It may prove, upon investigation, that all religious theories and all creeds are nothing more than the desperate and pathetic attempts of humanity, conscious of an instinctive horror of suffering, and of an inalienable sense of their right to happiness, to provide a solution for the appalling fact that many human beings seem created only to suffer and to be unhappy. The mystery is a very dark one; and philosophy is still not within reach of explaining how it is that a sense of justice should be implanted in man by the Power that appears so often to violate that conception of justice.
The fact is that the progress of science has created an immense demand for the quality of faith and hopefulness, by revealing so much that is pessimistic in the operation of natural law. If we are to live with any measure of contentment or tranquillity, we must acquire a confidence that God has not, as science tends to indicate, made all men for nought. We must, if we can, acquire some sort of hope that it is not in mere wantonness and indifference that He confronts us with the necessity for bearing the things that He has made us most to dread. It may be easy enough for robust, vigorous, contented persons to believe that God means us well; but the only solution that is worth anything is a solution that shall give us courage, patience, and even joy, at times when everything about us seems to speak of cruelty and terror and injustice. One of the things that has ministered comfort in large measure to souls so afflicted is the power of tracing a certain beauty and graciousness in the phenomena that surround us. Who is there who in moments of bewildered sorrow has not read a hint of some vast lovingness, moving dimly in the background of things, in the touch of familiar hands or in the glances of dear eyes? Surely, they have said to themselves, if love is the deepest, strongest, and most lasting force in the world, the same quality must be hidden deepest in the Heart of God. This is the unique strength of the Christian revelation, the thought of the Fatherhood of God, and His tender care for all that he has made. Again, who is there who in depression and anxiety has not had his load somewhat lightened by the sight of the fresh green of spring foliage against a blue sky, by the colour and scent of flowers, by the sweet melody of musical chords? The aching spirit has said, "They are there—beauty, and peace, and joy—if I could but find the way to them." Who has not had his fear of death alleviated by the happy end of some beloved life, when the dear one has made, as it were, solemn haste to be gone, falling gently into slumber? Who is there, who, speeding homewards in the sunset, has seen the dusky orange veil of flying light drawn softly westward over misty fields, where the old house stands up darkling among the glimmering pastures, and has not felt the presence of some sweet secret waiting for him beyond the gates of life and death? All these things are symbols, because the emotions they arouse are veritably there, as indisputable a phenomenon as any fact which science has analysed. The miserable mistake that many intellectual people make is to disregard what they would call vague emotions in the presence of scientific truth. Yet such emotions have a far more intimate concern for us than the dim sociology of bees, or the concentric forces of the stars. Our emotions are far more true and vivid experiences for us than indisputable laws of nature which never cut the line of our life at all. We may wish, perhaps, that the laws of such emotions were analysed and systematised too, for it is a very timid and faltering spirit that thinks that definiteness is the same as profanation. We may depend upon it that the deeper we can probe into such secrets, the richer will our conceptions of life and God become.
The mistake that is so often made by religious organisations, which depend so largely upon symbolism, is the terrible limiting of this symbolism to traditional ceremonies and venerable ritual. It has been said that religion is the only form of poetry accessible to the poor; and it is true in the sense that anything which hallows and quickens the most normal and simple experiences of lives divorced from intellectual and artistic influences is a very real and true kind of symbolism. It may be well to give people such symbolism as they can understand, and the best symbols of all are those that deal with the commonest emotions. But it is a lean wisdom that emphasises a limited range of emotions at the expense of a larger range; and the spirit which limits the sacred influences of religion to particular buildings and particular rites is very far removed from the spirit of Him who said that neither at Gerizim nor in Jerusalem was the Father to be worshipped, but in spirit and in truth. At the same time the natural impatience of one who discerns a symbolism all about him, in tree and flower, in sunshine and rain, and who hates to see the range restricted, is a feeling that a wise and tolerant man ought to resist. It is ill to break the pitcher because the well is at hand! One does not make a narrow soul broader by breaking down its boundaries, but by revealing the beauty of the further horizon. Even the false feeling of compassion must be resisted. A child is more encouraged by listening patiently to its tale of tiny exploits, than by casting ridicule upon them.
But on the other hand it is a wholly false timidity for one who has been brought up to love and reverence the narrower range of symbols, to choke and stifle the desires that stir in his heart for the wider range, out of deference to authority and custom. One must not discard a cramping garment until one has a freer one to take its place; but to continue in the confining robe with the larger lying ready to one's hand, from a sense of false pathos and unreasonable loyalty, is a piece of foolishness.
There are, I believe, hundreds of men and women now alive, who have outgrown their traditional faith, through no fault of their own; but who out of terror at the vague menaces of interested and Pharisaical persons do not dare to break away. One must of course weigh carefully whether one values comfort or liberty most. But what I would say is that it is of the essence of a faith to be elastic, to be capable of development, to be able to embrace the forward movement of thought. Now so far am I from wishing to suggest that we have outgrown Christianity, that I would assert that we have not yet mastered its simplest principles. I believe with all my soul that it is still able to embrace the most daring scientific speculations, for the simple reason that it is hardly concerned with them at all. Where religious faith conflicts with science is in the tenacity with which it holds to the literal truth of the miraculous occurrences related in the Scriptures. Some of these present no difficulty, some appear to be scientifically incredible. Yet these latter seem to me to be but the perfectly natural contemporary setting of the faith, and not to be of the essence of Christianity at all. Miracles, whether they are true or not, are at all events unverifiable, and no creed that claims to depend upon the acceptance of unverifiable events can have any vitality. But the personality, the force, the perception of Christ Himself emerges with absolute distinctness from the surrounding details. We may not be in a position to check exactly what He said and what He did not say, but just as no reasonable man can hold that He was merely an imaginative conception invented by people who obviously did not understand Him, so the general drift of His teaching is absolutely clear and convincing.
What I would have those do who can profess themselves sincerely convinced Christians, in spite of the uncertainty of many of the recorded details, is to adopt a simple compromise; to claim their part in the inheritance of Christ, and the symbols of His mysteries, but not to feel themselves bound by any ecclesiastical tradition. No one can forbid, by peevish regulations, direct access to the spirit of Christ and to the love of God. Christ's teaching was a purely individualistic teaching, based upon conduct and emotion, and half the difficulties of the position lie in His sanction and guidance having been claimed for what is only a human attempt to organise a society with a due deference for the secular spirit, its aims and ambitions. The sincere Christian should, I believe, gratefully receive the simple and sweet symbols of unity and forgiveness; but he should make his own a far higher and wider range of symbols, the symbols of natural beauty and art and literature—all the passionate dreams of peace and emotion that have thrilled the yearning hearts of men. Wherever those emotions have led men along selfish, cruel, sensual paths, they must be distrusted, just as we must distrust the religious emotions which have sanctioned such divergences from the spirit of Christ. We must believe that the essence of religion is to make us alive to the love of God, in whatever writing of light and air, of form and fragrance it is revealed; and we must further believe that religion is meant to guide and quicken the tender, compassionate, brotherly emotions, by which we lean to each other in this world where so much is dark. But to denounce the narrower forms of religion, or to abstain from them, is utterly alien to the spirit of Christ. He obeyed and reverenced the law, though He knew that the expanding spirit of His own teaching would break it in pieces. Of course, since liberty is the spirit of the Gospel, a liberty conditioned by the sense of equality, there may be occasions when a man is bound to resist what appears to him to be a moral or an intellectual tyranny. But short of that, the only thing of which one must beware is a conscious insincerity; and the limits of that a man must determine for himself. There are occasions when consideration for the feelings of others seems to conflict with one's own sense of sincerity; but I think that one is seldom wrong in preferring consideration for others to the personal indulgence of one's own apparent sincerity.
Peace and gentleness always prevail in the end over vehemence and violence, and a peaceful revolution brings about happier results for a country, as we have good reason to know, than a revolution of force. Even now the narrower religious systems prevail more in virtue of the gentleness and goodwill and persuasion of their ministers than through the spiritual terrors that they wield—the thunders are divorced from the lightning.
Thus may the victories of faith be won, not by noise and strife, but by the silent motion of a resistless tide. Even now it creeps softly over the sand and brims the stagnant pools with the freshening and invigorating brine.
