She Is Black, but She Is Beautiful

When Dante rises with his guide Beatrice to the circle of the lovers, symbolized in Paradise by the planet Venus, he is told that the most brilliant and most deeply blessed of all the souls in that realm is Rahab, the harlot of Jerusalem who housed Joshua’s spies and assisted the children of Israel in their conquest of Canaan. That the harlot should be so exalted is no surprise. The fathers of the Church had long seen in Rahab a foreshadowing of the Church, the bride who would share in the triumph of the new Joshua, Jesus, who alone can bring his people into the ultimate land flowing with milk and honey.

Is the Church then a harlot? No, and yes. The Church is like the bride in the Song of Songs, black but beautiful; dwelling amid suffering and sin, and yet blessed and redeemed by her spouse. She is a temple built up with the bricks of truth and mortared with the blood of the martyrs. She is also a market, wherein sinners hawk their wares. She stands faithfully at the foot of the Cross, looking upon the bridegroom who gave His life to make her pure. She also wanders off into the alleys and the dark corners of the city of man, leaving Calvary far behind. She is of divine institution; and every single man and woman who belongs to her is a sinner, including those who have led her down through the ages.


I love this Church, this bride, this sheepfold, this ark, this glorious cathedral. I love the soaring visions of blessedness that inspired the glaziers of the rose windows of Chartres; and I love, sometimes I am not sure why, the same Church that has turned louche show tunes into hymns for the common people. I love the Church for which St. Thomas Aquinas wrote his great compendia of theology and philosophy, dictating, it is said, four separate books to four secretaries simultaneously as he paced about his room; and I love the Church that sells simple holy cards to old women who miss their beloved dead. I love the Church that celebrates the sacrament of the altar under Bernini’s baldacchino at St. Peter’s, and in a bamboo hut in Africa; a Church of untold riches, and sometimes terrible poverty. I love a Church great enough to exalt a middle-class girl dying of consumption, a Therese of Lisieux, to the status of doctor, a teacher of endurance and faith amid suffering. I love a Church whose saints shine forth in beauty — a simple Francis of Assisi, hymning the goodness of all creation; a King Louis IX, meting out justice and mercy under a tree in Paris; a Mother Teresa, smiling with kindness upon the destitute and the dying of Calcutta. And I love a Church filled to the clerestory with sinners, some of whom make their silent way to the confessional every month or so, while others err at the margins, looking warily but longingly to their Mother, hoping someday to return home.

No human institution is clean. No great nation has ever been free of blood-guilt. Scientists have happily sold their services to evil, as the last century’s history amply shows. The Communists could never have oppressed and murdered millions of people had they not had the cooperation of the intelligentsia, the press, the leaders of society. Meanwhile the Church, spanning two thousand years, has, with all the sins that can be laid to the charge of her members, been simply the greatest agent of social transformation the world has ever known. Her monks drained the swamps of Germany and turned them into fertile land; or they preserved for future generations the learning and the poetry of Rome and Greece; and they followed a way of life that our own harried and spiritually anemic sufferers of postmodernity look upon with mingled incomprehension and awe. She sent her priests to the four corners of the world, to bring the Good News to people burdened under the weight of false gods; and some of these priests were bad men, but others were teachers, healers, martyrs. She has done more than her share of dabbling in the politics and even the warfare of the world; and she has built schools and hospitals and orphanages, and has hearkened to her Founder’s saying, that her love for Him would be made manifest in her love for the least of His brothers.

I love the Church because she is both pure and spotted; because she holds up to me patterns of holiness, and because she would deign to take such people as me in the first place. I know, because the Church is Rahab, that she will always give the world cause for deprecation. It is a Church that once elected a Borgia politician as pope. Then she underwent a tumultuous reform; and the Lord has blessed her with a run of good men for her popes that has lasted almost five hundred years. It is a Church that saved a now deeply ungrateful Europe from being overrun by the Turk — and has earned for her pains the accusation of being warlike. It is a Church that has preached love for one’s enemies — and has earned for her pains the accusation of being pacifist and weak. It is a Church hated for her sins, and sometimes hated even more for her saintliness.

There are scandals in the Church. There have always been scandals. Consider for a moment how many rascals and jobbers and liars and money-grubbers mill about the halls of any congress, including the American; or how many seducers, slackers, political agitators, and hacks compel parents to put their homes in hock so that they can pay to have their children’s faith and reason subverted in college. The Church is Rahab; she is sometimes no better than a den of politicians, or a coven of the intellectual elite. She will disappoint us cruelly; and her faithful sons and daughters will cry out, justly, for reform. But she also towers above us in her holiness, calling us at all times to a conversion of heart. She is devoted to God, and therefore devoted to man — sinful, stupid, slothful man, glorious and greathearted man.

I belong to the largest and the oldest institution in the world. When America passes away, as it inevitably will, the Church will still stand. When the European Union is but a bad memory, the Church will still be there, building up a new continent upon the ruins of the old. When her critics have passed into dust, the Church will still loom to the heavens, as impassive as stone, as faithful as the return of the day. We have the promise of her divine Founder that it will be so. But there is more to the Church than her manifestation upon earth. For she is one with the saints who enjoy their triumph now, and the vision of God; and I hope someday to be ushered into that Church, that harlot made immaculate, singing with her to her Lord, “Holy, holy, holy!”

