A severe illness-Case pronounced hopeless-How it affected me-Religious doubts and a mind distressed-Lawless thoughts — Conversation with an old gaucho about religion — George Combe and the desire for immortality.
After we had gone back impoverished to our old home where I first saw the light-which was still my father’s property and all he had left-I continued my reading, and was so taken up with the affairs of the universe, seen and unseen, that I did not feel the change in our position and comforts too greatly. I took my share in the rough work and was much out-of-doors on horseback looking after the animals, and not unhappy. I was already very tall and thin at that time, in my sixteenth year, still growing rapidly, and though athletic, it was probable that some weakness had been left in me by the fever. At all events, I had scarcely settled down to the new way of life before a fresh blow fell upon me, a malady which, though it failed to kill me, yet made shipwreck of all my new-born earthly hopes and dreams, and a dismal failure of my after life.
One day I undertook, unaided, to drive home a small troop of cattle we had purchased at a distance of a good many leagues, and was in the saddle from morning till after dark in a continuous flooding rain and violent wind. The wind was against me, and the beasts were incessantly trying to turn and rush back to the place they had been taken from, and the fight with wind and cattle went wearily on, the driving rain gradually soaking through my woollen poncho, theft through my clothes to my skin, and trickling down until my long boots were full and slopping over at the knees. For the last half of that midwinter day my feet and legs were devoid of feeling. The result of it was rheumatic fever and years of bad health, with constant attacks of acute pain and violent palpitation of the heart which would last for hours at a stretch. From time to time I was sent or taken to consult a doctor in the city, and in that way from first to last I was in the hands of pretty well all the English doctors in the place, but they did me no permanent good, nor did they say anything to give me a hope of complete recovery. Eventually we were told that it was a practically hopeless case, that I had “outgrown my strength,” and had a permanently bad heart and might drop down at any moment.
Naturally this pronouncement had a most disastrous effect on me. That their diagnosis proved in the end to be wrong mattered nothing, since the injury had been done and could not be undone if I lived a century. For the blow had fallen at the most critical period in life, the period of transition when the newly-awakened mind is in its freshest, most receptive stage, and is most curious, most eager, when knowledge is most readily assimilated, and, above everything, when the foundations of character and the entire life of the man are laid.
I speak, it will be understood, of a mind that had not been trained or pressed into a mould or groove by schoolmasters and schools-of a mind that was a forest wilding rather than a plant, one in ten thousand like it, grown under glass in a prepared soil, in a nursery.
That I had to say good-bye to all thoughts of a career, all bright dreams of the future which recent readings had put into my mind, was not felt as the chief loss, it was in fact a small matter compared with the dreadful thought that I must soon resign this earthly life which was so much more to me, as I could not help thinking, than to most others. I was like that young man with a ghastly face I had seen bound to a post in our barn; or like any wretched captive, tied hand and foot and left to lie there until it suited his captor to come back and cut his throat or thrust him through with a spear, or cut him into strips with a sword, in a leisurely manner so as to get all the satisfaction possible out of the exercise of his skill and the spectacle of gushing blood and his victim’s agony.
Nor was this all nor even the worst which had befallen me; I now discovered that in spite of all my strivings after the religious mind, that old dread of annihilation which I had first experienced as a small child was not dead as I had fondly imagined, but still lived and worked in me. This visible world — this paradise of which I had had so far but a fleeting glimpse-the sun and moon and other worlds peopling all space with their brilliant constellations, and still other suns and systems, so utterly remote, in such inconceivable numbers as to appear to our vision as a faint luminous mist in the sky-all this universe which had existed for millions and billions of ages, or from eternity, would have existed in vain, since now it was doomed with my last breath, my last gleam of consciousness, to come to nothing. For that was how the thought of death presented itself to me.
Against this appalling thought I struggled with all my power, and prayed and prayed again, morning, noon and night, wrestling with God, as the phrase was, trying as it were to wring something from His hands which would save me, and which He, for no reason that I could discover, withheld from me.
It was not strange in these circumstances that I became more and more absorbed in the religious literature of which we had a good amount on our bookshelves — theology, sermons, meditations for every day in the year, The Whole Duty of Man, A Call to the Unconverted, and many other old works of a similar character.
