S.S. Arcadia, December 16, 1912. (Off Aden.)
It has occurred to me that the views on the matter of religion of a person of my day with such experiences as this work records may prove of interest to some of those who come after me, and possibly, here and there, of help. So I add them to this book as a footnote which none need read unless they wish.
First I should state that I am not a theologian. Theology is a science that has no attraction for me. In this great question of our future life or death I find no place for subtleties in which many take so much delight. Such is the constitution of my mind. The fine divisions of a creed, the bitterness that rages between High Church and Low, for instance, awake in my heart neither sympathy nor echo. What are vestments or ritual when eternal life or death and salvation are at stake? Even the great gulf fixed between Anglican and Roman Catholic is to me narrow. I was bred, and doubtless shall to the end remain, a member of the Church of England. But, on the other hand, I have a great admiration for many parts of the Roman precept and practice. Its discipline seems to me beyond praise; the support it gives to the individual struggling and affrighted soul shows deep understanding of the eternal needs of human nature; while who can be blind to the abnegation of self evinced in the practice of celibacy by its devoted priesthood, resulting, as it does, in an enormous gain to its efficiency as a Church?
Further, within limits that I need not discuss, personally I think the virtue of Confession which it inculcates great, since thereby is brought the whole weight, wisdom and merit of the Church to the aid of the particular case. I am aware that Confession is allowed to Anglicans and even, in a sense, enjoined upon them. But by how many is the rite employed? And why is it not employed? The question may be answered by another. Who wishes to make confessions of his failings — to lay bare that wonderful and sometimes awful thing, the secret soul of man, to Mrs. Rector or Mrs. Archdeacon, or even to a selection of the father confessor’s brothers and priests? It may be retorted, not without indignation, that such a thing would not happen. Perhaps. Yet the average man feels a risk which he will not face. Many of us have known worthy but much married clergymen whose conjugal confidences are famous. In consequence, rightly or wrongly, other confidences are withheld from them, and with the abolition of a one-doctrined, properly controlled, responsible and non-amateur celibate priesthood, Confession has gone out of fashion. This, however, is by the way.
The trouble about the Roman Church is not only its notorious intolerance and bigotry, of which history tells, but the fact that some of the doctrines, as I understand them, are not to be found in the New Testament, which after all is the Christian’s only charter. Since the Scriptures are of no private interpretation what is not written there is, so far as they are concerned, presumably non-existent. It is this truth that keeps so many from the gates of Rome. Perhaps in some day to come she will modify her attitude in certain directions, as we may modify ours, and the two greatest divisions of the Church of Christ will draw together again. I trust and pray that this may be so and that thus an united front may be presented to the evil that is in the world, which lessens little, if at all, with the passage of the ages.
In the same way that I admire and respect the Roman Church do I admire and respect a Body which stands at the other religious pole — I refer to the Salvation Army. But this Body, splendid as is its work, makes what I consider the mistake of omitting the use of the Sacraments which seem to me to be clearly enjoined by the New Testament. As the Roman Church elaborates the sum total of the corpus of our faith, so the Salvation Army deducts from that sum. But it has been explained to me that the late General Booth did this of set purpose, because he did not think that the people with whom he had to deal understood the Sacraments.
I do but quote these two extremes, however, each of which I think so admirable in its own fashion, as evidence of the statement with which I opened these remarks, to the effect that whatever I may or may not be, I am no bigot. Now I will try to show why I believe in the simple and unadulterated doctrines of Christianity as these appear within the four corners of the New Testament and are preached by the Church to which I belong.
There are, of course, many varieties of what is known as Faith. There is, for instance, the unquestioning Faith which many profess because it is there, because they inherited or were taught it in childhood. Such persons have looked and need to look no further. Theirs not to reason why, and they are fortunate and happy in this attitude.
