Christ Within: Voices from Tradition

Part two in the “A Timely Teaching” series by Bishop Hugh Gilbert, OSB
These teachings correspond to a video series recorded by Bishop Hugh. The corresponding video is linked at the end of the text.

II – Christ Within: Voices from Tradition

Let’s begin in early medieval Ireland. The beautiful breastplate of St Patrick is not exclusively concerned with the indwelling of Christ. Rather, Christ fills every dimension. But it is there, especially in the original Irish text, not all of which comes through in the versions familiar to us.

Christ with me, Christ before me,
Christ behind me, Christ within me,
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ at my right, Christ at my left,
Christ in the fort,
Christ in the chariot seat,
Christ in the poop deck,
Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me.

Here Christ is all around the Christian, his shield. But that “all around” includes “within”. The Christian is a fort with Christ as its commander. The Christian is a chariot with Christ as driver. The Christian is a ship with Christ the captain on the bridge.

Another Irish text, speaking of God, not explicitly Jesus, reads: “The body preserves the soul; the soul preserves the mind; the mind preserves the heart; the heart preserves God; God preserves mankind” (The Alphabet of Piety).  I quote that for the role it allots the heart.


It is worth saying here that, in Tradition, the notion of the graced soul being indwelt by Christ functions as a great affirmation of our innate dignity as human beings. We are capable of containing, housing God: we are theo-phoric. We are Christo-phers, i.e. Christ-carriers. Just as Mary physically sheltered the Word of God for the first nine months of his earthly life, so the Christian houses the life of the risen Christ in the “womb” of his or her heart. St Ignatius of Antioch, who died around 107 AD, calls the Christians of Ephesus “God-bearers and temple-bearers, Christ-bearers, bearers of holy things” (Eph 9:1). This signals how great the human being is, how “capable of God”.


In his 12th Homily on the Passion, Pope St Leo the Great lays the doctrinal foundations of Christ as Presence: “Dearly beloved, it cannot be doubted that the Son of God assumed human nature so intimately that there is one single Christ in the man who was the first-born of all creation, and also in all his saints. The head cannot be separated from the members, nor can the members from the head. It is a property not of his human but of his eternal life, that God should be everything to everyone. Nevertheless even now he dwells inseparably in his temple, the Church, according to his promise: ‘Lo, I am with you always to the close of the age.’…[O]ur participation in the body and blood of Christ has this effect: it makes us become what we receive; it enables us, with our whole being, in our spirit and our flesh, to bear him, in whom and with whom we have died and been buried and risen again.” Notice the eucharistic connection, an echo of St John.


The monks have spoken much about this. In the monastic tradition, there has always been, along with a keen sense of the body, a strong sense of human interiority, be it called the heart or the soul or the spirit or the mind, and with that a sense of man’s dignity. There is a story of sin and redemption to tell here. As a result of the Fall, this inner realm, with its emotions, appetites, thoughts, created in the image and likeness of God, has been disturbed, fragmented, dis-integrated. Its rightful lord has been ousted; indeed it may have fallen under the usurping ownership of the demonic. If the soul is a garden, it has run wild and shelters wild beasts. If it is a house, squalor and disorder reign. If it is a temple, it has been profaned. The advent of Christ is restorative. He is “the unifier of what is disunited” (Hesychius of Sinai). With him comes order, harmony, purity, peace. The garden flowers, the house shines. Christianity is the renewal of the human being. Through the Incarnation, God has entered into our world in a new way and, in baptism, into the Christian’s body and soul. The latter is thus, in potential, the royal throne of Christ, and when Christ is established there, the human house is in order, the human potential to “house” God, to be his Temple is realized. To work toward the conscious fulfillment of that potential, that is, to a loving awareness of the indwelling glory of Christ, is the whole aim of Christian life. Like the prodigal son, the Christian must “return to himself” and rediscover his sonship in the Son. It follows that “there is no need to go “up” to heaven to see God on His glorious throne, since, “with Christ, everything is within” (Macarius), and therefore the chariot-throne of divinity, the place of divine abiding and heavenly palace or temple, has, through Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit, become the Christian soul itself” (Hieromonk Alexander Golitzin). In this monastic vision, the human being in whom Christ lives is the tabernacle, the tent of meeting, the ark of the covenant, the “holy place”, the “holy of holies”, the chariot that in Elijah’s vision carried the divine presence among the exiles in Babylon. And Christ is the pillar of fire, the cloud, what later Jewish tradition would call the Shekinah, the dwelling of the divine presence among us.


