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THE HOLINESS OF COMMON LIFE.
“Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, the brother of James, and Joses, and of Juda, and Simon? and are not His sisters here with us? And they were offended at Him.”
ST. MATTHEW, in relating the same event, tells us that they said, “Is not this the carpenter’s son?” Such was the repute in which He was held in His own country, where we should have thought that an awe would have rested upon the hearts of all; and that His perfect meekness would have won their love. “When He was come into His own country, He taught them in their synagogue, insomuch that they were astonished, and said, Whence hath this man this wisdom, and these mighty works? . . . . And they were offended in Him. But Jesus said unto them, A prophet is not without honour save in his own country, and 221in his own house. And He did not many mighty works there, because of their unbelief.”121121 St. Matt. xiii. 54-57. Now it cannot but appear very strange, that our Lord Jesus Christ should have been so like to other men that they should not have discovered Him to be something greater than themselves. We should have thought that the events attending first the annunciation, then His birth, the revelations to the shepherds and to the wise men, the warnings of God to Joseph, should have in some way come abroad, and invested the Child Jesus with awe and mystery; or, if these things were kept secret, yet we should have thought that there must have been in His very gestures and words some indications which should have made people expect from Him something more than from other men. Yet it would appear that for thirty years He lay hid, living among them unheeded, speaking and acting in the common way of men, so that He passed for the carpenter’s son, Himself a carpenter, dwelling among His kinsmen, brethren and sisters as they are here called. They treated Him as one of themselves. Not only in the Temple at Jerusalem, where He might be unknown, did they ask, “How knoweth this man letters, having never learned?”122122 St. John vii. 15. but here, in His own city, they asked, in surprise and incredulity, “Whence hath this 222man this wisdom?” From all this it would seem plain, that our blessed Redeemer did not greatly differ, in what may be called His private life, from those about Him; that He dwelt under the roof of Joseph and Mary, in childhood subject to them, in manhood serving them with a perfect filial duty, in plainness, poverty, retirement. He, in whom dwelt the fulness of the Godhead bodily, the brightness of His Father’s glory, and the express image of His Person, lay so concealed in the paths of ordinary life, that His own townsmen knew Him only as the carpenter, as an unnoted member of Joseph’s household.
Now there are some very important practical truths to be drawn from this fact: truths full both of comfort and of instruction to many kinds of people. What is more common than to hear people excusing themselves from the obligation of leading a devout life, on the plea that they are compelled to mix with the world? Others, again, who earnestly desire to keep themselves unspotted from the world, are exceedingly distressed at the distractions and hindrances of society. Some think that all high counsels of devotion are for solitaries, or persons whom God has called out of the tumult of the world to serve Him in the shelter of sorrow, sickness, or retirement. They give up the very thought of aiming at higher attainments; they 223call them visionary, unpractical, impossible. And even those who earnestly strive to live above the context of life by which they are surrounded, are tempted to think that, if they would live nearer to God, they must abandon life and its manifold exactions.
We may learn, then, from this view of our Lord’s example:
1. First, that the holiest of men may to all outward eyes appear exactly like other people. For in what does holiness consist but in a due fulfilment of the relative duties of our state in life, and in spiritual fellowship with God?
Now the relative duties of life are universal. Every man has his own. There is nothing peculiar but that which belongs to each man’s peculiar station, and that station explains away the peculiarity of his acts and ways. Whatever we are, high or lowly, learned or unlearned, married or single, in a full house or alone, charged with many affairs or dwelling in quietness, we have our daily round of work, our duties of affection, obedience, love, mercy, industry, and the like; and that which makes one man to differ from another is not so much what things he does, as his manner of doing them. Two men, the most opposite in character, may dwell side by side, and do the very same daily acts, but in the sight of God be as far apart as 224light and darkness. Saints and sinners may alike fulfil the visible acts of their several callings in life; but with what diversity of motives, with what contradiction of aims, with what opposite tempers, purposes, affections of heart! The very same round of acts may be to one man the subject-matter of a holy life, to another the occasion of habitual offences. At all events, the habit of life in each is ostensibly the same, and there is nothing peculiar or remarkable in those things in which sinners and saints alike partake. The commonplace familiar aspect of every-day life draws a veil over the inward posture and actings of the mind, as over the holiness of our Lord. And if in these things holy men are not outwardly distinguishable from others, they are still less so in the spiritual fellowship which is between themselves and God. Into this no eye but that which seeth in secret can enter. No man can say what passes in the closet when the door is shut; in secret meditations at eventide; in nightly vigils; in wakings before the morning-watch; in days when the spirit goes softly before God, with fasting, and compunction, and tears which flow inwardly upon the soul.
