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OBEDIENCE THE ONLY REALITY.
“The world passeth away, and the lust thereof; but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever.”
IT may seem perhaps a hard saying, that in this majestic and dazzling world there is only one imperishable reality, and that, a thing most hidden and despised—I mean, a will obedient to the will of God. Yet nothing is more certain. It is plain that nothing is truly real which is not eternal. In a certain sense, all things, the most shadowy and fleeting,—the frosts, and dews, and mists of heaven,—are real; every light which falls from the upper air, every reflection of its brightness towards heaven again, is a reality. It is a creature of God; and is here in His world, fulfilling His will. But these things we are wont to take as symbols and parables of unreality, and that because they are changeful and transitory. It is clear, then, that when we speak of realities, we mean things that have in them the germ of an abiding life. Things which pass away at last, how long soever they may seem to tarry with us, we call forms and appearances. They have no intrinsic being; for a time they are, and then they are not. Their very being was an accident; they were shadows of a reality, cast for a time into the world, and then withdrawn. In strictness of speech, we can call nothing real which is not eternal. Now it is in this sense that I have said, the only reality in the world is a will obedient to the will of God: and this we will consider more at large.
1. First of all, it is plain that the only reality in this visible world is man. “The earth, and all the works that are therein, shall be burned up.”3333 2 St. Pet. iii. 10. Whatsoever may lie hid in these awful words, it is clear that they declare this world to be transitory, and its end determined. Of all things that have life without a reasonable soul, we know no more than that they perish. All visible things are ever changing; material forms passing into new combinations, shifting their sameness with their shapes: all things around us, and above us, and beneath, are full of change; they heave, and mingle, and resolve, and pass off by some mysterious law of intercommunication, and by that law declare that they are not eternal. In like manner, all the works of men, all the arts of life, are no more than the impressions and characters left by the spirit of man, while subject to the conditions of an earthly state. Kingdoms, and polities, and laws, and armies, and mechanical powers, and the achievements of wisdom, and wit, and might, and the infinite maze of human action, from the beginning to the ending of the world’s history,—what are they all, under the providence of God, but so many fleeting and broken shadows, cast from the ever-varying postures of man’s restless spirit? They are all in time and of time, and with time shall pass away, save only their accumulated results, of which we shall have to speak hereafter. Such, for instance, were the empires of Nimrod and Nebuchadnezzar, of Persia and Greece; or let us take, as an example, the great empire of Rome. For well nigh two thousand years what a sleepless movement of human life swarmed round that wonderful centre of the world! how it expanded itself from a point to be the girdle of the whole earth! how that same teeming power of thought and action wrought itself inwardly into a wondrous polity of ordered and civilised life, and outwardly, through fleets and legions, into an irresistible force, breaking in pieces, and fusing, and recasting the world into its own mould! And so it wrought on from century to century, as if it would never wax old; and men, from this, were beguiled to call it the Eternal City. And it bid fair to be coeval with the world. And yet of all that majestic phenomenon, what shall remain, when the fashion of this world hath passed away, but the isolated individual souls which in this world were lost in its mighty life? The whole is gone by, like a stately and stupendous pageant, and its mighty frame resolved again into its original dust. No thing survives but the mass of human life; and that not blended as before, but each one as several and apart as if none lived before God but he only. And so of all the course and history of the world; all is either past or passing away; nothing remains but the record of human life in the book of the Eternal, and the stream of undying spirits which is ever issuing from among us into the world unseen. And thus it is that all that is real in the world is ever passing out of it; tarrying for a while in the midst of shadows and reflections, and then, as it were, melting out of sight.
2. Again; as the only reality in the world is man, so the only reality in man is his spiritual life. By this I do not exclude his animal being, but expressly include it, as the less is included in the greater. In like manner as, when we speak of a spiritual body, we mean not a spirit only, but a body under the conditions of the spirit; so by the spiritual life is meant the living man made new by the power of the Holy Ghost. Before his regeneration through the Spirit, he was dead in the flesh; he was a part of this dying world, which is ever passing away; unknown changes awaited him; and after the last visible change, there was no destiny revealed. We know not all that the doom, “Thou shalt surely die,” may mean in the state of the dead. But the regenerate man is translated from death to life; he is made partaker of immortality, and is again eternal. I am speaking, then, of that spiritual life which is in all that are born again; and I say that this alone is intrinsically eternal, forasmuch as it is an awful gift of the Divine Presence, and is the one only, and true, and abiding reality.
