THE ASCENT OF THE SOUL
AMORY H. BRADFORD, D.D.
AUTHOR OF "SPIRIT AND LIFE," "HEREDITY AND CHRISTIAN PROBLEMS" "THE GROWING REVELATION," "THE AGE OF FAITH" "MESSAGES OF THE MASTERS," ETC.
NEW YORK THE OUTLOOK COMPANY 1902
Copyright, 1902 By The Outlook Company
Mount Pleasant Press J. Horace McFarland Company Harrisburg, Pennsylvania
To The Memory of My Father
_That each, who seems a separate whole, Should move his rounds, and fusing all The skirts of self again, should fall Remerging in the general Soul,
Is faith as vague as all unsweet: Eternal form shall still divide The eternal soul from all beside; And I shall know him when we meet._
The purpose of the following chapters will be evident to all who may care to peruse them. I have endeavored simply to read the soul of man with something of the care that one reads a book containing a message which he believes to be of importance.
While one class of scientists are seeking to explore the physical universe, another class, with equal care, are studying the human spirit, and, already, startling discoveries have been made. My work is in no sense new in kind, but it is such as one whose whole time is devoted to dealing with the inner life would naturally give to such a subject. It hardly needs to be added that my method is practical rather than speculative. I am more interested in helping the ascent of the soul than in accounting for its origin. In carrying out my plan I have considered the following subjects: The nature and genesis of the soul, its awakening to a consciousness of responsibility, the steps which it first takes on its upward pathway, the experience of moral failure, its second awakening, which is to an appreciation that the universe is on its side, the part of Christ in promoting its awakening, the sense of spiritual companionship by which it is ever attended, the discipline of struggle, and the nurture and culture best fitted to promote its growth. I have also sought to read some of the prophecies of the soul, and have found them all pointing toward a continuance of its being beyond the event called death, and toward the fullness of Christ as the goal of humanity. I have found a place for prayers for the departed even among Protestants of the strictest sects.
A study of the soul, like a study of history, inspires optimism. It is hard to believe that it could have been intended first for perfection and then for extinction. It is equally difficult to believe that any soul will, in the end, be "cast as rubbish to the void."
In these studies I have tried ever to be mindful of my own limitations, and not to forget that a fraction of humanity can never hope to comprehend the fullness of truth. Of that side of the spiritual sphere which has been turned toward me, and of that alone, have I presumed to write. All that I claim for this book is that it is the contribution of one, anxious to know what is true, toward a better understanding of a subject which is daily receiving wider recognition and more thorough consideration.
AMORY H. BRADFORD.
MONTCLAIR, NEW JERSEY, August 30, 1902.
The Soul 1
The Awakening of the Soul 25
The First Steps 47
The Austere 97
The Place of Jesus Christ 151
The Inseparable Companion 181
Nurture and Culture 209
Is Death the End? 237
Prayers for the Dead 265
The Goal 289
It is no spirit who from heaven hath flown And is descending on his embassy; Nor traveler gone from earth the heaven t'espy! 'Tis Hesperus—there he stands with glittering crown, First admonition that the sun is down,— For yet it is broad daylight!—clouds pass by; A few are near him still—and now the sky, He hath it to himself—'tis all his own. O most ambitious star! an inquest wrought Within me when I recognized thy light; A moment I was startled at the sight; And, while I gazed, there came to me a thought That even I beyond my natural race Might step as thou dost now:—might one day trace Some ground not mine; and, strong her strength above, My soul, an apparition in the place, Tread there, with steps that no one shall reprove!
Subjects which a few years ago were regarded as the exclusive property of cultured thinkers, are now common themes of thought and conversation. Psychology has been popularized. Materialistic doctrines are at a discount even in this age of physical science.
It is difficult to explain the somewhat sudden appearance of intense interest in questions which have to do with the life of the spirit; but, whatever the theory of its genesis, there is no doubt of its presence. This, therefore, is a favorable time for a somewhat extended study of the stages through which we pass in our spiritual growth. I shall endeavor to use the inductive method in this inquiry, and trust that I am not presumptuous in giving to these essays the title,
THE ASCENT OF THE SOUL.
The phrases, "The Ascent of Man" and "The Descent of Man" are familiar to all readers of the literature of modern science. One of the most eminent of American writers on science and philosophy too soon taken from his work, if any act of Providence is ever too soon, has made a clear distinction between evolution as applied to the body and as applied to the spirit. In lucid and luminous pages he has taught us that evolution, as a physical process, having culminated in man can go no further along those lines; that henceforward "the Cosmic force" will be expended in the perfection of the spirit, and that that process will require eternity to complete.
More perspicuously than any other author, John Fiske has introduced to modern English thought the conception of the ascent of the soul, considered in its relation to the individual and to the race.
This subject naturally divides itself into two departments, viz.—the ascent of each individual soul and, then, the far-off perfecting of humanity. I shall make suggestions along both lines of inquiry. I do not know of any writer who has, in a compact form, presented the results of such studies, although there have been illustrations, especially in literature, which indicate that many thinkers have had in mind the attempt to trace and describe the progress of the soul from its bondage to animalism toward its perfection and glory in the freedom of the spirit.
Goethe, in "Faust," has made an effort to follow the process by which a weak woman and a weaker man, ignorant of the forces struggling within them and susceptible to malign influences from without, through terrible mistakes and bitter failure, at length reach the heights of character.
The Trilogy of Dante is a study of the soul in its slow and painful passage from hell, through purgatory, to heaven. Perhaps, however, the noblest and truest effort in this direction to be found in the world's literature is "The Pilgrim's Progress," in which a man of glorious genius and vision, but without academic culture, reflecting too much the crude and materialistic theology of his time and condition, follows the progress of a soul in its movement from the City of Destruction to the City Celestial. The City of Destruction is the state of animalism and selfishness from which the race has slowly emerged; and the City Celestial is not only the Christian's heaven, but also the state of those who, having escaped from earthliness, having conquered animalism and risen into the freedom of the spirit, breathe the air and enjoy the companionship of the sons of God.
It is my purpose in a different way to attempt to trace some of the steps of what may be called the evolution of the spirit, or, in the light of modern knowledge, the growth of the soul as it moves upward. At the outset I must make it plain that I am speaking of evolution since the time when man as a spirit appeared. Given the spiritual being, what are the stages through which he will pass on his way to the goal toward which he is surely pressing?
Just here we should ask, What do we mean by the soul? The word is used in its popular sense, as synonymous with spirit or personality. Man has a dual nature; one part of his being is of the dust and to the dust it returns; the other part is a mystery; it is known only by what it does. Man thinks, loves, chooses, and is conscious of himself as thinking, loving, choosing. The unity of this being who thinks, loves, chooses in a single self-consciousness constitutes him a spirit, or personality; and that is what the word soul signifies in its popular usage. There is another technical definition which may be true or false but which is of no importance in our study.
The problem of life is the right adjustment of spirit and body, so that the former shall never be the servant but always the master of the latter.
We are on this earth, in the midst of darkness, with nothing absolutely sure except that in a little while we must die. We are two-fold beings in which there is war almost from the cradle to the grave, and that war is caused by the effort of the body to rule the soul and of the soul to conquer the body.
At the gates of this mystery we continually do cry, and little light comes from any quarter; indeed, it may be said no light except that of the Christian revelation, and the, as yet, not very pronounced prophecies of evolution.
One of the questions, which in all ages has been most persistently asked, concerns the origin of the soul. Perhaps, in reality, that is no more mysterious than the genesis of the body; but the body is material and we live in a world of matter, and it is comparatively easy to see that our bodies are from the earth which they inhabit. Our souls, however, are invisible, immaterial, ethereal. There is no evident kinship between a thought and a stone, between love and the soil which produces vegetables, between a heroic choice and the stuff of the earth, between spirit and matter. Well, then, whence does the soul come?
It will be interesting at least to recall a few of the many answers which have been given to this inquiry.
One theory of the genesis of the soul is called Emanation. That means that in the universe there is really but one source of spiritual being, one Infinite Spirit, and that all other spiritual beings have proceeded from Him as the rays of light are flashed from the sun; and that, in time, all will return to Him again and be absorbed in the being from which they have come. Thus all spirits are supposed to have proceeded from one source—God. As all natural life in the end is but a manifestation of solar energy, so all human beings are supposed to be only bits of God, for a time imprisoned in bodies, and some time to return to the Deity and be absorbed in Him, or in it.
Another answer to the question as to the soul's origin is that of Preexistence. This may be called the Oriental theory, for almost the whole Orient holds this view. The substance of the teaching is suggested by Wordsworth, in his "Ode to Immortality," in the following lines:
"Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting; The soul that rises with us, our life's star, Hath had elsewhere its setting, And cometh from afar."