Others have a more difficult experience. When the intellect awakes it begins to question, and often enough finds no satisfactory answer. It becomes aware that all these divine events happened a long while ago, also that the evidence for them is not of a nature that forces conviction per se, at any rate at first sight. For instance, no judge would send an accused person to gaol on the testimony which, for some purpose beyond our ken, has been considered sufficiently strong to enable mankind to accept a very wonderful story and to build thereon the hope or rather the certainties of redemption and eternal life beyond the chances and changes of this mortality. Some are thereby entirely discouraged and, rejecting what they conclude must be a fable, set themselves sadly to make the best of things as they are, awaiting the end with resignation, with terror, or with the callous indifference of despair, according to their individual temperaments. Others start out on wild searches of their own. They examine the remaining religions, they try spiritualism, they bring themselves, or so imagine, into some faint and uncertain touch with the dead, the Unseen and the Powers that dwell therein, only after all to return unsatisfied, unsettled, hungry — frightened also at times — and doubtful of the true source of their vision. For in all these far seas they can find no sure, anchored rock on which to stand and defy the storms of Fate. Those alien religions may suit and even be sufficient to the salvation of their born votaries, but to these philosophical inquirers they are not sufficient. Moreover, they find that Christianity embodies whatever is true and good in every one of them, rejecting only the false and evil. To take but one example, all, or very nearly all, of the beautiful rules and maxims of Buddha are to be found in the teaching of our Lord. but there is this difference between the faiths they preached. Whereas that of Buddha, as I understand it, is a religion of Death, holding up cessation of mundane lives and ultimate extinction as the great reward of virtue, Christianity is a religion of Life, of continued individual being, full, glorious, sinless and eternal, to be won by those who choose to accept the revelation of its Founder. Who then can hesitate between the two? Who wishes to be absorbed into the awful peace of Nothingness? Why, such, without its precedent preparation, was the refuge of the Roman who opened his veins when things went wrong or Caesar frowned!
Thus it comes about that these seekers after spiritual truth remain drifting to and fro in their little boats of hope, that grow at length so frail and old, and mayhap in the end founder altogether.
Or perhaps they turn in despair and, aware of the overwhelming importance, of the awfulness of the issue indeed, to which all other things are as naught, face the situation afresh, study afresh, think afresh, pray afresh, perchance for years and years. If so, there is really only one work with which they need trouble themselves, the New Testament, and parts of the Old such as the Psalms. At least that is my experience — the experience of a plain man in search of truth.
I suppose that for the last fifteen or twenty years, except very occasionally through accident or a sense of unworthiness, scarcely a day has gone over my head on which I have not once (the last thing at night) and often more than once, read a portion of the Bible. The result is that now I find it fresher, stronger, more convincing, more full of hidden meaning than I did when I began this exercise. “Search the Scriptures” was a very great and potent saying, for in them I think is life.
What, it may be asked, do you find there, beyond picturesque narrative and the expression of hopes natural to the hearts of members of a race that in a few short years must throb itself to silence? I answer that in all their main facts they are true. I have been accustomed to write fiction for a space of nearly a whole generation, and I know something of the business. Having this experience at my back I declare earnestly that, with a single exception, I do not think it possible that the gospels and the rest can be the work of man’s imagination. That exception is the Book of Revelation, which might possibly have been conceived by some noble human mind in a wonderful period of spiritual exaltation. I hasten to add that I am certain this was not the case; that on the contrary it was divinely inspired, whatever the actual meaning of parts of it may be. All I say is that, in my view, it alone of the books of the New Testament might perhaps be a fruit of human powers of creation.
With the remainder of them it is different. These, I am sure, are records of things that were said or happened very much as they are written down. Who, for instance, could have invented the account of the Last Supper in St. John? A thousand touches, patent enough to the eye of one who composes romance, show that this view is true; the very inconsistencies or variations in the different accounts of certain incidents, due for the most part to the varying temperaments of the recorders that cause them to dwell upon that aspect of the matter in hand which appealed to them, rejecting or slurring over the others, suggest that it is true. Any person who has been accustomed to hear evidence knows that such evidence is most suspicious when a number of witnesses tell exactly the same story, especially as to events that happened a while before, and most credible when that story comes from sundry mouths with differences of detail.
So, the critic will say, you are prepared to swallow the miracles at a gulp? Yes, I am — or most of them. I do not see how they are to be explained away; moreover, I have known so many miracles to occur in my own time and experience that a few more or less make no difference to me. To state that miracles, which after all may be but the partial manifestation of some secret law veiled from us as yet, have ceased is, in my opinion, a profound mistake; they happen often, especially in the heart of man. Moreover, the whole circumstances of life are a miracle; the wireless instrument that at this moment I hear doing its work is a miracle; we are surrounded by miracles, unappreciated, unvalued, because so common. This, though a truism, is one from which we may argue.
I believe, therefore, that these things took place substantially as they are recorded; that a God-endowed Being of supernatural strength did show signs and wonders before the eyes of His generation, and for the subsequent instruction of mankind. If this is not true, or rather, if the greatest of these signs is not true, then Christianity falls to the ground; it is a well dug in sand that will hold no water, and what tens of millions have believed and believe to be a gateway to a better and enduring world is but a glorious morning cloud which melts away and is lost in the vastness of the ether. Then, as St. Paul says, we are of all men the most miserable; then let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die; then let us see to it, so far as is possible, that we bring none here to bear the burden of the years and know the despairing bitterness of death.
