The Rite of the Passion is the final drama contained in the volume Three Plays: The Early Metaphysical Plays of Charles Williams, published in 2009 by Wipf & Stock. It is a reprint of an edition published by Oxford University Press in 1931. In addition to The Rite of the Passion, this book contains two other plays—The Witch and The Chaste Wanton—as well as five random Arthurian poems and an admirable foreword to the 2009 edition by Arthur Livingston.
The Rite of the Passion is a powerful piece of ecclesiastical, occasional theatre, written for church performance. Williams says in a prefatory note: “The Rite of the Passion was written at the request of the Rev. A. H. E. Lee, Vicar of St. Martin’s, Kensal Rise, [London], for the Three Hours Service at that church on Good Friday, 1929, when it was read with intervals of prayer, meditation, and music.” It is interesting to note that the Rev. Lee was a fellow occultist, a member of the Stella Matutina—the magical successor to the Golden Dawn when it split into three factions (thank you to Anthony Fuller for leaving a comment with this information on the blog previously). I wonder to think of this play being performed live in its proper place in the church year, along with music and meditation! That would be a very powerful, moving, mystical experience indeed. Perhaps my church would consider reading it during the Lenten season some day?
The play opens with this instructional note:
After some opening ceremony, the persons of the presentation enter in procession—a HERALD first, followed by five MINSTRELS; then, side by side, JAMES and PILATE, PETER and CAIAPHAS, JOHN and HEROD, MARY and JUDAS; after them, between GABRIEL and SATAN, LOVE vestmented in a crimson cope or other convenient apparel. The MINSTRELS take their places below the platform; the HERALD upon it at the front corner. The other persons are distributed about it, LOVE’S friends to his right, and his enemies to his left, he himself being at the back, with GABRIEL and SATAN on either hand. Each moves forward as he first speaks; thereafter they dispose themselves as may be agreed.
You can tell from the tone and content of this note that the play will be lofty and liturgical, filled with acts of high ceremony and grand majesty. You can also guess (since this is Williams, after all), that its poetry will be beautiful, its theology will be strange and wild, and its conclusion will be surprising and possibly unorthodox. Indeed.
The play proceeds apace in verse, with original poetry interchanging with paraphrases from Scripture passage’s. Here is an example of a bit paraphrased from the Bible. Pilate says:
Even now I find in him no fault at all;
but ye, O folk, shall bid what shall befall.
O people of all the world! O Time and Space!
O ye who looked on Love in any place,
it is said before me that Love ought to die.
Behold the man!
You can see how lofty the poetry is. There are places throughout where hymns are to be sung, and list is given of which hymns were used in the 1929 performance.
The plot is the account of Christ’s passion: His birth and ministry are narrated, then the Last Supper and the events of Good Friday are presented. Yet before all of that, there are passages of high ceremonial and of metaphysical assertion. Gabriel and Satan engage in a debate on their natures and the nature of Love—“Love” in this drama is the name for Jesus. At Jesus’s death, these haunting lines occur:
Who will cry to him Love! who will cry to him Love, our fair lord?
now when he gives no beauty and no reward,
when the hounds are on him, the horns are blowing the mort,
when the young god’s face is palled with stress of pain,
and he cries again on his godhead, and nothing makes answer again.
Then there follows a funeral for Jesus, complete with a funeral march and laments from the minstrels. Then Satan speaks a sonnet in which he claims that “love fails from Love and shall be God no more.” Yet Love answers: “Amen,” and asserts: “I am Love, / And from destruction I rise again.” There is a triumphal march, and Love sings a victory song in which He asks “Who is on my side, who?” again and again. Each character responds, and the play ends with a benedictory prayer asking “bring us also, O Jesus Christ, thereto.”
This is a very, very beautiful play. It is emotionally moving and devotionally stirring. How about these glorious lines:
I gather myself, I give myself, I grow
into the harvest of the seed ye sow:
I will be bread, and more than bread; and wine
and more than wine. I cry, Come, come and dine
on Me in yours: be new-emparadised,
take in your daily food your daily Christ.
Yet, as you have come to expect in CW’s writings, there are also points of possible concern—I would say, moments when he takes a doctrine to such an extreme that it is at least potentially heretical. Richard Sturch wrote an article a few years ago entitled “Charles Williams as Heretic?” You can find it in the CW Quarterly, Number 136, Autumn 2010. I’ve identified five of these questionable moments in The Rite of the Passion for you to ponder and comment upon.
- The Monism that Stephen Dunning identifies in CW’s works is apparent here, especially in the line: “nothing is that is not He.” Everything that exists is God, this line claims. This is like Joachim’s assertion in The Chapel of the Thorn: “where one beast, one stone is, God is there. / There is naught of matter or spirit but is God, / Yea all man’s being, save his will, is God.”
- Throughout his works, CW pushes the identification of individual Christians with Christ so far as to claim that each person IS Christ. This happens at the end of the The Greater Trumps, when someone asks whether the young lady named Nancy is “Messias,” and her saintly aunt answers, “Near enough.” This happens in The Rite of the Passion when the Herald says to the audience: “ye… / image and are the death of Christ…. / your despair is He.” The identification may be too strong, too literal.
- Similarly, Jesus calls Mary “thou, my other self.” And it is Mary (not Jesus, as in the Bible) who says: “God, God, why hast thou thus forsaken me?” In the performance, this line is meant to be followed by the hymn “At the cross her station keeping.” Mary is Jesus’s other self! Yikes.
- I’ve written before about the Problem of Evil in CW’s works. One of the ways he tries to “solve” the problem is by showing that all things work together for good according to God’s plan—but he goes very far down this path as to claim that evil is not only God’s will, but is even part of God. This happens in Thomas Cranmer of Canterbury when the character The Skeleton is called the back side of Christ. Likewise, here in The Rite of the Passion: “Satan, whom all ye marvel at… / dark viceroy of the Holy Ghost… / these both [Satan and Gabriel] both are He.” Both Satan and Gabriel are God? Whew.
- Finally, in this play it is Jesus who says: “others I save, myself I cannot save.” In Matthew 27:42, the high priests, scribes, and Pharisees mock Jesus as He hangs on the cross. “He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself!” Williams takes this mockery and puts it into Jesus’ own mouth!! Indeed, this saying—He saved others but He cannot save Himself—was a key text for all of CW’s life and work. He took the mockery for a fundamental truth and made it the basis of his Doctrine of Substitution and Exchange.
What do you think? Do you believe these statements are heretical? Or merely bold orthodoxy? Or something else? I am interested in your thoughts.
Let me leave you with these lines that the character of “Love” speaks:
…I am still the end and reconciling;
I am all things driven on through hell to heaven;
I am the purifying and the defiling,
I am the union, perfected or riven.