THE CROWN OF THORNS
A TOKEN FOR THE SORROWING
by E. H. Chapin
One of the discourses in this volume—"The Mission of Little Children"—was written just after the death of a dear son, and was published in pamphlet form. The edition having become exhausted sooner than the demand, it was deemed advisable to reprint it; and accordingly it is now presented to the reader, accompanied by others of a similar cast, most of them growing out of the same experience. This fact will account for any repetition of sentiment which may appear in these discourses, especially as they were written without any reference to one another.
To the sorrowing, then, this little volume is tendered, with the author's sympathy and affection. Upon its pages he has poured out some of the sentiments of his own heartfelt experience, knowing that they will find a response in theirs, and hoping that the book may do a work of consolation and of healing. If it impresses upon any the general sentiment which it contains,—the sentiment of religious resignation and triumph in affliction; if it shall cause any tearful vision to take the Christian view of sorrow; if it shall teach any troubled soul to endure and hope; if it shall lead any weary spirit to the Fountain of consolation; in one word, if it shall help any, by Christ's strength, to weave the thorns that wound them into a crown, I shall be richly rewarded, and, I trust, grateful to that God to whose service I dedicate this book, invoking his blessing upon it.
E. H. C.
THE THREE TABERNACLES THE SHADOW OF DISAPPOINTMENT LIFE A TALE THE CHRISTIAN VIEW OF SORROW CHRISTIAN CONSOLATION IN LONELINESS RESIGNATION THE MISSION OF LITTLE CHILDREN OUR RELATIONS TO THE DEPARTED THE VOICES OF THE DEAD MYSTERY AND FAITH
THE THREE TABERNACLES
And Peter answered and said to Jesus, Master, it is good for us to be here: and let us make three tabernacles, one for thee, and one for Moses, and one for Elias. MARK ix. 5.
Caught up in glory and in rapture, the Apostle seems to have forgotten the world from which he had ascended, and to which he still belonged, and to have craved permanent shelter and extatic communion within the mystic splendors that brightened the Mount of Transfiguration. But it was true, not only as to the confusion of his faculties, but the purport of his desire, that "he knew not what he said." For even "while he yet spake," the cloud overshadowed them, the heavenly forms vanished, they found themselves with Jesus alone, and an awful Voice summoned them from contemplation to duty,—from vision to work.
Peter knew not what he said. He would have converted the means into an end. He and his fellow-disciples had been called to follow Christ not that they might see visions, but had been permitted to see visions that they might follow Christ. Just previous to that celestial interview, Jesus had announced to them his own painful doom, and had swept away their conceit of Messianic glories involved with earthly pomp and dominion, by his declaration of the self-denial, the shame, and the suffering, which lay in the path of those who really espoused his cause and entered into his kingdom. They needed such a revelation as this, then, upon the Mount of Transfiguration, to support them under the stroke which had shaken their earthly delusion, and let in glimpses of the sadder truth. It was well that they should behold the leaders of the old dispensation confirming and ministering to the greatness of the new, and the religion which was to go down into the dark places of the earth made manifest in its authority and its source from Heaven. It was well that they should see their Master glorified, that they might be strengthened to see him crucified. It was well that Moses and Elias stood at the font, when they were about to be baptized into their apostleship of suffering, and labor, and helping finish the work which these glorious elders helped begin. But that great work still lay before them, and to rest here would be to stop upon the threshold;—to have kept the vision would have thwarted the purpose. Upon a far higher summit, and at a far distant time—with fields of toil and tracts of blood between—would that which was meant as an inspiration for their souls become fixed for their sight, and tabernacles that should never perish enclose a glory that should never pass away.
You may have anticipated the lessons for ourselves which I propose to draw from this unconsidered request of Peter. At least, you will readily perceive that it does contain suggestions applicable to our daily life. For I proceed, at once, to ask you if it is not a fact that often we would like to remain where, and to have what, is not best for us? Do not illustrations of this simple thought occur easily to your minds? Does not man often desire, as it were, to build his tabernacles here or there, when due consideration, and after-experience will convince him that it was not the place to abide; that it was better that the good be craved, or the class of relations to which he clung, should not be permanent? In order to give effect to this train of reflection, let me direct you to some specific instances in which this desire is manifested.
Perhaps I may say, without any over-refinement upon my topic, that there are three things in life to which the desires of men especially cling,—three tabernacles which upon the slope of this world they would like to build. I speak now, it is to be remembered, of desires of impulse, not of deliberation,—of desires often felt, if not expressed. And I say, in the first place, that there are certain conditions in life itself that it sometimes appears desirable to retain. Sometimes, from the heart of a man, there breaks forth a sigh for perpetual youth. In the perplexities of mature years,—in the experience of selfishness, and hollowness, and bitter disappointment; in the surfeit of pleasure; in utter weariness of the world,—he exclaims, "O! give me back that sweet morning of my days, when all my feelings were fresh, and the heart was wet with a perpetual dew. Give me the untried strength; the undeceived trust; the credulous imagination, that bathed all things in molten glory, and filled the unknown world with infinite possibilities." Sad with skepticism, and tired with speculation, he cries out for that faith that needed no other confirmation than the tones of a mother's voice, and found God everywhere in the soft pressure of her love; and when his steps begin to hesitate, and he finds himself among the long shadows, and the frailty and fear of the body overcome the prophecies of the soul, and no religious assurance lights and lifts up his mind, how he wishes for some fountain of restoration that shall bring back his bloom and his strength, and make him always young! "Why have such experiences as decline, and decay, and death?" he asks. "Is it not good for us to be ever young? Why should not the body be a tabernacle of constant youth, and life be always thus fresh, and buoyant, and innocent, and confiding? Or, if we must, at last, die, why all this sad experience,—this incoming of weakness,—this slipping away of life and power?"
But this is a feeling which no wise or good man ever cherishes long, for he knows that the richest experiences, and the best achievements of life, come after the period of youth; spring out of this very sadness, and suffering, and rough struggle in the world, which an unthinking sentimentality deplores. Ah, my friends, in spite of our trials, our weariness, our sad knowledge of men and things; in spite of the declining years among which so many of us are standing, and the tokens of decay that are coming upon us; nay, in spite even of our very sins; who would go back to the hours of his youthful experience, and have the shadow stand still at that point upon the dial of his life? Who, for the sake of its innocence and its freshness, would empty the treasury of his broader knowledge, and surrender the strength that he has gathered in effort and endurance? Who, for its careless joy, would exchange the heart-warm friendships that have been annealed in the vicissitudes of years,—the love that sheds a richer light upon our path, as its vista lengthens, or has drawn our thoughts into the glory that is beyond the veil? Nay, even if his being, has been most frivolous and aimless, or vile,—in the penitent throb with which this is felt to be so, there is a. spring of active power which exists not in the dreams of the youth; and the sense of guilt and of misery is the stirring, of a life infinitely deeper than that early flow of vitality and—consciousness which sparkles as it runs. Build a tabernacle for perpetual youth, and say, "It is good to be here?" It cannot be so; and it is well that it cannot. Our post is not the Mount of Vision, but the Field of Labor; and we can find no rest in Eden until we have passed through, Gethsemane.
Equally vain is the desire for some condition in life which shall be free from care, and want, and the burden of toil. I suppose most people do, at times, wish for such a lot, and secretly or openly repine at the terms upon which they are compelled to live. The deepest fancy in the heart of the most busy men is repose—retirement-command of time and means, untrammeled by any imperative claim. And yet who is there that, thrown into such a position, would find it for his real welfare, and would be truly happy? Perhaps the most restless being in the world is the man who need do nothing, but keep still. The old soldier fights all his battles over again, and the retired merchant spreads the sails of his thought upon new ventures, or comes uneasily down to snuff the air of traffic, and feel the jar of wheels. I suppose there is nobody whose condition is so deplorable, so ghastly, as his whose lot many may be disposed to envy,—a man at the top of this world's ease, crammed to repletion with what is called "enjoyment;" ministered to by every luxury,—the entire surface of his life so smooth with completeness that there is not a jut to hang, a hope on,—so obsequiously gratified in every specific want that he feels miserable from the very lack of wanting. As in such a case there, can be no religious life—which never permits us to rest in a feeling of completeness; which seldom abides with fulness(sic) of possession, and never stops with self, but always inspires to some great work of love and sacrifice—as in such a case there can be no religious life, he fully realizes the poet's description of the splendor and the wretchedness of him who
" * * built his soul a costly pleasure-house Wherein at ease for aye to dwell;"
and who said
" * * O soul, make merry and carouse Dear soul, for all is well.
