The Way of All Flesh, by Samuel Butler

Chapter 52

“YOU know, my dear Pontifex,” said Pryer to him, some few weeks after Ernest had become acquainted with him, when the two were taking a constitutional one day in Kensington Gardens, “you know, my dear Pontifex, it is all very well to quarrel with Rome, but Rome has reduced the treatment of the human soul to a science, while our own Church, though so much purer in many respects, has no organised system either of diagnosis or pathology — I mean, of course, spiritual diagnosis and spiritual pathology. Our Church does not prescribe remedies upon any settled system, and, what is still worse, even when her physicians have according to their lights ascertained the disease and pointed out the remedy, she has no discipline which will ensure its being actually applied. If our patients do not choose to do as we tell them, we cannot make them. Perhaps really under all the circumstances this is as well, for we are spiritually mere horse doctors as compared with the Roman priesthood, nor can we hope to make much headway against the sin and misery that surround us, till we return in some respects to the practice of our forefathers and of the greater part of Christendom.”

Ernest asked in what respects it was that his friend desired a return to the practice of our forefathers.

“Why, my dear fellow, can you really be ignorant? It is just this, either the priest is indeed a spiritual guide, as being able to show people how they ought to live better than they can find out for themselves, or he is nothing at all — he has no raison d’etre. If the priest is not as much a healer and director of men’s souls as a physician is of their bodies, what is he? The history of all ages has shown — and surely you must know this as well as I do — that as men cannot cure the bodies of their patients if they have not been properly trained in hospitals under skilled teachers, so neither can souls be cured of their more hidden ailments without the help of men who are skilled in soul-craft — or in other words, of priests. What do one half of our formularies and rubrics mean if not this? How in the name of all that is reasonable can we find out the exact nature of a spiritual malady, unless we have had experience of other similar cases? How can we get this without express training? At present we have to begin all experiments for ourselves, without profiting by the organised experience of our predecessors, inasmuch as that experience is never organised and co-ordinated at all. At the outset, therefore, each one of us must ruin many souls which could be saved by knowledge of a few elementary principles.”

Ernest was very much impressed.

“As for men curing themselves,” continued Pryer, “they can no more cure their own souls than they can cure their own bodies, or manage their own law affairs. In these two last cases they see the folly of meddling with their own cases clearly enough, and go to a professional adviser as a matter of course; surely a man’s soul is at once a more difficult and intricate matter to treat, and at the same time it is more important to him that it should be treated rightly than that either his body or his money should be so. What are we to think of the practice of a Church which encourages people to rely on unprofessional advice in matters affecting their eternal welfare, when they would not think of jeopardising their worldly affairs by such insane conduct?”

Ernest could see no weak place in this. These ideas had crossed his own mind vaguely before now, but he had never laid hold of them or set them in an orderly manner before himself. Nor was he quick at detecting false analogies and the misuse of metaphors; in fact he was a mere child in the hands of his fellow curate.

“And what,” resumed Pryer, “does all this point to? Firstly, to the duty of confession — the outcry against which is absurd as an outcry would be against dissection as part of the training of medical students. Granted these young men must see and do a great deal we do not ourselves like even to think of, but they should adopt some other profession unless they are prepared for this; they may even get inoculated with poison from a dead body and lose their lives, but they must stand their chance. So if we aspire to be priests in deed as well as name, we must familiarise ourselves with the minutest and most repulsive details of all kinds of sin, so that we may recognise it in all its stages. Some of us must doubtless perish spiritually in such investigations. We cannot help it; all science must have its martyrs, and none of these will deserve better of humanity than those who have fallen in the pursuit of spiritual pathology.”

Ernest grew more and more interested, but in the meekness of his soul said nothing.

“I do not desire this martyrdom for myself,” continued the other; “on the contrary I will avoid it to the very utmost of my power, but if it be God’s will that I should fall while studying while what I believe most calculated to advance his glory — then, I say, not my will, O Lord, but thine be done.”

This was too much even for Ernest. “I heard of an Irishwoman once,” he said, with a smile, “who said she was a martyr to the drink.”

“And so she was,” rejoined Pryer with warmth; and he went on to show that this good woman was an experimentalist whose experiment, though disastrous in its effects upon herself, was pregnant with instruction to other people. She was thus a true martyr or witness to the frightful consequences of intemperance, to the saving, doubtless, of many who but for her martyrdom would have taken to drinking. She was one of a forlorn hope whose failure to take a certain position went to the proving it to be impregnable and therefore to the abandonment of all attempt to take it. This was almost as great a gain to mankind as the actual taking of the position would have been.

“Besides,” he added more hurriedly, “the limits of vice and virtue are wretchedly ill-defined. Half the vices which the world condemns most loudly have seeds of good in them and require moderate use rather than total abstinence.”

Ernest asked timidly for an instance.

“No, no,” said Pryer, “I will give you no instance, but I will give you a formula that shall embrace all instances. It is this, that no practice is entirely vicious which has not been extinguished among the comeliest, most vigorous, and most cultivated races of mankind in spite of centuries of endeavour to extirpate it. If a vice in spite of such efforts can still hold its own among the most polished nations, it must be founded on some immutable truth or fact in human nature, and must have some compensatory advantage which we cannot afford altogether to dispense with.”

“But,” said Ernest timidly, “is not this virtually doing away with all distinction between right and wrong, and leaving people without any moral guide whatever?”

“Not the people,” was the answer: “it must be our care to be guides to these, for they are and always will be incapable of guiding themselves sufficiently. We should tell them what they must do, and in an ideal state of things should be able to enforce their doing it: perhaps when we are better instructed the ideal state may come about; nothing will so advance it as greater knowledge of spiritual pathology on our own part. For this, three things are necessary; firstly, absolute freedom in experiment for us the clergy; secondly, absolute knowledge of what the laity think and do, and of what thoughts and actions result in what spiritual conditions; and thirdly, a compacter organisation among ourselves.

“If we are to do any good we must be a closely united body, and must be sharply divided from the laity. Also we must be free from those ties which a wife and children involve. I can hardly express the horror with which I am filled by seeing English priests living in what I can only designate as ‘open matrimony.’ It is deplorable. The priest must be absolutely sexless — if not in practice, yet at any rate in theory, absolutely — and that, too, by a theory so universally accepted that none shall venture to dispute it.”

“But,” said Ernest, “has not the Bible already told people what they ought and ought not to do, and is it not enough for us to insist on what can be found here, and let the rest alone?”

“If you begin with the Bible,” was the rejoinder, “you are three parts gone on the road to infidelity, and will go the other part before you know where you are. The Bible is not without its value to us the clergy, but for the laity it is a stumbling-block which cannot be taken out of their way too soon or too completely. Of course, I mean on the supposition that they read it, which, happily, they seldom do. If people read the Bible as the ordinary British churchman or churchwoman reads it, it is harmless enough; but if they read it with any care — which we should assume they will if we give it them at all — it is fatal to them.”

“What do you mean?” said Ernest, more and more astonished, but more and more feeling that he was at least in the hands of a man who had definite ideas.

“Your question shows me that you have never read your Bible. A more unreliable book was never put upon paper. Take my advice and don’t read it, not till you are a few years older, and may do so safely.”

“But surely you believe the Bible when it tells you of such things as that Christ died and rose from the dead? Surely you believe this?” said Ernest, quite prepared to be told that Pryer believed nothing of the kind.

“I do not believe it, I know it.”

“But how — if the testimony of the Bible fails?”

“On that of the living voice of the Church, which I know to be infallible and to be informed of Christ himself.”

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31