Needless to say, I refer to the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. If He never rose from the grave, then, so far as I can see, there is no hope for Christian man, and we trust in a vain thing. I say, so far as I can see, for there may exist other roads of salvation with which we are unacquainted. For my part, I believe, however, that He did rise, as firmly as I believe that at this moment of writing I am sitting on the deck of a ship called the Arcadia, and that what He, born of woman, did, we shall do also.
Indeed this may be a convenient place to state my private opinion (it is no more, though I cannot find that it conflicts with the doctrines of Christianity; see, for instance, the passage in which our Lord refers to Elijah as having returned to Earth in the person of John the Baptist), to the effect that we, or at any rate that some of us, already have individually gone through this process of coming into active Being and departing out of Being more than once — perhaps very often indeed — though not necessarily in this world with which we are acquainted. In short, like the Buddhists, I am strongly inclined to believe that the Personality which animates each of us is immeasurably ancient, having been forged in so many fires, and that, as its past is immeasurable, so will its future be. This is in some ways an uncomfortable faith or instinct; thus I, for one, have no wish to live again upon our earth. Moreover, it is utterly insusceptible of proof — like everything else that has to do with the spirit — for vague memories, affinities with certain lands and races, irresistible attractions and repulsions, at times amounting in the former case to intimacies of the soul (among members of the same sex, for in discussing such matters it is perhaps better to exclude the other) so strong that they appear to be already well established, such as have drawn me so close to certain friends, and notably to one friend recently departed, are none of them proof. Nor are the revelations of persons who seem to have access to certain stores of knowledge denied to most men, for these may be anything or nothing. Nor is that strong conviction of immemorial age which haunts the hearts of some of us.
No, there is no proof, and yet reason comes to the support of these imaginings. Unless we have lived before, or the grotesque incongruities of life are to be explained in some way unknown to us, our present existence, to my mind, resembles nothing so much as a handful of what is known as “printer’s pie” cast together at hazard and struck off for the reader to interpret as he will or can. Or perhaps in this case a better example would be to compare the world to a great ball-room wherein a Puck-like Death acts as Master of Ceremonies. Here the highly born, the gifted and the successful are welcomed with shouts of praise, while the plain, the poorly dressed, the halt, are trodden underfoot; here partners, chosen at hazard, often enough seem to be dancing to a different time and step, till they are snatched asunder to meet no more; here one by one the revellers of all degrees are touched upon the shoulder by the Puck-like Death who calls the tune, and drop down, down into an impenetrable darkness, while others who knew them not are called to take their places.
But if we admit that every one of these has lived before and danced in other rooms, and will live again and dance in other rooms, then meaning informs the meaningless. Then those casual meetings and swift farewells, those loves and hatings, are not of chance; then those partners are not chosen at hazard after all. Then the dancers who in turn must swoon away beneath that awful, mocking touch, do not drop into darkness but into some new well of the water of Life. Then what we behold is but a few threads, apparently so tangled, that go to weave the Sphinx’s seamless veil, or some stupendous tapestry that enwraps the whole Universe of Creation which, when seen at last, will picture forth the Truth in all its splendour, and with it the wondrous story and the meaning of our lives.
Such, put shortly and figuratively, seems to me one of the strongest arguments for the continuity of our personal existence through various phases. It may be, however, that it is no argument at all — that there is some other explanation (beyond that of blind, black, brutal chance), perhaps so simple that we cannot grasp it, which accounts for everything.
One contention, however, I find it hard to accept — namely, that man appearing here for the first time through an accident of the flesh is placed and judged eternally in accordance with his deeds of at most about thirty waking, conscious years (even if his life be long), for childhood and the time spent in sleep must be excluded. To me such a thing is almost incredible. Final judgment I can understand after many lives of growing towards the good or towards the ill — and, indeed, the faith I follow declares it — but not an eternity of anything decreed on the deeds of ten or twenty or thirty years passed among the surroundings in which we happened to be born, weighted with the infirmities and inherited tendencies of a flesh and nature that we did not choose. Over a great period of many different existences, selected according to the elective fitness of the ego, matters and opportunities would equalise themselves, and that ego would follow the path it selected to its inevitable end. But one life of a maximum of thirty years full-stopped with doom . . .!
All this, however, is a digression from my arguments to which I now return.