Among these I found one entitled, if I remember rightly, An Answer to the Infidel, and this work, which I took up eagerly in the expectation that it would allay those maddening doubts perpetually rising in my mind and be a help and comfort to me, only served to make matters worse, at all events for a time. For in this book I was first made acquainted with many of the arguments of the freethinkers, both of the Deists who were opposed to the Christian creed, and of those who denied the truth of all supernatural religion. And the answers to the arguments were not always convincing. It was idle, then, to seek for proofs in the books. The books themselves, after all their arguments, told me as much when they said that only by faith could a man be saved. And to the sad question: “How was it to be attained?” the only answer was, by striving and striving until it came. And as there was nothing else to do I continued striving, with the result that I believed and did not believe, and my soul, or rather my hope of immortality, trembled in the balance.
This, from first to last, was the one thing that mattered; so much was it to me that in reading one of the religious books entitled The Saints’ Everlasting Rest, in which the pious author, Richard Baxter, expatiates on and labours to make his readers realize the condition of the eternally damned, I have said to myself: “If an angel, or one returned from the dead, could come to assure me that life does not end with death, that we mortals are destined to live for ever, but that for me there can be no blessed hereafter on account of my want of faith, and because I loved or worshipped Nature rather than the Author of my being, it would be, not a message of despair, but of consolation; for in that dreadful place to which I should be sent, I should be alive and not dead, and have my memories of earth, and perhaps meet and have communion there with others of like mind with myself, and with recollections like mine.”
This was but one of many lawless thoughts which assailed me at this time. Another, very persistent, was the view I took of the sufferings of the Saviour of mankind. Why, I asked, were they made so much of? —— why was it said that He suffered as no man had suffered? It was nothing but the physical pain which thousands and millions have had to endure! And if I could be as sure of immortality as Jesus, death would be to me no more than the prick of a thorn. What would it matter to be nailed to a cross and perish in a slow agony if I believed that, the agony over, I should sit down refreshed to sup in paradise? The worst of it was that when I tried to banish these bitter, rebellious ideas, taking them to be the whisperings of the Evil One, as the books taught, the quick reply would come that the supposed Evil One was nothing but the voice of my own reason striving to make itself heard.
But the contest could not be abandoned; devil or reason, or whatever it was, must be overcome, else there was no hope for me; and such is the powerful effect of fixing all one’s thoughts on one object, assisted no doubt by the reflex effect on the mind of prayer, that in due time I did succeed in making myself believe all I wished to believe, and had my reward, since after many days or weeks of mental misery there would come beautiful intervals of peace and of more than peace, a new and surprising experience, a state of exaltation, when it would seem to me that I was lifted or translated into a purely spiritual atmosphere and was in communion and one with the unseen world.
It was wonderful. At last and for ever my Dark Night of the Soul was over; no more bitter broodings and mocking whispers and shrinking from the awful phantom of death continually hovering near me; and, above all, no more “difficulties” — the rocky barriers I had vainly beat and bruised myself against. For I had been miraculously lifted over them and set safely down on the other side, where it was all plain walking.
Unhappily, these blissful intervals would not last long. A recollection of something I had heard or read would come back to startle me out of the confident happy mood; reason would revive as from a benumbed or hypnotized condition, and the mocking voice would be heard telling me that I had been under a delusion. Once more I would abhor and shudder at the black phantom, and when the thought of annihilation was most insistent, I would often recall the bitter, poignant words about death and immortality spoken to me about two years before by an old gaucho landowner who had been our neighbour in my former home.
He was a rough, rather stern-looking man, with a mass of silver-white hair and grey eyes; a gaucho in his dress and primitive way of life, the owner of a little land and a few animals-the small remnant of the estancia which had once belonged to his people. But he was a vigorous old man, who spent half of his day on horseback, looking after the animals, his only living. One day he was at our house, and coming out to where I was doing something in the grounds, he sat down on a bench and called me to him. I went gladly enough, thinking that he had some interesting bird news to give me. He remained silent for some time, smoking a cigar, and staring at the sky as if watching the smoke vanish in the air. At length he opened fire.
“Look,” he said, “you are only a boy, but you can tell me something I don’t know. Your parents read books, and you listen to their conversation and learn things. We are Roman Catholics, and you are Protestants. We call you heretics and say that for such there is no salvation. Now I want you to tell me what is the difference between our religion and yours.”
I explained the matter as well as I knew how, and added, somewhat maliciously, that the main difference was his religion was a corrupt form of Christianity and ours a pure one.
This had no effect on him; he went on smoking and staring at the sky as if he hadn’t heard me. Then he began again: “Now I know. These differences are nothing to me, and though I was curious to know what they were, they are not worth talking about, because, as I know, all religions are false.”