But in the worship of the symbol there is one deep danger; and that is that if one rests upon it, if one makes one's home in the palace of beauty or philosophy or religion, one has failed in the quest. It is the pursuit not of the unattained but of the unattainable to which we are vowed. Nothing but the unattainable can draw us onward. It is rest that is forbidden. We are pilgrims yet; and if, intoxicated and bemused by beauty or emotion or religion, we make our dwelling there, it is as though we slept in the enchanted ground. Enough is given us, and no more, to keep us moving forwards. To be satisfied is to slumber. The melancholy that follows hard in the footsteps of art, the sadness haunting the bravest music, the aching, troubled longing that creeps into the mind at the sight of the fairest scene, is but the warning presence of the guide that travels with us and fears that we may linger. Who has not seen across a rising ground the gables of the old house, the church tower, dark among the bare boughs of the rookery in a smiling sunset, and half lost himself at the thought of the impossibly beautiful life that might be lived there? To-day, just when the western sun began to tinge the floating clouds with purple and gold, I saw by the roadside an old labourer, fork on back, plodding heavily across a ploughland all stippled with lines of growing wheat. Hard by a windmill whirled its clattering arms. How I longed for something that would render permanent the scene, sight, and sound alike. It told me somehow that the end was not yet. What did it stand for? I hardly know; for life, slow and haggard with toil, hard-won sustenance, all overhung with the crimson glories of waning light, the wet road itself catching the golden hues of heaven. A little later, passing by the great pauper asylum that stands up so naked among the bare fields, I looked over a hedge, and there, behind the engine-house with its heaps of scoriae and rubbish, lay a little trim ugly burial-ground, with a dismal mortuary, upon which some pathetic and tawdry taste had been spent. There in rows lay the mouldering bones of the failures of life and old sin; not even a headstone over each with a word of hope, nothing but a number on a tin tablet. Nothing more incredibly sordid could be devised. One thought of the sad rite, the melancholy priest, the handful of relatives glad at heart that the poor broken life was over and the wretched associations at an end. Yet even that sight too warned one not to linger, and that the end was not yet. Presently, in the gathering twilight, I was making my way through the streets of the city. The dusk had obliterated all that was mean and dreary. Nothing but the irregular housefronts stood up against the still sky, the lighted windows giving the sense of home and ease. A quiet bell rang for vespers in a church tower, and as I passed I heard an organ roll within. It all seemed a sweetly framed message to the soul, a symbol of joy and peace.
But then I reflected that the danger was of selecting, out of the symbols that crowded around one on every side, merely those that ministered to one's own satisfaction and contentment. The sad horror of that other place, the little bare place of desolate graves—that must be a symbol as well, that must stand as a witness of some part of the awful mind of God, of the strange flaw or rent that seems to run through His world. It may be more comfortable, more luxurious to detach the symbol that testifies to the satisfaction of our needs; but not thus do we draw near to truth and God. And then I thought that perhaps it was best, when we are secure and careless and joyful, to look at times steadily into the dark abyss of the world, not in the spirit of morbidity, not with the sense of the macabre—the skeleton behind the rich robe, death at the monarch's shoulder; but to remind ourselves, faithfully and wisely, that for us too the shadow waits; and then that in our moments of dreariness and heaviness we should do well to seek for symbols of our peace, not thrusting them peevishly aside as only serving to remind us of what we have lost and forfeited, but dwelling on them patiently and hopefully, with a tender onlooking to the gracious horizon with all its golden lights and purple shadows. And thus not in a mercantile mood trafficking for our delight in the mysteries of life—for not by prudence can we draw near to God—but in a childlike mood, valuing the kindly word, the smile that lights up the narrow room and enriches the austere fare, and paying no heed at all to the jealousies and the covetous ingathering that turns the temple of the Father into a house of merchandise.
For here, deepest of all, lies the worth of the symbol; that this life of ours is not a little fretful space of days, rounded with a sleep, but an integral part of an inconceivably vast design, flooding through and behind the star-strewn heavens; that there is no sequence of events as we conceive, that acts are not done or words said, once and for all, and then laid away in the darkness; but that it is all an ever-living thing, in which the things that we call old are as much present in the mind of God as the things that shall be millions of centuries hence. There is no uncertainty with Him, no doubt as to what shall be hereafter; and if we once come near to that truth, we can draw from it, in our darkest hours, a refreshment that cannot fail; for the saddest thought in the mind of man is the thought that these things could have been, could be other than they are; and if we once can bring home to ourselves the knowledge that God is unchanged and unchangeable, our faithless doubts, our melancholy regrets melt in the light of truth, as the hoar-frost fades upon the grass in the rising sun, when every globed dewdrop flashes like a jewel in the radiance of the fiery dawn.
We Anglo-Saxons are mostly optimists at heart; we love to have things comfortable, and to pretend that they are comfortable when they obviously are not. The brisk Anglo-Saxon, if he cannot reach the grapes, does not say that the grapes are sour, but protests that he does not really care about grapes. A story is told of a great English proconsul who desired to get a loan from the Treasury of the Government over which he practically, though not nominally, presided. He went to the Financial Secretary and said: "Look here, T——, you must get me a loan for a business I have very much at heart." The secretary whistled, and then said: "Well, I will try; but it is not the least use." "Oh, you will manage it somehow," said the proconsul, "and I may tell you confidentially it is absolutely essential." The following morning the secretary came to report: "I told you it was no use, sir, and it wasn't; the Board would not hear of it." "Damnation!" said the proconsul, and went on writing. A week after he met the secretary, who felt a little shy. "By the way, T——," said the great man, "I have been thinking over that matter of the loan, and it was a mercy you were not successful; it would have been a hopeless precedent, and we are much better without it."
That is the true Anglo-Saxon spirit of optimism. The most truly British person I know is a man who will move heaven and earth to secure a post or to compass an end; but when he fails, as he does not often fail, he says genially that he is more thankful than he can say; it would have been ruin to him if he had been successful. The same quality runs through our philosophy and our religion. Who but an Anglo-Saxon would have invented the robust theory, to account for the fact that prayers are often not granted, that prayers are always directly answered whether you attain your desire or not? The Greeks prayed that the gods would grant them what was good even if they did not desire it, and withhold what was evil even if they did desire it. The shrewd Roman said: "The gods will give us what is most appropriate; man is dearer to them than to himself." But the faithful Anglo-Saxon maintains that his prayer is none the less answered even if it be denied, and that it is made up to him in some roundabout way. It is inconceivable to the Anglo-Saxon that there may be a strain of sadness and melancholy in the very mind of God; he cannot understand that there can be any beauty in sorrow. To the Celt, sorrow itself is dear and beautiful, and the mournful wailing of winds, the tears of the lowering cloud, afford him sweet and even luxurious sensations. The memory of grief is one of the good things that remains to him, as life draws to its close; for love is to him the sister of grief rather than the mother of joy. But this is to the Anglo-Saxon mind a morbid thing. The hours in which sorrow has overclouded him are wasted, desolated hours, to be forgotten and obliterated as soon as possible. There is nothing sacred about them; they are sad and stony tracts over which he has made haste to cross, and the only use of them is to heighten the sense of security and joy. And thus the sort of sayings that satisfy and sustain the Anglo-Saxon mind are such irrepressible outbursts of poets as "God's in His heaven; all's right with the world"—the latter part of which is flagrantly contradicted by experience; and, as for the former part, if it be true, it lends no comfort to the man who tries to find his God in the world. Again, when Browning says that the world "means intensely and means good," he is but pouring oil upon the darting flame of optimism, because there are many people to whom the world has no particular meaning, and few who can re-echo the statement that it means good. That some rich surprise, in spite of palpable and hourly experience to the contrary, may possibly await us, is the most that some of us dare to hope.
My own experience, the older I grow, and the more I see of life, is that I feel it to be a much more bewildering and even terrifying thing than I used to think it. To use a metaphor, instead of its being a patient educational process, which I would give all that I possessed to be able sincerely to believe it to be, it seems to me arranged far more upon the principle of a game of cricket—which I have always held to be, in theory, the most unjust and fortuitous of games. You step to the wicket, you have only a single chance; the boldest and most patient man may make one mistake at the outset, and his innings is over; the timid tremulous player may by undeserved good luck contrive to keep his wicket up, till his heart has got into the right place, and his eye has wriggled straight, and he is set.
That is the first horrible fact about life—that carelessness is often not penalised at all, whereas sometimes it is instantly and fiercely penalised. One boy at school may break every law, human and divine, and go out into the world unblemished. Another timid and good-natured child may make a false step, and be sent off into life with a permanent cloud over him. School life often emphasises the injustice of the world instead of trying to counteract it. Schoolmasters tend to hustle the weak rather than to curb the strong.
And then we pass into the larger world, and what do we see? A sad confusion everywhere. We see an innocent and beautiful girl struck down by a long and painful disease—a punishment perhaps appropriate to some robust and hoary sinner, who has gathered forbidden fruit with both his hands, and the juices of which go down to the skirts of his clothing; or a brave and virtuous man, with a wife and children dependent on him, needed if ever man was, kind, beneficent, strong, is struck down out of life in a moment. On the other hand, we see a mean and cautious sinner, with no touch of unselfishness and affection, guarded and secured in material contentment. Let any one run over in his mind the memories of his own circle, fill up the gaps, and ask himself bravely and frankly whether he can trace a wise and honest and beneficent design all through. He may try to console himself by saying that the disasters of good people, after all, are the exceptions, and that, as a rule, courage and purity of heart are rewarded, while cowardice and filthiness are punished. But what room is there for exceptions in a world governed by God Whom we must believe to be all-powerful, all-just, and all-loving? It is the wilful sin of man, says the moralist, that has brought these hard things upon him. But that is no answer, for the dark shadow lies as sombrely over irresponsible nature, which groans over undeserved suffering. And then, to make the shadow darker still, we have all the same love of life, the same inalienable sense of our right to happiness, the same inheritance of love. If we could but see that in the end pain and loss would be blest, there is nothing that we would not gladly bear. Yet that sight, too, is denied us.
