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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
The Transient and the Real in Life
By James Martineau (1805–1900)
 
        
From ‘Hours of Thought on Sacred Things’
  
  Job xii. 22: “He discovereth deep things out of darkness; and bringeth out to light the shadow of Death.”

IT is the oldest, as it is the newest, reproach of the cynic against the devout, that they construe the universe by themselves; attribute it to a will like their own; tracing in it imaginary vestiges of a moral plan, and expecting from it the fulfillment of their brilliant but arbitrary dreams. Instead of humbly sitting at the feet of Nature, copying her order into the mind, and shaping all desire and belief into the form of her usages and laws, they turn out their own inward life into the spaces of the world, and impose their longings and admirations on the courses and issues of Time. With childish self-exaggeration, it is said, we fancy creation governed like a great human life,—peopled with motives, preferences, and affections parallel to ours,—its light and heat, its winds and tides, its seasons and its skies, administered by choice of good or ill, transparent with the flush of an infinite love, or suffused with the shadow of an infinite displeasure. We set at the helm of things a glorified humanity; and that is our God. We think away from society the cries of wrong and the elements of sin, leaving only what is calm and holy; and that is our Kingdom of Heaven. We picture to ourselves youth that never wastes, thought that never tires, and friendship without the last adieu; and that is our immortality. Religion, we are assured, is thus born of misery: it is the soul’s protest against disappointment and refusal to accept it, the pity which our nature takes upon its own infirmities, and is secured only on the pathos of the human heart.  1
  Be it so. Are you sure that the security is not good? Are we so made as to learn everything from the external world, and nothing out of ourselves? Grant the allegation. Let our diviner visions be the native instinct, the home inspiration, of our thought and love: are they therefore false because we think them? illusory, because beautiful relatively to us? Am I to believe the register of my senses, and to contradict the divinations of conscience and the trusts of pure affection? Is it a sign of highest reason to deny God until I see him, and blind myself to the life eternal till I am born into its surprise? Nothing more arbitrary, nothing narrower, can well be conceived, than to lay down the rule that our lowest endowment—the perceptive powers which introduce us to material things—has the monopoly of knowledge; and that the surmises of the moral sense have nothing true, and the vaticinations of devoted love only a light that leads astray. The wiser position surely is, that the mind is a balanced organ of truth all round,—that each faculty sees aright on its own side of things, and can measure what the others miss: the hand, the palpable; the eye, the visible; the imagination, the beautiful; the spirit, the spiritual; and the will, the good. How else indeed could God and Heaven, if really there, enter our field of knowledge, but by standing thus in relation to some apprehensive gift in us, and emerging as the very condition of its exercise and the attendant shadow of its movements?  2
  And in truth, if we are not strangely self-ignorant, we must be conscious of two natures blended in us, each carrying a separate order of beliefs and trusts, which may assert themselves with the least possible notice of the other. There is the nature which lies open to the play of the finite world, gathers its experience, measures everything by its standard, adapts itself to its rules, and discharges as fictitious whatever its appearances fail to show. And underlying this, in strata far below, there is the nature which stands related to things infinite, and heaves and stirs beneath their solemn pressure, and is so engaged with them as hardly to feel above it the sway and ripple of the transitory tides. Living by the one, we find our place in nature; by the other, we lose ourselves in God. By the first, we have our science, our skill, our prudence; by the second, our philosophy, our poetry, our reverence for duty. The one computes its way by foresight; the other is self-luminous for insight. In short, the one puts us into communication with the order of appearances; the other with eternal realities. It is a shallow mind which can see to the bottom of its own beliefs, and is conscious of nothing but what it can measure in evidence and state in words; which feels in its own guilt no depth it cannot fathom, and in another’s holiness no beauty it can only pine to seize; which reads on the face of things—on the glory of the earth and sky, on human joy and grief, on birth and death, in pity and heroic sacrifice, in the eyes of a trusting child and the composure of a saintly countenance—no meanings that cannot be printed; and which is never drawn, alone and in silence, into prayer exceeding speech. Things infinite and divine lie too near to our own centre, and mingle in too close communion, to be looked at as if they were there instead of here: they are given not so much for definition as for trust; are less the objects we think of than the very tone and color of our thought, the tension of our love, the unappeasable thirst of grief and reverence. Till we surrender ourselves not less freely to the implicit faiths folded up in the interior reason, conscience, and affection, than to the explicit beliefs which embody in words the laws of the outward world, we shall be but one-eyed children of Nature, and utterly blind prophets of God.  3