Anthony Esolen

By

Professor Esolen teaches Renaissance English Literature and the Development of Western Civilization at Providence College. He is a senior editor for Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity, and a regular contributor to Crisis Magazine. His most recent books are The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Press, 2010) and, most recently, Reflections on the Christian Life (Sophia Institute Press, 2013). Professor Esolen has also translated Dante.

  • Jackie

    I’m sorry for the cloddishness of the title, but this is truly a stunning article. I can’t help but contrast it with Charles Spurgeon’s 1861 denunciation of the Catholic Church:

    “But do not think for a moment that the prostitute of the seven hills will ever prevail against the bride of Christ. Not she! The Lord will by and by, when her iniquity shall be full, utterly destroy her. Only be sure in your heart that God has not planted it, and you may be equally sure that he will pull it up. Prophets may plant it with their pretended revelations, martyrs may water it with their blood, confessor after confessor may defend it with his learning and with his courage, time may endear it, literature may protect it, and kings may keep guard around it, but he who rules in the heavens, and cares nothing for human might, shall certainly grasp its trunk, and, pulling it up, even though it is as strong as a cedar, shall hurl it into the fire, because he has not planted it. Yes, every hoary system of superstition, every ancient form of idolatry, every venerable species of will worship, shall be certainly overturned, because God is true. Leave them alone; do not be over anxious. He shall come by and by who shall cry,

  • Lynn

    You should be a poet! I find this inspirational, been feeling down lately because of what’s happening to our beloved catholic church, but I feel a little ok after reading this. smilies/smiley.gif

  • georgie-ann

    the title is a quote from the Song of Solomon:

    Song of Solomon 1:5,6

    5 “I am black, but comely, O ye daughters of Jerusalem, as the tents of Kedar, as the curtains of Solomon.

    6 Look not upon me because I am black, because the sun hath looked upon me. My mother’s children were angry with me; they made me the keeper of the vineyards, but mine own vineyard have I not kept.”

  • Faith

    Thank you for writing this. It’s beautiful and expresses so much, so well.

  • Marguerite

    The Church Christ founded is spotless. He is the bridegroom and the Church is his bride. The Lord would not marry a harlot. Therefore it remains pure. We are not the brides of Christ, we are the ones invited to the wedding banquet and yes, we are the sinners inhabiting it. But his Church nevertheless remains pure since it is his bride.

  • Laura K

    We in the Church, East and West, “stand on the shoulders of giants,” and do so within it more than in any other kind of thriving modern institution. Anthony Esolen stands on the shoulders of Dante, Hosea, and the saints. One of the many charms of the Church is wondering who, 500 years hence, might be standing on the shoulders of Anthony Esolen. For all the scandals we will always have with us, the record promises a future of bright lights in abundance as well, ad maiorem Dei gloriam.

    (PS, Marguerite, the sacramental understanding of the Church allows for both flesh and spirit, chaff and wheat. The Church isn’t just a perfect bride and a limitless mystery, it’s also the argument at a parish council meeting, the screaming toddler in the pew behind you at Mass, Savonarola, Pascal, and Pope Leo X. We’re a Church with flesh on, and thus necessarily imperfect parts of a perfect Body, made perfect (incredibly) by our Head. The reality is what makes us sacramental. The alternative is what would make us Donatists. smilies/smiley.gif)

  • Randy

    THE CHURCH= THE MARRIAGE OF OUR LORD + HIS SPOTLESS BRIDE= HIS MYSTICAL DIVINE BODY ON EARTH. We sinful members are the “human element” of that Church who look to it for salvation, but we are not The Church. When Mr. Esolen, or anyone else, point out the failngs of the human element that distinction must be made explicit. Othewise, the article was really nice.

  • Randy

    Oh…I forgot to add, comparing the Church to a harlot is blasphemous. Otherwise, a nice read.

  • Bailey Walker

    Casta Meretrix: The Chaste Whore (An Essay on the Ecclesiology of St. Ambrose) by Cardinal Giacomo Biffi (Dumb Ox Books, March 2001).

  • georgie-ann

    an aspect of the Church’s bride could be considered to be “a ransomed harlot?”,…yes or no?

    “a ransomed harlot” with a hope now of a spotless destiny?,…

    a ransomed bride, now washed with the Water of the Word?,…Ephesians 5:26

    (Ephesians 5:25-27

    25″Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her,

    26So that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the Word,

    27That He might present the church to Himself in glorious splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such things [that she might be holy and faultless].”)

    a ransomed bride, who has been “delivered” (by God the Father) “from the power of darkness” and “translated into the kingdom of His dear Son,”…Colossians 1:13

    (Colossians 1:12-28

    12″Giving thanks unto the Father, which hath made us meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light:

    13Who hath delivered us from the power of darkness, and hath translated us into the kingdom of his dear Son:

    14In whom we have redemption through his blood, even the forgiveness of sins:

    15Who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature:

    16For by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him:

    17And he is before all things, and by him all things consist.