And yet we live and laugh and hope, and forget. We take our fill of tranquil days and pleasant companies, though for some of us the thought that it is all passing, passing, even while we lean towards it smiling, touches the very sunlight with pain. "How morbid, how self-tormenting!" says the prudent friend, if such thoughts escape us. "Why not enjoy the delight and bear the pain? That is life; we cannot alter it." But not on such terms, can I, for one, live. To know, to have some assurance—that is the one and only thing that matters at all. For if I once believed that God were careless, or indifferent, or impotent, I would fly from life as an accursed thing; whereas I would give all the peace, and joy, and contentment, that may yet await me upon earth, and take up cheerfully the heaviest burden that could be devised of darkness and pain, if I could be sure of an after-life that will give us all the unclouded serenity, and strength, and love, for which we crave every moment. Sometimes, in a time of strength and calm weather, when the sun is bright and the friend I love is with me, and the scent of the hyacinths blows from the wood, I have no doubt of the love and tenderness of God; and, again, when I wake in the dreadful dawn to the sharp horror of the thought that one I love is suffering and crying out in pain and drifting on to death, the beauty of the world, the familiar scene, is full of a hateful and atrocious insolence of grace and sweetness; and then I feel that we are all perhaps in the grip of some relentless and inscrutable law that has no care for our happiness or peace at all, and works blindly and furiously in the darkness, bespattering some with woe and others with joy. Those are the blackest and most horrible moments of life; and yet even so we live on.
As I write at my ease I see the velvety grass green on the rich pasture; the tall spires of the chestnut perch, and poise, and sway in the sun; a thrush sings hidden in the orchard; it is all caressingly, enchantingly beautiful, and I am well content to be alive. Looking backwards, I discern that I have had my share, and more than my share, of good things. But they are over; they are mine no longer. And even as I think the thought, the old church clock across the fields tells out another hour that is fallen softly into the glimmering past. If I could discern any strength or patience won from hours of pain and sorrow it would be easier; but the memory of pain makes me dread pain the more, the thought of past sorrow makes future sorrow still more black. I would rather have strength than tranquillity, when all is done; but life has rather taught me my weakness, and struck the garland out of my reluctant hand.
To-day I have been riding quietly among fields deep with buttercups and fringed by clear, slow streams. The trees are in full spring leaf, only the oaks and walnuts a little belated, unfurling their rusty-red fronds. A waft of rich scent comes from a hawthorn hedge where a hidden cuckoo flutes, or just where the lane turns by the old water-mill, which throbs and grumbles with the moving gear, a great lilac-bush leans out of a garden and fills the air with perfume. Yet, as I go, I am filled with a heavy anxiety, which plays with my sick heart as a cat plays with a mouse, letting it run a little in the sun, and then pouncing upon it in terror and dismay. The beautiful sounds and sights round me—the sight of the quiet, leisurely people I meet—ought, one would think, to soothe and calm the unquiet heart. But they do not; they rather seem to mock and flout me with a savage insolence of careless welfare. My thoughts go back, I do not know why, to an old house where I spent many happy days, now in the hands of strangers. I remember sitting, one of a silent and happy party, on a terrace in the dusk of a warm summer night, and how one of those present called to the owls that were hooting in the hanging wood above the house, so that they drew near in answer to the call, flying noiselessly, and suddenly uttering their plaintive notes from the heart of the great chestnut on the lawn. Below I can see the dewy glimmering fields, the lights of the little port, the pale sea-line. It seems now all impossibly beautiful and tranquil; but I know that even then it was often marred by disappointments, and troubles, and fears. Little anxieties that have all melted softly into the past, that were easily enough borne, when it came to the point, yet, looming up as they did in the future, filled the days with the shadow of fear. That is the phantom that one ought to lay, if it can be laid. And is there hidden somewhere any well of healing, any pure source of strength and refreshment, from which we can drink and be calm and brave? That is a question which each has to answer tor himself. For myself, I can only say that strength is sometimes given, sometimes denied. How foolish to be anxious! Yes, but how inevitable! If the beauty and the joy of the world gave one assurance in dark hours that all was certainly well, the pilgrimage would be an easy one. But can one be optimistic by resolving to be? One can of course control oneself, one can let no murmur of pain escape one, one can even enunciate deep and courageous maxims, because one would not trouble the peace of others, waiting patiently till the golden mood returns. But what if the desolate conviction forces itself upon the mind that sorrow is the truer thing? What if one tests one's own experience, and sees that, under the pressure of sorrow, one after another of the world's lights are extinguished, health, and peace, and beauty, and delight, till one asks oneself whether sorrow is not perhaps the truest and most actual thing of all? That is the ghastliest of moments, when everything drops from us but fear and horror, when we think that we have indeed found truth at last, and that the answer to Pilate's bitter question is that pain is the nearest thing to truth because it is the strongest. If I felt that, says the reluctant heart, I should abandon myself to despair. No, says sterner reason, you would bear it because you cannot escape from it. Into whatever depths of despair you fell, you would still be upheld by the law that bids you be.
Where, then, is the hope to be found? It is here. One is tempted to think of God through human analogies and symbols. We think of Him as of a potter moulding the clay to his will; as of a statesman that sways a state; as of an artist that traces a fair design. But all similitudes and comparisons break down, for no man can create anything; he can but modify matter to his ends, and when he fails, it is because of some natural law that cuts across his design and thwarts him relentlessly. But the essence of God's omnipotence is that both law and matter are His and originate from Him; so that, if a single fibre of what we know to be evil can be found in the world, either God is responsible for that, or He is dealing with something He did not originate and cannot overcome. Nothing can extricate us from this dilemma, except the belief that what we think evil is not really evil at all, but hidden good; and thus we have firm ground under our feet at last, and can begin to climb out of the abyss. And then we feel in our own hearts how indomitable is our sense of our right to happiness, how unconquerable our hope; how swiftly we forget unhappiness; how firmly we remember joy; and then we see that the one absolutely permanent and vital power in the world is the power of love, which wins victories over every evil we can name; and if it is so plain that love is the one essential and triumphant force in the world, it must be the very heartbeat of God; till we feel that when soon or late the day comes for us, when our swimming eyes discern ever more faintly the awestruck pitying faces round us, and the senses give up their powers one by one, and the tides of death creep on us, and the daylight dies—that even so we shall find that love awaiting us in the region to which the noblest and bravest and purest, as well as the vilest and most timid and most soiled have gone.
This, then, is the only optimism that is worth the name; not the feeble optimism that brushes away the darker side of life impatiently and fretfully, but the optimism that dares to look boldly into the fiercest miseries of the human spirit, and to come back, as Perseus came, pale and smoke-stained, from the dim underworld, and say that there is yet hope brightening on the verge of the gloom.
What one desires, then, is an optimism which arises from taking a wide view of things as they are, and taking the worst side into account, not an optimism which is only made possible by wearing blinkers. I was reading a day or two ago a suggestive and brilliant book by one of our most prolific critics, Mr. Chesterton, on the subject of Dickens. Mr. Chesterton is of opinion that our modern tendency to pessimism results from our inveterate realism. Contrasting modern fictions with the old heroic stories, he says that we take some indecisive clerk for the subject of a story, and call the weak-kneed cad "the hero." He seems to think that we ought to take a larger and more robust view of human possibilities, and keep our eyes steadily fixed upon more vigorous and generous characters. But the result of this is the ugly and unphilosophical kind of optimism after all, that calls upon God to despise the work of His own hands, that turns upon all that is feeble and unsightly and vulgar with anger and disdain, like the man in the parable who took advantage of his being forgiven a great debt to exact a tiny one. The tragedy is that the knock-kneed clerk is all in all to himself. In clear-sighted and imaginative moments, he may realise in a sudden flash of horrible insight that he is so far from being what he would desire to be, so unheroic, so loosely strung, so deplorable—and yet that he can do so little to bridge the gap. The only method of manufacturing heroes is to encourage people to believe in themselves and their possibilities, to assure them that they are indeed dear to God; not to reveal relentlessly to them their essential lowness and shabbiness. It is not the clerk's fault that his mind is sordid and weak, and that his knees knock together; and no optimism is worth the name that has not a glorious message for the vilest. Or, again, it is possible to arrive at a working optimism by taking a very dismal view of everything. There is a story of an old Calvinist minister whose daughter lay dying, far away, of a painful disease, who wrote her a letter of consolation, closing with the words, "Remember, dear daughter, that all short of Hell is mercy." Of course if one can take so richly decisive a view of the Creator's purpose for His creatures, and look upon Hell as the normal destination from which a few, by the overpowering condescension of God, are saved and separated, one might find matter of joy in discovering one soul in a thousand who was judged worthy of salvation. But this again is a clouded view, because it takes no account of the profound and universal preference for happiness in the human heart, and erects the horrible ideal of a Creator who deliberately condemns the vast mass of His creatures to a fate which He has no less deliberately created them to abhor and dread.