2. Again: we may learn, what, indeed, is implied though not expressed in the text, that true holiness is not made up of extraordinary acts. We may say in this as the Apostle asked of the 225Church in Corinth: “Are all apostles? are all prophets? are all teachers? are all workers of miracles? have all the gifts of healing? do all speak with tongues? do all interpret?”123123 1 Cor. xii. 29, 30. Although we know, indeed, and in cooler and clearer moments acknowledge, that it is not only those who are called of God to great and emphatic works of faith and charity, that are truly devout; yet we are some how often tempted to overstep the lines which are drawn along our ordinary path. This is especially true of persons at the outset of a religious life, or in the first awakening of repentance, or under the deep thrilling impressions of God’s presence in sorrows or afflictions. We are tempted to give way to excited feelings, to exaggerated words, to unnecessary and almost ostentatious acts; and that with no desire to be seen of men, and to have our miserable reward in this world, but because we fancy that common things do not give scope enough for a devoted life; that a wider field, and broader lines, and bolder strokes, are needed.
And this no doubt is the secret of many grave and sometimes irremediable mistakes. Sometimes? under the belief that in an ordinary life of duty they could not serve God with devotion, men have left their plain path of duty, and committed themselves suddenly to holy orders; or they have made 226sacrifices of which they have afterwards repented; or bound themselves by vows which have turned to yokes and snares; or, like the foolish builder, have committed themselves to public professions, which they have afterwards shamefully abandoned. Now what is all this, but the mistake that holiness is to be attained more easily by going out of our ordinary path than by abiding in it? But if there be any thing true, it is this: that, for the greater part of men, the most favourable discipline of holiness will be found exactly to coincide with the ordinary path of duty; and that it will be most surely promoted by repressing the wanderings of imagination, in which we frame to ourselves states of life and habits of devotion remote from our actual lot, and by spending all our strength in those things, great or small, pleasing or unpalatable, which belong to our calling and position.
3. And, once more, we may learn, that any man, whatsoever be his outward circumstances of life, may reach to any the highest point of devotion. I do not say that all states of life are equally favourable; far from it; but that outward circumstances are only hindrances, not absolute prohibitions. It is most true, that they who are permitted by the Providence of God to withdraw from worldly employments, to wait at His altar, to be content with food and raiment, to live lives of self-denial, 227in works of love and spiritual mercy, being themselves without carefulness, and disburdened of the many things which cumber other Christians; that is, in one word, who are permitted to choose with Mary that “one thing needful,” “that good part which shall not be taken away from” them; most true it is, that such persons may, and do, for the most part, more surely and deeply than others, perfect in their souls the work of humiliation, penitence, and devotion.
But this is a lot not given to all. And it is most certain, that for those who are not called from the duties of the world and the cares of life, the path in which God is pleased to lead them must be the best and safest. Nay, one among the wisest of the Church’s early teachers124124 S. Clem. Alex. Strom. vii. 874. tells us that the most perfect man is he who, in the midst of the charges, and cares, and relations of life and home, yet attends upon the Lord without distraction. Such a way of life will indeed require greater spiritual strength. For worldly cares weigh down the soul, and. entangle it in manifold obstructions. To be in the world, and yet dead to it, is the highest reach of faith.
But there is no need for the great multitude of Christians to weigh these states in a balance 228against each other. This at least is most certain, and makes all such comparisons unprofitable—I mean, that there is hardly one of us whose out ward circumstances in life do not admit of a far higher reach of devotion than we actually attain. We repine at the obstructions of our outward lot, as if they were the cause of our wandering thoughts, careless hearts, selfish wishes, inattentive prayers, unchastened tempers, languid affections. We think we should do better in some other condition, under some other circumstances, with somewhat less of ordinary life, and somewhat more of uncommon events and practices. And yet the hindrance is not from without but within us. It is not only in the household, or in the market-place, or at the seat of custom, or in the crowd of men, that this, which makes our religious character imperfect, cleaves to us, and defeats our washes and intentions. We should carry it with us into a cell. It would lower the tone of our devotions in a solitude, or even at the foot of the altar: for what is it but the want of fervour and perseverance , a lack of inward force and of spiritual affections? What do the examples of Holy Scripture teach us? They shew us that those who have been called to serve God out of the world, so to speak, are few; and that they who have served Him in the world are the multitude of His 229saints. Samuel was brought up in the temple; Elijah dwelt in Carmel; Elisha in the school of the prophets; John Baptist in the wilderness; the Apostles forsook all for Christ’s sake and the Gospel: but Enoch walked with God, and had sons and daughters; Abraham had great possessions; Joseph governed Egypt; Moses was king in Jeshurun;125125 Deut. xxxiii. 5. Jeremiah dwelt in a royal court; Daniel was third ruler in the kingdom of Babylon; Nehemiah was prince and governor in Jerusalem.