  No doubt these two sides of our humanity, supplying the temporal and the spiritual estimates of things, are at ceaseless variance; they reckon by incommensurable standards, and the answers can never be the same. The natural world, with the part of us that belongs to it, is so framed as to make nothing of importance to us except the rules by which it goes, and to bid us ask no questions about its origin; since we have equally to fall in with its ways, be they fatal or be they divine. But to our reason in its noblest exercise, it makes a difference simply infinite, whether the universe it scans is in the hands of dead necessity or of the living God. This, which our science ignores, is precisely the problem which our intellect is made to ponder. Again, our social system of rights and obligations is constructed on the assumption that with the springs of action we have no concern: they fulfill all conditions, if we ask nothing and give nothing beyond the conduct happiest in its results. But the natural conscience flies straight to the inner springs of action as its sole interest and object; it is there simply as an organ for interpreting them, and finding in them the very soul of righteousness: that which the outward observer shuns is the inward spirit’s holy place. And once more, Nature, as the mere mother of us all, takes small account in this thronged and historic world of the single human life: repeating it so often as to render it cheap; short as it is, often cutting its brief thread; and making each one look so like the other that you would say it could not matter who should go. But will our private love, which surely has the nearer insight, accept this estimate? Do we, when its treasure has fallen from our arms, say of the term of human years, “It has been enough”?—that the possibilities are spent; that the cycle of the soul is complete; and that with larger time and renovated opportunity, it could learn and love and serve no more? Ah no! to deep and reverent affection there is an aspect under which death must ever appear unnatural; and its cloud, after lingering awhile till the perishable elements are hid, grows transparent as we gaze, and half shows, half veils, a glorious image in the depth beyond. Tell me not that affection is blind, and magnifies its object in the dark. Affection blind! I say there is nothing else that can see; that can find its way through the windings of the soul it loves, and know how its graces lie. The cynic thinks that all the fair look of our humanity is on the outside, inasmuch as each mind will put on its best dress for company; and if there he detects some littleness and weakness, which perhaps his own cold eye brings to the surface, there can be only what is worse within. Dupe that he is of his own wit! he has not found out that all the evil spirits of human nature flock to him; that his presence brings them to the surface from their recesses in every heart, and drives the blessed angels to hide themselves away: for who would own a reverence, who tell a tender grief, before that hard ungenial gaze? Wherever he moves, he empties the space around him of its purest elements: with his low thought he roofs it from the heavenly light and the sweet air; and then complains of the world as a close-breathed and stifling place. It is not the critic, but the lover, who can know the real contents and scale of a human life; and that interior estimate, as it is the truer, is always the higher: the closest look becomes the gentlest too; and domestic faith, struck by bereavement, easily transfigures the daily familiar into an image congenial with a brighter world.  4
  Our faculties and affections are graduated then to objects greater, better, fairer, and more enduring, than the order of nature gives us here. They demand a scale and depth of being which outwardly they do not meet, yet inwardly they are the organ for apprehending. Hence a certain glorious sorrow must ever mingle with our life: all our actual is transcended by our possible; our visionary faculty is an overmatch for our experience; like the caged bird, we break ourselves against the bars of the finite, with a wing that quivers for the infinite. To stifle this struggle, to give up the higher aspiration, and be content with making our small lodgings snug, is to cut off the summit of our nature, and live upon the flat of a mutilated humanity. To let the struggle be, however it may sadden us, to trust the pressure of the soul towards diviner objects and more holy life, and measure by it the invisible ends to which we tend,—this is true faith; the unfading crown of an ideal and progressive nature. It is indeed, and ever must be, notwithstanding the light that circles it, a crown of thorns; and the brow that wears it can never wholly cease to bleed. A nature which reaches forth to the perfect from a station in the imperfect must always have a pathetic tinge in its experience. Think not to escape it by any change of scene, though from the noisy streets to the eternal City of God. There is but One for whom there is no interval between what he thinks and what he is; in whom therefore is “light, and no darkness at all.” For us, vain is the dream of a shadowless world, with no interruption of brilliancy, no remission of joy. Were our heaven never overcast, yet we meet the brightest morning only in escape from recent night; and the atmosphere of our souls, never passing from ebb and flow of love into a motionless constancy, must always break the white eternal beams into a colored and a tearful glory. Whence is that tincture of sanctity which Christ has given to sorrow, and which makes his form at once the divinest and most pathetic in the world? It is that he has wakened by his touch the illimitable aspirations of our bounded nature, and flung at once into our thought and affection a holy beauty, a divine Sonship, into which we can only slowly grow. And this is a condition which can never cease to be. Among the true children of the Highest, who would wish to be free from it? Let the glorious burden lie! How can we be angry at a sorrow which is the birth-pang of a diviner life?  5