I have said that I believe in the truth of the New Testament story, and that to my mind everything hinges upon the fact of the Resurrection, although I am aware that many who call themselves Christians, and expect, apparently, to receive whatever benefits Christianity can bring, give no credence to this or any other miracle. Surely these might as well expect to inherit salvation by virtue of a study of the doctrines of Confucius. I hope that they will inherit it all the same, since God, who knows what is in man and the clay whereof we are fashioned, is merciful, and there may be, and probably are, many roads to the gate of Life; but in this case it can scarcely be reached by the faint and wandering path of a materialised and eviscerated Christianity. Christianity as an effective creed depends, and always must depend, upon the Resurrection of its Founder while He dwelt on earth. Or so I hold.
How, then, is this necessary faith to be attained by those who doubt? Perhaps in many ways, though I only know of one — namely, by prayer. It is, at any rate in its higher forms, a gift accorded in answer to prayer; it is an inspiration of the Spirit of our Maker which flows down the connecting links of prayer. By prayer, too, I do not mean a few hurried or formal mumblings in the morning or at bedtime: I mean the continual, almost the hourly, conversation of the creature with his God. I mean the habitual uplifting of the heart to heaven, the constant cry of fallen nature in sorrow, in joy, in sin, in every circumstance of life, to the Highest of all natures, who remembers of what metal it is made because in the beginning (ah! what beginning?) it was from Him and is still His own. Feeble, unworthy though it be, such prayer offered on your own behalf or on that of others, I am sure is heard, is answered across the unutterable spaces — or so it has often seemed to me — if put up in faith. Sometimes even, for a little while it causes us to understand what is meant by the peace of God that passes understanding. Further, it is as necessary to the sin-stained soul as is food to the frail body. For indeed even those among us, with whom such as I cannot presume to rank ourselves, are full of faults and must appear to the Perfect Eye as though stricken with a moral leprosy. Our only hope, knowing and remembering these faults, however oft and bitterly repented of, is to say like the man in the temple, “Lord, I am a miserable sinner”; to seek for the help we cannot give to ourselves, to crave that we too may be sprinkled with the atoning Blood. Why this should be necessary I cannot say — for who can comprehend these wonders? — any more than I can understand the origin and meanings of sin, which often enough seems to consist merely in giving obedience to the imperious demands of that body with which we have been clothed. The gratification of these impulses generally becomes sin, because Nature has no laws except her own, and her ancient rule is not that revealed by Christ in the latter days.
So it is with almost everything: even true affection or any other virtue exaggerated can turn to vice. It would seem as though a man’s trials here were purposely made as hard as may be; so hard that at times we may perhaps be forgiven if we wonder whether this world, at any rate for some, is not in truth one of the chambers of the house of hell, or at least of that purgatory preached — so far as I know without warrant — as a doctrine of the Roman faith. By prayer, then, we can be purged and helped, prayer for ourselves, prayer for others, for the living, yes, and for the dead; for who will dare to say that even the dead are beyond the reach of benefit from our feeble crying in the night to the Ruler of that night? Prayer, I repeat, is heard; prayer, if it be directed to lawful ends, is answered sometimes when it seems to be made most in vain. If only we had faith enough no right thing would be refused to us. Who knows the harvest that we sow by means of earnest, faithful prayer, and, though its seed lie buried for a season, shall one day reap? But most of all, I think, should we pray for knowledge how to pray!
Now the road to this goal of faith, which must be found and kept open by prayer, still remains full of obstacles and apt to vanish quite away, leaving the weary wanderer in a desert where no water is. Light fails, dark grows the sky, again and yet again cold winds of doubt freeze him to the marrow, sins overtake and conquer him, voices mock him from the gloom. They bid him look back to the warm world he left upon his foolish quest to find a star whither no path leads that mortal can follow. They point to the bones of those who have fallen by the way. They whisper that his error lies in not taking what he may have while there is still time, since soon he must go empty to the sleep which knows no waking. Poor fare, perhaps, they say, yet better than feeding upon wind and bedewing the altar of a heedless or non-existent God with repentant tears because of half-imaginary sins begotten by a nature the sinner did not shape.
What traveller of the sort is there who has not been thrown back upon his thorny journey by such thoughts as these? Or perhaps some hideous and cruel loss has caused him to doubt whether, after all, any Power does exist that knows the name of pity or can thrill with the glow of love. Or the shock may take other forms. He may find that those whom he thought to be inspired from on high with goodness are merely stupid; that they avoid conspicuous and open error because their slow natures are shut to temptations of the larger sort, though they breed a growth of petty mischiefs not textually named among the Ten Commandments and therefore, say they, of no account. Or that some friend whom he respects and has leant on, perhaps a clergyman of standing, after all believes in little, and though he practises its forms has reduced Christianity to the level of high and pure philosophy enunciated by an unfortunate, self-denying young Jew of genius with whom the established Church of the period very well knew how to deal. Or it may be a brilliant but materialistic book that he chances on, wherein he finds all the points upon which he has been accustomed to rely very cleverly attacked. Or some great doctor may disturb him by showing forth the origin of all such aspirations as those of faith written in the human nerves and brain. Or, to take only one more example, he may after all find it impossible to reconcile the fact of the existence of a good and merciful God with the state of affairs he sees existing in this world. A common and effective trap, this, for generous and hasty minds.