Our main temptation after all lies in the fact that we are so impatient of any delay or any uneasiness. We are like the child who, when first confronted with suffering, cannot bear to believe in its existence, and who, if it is prolonged, cannot believe in the existence of anything else. What we have rather to do is to face the problem strongly and courageously, to take into account the worst and feeblest possibilities of our nature, and yet not to overlook the fact that the worst and lowest specimen of humanity has a dim inkling of something higher and happier, to which he would attain if he knew how.
I had a little object-lesson a few days ago in the subject. It was a Bank Holiday, and I walked pensively about the outskirts of a big town. The streets were crowded with people of all sorts and sizes. I confess that a profound melancholy was induced in me by the spectacle of the young of both sexes. They were enjoying themselves, it is true, with all their might; and I could not help wondering why, as a rule, they should enjoy themselves so offensively. The girls walked about, tittering and ogling, the young men were noisy, selfish, ill-mannered, enjoying nothing so much as the discomfiture of any passer-by. They pushed each other into ditches, they tripped up a friend who passed on a bicycle, and all roared in concert at the rueful way in which he surveyed a muddy coat and torn trousers. There seemed to be not the slightest idea among them of contributing to each other's pleasure. The point was to be amused at the expense of another, and to be securely obstreperous.
But among these there were lovers walking, faint and pale with mutual admiration; a young couple led along a hideous over-dressed child, and had no eyes for anything except its clumsy movements and fatuous questions. Or an elderly couple strolled along, pleased and contented, with a married son and daughter. The cure of the vile mirth of youth seemed after all to be love and the anxious care of other lives.
And thus indeed a gentle optimism did emerge, after all, from the tangle. I felt that it was strange that there should be so much to breed dissatisfaction. I struck out of the town, and soon was passing a mill in broad water-meadows, overhung by great elms; the grass was golden with buttercups, the foliage was rich upon the trees. The water bubbled pleasantly in the great pool, and an old house thrust a pretty gable out over lilacs clubbed with purple bloom. The beauty of the place was put to my lips, like a cup of the waters of comfort. The sadness was the drift of human life out of sweet places such as this, into the town that overflowed the meadows with its avenues of mean houses, where the railway station, with its rows of stained trucks, its cindery floor, its smoking engines, buzzed and roared with life.
But the pessimism of one who sees the simple life fading out, the ancient quietude invaded, the country caught in the feelers of the town, is not a real pessimism at all, or rather it is a pessimism which results from a deficiency of imagination, and is only a matter of personal taste, perhaps of personal belatedness. Twelve generations of my own family lived and died as Yorkshire yeomen-farmers, and my own preference is probably a matter of instinctive inheritance. The point is not what a few philosophers happen to like, but what humanity likes, and what it is happiest in liking. I should have but small confidence in the Power that rules the world, if I did not believe that the vast social development of Europe, its civilisation, its network of communications, its bustle, its tenser living, its love of social excitement was not all part of a great design. I do not believe that humanity is perversely astray, hurrying to destruction. I believe rather that it is working out the possibilities that lie within it; and if human beings had been framed to live quiet pastoral lives, they would be living them still. The one question for the would-be optimist is whether humanity is growing nobler, wiser, more unselfish; and of that I have no doubt whatever. The sense of equality, of the rights of the weak, compassion, brotherliness, benevolence, are living ideas, throbbing with life; the growth of the power of democracy, much as it may tend to inconvenience one personally, is an entirely hopeful and desirable thing; and if a man is disposed to pessimism, he ought to ask himself seriously to what extent his pessimism is conditioned by his own individual prospect of happiness. It is quite possible to conceive of a man without any hope of personal immortality, or the continuance of individual identity, whose future might be clouded, say, by his being the victim of a painful and incurable disease, and who yet might be a thoroughgoing optimist with regard to the future of humanity. Nothing in the world could be so indicative of the rise in the moral and emotional temperature of the world as the fact that men are increasingly disposed to sacrifice their own ambitions and their own comfort for the sake of others, and are willing to suffer, if the happiness of the race may be increased; and much of the pessimism that prevails is the pessimism of egotists and individualists, who feel no interest in the rising tide, because it does not promise to themselves any increase in personal satisfaction. No man can possibly hold the continuance of personal identity to be an indisputable fact, because there is no sort of direct evidence on the subject; and indeed all the evidence that exists is rather against the belief than for it. The belief is in reality based upon nothing but instinct and desire, and the impossibility of conceiving of life as existing apart from one's own perception. But even if a man cannot hold that it is in any sense a certainty, he may cherish a hope that it is true, and he may be generously and sincerely grateful for having been allowed to taste, through the medium of personal consciousness, the marvellous experience of the beauty and interest of life, its emotions, its relationships, its infinite yearnings, even though the curtain may descend upon his own consciousness of it, and he himself may become as though he had never been, his vitality blended afresh in the vitality of the world, just as the body of his life, so near to him, so seemingly his own, will undoubtedly be fused and blent afresh in the sum of matter. A man, even though racked with pain and tortured with anxiety, may deliberately and resolutely throw himself into sympathy with the mighty will of God, and cherish this noble and awe-inspiring thought—the thought of the onward march of humanity; righting wrongs, amending errors, fighting patiently against pain and evil, until perhaps, far-off and incredibly remote, our successors and descendants, linked indeed with us in body and soul alike, may enjoy that peace and tranquillity, that harmony of soul, which we ourselves can only momentarily and transitorily obtain.
Dr. Arnold somewhere says that the schoolmaster's experience of being continually in the presence of the hard mechanical high spirits of boyhood is an essentially depressing thing. It seemed to him depressing, just because that happiness was so purely incidental to youth and health, and did not proceed from any sense of principle, any reserve of emotion, any self-restraint, any activity of sympathy. I confess that in my own experience as a schoolmaster the particular phenomenon was sometimes a depressing thing and sometimes a relief. It was depressing when one was overshadowed by a fretful anxiety or a real sorrow, because no appeal to it seemed possible: it had a heartless quality. But again it was a relief when it distracted one from the pressure of a troubled thought, as when, in the Idylls of the King, the sorrowful queen was comforted by the little maiden "who pleased her with a babbling heedlessness, which often lured her from herself."
One felt that one had no right to let the sense of anxiety overshadow the natural cheerfulness of boyhood, and then one made the effort to detach oneself from one's preoccupations, with the result that they presently weighed less heavily upon the heart.
The blessing would be if one could find in experience a quality of joy which should be independent of natural high spirits altogether, a cheerful tranquillity of outlook, which should become almost instinctive through practice, a mood which one could at all events evoke in such a way as to serve as a shield and screen to one's own private troubles, or which at least would prevent one from allowing the shadow of our discontent from falling over others. But it must be to a certain extent temperamental. Just as high animal spirits in some people are irrepressible, and bubble up even under the menace of irreparable calamity, so gloom of spirit is a very contagious thing, very difficult to dissimulate. Perhaps the best practical thing for a naturally melancholy person to try and do, is to treat his own low spirits, as Charles Lamb did, ironically and humorously; and if he must spin conversation incessantly, as Dr. Johnson said, out of his own bowels, to make sure that it is the best thread possible, and of a gossamer quality.
The temperamental fact upon which the possibility of such a philosophical cheerfulness is based is after all an ultimate hopefulness. Some people have a remarkable staying power, a power of looking through and over present troubles, and consoling themselves with pleasant visions of futurity. This is commoner with women than with men, because women derive a greater happiness from the happiness of those about them than men do. A woman as a rule would prefer that the people who surround her should be cheerful, even if she were not cheerful herself; whereas a man is often not ill-pleased that his moods should be felt by his circle, and regards it as rather an insult that other people should be joyful when he is ill-at-ease. Some people, too, have a stronger dramatic sense than others, and take an artistic pleasure in playing a part. I knew a man who was a great invalid and a frequent sufferer, who took a great pleasure in appearing in public functions. He would drag himself from his bed to make a public appearance of any kind. I think that he consoled himself by believing that he did so from a strong and sustaining sense of duty; but I believe that the pleasure of the thing was really at the root of his effort, as it is at the root of most of the duties we faithfully perform. I do not mean that he had a strong natural vanity, though his enemies accused him of it. But publicity was naturally congenial to him, and the only sign, as a rule, that he was suffering, when he made such an appearance, was a greater deliberation of movement, and a ghastly fixity of smile. As to the latter phenomenon, a man with the dramatic sense strongly developed, will no doubt take a positive pleasure in trying to obliterate from his face and manner all traces of his private discomfort. Such stoicism is a fine quality in its way, but the quality that I am in search of is an even finer one than that. My friend's efforts were ultimately based on a sort of egotism, a profound conviction that a public part suited him, and that he performed it well. What one rather desires to attain is a more sympathetic quality, an interest in other people so vital and inspiring that one's own personal sufferings are light in the scale when weighed against the enjoyment of others. It is not impossible to develop this in the face of considerable bodily suffering. One of the most inveterately cheerful people I have ever known was a man who suffered from a painful and irritating complaint, but whose geniality and good-will were so strong that they not only overpowered his malaise, but actually afforded him considerable relief. Some people who suffer can only suffer in solitude. They have to devote the whole of their nervous energies to the task of endurance; but others find society an agreeable distraction, and fly to it as an escape from discomfort. I suppose that every one has experienced at times that extraordinary rebellion, so to speak, of cheerfulness against an attack of physical pain. There have been days when I have suffered from some small but acutely disagreeable ailment, and yet found my cheerfulness not only not dimmed but apparently enhanced by the physical suffering. Of course there are maladies even of a serious kind of which one of the symptoms is a great mental depression, but there are other maladies which seem actually to produce an instinctive hopefulness.