Many Occidentals have believed in preexistence. One of the most intelligent persons whom I have ever known once affirmed that she had had thoughts which she was sure were memories of events which had occurred in a previous life. This answer only pushes the question one stage further back, and leaves us still inquiring, Where do the souls of men originally come from?
Another answer to our question affirms that every individual soul is created by God whenever a body is in readiness to receive it—that when a body is born a soul is made to order for it. An old poet wrote as follows:
"Then God smites His hands together And strikes out a soul as a spark, Into the organized glory of things, From the deeps of the dark."
[Footnote 1: W.R. Alger, "History of the Doctrine of a Future Life," page 10.]
The Greek myth of Prometheus is an illustration of this teaching, for "Prometheus is said to have made a human image from the dust of the ground, and then, by fire stolen from heaven, to have animated it with a living soul."
[Footnote 2: W.R. Alger, "History of the Doctrine of a Future Life," page 10.]
Another answer teaches that all human souls have been derived by heredity from that of Adam. This is a speculation found in medieval theology, and in the Koran.
A fanciful theory suggests that all souls have been in existence since the universe was formed; that they are floating in space like rays of light; and that when a body comes into being a soul is drawn into it with its first breath, or first nourishment. This is pure imagination, but intelligent and earnest men have believed it to be the true solution of the problem.
One other answer to this question of origin teaches that souls are propagated in the same way and at the same time as bodies; that when a human being appears he is body and spirit; that both are born together, both grow together; and then, some add, both die together, while others believe that the spirit enters at death on a larger and freer stage of existence.
I have recalled these speculations concerning the soul in order to show that in all ages this question has been eagerly put and reverently pressed. How could it have been otherwise? And what more convincing evidence of the spiritual nature of man could be desired than that he asks such questions? Would a figure of clay ask whether it were the abode of a higher order of being? Dust asks no questions concerning personality; but intelligence can never be satisfied until it knows the causes of things.
What is the teaching of the New Testament concerning this subject? The attitude of Jesus toward all the great problems was the practical one. He attempted to shed no light on causes, but ever endeavored to show how to make the best of things as they are. Whence came the soul? we may ask of Him, but He will tell us that a far more important inquiry is, How may the soul be delivered from imperfection, suffering, and sin, and saved to its noblest uses and loftiest possibilities?
The reality of spirit is everywhere assumed in the teaching of Jesus, but nowhere does there appear any effort to throw light on the mystery of its genesis.
The distinction between spirit and body is indicated by the Transfiguration, the Resurrection, the narratives of the continued existence of Jesus after His Crucifixion, by many references to the heavenly life, and by the appeals and invitations of the Gospel which are all addressed to intelligence and will. The presence of Jesus in history is an assertion of the spiritual nature of man. Various philosophers have tried to satisfy the desire for light on the question of the origin of personality; but Jesus has told us how, being here, we may break our prison-houses and rise into the full freedom and glory of the children of God. While inquirers have been seeking light, Jesus has brought to them salvation; while they have fruitlessly asked whence they came, Jesus has told them whither they are going.
The real problem of human life is not one which has to do with our birth, but with our destiny. We know that we think, choose, love; we know that we are self-conscious; we feel that we have kinship with something higher than the ground on which we walk. The stars attract us because they are above and have motion, but the earth we tread upon has few fascinations.
Jesus has responded to the essential questions: For what have we been created? What is our true home? What is the goal of personality? By what path does man move from the bondage of his will, and the limitation of his animalism toward the glorious liberty of the children of God, and toward the fullness of his possible being?
We are thus brought face to face with other questions of deep importance What part do weakness, limitation, suffering, sorrow, and even sin, play in the development of souls? Is it necessary that any should fall in order that they may rise? Did John Bunyan truly picture the ascent of the soul? Does its path, of necessity, lead through the Slough of Despond, through Vanity Fair, by Castle Dangerous, and into the realm of Giant Despair?
Must one pass through hell and purgatory before he may enjoy the "beatific vision?" Are temptation, sin, sorrow, and even death, angels of God sent forth to minister to the perfection of man? or are they fiends which, in some foul way, have invaded the otherwise fair regions in which we dwell?
These are some of the questions to which we are to seek answers in the pages which are to follow. I am persuaded that, as the result of our studies, we shall find that the same beneficent hand which led the "Cosmic process" for unnumbered ages, until the appearance of man, is leading it still, that far more wonderful disclosures are waiting for the children of men as they shall be prepared to receive them, and that the glory of the "Spiritual Universe," as it approaches its consummation, when compared with the finest growths of character yet seen, will transcend them as the ordered creation, with its countless stars, transcends the primeval chaos.
In the meantime it is well to remember a few very simple and self-evident facts. One of these is that human souls must vary, at least as much as the bodies in which they dwell. Individuality has to do with spirits. We think, love, and choose in ways that differ quite as much as our bodily appearance. There is no uniformity in the spiritual sphere;—this we know from its manifestations in conduct and history. One man is heroic and another tender, one a reformer and another a recluse, one conservative and another radical. The same Bible has passages as widely contrasted as the twenty-third and the fifty-eighth Psalms, and characters as unlike as Jacob and Jesus. Indeed, may it not be assumed that physical differences are but expressions of still more clearly marked differences in spirits? If this is true it will follow that, as we move toward the goal of our being, while all will be under the same good care, we will move along different, though converging, paths. There are many roads to the "Celestial City" and, possibly, some of them do not lead through the Slough of Despond, or go very near to the realms of Giant Despair.
I cannot leave this part of my subject without dwelling for a moment upon two thoughts which to me seem to be full of significance.
This wonderfully complex nature of ours,—this power of thinking, choosing, loving, these mysterious inner depths out of which come strange suggestions, and within which, all the time, processes are carried on which may rise into consciousness and startle with their beauty or shame with their ugliness—does no suggestion come from it concerning its origin and destiny? Until they pass mid-life few men realize the terrible significance of the command of the oracle at Delphi, "Know Thyself." Who is not surprised every day at what he finds within himself? It sometimes seems as if two beings dwelt in every body, one in the region of consciousness, and one down below consciousness steadily forging the material which, sooner or later, must be forced up for the conscious man to think about.
In proportion as we know ourselves more accurately it becomes increasingly evident that as spirits we are allied to the great Spirit. Few who earnestly think can believe that their power of thought could have grown out of the earth; few when they love can believe that there is no fountain of love, unlimited and free; and few, when they choose one course and refuse another, would be willing to affirm that they are without the power of choice, and have no destiny but the grave. In other words, is not the fact that we are spirits all the proof that we need to have of the Father of Spirits? Is not a single ray of light all the evidence which any one needs of the reality of the sun? Is not the presence of one spiritual being a demonstration of a greater Spirit somewhere? Every soul indicates that, whatever the process by which it has reached its present development, it came originally from God. "In the beginning God" is a phrase which applies to the spiritual as well as to the material universe.
The soul is not only a witness concerning its own origin, but it is also a prophecy concerning its destiny. The more thoroughly it is studied the more convincing becomes the evidence that it must some time reach its perfected state. The perfection of intelligence, love, and will require endless growth. The great words of Pascal can hardly be recalled too frequently:
"Man is but a reed, the weakest in nature, but he is a thinking reed. It is not necessary that the entire universe arm itself to crush him. A breath of air, a drop of water suffices to kill him. But were the universe to crush him, man would still be more noble than that which kills him, because he knows that he dies; and the universe knows nothing of the advantage it has over him."
We can as yet hardly begin to comprehend that for which we were created;—now we see through a glass darkly. A caterpillar on the earth cannot appreciate a butterfly in the air. Jesus was the typical man, as well as the revelation of God. St. Paul has set our thoughts moving toward the "fullness of Christ" as the final goal of humanity. We may not, for many milleniums, know all that is contained in that phrase "the fullness of Christ;" but no one ever attentively listened to the voices which speak in his own soul, no one has even asked himself the meaning of the fact that nothing earthly ever completely satisfies, no one ever saw another in the ripeness of splendid powers growing more intelligent, loving, and spiritually beautiful, without feeling that if death were really the end no being is so much to be pitied as man, and no fate so much to be coveted as a short life in which the mockery may go on.
Our souls themselves assure us that they have come from a fountain of spiritual being—that is, from God; and they are also prophecies of a perfection which has never yet been realized on the earth and which will require eternity to complete. But all are not conscious of themselves as spiritual beings and children of eternity, and many come slowly to that consciousness. Our next inquiry, therefore, will concern the Soul's Awakening.