* * * * * * *
Singing and murmuring in her feastful mirth, Joying to feel herself alive, Lord over nature, lord of the visible earth, Lord of the 'senses five
"Communing with herself:, 'All these are mine, And let the world have peace or wars, 'T is one to me,' * * * * *
* * * * * So three years She throve, but on the fourth she fell, Like Herod, when the shout was in his ears, Struck through with pangs of hell."
The truth is, there is no one place, however we may envy it, which would be indisputably good for us to occupy; much less for us to remain in. The zest of life, like the pleasure which we receive from a work of art, or from nature, comes from undulations—from inequalities; not from any monotony, even though it be the monotony of seeming perfection. The beauty of the landscape depends upon contrasts, and would be lost in one common surface of splendor. The grandeur of the waves is in the deep hollows, as well as the culminating crests; and the bars of the sunset glow on the background of the twilight. The very condition of a great thing is that it must be comparatively a rare thing. We speak of summer glories, and yet who would wish it to be always summer?—who does not see how admirably the varied seasons are fitted to our appetite for change? It may seem as if it would be pleasant to have it always sunshine; and yet when fruit and plant are dying from lack of moisture, and the earth sleeps exhausted in the torrid air, who ever saw a summer morning more beautiful than that when the clouds muster their legions to the sound of the thunder, and pour upon us the blessing of the rain? We repine at toil, and yet how gladly do we turn in from the lapse of recreation to the harness of effort! We sigh for the freedom and glory of the country; but, in due time, just as fresh and beautiful seem to us the brick walls and the busy streets where our lot is cast, and our interests run. There is no condition in life of which we can say exclusively "It is good for us to be here." Our course is appointed through vicissitude,—our discipline is in alternations; and we can build no abiding tabernacles along the way.
But, I observe, in the second place, that there are those who may discard the notion of retaining any particular condition of life and yet they would preserve unbroken some of its relations. They may not keep the freshness of youth, or prevent the intrusion of trouble, or shut out the claims of responsibility, or the demands for effort;—they may not achieve anything of this kind; and they do not wish to achieve it; but they would build a tabernacle to LOVE, and keep the objects of dear affection safe within its enclosure. "Joy, sorrow, poverty, riches, youth, decay, let these come as they must," say they, "in the flow of Providence; but let the heart's sanctuaries remain unbroken, and let us in all this chance find the presence and the ministration of those we love." And, common as the sight is, we must always contemplate with a fresh sadness this sundering of family bonds; this cancelling(sic) of the dear realities of home; this stealing in of the inevitable gloom; this vacating of the chair, the table, and the bed; this vanishing of the familiar face into darkness; this passage from communion to memory; this diminishing of love's orb into narrower phases,—into a crescent,—into a shadow. Surely, however broad the view we take of the universe, a real woe, a veritable experience of suffering, amidst this boundless benificence, reaching as deep as the heart's core, is this old and common sorrow;—the sorrow of woman for her babes, and of man for his helpmate, and of age for its prop, and of the son for the mother that bore him, and of the heart for the hearts that once beat in sympathy, and of the eyes that hide vacancies with tears. When these old stakes are wrenched from their sockets, and these intimate cords are snapped, one begins to feel his own tent shake and flap in the wind that comes from eternity, and to realize that there is no abiding tabernacle here.
But ought we really to wish that these relations might remain unbroken, and to murmur because it is not so? We shall be able to answer this question in the negative, I think,—however hard it may be to do so,—when we consider, in the first place, that this breaking up and separation are inevitable. For we may be assured that whatever in the system of things is inevitable is beneficent. The dissolution of these bonds comes by the same law as that which ordains them; and we may be sure that the one—though it plays out of sight, and is swallowed up in mystery—is as wise and tender in its purpose as the other. It is very consoling to recognize the Hand that gave in the Hand that takes a friend, and to know that he is borne away in the bosom of Infinite Gentleness, as he was brought here. It is the privilege of angels, and of a faith that brings us near the angels, to always behold the face of our Father in Heaven; and so we shall not desire the abrogation of this law of dissolution and separation. We shall strengthen ourselves to contemplate the fact that the countenances we love must change, and the ties that are closest to our hearts will break; and we shall feel that it ought to be, because it must be,—because it is an inevitability in that grand and bounteous scheme in which stars rise and set, and life and death play into each other.
But, even within the circle of our own knowledge, there is that which may reconcile us to these separations, and prevent the vain wish of building perpetual tabernacles for our human love. For who is prepared, at any time, to say that it was not better for the dear friend, and better for ourselves, that he should go, rather than stay;—better for the infant to die with flowers upon its breast, than to live and have thorns in its heart;—better to kiss the innocent lips that are still and cold, than to see the living lips that are scorched with guilty passion;—better to take our last look of a face while it is pleasant to remember—serene with thought, and faith, and many charities—than to see it toss in prolonged agony, and grow hideous with the wreck of intellect? And, as spiritual beings, placed here not to be gratified, but to be trained, surely we know that often it is the drawing up of these earthly ties that draws up our souls; that a great bereavement breaks the crust of our mere animal consciousness, and inaugurates a spiritual faith; and we are baptized into eternal life through the cloud and the shadow of death.
But, once more, I remark, that there are those who may say, "We do not ask for any permanence in the conditions of life; we do not ask that even its dearest relationships should be retained; but give, O! give us ever those highest brightest moods of faith and of truth, which constitute the glory of religion, and lift us above the conflict and the sin of the world!" No truly religious mind can fail to perceive the gravitation of its thoughts and desires, and the contrast between its usual level and its best moments of contemplation and prayer. And it. may indeed seem well to desire the prolongation of these experiences; to desire to live ever in that unworldly radiance, close to the canopy of God,—in company with the great and the holy,—in company with the apostles and with Jesus,—on some Mount of Transfiguration, in garments whiter than snow, and with faces bright as the sun; and the hard, bad, trying world far distant and far below. Does not the man of spiritual sensitiveness envy those sainted ones who have grown apart, in pure clusters, away above the sinful world, blossoming and breathing fragrance on the very slopes of heaven?
And yet, is this the complete ideal of life? and is this the way in which we are to accomplish its true end? I think we may safely say that even the brightest realizations of religion should be comparatively rare, otherwise we forget the work and lose the discipline of our mortal lot. The great saints—the men whose names stand highest in the calendar of the church universal—are not the ascetics, not the contemplators, not the men who walked apart in cloisters; but those who came down from the Mount of Communion and Glory, to take a part in the world; who have carried its burdens in their souls, and its scars upon their breasts; who have wrought for its deepest interests, and died for its highest good; whose garments have swept its common ways, and whose voices have thrilled in its low places of suffering and of need;—men who have leaned lovingly against the world, until the motion of their great hearts jars in its pulses forever; men who have gone up from dust, and blood, and crackling fire; men with faces of serene endurance and lofty denial, yet of broad, genial, human sympathies;—these are the men who wear starry crowns, and walk in white robes, yonder.