Now the truth of this will be made to appear, if we consider the following points. First, that of what is called the life of man—that is, of his living acts and energies—the greatest part is altogether separable from his spiritual life, and is therefore altogether transient and perishing: such, for instance, as all his endless, ever-returning toil for the sustentation of this bodily life; all the homage which we are compelled to pay to the conditions of our earthly state, and the wants of our fallen manhood. It matters not what is the particular form of all this toiling: whether a man be a tiller of the earth, or a keeper of flocks, or a merchant, or a pleader, or an orator, or a maker of laws, he is laboriously serving the necessities of our earthly condition; and though a faithful man may turn any or all of these callings into a service of spiritual obedience, yet they may be, each one, and are, for the most part, all of them, fulfilled without a thought of the inner life, by the almost mechanical powers of the reason and the will. Now all this, which makes up the greatest part of the life of most men, is little better than mere contact with this perishing world. Except when incorporated with the spiritual life, it has no admixture of permanence, and, in the sense we have defined, of reality. It is a mere shadow, transient and fleeting. All the sweat of the brow, all the bold enterprises, all the skilful address, all the kindling oratory, all the science of government, and all the toil by which these were earned, and all the wealth or greatness by which they are waited on,—where are they all when a man comes to die, or when he must fall down before God to confess a sin? They are as utterly abolished as if they were all acted in a masque, or done in a former life. How strangely, how awfully external and unreal do all these things appear, when we are on our knees beneath the Eternal Eye!
And so, again, to take another instance: even that which seems above all to enter into the very deep of our spiritual life,—I mean the cultivation of mind, refinement, the excitement of intellectual powers, the acquirement of learning and science, which things seem to us to give the distinguishing mould and cast to the characters of men,—how altogether separable are these things also from the spiritual being! They are often found in men of the unholiest passions. The railing scoffer, the most impure sensualist, the man in whom the spiritual life seems absolutely quenched, oftentimes far more largely possesses these manifold gifts of our intellectual nature than the most devoted of God’s servants. They are but partial developments of his reasonable life; altogether unsanctified; in no way related to the spiritual being; earthly, and therefore but shadows of the eternal gifts of the hallowed and illuminated reason. Now most men of learning and self-cultivation, if they would but look closely and truly into themselves, would be awe-struck to see how little unity there is between their intellectual and their spiritual powers; how unreal is all they are living in, and, unless taken up into the spiritual life, and thereby consecrated, how hollow and perishable is all the toil and fret of their daily labour. If any proof of this were wanting, we need only see such men in times of sorrow, or fear, or anxiety, or pain—above all, in a season of death. It seems, then, as if all but a tithe of their whole being were suddenly abolished: all their powers, and energies, and acquirements, are as remote and alien from their present needs, as so many broad acres, or stately houses, or costly retinues. They all alike seem splendid unrealities, which have done little more than dazzle and draw off the eyes of the inner spirit from that which alone is eternal.
And, besides this, remember that nothing of all we have and are in this world, save only our spiritual life, and that which is impressed upon it and blended with it, shall we carry into the world unseen. Even as we said of this world’s entangled history, so is it of the life of each several man. Though all things shall be remembered in the judgment, and though all that he has ever done or spoken shall have left some stamp for good or ill upon his immortal spirit, yet what a putting-off of this lower life shall there be at that day! “Every man’s work shall be made manifest; for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man’s work, of what sort it is. If any man’s work abide, which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward. If any man’s work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss; but he himself shall be saved, yet so as by fire.”3434 1 Cor. iii. 13, 14, 15. Of all the unnumbered goings on of this busy life, of all its deeds, and achievements, and possessions, how small a remainder shall be found after that fiery trial has done its work! how shall the “wood, hay, and stubble,” and all the unrealities of act, and word, and thought, and self-persuasion, and empty imagination, and conventional formalities, and personal observances, be burned up; and no thing abide that searching test but the powers of our spiritual life! And of all the regenerate to whom that high gift was given, none shall pass through that piercing trial into God’s kingdom but only they in whom there shall be found a will obedient to the will of God. They that have held a regenerate nature in disobedience are condemned already with the world, and must perish with the world—“for the world passeth away, and the lust thereof; but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever.”