But the question is whether it is possible, by sustained effort, to behave independently of one's mood, and what motive is strong enough to make one detach oneself resolutely from discomforts and woes. Good manners provide perhaps the most practical assistance. The people who are brought up with a tradition of highbred courtesy, and who learn almost instinctively to repress their own individuality, can generally triumph over their moods. Perhaps in their expansive moments they lose a little spontaneity in the process; they are cheerful rather than buoyant, gentle rather than pungent. But the result is that when the mood shifts into depression, they are still imperturbably courteous and considerate. A near relation of a great public man, who suffered greatly from mental depression, has told me that some of the most painful minutes he has ever been witness of were, when the great man, after behaving on some occasion of social festivity with an admirable and sustained gaiety, fell for a moment into irreclaimable and hopeless gloom and fatigue, and then again, by a resolute effort, became strenuously considerate and patient in the privacy of the family circle.
Some people achieve the same mastery over mood by an intensity of religious conviction. But the worst of that particular triumph is that an attitude of chastened religious patience is, not unusually, a rather depressing thing. It is so restrained, so pious, that it tends to deprive life of natural and unaffected joy. If it is patient and submissive in affliction, it is also tame and mild in cheerful surroundings. It issues too frequently in a kind of holy tolerance of youthful ebullience and vivid emotions. It results in the kind of character that is known as saintly, and is generally accompanied by a strong deficiency in the matter of humour. Life is regarded as too serious a business to be played with, and the delight in trifles, which is one of the surest signs of healthy energy, becomes ashamed and abashed in its presence. The atmosphere that it creates is oppressive, remote, ungenial. "I declare that Uncle John is intolerable, except when there is a death in the family—and then he is insupportable," said a youthful nephew of a virtuous clergyman of this type in my presence the other day, adding, after reflection, "He seems to think that to die is the only really satisfactory thing that any one ever does." That is the worst of carrying out the precept, "Set your affections on things above, not on things of the earth," too literally. It is not so good a precept, after all, as "If a man love not his brother, whom he hath seen, how shall he love God, Whom he hath not seen?" It is somehow an incomplete philosophy to despise the only definite existence we are certain of possessing. One desires a richer thing than that, a philosophy that ends in temperance, rather than in a harsh asceticism.
The handling of life that seems the most desirable is the method which the Platonic Socrates employed. Perhaps he was an ideal figure; but yet there are few figures more real. There we have an elderly man of incomparable ugliness, who is yet delightfully and perennially youthful, bubbling over with interest, affection, courtesy, humour, admiration. With what a delicious mixture of irony and tenderness he treats the young men who surround him! When some lively sparks made up their minds to do what we now call "rag" him, dressed themselves up as Furies, and ran out upon him as he turned a dark corner on his way home, Socrates was not in the least degree disturbed, but discoursed with them readily on many matters and particularly on temperance; when at the banquet the topers disappear, one by one, under the table, Socrates, who, besides taking his due share of the wine, had filled and drunk the contents of the wine-cooler, is found cheerfully sitting, crowned with roses, among the expiring lamps, in the grey of the morning, discussing the higher mathematics. He is never sick or sorry; he is poor and has a scolding wife; he fasts or eats as circumstances dictate; he never does anything in particular, but he has always infinite leisure to have his talk out. Is he drawn for military service? he goes off, with an entire indifference to the hardships of the campaign. When the force is routed, he stalks deliberately off the field, looking round him like a great bird, with the kind of air that makes pursuers let people alone, as Alcibiades said. And when the final catastrophe draws near, he defends himself under a capital charge with infinite good-humour; he has cared nothing for slander and misrepresentation all his life, and why should he begin now? In the last inspired scene, he is the only man of the group who keeps his courteous tranquillity to the end; he had been sent into the world, he had lived his life, why should he fear to be dismissed? It matters little, in the presence of this august imagination, if the real Socrates was a rude and prosy person, who came by his death simply because the lively Athenians could tolerate anything but a bore!
The Socratic attitude is better than the high-bred attitude; it is better than the stoical attitude; it is even better than the pious attitude, because it depends upon living life to the uttermost, rather than upon detaching oneself from what one considers rather a poor business. The attitude of Socrates is based upon courage, generosity, simplicity. He knows that it is with fear that we weight our melancholy sensibilities, that it is with meanness and coldness that we poison life, that it is with complicated conventional duties that we fetter our weakness. Socrates has no personal ambitions, and thus he is rid of all envy and uncharitableness; he sees the world as it is, a very bright and brave place, teeming with interesting ideas and undetermined problems. Where Christianity has advanced upon this—for it has advanced splendidly and securely—is in interpreting life less intellectually. The intellectual side of life is what Socrates adores; the Christian faith is applicable to a far wider circle of homely lives. Yet Christianity too, in spite of ecclesiasticism, teems with ideas. Its essence is an unprejudiced freedom of soul. Its problems are problems of character which the simplest child can appreciate. But Christianity, too, is built upon a basis of joy. "Freely ye have received, freely give," is its essential maxim.
The secret then is to enjoy; but the enjoyment must not be that of the spoiler who carries away all that he can, and buries it in his tent; but the joy of relationship, the joy of conspiring together to be happy, the joy of consoling and sympathising and sharing, because we have received so much. Of course there remain the limitations of temperament, the difficulty of preventing our own acrid humours from overflowing into other lives; but this cannot be overcome by repression; it can only be overcome by tenderness. There are very few people who have not the elements of this in their character. I can count upon my fingers the malevolent men I know, who prefer making others uncomfortable to trying to make them glad; and all these men have been bullied in their youth, and are unconsciously protecting themselves against bullying still. We grow selfish, no doubt, for want of practice; ill-health makes villains of some of us. But we can learn, if we desire it, to keep our gruffness for our own consumption, and a very few experiments will soon convince us that there are few pleasures in the world so reasonable and so cheap, as the pleasure of giving pleasure.
But, after all, the resolute cheerfulness that can be to a certain extent captured and secured by an effort of the will, though it is perhaps a more useful quality than natural joy, and no doubt ranks together in the moral scale, is not to be compared with a certain unreasoning, incommunicable rapture which sometimes, without conscious effort or desire, descends upon the spirit, like sunshine after rain. Let me quote a recent experience of my own which may illustrate it.
A few days ago, I had a busy tiresome morning hammering into shape a stupid prosaic passage, of no suggestiveness; a mere statement, the only beauty of which could be that it should be absolutely lucid; and this beauty it resolutely refused to assume. Then the agent called to see me, and we talked business of a dull kind. Then I walked a little way among fields; and when I was in a pleasant flat piece of ground, full of thickets, where the stream makes a bold loop among willows and alders, the sun set behind a great bastion of clouds that looked like a huge fortification. It had been one of those days of cloudless skies, all flooded with the pale cold honey-coloured light of the winter sun, until a sense almost of spring came into the air; and in a sheltered place I found a little golden hawk-weed in full flower.
It had not been a satisfactory day at all to me. The statement that I had toiled so hard all the morning to make clear was not particularly worth making; it could effect but little at best, and I had worked at it in a British doggedness of spirit, regardless of its value and only because I was determined not to be beaten by it.
But for all that I came home in a rare and delightful frame of mind, as if I had heard a brief and delicate passage of music, a conspiracy of sweet sounds and rich tones; or as if I had passed through a sweet scent, such as blows from a clover-field in summer. There was no definite thought to disentangle: it was rather as if I had had a glimpse of the land which lies east of the sun and west of the moon, had seen the towers of a castle rise over a wood of oaks; met a company of serious people in comely apparel riding blithely on the turf of a forest road, who had waved me a greeting, and left me wondering out of what rich kind of scene they had stepped to bless me. It left me feeling as though there were some beautiful life, very near me, all around me, behind the mirror, outside of the door, beyond the garden-hedges, if I could but learn the spell which would open it to me; left me pleasantly and happily athirst for a life of gracious influences and of an unknown and perfect peace; such as creeps over the mind for the moment at the sight of a deep woodland at sunset, when the forest is veiled in the softest of blue mist; or at the sound of some creeping sea, beating softly all night on a level sand; or at the prospect of a winter sun going down into smoky orange vapours over a wide expanse of pastoral country; or at the soft close of some solemn music—when peace seems not only desirable beyond all things but attainable too.