We need our visions for inspiration, but we must work in comparative shadow; otherwise, the very highest revelations would become monotonous, and we should long for still higher. And yet, are there not some whose desire is for constant revelation? Who would see supernatural sights, and hear supernatural sounds, and know all the realities towards which they are drifting, as well as those in which they must work? They would make this world a mount of perpetual vision; overlooking the fact that it has its own purposes, to be wrought out by its own light, and within its own limits. For my part, I must confess that I do not share in this desire to know all about the next world, and to see beforehand everything that is going to be. I have no solicitude about the mere scenery and modes of the future state. But this desire to be in the midst of perpetual revelations argues that there is not enough to fill our minds and excite our wonder here; when all things around us are pregnant with suggestion, and invite us, and offer unfathomed depths for our curious seeking. There is so much here, too, for our love and our discipline; so much for us to do, that we hardly need more revelations just now;—they might overwhelm and disturb us in the pursuit of these appointed ends. Moreover, the gratification of this desire would foreclose that glorious anticipation, that trembling expectancy, which is so fraught with inspiration and delight,—the joy of the unknown, the bliss of the thought that there is a great deal yet to be revealed.
We do need some revelation; just such as has been given;—a glimpse of the immortal splendors; an articulate Voice from heaven—a view of the glorified Jesus; a revelation in a point of time, just as that on the mount was in point of space. We need some; but not too much,—not all revelation; not revelation as a customary fact. If so, I repeat, we should neglect this ordained field of thought and action. We should live in a sphere of supernaturalism,—in an atmosphere of wonder,—amid a planetary roll of miracles; still unsatisfied; still needing the suggestion of higher points to break the stupendous monotony.
And I insist that work, not vision, is to be the ordinary method of our being here, against the position of those who shut themselves in to a contemplative and extatic piety. They would escape from the age, and its anxieties; they would recall past conditions; they would get into the shadow of cloisters, and build cathedrals for an exclusive sanctity. And, indeed, we would do well to consider those tendencies of our time which lead us away from the inner life of faith and prayer. But this we should cherish, not by withdrawing all sanctity from life, but by pouring sanctity into life. We should not quit the world, to build tabernacles in the Mount of Transfiguration, but come from out the celestial brightness, to shed light into the world,—to make the whole earth a cathedral; to overarch it with Christian ideals, to transfigure its gross and guilty features, and fill it with redeeming truth and love.
Surely, the lesson of the incident connected with the text is clear, so far as the apostles were concerned, who beheld that dazzling, brightness, and that heavenly companionship, apart on the mount. They were not permitted to remain apart; but were dismissed to their appointed work. Peter went to denial and repentance,—to toil and martyrdom; James to utter his practical truth; John to send the fervor of his spirit among the splendors of the Apocalypse, and, in its calmer flow through his Gospel, to give us the clearest mirror of the Saviour's face.
Nay, even for the Redeemer that was not to be an abiding vision; and he illustrates the purport of life as he descends from his transfiguration to toil, and goes forward to exchange that robe of heavenly, brightness for the crown of thorns.
What if Jesus had remained there, upon that Mount of Vision, and himself stood before us as only a transfigured form of glory? Where then would be the peculiarity of his work, and its effect upon the world?
On the wall of the Vatican, untarnished by the passage of three hundred years, hangs the masterpiece of Raphael,—his picture of the Transfiguration. In the centre, with the glistening raiment and the altered countenance, stands Jesus, the Redeemer. On the right hand and on the left are his glorified visitants; while, underneath the bright cloud, lie the forms of Peter, and James, and John, gazing at the transfigured Jesus, shading their faces as they look. Something of the rapture and the awe that attracted the apostles to that shining spot seems to have seized the soul of the great artist, and filled him with his greatest inspiration. But he saw what the apostles, at that moment, did not see, and, in another portion of his picture, has represented the scene at the foot of the hill,—the group that awaited the descent of Jesus.. The poor possessed boy, writhing, and foaming, and gnashing his teeth,—his eyes, as some say, in their wild rolling agony, already catching a glimpse of the glorified Christ above; the baffled disciples, the caviling scribes, the impotent physicians, the grief-worn father, seeking in vain for help. Suppose Jesus had stayed upon the mount, what would have become of that group of want, and helplessness, and agony? Suppose Christ had remained in the brightness of that vision forever,—himself only a vision of glory, and not an example of toil, and sorrow, and suffering, and death,—alas! For the great world at large, waiting at the foot of the hill—the groups of humanity in all ages;—the sin-possessed sufferers—the caviling skeptics; the philosophers, with their books and instruments; the bereaved and frantic mourners in their need!
So, my hearers, wrapped in the higher moods of the soul, and wishing to abide among upper glories, we may not see the work that waits for us along our daily path; without doing which all our visions are vain. We must have the visions. We need them in our estimate of the world around us,—of the aspects and destinies of humanity. There are times when justice is balked, and truth covered up, and freedom trampled down;—when we may well be tempted to ask, "What is the use of trying to work?"—when we may well inquire whether what-we are doing is work at all. And in such a case, or in any other, one is lifted up, and inspired, and enabled to do and to endure all things, when in steady vision he beholds the everliving God,—when all around the injustice, and conflict, and suffering of the world, he detects the Divine Presence, like a bright cloud overshadowing. O! then doubt melts away, and wrong dwindles, and the jubilee of victorious falsehood is but a peal of drunken laughter, and the spittings of guilt and contempt no more than flakes of foam flung against a hero's breast-plate. Then one sees, as it were, with the vision of God, who looked down upon the old cycles, when a sweltering waste covered the face of the globe, and huge, reptile natures held it in dominion;—who beholds the pulpy worm, down in the sea, building the pillars of continents;—so one sees the principalities of evil sliding from their thrones, and the deposits of humble faithfulness rising from the deep of ages. Our sympathy, our benevolent effort in the work of God and humanity, how much do they need not only the vision of intellectual foresight, but of the faith which, on bended knees, sees further than the telescope!
And alas! for him who, in his personal need and effort, has no margin of holier inspiration—no rim of divine splendor—-around his daily life! Without the vision of life's great realities we cannot see what our work is, or know how to do it.
But such visions must be necessarily rare and transient, or we shall miss their genuine efficacy. We must work in comparative shadow, without the immediate sight of these realities; and only in the place of our rest,—rest for higher efforts and a new career,—only there may we have their constant companionship, and build their perpetual tabernacles.
THE SHADOW OF DISAPPOINTMENT.
But we trusted that it had been he which should have redeemed Israel. LUKE xxiv. 21.
In the accounts of the disciples, contained in the New Testament, there is no attempt to glorify them, or to conceal any weakness. From the first to the last, they think and act precisely as men would think and act in their circumstances;—they are affected just as others of like culture would be affected by such events as those set forth in the record. And the genuineness of their conduct argues the genuineness of the incidents which excited it. The divine, wonderworking, risen Jesus, is the necessary counterpart of the amazed, believing, erring hoping, desponding, rejoicing fishermen and publicans. This stamp of reality is very evident in the instance before us. The conduct and the feelings of the disciples are those of men who have been involved in a succession of strange experiences. For a little while they have been in communion with One who has spoken as never man spoke, and who has touched the deepest springs of their being. He has lifted them out of the narrow limits of their previous lives. From the Receipt of Customs, and the Galilean lake, he has summoned them to the interests and awards, the thought and the work, of a spiritual and divine kingdom. At first following him, perhaps they hardly knew why, conscious only that he had the Words of Eternal Life, the terms of this discipleship have grown into bonds of the dearest intimacy. Their Master has become their Companion and their Friend, and their faith has deepened into tender and confiding love. But still, theirs has been the belief of the trusting soul, rather than the enlightened intellect. From the fitness of the teaching, and the wonder of the miracle, they have felt that he was the very Christ; and yet, from this conviction of the heart they have not been able to separate their Jewish conceits. Sometimes, it may be, the language of the Saviour has carried them up into a broader and more spiritual region; but then, they have subsided into their symbols and shadows;—only, notwithstanding the errors that have hindered, and the hints that have awed them, they have steadily felt the inspiration of a great hope, the expectation of something glorious to be revealed in the speedy coming of the Messiah's kingdom. And now, does not the account immediately connected with the text picture for us exactly the state of men whose conceptions have been broken up by a great shock, and yet in whose hearts the central hope still remains and vibrates with mysterious tenacity?—men who have had the form of their expectation utterly refuted and scattered into darkness, but who still cherish its spirit? Christ the crowned King,—Christ the armed Deliverer,—Christ the Avenger, sweeping away his foes with one burst of miracle,—is to them, no more. They saw the multitude seize him, and no legions came to rescue;—they saw him condemned, abused, crucified, buried; and so, in no sense of which they could conceive, was this he who should have redeemed Israel. And yet the suggestion of something still to come,—something connected with three days,—lingered in their minds. And, in the midst of their despondency, striking upon this very chord, the startling rumor reached them that Christ had risen from the dead. It was in this mood that Jesus found the two disciples whose words I have selected for my text;—faith and doubt, disappointment and hope, alternating in their minds; their Jewish conceit laid prostrate in the dust, and yet the expectation of something, they knew not what, now strangely confirmed. See how these feelings mingle in the passage before us. "What manner of communications," said the undiscerned Saviour, "are these that ye have one to another, as ye walk, and are sad?"-"Art thou only a stranger in Jerusalem," says one of them, "and hast not known the things which are come to pass there in these days?" What things? "Concerning Jesus of Nazareth," replied they, "which was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people: and how the chief priests and our rulers delivered him to be condemned to death, and have crucified him. But we trusted that it had been he which should have redeemed Israel: and beside all this, to-day is the third day since these things were done. Yea, and certain women also of our company made us astonished, which were early at the sepulchre; and when they found not his body, they came, saying, that they had also seen a vision of angels, which said that he was alive. And certain of them which were with us went to the sepulchre, and found it even so as the women had said: but him they saw not."