“What did he mean — how did he know?” I asked, very much surprised.
“The priests tell us,” he replied, “that we must believe and live a religious life in this world to be saved. Your priests tell you the same, and as there is no other world and we have no souls, all they say must be false. You see all this with your eyes,” he continued, waving his hands to indicate the whole visible world. “And when you shut them or go blind you see no more. It is the same with our brains. We think of a thousand things and remember, and when the brain decays we forget everything, and we die, and everything dies with us. Have not the cattle eyes to see and brains to think and remember too? And when they die no priest tells us that they have a soul and have to go to purgatory, or wherever he likes to send them. Now, in return for what you told me, I’ve told you something you didn’t know.”
It came as a great shock to me to hear this. Hitherto I had thought that what was wrong with our native friends was that they believed too much, and this man — this good honest old gaucho we all respected — believed nothing! I tried to argue with him and told him he had said a dreadful thing, since every one knew in his heart that he had an immortal soul and had to be judged after death. He had distressed and even frightened me, but he went on calmly smoking and appeared not to be listening to me, and as he refused to speak I at last burst out: “How do you know? Why do you say you know?”
At last he spoke. “Listen. I was once a boy too, and I know that a boy of fourteen can understand things as well as a man. I was an only child, and my mother was a widow, and I was more than all the world to her, and she was more than everything else to me. We were alone together in the world — we two. Then she died, and what her loss was to me — how can I say it? — how could you understand? And after she was taken away and buried, I said: ‘She is not dead, and wherever she now is, in heaven or in purgatory, or in the sun, she will remember and come to me and comfort me.’ When it was dark I went out alone and sat at the end of the house, and spent hours waiting for her. ‘She will surely come,’ I said, ‘but I don’t know whether I shall see her or not. Perhaps it will be just a whisper in my ear, perhaps a touch of her hand on mine, but I shall know that she is with me.’ And at last, worn out with waiting and watching, I went to my bed and said she will come to-morrow. And the next night and the next it was the same. Sometimes I would go up the ladder, always standing against the gable so that one could go up, and standing on the roof, look out over the plain and see where our horses were grazing. There I would sit or lie on the thatch for hours. And I would cry: ‘Come to me, my mother! I cannot live without you! Come soon-come soon, before I die of a broken heart!’ That was my cry every night, until worn out with my vigil I would go back to my room. And she never came, and at last I knew that she was dead and that we were separated for ever — that there is no life after death.”
His story pierced me to the heart, and without another word I left him, but I succeeded in making myself believe that grief for his mother had made him mad, that as a boy he had got these delusions in his mind and had kept them all his life. Now this recollection haunted me. Then one day, with my mind in this troubled state, in reading George Combe’s Physiology I came on a passage in which the question of the desire for immortality is discussed, his contention being that it is not universal, and as a proof of this he affirms that he himself had no such desire.
This came as a great shock to me, since up to the moment of reading it I had in my ignorance taken It for granted that the desire is inherent in every human being from the dawn of consciousness to the end of life, that it is our chief desire, and is an instinct of the soul like that physical instinct of the migratory bird which calls it annually from the most distant regions back to its natal home. I had also taken it for granted that our hope of immortality, or rather our belief in it, was founded on this same passion in us and in its universality. The fact that there were those who had no such desire was sufficient to show that it was no spiritual instinct or not of divine origin.
There were many more shocks of this kind — when I go back in memory to that sad time, it seems almost incredible to me that that poor doubtful faith in revealed religion still survived, and that the struggle still went on, but go on it certainly did.
To many of my readers, to all who have interested themselves in the history of religion and its effect on individual minds — its psychology — all I have written concerning my mental condition at that period, will come as a twice-told tale, since thousands and millions of men have undergone similar experiences and have related them in numberless books. And here I must beg my reader to bear in mind that in the days of my youth we had not yet fallen into the indifference and scepticism which now infects the entire Christian world. In those days people still believed; and here in England, in the very centre and mind of the world, many thousands of miles from my rude wilderness, the champions of the Church were in deadly conflict with the Evolutionists. I knew nothing about all that: I had no modern books — those we had were mostly about a hundred years old. My fight up to this period was all on the old lines, and on this account I have related it as briefly as possible; but it had to be told, since it comes into the story of the development of my mind at that period. I have no doubt that my sufferings through these religious experiences were far greater than in the majority of cases, and this for the special reason which I have already intimated.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55