THE AWAKENING OF THE SOUL
There's a palace in Florence, the world knows well, And a statue watches it from the square, And this story of both do our townsmen tell.
Ages ago, a lady there, At the farthest window facing the East Asked, Who rides by with the royal air?
* * * * *
That selfsame instant, underneath, The Duke rode past in his idle way Empty and fine like a swordless sheath.
* * * * *
He looked at her, as a lover can; She looked at him as one who awakes: The past was a sleep, and her life began.
—The Statue and the Bust. Browning
THE AWAKENING OF THE SOUL
The process of physical awakening is not always sudden or swift. The passage from sleep to consciousness is sometimes slow and difficult. The soul's realization of itself is often equally long delayed. The effect of eloquence on an audience has often been observed when one by one the dormant souls wake up and begin to look out of their windows, the eyes, at the speaker who is addressing them. In something the same way the souls of men come to a consciousness of their powers and, with clearness, begin to look out on their possibilities and their destiny.
The prodigal son in the parable of Jesus lived his earlier years without an appreciation either of his powers or possibilities. When he came to himself this appreciation flashed upon his will and he turned toward his father.
Two chapters of this book will have to do with thoughts suggested by this "pearl of parables," viz., the Soul's Awakening and its Re-awakening. Before this young man decided to return to his father he knew himself as an intelligent and as a responsible being; the power of choice was not given him then for the first time. Long ere this he had decided how he would use his wealth. He knew the difference between right and wrong. He was intellectually and morally awake before he saw things in their true relations. "The wine of the senses" intoxicated him; the delights of the flesh seemed the only pleasures to be desired. At first he did not discover the essential excellence of virtue or the sure results of vice. Later, when he saw things in a clearer light, their proper proportions and relations appeared, and he came to himself and made the wise choice.
In this chapter we are to study the process of the soul's awakening to a consciousness of its powers, and in a subsequent chapter that re-awakening which is so radical as to merit the name it has usually received, viz., the new birth.
There is a time when the soul first realizes itself as a personality with definite responsibilities and relations. This experience comes to some earlier, and to some with greater vividness, than to others. So long as we are blind to our powers, responsibilities, relations, we can hardly be said to be spiritually awake. He only is awake who knows himself as a personality; who has heard the voice of duty; who, to some extent, appreciates the fact that he is dependent on a higher personality or power; and who recognizes that he is surrounded by other personalities who also have their rights, responsibilities, and relations. I think, I choose, I love, I know that I am dependent upon a Being higher than myself. I see that I am related to other personalities with rights as sacred as my own, and, therefore, that I must choose, think, love so as to be acceptable to the One to whom I am responsible, and harmonious with those by whom I am surrounded.
The soul's awakening is primarily a recognition and an appreciation of its responsibility. It may think, choose, love, without realizing responsibility, and, therefore, live as if it were the only being in the universe; but the moment it recognizes responsibility it also discerns a higher Person, and other persons, since responsibility to no one, and for nothing, is inconceivable.
The soul's awakening, therefore, carries with it the idea of obligation, and that includes the recognition of God, of duty, of right and wrong, in short, of a moral ideal. I do not mean to insist that every one appreciates all that is implied in consciousness of responsibility. There are degrees of alertness, and some men are wide awake and others half asleep.
However it may have come to its self-realization, that is a solemn and sublime moment when a human soul understands, ever so dimly, that it is facing in the unseen Being one on whom it knows itself to be dependent; and when it discerns the hitherto invisible lines which bind it to other personalities, in all space and time. At that moment life really begins. Henceforward, by various ways, over undreamed-of obstacles, assisted by invisible hands, hindered by unseen forces, in spite of foes within and enemies without, the course of that soul must ever be toward its true home and goal, in the bosom of God.
The difficulties in the way of such a faith for the thoughtful and sensitive are many and serious. Not all blossoms come to fruitage; not all human beings are fit to live; processes of degeneration seem to be at work in nature, in society, and in the individual life.
Apparently true and time-honored interpretations of Scripture are quoted against the faith that in some way, and by some kind of discipline, the souls of men will forever approach God; while the belief of the church, so far as it has found expression in the creeds is urged in opposition. But when I see how timidly the creeds of the church have been held by many in all ages, how large a number of the most spiritual and morally earnest have questioned them at this point, and how often they have been rejected in whole, or in part, by those who have dared to trust their hearts; when I remember that the Scripture quoted as opposing is susceptible of another interpretation, when I remember that blossoms are not men, and, most of all when I see the God-like possibilities in every human being, I cannot resist the conviction that every soul of man is from God, and that, sometime and somehow, it may be by the hard path of retribution, possibly through great agonies and by means of austere chastisements and severe discipline as well as by loving entreaty, after suffering shall have accomplished all its ministries it will reach a blissful goal and the "beatific vision."
The awakening of the soul is its entrance upon an appreciation of its powers, relations, possibilities, and responsibilities.
What awakens the soul? The answer to that question is hidden. The wind bloweth where it listeth. Elemental processes and forces are all silent and viewless. The stillness of the sunrise is like that of the deeps of the sea. No eye ever traced the birth of life, and no sound ever attended the awakening of the soul; and yet this subject is not altogether mysterious. A few rays of light have fallen upon it. I venture suggestions which may help a little toward a rational answer to this question.
The soul awakens because it grows, and its growth is sure. Everything that is alive must grow; only death is stationary. It is as natural for us sometime to know ourselves as having relations both to the seen and the unseen as for our bodies to increase in stature. The Confession of Augustine is true of all, "Thou madest us for Thyself, and our heart is restless until it repose in Thee."
[Footnote 3: Confessions. Book I, 1.]
The soul turns toward God as naturally as children turn toward their parents. I know no other way of explaining the fact that in all ages the majority of the people have had faith in some kind of a deity; and that, widely as they differ as to what is right, all feel that they should follow their convictions of duty. The various ethnic religions, however repulsive, cruel, and vile some of their teachings may be, all indicate a realization of dependence, and all, in some way, bear witness to man's longing for God. Augustine was right—"The heart is restless until it repose in Thee."
The healthful soul will always move along the pathway of growth. The next stage in its evolution after its birth is its awakening. Its progress may be hindered, but it cannot be prevented, and it may be hastened.
The means by which a soul comes to its self-realization has been a favorite study with poets, dramatists, and novelists. Marguerite, in "Faust," was a simple, sweet, sensuous, traditionally religious girl until she was rudely startled by the knowledge that she was a great sinner; that moment the scales began to fall from her eyes. In her, Goethe has shown how one class of persons, and that a large class, come to self-realization.
Victor Hugo, in a passage of almost unparalleled pathos, has pictured in Jean Valjean a kind of big human beast who, when half awake, steals a loaf of bread to save others from starving, but who is startled into fullness of manhood by the sympathy and consideration of the good Bishop whose silver he had also stolen.
Hawthorne, in Donatello, has pictured a beautiful creature fully equipped with affections, emotions, passions, but with little consciousness of responsibility, until the fatal moment in which a crime illuminates his soul like a flash of lightning.
Such experiences are not to be compared with those of the prodigal son or of Saul. Before the one was reduced to husks, or the light blazed upon the other, they felt the obligation to do right. The prodigal chose pleasure with his eyes wide open and Saul was, mistakenly but truly, trying to do God's will even when he assisted in the stoning of Stephen.
Hugo, Goethe, and Hawthorne have accurately delineated single steps in the growth of the soul. They have shown how the process of the soul's awakening may be, and often has been, hastened. It may be hindered by false ideals and a vicious environment, and it may be hastened by lofty ideals and a holy environment.
Dr. Bushnell, in his lectures on Christian Nurture, has said that the formative years of every man's life are the first three. Is he correct? I am not sure, but there can be no doubt but what with a good environment the consciousness of moral obligation will be very early developed.
The soul cannot long be imprisoned. The consciousness of "ought" and "ought not" will break all barriers as a growing seed will split a rock; and, when that stage of growth appears, the soul knows itself.
When the soul is finally awakened, when it realizes that it is indissolubly bound to a larger personality in the unseen sphere; when it finds that it is tied to other souls, and that it cannot escape from its responsibility for itself and them,—what then? Then the struggle of life begins. The awakening is to a realization of conflict with the seen and unseen environment, with forces within and fascinations without. When Paul speaks of the law as the minister of death, he simply means that law introduces an ideal, and ideals always start struggles. Law is something to be obeyed. It is sure to antagonize the animal in man. When our possibilities dawn upon us, in that moment there comes the feeling that they should be our masters. Then the lower nature resists and becomes clamorous. Duty calls in one direction and inclination impels in another. The period of ignorance has passed. Weakness and imperfection remain, but not ignorance. There is a conflict in the soul. The law in the members wars against the law in the mind. We feel that we ought to move upward, but unseen weights press heavily upon us, and to rise seems impossible.