    18And he is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence.

    19For it pleased the Father that in him should all fulness dwell;

    20And, having made peace through the blood of his cross, by him to reconcile all things unto himself; by him, I say, whether they be things in earth, or things in heaven.

    21And you, that were sometime alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now hath he reconciled

    22In the body of his flesh through death, to present you holy and unblameable and unreproveable in his sight:

    23If ye continue in the faith grounded and settled, and be not moved away from the hope of the gospel, which ye have heard, and which was preached to every creature which is under heaven; whereof I Paul am made a minister;

    24Who now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for his body’s sake, which is the church:

    25Whereof I am made a minister, according to the dispensation of God which is given to me for you, to fulfil the word of God;

    26Even the mystery which hath been hid from ages and from generations, but now is made manifest to his saints:

    27To whom God would make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles; which is Christ in you, the hope of glory:

    28Whom we preach, warning every man, and teaching every man in all wisdom; that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus:”)

  • Deal Hudson

    This was very touching to read, thank you.

  • Kamilla

    Tony,

    That was beautiful!

    I think for those who are confused or disagree with the Rahab image, the Scriptures Georgie-Ann has provided are very helpful. Christ is still in the business of sanctifying and cleansing His Bride that He might present Her Holy and blameless at the wedding feast.

    You have given us a wonderful reminder that goats still dwell among the sheep.

    Kamilla

  • Randy

    For those of you who might be tempted to think of the Church as a part time harlot because of the beauty of the above passage, please think again. The Church is characterized by 4 Marks, one of which is “Sanctity”. It never was, never is, and never will be a “harlot” and has never taught otherwise. Besides being the “Bride of Christ”, it also considers itself “The Mystical Body of Christ”, and by definition, can not be a harlot or in need of cleansing or purification. Its members certainly do, but not itself as an institution of Our Lord. Mr. Eosen’s contribution to InsideCatholic is certainly aesthetically pleasing, but it is also partially blasphemous and is in error concerning Church teaching.

    http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/13428b.htm

  • proud to be Catholic

    Actually, I don’t think this was blasphemous. I am reminded of the Old Testament book of Hosea. The prophet Hosea married a prostitute, and his relationship with her reflected our relationship with God: He loves us, His flawed yet beautiful people, and wants us to love Him back and Him alone.

  • W.

    A wise professor friend once told a group of us that sometimes only mystics understand certain expressions about our faith. Perhaps this is one of those times. Casta Meretrix? The Church as Whore or Harlot? How in the world can this be and yet she is also called immaculate?

    Von Balthasar has an essay, “Casta Meretrix,” that deals with a related theme. The essay is a gem. Therein, he refers to Augustine’s Sermon 213.

    Sermon 213, which von Balthasar quotes:

    “We are the Holy Church. … Let us honor her, for she is the spouse of such a great Lord. What else can I say? Great and singular is the condescension of the Bridegroom. When he found her, she was a harlot. He made her a virgin. That she was a harlot we must not deny, lest we forget the mercy of him who set her free. How can we fail to call her a harlot, when we think how she lusted after idols and demons? There was fornication of the heart in all: in some, of the flesh; in all, of the heart. And he came and made her a virgin. He made the Church a virgin. In faith she is a virgin. In the flesh she has a few consecrated virgins. In faith all her members must be virgins, men as well as women.”

    (Sermon 213.7 in “Casta Meretrix” from Explorations in Theology, vol. II, 245; emphasis added.)

    This passage appears after much documentation from biblical and patristic sources of Jerusalem as a harlot for having betrayed the Lord and of how the Church is born out of that and when she is born, she is remade a virgin, though mindful of her harlot past (through the sins and betrayal of her members). This is like a sinner who is changed but remembers his past in an effort to not fall back into the sin, in an effort to remember from where he came, and to appreciate the new life given him.

    The point, as I see it: The Church came from having been a harlot (before Christ) and (with Christ and Pentecost) is no longer a harlot in form but is now a virgin.

    In St. Augustine’s reply to the Manichean Faust, which VB quotes, Augustine uses words to the effect of “a harlot abandoning her fornication and being changed into a chaste spouse.” (22.80; 265 in VB) There is nothing wrong with conversion!

    And thus, the expression a “chaste whore” (caste meretrix). It is rooted in the tradition of the Church, in the writings of some of the greatest doctors of the Church, but perhaps it is better understood by those with the habit and grace of the contemplative gaze and vision of the Church.

  • Perelandra

    Beautiful reflection but Rahab lived in Jericho, not Jerusalem, and became an ancestor of Christ.

  • Francis Wippel

    Wow, thanks for such beautiful writing.

    This reminds me of something I heard Father Benedict Groeschel speak about years ago: If the Catholic Church is truly the Church founded by Jesus, we should expect that the gates of hell will smash down upon the church until the end of time. It’s worth remembering that the greatest sin committed against God was committed by one of his twelve closest followers.

    When I am tempted to despair over the sins of the church, I will pull up this article and read it.

  • Samuel-TMC

    Great post!

  • therese

    This post made me cry..sitting at my laptop at work today. thank you so much!

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