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The Ways of the City


So how does it work? How does the Holy City operate among us?  Here are some of the ways Charles Williams expressed it.

The City: “See, I am making all things new"

In Scripture and in the writings of Charles Williams “The City” represents the reign of God, the Kingdom. The City is here and now and eternal; it is a life in which its citizens express their unity in the ways they live and interact. Williams said, "here citizenship meant relationship and knew it." The ways of the Holy City are sacrifice, forgiveness, and reconciliation. The City is both a way of order and hierarchy and also what Williams expressed as “that joyous smile of equality which marks all happy human or celestial government” and “where everything and everyone is unique and is the subject of due adoration.” (From an Old Russian story)

 Co-inherence: “knit together”

Co-inherence was used in the early church to describe the relationship between the divine and human natures of Christ, and later to describe the mutual indwelling of the three Persons of the Holy Trinity. Charles Williams extends the use to refer to the relationship between God, humanity, and the whole creation. It is our mutual indwelling – Christ in us and we in Christ, it is the life of the Body of Christ, all the interaction and interdependence with one another. Co-inherence is a way of speaking about the community we share – “with Angels and Archangels and with all the company of heaven”, “the communion of saints”, and “living members of the Body.” Salvation is not a solitary affair, “the thread of the love of God was strong enough to save you and all the others, but not strong enough to save you alone.”

Exchange: Acts of the City

Having nothing, yet possessing all things; forgive us as we forgive; leave house and family for the Kingdom and receive more in the present time and in the world to come; losing life to find life -- exchange is how the co-inherence is expressed. It is the process of giving and taking among us and between God and us. It is living from and for one another. It includes sacrifice, forgiveness, reconciliation and substitution. Our own salvation lies in helping others and in accepting help. We are not only to love but to accept being loved; not only to forgive, but to accept forgiveness. The ultimate reality of the co-inherence is that we need one another.

These modes of exchange are "Acts of the City", the “habits of heaven.” They are the acts of all the saints in heaven and earth. The starting place of any exchange is to be in small things rather than heroic gestures. We are not to offer and promise what cannot really be done. So, even in acts of intercessory prayer – we are to carry on our hearts a limited number of people and concerns at any one time.

“The name of the City is Union: the operation of the Infamy is by outrage on that union. The process of that union is by the method of free exchange. The methods of that exchange range from childbirth to the Eucharist—the two primal activities of the earth and the Church. There is, in the first case, a mutual willingness between the father and mother which results in the transference of seed. That it is so common does not lessen the trust implied; that one should abandon his seed to another, that one should receive the seed of another, is an exhibition of trust; it is almost the chief natural exhibition of that supernatural quality known as ‘faith’. . .”
The Image of the City and Other Essays, Reprint: The Aporcyphile Press, 2007; Oxford University Press, 1958



Substitution: "Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?"

Substitution is a way of exchange involving two understandings: First - “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:2) Second – “He saved others; he cannot save himself” (Matthew 27:42)

I think the idea might be taken at several levels. There are the acts of holy courtesy in which we give way for another or reverence each other. We allow the other car to move through the intersection ahead of us. And, we submit to the other driver waving us ahead of her. We acknowledge the street person’s presence and receive his blessing or curse with grace. Another level may be in the acts of physically assisting one another - helping someone move or picking up another’s bag. Williams saw the City as both eternal and as operating in time. He believed in the power of the past to shape and influence the present, and in the power of the present to influence and redeem the past. So, the grandchild who breaks a family pattern of abuse in some sense redeems the grandparents, now long dead. Some form of enactment of our prayer for the departed “grant them continual growth in thy love and service.” So, the drama of redemption might be worked out over generations. The intersection of lives and choices made along the way may mean that my being a priest involved an act of substitution with a Marine who served in Vietnam, and that in some real sense there is an energy that I carry related to that substitution.

Williams assumed that we could and should take on one another's emotional and spiritual burdens of pain and fear.  For him this might include something as limited as sympathizing with another, but it moves far beyond that to the idea that we might actually bear the weight of another’s pain and fear. It is not just being willing to pick up one end of a heavy load; it is taking upon yourself the full weight of that load. In that process the burden of the other is relieved – so there is substitution. This is an act of will and an entering into another’s reality as if it were our own. We live by Christ’s death on the Cross. And in a more humble sense we may lose our lives for one another as citizens of the City.

Ways of Affirmation and Rejection

Williams wrote of an “energy” that the Church had, which was not its own, but that it could name and point to. In the context of relationships that he referred to as “Companions” he wrote about our relationships as being “in and toward the Crucified and Glorified Redeemer … a union on earth and in heaven with that Love which was now understood to be capable of loving and of being loved.”

The Way of Affirmation is about seeing God in all the people, things and circumstances of life. The Way of Rejection focuses on the transcendence and otherness of God.  , Williams expresses the two ways as a paradox "This also is Thou; neither is this Thou."

The two ways Via Positiva and the Via Negativa are both ways of being in relationship. Both are of God. The Way of Affirmation is a way of the Incarnation and sacramental life. It delights in good food and drink, in sexuality and all that is touchable and sensuous. Life is to be lived more abundantly, more fully. The Glory of God is the human person fully alive. The Way of Rejection is of the desert. It is finding ourselves in the disciplines of prayer, in solitude and silence.

Williams would say that both are necessary and complementary in life; and that as individuals and communities we tend toward one or the other. He wrote, "love (is) a union of having and not-having"

Fact and Illusion

In Reaching Out, Henri Nouwen writes of the movement from illusion to prayer. It’s a movement from the illusions of control, quick healing, of making idols of our dreams and longings, and from a life of the trivial and sentimental toward a life that longs for reality, an acceptance and patience with all the complexities and uncertainness of life. It is a movement from illusion to prayer, from illusion to reality.

For William’s the redeemed life of the City lies in affirming the good in all facts even when we cannot see the presence of the good. Love takes pleasure in fact; evil is the choosing of illusion. Repentance is "a passionate intention to know all things after the mode of heaven . . . to find right knowledge and perfect freedom together; to know all things as occasions of love.”  Facts are holy. The Order of the Ascension is a Benedictine community that takes the Promise "… to seek the presence of Jesus Christ in the people, things and circumstances of my life through stability, obedience and conversion of life." That promise is grounded in the assumptions of Nouwen and Williams about illusion, prayer and fact. It is a way of seeking real life; a way of engaging that movement from illusion to reality, and doing it again and again as we seek Christ in community.

Copyright Robert A. Gallagher 2006

The quotes are from William’s or the Prayer book, unless noted.

Novels: War in Heaven, Many Dimensions, Descent into Hell, All Hallows' Eve, Shadows of Ecstasy, The Greater Trumps, The Place of the Lion


The Descent of the Dove (a history of the Holy Spirit in the Church), He Came Down from Heaven (study of the Incarnation), and The Forgiveness of Sins (study of forgiveness)



"Our full and true life in the City of God"  A slightly revised All Saints Day homily from 2006.