My hearers, I think we see, in this instance the minds of these disciples working as the minds of men might be expected to work under like conditions. And to me this casts a complexion of genuineness upon the transactions which, as stated in the record, account for these mental alternations. The entire passage is alive with reality. The genuine emotions of humanity play and thrill together, there, in the shadow of the cross and the glory of the resurrection.
But, if these feelings are thus natural, the experience itself indicated in that portion of this verse which constitutes the text is not entirely removed from our ordinary life. The incident which occasioned these sad words was an extraordinary one; but its moral significance, as it now comes before us, illustrates many a passage in man's daily course. The language, as we read it, appears to be the language of disappointment;—-it was under the shadow of disappointment, though alternating with hope, that these disciples spoke; and it is to the lessons afforded by disappointment in the course of life that I now especially invite your attention.
And the precise point in the text, bearing upon this subject, is the fact, that while the disciples seemed to feel as though all redemption for Israel was now hopeless, that process of redemption for Israel, and for the world, was going on through the agency of those very events which had filled them with dismay. Even as they were speaking, in tones of sadness, about the crucified Christ, the living Christ, made perfect for his work by that crucifixion, was walking by their side. Looking far this side of that shadow of disappointment which then brooded over them, we see all this, that then they did not see; but now is it with ourselves, under the frequent shadows cast by more ordinary events? This suggestion may afford us some profitable thoughts.
I need hardly say, in the first place, that man is continually inspired by expectation. Every effort he makes is made in the conviction of possibility and the light of hope. This is the heart of ambition and the spring of toil. It is the balm which he applies to the wounds of misfortune. It is the key with which he tries the wards of nature. And from the morning of life to its last twilight he is always looking. forward. The saddest spectacle of all—sadder even than pain, and bereavement, and death—is a man void of hope. The most abject people is a hopeless people, in whose hearts the memories of the past, and the pulses of endeavor, and the courage of faith are dead, and who crouch by their own thresholds and the crumbling tombstones of their fathers, and take the tyrant's will, without an incentive, and without even a dream. The most intense form in which misery can express itself is in the phrase, "I have nothing to live for." And he who can actually say, and who really feels this, is dead, and covered with the very pall and darkness of calamity. But few, indeed, are they who can, with truth, say this.
But if hope or expectation is such a vital element of human experience, so does disappointment have its part in the mechanism of things, and, as we shall presently see, its wise and beneficial part. For, after all, how few things correspond with the forecast of expectation! To be sure, some results transcend our hope; but how many fall below it,—balk it,—turn out exactly opposite to it! Among those who meet with disappointments in life, there are those who are expecting impossibilities,—whose expectations are inordinate,—are more than the nature of things will admit; or who are looking for a harvest where they have planted no seed. They carry the dreams of youth in among the realities of the world, and its vanishing visions leave them naked and discouraged. The light of romance, that glorified all things in the future, recedes as they advance, and they come upon rugged paths of fact—upon plain toil and daily care,—upon the market and the field, and upon men as they are in their weakness, and their selfishness, and their mutual distrust. Or they belong, it may be, to that class who are too highly charged with hope; whose sanguine notions never go by induction, but by leaps; who never calculate the difficulties, but only see the thing complete and rounded in imagination;—men with plenty of poetry, and no arithmetic; whose theories work miracles, but whose attempts are failures. It is pleasant, sometimes, to meet with people like these, who, clothed in the scantiest garments, and with only a crust upon their tables, at the least touch of suggestion, mount into a region of splendor. Their poverty all fades away;—the bare walls, the tokens of stern want, the dusty world, are all transfigured with infinite possibilities. Achievement is only a word, and fortune comes in at a stride. The palace of beauty rises, fruits bloom in waste places, gold drops from the rocks, and the entire movement of life becomes a march of jubilee. And they are so certain this time,—the plan they now have is so sure to succeed! I repeat, it is pleasant, sometimes, to have intercourse with such men, who throw bloom and marvelousness upon the actualities of the world, from the reservoirs of their sanguine invention. At least, it is pleasant to think how this faculty of unfailing enthusiasm enables them to bear defeat, and to look away from the cold face of necessity;—to think that, while so many are trudging after the sounding wheels and the monotonous jar of life, and lying down by the way to die, these men are marching buoyantly to a tune inside. And yet this is pleasant only from a hasty point of view. These people meet with disappointment, of course; and it is sad to think how many lives have come to absolutely nothing, and are all strewn over, from boyhood to the grave, with the fragments of splendid schemes. It is sad to think how all their visionary Balbecs and Palmyras have been reared in a real desert,—the desert of an existence producing no substantial thing. And among these vanishing dreams, and on that melancholy waste, they learn, at last, the meaning of their disappointment. And from their experience, we too may learn, that we are placed here to be not merely ideal artists, but actual toilers; not cadets of hope, but soldiers of endeavor.
But there are disappointments in life that succeed reasonable expectation; and these are the hardest of all to bear. I say the expectation is reasonable; and yet, very possibly, the bitterness of the disappointment comes from neglecting to consider the infirmity of all earthly things. It is hard when, not dreaming, but trying our best, we fail. It is hard to bear the burden and heat of the day, through all life's prime, and yet, with all our toil, to earn no repose for its evening hours. It is hard to accumulate a little gain, baptizing every dollar with our honest sweat, and then have it stricken from our grasp by the band of calamity or of fraud. It is hard, when we have placed our confidence in man's honor, or his friendship, to find that we are fools, and that we have been led in among rocks and serpents. And hard indeed is it to see those who were worthy our love and our faith drop by our side, and leave us alone. This dear child, the blossom of so many hopes,—hard is it to see him die—to fold all our expectation in his little shroud, and lay it away forever. We thought it had been he who should have comforted and blessed us,—in whose life we could have retraced the cycle of our own happiest experience,—whose unfolding faculties would have been a renewal of our knowledge, and his manhood not merely the prop but the refreshing of our age. This companion of our lot,—this wedded wife of our heart,—why taken away now? She has shared our early struggles, and tempered our anxiety with cheerful assurance. She has tasted the bitterness; we thought she would have been a partner of the joy. She has borne our fretfulness, and helped our perplexity, and shed a serene light into our gloom; We thought she would have been with us when we could pay the debt of faithfulness; when the cares of business did not press and disturb us so. We thought it was she whose voice, sweet with the music of old, deep memories, would have consoled us far along; and that, in some calm evening of life, when all the tumult of the world was still, and we were ready to go, we should go—not far apart—gently to our graves.
Such are the plans that we lay out, saying of this thing and of that thing, "We trusted that it would have been so." But the answer has been disappointment. The old, ay, perhaps the most common lesson of life, is disappointment.
