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Wilderness Days

( Originally Published 1912 )



Then the Spirit driveth him into the wilderness and he was there forty days.—New Testament.

Bible students all notice how frequently the number "Forty" is employed. In the story of the Flood it is related that the rain fell for forty days and forty nights. When Moses was forty years old he went out from Pharoah's palace to visit his countrymen. After slaying the Egyptian he fled to Arabia, where he remained forty years. The people of Israel consumed forty years in making their emigration to the land of Canaan. After an angel had given food to Elijah he traveled forty days without further sustenance. When Jesus was led into the desert he lived there without eating for forty days.

Perhaps the number is an emblem of completeness. It is a middle term expressing neither lack nor excess. In a human life it is a mile post standing not far from mid way in the journey. Or it may represent the highest point in the long march; a hill of observation from which the way already passed over can be surveyed and the course which henceforth ought to be followed can be more clearly seen. The first half of the eighty years career contains more or less of wandering and turmoil ; the last half contains more of directness and usefulness and, strange as it may seem to youth, more of happiness. Forty years of struggle and want in the wilderness, then forty years of peace and plenty in Canaan. Using the figure more freely, after forty days of fasting and temptation in a desert, as in the case of Jesus, angels come and minister to life. The soul has fought its battles with sense and circumstance and has gained a certain steadiness and repose.

How many of the incidents connected with the wilderness era in the experience of the Son of Man are historical, and how many are legendary, cannot now be known. But, in any case, its spiritual import is great and valuable. Whether the Roman and English churches act wisely in making an ecclesiastical ordinance out of it, there may be an honest difference of opinion. The number of religious services to be attended, the quality and quantity of food to be consumed, and the pleasures to be enjoyed or omitted are purely individual questions. The probabilities are that neither within nor without the Lent observing churches, will abstinence be so rigid as to cause any serious injury. If here, with our freer treatment of the past and its customs, we do not place as high an estimate upon Lent as do some of our friends in other churches, at least we need not underrate its value. "Let each one be fully persuaded in his own mind," is a wise scripture. That which is clone from a strong inner conviction should be largely immune from all criticism.

Seeking for the moral and spiritual meaning of the forty days episode, it appears in this form :

An ardent youth may be seen going away from his humble home at Nazareth. The preaching of John had disturbed the serenity of his life. He went down to the Jordan Valley where the meetings were being held in the open air. While listen-big to the stormy eloquence of the orator, there came to him revelation of the meaning of existence. Life was not something to be -laughed or danced or dreamed away. It was for serious, earnest action. While those revellers were dancing at Brussels on a June night in 1815, the booming of cannon at Waterloo announced to them that the battle upon which depended the fate of empires was opened. Byron has made us see what occurred:

"And there was mounting in hot haste; the steed,
The mustering squadron, and the clattering car,
Went pouring forward with impetuous speed,
And swiftly forming in the ranks of war;
And the deep thunder peal on peal afar;
And near, the beat of the alarming drum
Roused up the soldier ere the morning star ;
While thronged the citizens with terror dumb,
Or whispering with white lips,—"The foe! they come ! they come."

Thus, in the midst of a careless world, tidings came to this young man that a battle between the old and new order of things had begun. He must needs gird himself for the conflict. By some strong impulse he was hurried away from the grass fringed bank of the Jordan out among the bare, gaunt, depressing hills, and there he was put in training for the campaign. It was a campaign which, for him, ended three years later on Calvary, but which, for Humanity, has not yet ended. In his retirement there passed in outline before his soul great principles and great duties. There were days and nights of struggle, of temptation, of choice between splendid seeming and plain truth; between the pomp of royalty and friendship for the lowly and forsaken. There came the lures of sense, of riches, of fame; there came also the claims of the soul, of truth, and of goodness. Which he chose the brief history of his after life is ample evidence. "Vincit qui se vincit," the Latin proverb declares. He conquers who conquers himself. That he did in the wilderness. First he mastered himself, then he mastered the world.

That age is far away. Changed are habits and customs and circumstances.

"The old order changeth, giving place unto the new,
And God fulfills Himself in many ways."

Nevertheless, this era has its temptations, its opportunities, its chances for victory and defeat fully equal to that which lay around the young Nazarene. Hence, if there be any value in forty days memory of the battling but triumphant Christ, it will not come by some conventional restrictions concerning food and amusements, so much as by a deeper study of the world with its many problems and duties and re-arming the soul for an unceasing conflict with evil. Even at this distance the withdrawal of Christ into solitude, that he might study the larger side of life, is impressive; but how much' more impressive would be the scene of all the mil-lions, who call themselves by his name, not only conventionally, but actually doing as he did! What a moral uplift would be given our world if for a few weeks of spring all theoretical, were to become actual Christians ! If all were to meditate over moral realities and transform their divine philosophy into divine deeds, the sun of Easter morning would, rise upon a new world.

