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COMPLAINING A HINDRANCE TO THE SPIRITUAL LIFE.
“Oh that I were as in months past, as in the days when God preserved me; when His candle shined upon my head, and when by His light I walked through darkness; as I was in the days of my youth, when the secret of God was upon my tabernacle!”
THESE are sad and bitter words, the complaining of a man who had once known days of peace and light, but was now in affliction. In years past, Job had lived in fellowship with God, encompassed with His mercies, full of His gifts. He had received blessings in the house and in the field, in the basket and in the store. He had his children round about him, and his people held him in honour. A change came over his life. God hid His face, and Job was troubled. The tempter received power to try his faith, and 123smote him with sore afflictions. Childless and spoiled, he sat upon the ground in his wounds and sickness, pleading with God and bemoaning his desolation. “Oh that I were as in months past!” This is a tone of mourning very common among men at all times, and in all trials of life: not only by the graves of past happiness, and in the loneliness of ordinary sorrow, but in spiritual sadness, in the heavy cloud which often comes down upon the soul even of God’s true servants.
It is very common to hear those who have long served God speak of times past as times of joy, and of the time present as a time of declension. We have all our golden age. The season of childhood, or the first fervour of conversion, the first burst of conscious faith, the first exulting spring out of the bonds of a worldly life, when life seems over, and heaven already won: blessed days and nights, when even in dreams God seems to speak with us—all these are times which, in retrospect, have a peculiar brightness. After a while, they seem past away, and we say, “Oh that I were . . . . as I was in the days of my youth, when the secret of God was upon my tabernacle!”
Sometimes, indeed, these complainings have no reality j but sometimes they are true. For instance, people who have been brought up in a home full of helps to the spiritual life, sometimes 124 pass into others as full of hindrances. Some, after having been earnest with imperfect light, on gaining greater light, grow, not without cause, dissatisfied with their state. Others, again, from various causes, voluntary and involuntary, sometimes slacken their speed, or they fall into a scrupulous, fearful, and self-vexing mood, in which their very earnestness becomes a danger. If they had less fear, they would have less scruple, and more peace in God. Such people are very apt to use this complaint. They remember what they were; they feel what they are: it is as joy to heaviness, strength to weakness, the light of God’s countenance to coldness and desolation. What, then, shall they do?
1. First, it is most necessary that they should learn to look out of themselves.
This sounds strange advice. How, then, they ask, can we examine our own hearts? And if we do not examine them, how shall we either correct our faults, or even know them? It is not to be denied that there is a difficulty in this. And yet we know that we may take a wise and sufficient care of our bodily health, without becoming fearful or fanciful, or, as we commonly say, valetudinarian. It all depends upon the manner and the tone of mind. We all know that fancies beget diseases, nay, are diseases in themselves. So it is 125with the spiritual health. Self-examination will be healthy or unhealthy just as we make it. One person will use it with a perfect habit of self-forgetfulness, and another will be haunted by a perpetual self-contemplation.
There is no doubt that the habit of looking into ourselves, and dwelling upon ourselves, produces a train of spiritual evils, such as scruples, sadness, fearfulness, misgiving, doubting of God, shrinking, depression, despondency, weakness, religious egotism, and the like For in truth, many look into themselves when they ought to be looking to the Sacrifice upon the cross. Some do so from want of faith, some from self-trusting, some from self-love, some from mere natural feelings,—from the simple emotions of flesh and blood, chafing at themselves, and resenting their own faults, forgetting what they are, and why redeemed. There is no doubt that much of the sadness and depression people indulge, has its root in self-love. They are vexed to find themselves such poor creatures after all. They have been aiming high, and their pride ill brooks such falls. They have been passing themselves off, at least in their own eyes, for mature and advanced Christians, and their vanity is mortified to find sins and follies of which even worldly people might be ashamed. Then they grow saddened, sullen with 126 themselves, disheartened, and sensitive to every vexation.