And now I ask, is it not an intended lesson? Evidently it comes in as an element in the Providential plan in which we are involved. For we see its disciplinary nature,—its wise and beneficial results in harmony with that Plan. Consider whether it is not the fact, that the entire discipline of life grows out of a succession of disappointments. That youthful dream, in which life has stretched out like a sunny landscape with purple mountain-chains—is it not well that it is broken up, and we strike upon rugged realities? Does not all the strength of manhood, and the power of achievement, and the glory of existence, depend upon these things which are not included in the young boy's vision of a happy world. Welcome, O! disappointment of our hope that life would prove a perpetual holiday. Welcome experience of the fact that blessing comes not from pleasure, but from labor! For in that experience alone was there ever anything truly great or good accomplished. We can conceive no possible way by which one can be made personally strong without his own effort;—no possible way by which the mind can be enriched and strengthened where it is lifted up, instead of climbing for itself;—no way, therefore, in which life could be at all a worthy achievement, if it were merely a plain of ease, instead of holding every ward of knowledge and of power under the guard of difficulty and the requisition of endeavor.
And it is equally true that the greatest successes grow out of great failures. In numerous instances the result is better that comes after a series of abortive experiences than it would have been if it had come at once. For all these successive failures induce a skill, which is so much additional power working into the final achievement. Nobody passes at once to the mastery, in any branch of science or of industry; and when he does become a master in his work it is evident, not only in the positive excellence of his performance, but in the sureness with which he avoids defects; and these defects he has learned by experimental failures. The hand that evokes such perfect music from the instrument has often failed in its touch, and bungled among the keys. And if a man derives skill from his own failures, so does he from the failures of other men. Every unsuccessful attempt is, for him, so much work done; for he will not go over that ground again, but seek some new way. Every disappointed effort fences in and indicates the only possible path of success, and makes it easier to find. We should thank past ages and other men, not only for what they have left us of great things done, but for the heritage of their failures. Every baffled effort for freedom contributes skill for the next attempt, and ensures the day of victory. Nations stripped and bound, and waiting for liberty under the shadow of thrones, cherish in memory not only the achievements of their heroes, but the defeats of their martyrs; and when the trumpet-voice shall summon them once more, as surely it will,—when they shall draw for the venture of freedom, and unroll its glittering standard to the winds,—they will avoid the stumbling blocks which have sacrificed the brave, and the errors which have postponed former hopes. In public and in private action, it is true that disappointment is the school of achievement, and the balked efforts are the very agents that help us to our purpose.
And, if life itself—life as a whole—seems to us but a series of disappointments, is not this the very conviction we need to work out from it, through our own experience? Do we not need to learn that this life itself is not sufficient, and holds no blessing that will fill us completely, and with which we may forever rest? The baffled hopes of our mortal state;—what are they but vain strivings of the human soul, out of the path of its highest good? The wandering bird, driven against the branches, and beaten by the storm, flutters at last to the clear opening, by which it mounts above the cloud, and finds its way to its home. This life is not ordained in vain;—it is constituted for a grand purpose, if through its lessons of experience we become convinced that this life is not all. In the outset of our existence here, and merely from the teaching of others, we cannot comprehend the great realities of existence.
How the things that have grown familiar to our eyes, and the lessons that have sounded trite upon our ears, become fresh and wonderful, as life turns into experience! How this very lesson of disappointment lets us in to the deep meanings of Scripture, for instance! The Christ of our youth,—a personage standing mild and beautiful upon the Gospel-page,——a being to admire and love; how be develops to our later thought! how solemnly tender, how greatly real, he becomes to us, when we cling to him in the agony of our sorrow, and he goes down to walk with us on the waters of the sea of death! As traditional sentiment,—as a wholesome subject for school-composition,—we have spoken and written of the weariness of the world-worn heart, and the frailty of earthly things. But, O! when our hearts have actually become worn, and tried; when we begin to learn that the things of this life are evanescent,—are dropping away from us, and we slipping from them,—what inspiration of reality comes to us in the oft-heard invitation, "Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest!" What a depth of meaning flowing from the eternal world, in the precept we have read so carelessly,—"Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and thieves break through and steal!" Thus the best results of life come from the defeats and the limitations that are involved with it.
And, in all this, observe how disappointment is the instrument of higher blessings. See how thus life itself suggests a higher good than life itself can yield. And so the attitude of the disciples, after the crucifixion, illustrates many experiences of our earthly lot. Those incidents which perplexed and grieved them were securing the very results they seemed to prevent. So, in our ordinary life, the things that appear most adverse to us are often the most favorable.
I may say, indeed, that to any man who is rightly exercised by it, disappointment always brings a better result. But this statement requires that I should say, likewise, that the result of disappointment depends upon the level and quality of a man's spirit. "One thing happens alike to the wise man and the fool." But how different in texture and substance is the final result of the event! Disappointment breaks down a feeble and shallow man. There are those, again, whom it does not make better,—in fact, whom nothing, as we can see, makes better. Everything glides easily off from them. Now, it is a noble thing to see a man rise above misfortune,—a moral Prometheus, submissive to the actual will of God, but defying fate. But there are men whose very elasticity indicates the superficiality of their nature. For it is good sometimes to be sad,—good to have depth of being sufficient for misfortune to sink into, and, accomplish its proper work. But the man who rightly receives the lesson of disappointment, and improves by its discipline, bent as he is on some great or good work, is impelled by it only to a change of method,—never to a change of purpose; and the disappointment effectually serves the purpose. But the fact before us is most clearly seen when we contemplate the results of disappointment upon a religious and un-religious spirit. A man is not made better by disappointment to whom this world is virtually everything;—to whom spiritual things are not realities. To him life is a narrow stream between jutting crags, and its substance flows away with the objects before his eyes. Nay, some men of this sort are made worse by the failure of earthly hopes, and their natures are compressed and hammered by misfortune into a sullen and granitic defiance. But he who sees beyond these material limits, looking to the great end and final relations of our being, always extracts from mortal disappointment a better result. In the wreck of external things he gathers that spiritual good which is the substance of all life;—that faith, and patience, and holy love, which, when all that is mortal and incidental in our humanity passes away, constitute the residuum of personality.
Our hopes disappointed,—our plans thwarted and overthrown; but out of that disappointment a richer good evolving than we had conceived; something that tends more than all our effort to produce the real object of life. My friends, what do we make out of this fact? Why, surely this, that life is not our plan, but God's. Consider what we, often, would have made out of life, and compare this with what Providence has made out of it. Contrast the man's achievement with the boy's scheme; the dream of care with the moral glory that has sprung from toil and trouble. Contrast the idea of the Saviour in the minds of those disciples with the actual Saviour rising victorious from the conditions of shame and death.
Life is God's plan; not ours. We may find this out only by effort; but we do find it out.
We are responsible for the use of our materials, but the materials themselves, and the great movement of things, are furnished for us. Let us fall into no ascetic view of life. Out of our joy and our acknowledged good the Supreme Disposer works his spiritual ends. But, especially, how often does he do this out of our trials, and sorrows, and so-called evils! Once more I say life is God's plan; not ours. For often on the ruins of visionary hope rises the kingdom of our substantial possession and our true peace; and under the shadow of earthly disappointment, all unconsciously to ourselves, our Divine Redeemer is walking by our side.
LIFE A TALE
We spend our years as a tale that is told. Psalm xc.9.
We bring our years to an end like a thought, is the proper rendering of these words, according, to an eminent translator. But as the essential idea of the Psalmist is preserved in the common version, I employ it as peculiarly illustrative and forcible. It will be my object, in the present discourse, to show the fitness of the comparison in the text;—to suggest the points of resemblance between human life and a passing narrative.