Between God calling from above and animalism from below the poor soul has a hard time of it. The morally great in all ages have become strong by overcoming their fleshly natures. They have risen on their dead selves to higher things. The vision of God has reached them even in their prison-houses; and it has broken their chains and they have begun to move toward Him. To the end of the chapter they have had a long fight, and not seldom have been sadly worsted. Goethe and Augustine, Pascal and Coleridge, DeQuincey and Webster—how the list of those who have had to fight bitter battles for spiritual liberty might be extended I and many have not been victorious before the shadows have lengthened and the day closed. Should they be blamed or pitied? Pitied, surely, and for the rest let us leave them to Him who knoweth all things. "Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord." Men have nothing to do with judgment; the final word concerning any soul will be spoken only by Him whose vision is perfect. "Steep and craggy is the pathway of the gods," and steep and craggy is the path by which men rise to spiritual heights.
He who is sensitive to life can hardly survey this universal human struggle with undimmed eye or with unquestioning faith. The young are driven here and there by heartless and, sometimes, almost furious passions; some are weak and fall because they are blind, and others because they love and trust; and many who desire to do good mistake and choose evil. The strong often try to run away from themselves but can find no solitude in which to hide; and all the time right and truth shine in the darkness like stars. What shall we say of these confusing conditions? To ignore them is foolish; to insist that the struggle is but a delusion is nonsense. The only sane course is to face facts and adjust our theories to them.
The battle between duty and inclination, between the ideal and the actual, will continue as long as life in the body endures. It is not an unmixed evil. In the end right is never worsted. The way that leads to holiness is long and sometimes bloody; but it always develops strength and courage. The fight, for each individual, will be ended only by the full and perfect choice of truth and virtue, which are always the will of God. The victory will be secure long before it is fully won. Enough for us to know that conformity to the will of God at last will be the end of strife.
It is not well to be overmuch troubled when we see those whom we love fighting a hard battle against inherited tendencies and an evil environment, for the fight, however fierce, is a good sign. Those alone are to be pitied who are drifting, and not resisting. Progress is ever by a steep and spiral pathway. Sometimes the face of the ascending soul is toward the sun and sometimes it is toward the darkness. No man can deliver his friend from the forces which oppose him. Each must conquer for himself and none can evade the conflict. From the hour when the soul awakens to a consciousness of its powers and possibilities, its movement, in spite of all hindrances and difficulties, must be to the heights. Those only need cause anxiety who are not yet awake; or who, having been awake, have turned backward instead of pressing onward.
We are now face to face with a momentous inquiry. When the soul is awake, when it realizes something of its descent from God and of its relation to Him and to other souls, what should be its environment? Intelligent and otherwise sane people at this point have been strangely insane and blind. We are always affected by influence more than by teaching. Education by atmosphere is quite as effective as education by study. Involuntarily all become like their ideals. Personalities absorb characteristics from surroundings as flowers absorb colors from the light. The awakened soul, therefore, from the first should have a spiritual environment. Parents and friends should be helps, not hindrances, to its progress. I once read a letter from one who had changed an old for a new home. The letter was full of aspiration for the best things, of thoughts about God and the spiritual verities. It was not difficult to see that the new home in its reverence for truth, its loyalty to right, its reaching for reality, was providing the same good influence as the old one. If, in the environment, truth and duty are honored, virtue reverenced, God worshipped sincerely and devoutly, manhood held to be as sacred as deity, the unseen and spiritual never spoken of unadvisedly or lightly, courage always found hand in hand with character, the soul will never long fight a losing battle.
The home should be organized to promote, as swiftly as possible, the awakening of the souls of the children; and, from the moment of this awakening, everything should be planned to help their growth. The books on the tables should tell the life-stories of those who have bravely fought and never faltered. Biographies of men like Wilberforce and Howard who have lived to help their fellow-men; and of women like Florence Nightingale and Lady Stanley, who have regarded their social gifts and ample wealth as calls to service; histories of charities, intellectual development and noble achievement, pictures like Sir Galahad and The Light of the World are potent forces in the formation of character. The ideal side of life should ever be presented in its most attractive form to the awakened soul in its near environment. Because the ideal culminates in the religious, and the feeling of moral obligation rests at last upon the conviction that God is, and that He is not far from any one, Jesus, in all the beauty and pathos of His earthly career, in all the tragic grandeur of His death and glory of His Resurrection, in all the nearness and helpfulness of His continuing ministry, should be the subject of frequent, earnest, honest, sane, and sympathetic conversation.
The awakened soul needs first of all an environment which will be favorable to its growth. Its development then will usually be steadily and swiftly toward God and conformity to His will. There ought to be no need of any re-awakening. If the soul opens its eyes among those who reverence truth and righteousness, who guard virtue and revere love, to whom God is the nearest and most blessed of realities, and Jesus is Master, Saviour, and daily Friend, its growth toward the spiritual goal will be as natural and beautiful as it will also be swift and sure.
THE FIRST STEPS
No mortal object did these eyes behold When first they met the placid light of thine, And my soul felt her destiny divine, And hope of endless peace in me grew bold: Heaven-born, the soul a heav'nward course must hold; Beyond the visible world she soars to seek (For what delights the sense is false and weak) Ideal form, the universal mould. The wise man, I affirm, can find no rest In that which perishes: nor will he lend His heart to aught which doth on time depend. 'Tis sense, unbridled will, and not true love, Which kills the soul: Love betters what is best, Even here below, but more in heaven above.
—Sonnet from Michael Angelo. Wordsworth
THE FIRST STEPS
The first movements of the awakened soul are difficult to trace. Observation, painstaking and long-continued, alone can furnish the desired information. In the attempt to recall our own experiences there is always a possibility of inaccuracy. Bias counts for more in self-examination than in an examination of others. There is also danger of confusing religious preconceptions with what actually transpires. What we have been led to imagine should be experienced we are very likely to insist has taken place. The truth concerning the Ascent of the Soul will be found in the conclusions of many observers in widely different conditions.
The soul awakens to a consciousness of its responsibilities and to a knowledge that it is in a moral order from which escape is forever impossible. This is our point of departure in this chapter.
The new-born child has to become adjusted to its physical environment, to learn to use its powers, to breathe, to eat, to allow the various senses to do their work. In like manner the newly awakened soul has to become adjusted to the moral order. The moral order is the rule of right in the sphere of thought, emotion, and choice. It is the government of the soul as the physical order is the government of the body. It may be best explained by analogy. There is a physical order ruled by physical laws. If those laws are obeyed, strength, health, sanity result; but if they are disobeyed, the consequences, which are inevitable and self-perpetuating, are weakness, disease, insanity. If one violates gravitation he is dashed in pieces; if he trifles with microbes their infinitesimal grasp will be like a shackle of steel. No one can get outside the physical universe and the sweep of its laws.
There is also a right and a wrong way to use thought, emotion, will. The mind which has hospitality only for holy thoughts will become clearer, and its vision more distinct; but the mind which harbors impure thoughts, gradually, but surely, confuses evil with good, obscures its vision, and becomes a fountain of moral miasm. If we choose to recall and to retain feelings that are animal, and are the relics of animalism, the natural tendency toward bestiality will gather momentum; but if emotion is turned toward higher objects, and we are thrilled from above rather than lulled from below, the sensibilities become sources of enduring joy. The moral order is like the physical order in its universality and in the remorselessness of the consequences which follow choices.
How does the soul become adjusted to the moral order? This question is difficult to answer. At the first there is sight enough to see that one course is right and another wrong, but the vision is indistinct. Gradually the ability to make accurate discriminations increases, and, with time and other growth, the faculty of vision is enlarged and clarified.
The first step in the Ascent of the Soul is the development of ability to discriminate between right and wrong. The powers of the soul are enlarged and vivified with the bodily growth, but whether there is any necessary connection between the growth of the one and that of the other, we know not. This alone is sure—clearer vision, with ever-increasing distinctness, reveals the certainty that moral laws are universal and unchangeable. The process of adjustment to the moral order is partly voluntary and partly involuntary. It is hastened by the hidden forces of vitality, and it may be hindered by its own choices. As a human being who refuses to eat will starve, so a soul which turns away from truth will starve. The law in one case is as inexorable as in the other. This consciousness of the moral order is sometimes dim even in mature years because neglect always deadens appreciation. Paul said that the law is a schoolmaster leading to Christ. By that he intended to teach that we must realize that we are under moral law before we can know that its violation will result in a state of ruin needing salvation. First that which is natural, then that which is spiritual. The phrase "natural law in the spiritual world" means that the consequences following right and wrong are as inevitable and essential in the realm of spirit as in that of matter.