From what has been said, let this one broad inference suffice, that the aim of our life ought to be to partake of this eternal obedience. Nothing else is worth our living for. We have been each one of us born again. Obedient or disobedient we must be, real or unreal, imperishable or perishing.
And therefore our first care must needs be, to watch against whatsoever may turn the obedience of our will away from God. Of the commission of actual sin I need say nothing; I am speaking only of those in whom the regenerate will so far prevails as to make them, in the main, obey the will of God. The temptations which keep alive the disobedience of the will are such as these; strong desires after any aim in life, worldly foresight, long-drawn schemes of action, over-carefulness in the work of our calling, the indulgence of choosing and wishing for the future, a soft life, love of ease, and the like: now all these strengthen the action of our own will, and make us impatient of a cross. If events fall out otherwise than we desire, we grow rest less and repining; or if we do not carry ourselves in open variance to the will of God, we submit with sullenness and a chafing heart. All this is because we have willed things in some other way; we have been forecasting, and taking counsel of our own wishes, and measuring things by their supposed bearing upon ourselves; and our will has become so imperious in its choice, that we forget the sovereignty of God in His own world. Now, we are all tempted to this fault by nature; and even after we have so far yielded ourselves as to obey His laws in the main tenour of our life, there lingers behind a strong root of spiritual disobedience in the heart; and we are ever exciting and stimulating it in secret. Our calling in life presents a thousand subtle provocations to awaken and sustain the independent life of our will. And this explains our bitter disappointments, immoderate griefs, irritable tempers, jealous feelings. We have been imposing laws on the course of our destinies, taking the rule of God’s kingdom out of His hands, and surrounding ourselves with an unreal world of hopes, and fears, and choices, and yearnings of our own; and God has touched it with His hand, and it has started asunder and crumbled away. These states of our interior life are very insidious. There is perhaps hardly any man who is so wholly free from them, as to be altogether real and simple. For the most part, men choose, in thought, what they like best, and then will that it should come to pass, and then persuade themselves that it is to be so, and live in the persuasion, and “walk in a vain shadow, and disquiet themselves in vain.” They are out of harmony with the movement of the Divine will, and become hollow and visionary. And that, too, in the most commonplace manner of life. The most unimaginative, unpoetical, matter-of-fact men are often just as unreal as the most heated and romantic—only in another way; as, for instance, they wear out a whole life with a concentration of every thought which is awful and saddening, in straining after some object—such as high place, or great wealth, or hereditary name, which for them is as remote and unreal as the philosopher’s stone, or the elixir of life. In truth, whatsoever lies on either side of the lines, or beyond the limits, which the will of God has drawn about our lot in this world, is for us as if it did not exist; and all our thoughts, aims, hankerings, and toil after it, are mere unrealities, and must come to nothing. Most certain it is, that in every man there will be found a large admixture of this labour in vain; and perhaps the largest measure of our earnestness, and energy, and of the powers of life, are simply thrown away. Now, the first check upon this is, to understand what God wills us to be; and then to abandon every thing else, as if it did not so much as exist in the world. What we are, is a revelation of His will towards us. Our lot is a reality; the works of our calling, so long as they are done as a service of obedience, are real. Within these bounds there is nothing which does not bear upon eternity.
And this teaches us that we must do more than only watch against the allurements of our own will. Obedience to the will of God is a work of direct and simple consciousness. It is to be wrought in us by its own self-confirming power. It is by doing the will of God; by recognising it in all the changes of life; by reading in the course of this troubled world the expression of the Divine mind; by bowing ourselves down before it, under whatsoever guise it may reveal itself; by yielding ourselves in gladness of mind both to do and suffer it, counting it a holy discipline, and a loving correction of our own wilfulness, and by praying Him never to stay His hand till the mind of self be abolished from our regenerate being;—by these means it is that we are changed from the shadows of a fleeting life to the abiding realities of the eternal world, being made partakers of the will of God.