I observe, then, in the first place, that the propriety of this simile is seen in the brevity of life. What more rapid and momentary than a story? It is heard, and passes. Though it beguiles us for the time, it dies away in sound, or melts from before, the eye. And this I say, strikingly illustrates the brevity of life. The brevity of life! It is a trite truth, and yet how little realized! Probably there is nothing, more common, and yet there is nothing, more pernicious, than the habit of virtual dependence upon length of days. Thus the best ends of our mortal being are lost sight of; the solemn circumstances, the suggestive mysteries of life, are misconstrued. The heavens, which give a myriad hints of worlds beyond the grave, are, to many, impenetrable walls, shutting them in to mere pursuits of sense,—the upholstery of a workshop or bazaar; and this earth, which is but a step,—a filmy platform of our immortal course,—is to them the solid abiding place of all interest, and of all hope.
It is well, then, to break in upon this worldly reliance,—to consider how fleeting and uncertain are the things in which we garner up so much. Therefore, in order that we may more vividly realize the brevity of life,—how like it is to a passing tale,—let us consider the rapidity of its changes, even in a few short years. We are, to some degree, made aware how fast the current of time bears us on, when we pause and remark the shores; when we observe how our position to-day has shifted from what it was yesterday; how the sunny slopes of youth have been changed for the teeming uplands of maturity; yea, perhaps, how already the stream is narrowing, and rushing more swiftly as it narrows, towards those high hills that bound our present vision, upon whose summits lingers the departing light, and around whose base thickens the solemn shadow.
This rapidity of change is most strikingly illustrated when, after a few years' absence, we return to the scenes of our youth. We plunged into the current of the world, buoyant and vigorous; our thoughts have been occupied every hour, and we have not noticed the stealthy shadow of time. But we come back to that early spot, and look around. Lo! The companions of our youth have grown into dignified men,—the active and influential citizens of the place. Care has set
"Busy wrinkles round their eyes."
They meet us with formal deportment, or with an ill-concealed restlessness, as though we hindered them in their work,—work! Which, when we parted with them, would have been flung to the winds for any idle sport. How quickly they have changed into this gravity and anxiety! On the other hand, those who stood where they stand now,—whose names occupied the signs and the records which theirs now fill,—have passed away, or, here and there, come tottering along, bent and gray-headed men. Those, too, who were mere infants-those whom we never saw-take up our old stations, and inspire them with the gladness of childhood. And exactly thus have we changed to others. We are a mirror to them and they to us.
From this familiar experience, then, let us realize that the stream of life does not stop, nor are we left stationary, but carried with it; though our condition may appear unchanged, until we lift up our eyes, and look for the old landmarks. The brevity of our life! my friends. Amid our daily business,—in the sounding tumult of the great mart, and the absorption of our thoughts,—do we think of it? Do we perceive how nearly we approach a goal which a little while ago seemed far before us? Do we observe how quickly we shoot by it? Do we mark with what increasing swiftness the line of our life seems reeling off, and how close we are coming to the end? Time never stops! Each tick of the clock echoes our advancing footsteps. The shadow of the dial falls upon it a shorter and shorter tract, which we have yet to pass over. Even if a long life lies before us, let us consider that thirty-five years is high noon with us,—the meridian of that arc which comprehends but threescore years and ten!
But we may be more vividly impressed with the fact of the brevity of life, if we adopt some criterion wider than these familiar measurements. The narrative, the story, engages our ears, in the pauses of care and labor. We listen to it in the noonday rest, and around the evening fire. It is a slight break in the monotony of our business,—an interlude in the solemn march of life. And thus, in some respects, is life itself. It is so, if we take into view a long series of existence, such as the succession of human generations, or, still more, the periods of creative development, and the computations of time as applied to the forms and changes of the material universe. In this vast train of being, our individual existence, however important to ourselves, is but an interlude-a tale. Let us, then, for a while, lay aside any conventional method of estimating our life,—a method in which that life fills a large space, simply because it is brought near to the eye,—and let us endeavor to take a view of it, as it were, from the fixed stars, or from the elevation of the immortal state.
Compare, then, if you will, this life of yours or mine, not with the personal standard of threescore years and ten, but with the whole course of human history; and instantly we appear but as bubbles in the stream of ages. But, again, consider how history itself is as "a tale that is told;" and then, indeed, what a mere incident in it all is your life and mine! If we stand off at the distance of a few centuries, so that we have no present interest in them, it is strange how the proudest empires assume an empty and spectral aspect. Their growth and decline occupied ages; but what a brief achievement it appears now! Why puzzle ourselves about their origin, or seek to disengage the true from the fabulous in their history? Why strain laboriously to settle names, and dates, and dynasties? What mere point they have occupied in the processes of the great universe! Their hieroglyphic pillars, their gray old pyramids;—what are they to the age of Uranus, or the new planet? Each of these empires fulfilled its mission, and relatively that mission was a great one; but in the long sweep of God's providence, and among the phenomena of absolute being, what a brief link, a subordinate climax, it was! The huge ribs of the earth, and the coral islands of the sea were longer in building; and even these are transitory manifestations of God's purposes, which stream around us through constant change and succession. And what, then, are these nations-these epochs of humanity-but waves rising and breaking on the great sea of eternity? Mysterious Egypt, haughty Assyria, glorious Greece, kingly Rome;—how spectral they have become. They stand out in no relief. As we recede from them, they sink back, flat and inanimate on the horizon. Each is a tale that has been told. Surely, then, if such is the life of nations, I need not labor to impress upon you a sense of the brevity of our individual existence.
But, for a moment, turn your thoughts to estimates that far exceed the periods of history, and confound all our ordinary measurements. What is our mortal existence, into which we crowd so much interest,—over the anticipated length of which we slumber,—into whose uncertain future we project our lithe plans so confidently,—compared to the age of the heavens,—the lifetime of worlds?—compared to their march, from the moment when they obeyed the creative fiat to that when they shall complete their great cycle? It takes three years for light to travel from the nearest fixed star to the earth; from another it takes twelve years; while, on its journey from a star of the twelfth magnitude, twenty four billions of miles away, it consumes four thousand years. And yet we speak of long life! Why, when the light that wraps us now shall be changed for the light that is just leaping from that distant star, where in the gray bosom of the past shall we be? Sunken, forgotten, crumbled to imperceptible atoms; the ashes of generations-the dust of empires-heaped over us! And when we compare those wide estimates to that divine eternity that evolves and limits all things, how does our individual existence on the earth dwindle and vanish!—a heart-throb in the pulses of the universal life,—a quivering leaf in the forest of being,—"a tale that is told"!
And yet, my friends, our realization of existence is so intense,—the horizon of the present shuts us in so completely,—that it really requires an effort for us to pause and remember that we are such transitory beings. It cannot be (we may unconsciously reason), that we to whom this earth is bound with ligaments so intimate and strong; whose breathing and motion-whose contact and action here-are such realities; whose ears hear these varying sounds of life; whose eyes drink in this perpetual and changing beauty; to whom business, study, friendship, pleasure, domestic relations, are such fresh and constant facts; to whom the dawn and the twilight, the nightly slumber and the daily meal, are such regular experiences; to whom our possessions, our houses, lands, goods, money, are such substantial things;—it cannot be that we are not fixed permanently here,—that the years like a swift river, sweep us nearer and nearer to a point where we must sink and leave it all,—that the corridors of the earth echo our footsteps only as the footsteps of a successive march-myriads going before, and myriads coming after us-and soon they will catch no more murmurs of our individual life; for that will be as "a tale that is told."
The whole train of thought I am now pursuing strikes us with peculiar force, in reading the biographies of men who have lived intensely, who have realized the fulness of life, who have mingled intimately with its varied experiences, and occupied a large place in it. We see how to them life was, as it is to us, an absorbing fact,—how they have planned, and thought, and acted, as though they were to live forever; and yet we have noticed the premonitions of change, the dropping away of friends, the failing of vigor, the deepening of melancholy shadows, and the coming of the end; the business closed, the active curiosity and intermeddling ceased, the familiar haunts abandoned, the home made desolate, the lights put out, the cup fallen beneath the festal board, and all the earnest existence stopped forever. And this, too, so quick,—filling so small a space in absolute time! From their illustration let us, then, realize that our life, too, amid all these real conditions, is unfolding rapidly to an end, and is "as a tale that is told."