The progress of the soul is dependent on the realization that there is a moral quality in thoughts, emotions, choices; that the consequences following them grow out of them as flowers from seed, and that they determine not only the character but the happiness and welfare of the one exercising them.
The next step in the upward movement of the soul is the realization of its freedom. It is possible for one to know that he is under law, without at the same time appreciating that he is free to choose whether he will obey. I may see a storm sweeping toward me and know that behind it is resistless force, and know, also, that to step outside the track of that storm is impossible; and it is conceivable that a soul may know itself as able to think, feel, act, and, at the same time, be under the dominion of forces before which it is powerless. The practical question, therefore, for all in this human world is not, are there spiritual laws? but, may we choose for ourselves whether we will obey or disobey them? Until the soul knows itself to be free to choose, there will be no deep feeling of obligation, without which there can be no motive impelling toward the heights. Here also we walk in the dark. The genesis of the consciousness of freedom has never been observed. DuBois-Reymond has called it one of "the seven riddles of science." We are no nearer the solution of the problem than were our fathers a thousand years ago. But one thing at least we do know: He who believes himself to be a puppet in the hands of unseen forces will never fight them. If freedom is a fiction the universe is not only unmoral, but immoral. The final argument for freedom is consciousness. I know I could have chosen differently from what I did. But how do I know? The process cannot be pushed farther back. Consciousness is ultimate and authoritative. But what then shall be said of heredity? A child when first born is little but a bundle of sensibilities. Its growth seems to be but the unfolding of inherited tendencies. Every man is what his ancestors have made him plus what he has absorbed from his environment. How can we say then that any are free? That man who is surly, uncomfortable, ugly, as hard to endure as a March wind, is but the extension of his father. When one knows the elder it is difficult to do otherwise than pity the younger. He is but living the tendencies which were born in him and which are an inseparable part of his nature. He cannot be genial and urbane. Are not some born moral cripples as others are born with physical deformities? Are not some spiritually deaf, dumb, and blind from birth? It cannot be doubted. We are all more or less what our fathers were, but our surroundings do much to modify us. Many men seem to be driven on wings of passion, as leaves by tornadoes; and yet we know that we are free, and that all life and conduct, individual and social, must be ordered on that hypothesis. Teach men that they are not free, and anarchy and chaos will quickly follow. No freedom? Then there is no obligation. No one feels that he ought to do what he cannot do, and no one will try to do what he does not feel that he ought to do. If men are but machines, moving only as the power is turned on, there is no moral quality in any action. If we live in a moral world, whether we can understand it or not, we must be free to choose for ourselves. The possibility of the soul's expansion depends on its freedom. There is no right and no wrong, no truth and no error, if it is a slave to the inheritance with which it was born. What gives to the invitations of Jesus a quality so serious and so solemn is the fact that they may be rejected. The power of choice is the most sublime endowment which man possesses. When we have learned to know ourselves as free a long step forward has been taken. The soul grows by a right use of the power of choice.
How may it be adjusted to this knowledge? It will undoubtedly grow to it, but the process will be slow. It may, however, be hastened by a use of the experience of others. No man should be allowed to begin the battle of life as ignorant as his father was. Each new soul should have the benefit of the experience of all who have lived before. Children should be taught by example and conversation, in the home and the school, that the beginning of wisdom is a right use of the experience of others. However this lesson may be learned, and however swift may be the process of growth, the next step in the soul's progress, after its realization that it is in a moral order, must be its adjustment to the fact that it is a free agent and sovereign over its own choices.
No man is ever forced into any course of conduct. Character is the resultant of many choices rather than of necessity. The moral law may be obeyed or it may be violated. Its seat is, indeed, in the bosom of God. It is the only guarantee of individual progress and social harmony. Its sway is without bound and without end. To know how to live in a moral world, and how best to use the gifts of liberty, is a subject for an eternity of study. That this consciousness of freedom comes slowly is an immense blessing; otherwise the soul would be dazed as, for the first time, it looked around on the solemnities and splendors of the spiritual universe; and be overwhelmed as it realized, at the very beginning of its career, that it was endowed with a sovereignty as mysterious and potent as that of God.
The next step in the upward movement of the soul is appreciation of a moral ideal. That is a solemn and sublime moment when the newly awakened soul realizes that it dwells in a moral order and is free to make its own choices. But another moment is equally thrilling—that in which, in faint and scarcely audible accents, it catches the far call of the goal toward which, henceforward and forever, it must move. It now knows not only that there is a difference between right and wrong, but that there are mysterious affinities between itself and truth and right. Later the sound of that far-away voice will become more distinct. But in its infancy the soul is more or less confused. It hears many sounds and does not always know how to distinguish between siren voices and those which prophesy its destiny. It also has to learn to distinguish truth and right. The task of making moral discriminations is not easy at any time. Amid a babel of noises to detect the one clear call which alone can satisfy is almost impossible. The mistakes, therefore, are many, but even by mistakes the soul learns to distinguish the true from the false. But how is it to be taught to appreciate that one voice only in all that confusion of strange sounds should be heeded, and all the rest disregarded? The same answer as before must be given. This knowledge, also, will come in large part with the years. It seems to be the cosmic purpose to provide fresh light with every new step of progress. No one is ever left in total darkness. As the soul advances it learns to distinguish between the voices which speak to it. The necessity of growth is the angel of the Lord whose ministries and prophecies are the hope and glory of the race. Growth may be hindered, but it can never be banished from the universe. It moved in chaos, and never faltered in its march, until under its beneficent leading all things were seen to be good. It led the cosmic movement until man appeared; and now it has taken man in hand, with all the vestiges of animalism clinging to him, and it will never leave him as he rises toward the perfection and glory of God. The law of growth answers most if not all of our questions. The soul of man must grow. With its growth will come vision, strength, and progress toward its goal.
But growth is not all. The voices to which we choose to give heed will sound most distinctly in our ears. Here we face a fact which is often in evidence. The earth and animalism will never cease to make appeal to our senses, while at the same time voices from above will call from their heights to our spirits. To distinguish between desire and duty, between truth and tradition, between the spiritual and the animal, is a step which has to be taken, and which is taken whether we appreciate how or not. By the pain which follows wrong choices, or by the intuitions of the spirit, the soul comes to realize that its obligation is always in one direction; that its choice ought to be in favor of the morally excellent. But how shall it discern the morally excellent? The process of learning will be a long one, and never fully completed on the earth. This is a realm that poets and dramatists, who are usually the profoundest and most accurate students of life, have not often tried to enter. Such questions can be answered only after careful and long-continued inductive study. Moralists are usually content to stop short of this inquiry. How the soul comes to learn that it is obligated to truth and right we may not fully know; but that it does learn, and that no step in all its development is more important, there is no doubt. In His dealing with this question Jesus preserves the same attitude as toward all subjects of speculation. I came not to explain how life adjusts itself to its environment, He seems to say, but to give life a richness and a beauty which it never had before; I came not to answer questions, but to save to the best uses that which already exists. Nevertheless, the question as to how the soul is taught to distinguish the morally excellent is of serious importance. If we do not recognize the sanctity of truth and right we may not give them hospitality; and we may not appreciate their sanctity if we are ignorant of what gives them their authority. How, then, does it learn what truth and right are? Are there any clearly defined paths by which this knowledge may be reached? Is not truth a matter of education? And is there any absolute right? A Hindoo Swami, of the school of the Vedanta, lecturing in this country, solemnly assured an intelligent audience that there is no sin; that what is called sin is only the result of education; that what is vice in one place may be virtue in another; and that in the sphere of morals all is relative and nothing absolute. Then there is no wrong, for wrong and sin are closely related; and no right because if right is not a dream it implies the possibility of an opposite. There is little permanent danger from such shallow theories. The peril from confusion is greater than from denial. But even confusion at this point is not long necessary because in every soul there is a voice which men call conscience, which never fails to impel toward the true and the good. Conscience may be likened to a compass whose needle always points toward the north. When it is uninfluenced by distracting causes conscience always shows the way toward truth and right. The Spartans believed that lying was a virtue if it was sufficiently obscure; and a Hindoo woman who throws her child to the god of the Ganges does so because she is deeply religious. Are not such persons conscientious? Yet they perform acts which are in themselves wrong? Of what value, then, is conscience? That they are both conscientious and religious I have no doubt. It is their misfortune to be ignorant. The light appears to be colored by the medium through which it passes, and yet it is not colored; and conscience seems to approve what is wrong, and yet it never does. It always impels toward the right, but men often make serious mistakes because of their ignorance. The needle in the moral compass is deflected by selfishness or false teaching. The Hindoo mother might hear and, if she dared to listen to it, would hear a deeper voice than the one calling her to sacrifice her child—even one telling her to spare her child. She has not yet learned that it is always safe to trust the moral sense. Superstitions are not conscience; they are ignorance obscuring and deadening conscience. Every man is born with a guide within to point him to paths of virtue and truth, and one of the most important lessons which the growing soul has to learn is that when it is true to itself it may always trust that guide. The call of his destiny finds every man, and, when he hears it, he asks: How may I reach that goal? It is far away and the path is confused. Then a voice within makes answer, and, if he heeds that, he will make no mistake. That voice, I believe, is the result of no evolutionary process, but is the holy God immanent in every soul, making His will known. Evolution gradually gives to conscience a larger place, but there is no evidence that it is produced by any physical process. It may be hindered by physical limitations, but it can be destroyed by none. Why are we so slow in learning that conscience, being divine, is authoritative and may be trusted? I know no answer except this: We so often confuse ignorance with conscience that at last we conclude that the latter is not trustworthy. But there we mistake. It is trustworthy. It never fails those who heed its message. That realization may now and then come early, but it seldom comes all at once. Nevertheless it is a step to be taken before the progress of the soul can be either swift or sure.