How can one account for this sudden and joyful visitation? I am going to try and set down what I believe to be the explanation, if I can reduce to words a thought which is perfectly clear to me, however transcendental it may seem.
Well, at such a moment as this, one feels just as one may feel when from the streets of a dark and crowded city, with the cold shadow of a cloud passing over it, one sees the green head of a mountain over the housetops, all alone with the wind and the sun, with its crag-bastions, its terraces and winding turf ways.
The peace that thus blesses one is not, I think, a merely subjective mood, an imagined thing. It is, I believe, a real and actual thing which is there. One's consciousness does not create its impressions, one does not make for oneself the moral and artistic ideas that visit one; one perceives them. Education is not a process of invention—it is a process of discovery; a process of learning the names given to things that are all present in one's own mind. One knows things long before one knows the names for them, by instinct and by intuition; and one's own mind is simply a part of a large and immortal life, which for a time is fenced by a little barrier of identity, just as a tiny pool of sea-water on a sea-beach is for a few hours separated from the great tide to which it belongs. All our regrets, remorses, anxieties, troubles arise from our not realising that we are but a part of this greater and wider life, from our delusion that we are alone and apart instead of, as is the case, one with the great ocean of life and joy.
Sometimes, I know not why and how, we are for a moment or two in touch with the larger life—to some it comes in religion, to some in love, to some in art. Perhaps a wave of the onward sweeping tide beats for an instant into the little pool we call our own, stirring the fringing weed, bubbling sharply and freshly upon the sleeping sand.
The sad mistake we make is, when such a moment comes, to feel as though it were only the stirring of our own feeble imagination. What we ought rather to do is by every effort we can make to welcome and comprehend this dawning of the larger life upon us; not to sink back peevishly into our own limits and timidly to deplore them, but resolutely to open the door again and again—for the door can be opened—to the light of the great sun that lies so broadly about us. Every now and then we have some startling experience which reveals to us our essential union with other individuals. We have many of us had experiences which seem to indicate that there is at times a direct communication with other minds, independent of speech or writing; and even if we have not had such experiences, it has been scientifically demonstrated that such things can occur. Telepathy, as it is clumsily called, which is nothing more than this direct communication of mind, is a thing which has been demonstrated in a way which no reasonable person can reject. We may call it abnormal if we like, and it is true that we do not as yet know under what conditions it exists; but it is as much there as electrical communication, and just as the electrician does not create the viewless ripples which his delicate instruments can catch and record, but merely makes it a matter of mechanics to detect them, so the ripple of human intercommunication is undoubtedly there; and when we have discovered what its laws are, we shall probably find that it underlies many things, such as enthusiasms, movements, the spirit of a community, patriotism, martial ardour, which now appear to us to be isolated and mysterious phenomena.
But there is a larger thing than even that behind. In humanity we have merely a certain portion of this large life, which may spread for all we know beyond the visible universe, globed and bounded, like the spray of a fountain, into little separate individualities. Some of the urgent inexplicable emotions which visit us from time to time, immense, far-reaching, mysterious, are, I believe with all my heart, the pulsations of this vast life outside us, stirring for an instant the silence of our sleeping spirit. It is possible, I cannot help feeling, that those people live the best of all possible lives who devote themselves to receiving these pulsations. It may well be that in following anxiously the movement of the world, in giving ourselves to politics or business, or technical religion, or material cares, we are but delaying the day of our freedom by throwing ourselves intently into our limitations, and forgetting the wider life. It may be that the life which Christ seems to have suggested as the type of Christian life—the life of constant prayer, simple and kindly relations, indifference to worldly conditions, absence of ambitions, fearlessness, sincerity—may be the life in which we can best draw near to the larger spirit—for Christ spoke as one who knew some prodigious secret, as one in whose soul the larger life leapt and plunged like fresh sea-billows; who was incapable of sin and even of temptation, because His soul had free and open contact with the all-pervading spirit, and to whom the human limitations were no barrier at all.
We do not know as yet the mechanical means, so to speak, by which the connection can be established, the door set wide. But we can at least open our soul to every breathing of divine influences; and when the great wind rises and thunders in our spirits, we can see that no claim of business, or weakness, or comfort, or convention shall hinder us from admitting it.
And thus when one of these sweet, high, uplifting thoughts draws near and visits us, we can but say, as the child Samuel said in the dim-lit temple, "Speak, Lord, for Thy servant heareth." The music comes upon the air, in faint and tremulous gusts; it dies away across the garden, over the far hill-side, into the cloudless sky; but we have heard; we are not the same; we are transfigured.
Why then, lastly, it may be asked, do these experiences befall us so faintly, so secretly, so seldom; if it is the true life that beats so urgently into our souls, why are we often so careful and disquieted, why do we fare such long spaces without the heavenly vision, why do we see, or seem to see, so many of our fellows to whom such things come rarely or not at all? I cannot answer that; yet I feel that the life is there; and I can but fall back upon the gentle words of the old saint, who wrote: "I know not how it is, but the more the realities of heaven are clothed with obscurity, the more they delight and attract; and nothing so much heightens longing as such tender refusal."
XVIII. THE LOVE OF GOD
How strange it is that what is often the latest reward of the toiler after holiness, the extreme solace of the outwearied saint, should be too often made the first irksome article of a childish creed! To tell a child that it is a duty to love God better than father or mother, sisters and brothers, better than play, or stories, or food, or toys, what a monstrous thing is that! It is one of the things that make religion into a dreary and darkling shadow, that haunts the path of the innocent. The child's love is all for tangible, audible, and visible things. Love for him means kind words and smiling looks, ready comfort and lavished kisses; the child does not even love things for being beautiful, but for being what they ARE—curious, characteristic, interesting. He loves the odd frowsy smell of the shut-up attic, the bright ugly ornaments of the chimney-piece, the dirt of the street. He has no sense of critical taste. Besides, words mean so little to him, or even bear quaint, fantastic associations, which no one can divine, and which he himself is unable to express; he has no notion of an abstract, essential, spiritual thing, apart from what is actual to his senses. And then into this little concrete mind, so full of small definite images, so faltering and frail, is thrust this vast, remote notion—that he is bound to love something hidden and terrible, something that looks at him from the blank sky when he is alone among the garden beds, something which haunts empty rooms and the dark brake of the woodland. Moreover, a child, with its preternatural sensitiveness to pain, its bewildered terror of punishment, learns, side by side with this, that the God Whom he is to love thus tenderly is the God Who lays about Him so fiercely in the Old Testament, slaying the innocent with the guilty, merciless, harsh, inflicting the irreparable stroke of death, where a man would be concerned with desiring amendment more than vengeance. The simple questions with which the man Friday poses Robinson Crusoe, and to which he receives so ponderous an answer, are the questions which naturally arise in the mind of any thoughtful child. Why, if God be so kind and loving, does He not make an end of evil at once? Yet, because such questions are unanswerable by the wisest, the child is, for the convenience of his education, made to feel that he is wicked if he questions what he is taught. How many children will persevere in the innocent scepticism which is so natural and so desirable, under a sense of disapproval? One of my own earliest experiences in the ugly path of religious gloom was that I recognised quite clearly to myself that I did not love God at all. I did not know Him, I had no reason to think Him kind; He was angry with me, I gathered, if I was ill-tempered or untruthful. I was well enough aware by childish instinct that my mother did not cease to love me when I was naughty, but I could not tell about God. And yet I knew that, with His terrible power of knowing everything, He was well aware that I did not love Him. It was best to forget about Him as much as possible, for it spoiled one's pleasure to think about it. All the little amusements and idle businesses that were so dear to me, He probably disapproved of them all, and was only satisfied when I was safe at my lessons or immured in church. Sunday was the sort of day He liked, and how I detested it!—the toys put away, little ugly books about the Holy Land to read, an air of deep dreariness about it all. Thus does religion become a weariness from the outset.
How slowly, and after what strange experience, by what infinite delay of deduction, does the love of God dawn upon the soul! Even then how faint and subtle an essence it is! In deep anxiety, under unbearable strain, in the grip of a dilemma of which either issue seems intolerable, in weariness of life, in hours of flagging vitality, the mighty tide begins to flow strongly and tranquilly into the soul. One did not make oneself; one did not make one's sorrows, even when they arose from one's own weakness and perversity. There was a meaning, a significance about it all; one was indeed on pilgrimage; and then comes the running to the Father's knee, and the casting oneself in utter broken weakness upon the one Heart that understands perfectly and utterly, and which does, which must, desire the best and truest. "Give me courage, hope, confidence," says the desolate soul.
"I can endure Thy bitterest decrees, If CERTAIN of Thy Love."