Hugh of St. Victor, a 12th Canon Regular from Saxony who settled in Paris, speaks out of the same tradition, with clarity and poetry combined: “God’s house is the whole world; God’s house is the Catholic Church; God’s house is also every faithful soul. However God inhabits the world in one way, the Catholic Church in another and every faithful soul in yet another. He is in the world as rule of his kingdom; in the Church as head of the family in his own home; in the soul as the bridegroom in his wedding chamber. If this dwelling then has begun to be in us, let us go in and abide with him. There where he ‘whose place is peace’ deigns to make his dwelling, we shall find peace and rest…if we have prepared a place for him, he will gladly come to us who made us that he might dwell in us, even Jesus Christ our Lord.

…God dwells in the human heart in two ways, namely by knowledge and by love…

Now therefore enter your innermost heart and make there a dwelling-place for God. Make him a temple, make him a house, make him a pavilion. Make him an ark of the covenant; make him an ark of the flood; no matter what you call it, it is all one house of God. In the temple let the creature adore the Creator, in the house let the son revere the Father, in the pavilion let the knight adore the king. Under the covenant, let the disciple listen to the Teacher. In the flood let him that is shipwrecked beseech him who guides the helm.

God is become everything to you and God has made everything for you. He has made the dwelling and is becoming your refuge. This one is all, and this all is one. It is the house of God, it is the city of the King, it is the body of Christ, it is the bride of the Lamb. It is the sky. It is the sun. It is the moon, it is the morning star, the daybreak and the evening…It is the ship; it is the way across the sea…

To sum it all up, it was for this, with a view to this, because of this that the whole of Scripture was made. For this the Word was made flesh, God was made humble and man was made sublime. If you have this, then you have everything. If you have everything, you have nothing more to look for, and your heart is at rest” (Noah’s Ark, I, 4,5,6).


Bl Julian of Norwich, a 14th century English anchorite, adds her own voice to the chorus and her own imagery to the repertoire. Ch 67 of the Revelations of Divine Love is entitled: “Of the glorious city of the soul, which is created so nobly that it could not have been made any better…” And she writes: “And then our Lord opened my spiritual eyes and showed me my soul in the middle of my heart. I saw the soul as large as if it were an endless world and as if it were a holy kingdom; and from the properties I saw in it I understood that it is a glorious city. In the centre of that city sits our Lord Jesus, God and man, a handsome person and of great stature, the highest bishop, the most imposing king, the most glorious Lord; and I saw him dressed imposingly and gloriously. He sits in the soul, in the very centre, in peace and rest. And the Godhead rules and protects heaven and earth and all that is: supreme power, supreme wisdom and supreme goodness. It seems to me that in all eternity Jesus will never leave the position which he takes in our soul; for in us is his most familiar home and his everlasting dwelling.” “The greatest light in the city and the most brightly shining is the glorious love of our Lord”. And we will find peace, not in this world or in self-contemplation, but only in Him.


Another contributor with a style of her own and a gift for imagery is the 16th c Carmelite, St Teresa of Avila. Her preferred metaphor is of the Interior Castle, a title of one of her major works. At the beginning she describes the thought that came to her (from above): “It is that we consider our soul to be like a castle made entirely out of a diamond or of very clear crystal, in which there are many rooms, just as in heaven there are many dwelling places. For in reflecting upon it carefully, Sisters, we realise that the soul of the just person is nothing else but a paradise where the Lord says he finds his delight (cf. Prov 8:31). So then, what do you think that abode will be like where a King so powerful, so wise, so full of all good things takes his delight? I don’t find anything comparable to the magnificent beauty of a soul and its marvellous capacity. Indeed, our intellects, however keen, can hardly comprehend it, just as they cannot comprehend God; but he himself says that he created us in his own image and likeness” (Interior Castle, I, 1, 1).