The moment that the soul realizes that God is not far away, but within; that all the divine voices did not speak in the past, but that many are speaking now; that whosoever will listen may hear within his own being a message as clear and sacred as any that ever came to prophet or teacher in other times, it will begin to realize the luxury of its liberty, and something of the grandeur of its destiny. Truth and right are not fictions of the imagination, they are realities opening before the growing soul like continents before explorers. They always invite entrance and possession. They have horizons full of splendor and beauty and music. They alone can satisfy. But the soul has not yet fully escaped from the mists and fogs and glooms of the earth. It is surrounded by those who still wallow in animalism, and the sounds of the lower world are yet echoing in its ears. But at last its face is toward the light; the far call of its destiny has been heard; it knows itself to be in a moral order; it is assured that, however closely the body may be imprisoned, no bolts and no bars can shut in a spirit; that before it is a fair and favored land, far off but ever open; and, best of all, that within its own being, impervious to all influences from without, is a guide which may be implicitly trusted and which will never betray. Why not follow its suggestions at once and press on toward that fair land of truth and beauty which so earnestly invites? Ah! why not? Here we are face to face with other facts. There are hindrances, many and serious, in the pathway of the soul, and they must be met and forced before that land can be entered. This is the time for us to consider them.
And many, many are the souls Life's movement fascinates, controls; It draws them on, they cannot save Their feet from its alluring wave; They cannot leave it, they must go With its unconquerable flow;
* * * * *
They faint, they stagger to and fro, And wandering from the stream they go; In pain, in terror, in distress, They see all round a wilderness.
—Epilogue to Lessing's "Laocoon". Matthew Arnold
When the soul has heard the far call of its destiny and realizes that it may respond to that call, and that it has, in conscience, a guide which will not fail even in the deepest darkness, it turns in the direction from which the appeal comes and begins to move toward its goal. Almost simultaneously it realizes that it has to meet and to overcome numerous and serious obstacles. To the hindrances in the way of the spirit our thought is to be turned in this chapter.
The moral failure of many men and women of superb intellectual and physical equipment is one of the sad and serious marvels of human history. What a pathetic and significant roll might be made of those who have been great intellectually and pitiful failures morally! It has often been affirmed that Hannibal might have conquered Rome, and been the master of the world except for the fatal winter at Capua. Antony, possibly, would have been victor at Actium if it had not been for something in himself that made him susceptible to the fascination of the fair but treacherous Egyptian queen. Achilles was a symbolical as well as an historical character. There was one place—with him in the heel—where he was vulnerable, and through that he fell. Socrates was like a tornado when inflamed by anger. Napoleon laid Europe waste and desolated more distant lands, but he was an enormous egotist and morally a blot on civilization.
The life-history of many of the poets is inexpressibly sad. Chatterton, Shelley, Byron, Poe—their very names call up facts which those who admire their genius would gladly conceal. Many artists are in the same category. It explains nothing to ascribe their moral pollution to their finer sensibilities, for finer sensibilities ought to be attended by untarnished characters. It is, perhaps, best not even to mention their names lest, thereby, we dull the appreciation of noble masterpieces which represent the better moods of the men. One of imperial genius was a slave to wine, another to lust, another was too envious to detect any merit in the work of others of his craft. There are statesmen of whose achievements we speak, but never of the men themselves; and there have been ministers of the Gospel, unhappily not a few, who have suddenly disappeared and been heard of no more. Into a kindly oblivion they have gone, and that is all that any one needs to know. What do such facts signify? That many, or most, of these men have been essentially and totally bad? Or that they are moral failures? They signify only that they have not yet risen above the hindrances which they have found in their pathways. The world knows of the temporary obscuration of a fair fame; it does not see the grief, the tears, the gradual gathering of the energies for a new assault upon the obstacles in the road; and it does not see how tenderly, but faithfully, Providence, through nature, is dealing with them. Some time they will be brought to themselves—The Eternal Goodness is the pledge of that. It is not with this unseen and beneficent ministry of restoration, however, that I am now dealing, but with the awful wrecks and failures which are so common in human history, and concerning which most men know something in their own experiences. How shall they be explained?—since to evade them is impossible. In other words when a man is awake, when he feels that he is in a moral order, is free, and hears the call of his destiny, why is his progress so slow and difficult? No one has ever delineated this period in the soul's growth with greater vividness than Bunyan. The Valley of Humiliation, the Slough of Despond, Giant Despair, Doubting Castle are all pictures of human life taken with photographic accuracy. What are some of these hindrances?
The soul is free, but its abode is in a limited body. The movement of the soul is swift and unconstrained as thought. It is not limited by time. It may project itself a thousand years into the future or travel a thousand years into the past; but it dwells in the body and is more or less restrained by it. Bodily limitation narrows experience and compels ignorance. It makes large acquaintance impossible. The flowers beneath the ice on the Alps are small; the flowers of the tropics have the proportions of trees. Thus environment modifies growth. The body cannot put fetters on the will, but it may hold in captivity the powers which acquire knowledge, withhold from the emotions persons worthy of affection, and make the range of objects of choice poor and pitiful. The soul has often been compared to a bird in a cage,—fitted for broad horizons but confined within narrow spaces. This hindrance is a very real one. The man who grows swiftly must be in the open world with beings to love and to serve ever within his reach. Hence the life beyond death is often called the unhindered life because of its freedom from the body. The old story of "Rasselas" is symbolical. In the Happy Valley a man might be as good, but he could not be as great and wise, as in the larger world. The soul will meet fewer temptations there, but those it does encounter will be more insistent and harder to escape. He who would respond to a call to service must needs have about him those whom he may serve. Large views are for those who are able to rise to the heights. He who lives in a cave may be true to his little light, and surely is responsible for no more, but he will see far less than the one whose home is on the mountaintop. Thus even bodily limitations, to which are attached no moral qualities, are hindrances to the growth of the being, whose destiny is not only purification but expansion:—its movement is not only toward goodness but also toward greatness; not only toward virtue but also toward power.
The animal entail is one of the greatest mysteries of our mortal life. The soul in its moments of illumination feels that it is related to some person like itself, but far higher, and aspires to it. Sir Joshua Reynolds' figure of "Faith" in the famous window in the chapel of New College, Oxford, suggests the attitude of the newly awakened soul. In freshness and beauty it is turning toward the light. But in human experience something occurs which Sir Joshua has not tried to depict. A clammy hand reaches up from the deeps out of which rise suffocating clouds, and that pure spirit finds itself enveloped in darkness and fastened to the earth. The humiliation is complete. What has occurred? Only what has happened again and again; and what will continue to happen for no one knows how long. The animal has gotten the better of the spirit. The soul has sinned—for sin is little, if anything, but a spirit allowing itself to return to the fascinations of the animal conditions out of which it has been evolved, and from which it ought to have escaped forever. The animal entail is the chief hindrance to the aspiring spirit. The animal lives by his senses. He is content when they are satisfied. It can hardly be said that animals are ever happy. Happiness is a state higher than contentment. Paul said he had learned in whatsoever state he was to be content, but even he never said that in all states he had learned to be happy. Animals are contented when their senses are gratified and they are savage when their senses are clamorous. Lions and bears are dangerous when they are hungry, and cruel when other desires are obstructed.