I think that I have fallen over all these stumbling-blocks, and others, in the course of my life, which has set me wondering why they should be so many. At length, after long pondering, I have answered the question to my own satisfaction, though probably enough the reply which suffices me will make some readers smile. It is simple; five words cover it. “The Devil put them there.”
Yes, I have come back to a belief in the old scriptural Satan, now so generally discarded, though be it remembered that our Lord was perfectly definite on the point of his existence — so definite, indeed, that it is scarcely logical to believe in the one without believing in the other. Fear not those who kill the body and then have done all that they can do, but fear him who after death has power to cast into Gehenna, He says, and many like things that cannot be misread.
Whoso considers the world and the horrible things that happen here, things to wring tears from the eyes, yes, and blood from every honest heart that can understand, must feel that for some reason which is hidden from us it exists under a dual government — that of the divine Power of Good, which we know as God, and that of the infernal Power of Ill, which we call Evil and personify as the Devil or Satan. I will take one instance from a multitude: it will serve as a type of what I mean — the presence amongst us of the hideous traffic in souls and bodies, worse by far than that of the man-sellers of all ages, known as the White Slave trade, which, I may add, is another stumbling-block to faith for us who cannot see an inch before out feet and guess not the end thereof. It is obvious — I say it with all reverence — that the Holy One, and Christ who is a part of Him, would not permit such an ineffable horror to exist if it could be ended with a blow. Therefore reason, which after all is, I presume, some guide and index to the causes and comparative values of such phenomena as we can apprehend, teaches us that it and all abominations of the sort must have their spring in the workings of a rival Strength whose delight is in misery, the breath of whose nostrils is human and perhaps superhuman shame and ruin, whose shield is fraud, whose wine is tears, whose armour is the flesh and its fierce lusts, and whose sword is death.
For a while to this fiend are given a throne upon the world and dominion over the hearts of men, and strait, strait is the gate whereby we can escape from his defended kingdom. He it is who — knowing the priceless worth of each human soul, that, if it can win redemption from his befouling, murderous hand, may, we are told, grow to be a judge of angels and as great or greater than are those Flames of Fire, the Ministers of God our Father — busies himself by night and day, from childhood to the grave, in setting snares in the narrow path to catch the feet of men and drag them down to doom.
Such at least is an article of my creed. Nor, now that I have reached to it, can I find therein any point of difference between it and what the Saviour taught. There was a time, indeed, when I did not credit the existence of an embodied evil. To-day I have learned otherwise. For in truth all these avenues of experience, search and thought, after many circuitous journeyings and expeditions into nothingness, have just led me back to the eternal verities that I was taught at my mother’s knee, at some of which, such as the efficacy of prayer (though through it all, from habit or from hope, I never ceased to pray) and the actual existence of this our Arch–Enemy, to my shame be it said, I was wont to shrug my shoulders, if not to scoff. Yes, these wings of prayer which once I thought as fanciful as those of angels in the cottage pictures, have borne me to a frail pinnacle of the temple of my trembling soul, whence at times, very faint and far away, across the gulf of our mortality, I seem to catch some glimpse of the Holy Mount and of the veiled and throbbing Glory that broods thereon. A vain fancy of the striving heart, the reader will perhaps declare, and it may be so, though I pray that it is not.
There would seem also to be some external evidence which goes to support the doctrine of the continuance of the personality beyond the changes of death. Spiritualism I do not include, since although many people, some of them of great intellect and high character, believe in it, and I know well that whatever it may be it is not all fraud, however much it may be mixed with fraud, I am by no means satisfied as to the real origin of its phenomena. Without expressing any definite opinion, at times I incline to the view that it also is but a device of the Devil, by specious apparitions and the exhibition of an uncanny knowledge which may be one of his attributes, to lead heart-sick mortals into regions they were not meant to travel and there infect them with the microbe of some alien, unknown sin.
