One thing in this world is different from all other. It has a personality and a force. It is recognised, and (when recognised) most violently loved or hated. It is the Catholic Church. Within that household the human spirit has roof and hearth. Outside it, is the Night. —Essays of a Catholic by Hilaire Belloc (1931).
Outside is the night…. Hilaire Belloc’s powerful assertion that the Church is the only refuge and sanctuary in a world of darkness and sin only makes sense if we understand what the Church is, and, equally importantly, what she isn’t.
If we perceive the Church as merely a human institution, Belloc’s assertion becomes problematic. Clearly, if we see the Church in this way, the evil and sin that we see outside, in the darkness of the world, is also present inside of the Church herself. We think perhaps of pro-abortion “Catholic” politicians, or corrupt and perverse priests and bishops. Perhaps, if we are humble enough to be completely honest, we think of the darkness within our own hearts.
Belloc’s assertion only makes sense and is only true if we see the Church as the Church sees herself. She is not simply a human institution, no larger or better than the sum of her human members. Au contraire, she is, at one and the same time, the Body of Christ and the Bride of Christ. Nor is this double definition self-contradictory. Christ is the Bridegroom and the Church is His Bride and, as such, they are One Flesh, wedded eternally in an indissoluble union. If a person is baptized and in a state of grace, he is united to the Union of Bride and Groom. Thus united, he is preserved from the wickedness and snares of the devil who prowls throughout the world, in the darkness of the night, seeking the ruin of souls.
In this sense, the pro-abortion politician and the perverse and corrupt priest are not inside the Church, united to Christ, but are outside in the night. It is for this reason that Dante consigns many bishops and priests, and even popes, to Hell.
It is true, of course, that Catholics (through our fault, through our fault, through our most grievous fault) sometimes find ourselves outside in the night, divorcing ourselves from Christ and His Bride in our own willful sinfulness. In such cases, by the love and mercy of God, we have the sacrament of penance to bring us back into the light that is only found on the Inside.
At this juncture, we hear the seemingly reasonable objection that light can be found on the Outside also. It can be found in good and beautiful things that have nothing to do with the Church, such as dancing daffodils or dappled with damson sunsets, or in the acts of love that we see performed by non-Catholics. Such a belief is rooted in a misunderstanding of the good, the true and the beautiful, which have their source in God and always point to Him. Christ is the reason that daffodils and sunsets are beautiful, and one who sees the beauty is also seeing the beautifier. Similarly all acts of genuine, i.e. self-sacrificial, love are manifestations of the love of God in His creatures and for His creatures. Whenever we see true love we are always seeing the True Lover.
Once the light to be “seen” in the darkness is seen in this way, we begin to understand that the light cannot be seen in the darkness at all. The light is not in the darkness, it exorcises it. Wherever the light is, the darkness isn’t.
All light is the light of Christ. It is, therefore, true to say that the light perceived on the Outside is nothing other than the light to be seen from the Inside. It is the goodness, truth, and beauty that burn in the heart of Christ’s Body and Bride, the hearth of life and love that burns in the Everlasting Home of the Everlasting Man.
Insofar as we see the light, we bring heaven to earth; insofar as we live in the light of love, we raise earth a little closer to heaven. Insofar as we are true to the light in our earthly loves we will be raised at last to the heaven-haven of the reward, the place where the Church is eternally triumphant and where the darkness is forever vanquished.
Outside is indeed the night infernal, but inside is the light eternal, gleaming with the love of God for His Bride, the Church.
Republished with gracious permission from the St. Austin Review (November/December 2013).