So in all ages the saints of the Church have been mingled in all the duties and toils of life, until age or the events of Providence set them free. There was nothing uncommon about most of them but their holiness. Their very lot in life ministered to them occasions of obedience and humiliation. They sought God fervently in the turmoil of homes and armies, of camps and courts; and He revealed Himself to them in love, and became the centre about which they moved, and the rest of all their affections.
There is no reason why we should not likewise live unto God, whatsoever be our trade, labour, profession, or state. A poor mother may live after the example of the Blessed Virgin in lowliness and thoughtful care, pondering in her heart, watching 230over her children, and fostering them for God, leading them up to His temple, teaching them betimes to be about their heavenly Father’s business. Children may grow up in affection, patience, gentleness, and uniform obedience, like our Lord. A poor labouring man may live by the sweat of his face, tilling the earth, or working with the tools of his craft, as “the Carpenter” at His toil, and yet have his “life hid with Christ in God.” States men, merchants, lawyers, soldiers, all they who “maintain the state of the world,” may reach to any height of Christian devotion. There is no limit to their advance, except in the measure of their own energy, zeal, self-discipline, and purity of heart.
What has been said may suggest many thought! of comfort in the present state of the Church among us. It cannot be denied that the visible marks of sanctity are but faintly seen. The world has out grown the Church, and left its character and impressions every where. In the whole civil and social state, in public and private life, in our sciences of government and schemes of civilisation, in our institutions, undertakings, and usages, that which meets us every where is the world, its powers, wisdom, self-trusting, its softness, polish, and refinement. The notes of the Church are suppressed and seldom seen: the counsels, precepts, 231laws of holy living, the public solemnities of a visible religion, are well nigh withdrawn from our personal, domestic, and political life. Where are the high days of the Church’s joy, as in the former days of old? The very consolations of Holy Scripture have become unmeaning to us. Who knows what is promised when it is said, “Ye shall have a song, as in the night when a holy solemnity is kept; and gladness of heart, as when one goeth with a pipe to come into the mountain of the Lord, to the mighty One of Israel?”126126 Isaiah xxx. 29. Where are our feasts of Christian joy? Chilled off into a formality, which to the multitude is tame, wearisome, and inexpressive; or the mercies of God are suffered to pass without any token of acknowledgment. And for our public fasts, even Nineveh shall rise up in the judgment and condemn us. “The people of Nineveh believed God, and proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them even to the least of them. For word came unto the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, and he laid his robe from him, and covered him with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. And he caused it to be proclaimed and published through Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles, saying, Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste any thing; let them not feed, nor drink 232water: but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily unto God.”127127 Jonah iii. 5-8. But we have come to partake in great public wrongs, and can bear to be smitten by awful public chastisements, without confession or humiliation. And, moreover, those visible institutions and privileged rules of life by which repentance, devotion, and charity manifested themselves in other days, are gone. The surface of religion among us is a monotonous plain, unbroken by variety; marked by few visible features of devotion, standing out in relief from the level of ordinary life.
We may hope, indeed, that these things are the excess of a recoil from a popular system, which may have been more visible than real; and that the secrecy of private devotion is a sensitive and not unwise retirement, into which men are provoked by the coarse and unfeeling exhibition of fanatical and self-conscious professors. Let us hope that there is vet a severe reality at heart, that men have been taught to apprehend with an intense and even over strained interpretation the words of our Lord in the midst of an ostentatious and obtrusive religious profession: “Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven. Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound 233a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth: that thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret, Himself shall reward thee openly. And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly. . . . . Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face; that thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.”128128 St. Matt. vi. 1-6, 16-18. It is, I think, certainly true, that what the confusions and worldliness of these latter days have made inevitable, these words have been understood even to enjoin; and we may 234therefore take great comfort in the thought, that under the cold, naked exterior of our public religion, and the reserve of private habits, there does exist a deep and severe reality of spiritual life; that under the most unlikely and adverse appearance there lies hidden a real work of mortification. We read even of a king of Israel, “that he rent his clothes; and he passed by upon the wall, and the people looked, and, behold, he had sackcloth within upon his flesh.”129129 2 Kings vi. 30. Let us hope that God, who weigheth the spirits, does discern the deep moving of the inmost heart, the tokens of the cross, the mind of Christ, in those who, to us, seem no more than just, temperate, amiable, and gentle; and that many who appear to be drifting to and fro on the waterflood, are held by “an anchor of the soul, sure and stedfast, and which entereth into that within the veil.”130130 Heb. vi. 19. God only knows. We may perhaps have spoken, and even dwelt, with men who had in them the mind of apostles and martyrs. We have known them only by their outward aspect, as they who said in His own country, “Is not this the carpenter?”