How would one amend all this if one had the power? Alas! it could only be by silencing all stupid and clumsy people, all rigid parents, all diplomatic priests, all the horrible natures who lick their lips with a fierce zest over the pains that befall the men with whom they do not agree. I would teach a child, in defiance even of reason, that God is the one Power that loves and understands him through thick and thin; that He punishes with anguish and sorrow; that He exults in forgiveness and mercy; that He rejoices in innocent happiness; that He loves courage, and brightness, and kindness, and cheerful self-sacrifice; that things mean, and vile, and impure, and cruel, are things that He does not love to punish, but sad and soiling stains that He beholds with shame and tears. This, it seems to me, is the Gospel teaching about God, impossible only because of the hardness of our hearts. But if it were possible, a child might grow to feel about sin, not that it was a horrible and unpardonable failure, a thing to afflict oneself drearily about, but that it was rather a thing which, when once spurned, however humiliating, could minister to progress, in a way in which untroubled happiness could not operate—to be forgotten, perhaps, but certainly to be forgiven; a privilege rather than a hindrance, a gate rather than a barrier; a shadow upon the path, out of which one would pass, with such speed as one might, into the blitheness of the free air and the warm sun. I remember a terrible lecture which I heard as a little bewildered boy at school, anxious to do right, terrified of oppression, and coldness, and evil alike; given by a worthy Evangelical clergyman, with large spectacles, and a hollow voice, and a great relish for spiritual terrors. The subject was "the exceeding sinfulness of sin," a proposition which I now see to be as true as if one lectured on the exceeding carnality of flesh. But the lecture spoke of the horrible and filthy corruption of the human heart, its determined delight in wallowing in evil, its desperate wickedness. I believed it, dully and hopelessly, as a boy believes what is told him by a voluble elderly person of obvious respectability. But what a detestable theory of life, what an ugly picture of Divine incompetence!
Of course there are abundance of facts in the world which look like anything but love;—the ruthless and merciless punishment of carelessness and ignorance, the dark laws of heredity, the wastefulness and cruelty of disease, the dismal acquiescence of stupid, healthy, virtuous persons, without sympathy or imagination, in the hardships which they were strong enough to bear unscathed. One of the prime terrors of religion is the thought of the heavy-handed, unintelligent, tiresome men who would make it a monopoly if they could, and bear it triumphantly away from the hands of modest, humble, quiet, and tender-hearted people, chiding them as nebulous optimists.
Who are the people in this short life of ours whom one remembers with deep and abiding gratitude? Not those who have rebuked, and punished, and satirised, and humiliated us, striking down the stricken, and flattening the prostrate—but the people who have been patient with us, and kind, who have believed in us, and comforted us, and welcomed us, and forgiven us everything; who have given us largely of their love, who have lent without requiring payment, who have given us emotional rather than prudential reasons, who have cared for us, not as a duty but by some divine instinct, who have made endless excuses for us, believing that the true self was there and would emerge, who have pardoned our misdeeds and forgotten our meannesses.
This is what I would believe of God—that He is not our censorious and severe critic, but our champion and lover, not loving us in spite of what we are, but because of what we are; Who in the days of our strength rejoices in our joy, and does not wish to overshadow it, like the conscientious human mentor, with considerations that we must yet be withered like grass; and Who, when the youthful ebullience dies away, and the spring grows weak, and we wonder why the zest has died out of simple pleasures, out of agreeable noise and stir, is still with us, reminding us that the wisdom we are painfully and surely gaining is a deeper and more lasting quality than even the hot impulses of youth.
Once in my life have I conceived what might have been, if I had had the skill to paint it, an immortal picture. It was thus. I was attending a Christmas morning service in a big parish church. I was in a pew facing east; close to me, in a transept, in a pew facing sideways, there sat a little old woman, who had hurried in just before the service began. She was a widow, living, I afterwards learnt, in an almshouse hard by. She was old and feeble, very poor, and her life had been a series of calamities, relieved upon a background of the hardest and humblest drudgery. She had lost her husband years ago by a painful and terrible illness. She had lost her children one by one; she was alone in the world, save for a few distant and indifferent relatives. To get into the almshouse had been for her a stroke of incredible and inconceivable good fortune. She had a single room, with a tiny kitchen off it. She had very little to say for herself; she could hardly read. No one took any particular interest in her; but she was a kindly, gallant, unselfish old soul, always ready to bear a hand, full of gratitude for the kindnesses she had received—and God alone knows how few they had been.
She had a small, ugly, homely face, withered and gnarled hands; and she was dressed that day in a little old bonnet of unheard-of age, and in dingy, frowsy black clothes, shiny and creased, that came out of their box perhaps half-a-dozen times a year.
But this morning she was in a festal mood. She had tidied up her little room; she was going to have a bit of meat for dinner, given her by a neighbour. She had been sent a Christmas card that morning, and had pored over it with delight. She liked the stir and company of the church, and the cheerful air of the holly-berries. She held her book up before her, though I do not suppose she was even at the right page. She kept up a little faint cracked singing in her thin old voice; but when they came to the hymn "Hark, the herald angels sing," which she had always known from childhood, she lifted up her head and sang more courageously:
"Join the triumph of the skies! With the angelic host proclaim, Christ is born in Bethlehem!"
It was then that I had my vision. I do not know why, but at the sight of the wrinkled face and the sound of the plaintive uplifted voice, singing such words, a sudden mist of tears came over my eyes. Then I saw that close behind the old dame there stood a very young and beautiful man. I could see the fresh curling hair thrown back from the clear brow. He was clothed in a dim robe, of an opalescent hue and misty texture, and his hands were clasped together. It seemed that he sang too; but his eyes were bent upon the old woman with a look, half of tender amusement, and half of unutterable lovingness. The angelic host! This was one of that bright company indeed, going about the Father's business, bringing a joyful peace into the hearts of those among whom he moved. And of all the worshippers in that crowded church he had singled out the humblest and simplest for his friend and sister. I saw no more that day, for the lines of that presence faded out upon the air in the gleams of the frosty sunshine that came and went among the pillars. But if I could have painted the scene, the pure, untroubled face so close to the old worn features, the robes of light side by side with the dingy human vesture, it would be a picture that no living eye that had rested on it should forget.
Alas, that one cannot live in moments of inspiration like these! As life goes on, and as we begin perhaps to grow a little nearer to God by faith, we are confronted in our own lives, or in the life of one very near us, by some intolerable and shameful catastrophe. A careless sin makes havoc of a life, and shadows a home with shame; or some generous or unselfish nature, useful, beneficent, urgently needed, is struck down with a painful and hopeless malady. This too, we say to ourselves, must come from God; He might have prevented it if He had so willed. What are we to make of it? How are we to translate into terms of love what seems like an act of tyrannous indifference, or deliberate cruelty? Then, I think, it is well to remind ourselves that we can never know exactly the conditions of any other human soul. How little we know of our own! How little we could explain our case to another, even if we were utterly sincere! The weaknesses of our nature are often, very tenderly I would believe, hidden from us; we think ourselves sensitive and weak, when in reality we are armed with a stubborn breastplate of complacency and pride; or we think ourselves strong, only because the blows of circumstance have been spared us. The more one knows of the most afflicted lives, the more often the conviction flashes across us that the affliction is not a wanton outrage, but a delicately adjusted treatment. I remember once that a friend of mine had sent him a rare plant, which was set in a big flower-pot, close to a fountain-basin. It never throve; it lived indeed, putting out in the spring a delicate stunted foliage, though my friend, who was a careful gardener, could never divine what ailed it. He was away for a few weeks, and the day after he was gone, the flower-pot was broken by a careless garden-boy, who wheeled a barrow roughly past it; the plant, earth and all, fell into the water; the boy removed the broken pieces of the pot, and seeing that the plant had sunk to the bottom of the little pool, never troubled his head to fish it out. When my friend returned, he noticed one day in the fountain a new and luxuriant growth of some unknown plant. He made careful inquiries and found out what had happened. It then came out that the plant was in reality a water-plant, and that it had pined away in the stifling air for want of nourishment, perhaps dimly longing for the fresh bed of the pool.
Even so has it been, times without number, with some starving and thirsty soul, that has gone on feebly trying to live a maimed life, shut up in itself, ailing, feeble. There has descended upon it what looks at first sight like a calamity, some affliction unaccountable and irreparable; and then it proves that this was the one thing needed; that sorrow has brought out some latent unselfishness, or suffering energised some unused faculty of strength and patience.
But even if it is not so, if we cannot trace in our own lives or the lives of others the beneficent influence of suffering, we can always take refuge in one thought. We can see that the one mighty and transforming power on earth is the power of love; we see people make sacrifices, not momentary sacrifices, but lifelong patient renunciations, for the sake of one whom they love; we see a great and passionate affection touch into being a whole range of unsuspected powers; we see men and women utterly unconscious of pain and weariness, utterly unaware that they are acting without a thought of self, if they can but soothe the pain of one dear to them, or win a smile from beloved lips; it is not that the selfishness, the indolence, is not there, but it is all borne away upon a mighty stream, as the river-wrack spins upon the rising flood.