But life is like a tale that is told, because of its comprehensiveness. It is a common characteristic of a narrative that it contains a great deal in a small compass. It includes many years, and expresses many results. Sometimes it sweeps over different lands, and exhibits the peculiarities of various personages. In one word, it is characterized by comprehensiveness. And this, I repeat, is also a characteristic of human life. When the consideration of the brevity of our mortal existence excites us to diligence it is well; but when we make it an argument for indolence, disgust, and despair, we should be reminded of the fact I am now endeavoring to illustrate,—the fact that even the briefest life contains a great deal, and means a great deal; and that, if we estimate things by a spiritual standard, a man's earthly being may contain more than all the cycles of the material world. From the best point of view, life is not merely a term of years and a span of action; it is a force, a current and depth of being. Indeed, considered in its most literal sense, as the vital spark of our animal organism, it is something more than a measurement of time;—it is a mysterious, informing essence. No man has yet been able to tell us what it is, where it resides, or how it acts. We only know that when we gaze upon the features of the dead we see there the same organs that pertained to the living; but something has gone,—something of light, power, motion; and that something we call life.
But it is chiefly in a moral sense that I make the remark that life is something more than a term of years or a span of action. In fact, life is a sum of spiritual experiences; and thus one act, or result, often contains more than a century of time. Who does not understand the fact to which I now refer? Who has not felt something of it? Has not each one of us, at times, realized that he lived a year in a single day,—in a moment,—in an emotion or thought? Nay, could that experience be measured by any estimate of time? And if we should compute the length of any life by such experiences, and not by a succession of years, would it not be a long life? At least, would it not be a full and immeasurable life?
But, while every man's history will furnish instances of what I mean, let us, for the sake of clearer illustration, consider some of the experiences which are common to all. Defining life to be depth and intensity of being, then,—a current of spiritual power, and not a mere succession of incidents,—how much we live when we acquire the knowledge of a single truth! What an inexhaustible power!—what an immeasurable experience it is! We are made absolutely stronger by it; we receive more life with it,—a new and imperishable fibre of being. Fortune cannot pluck it from us, age cannot weaken it, death cannot set limits to it. And now, with the fulness of this one experience as a test, just consider our whole mortal experience as filled up with such revelations of truth. Suppose we improve all our opportunities; into what boundless life does education admit us, and the discoveries of every day, and the ordinary lessons of the world! Tell me, is this life to be called merely a brief and worthless fact, when by a little reading, for instance, I can make the experience of other men, and lands, and ages, all mine? When in some favored hour, I can climb the starry galaxy with Newton, and pace along the celestial coast to the great harmony of numbers and unlock the mighty secret of the universe? When of a winter's night, I can pass through all the belts of climate, and all the grades of civilization on our globe; scan its motley races, learn its diverse customs, and hear the groaning of lonely ice-fields and the sigh of Indian palms? When, with Bacon, I can explore the laboratory of nature, or with Locke, consult the mysteries of the soul? When Spenser can lead me into golden visions, or Shakespeare smite me with magic inspiration, or Milton bathe me in immortal song? When History opens for me all the gates of the past,—Thebes and Palmyra, Corinth and Carthage, Athens with its peerless glory, and Rome with its majestic pomp?—when kings and statesmen, authors and priests, with their public deeds and secret thoughts are mine? When the plans of cabinets, and the debates of parliaments, and the course of revolutions, and the results of battle, are all before my eyes and in my mind? When I can enter the inner chamber of sainted souls, and conspire with the efforts of moral heroes, and understand the sufferings of martyrs? Say, when all these deep experiences-these comprehensive truths-may be acquired through merely one privilege, is life but a dream, or a breath of air? Thus, too, do immeasurable experiences flow in to me from nature,—from planet, flower, and ocean. Thus, too, does more life come to me from contacts in the common round of action. And, I repeat, every truth thus gained expands a moment of time into illimitable being,—positively enlarges my existence, and endows me with a quality which time cannot weaken or destroy.
Consider, again, how much we really live in cherishing good affections, and in performing noble deeds. We have the familiar lines of the poet, to this point:
"One self-approving hour whole years outweighs Of stupid starers and of loud huzzas."
It is true. There is more life in one "self-approving hour,"-one act of benevolence,—one work of self-discipline,—than in threescore years and ten of mere sensual existence. Go out among the homes of the poor, lift up the disconsolate, administer comfort to the forlorn; in some way, as it may come across your path, or lie in the sphere of your duty, do a deed of kindness; and in that one act you shall live more than in a year of selfish indulgence and indolent ease,—yea, more than in a lifetime of such. The poet, with his burning, immortal lines, while doing his work, lives all the coming ages of his fame. From every marble feature he chisels, the sculptor draws an intensity of being that cannot be imparted by a mere extension of years. The philanthropist, in his walks of mercy and his ministrations of love, lives more comprehensively than another may in a century. His is the fathomless bliss of benevolence,—the experience of God. The martyr, in his dying hour, with his face shining like an angel's, does not live longer, but he lives more than all his persecutors.
Consider, too, the experiences of religion, of worship, of prayer. In the act of communion with God, in the realization of immortality, in the aspirations and the idea of perfection, there is a depth and scope of being from which all sensual estimates of time drop away.
Our mortal life, then, is very comprehensive. If we measure it, not by its length of years, but by its spiritual results, be they good or evil, it is a full and large life. It then appears, like the immortal state, not as a fact of succession, but of experience. Christ has defined eternal life as such a fact. "Eternal life," he says, "is to know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent." The life of the blessed in heaven is not marked by years and cycles; it is not so much protracted being, as a power of knowledge,—a depth of glad and holy consciousness,—a constant pulsation of harmony with God.
Again, every life may be compared to "a tale that is told," because it has a plot. In the narrative there is a combination of agencies working to a crisis. There is a main-point with which all the action is involved. And so every human life has its main-point.. I will not now take up time to carry out this illustration minutely. The mere suggestion that each one is working out a peculiar destiny invests even the meanest life with a solemn dignity, and counteracts any disparaging argument drawn from its brevity.
But still I would urge, that the propriety of this comparison between the peculiar tendency of an individual life and the plot of a story, is seen in the fact that every man is accomplishing a certain moral result in and for himself. This is inevitable. We may be inactive, but that result is forming; the mould of habit is growing, and the inward life is unfolding itself, after its kind. We may think our career is aimless, but all things give a shape to our character. And does not this consideration make our mortal life of deep consequence to us?
All circumstances and experiences are chiefly important as affecting this result. One of the highest views we can take of the universe is that of a theatre for the soul's education. We are placed upon this earth not to be absorbed by it, but to use it for the highest spiritual occasions. We are placed among the joys and sorrows of our daily lives to be trained for immortal issues. Our business, our domestic duties, and all our various relations, constitute a school for our souls. Here our affections and our powers are acted upon for good or for evil. Grief strengthens our faith and elevates our thoughts; joy quickens our gratitude, our obedience, and our trust; temptation forms in us an exalted and spontaneous virtue, or enfeebles and enslaves us. Chiefly, then, should we be solicitous about character, the plot of our life; and in this solicitude our earthly existence rises to the highest importance.
Let us, then, feel that our mortal career is not vague and aimless. Let us realize that each life is a special history. The poorest, the most obscure, has such a history; and although it may be unnoticed by men, angels regard it with interest. The merchant, every day, in the dust, and heat, and busy maze of traffic, unfolds a history. The beggar by the way-side, it may be, outrivals kings in the grandeur and magnitude of his history. In sainted homes,—in narrow nooks of life,—in the secret heart of love, and prayer, and patience,—many a tale is told which God alone sees, and which he approves. The needy tell a tale, in their unrelieved wants and unpitied sufferings. The oppressed tell a tale, that goes up into the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth. The vicious tell a tale of wo, and misspent opportunity, and wasted power. Let us think of it, I beseech you! Each one of us in his sphere of action is developing a plot which surely tells in character,—which is fast running into a great fixed fact.