But to such a life of submission much self-discipline is needed. We cannot pass to it at once, but approach it only by the laws of a slow-advancing growth. These are days very adverse to the subjugation of the individual will. They are too external and stimulating. Even our religious life is drawn into the whirl and fever of an endless activity. But, in the service of God, there must be something behind a life of action; there must be the stationary energies of a devout spirit. Our life is too continually outward, and visible, and pent up in the throng of men. We are not enough at large and alone with God. And hence it strangely comes to pass, that we deem visible things to be real, and invisible things to be imaginary; we look upon the kingdoms of the earth, and worldly powers, and the acts of law and legislation, and the business of traders and merchants, as realities; but the Church and the priesthood, and offices of worship, and daily homage, and chants, and the offering of eucharists, and a life of contemplation, as economies and shadows. But these alone are the shrine of an abiding life. This pompous, wise, stately world must have its day, and then be dissolved, “as a dream when one awaketh.” We live in the midst of it, till it bewilders and stuns us, and we do it homage; and when we turn from it to unseen things, they are too subtle and too pure for our deadened sense. There is no cure for this, but to be more alone with God. Solitude and silence are full of reality. We must draw more into our own hearts, and converse more with Him. Never do we so put off the paint and masquerade of life, as when we are alone under the Eye which seeth in secret. A man must be either very bold, or very blind, that will still keep up the play and artifice of his common bearing. I do not speak of hypocrites. There is no man that is not in some measure twofold; and that simply because there is no man who is willing to be known by his fellow-men as he knows himself, and as none knows him beside, but God only. We see only a part of each other, but God sees all. Our partial view is, if not mingled with untruth, yet misleading, because imperfect; we know only half the riddle, and we are led astray in guessing at the rest. But “all things are naked and opened unto the eyes of Him with whom we have to do.” Our very helplessness makes us real. His eye holds in check the duplicities of our being; and by the habitual restraints of solitude with God they are weakened and overcome. In the world, all day long, there is an influence playing upon us, which draws our characters to the surface, and there fixes them, leaving our hearts hollow and inactive. The works of our calling, even the most sacred offices, have a tendency to become an unconscious facility, and to sever themselves from the powers of the will. The next move is, to withdraw themselves from the region of the conscience. Now, nothing but self-discipline in secret can keep up the integrity of our whole nature. And the more difficult this is, by reason of a man’s overburdened life of daily business, the more absolutely needful is it for his safety. Fearful thought! we were born alone, and alone we must die; and yet through all our life, we, as it were, flee from loneliness, which is alike the beginning and the ending of our earthly transit! Does not this seem to say, that we are never at ease but when we can lose the consciousness of what we are, in the noise and show of the world? All that we can do, when we find ourselves grown artificial and excited, is to go apart, where none but God sees us, and fall down as dust and nothingness before Him, and plead with Him against ourselves, and pray Him to abolish in us all that is not real and eternal.
We have the more need of this sacred discipline of self, because we have few aids and helps of a secondary sort. They are not many who have the blessing of being subject to any proximate superior; to any rule out of themselves, by which the detail of their life is ordered. More is there by thrown upon the energy of the individual will. The need of some imposed discipline, which shall bear upon the actings of our inner nature, is wonderfully attested by the yearnings of thoughtful men at this time: on every side we hear them painfully striving to free themselves from the bondage of unmeaning and artificial habits, and to find some basis on which they may rest the full weight of their living powers. This has grown upon them, more and more, ever since the current of the world turned aside from the path of the Catholic Church. The more energetic, dominant, and mighty, the more learned, toilsome, and self-trusting it has become, the more hollow is it and untrue. “The world passeth away, and the lust thereof.” It is confounded at its own perpetual changes: it sees that none of its schemes abide; that it daily grows more weary of tolling, and more transient in its toils. And why, but because it has divorced itself from the Church of the living God, and is resolving again into the incoherencies of its fallen state? All men are conscious of this: even they that cannot explain the cause. They feel, when they are busied in the world, that there is something empty, something which mocks and wearies them: they feel that the leaning of their worldly toil is away from God; that they are moving in another direction; that their returns to Him are by a sensible effort, and, as it were, against a stream. They feel, too, that their daily life is a hinderance to a life of devotion. It is distracting and importunate; it exacts too much ser vice, and repays with a perpetual weariness. All the day long they are conscious that they have fallen under the dominion of a power which is not at one with God. They crave after something through which they may submit themselves to the realities of the eternal world. And for this end was the visible Church ordained. To meet the yearnings of our baffled hearts, it stands in the earth as a symbol of the Everlasting; under the veil of its material sacraments are the powers of an endless life; its unity and its order are the expressions of heavenly things; its worship, of an eternal homage. Blessed are they that dwell within its hallowed precinct, shielded from the lures and spells of the world, living in plainness, even in poverty; hid from the gaze of men, in solitude and silence walking with God.
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