But it is not always for such reasons. Sincere and humble minds often give way to fears at the clearer insight into their own sinfulness. It is a depth which we can hardly bear to look into. They who know the most of it know but little. Who can tell what he is in the sight of God, or even of holy angels? We cannot hold, all at once, in our consciousness even the acts of sin which we have committed in our past life; how much less our sins of word, thought, and imagination; least of all, the secret sins of our will. In God’s presence, what a sight is a diseased soul, what soils, stains, and wounds; what distortions and running sores; what a mixture of darkness and fire are the passions and the intellect! What a miracle of sin is ingratitude, hardness, selfishness, sloth, lukewarmness, infidelity even at the foot of the cross! No one really knows himself as he is. God alone can measure and endure this revelation of our personal sinfulness. The most we see of it is but a little. There are two things which man cannot see and live, the Divine Majesty and his own sin. God in His tenderness veils us from ourselves, lest we should see ourselves, and die. Therefore it is not to be wondered at, if earnest and self-searching minds should, by 127poring into their sinfulness, at last prey upon themselves. They do it with a pure intention, and with a zealous hatred of sin. The more keenly they hate evil, the less they spare themselves. It is a zeal which eateth them up. And they continually mourn over some golden age which is past; some season when all was fair and bright; when they think they were less soiled and darkened, and God was more sensibly about them. But this, indeed, is not the truth. They were always what they are, only they knew not then what they know now. There has been no change, except in their consciousness of sin. What then slumbered is now awakened; all the change that has passed on them has been, not for the worse, but for the better: when they were unconscious of their sin, they were further from God; they are nearer now, because they see themselves to be exceeding sinful. It is He who is revealing it to them: it is His very nearness which awakens their consciousness. And they see not His light, but their own shadow, and this affrights them.
Now, for such persons, it is most necessary that they should be drawn out of themselves. A sincere conscience will never fail to keep up a sufficient self-examination; it may be left in a kind of passive sovereignty, to act in defence and as a safeguard. But the active powers of their mind, the 128 intellect and reason, need to be drawn outward. As in the wilderness the people of God were bid to gaze, not upon their burning wounds, but upon the serpent of brass which was lifted up to heal them, so these self-vexing spirits must look out upon the cross.
2. And for this it is needful that they should realise more and more the objects of faith. While we look into ourselves, these become faint and dim. They must be fixedly and intently gazed upon to be habitually realised. When I say the objects of faith, I mean especially the presence and love of God, the sympathy and passion, the patience and tenderness, of our Blessed Lord, the presence and long-suffering of the Holy Ghost, the heavenly court, the communion of Saints, the love and ministry of angels; the whole world unseen and eternal. These are the changeless realities of faith, by which souls are drawn from this earthly and sensual life into harmony with the will and kingdom of God. They have a power to cleanse, sanctify, transfigure; to the sight of habitual faith, they become more near, visible, and real than the world we see. For all that we here behold are forms, shapes, and shifting outlines. This material world is not eternal, neither is it our home. It cannot endure for ever; we shall soon pass from it; itself shall soon pass away. Our home 129is in a supernatural order lifted above this world, to which even now we are related. It is only by going forth into this eternal sphere, living in it by faith, realising the truths and laws of the divine kingdom, the presence, personality, and love of our Redeemer, the mystery and majesty of the ever-blessed Three: it is only by this that the soul of man can be drawn away from its own evil. Except God be its centre, it will be a centre to itself. No creature will bear its weight; no created love can stay its yearning after rest. And if it find none, it will consume itself with chafing against its own miseries. It will never leave off to harass itself by brooding upon sin, until it has lost its morbid consciousness of self in the presence and love of God.
All this is so plain, that it need hardly be said. The true question therefore is, How shall such self-vexing, self-depressing minds escape from themselves into these blessed and sustaining realities? If they could do this, it would be all well. It is because they cannot do this, that they are saddened and cast down.
1. The first counsel to be given them is, to clear their mind of scruples. But this is their very disease. It is from this they desire to be set free. If they could clear their mind, then they would have no further trouble. They must 130 begin, then, by searching out and clearly defining the cause of their scruples. If it be indulged faults, or favoured infirmities, or conscious omissions, or known unfairness with their conscience, or unresisted temptation, or willing indevotion, then let them confess it simply and clearly at the foot of the cross. Only let them guard against indulging in undefined and vague discomforts. We all know what it is to feel that something is vexing us, even while we cannot remember what it is; we feel ill at ease, and yet cannot tell why; it takes some moments’ recollection to recall it; but the burden and sadness abide still upon us, though the causes are forgotten. It is just so in spiritual things; and needs to be much watched against.