It is much too late in the world to preach asceticism. The story of the Thebaid can never be repeated. The work of the world must be done. The genius of the age is action, not repose. Society has claims that must be met. Some hours must be given to pleasure. Self-denial, the negation of all natural tendencies will not alone produce the best form of life.

But the wilderness incident serves to remind us that life should not all be devoted to a struggle for wealth and reputation and power and, pleasure. From all the days that go flying by some should be caught and set apart for meditation over things spiritual and eternal. A mere ceremonial observance will not meet the demands of the case. It is a painful fact that the body can take part in religious rites after they become stated and habitual while the soul remains unhelped and unrefreshed. No ecclesiastical austerity regulated by the phases of the moon, no real or figurative fasting for forty days preceding Easter can fully atone for indifference to religion or unmodified indulgence in business or amusement for all the other days of the year. But, without regard to church or bishop, or the first full moon after the twenty-first of March, at stated or unstated times every soul would do well to have seasons of sacred retreat away from the secular confusions of business and pleasure and reflect upon the other side of life. It is not only possible, but profitable at times to dismiss the small things—the gains and losses, gossip about local events, the newspapers, politics, foolish books, the doings of a city council, the trifling jealousies and passions which infest society; when, laying aside all petty hindrances, the soul confronts all the high and holy issues of life, commands all the satans to stand aside, and resolves that, henceforth, it will be more loyal to God.

Emerson wrote : "The history of Jesus is the history of every man written large." It is even so. There are those who, across all the centuries, may hear the heart of that One beating in harmony with their own. Like him, they have discovered that no exalted mood can be sustained and perpetual. There are sacred hours when the heavens seem to open and a holy spirit descends. Then a resolution is taken to consecrate life to the service of the Eternal Will. For a moment the soul seems empowered to soar away in an endless, ascending flight. But this passes; and there comes a hurrying away into a desert and lonely place to be tested and to struggle. Many earnest minds are, at times, haunted by suspicion of their power to perform the task laid upon them. There are skepticisms and perplexities concerning many things. Battle is the law of life. Whoso himself, in solitary places, has met tempters and foiled them, has had passions more cruel than wild beasts for companions and has subdued them, has felt the poignant pangs of a more than physical hunger, without the aid of any commentary, he knows well the meaning of those days in the desert when his noble Brother was battling for victory, and, having gained it, was cheered by angels.

"Who never ate his bread in sorrow,
Who never spent the darksome hours,
Weeping and watching for the morrow,
He knows ye not, ye unseen Powers."

Who are they who have moved the world, wrought reformations, given their characters to epochs, and, have "not so much graven, as ploughed their names in history?" Those who have freely accepted this evident way of nature. Buddha, Moses, Elijah, Jesus, Mahomet, Dante, Wyclif, Luther, all belong to this class. They went apart they tasted poverty; they became outlaws for the sake of the thing they loved. Single handed and with none to applaud if they conquered, with none to pity if they fell, they joined in death grapple with all enemies besetting them without or within. Then they came back to the haunts of the multitude disciplined by hardship ; their wills strong as steel ; their hopes always up before sunrise; and their aims high as the vaulted skies.

They lay their corner-stones in dark
Deep waters, who upbuild in beauty
On earth's old heart their triumph arc
That crowns with glory lives of duty.

And heart-strings sweetest music make
When swept by sufferings fiery fingers ;
And through soul-shadows starriest break
The glories on God's brave light-bringers."

It is said that necessity is the mother of invention. Perhaps, in a great part, this may be said of heroism. It is a child of necessity. It may come from within or without, but man has performed his most notable deeds at the command of fate. Often he does not choose what he will or will not do. It is chosen for him. If the case were optional, the task would not have been done. One hero says : "The hand of the Lord was laid upon me." Another says: "I came not to do mine own will, but the will of Him who sent me." Another says: "I do not go whither I would ; some God hurries and drives me." By nature man does not love hardship; he loves ease. There are exceptions, but born into luxury, with every possible want provided for in advance, man would not choose a life of toil. Nearly all the past bears testimony that the work of the world has grown out of the wants of the world. The studio of artists, the garret of scholars, the closet of inventors, sea, land, shop, and farm have held the poor and not the rich.