Once more, we may compare every life to "a tale that is told," because it has a moral. Any story, good or bad,—the most pernicious work of fiction, the most flimsy narrative, as the grandest history,—has its significance. So it is with the life of a man. As all his conduct he is building up the intrinsic results of character for himself,—establishing in his own soul a fabric of welfare or of wo,—so is he furnishing a lesson for others, and accomplishing an end by which they are affected. The purpose for which any one has lived, the point which he has attained, the personal history which he has unfolded, constitute the moral of his life.
For instance, here is a man whose life is frivolous,—divided between aimless cares and superficial enjoyments. He has no resources in himself, no fountain of inward peace and joy. His spirit leaps like new wine in the whirl of exciting pleasure, but in the hour of solitude and of golden opportunity, it is "flat, stale, and unprofitable." He marks off the year by its festivals, and distributes the day into hours of food, rest, and folly. In short, he holds no serious conception of life, and he is untouched by lofty sentiment. The great drama of existence, with its solemn shifts of scenery and its impending grandeur, is but a pantomime to him; and he a thoughtless epicurean, a grinning courtier, a scented fop, a dancing puppet, on the mighty stage. And surely, such a life, a life of superficiality and heartlessness, a life of silken niceties and conventional masquerade, a life of sparkling effervescence, has a moral. It shows us how vain is human existence when empty of serious thought, of moral purpose, and of devout emotion.
Another is a skeptic. He has no genuine faith in immortality, in virtue, or in God. To him, life is a sensual opportunity closing up with annihilation and to be enjoyed as it may. It is a mere game, and he who plays the most skilful(sic) hand will win. Virtue is a smooth decency, which it is well to assume in order to cover and artful selfishness; and it is a noteworthy fact, too, that, in the long run, those who have trusted to virtue have made by it. At least, vice is inexpedient, and it will not do to make a public profession of it. Religion, too, he says, is well enough; it does for the weak and the ignorant; though shrewd men, like our skeptic know that it is all a sham, and, of course, scarce give it a serious thought. What is religion to a keen-minded, hard-headed, sagacious man of the world? What has it to do with business, and politics, and such practical matters? Pack it away for Sunday, and then put it on with clean clothes, out of respect for the world; but if it lifts any remonstrance in the caucus or the counting-room, why, like a shrewd man, laugh it out of countenance. What has our skeptic to do with the future world or with spiritual relations? Keep bugbears to frighten more timid and credulous persons. But only see how he uses the world, and plays his scheme, and foils his adversary and twists and bends his plastic morality, all because he is not troubled with scruples, and has no faith in God or duty!
And yet, to the serious eye, that scans his spiritual mood, and looks all around his shrewd, self-confident position, there is a great moral in the skeptic's life. It teaches us, more than ever, the value of faith, and the glory of religion. That flat negation only makes the rejected truth more positive. The specimen of what existence is without God in the world, causes us to yearn more earnestly for the shelter of His presence, and the blessedness of His control. From the dark perspective of the skeptic's sensual view, the bleak annihilation that bounds all his hopes, we turn more gladly to the auroral promise of immortality, to the consolations and influences of a life beyond the grave. Yes, in that tale that is told, in that skeptic history, there is indeed a great moral. It shows how meaningless and how mean, how treacherous and false, is that man's life who hangs upon the balance of a cunning egotism, and moves only from the impulses of selfish desire-without religion, without virtue, repudiating the idea of morality, and practically living without God.
Or, on the other hand, suppose we call up the image of one who has well kept the trusts of family, and kindred, and friendship;—one who has made home a pleasant place; who has filled it with the sanctities of affection, and adorned it with a graceful and generous hospitality;—before whose cheerful temper the perplexities of business have been smoothed, and whose genial disposition has melted even the stern and selfish;—who, thus rendering life around her happier and better, attracting more closely the hearts of relatives, and making every acquaintance a friend, has, chief of all, beautifully discharged the sacred offices of wife and mother; encountering the day of adversity with a noble self-devotion, enriching the hour of prosperity with wise counsel and faithful love; unwearied in the time of sickness, patient and trustful beneath the dispensation of affliction; in short, by her many virtues and graces evidently the bright centre of a happy household. And now suppose that, with all these associations clinging to her, in the bloom of life, with opportunities for usefulness and enjoyment opening all around her, death interferes, and suddenly quenches that light! Is there not left a moral which abides a sweet and lasting consolation? That moral is-the power of a kind heart; the worth of domestic virtues; the living freshness of a memory in which these qualities are combined.
Thus, then, in its brevity and its comprehensiveness, with its plot and its moral, we see that each human life is like "a tale that is told." To you, my friends, I leave the personal application of these truths. Surely they suggest to each of us the most vital and solemn considerations. Surely they call us to diligence and repentance,—to introspection and prayer. What we are in ourselves,—what use we shall make of life;—is not this an all important subject? What lesson we shall furnish for others,—what influence for good or evil;—can we be indifferent to that? God give us grace and strength to ponder and to act upon these suggestions!
Finally, remember under whose dominion all the sorrows and changes of earth take place. Let your faith in Him be firm and clear. To Him address your grief;—to Him lift up your prayer. Of Him seek strength and consolation;—of Him ask that a holy influence may attend every experience. And while all the trials of life should quicken us to a loftier diligence, and inspire us with a keener sense of personal responsibility, surely when our hearts are sore and bleeding,—when our hopes lie prostrate, and we are faint and troubled, it is good to rise to the contemplation of the Infinite Controller,—to lean back upon the Almighty Goodness that upholds the universe; to realize that He does verily watch over us, and care for us; to feel that around and above all things else He moves the vast circle of his purpose, and carries within it all our joys and sorrows; and that this mysterious tale of human life-this tangled plot of our earthly being-is unfolded beneath His all-beholding eye, and by His omnipotent and paternal hand.
THE CHRISTIAN VIEW OF SORROW
"A man of sorrow, and acquainted with grief" Is. Iii. 3.
There is one great distinction between the productions of Heathen and of Christian art. While the first exhibits the perfection of physical form and of intellectual beauty, the latter expresses, also, the majesty of sorrow, the grandeur of endurance, the idea of triumph refined from agony. In all those shapes of old there is nothing like the glory of the martyr; the sublimity of patience and resignation; the dignity of the thorn-crowned Jesus.
It is easy to account for this. In that heathen age the soul had received no higher inspiration. It was only after the advent of Christ that men realized the greatness of sorrow and endurance. It was not until the history of the Garden, the Judgment-Hall, and the Cross had been developed, that genius caught nobler conceptions of the beautiful. This fact is, therefore, a powerful witness to the prophecy in the text, and to the truth of Christianity. Christ's personality, as delineated in the Gospels, is not only demonstrated by a change of dynasties,—an entire new movement in the world,—a breaking up of the its ancient order; but the moral ideal which now leads human action,—which has wrought this enthusiasm, and propelled man thus strangely forward,—has entered the subjective realities of the soul,—breathed new inspiration upon it,—opened up to it a new conception; and, lo! The statue dilates with a diviner expression;—lo! The picture wears a more lustrous and spiritual beauty.
The Christ of the text, then,—"A man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief,"-has verily lived, for his image has been reflected in the minds of men, and has fastened itself there among their most intimate and vivid conceptions. Sorrow, as illustrated in Christ's life, and as interpreted in his scheme of religion, has assumed a new aspect and yields a new meaning. Its garments of heaviness have become transfigured to robes of light, its crown of thorns to a diadem of glory; and often, for some one whom the rich and joyful of this world pity,—some suffering, struggling, over-shadowed soul,—there comes a voice from heaven, "This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased."
I remark, however, that Christianity does not accomplish this result by denying the character of sorrow. It does not refuse to render homage to grief. The stoic is as far from its ideal of virtue as the epicurean. The heart of the true saint quivers at pain, and his eyes are filled with tears. Whatever mortifications he may deem necessary as to the passions of this poor flesh, if he imitates the example of Christ he cannot deny those better affections which link us even to God; he cannot harden those sensitive fibres which are the springs of our best action,—which if callus we become inhuman. He realizes pain; he recognises sorrow as sorrow. Its cup is bitter, and to be resisted with prayer.