The Spirituality of James K. Baxter

Reprinted from The Common Good, No 63, Advent 2012

John Weir SM

This article was commissioned to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the death of James K. Baxter, 22 October 1972.

James K. Baxter’s religious development was derived from his life experience. In turn, his spirituality was derived from his religious beliefs.

In a talk he gave in 1968 to members of the National Council of Churches he described his spiritual journey.

He grew up in an undenominational Christian home where his father read the bible aloud to the family on Sundays. At Easter he read the narrative of Christ’s passion. As a consequence the young Baxter learned ‘to love Christ the Man’ and also thought about the problem of his divinity.

His mother’s religious influence was broadly Presbyterian and from it, as well as from the poems of Robert Burns, he learned of the interior struggle between sin and grace. His conclusion was that ‘Grace is intended to crown nature, not to destroy it; and nature without grace is blind and hopeless.’

Educated for a time at Quaker schools he learnt from the Book of Quaker Saints ‘that people will die for Christ as they understand Him.’

By his late teens he loved Christ but could not believe that he was divine. But the poems of Dylan Thomas, who was of Welsh Methodist extraction, drew him towards a fuller Christian belief.

The books of C.S. Lewis stiffened his theology and at the age of 22 he was baptised an Anglican. Under the influence of his new Church he learned ‘something of a sacramental view of life, the vital need for religious authority, and the beginning of love for Our Lady, Christ’s Mother’.

In 1958 he was received into the Catholic Church. Ten years later, when he spoke to the National Council of Churches, he explained that he had found ‘Jesus my God most deeply present in the life of the Roman Catholic Church’.

In the late 1950s, when he began visiting alcoholics in a Salvation Army home in Wellington, he found Christ ‘sitting at the desk in Army uniform’.

As a Catholic he remained open to the earlier influences which formed him. He scarcely needed to answer his own question, ‘Should I discard those ideas that helped me, those people who opened their hearts to me and showed the love of God burning there? Should I kick away the rungs of the ladder?’

He decided to remain open-hearted and ecumenical: ‘I have to be an ecumenist of the heart or deny the story of my life.’

He believed there were two modes of unity – ‘doctrinal unity and the unity of love’. His conclusion was that ‘Unity of doctrine will come (if it comes) from the gradual recognition of intellectual truth, but the unity of love is established wherever, in the deep waters of the human soul, Christ recognises Christ in us. We are in that sense already one.’

Religious enmity was not only scandalous; it was also nonsensical, ‘as if Christ were to crucify Christ’.

Protestantism suffered from doctrinal division, but Catholicism was not exempt from trauma, ‘a proliferation of legalism, and that excessive reliance on the voice of authority solving all arguments which is a sign of weakness, not of strength’.

He believed that instead of proselytising, the Catholic Church should admit its wounds and deficiencies and pray for mercy because ‘our strength is often disguised weakness’.

Ecumenism begins in love: ‘The Christ of love is with us. The Christ of truth is journeying towards us.

But Love cannot remain inactive. It must be expressed in works of mercy. He regarded it as a cause of joy that so many works of mercy lie open before us – ‘Alcoholism, mental illness, the difficulties of youth, the loneliness of age, war and the effects of war, disruptions of family life, poverty that is not the Gospel poverty but something thrust on people by the injustice of others – these are indeed our challenge and our opportunity’.

The way up is the way down. According to Baxter’s spirituality, success, comfort and security are obstacles to the Christian life. They make it difficult for us to see Christ in ourselves or in others:

Christ was poor and we are rich. Our riches beget the fear that someone will take them away from us. For once that He warned us against impurity, Our Lord warned us a thousand times against undue attachment to physical and mental possessions. Let us be poor then: poor followers of a poor and crucified Master.

We stuff ourselves and our children with ice creams, while Asian and Biafran children crawl into ditches to die. We worry about the doubtful purity of our adolescents, forgetting that we have already trained them, by our example, to look for the meaning of life in some kind of material security. What security in fact have we? Only love.

His conclusion was that ‘Christianity is not the discovery of a mathematical secret. Where love is, God is.’

Christ, God’s son, is only dimly present in the boardroom or the parliamentary debating chamber or the places where the powerful make decisions. In contrast, God is most visibly present in places which we associate with defeat:

Rouseabouts who lie down in the park not infrequently find that Christ is beside them, looking into their eyes, listening to their complaint, and saying: ‘A little while. Just a little, and you and I will never be parted.’ We do not often have that consolation because we have already decided that our security comes from material possessions.

Christ may be present in us even when we prefer to deny his presence: ‘And when Christ, in His great love, refuses to abandon us, but breaks the door down by means of sickness or death or mental breakdown or some other calamity, we shout at Him to go away and leave us alone.’

Baxter believed that it was best to try to be poor, ‘some of us living on nothing, some on as little as we can without damaging others’. Then we will have a reason for joy, ‘because Christ will see no obstacle in our souls, and come to live inside us’.

To be poor, to share our possessions with others, to perform works of mercy – these are key factors in Baxter’s spirituality.

But they were not just subjects of intellectual speculation. They were the personal values he lived by so challengingly until he died forty years ago.

Fr John Weir SM is the editor of James K. Baxter’s Collected Poems. In 2013 Victoria University Press is to publish in four volumes Baxter’s Complete Prose, also edited by John Weir. This article was commissioned to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the death of James K. Baxter, 22 October 1972.

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