On one point, however, I am clear. Whether or no it is lawful for trained and scientific minds to enter on these dangerous investigations in the interests of a search for some truth which it may be intended, in the fulness of time shall be revealed for the guidance and benefit of the world, the majority of men and women, especially if they be young, will do well to leave them quite alone. The risks are too many, and the fruits of such research, however golden they may seem, are apt to be unsatisfying, if not deadly. The parable of Eve and the forbidden apple of the Tree of Knowledge, from the eating of which came death and sorrow, still has applications in these latter days. Once I tried to point this moral in a tale I wrote which is named “Stella Fregelius.”
Nor can we rely too much upon the revelations of such seers as Swedenborg, for these may be and doubtless often are self-deceived or the victims of hallucinations. In short, of all such matters and dogmas, if so they may be called, including that of theosophy which its interesting and gigantic dreams reported to emanate from the teaching of “Masters” whose address it seems impossible to discover, it may be said that, like that of reincarnation, they are superfluous. The Christian can afford to wait to learn the truth of them — or perhaps their fallacy.
We tread on firmer ground when we consider that as far back as history shows her light, and beyond it as the graves of primitive peoples prove, the almost universal instinct of mankind was to believe that death is but a gate of other forms of continued and individual Life. I know of no instinct which haunts breathing creatures that is uselessly given without purpose, and does not serve some necessary or protective object or reflect some existent truth. Why, then, among them all should this rooted conviction that physical decease is not the end of man be but a vain thing fondly imagined? Such a conclusion seems inconsistent, even unnatural and absurd. But if our faith is strong enough to enable us to accept Christ’s teaching, again what need is there for us to seek support in instincts which it is possible we do not understand aright?
To one fact, corroborative in its nature, I think, however, weight should be given, that of the fatherhood of God, displayed towards those of His children who seek, or who in His foresight He knows, in some other day or place, will seek the comfort and protection of His love. How any reflecting man who has led a full and adventurous life can doubt the present, living power of that fatherhood passes my understanding! Certainly I cannot. When we rode the wild horses of our youthful sins, the red blood coursing through our veins like wine, who was it that seized the reins and again and yet again delivered us from the last disaster? Who was it that has so often protected us from the results of our own self-willed folly and even turned it to our advantage? Who that by His gift of a higher hope has stilled the raging agony of our griefs? Who that by the unexpected answers springing at us from the Bible’s written page or with some word spoken, apparently at hazard, by one of His servants upon earth, has removed our doubts, enlightened our darkness and strengthened our wavering soul? Who that has shown us a way of escape from sharp temptation? Or, amongst a thousand other examples, who that has borne with our presumptuous profanities and ingratitude and at last in His own good hour has set our erring feet upon the paths of peace? Or, to take one more example, who was it that by a dream and a vision of the night taught me that His humbler creatures are my kin and not called to life to be slaughtered for my pleasure, even though some of them must die to serve my necessities? Yet again, who twice has snatched me by the hair from the murderer’s spears and bullets, twice from death in the deep, and from a score of other perils, perchance that I might live on to bear this witness, unworthy though it be?
I have spoken of this fatherhood as a fact corroborative in its nature of the truth of the arguments which I have so feebly attempted to advance with reference to the immortality of our souls. For this reason. Even among the lowest of us fatherhood implies love. The fathers are few who desire that even their erring and unthankful children should die and vanish from their sight for ever, and much less that these should live on in suffering for all uncounted time. Can we then for one instance imagine that the Architect and Author of the universe, the Supreme, the Absolute, He who was and is and shall be, He whose Holy Name is Love, the Begetter of Spirits and of men, desires that His children should be tormented, or die and not endure, redeemed and purified, to adore and serve Him? Not so! Not for this does He count the sparrows that fall and number the very hairs upon our heads. In His cup is the wine of life — if we will but drink — not the henbane of death eternal. He is the God of the living, not of the dead. Did not the Saviour say it that we might know and believe?
And if your reasonings are sound, if what you say is true, the reader may ask, if the righteous are redeemed and live to look upon the Presence to all infinities, still what hope is there for you who are not righteous, who are but a common flesh-stained sinner? As I shall not then be here to answer I will strive to answer now, praying for grace that I may do so aright. With utter humility, in true unfeigned abasement of heart and spirit I will answer. Was there not one Mary Magdalene out of whom Christ cast seven devils? Was there not a woman taken in adultery whom He refused to judge? Did He not declare that there is joy in heaven over one sinner that repenteth? Did He not bid those that were heavy-laden to come to Him and taste of rest? Therefore it is that millions such as I, men who in the course of life have erred deeply in some things and fallen short in many, may still dare to hope. Also who are the righteous? Even St. Paul speaks of the war within him. Is it not written that there are no righteous on this side of the grave — none nearly perfect? They would not be human if they were. All, even deans and bishops, or some of them, have need of grace. Surely it is the attitude and strivings of the caged spirit that will be considered, not the shortcomings of the gaoler body, the desire not the deeds, for if it prove otherwise who can escape when the heart is weighed in the balance? To my mind the great sin is not to seek forgiveness for sins — not to try to avoid them in the future. All stumble into the mire, but of those who elect to wallow there and of those who deliberately refuse the saving hand that is stretched out to them, what can be said? Well, perhaps they may be given other opportunities elsewhere. As a believer in the infinite mercy of God I dare to trust that this will be so.
