so weary of war, and yet so far from the very elements of harmony, so ignorant of the very alphabet of peace! “That thou wouldst bring together and mend, mend and for ever preserve, what now lies broken” – do we not need that prayer, when we see the mortar of civilization cracking all around us?
Congregata restaures, et restaurata conserves; the Church, knowing well what we are, members of a fallen race, does not simply ask God to keep us in our present position, and leave it at that. She knows that that will not do, we are scattered all over the place, like broken pieces of china, and we have got to be put together again before we can be worth preserving. No, we must not be so miserably small-minded in our prayers as to tell God that we want him to keep the world just as it is, a mass of quarrels and seething discontents, if only we can have five or ten years of peace before hostilities start again. We must ask him to gather up the broken pieces of our world and cement them together again in some kind of world order, based on real justice, to give Europe statesmen who will keep their word and will grant freedom to their fellow countrymen, before we can ask him to keep things as they are.
But there is more behind it. If we will be honest with ourselves, we shall admit that the war has brought disharmony into your life and mine; we are not at peace in ourselves. Most of us are much busier than we used to be; in days when labour is short, we have more things to do, in days when the necessities of life are harder to come by, we have more things to think about. The great cruelties, the great injustices we read about in the newspapers rankle in our minds, and turn the milk of human kindness bitter within us. We shrink from the novel experiment of building a new world on the ruins of the old; we are sad at the disappearance of old landmarks, uneasy at the changes in our familiar habits of life. Travel is more difficult and more wearisome; we find it hard to make contact with old friends, even when we are little divided from them by distance. All that sets up a restlessness in our minds which perhaps is good for us in a way; it may save us from falling too much into a rut and taking life too easily. But it does not make the business of our souls a more encouraging task. For that, we need tranquillity, recollection; how are we to think about God or eternity, with daily needs and worldly preoccupations and public cares so weighing on our minds? The thought of God seems to get crowded out; our own sins get overlooked – they are so petty, compared with the needs of a distracted world, the perils of an uncertain future. While the war was still close to us, and danger seemed imminent, we could fix our minds on the common effort, forget the future and everything that was not part of our own immediate job. Now, the strain has relaxed, but our thoughts are still over-occupied. They rattle through your head as the rosary beads rattle between your fingers; you feel as if you were not one person, but a mass of whirling fantasies, of disconnected trains of speculation.
Not one person, but a mass of fantasies – haven’t we got back again to the need for unity? Aren’t we conscious, once again, of the need for praying that Almighty God will bring together and mend, mend and for ever preserve, what now lies broken? Haven’t we got to be at peace within ourselves before we can bring any peace to the world in which we live? Instead of that, we lose our heads, take counsel of the prejudice that is uppermost, and make hasty decisions. How are we going to introduce any singleness of purpose into our lives, any recollection and repose into our thoughts?
You will learn to integrate yourself, pull yourself together, in the way we are speaking of, precisely in proportion as you manage to get more closely in touch, and more intimately in touch, with the Eucharistic life of our Blessed Lord. The Blessed Sacrament is the Sacrament of Unity; and when you receive it, it does not merely produce in you more charity towards your neighbour, more loyalty towards the Church, more unselfishness in your human attachments. It makes you more at unity with yourself; it catches up your life into a rhythm that echoes the heavenly music. Strange if it were not so; as we have seen, this Presence which comes to you in Holy Communion comes to you veiled under the accidents of bread and wine, accidents which have now no substance to support them; it reigns amidst chaos, and will it not reign amidst the chaos of your heart? It comes to you, since our Lord’s prayer could not go unanswered, full of that unifying love which is the bond of the Blessed Trinity, and will it not bring unity into your scattered thoughts, your conflicting ambitions?
Only, there is something to be done on our side. The wheat must be ground into bread, the wine must be pressed out of the grape, before we can give our Lord the opportunity to work his miracle of Transubstantiation. The offertory first, man stretching out his hands to God; then the consecration, God accepting and transforming man’s gift. We must come to meet him, come to meet him early in the morning, when sleep has smoothed away for us the memories of yesterday, and no cares have yet assailed us to disturb the equilibrium of our lives. We must hand over the direction of our lives to him, if we are to know what it means to live an ordered life, heart-whole and mind-whole in a world like ours. Then we can go to Communion.