Whatever the theory of evolution, from the beginning of its upward movement, the nearest, most potent, and most dangerous hindrance to the soul is this entail of animalism, which it can never escape but which it must some time conquer. The spirit and the body seem to be in endless antagonism, and yet the body itself will become the fair servant of the soul when once the question of its supremacy has been determined. The tendency to revert to animalism has been vividly depicted by the poets, and the clamorous and insistent nature of the passions portrayed by the artists.
The liquor in the enchanted cup of Comus may be called "the wine of the senses." Its effect is thus described by Milton. Comus offers
... "To every weary traveler His orient liquor in a crystal glass, To quench the drought of Phoebus; which, as they taste (For most do taste through fond, intemperate thirst) Soon as the potion works, their human countenance, The express resemblance of the gods, is changed Into some brutish form of wolf or bear, Or ounce or tiger, hog or bearded goat."
A famous passage from Ovid's "Metamorphoses" represents Actaeon as changed into a stag; but, if I read the fable aright, the glimpse of Diana in her bath, while not an intelligent choice, was more than a mere accident—it was the uprising of innate sensuality; for even the Greek gods were supposed to have had senses.
[Footnote 4: Addison's translation, Book III, pages 188-198.]
"Actaeon was the first of all his race, Who grieved his grandsire in his borrowed face; Condemned by stern Diana to bemoan The branching horns and visage not his own; To shun his once-loved dogs, to bound away And from their huntsman to become their prey; And yet consider why the change was wrought; You'll find it his misfortune, not his fault; Or, if a fault it was the fault of chance; For how can guilt proceed from ignorance?"
The story of Circe is the common story of those who have yielded to the flesh. The companions of Ulysses visited the palace of Circe, were allured by her charms, and the result is read in these words:
"Before the spacious front, a herd we find Of beasts, the fiercest of the savage kind. Our trembling steps with blandishments they meet And fawn, unlike their species, at our feet."
The strong words of Milton are none too strong:
"Their human countenance The express resemblance of the gods, is changed Into some brutish form."
A common subject with artists has been the temptations of the saints. They have fled from luxury, and what they supposed to be moral peril, but have found no solitude to which they could go and leave their bodies behind. In the silences faces have appeared to them full of alluring entreaty, and more than one anchorite has found to his sorrow that he carried within himself the cause of his danger.
A singularly vivid painting represents one of the saints in the desert, and clinging to him, with their arms around his neck, are two figures of exquisite physical beauty. Their charms are so near and perilous that the pale and haggard man in desperation has shut his eyes, and in this extremity, with his one free hand, is frantically clinging to a cross. The artist has accurately depicted the condition in which the soul finds itself as it begins its growth;—its chief enemies are those of its own household.
Happy indeed is it for all that none see at the first the obstacles in their way. Faint and far shines the splendor of the goal; the hindrances are reached one by one, and each one, for the moment, seems to be the last.
But close and persistent as is the animal entail, it is not unconquerable. Many a Sir Galahad, and many a woman fair and holy as his pure sister, have lived on this earth of ours. They were not always so; and their beauty and holiness are but the outshining of spiritual victory.
Is this environment of evil necessary to the development of the soul? We may not know; but we do know that it can be conquered, and some time and somehow will be conquered; and that then men, like ourselves, grown from the same stock, evolved from the lower levels, will constitute "the crowning race."
"No longer half akin to brute, For all we thought and loved and did, And hoped, and suffered, is but seed Of what in them is flower and fruit."
These are a few samples of the hindrances which the soul must face in its progress through "the thicket of this world." But these are not all. Hardly less serious is the ignorance which clothes it like a garment. It comes it knows not whence; it journeys it knows not whither, and apparently is attended by no one wiser than itself.
Hugo's awful picture of a man in the ocean with the vast and silent heavens above, the desolate waves around, the birds like dwellers from another world circling in the evening light, and the poor fellow trying to swim, he knows not where, is not so wide of the mark as some thoughtless readers might suppose.
The soul is ignorant and timid, in the vast and void night, with its environment of ignorance and of other souls also blindly struggling. At the same time there is the consciousness of a duty to do something, of a voice calling it somewhere which ought to be heeded, and of having bitterly failed.
The solitariness of the soul is also one of the most mysterious and solemn of its characteristics. The prophecy which is applied to Jesus might equally be applied to every human being: He trod the wine-press alone. In all its deepest experiences the soul is solitary. Craving companionship, in the very times when it seeks it most it finds it denied. Every crucial choice must at last be individual. When sorrows are multiplied there are in them deeps into which no friendly eye can look. When the hour of death comes, even though friends crowd the rooms, not one of them can accompany the soul on its journey. It seems as if this solitariness must hinder its growth. Perhaps were our eyes clearer we should see that what seems to retard in reality hastens progress. But to our human sight it seems as if every soul needed companionship and cooeperation in all its deep experiences; and that the ancients were not altogether wrong in their belief in the presence and protection of Guardian Angels. But something more vital and assuring than that faith is desired. It is rather the inseparable fellowship of those who are facing the same mysteries and fighting the same battles as ourselves; but even that not infrequently is denied.
Is this all? There is another possibility which observation has never detected and which science is powerless to disprove. Can we be sure that no malign spiritual influences hinder and bewilder? We cannot be sure. The common belief of nearly all peoples ought not to be rudely brushed aside. No one willingly believes in lies nor clings to them when he knows that they are lies. Superstitions always have some element of truth in them, and the truth, not the error, wins adherents. The most that we can say, at this point, is that we do not know. It is possible that the common beliefs of many widely separated people have no basis in fact, that they are born of dreams and delusions; and, on the other hand, it is equally possible that the spaces which we inhabit, but which we cannot fully explore, have other inhabitants than our vision discerns, and that those beings may help and may hinder us in our progress. It is not wise to dogmatize where we are ignorant. While the scales balance we must wait.
Are the hindrances in the path of the soul without any ministry? That cannot be; for then they are exceptions to the universal law, that nothing which exists is without a purpose of benefit.
All the analogies of nature indicate that human limitations are intended to serve some good end, since, so far as observation has yet extended, it has found nothing which is caused by chance. Emerson says, "As the Sandwich Islander believes that the strength and valor of the enemy he kills passes into himself, so we gain the strength of the temptations we resist;" and St. Bernard says, "Nothing can work me damage except myself; the harm that I sustain I carry about with me, and never am a real sufferer but by my own fault."
[Footnote 5: Essay on Compensation.]
[Footnote 6: Quoted by Emerson in Essay on Compensation.]
And St. John says, "To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life."
[Footnote 7: Revelation 2:7.]
The mission of the austere is the development of strength. Concerning this suggestion we shall inquire later. The souls which have reached the serene summits have ever been those which have most resolutely faced the obstacles in their pathways. Even apparent hindrances always exercise a beneficent ministry. As Jesus was made perfect by the things which He suffered, so, in the Cosmic plan, all souls must come to strength and perfection by the difficulties which they overcome and the enemies which they subdue.
What should be the attitude of the soul in view of the hindrances by which it is environed? It should be taught to fight them at every point. Nowhere is the kindness of nature more evident than in the patience and persistence with which this instruction is conveyed.
Nature withholds her favors until they are earned. New light comes only to those who have used-the light they had. Strength is developed by resistance. Growth is for those who place themselves where growth is possible. Nature gives the soul nothing, but she always waits to cooeperate with it. This lesson was impressed long ago. It ought never to require new emphasis. Let the younger study the experiences of their elders. They will be saved many failures and much pain. The soul can never be coerced, but it may be taught. Milton has enforced this great lesson in Comus:
"Against the threats Of malice or of sorcery, of that power Which erring men call Chance, this I hold firm— Virtue may be assailed, but never hurt, Surprised by unjust force, but not enthralled; Yet, even that which mischief meant most harm, Shall in the happy trial prove most glory; But evil on itself shall back recoil, And mix no more with goodness, when at last Gathered like a scum, and settled to itself, It shall be in eternal restless change Self-fed, and self-consumed; if this fail The pillar'd firmament is rottenness And earth's base built on stubble."
No one should believe, after all the growth of the ages, that the soul was made to be imprisoned in a fleshly prison. It was intended that it should burst its barriers and press toward the light. There is an eternal enmity between the serpent and the soul, and the serpent's head must be bruised, but the soul resisting all the forces and fascinations of the flesh, rising on that which has been cast down to higher things, slowly but surely, painfully but with ever added strength moves toward the ideal humanity which has never been better defined than as "the fullness of Christ."
Meanwhile it is well to reinforce our faith by remembering that it is written in the nature of things that truth and goodness must prevail.