I desire to urge, however, upon any who care to listen these three things which I myself have learned in the course of years. First, the enormous importance of all this matter. Secondly, the folly of sin. Thirdly, since it needs must be that offences will come, the urgent need of repentance before in some other life or lives we are called upon to reap the harvest of that unrepented folly.
What is life as we know it, even if that life be not a single volume but a series of chapters which will ultimately be bound into a completed book? A few breaths melting into the immensity of this bitter air, a few dewdrops sparkling on a single thorn in the great dim forest — no more. And what is Eternity? Ah! I cannot answer. Yet I do believe that our fate in the second depends not so much upon our doings, perhaps, as on our struggles in the first. Surely, then, it behoves us to be up and stirring while there is still time. For if we neglect the opportunity who knows, as age sweeps on to endless age, with what agonies of grief we may repent that which can no more be remedied, because as we have chosen so we must go; as the tree falls so must it lie. Even in this world the might-have-been is a thing terrible to contemplate; what, then, may it be in a world that will neither suffer us to die nor die itself? To be cast out to the murk while others serve in honour within the glowing gates; to be told to chew the cud of our unbelief or to eat of the husks and drink of the sour wine of our desires till we loathe the taste and stench of them, while others — among them, perchance, our most adored — feed on the manna of the blest; to endure the reproaches and the heaped-up hate of the companions of our woe; to be separated from those we loved and who loved us, those who have chosen the better part — oh! surely we need fly to no obscene phantasies of mediaeval torture to paint the picture of a blacker hell. Even if mercy finds us at the last, as for my part I think it must and will, what sufferings must we first endure! — for of this we may be certain, that if in such conditions we should cease to suffer, then we shall be lost and draw near to the Second Death whence we can scarcely hope to rise again. For the soul, as for the body, pain is a healthy symptom. When it passes we are apt to mortify and — cease.
Now, like a Scotch preacher, I go to my second head: the folly of sin whereof even here the heritage is of sackcloth and of ashes. Never was there a truer saying than that the Devil is the worst of paymasters. If we go against the rules of the game as they are laid down for us by the creed we serve in that part of the world in which we have been born, even when those rules seem not natural to us, we err, and what is more we injure others, which is surely the essence of sin. For, as I have said, the laws of Nature differ from the laws of God as these are revealed to us (and we must follow the higher Light) — a fact from which I am sometimes tempted to argue that Nature, “red in tooth and claw,” is not begotten of God alone. Surely the powers called Satan and Death have had a hand in its makings. Thus Nature says to Everyman who is a man:
“See where She stands with longing arms and lips that murmur love. Hark to what She says who would be the mother of your child: ‘Seek! Seek for heaven hid in these dark eyes of mine and find all Earth’s desire. Drink! Drink of the Mysteries from the cup of this rich heart of mine and learn what Life can be. Sleep! Sleep and dream of naught but me on this kind breast of mine which shall breathe for you alone until the Night forgets her stars.’”
“Touch not, taste not, handle not,” answers the cold stern Law. “Pass on, she is not thine.”
Often enough it is Nature that prevails and, having eaten of the apple that She, our Mother, gives us, we desire no other fruit. But always the end is the same: its sweetness turns to gravel in our mouth. Shame comes, sorrow comes; come death and separations. And, greater than all of these, remorse rises in the after years and stands over us at night, since, when our eyes are no longer clouded with the mists of passion, we see and bewail our wickedness.