Let us hope this, I say, of others: but we must do more than hope it of ourselves; here there can be no mistaking. We are within the closet even when the door is shut. What is seen by our Father 235in secret is not hidden from us. Whether or no there be, under our every-day life, the devotion of a saintly mind, can be no matter of doubt to those who desire to know themselves. It is plain, from what has been said, that if it be not so with us, the fault is not in our outward state, nor in its circumstances, but in ourselves. We may therefore rest assured, that the duties of the day and fellowship with God are enough to lead us on to any measure of Christian perfection. But these must not be separated. It is impossible for us to make the duties of our lot minister to our sanctification without a habit of devout fellowship with God. This is the spring of all our life, and the strength of it. It is prayer, meditation, and converse with God, that refreshes, restores, and renews the temper of our minds, at all times, under all trials, after all conflicts with the world, when our own carnal will and frailty has betrayed us to our fall, and breaches have been made in our most stedfast resolutions. By this contact with the world unseen we receive continual accesses of strength. The counter- working of the world is thereby held in check. As our day, so is our strength. With out this healing and refreshing of spirit, duties grow to be burdens, the events of life chafe our temper, employments lower the tone of our minds, and we become fretful, irritable, and impatient. 236Our outward circumstances become provocations and offences. A busy life, or one that is full of this world’s duties and gifts, needs much devotion to sanctify it. The less directly our outward lot disposes us towards inward holiness, the more need have we of recollection, self-chastisement, and prayer. Without these we shall never be able to walk with circumspection, in gentleness, sincerity, pureness, and love. Our hidden life with God is the very soul of our spiritual being in our own home, in the church, and in the world.
And so also, on the other hand, it is impossible for us to live in fellowship with God without holiness in all the relative duties of life. These things act and react on each other. Without a diligent and faithful obedience to the calls and claims of others upon us, our religious profession is simply dead. To disobey conscience when it points to relative duties irritates the whole temper, and quenches the first beginnings of devotion. We cannot go from strife, breaches, and angry words, to God. Selfishness, an imperious will, want of sympathy with the sufferings and sorrows of other men, neglect of charitable offices, suspicions, hard censures of those with whom our lot is cast, will miserably darken our own hearts and hide the face of God from us. It is mere folly to go from a breach of the second great commandment to attempt 237 the fulfilment of the first. When a man is ill at ease with others, he is sure to be so with God. That much-abused proverb is most true, “Charity begins at home.” It is but Pharisaism and self-delusion for a man that is “a lion in his house and frantic among his servants”131131 Ecclus. iv. 30. to make profession of prayer and fellowship with the Lamb of God.
Let this, then, be our token. Let us whose lot is cast in these latter times, when the Church has once more become almost hidden in the world, be of the holy fellowship of Him who to the eyes of men was only the carpenter, but in the eyes of God was the very Christ. Let us look well to our daily duties. The least of them is a wholesome discipline of humiliation: if, indeed, any thing can be little which may be done for God. If we were worthy of greater things, He would call us: if He do not, He bids us to know ourselves better, to mortify vanity and high thoughts of our own powers to do Him service. Every state has its peculiar graces. They who are blessed with full homes and many friends are called to goodness, mercy, long-suffering, tender affection towards the burdened and afflicted. The Jews would have no man to be a judge but one that had children, that he might know how to shew mercy as a father. There is a discipline of humanity in the cares and burdens of 238life which mellows the hearts of the just. Joseph is their type and example. Others are otherwise led and disposed of, and are thereby called to toil, hardness, deadness to self, patience, humiliation; to be content with God alone; to have charity to God’s elect, boldness for the truth, suffering for the Church, and to receive in the “body the marks of the Lord Jesus.”239
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