  From this strife, of infinite capacity with finite conditions, spring all the ideal elements which mingle with the matter of our being. Nor is it our conscience only that betrays the secret of this double life. Our very memory too, though it seems but to photograph the actual, proves to have the artist’s true selecting power, and knows how to let the transient fall away, and leave the imperishable undimmed and clear. As time removes us from each immediate experience, some freshening dew, some wave of regeneration, brightens all the colors and washes off the dust; so that often we discover the essence only when the accidents are gone, and the present must die from us ere it can truly live. The work of yesterday, with its place and hour, has but a dull look when we recall it. But the scene of our childish years,—the homestead, it may be, with its quaint garden and its orchard grass; the bridge across the brook from which we dropped the pebbles and watched the circling waves; the schoolhouse in the field, whose bell broke up the game and quickened every lingerer’s feet; the yew-tree path where we crossed the church-yard, with arm round the neck of a companion now beneath the sod,—how soft the light, how tender the shadows, in which that picture lies! how musical across the silence are the tones it flings! The glare, the heat, the noise, the care, are gone; and the sunshine sleeps, and the waters ripple, and the lawns are green, as if it were in Paradise. But in these minor religions of life, it is the personal images of companions loved and lost that chiefly keep their watch with us, and sweeten and solemnize the hours. The very child that misses the mother’s appreciating love is introduced, by his first tears, to that thirst of the heart which is the early movement of piety, ere yet it has got its wings. And I have known the youth who through long years of harsh temptation, and then short years of wasting decline, has, from like memory, never lost the sense as of a guardian angel near, and lived in the enthusiasm, and died into the embrace, of the everlasting holiness. In the heat and struggle of mid-life, it is a severe but often a purifying retreat to be lifted into the lonely observatory of memory, above the fretful illusions of the moment, and in presence once more of the beauty and the sanctity of life. The voiceless counsels that look through the visionary eyes of our departed steal into us behind our will, and sweep the clouds away, and direct us on a wiser path than we should know to choose. If age ever gains any higher wisdom, it is chiefly that it sits in a longer gallery of the dead, and sees the noble and saintly faces in further perspective and more various throng. The dim abstracted look that often settles on the features of the old,—what means it? Is it a mere fading of the life? an absence, begun already, from the drama of humanity? a deafness to the cry of its woes and the music of its affections? Not always so: the seeming forgetfulness may be but brightened memory; and if the mists lie on the outward present, and make it as a gathering night, the more brilliant is the lamp within that illuminates the figures of the past, and shows again, by their flitting shadows, the plot in which they moved and fell.  6
  It is through such natural experiences—the treasured sanctities of every true life—that God “discovereth to us deep things out of darkness, and turneth into light the shadow of death.” They constitute the lesser religions of the soul; and say what you will, they come and go with the greater, and put forth leaf and blossom from the same root. We are so constituted throughout—in memory, in affection, in conscience, in intellect—that we cannot rest in the literal aspect of things as they materially come to us. No sooner are they in our possession, than we turn them into some crucible of thought, which saves their essence and precipitates their dross; and their pure idea emerges as our lasting treasure, to be remembered, loved, willed, and believed. What we thus gain, then,—is it a falsification? or a revelation? What we discard,—is it the sole constant, which alone we ought to keep? or the truly perishable, which we deservedly let slip? If the vision which remains with us is fictitious, then is there a fatal misadjustment between the actual universe and the powers given us for interpreting it; so that precisely what we recognize as highest in us—the human distinctions of art, of love, of duty, of faith—must be treated as palming off upon us a system of intellectual frauds. But if the idealizing analysis be true, it is only that our faculties have not merely passive receptivity, but discriminative insight, are related to the permanent as well as to the transient, and are at once prophetic and retrospective; and thus are qualified to report to us, not only what is, but what ought to be and is to be. Did we apply the transforming imagination only to the present, so as to discern in it a better possibility beyond, it might be regarded as simply a provision for the progressive improvement of this world,—an explanation still carrying in itself the thought of a beneficent Provider. But we glorify no less what has been than what now is; and see it in a light in which it never appeared beneath the sun: and this is either an illusion or a prevision.  7
  The problem whether the transfiguring powers of the mind serve upon us an imposture or open to us a divine vision, carries in its answer the whole future of society, the whole peace and nobleness of individual character. High art, high morals, high faith, are impossible among those who do not believe their own inspirations, but only court and copy them for pleasure or profit. And for great lives, and stainless purity, and holy sorrow, and surrendering trust, the souls of men must pass through all vain semblances, and touch the reality of an eternal Righteousness and a never-wearied Love.  8
 
 
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