For sin has this quality. Like some bare, black peak in a plain of flowers it dominates all our landscape. However far we wander never can we escape the sight of it. Our virtues, such as they may be, are dwarfed and lost in the dark shadows thrown up by our towering crime. True and honest love of wife and child, unceasing thought for others, vicarious sufferings on behalf of others, often sharp enough to sadden, whatever kind deeds and charities may lie within our power, the utter and heartfelt forgiveness of all who have wronged us, the struggles that we made as the snare closed round us, the memories of those keen temptations from which we have escaped — it will be noted that these are ever of a sort to appeal to whatever sin doth so easily beset us — high friendships well deserved, fair fame well won, duty well done, such are the flowers upon the plain we travel. Yet we forget them, we do not even note them, because of that black mount of evil which our stained hands piled and the icy gloom it throws. Never, never can we be free of it till prayer has brought unfeigned repentance, and these, hand in hand, have led us on to Faith, and Faith, opening her door, has shown us the far-off glory of Forgiveness, which glory, growing ever brighter, falls at length upon our heads in blessing and, when we turn our dazzled eyes to seek the familiar mount of shame — lo! it is gone.
The third head, that of the necessity of repentance, needs no elaboration. Of it I have already said enough. If we have forgotten out Creator in the days of our youth — or even of our age — let us at least obey the cry of His Messengers, and repent, repent while there is yet time. “The Promises are sure if only we will believe” were the last words of my friend, the aged William Booth — very true words. And of these promises perhaps the greatest and the happiest for man is that of full and free forgiveness to those who kneel and from the heart will say, “Father, I have sinned. Father, forgive!”
But to do this we must have Faith. When Faith fails there is nought but blackness in which we wander helplessly and in vain. Even our Lord (as I venture to think, and I know one very learned bishop who agrees with me) as a man perhaps walked the world more by Faith than by knowledge. It may be that this was the heaviest of His temptations — the temptation to admit some creeping doubt into His own mission and Divinity. If so we can well understand the full magnificence of His sacrifice and the glory of His triumph. Once, indeed, in the moment of agony and mortal weakness that Doubt seems to have conquered Him: I mean in the cry upon the Cross, “My God! My God! Why hast Thou forsaken Me?”
If this be so let us take comfort, since where He seems to have failed, how can we, His poor servants, always expect to succeed? “Lord, I believe, help Thou my unbelief!” Such should be our daily petition, which will not go unheeded.
The shores of India draw near, and I have finished the sermon which something has prompted me to write, whereof I will say that, however much it may be mocked at, I hope at least it can do no harm in the after years. It is the only one I ever composed or shall compose, and brief, bare as it is, it has taken me half a lifetime to think out its underlying principles. (How do clergymen succeed in evolving one or two on every Sunday of their active lives, I wonder!)
What is the sum of it all? This. That my spiritual experience leads me to take a higher view of man than that which declares him to be but a physical accident. That, through all the winds and weeping of this rough world, I hear the whisper of the still, small voice of God directing us from on high. That, by the gift of His Christ (and mayhap in many another way), He has provided a means of Redemption for every soul that breathes in flesh. That, however often they may fail or stumble, He will love and save those who try to love and obey Him as they understand Him. That those who reject Him must themselves run a risk of rejection and of darkness, since, if we choose Death, Death will be given to us. Whatever good thing we desire we may have, but to have we must desire. That He will forgive all, whatever be their sins, who strive to believe and yearn to be forgiven. That He, or His Messengers, will comfort us in our dark, ultimate hour of mortal agony (may it prove short and sudden!) and awful death sleep, and be with us in the light of the last Awakening. That He will lead us to our lost ones, who are dearer to us than life, in the home He has prepared for us and those who wish to dwell there in our company and, from Eternity to Eternity, in some place where sin and Satan do not come, will wipe all tears from off our faces. That in due season He will gather to us those other dear ones whom we have loved upon the earth and who do not forget us although we have been borne away. That, if it pleases Him to touch us with His Fire on the lips and give us back our whitened spirits, filled with the fulness of individual life, at His unending tasks and service in other Worlds or Heavens we shall grow ever brighter and more glorious until, spheres and aeons hence, after this earth where we have no abiding city has become to us but a troubled dream, though we be still very far away, at length we approach to the Divinity of Christ’s own perfect nature. That all Love is immortal. It is God’s light permeating the universe, and therefore incapable of diminution or decay. That Christianity is true, although I do not understand and have no right as yet to expect to understand the origin of its mysteries or the reason of the necessity for its great Sacrifice. Its fruits upon earth alone suffice to show that it is true, since by the fruit it bears must every tree be judged. That the heart of Faith is Christ, and that to His Cross I cling.
Such are the conclusions — old conclusions, but none the worse for that, since each soul must find them for itself — reached during the lifetime of a storm-driven, wayward man with too much heart, perhaps, for happiness here below; who yet, he trusts, is not altogether bad. For if he be bad why, from his mother on, should so many of his companions in this winter pilgrimage have been moved to love him well — as he prays that, notwithstanding all his errors, God does also and will do for aye! Amen.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 22:45