But if a person shall say, “I know what my trouble is, and what it springs from; and I have confessed it again and again, and yet I cannot find peace. I feel sure something is amiss. I cannot assure myself, and be at rest.” Then theirs is exactly the case intended and described by the Church. “If any man cannot quiet his own conscience,” let him come to some minister of God, and open his grief. The best course for such persons is, simply to follow the Church’s counsel: to go to their pastor, confess their trouble in the presence of Christ and in the hearing of 131His servant, and receive the benefit of absolution. Then let it be a point of faith with them to trouble themselves no more. Let them simply “believe the word that Jesus hath spoken, and go their way.” “Whosesoever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them.” “Whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Let them believe this with simple faith, as they believe the mystery of the Incarnation, and of our Lord’s presence in His Church. And let them cast away all scruples; for scruples bring fears, and fears a shrinking dread; and these bring despondency, which is a sin against hope; and this brings estrangement, which is a sin against love. What is all this but to dishonour the miraculous compassion of our Lord, and to hinder the peaceful sanctification of their souls? There is hardly any spiritual disease more hurtful than scruples. They stunt and wither the spiritual life, and bring the soul into a bondage from which the Blood of Christ was shed to set them free.
2. Another counsel is, to live in the habit of frequent communion. There is no means so powerful to draw us out of ourselves as the holy Sacrament of our Lord’s presence. None so sets before us the realities of the spiritual world. In all other acts of the spiritual life, our minds depend chiefly m their own powers. In reading holy Scripture, 132 we are sustained by our own intellectual acts; in prayer, we depend upon the strength and vividness of our interior affections: in both, our minds act upon themselves. But in the holy Communion we are in the very presence of our Lord. We see before us in a mystery the incarnation, the atoning sacrifice, the love and passion of our Redeemer, the love and mercy of the Father; “the flesh, which is meat indeed; the blood, which is drink indeed”—the fountain of cleansing, strength, solace, perseverance. We there go out of ourselves to Him. The very reason why we come is, because we are empty, fainting, and weak; we come that we may be filled out of His fulness. When we go to the altar, we go to the entrance of the world unseen; to the spot where the visible and invisible worlds unite. The oftener we draw near, the deeper will be our sense of these eternal realities. The oftener we communicate, the worthier we shall be for holy Communion; the deeper our humiliation, the ampler our self-accusing, the simpler our trust in the pardon and help of our Lord. And as there is no means so direct to deepen in us a sense of His love and nearness, so there is none so effectual to make us forget ourselves in habitual remembrance of Him.
3. And, for a last counsel, it is good for such persons daily to exercise their minds upon these 133unseen realities. We spend time and care in cultivating the powers of the ear and of the voice, of the eye and of the intellect; all the faculties which are given to this world’s service are carefully trained and exercised. But the spiritual powers of the soul we leave without discipline or culture. How can we hope to meditate without practice, any more than to reason or to calculate? We know how needful it is to apply our powers to the sciences of this visible world, and yet we live as if we thought the unseen world to have no mysteries, or our souls to need no discipline. Therefore it is that we have, at best, faint images, often none at all, of the only true and eternal reality. Towards the heavenly world, the minds of many are a mere blank. This world overspreads their heart with its ten thousand characters and reflections. Their faculties are quick and practised in all that bears upon this natural and earthly life; but of the spiritual world, and of its supernatural order of truths and laws, they have but dim and clouded impressions. What wonder if such minds turn inwardly upon themselves? They dwell upon their strongest ideas; and these are not the ideas of divine and heavenly realities, but of their own turbulent and depressing consciousness.
This is the reason why their prayers are distracted, their communions cold, their sense of the 134 Divine pity, love, and pardon, so faint and low. What they need is a vivid and habitual perception of the Divine Presence and of the mysteries of faith. For this end, it is good for them to meditate daily on the love of God, on the gift of His Son and of His Spirit; on the Passion of our blessed Lord, on the pledges of His miraculous pity, and of His yearning desire of our salvation. And such meditations ought not to pass away in mere processes of thought, in transient workings of the intellect; but must spread through the whole spiritual nature, and issue in acts of faith, hope, and love. When I say acts, I do not mean a mere recital of the objects and grounds of faith, hope, and love; but such an exercise of the heart and will as may awaken a consciousness of personal faith, hope, and love. For these are spiritual habits, needing to be trained and disciplined, as much as meekness, patience, humility. Nay, far more, inasmuch as they are the active powers, the moving energies of the whole spiritual life. It is by them God quickens us. They are the threefold working of His Spirit in us, uniting us to the Person of His Son, and through Him to the kingdom of the Resurrection, and to the Source of everlasting life.135
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