There we see once again the connection between this teaching and human dignity.

For St Teresa, the life of prayer is a journey to the centre of the Castle, the throne room. The person must return to herself, not live superficially, and move through the various rooms until she reaches the centre and is fully at one with Christ. While she describes the other rooms, her advice is: “turn your eyes toward the centre, which is the room or royal chamber where the King stays” (I, 2, 8). She compares him to the sun shining in the centre of the soul. The soul must lose its opacity and become transparent to the Lord’s radiance. When she discusses the spiritual marriage, which takes place in the seventh, inmost room, she says that, once a person is free of inordinate attachment to created things, the Lord will fill her with himself. She refers to the priestly prayer of Jesus found in John 17: “And thus, while Jesus our Lord was praying for His apostles – I don’t remember where – He said that they were one with the Father and with Him, just as Jesus Christ our Lord is in the Father and the Father is in Him. I don’t know what greater love there can be than this. All of us are included here, for His Majesty said:  I pray not only for them but for all those who also will believe in me; and He says, I am in them” (VII, 2, 7).

Lest all this give the impression of self-absorption, she is quite clear about the issue of the spiritual marriage: “This is the reason for prayer, my daughters, the purpose of this spiritual marriage: the birth always of good works, good works” (VII, 4, 6).


Here’s one more voice, from 19th c. England, recently canonized, St John Henry Newman.  In his 20s and 30s, that is, in his Anglican days, he discovered, through reading Scripture and the Church Fathers, the doctrine of baptismal regeneration, and when he sought what we might call the “difference Jesus, or baptism, makes” to us he found it in the idea of the divine Indwelling. In a sermon of 1835, he links regeneration to “the Sacred presence of the Spirit of Christ in soul and body.” He had, as it were, stumbled into the Temple. His own acute sense of the self, of human individuality, of “myself and my Creator”, predisposed him to such a discovery. Notice the phrase, the “Spirit of Christ”. His understanding of the divine indwelling oscillated between these two realities. Most often, he speaks of the Holy Spirit as the one who makes the human being a holy place. But he never forgets that the Spirit is the Spirit of Christ. And so he proposes on at least one occasion that it is the risen glorified Christ whom the Holy Spirit conveys to us, a “mysterious union with him”. God’s gift is “Christ in us, and “upon us” and around us;.’  He compares it to “a light streaming from our hearts , pervading the whole man, enwrapping and hiding the lineaments and members of our fallen nature, circling around us, and returning inward to the centre from which it issues. The Almighty Father, looking on us, sees not us, but this Sacred Presence, even his dearly beloved Son spiritually manifested in us; with his Blood upon our doorposts, in earnest of that final abolition of sin which is at length to be accomplished in us.” It was by the power of the Holy Spirit that the humanity of Christ buried in the tomb was raised to new life. “The Spirit within his sacred manhood, reviving on the third day…changed It into Spirit, assimilating It to Itself, without his ceasing to be man, and imparted It to us to dwell as a new-creating, transforming power in our hearts.” Mary of Magdala wanted to hang on to the risen Jesus in the garden. But Jesus refused this. He was not yet fully glorified. Once he was, however, he would come to her and far more intimately. Newman imagines him saying to her: “Thou shalt have me whole and entire. I will be near thee, I will be in thee; I will come into thy heart a whole Saviour. A whole Christ, in all my fullness as God and man…inward in presence, and intimate in fruition, a principle of life and a seed of immortality, that thou mayest bring forth fruit unto God.” Mary of Magdala, once the woman whose “house” was ransacked by seven devils, is now the home of the glorified Lord.

We might well be left amazed.

Let’s now turn to the implications of this teaching for our prayer.

Video: Voices from Tradition


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