If then this marvellous, this amazing power of love can cause men to make, with joy and gladness, sacrifices of which in their loveless days they would have deemed themselves and confessed themselves wholly incapable, can we not feel with confidence that the power, which lies thus deepest in the heart of the world, lies also deepest in the heart of God, of Whom the world is but a faint reflection? It cannot be otherwise. We may sadly ponder, indeed, why the love that has been, or that might have been, the strength of weary lives should be withdrawn or sternly withheld, but we need not be afraid, if we have one generous impulse for another, if we ever put aside a delight that may please or attract us, for the sake of one who expects or would value any smallest service—and there are few who cannot feel this—we need not then, I say, doubt that the love which we desire, and which we have somehow missed or lost, is there waiting for us, ours all the time, if we but knew it.
And even if we miss the sweet influence of love in our lives, is there any one who has not, in solitude and dreariness, looked back upon the time when he was surrounded by love and opportunities of love, in childhood or in youth, with a bitter regret that he did not make more of it when it was so near to him, that he was so blind and selfish, that he was not a little more tender, a little more kind? I will speak frankly for myself and say that the memories which hurt me most, when I stumble upon them, are those of the small occasions when I showed myself perverse and hard; when eyes, long since closed, looked at me with a pathetic expectancy; when I warded off the loving impulse by some jealous sense of my own rights, some peevish anger at a fancied injustice; when I stifled the smile and withheld the hand, and turned away in silence, glad, in that poisonous moment, to feel that I could at all events inflict that pain in base requital. One may know that it is all forgiven, one may be sure that the misunderstanding has faded in the light of the other dawn, but still the cold base shadow, the thought of one's perverse cruelty, strikes a gloom upon the mind.
But with God, when one once begins to draw near to Him, one need have no such poignant regrets or overshadowing memories; one may say to Him in one's heart, as simply as a child, that He knows what one has been and is, what one might have been and what one desires to be; and one may cast oneself at His feet in the overwhelming hope that He will make of oneself what He would have one to be.
In the parable of the Prodigal Son, it is not the poor wretch himself, whose miserable motive for returning is plainly indicated—that instead of pining in cold and hunger he may be warmed and clothed—who is the hero of the story; still less is it the hard and virtuous elder son. The hero of the tale is the patient, tolerant, loving father, who had acted, as a censorious critic might say, foolishly and culpably, in supplying the dissolute boy with resources, and taking him back without a word of just reproach. A sad lack of moral discipline, no doubt! If he had kept the boy in fear and godliness, if he had tied him down to honest work, the disaster need never have happened. Yet the old man, who went so often at sundown, we may think, to the crest of the hill, from which he could see the long road winding over the plain to the far-off city, the road by which he had seen his son depart, light-heartedly and full of fierce joyful impulses, and along which he was to see the dejected figure, so familiar, so sadly marred, stumbling home—he is the master-spirit of the sweet and comforting scene. His heart is full of utter gladness, for the lost is found. He smiles upon the servants; he bids the household rejoice; he can hardly, in his simple joy of heart, believe that the froward elder brother is vexed and displeased; and his words of entreaty that the brother, too, will enter into the spirit of the hour, are some of the most pathetic and beautiful ever framed in human speech: "Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine; it was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again, and was lost, and is found."
And this is, after all, the way in which God deals with us. He gives us our portion to spend as we choose; He holds nothing back; and when we have wasted it and brought misery upon ourselves, and return to Him, even for the worst of reasons, He has not a word of rebuke or caution; He is simply and utterly filled with joy and love. There are a thousand texts that would discourage us, would bid us believe that God deals hardly with us, but it is men that deal hardly with us, it is we that deal hardly with ourselves. This story, which is surely the most beautiful story in the world, gives us the deliberate thought of the Saviour, the essence of His teaching; and we may fling aside the bitter warnings of jealous minds, and cast ourselves upon the supreme hope that, if only we will return, we are dealt with even more joyfully than if we had never wandered at all.
And then perhaps at last, when we have peeped again and again, through loss and suffering, at the dark background of life; when we have seen the dreariest corner of the lonely road, where the path grows steep and miry, and the light is veiled by scudding cloud and dripping rain, there begins to dawn upon us the sense of a beautiful and holy patience, the thought that these grey ashes of life, in which the glowing cinders sink, which once were bright with leaping flame, are not the end—that the flame and glow are there, although momently dispersed. They have done their work; one is warmed and enlivened; one can sit still, feeding one's fancy on the lapsing embers, just as one saw pictures in the fire as an eager child long ago. That high-hearted excitement and that curiosity have faded. Life is very different from what we expected, more wholesome, more marvellous, more brief, more inconclusive; but there is an intenser, if quieter and more patient, curiosity to wait and see what God is doing for us; and the orange stain and green glow of the sunset, though colder and less jocund, is yet a far more mysterious, tender, and beautiful thing than the steady glow of the noonday sun, when the shining flies darted hither and thither, and the roses sent out their rich fragrance. There is fragrance still, the fragrance of the evening flowers, where the western windows look across the misty fields to the thickening shadows of the tall trees. But there is something that speaks in the gathering gloom, in the darkening sky with its flush of crimson fire, that did not speak in the sun-warmed garden and the dancing leaves; and what speaks is the mysterious love of God, a thing sweeter and more remote than the urgent bliss of the fiery noon, full of delicate mysteries and appealing echoes. We have learnt that the darkness is no darkness with Him; and the soul which beat her wings so passionately in the brighter light of the hot morning, now at last begins to dream of whither she is bound, and the dear shade where she will fold her weary wing.
How often has the soul in her dreariness cried out, "One effort more!" But that is done with for ever. She is patient now; she believes at last; she labours no longer at the oar, but she is borne upon the moving tide; she is on her way to the deep Heart of God.
I have wandered far enough in my thought, it would seem, from the lonely grange in its wide pastures, and the calm expanse of fen; and I should wish once more to bring my reader back home with me to the sheltered garden, and the orchard knee-deep in grass, and the embowering elms; for there is one word more to be said, and that may be best said at home; though our experience is not limited by time or place. It was on the lonely ridge, strewn with boulders and swept by night-winds, when the darkness closed in drearily about him, that Jacob, a homeless exile, in the hour of his utmost desolation, saw the ladder whose golden head was set at the very foot of God, thronged with bright messengers of strength and hope. And again it was in the familiar homestead, with every corner rich in gentle memories, that the spirit of terror turned the bitter stream of anguish, as from the vent of some thunderous cloud, upon the sad head of Job. We may turn a corner in life, and be confronted perhaps with an uncertain shape of grief and despair, whom we would fain banish from our shuddering sight, perhaps with some solemn form of heavenly radiance, whom we may feel reluctant in our unworthiness to entertain. But in either case, such times as those, when we wrestle all night with the angel, not knowing if he wishes us well or ill, ignorant of his name and his mien alike, are better than hours spent in indolent contentment, in the realisation of our placid and petty designs. For, after all, it is the quality rather than the quantity of our experience that matters; it is easy enough to recognise that, when we are working light-heartedly and eagerly at some brave design, and seeing the seed we plant springing up all about us in fertile rows in the garden of God. But what of those days when our lot seems only to endure, when we can neither scheme nor execute, when the old volubility and vitality desert us, and our one care is just to make our dreary presence as little of a burden and a shadow as possible to those whom we love? We must then remind ourselves, not once or twice, that nothing can separate us from the Father of all, even though our own wilfulness and perversity may have drawn about us a cloud of sorrow. We are perhaps most in God's mind when we seem most withdrawn from Him. He is nearer us when we seek for Him and cannot find Him, than when we forget Him in laughter and self-pleasing. And we must remember too that it is neither faithful nor fruitful to abide wilfully in sadness, to clasp our cares close, to luxuriate in them. There is a beautiful story of Mrs. Charles Kingsley, who long survived her husband. Never perhaps had two souls been united by so close a bond of chivalry and devotion. "Whenever I find myself thinking too much about Charles," she said in the days of her grief, "I find and read the most sensational novel I can. People may think it heartless, but hearts were given us to love with, not to break." And we must deal with our sorrows as we deal with any other gift of God, courageously and temperately, not faint-heartedly or wilfully; not otherwise can they be blest to us. We must not pettishly reject consolation and distraction. Pain is a great angel, but we must wrestle with him, until he bless us! and the blessings he can bring us are first a wholesome shame at our old selfish ingratitude in the untroubled days, when we took care and pleasure greedily; and next, if we meet him faithfully, he can make our heart go out to all our brothers and sisters who suffer in this brief and troubled life of ours. For we are here to learn something, if we can but spell it out; and thus it is morbid to indulge regrets and remorse too much over our failures and mistakes; for it is through them that we learn. We must be as brave as we can, and dare to grudge no pang that brings us nearer to the reality of things.