This is a moral universe. Error never can be victorious. It may be exalted for a time, but that will be only in order that it may be sunk to deeper depths. Evil and error are doomed and always have been. Evil is moral disease, and disease always tends toward death, while life always and of necessity presses toward larger, more beautiful, and more beneficent being.
Here let us rest. Many things are dark and impossible of explanation, but we have already been taught a few lessons of superlative importance. We have learned that the soul is made for the light; that it can be satisfied only with love and truth; that every hindrance may be overcome; that the animal was made to be the servant of the spirit; that the body makes a good servant but a poor master; that strength comes to those who refuse to submit to the clamors of appetite: thus we have been led to see something of the way along which the soul has moved from animalism toward freedom and victory.
And we have learned one thing more, viz., that the Over-soul is not a dream, but a reality; that the individual may be in correspondence with the Over-soul and from it be continually reinforced. Or, to put our faith in sweeter and simpler form, we have learned by experience which cannot be gainsaid that God is a personal spirit, interested in all that concerns His children, and anxious for their growth; and that He can no more allow His love for them to be defeated than He could allow the suns and planets to break from their orbits. How much more is a man than a sun! Therefore, since God is in His heaven, all must be right with the world and with man, and some time all the hindrances will be changed into helps, all obstacles be converted into strength, and "all hells into benefit."
We cannot kindle when we will The fire which in the heart resides; The Spirit bloweth and is still, In mystery our soul abides. But tasks in hours of insight will'd Can be through hours of gloom fulfill'd.
With aching hands and bleeding feet We dig and heap, lay stone on stone; We bear the burden and the heat Of the long day, and wish 'twere done. Not till the hours of light return, All we have built do we discern.
—Morality. Matthew Arnold.
The soul has discovered that it is in a moral order, that it is a free agent, and that it has mysterious affinities with truth and right. It has taken a few steps, and with them has learned that its upward movement will not be easy.
It next discovers that it has no isolated existence, but that it is surrounded by countless other similar beings all indissolubly bound together and having mutual relations. With the dawn of intelligence comes the realization of relations. This realization is dim at the first, but it is very real. Soon the soul learns that the relations between it and other souls are so intimate that the interest of one is the interest of all. Appreciation of relations is a long advance in the movement upward, and it necessitates other knowledge. The realization of relations leads, necessarily and swiftly, to the consciousness of responsibility. The process of this growth cannot be described in detail, but the path is clearly marked and its milestones may be numbered. Each soul is always in a society of souls. Each one, therefore, affects others, and is affected by them. It is free and, therefore, responsible for the influence which it exerts. Moreover, it is bound to other souls by love, and love always carries with it the possibility of sorrow; for sorrow is usually only love thwarted. It is not far from the truth to say that when there is no love there is no sorrow, and that the possibilities of sorrow are always increased in proportion to the perfection of being.
In time the soul finds itself not only one among myriads of souls, but it realizes that its relations to some are more intimate than to others. It needs not to seek the causes of this fact, since it cannot escape from the reality. Thus it finds itself in families, in tribes, in nations, in social groups where the bonds are strong and enduring.
Some souls, more capacious than others, have a richer and more varied experience, and thus inevitably become teachers. The process goes on, and, with both teachers and scholars, the horizon expands and the strength increases with each new day. The soul has found that it is not a solitary being dazed and saddened by the consciousness of its powers, but that it is in a society in which all are similarly endowed, and that all are pressing toward the same goal. It has discovered that its growth is hastened, or hindered, by its environment; and that the spiritual environment is ever the nearest and most potent.
Each new step in this pilgrim's progress reveals something more wonderful than the opening of a continent. It is an entrance into a larger and more complex world. A strange fact now emerges. Every enlargement of being, either of faculty or capacity, is attended by pain either physical or mental. "Whom the Lord loveth He chasteneth," seems to be a universal law rather than an isolated text. All life is strenuous because it is always attended by growth. The soul moves not only onward but upward, and climbing is always a difficult process.
Before a second step is taken the soul begins to experience suffering and sorrow; and as its growth advances it never afterward, so far as human sight has penetrated, escapes from them. Why are they allowed? and what purpose do they serve?
The soul exists in a body, and the body is the seat of sensations. Those sensations, whether pleasing or painful, belong to the physical organs, but they affect the spirit, and escape from them is impossible. Pain has a perceptible effect on the soul, even though the latter has no other relation to the body than that of tenant to a house. It suffers because of the intimate relations which it sustains to the organs through which it works.
The individual soul is related to other souls. Therefore it has plans and purposes concerning them, and it has affinities which are inseparable from existence in society. Those purposes and affinities may be gratified or thwarted. The soul sometimes finds a response from the one whom it seeks and sometimes it does not. Pain belongs to the body, and sorrow is an experience of the soul.
The body is in constant limitations, subject to diseases and accidents, and the soul is affected by all that the body feels. Because of these intimate relationships the soul is limited by ignorance, and defeated in its purposes. It becomes attached to other souls, and those attachments are either rudely shattered or roughly repulsed, and, consequently, the life of the soul is as full of sorrow as is a summer day of clouds.
It faces its hindrances and rises by overcoming them. It finds pain besetting nearly every step of its advance, and the constant shadow of its existence is sorrow. Along such a pathway it moves in its ascent and, in spite of all opposition, it is never permanently hindered; while sorrow and suffering continually add to its strength. The austere experiences through which all pass hasten their spiritual growth. They are ever ministers of blessing; they pay no visits without leaving some fair gifts behind.
Questions arise here which it is difficult to answer. Why are such ministries needed? Why could not the ascent of the spirit be along an easier pathway? Why should it be necessary to write its history in tears and blood? Inquiries like these are insistent. Optimism assumes that the end always justifies the means, even when we are in the dark as to why other means were not used; and that it is better to comfort ourselves with the beneficent fact than to refuse to be comforted because we may not penetrate the depths of the Cosmic process. The emphasis of thought may well rest here. The austere is never merely the severe. What seems to human sight to be evil and only evil, always has a side of benefit. The soul is purified and strengthened as it rises above animalism; it is made courageous by bodily pain; tears clarify its vision. Even Jesus is said to have been made perfect by the things which He suffered. The universal characteristic of life is growth, and growth ever reaches out of old and narrow toward new, larger and better environment.
The soul needs strength, vision, sympathy, faith. These qualities are the fruit of experience. Muscle is converted into strength by use; and its use is possible only as it finds something to overcome. Vision is largely the fruit of training. The man on the lookout discovers a ship ahead long before the passenger on the deck. That fine accuracy of sight has come to him as he has battled with the tempests, and learned to distinguish between the whiteness of flying foam and the sunlight on a sail. Clearness of spiritual vision is acquired in the same way. He who can see even to "the far-off interest of tears" has been taught his discernment by reading the meaning of nearer events.
Sympathy is the art of suffering with another without the definite choice to do so. One soul spontaneously enters into the condition of another and bears his pains and griefs as though they were his own; that is sympathy. But who ever bore the griefs of another before he himself had felt sadness? Sympathy is a fruit that grows on the tree of sorrow. So intensely is this felt that even kindly words in hours of deep trial are ungrateful if they come from one who had had no hard experience of his own. In proportion as one has borne his own griefs he is presumed to be able to bear the griefs of others. He who has passed through the valley of the shadow, and who knows the way, is the only one whose hand is sought by another approaching the same valley. No human characteristic is more beautiful, or more appreciated, than sympathy; but its genuineness is seldom trusted unless the one offering it is known to have suffered himself.
Jesus is said to have been a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, and, therefore, has led the long procession of the broken-hearted toward hope and peace. There is no other place known among men for the cultivation of sympathy except the school of suffering.
If possible, faith even more than sympathy is dependent on struggle. There is no other conceivable means by which it can be acquired. It cannot be imparted. No multiplying of words increases faith. If one has been in the blackest darkness and some way, he knows not how, has been led out into light, it will be easier for him to think that the same experience may be realized again. If every sorrow has had in it some hidden seed of blessing; if the overcoming of hindrances has ever increased strength; if at the very moment that calamity seemed ready to destroy the storm has blown around, and this has occurred again and again, it is impossible to refrain from expecting, or at least hoping, that behind the darkness an unseen hand is making things to work for good. Faith is essential to courage. He never cares to struggle who knows that failure is just ahead. Courage is required as the soul progresses, and becomes more deeply conscious of the mysteries and enemies by which it is surrounded. Faith results from the experience of beneficent leading. If one has been guided by love through many periods, and if that love has always been found waiting for its object on every corner of life, it will, ere long, be expected, watched for, and trusted.