It would be a mistake to infer that external hardship can of itself lead to greatness. Always there is presupposed a certain inner strength of character. It is also essential that surroundings be such as to make the struggle seem worth while. There is poverty enough in central Africa, but no form of mental or moral greatness is emerging from it. In Europe and America circumstances are great, but many pass their lives in smallness. George Eliot speaks of the effect of calamity falling upon a base mind. The result is to make it more ignoble. Thus, it is when poverty falls upon a heart full of noble determination and beating in a great land, that its value as a life motive becomes apparent. The desert alone could not make Jesus great; it only served to bring out the greatness already concealed in his own soul. Cicero was poor in his youth, but it was poverty plus a soul living with, great desires in a great age. When he was only a boy there arose in him the ambition to conquer all obstacles. It was not poverty alone that made Dickens write. It was poverty coming to a mind full of noble ideas and a heart full of tender sympathies. Had he been worth a hundred thousand dollars and traveled to Philadelphia in a carriage, instead of walking the entire distance arriving there with only enough of, pennies to buy a loaf of bread, Franklin might still have been one of the first men of his age. Had he been born in a city home full of luxury, instead of in a floorless cabin in the Kentucky woods, Lincoln might have possessed the wisdom and patriotism and eloquence which have commanded the wonder and admiration of mankind for the last forty years. But no one can doubt that something, valuable came to these American. heroes from their early experience which luxury would have been powerless to impart. Only those who have eaten bread earned by honest toil know how sweet it is. Only those who, having an insatiable hunger for books, walk miles to borrow or save their scant pennies to buy one, can ever know the joy of reading. Only those who have battled and overcome can know the ecstasy of victory.

It would be absurd to say that any one enjoys hardships while they are present. According to the story, while the Israelites were wandering in the wilderness they constantly bemoaned their lot. Elijah was lonesome and, desolate on Mount Horeb. Paul did not enjoy mobs and prisons. Going from place to place in poverty reciting poetry for his daily food Homer was not always serene and happy. Carlyle did not enjoy tramping through the streets of London trying in vain to find some one to publish "Sartor Resartus." Exiled, Dante's soul was full of bitterness. In the Paradiso there is a famous passage beginning: "Tu lascerai ogni cosa diletta Piu caramente."

Thus in translation run the complaining lines :

"Thou shalt relinquish everything of thee
Beloved most dearly; this that arrow is
Shot from the bow of exile first of all.
And thou shalt prove how salt a savor hath
The bread of others, and how hard a path
To climb and to descend the stranger's stairs."

Thus no one enjoys hardship. But whoever has passed through a period of struggle sees clearly that thereby he has gained something of value. Through stress comes strength. Perhaps Nature only is cruel for a purpose. A block of marble receives a million strokes, but an imprisoned angel is thus set free. -Perhaps poverty and struggle and disappointment are chisels employed by some master sculptor to make the soul free and beautiful.

This is much more popular as a rhetorical philosophy than as an actual practice. We all shrink from its personal application to ourselves. It is like a sermon. It was written for others; not for us. Opposition strengthens the will, but our wills do not need that kind of discipline. "Sweet are the uses of adversity," for other people. How easy is it to be a hero—on the stage! To take long strides and whip out a sword and gain applause for mock courage in presence of counterfeit danger—who of us could not do that? Today we shout ourselves hoarse over the necessity of battling for right; to-morrow, when the real war begins, we hire a substitute. The honied land of Canaan is very inviting, but alas! for the desert that must be crossed. The society of ministering angels would be very agreeable were it not for the gnawings of hunger and the savage beasts that must be encountered be-fore we can enjoy such distinction.

But the wise and powerful Providence has not thus ordered events. Every excellent thing is guarded and hedged about with difficulties, and is not for the slothful and cowardly. If we share the profits we must share the risks. Only by experience are we truly educated. The structure of the globe must be learned though, in giving instruction, volcanoes that drown in liquid fire and earth-quakes that upheave mountain ranges, engulf islands, and make continents quiver from ocean to ocean, are employed as teachers. So must the structure of life be learned, though poverty pinch and sorrow weigh; though its surface be rent by despair; and its placid current of content become a Niagara of onrushing ambition to convey the lesson.

Our life is not as idle ore;
But iron dug from central gloom,
And heated hot with burning fears,
And dipped in baths of hissing tears,
And battered with the shocks of doom,
To shape and use."

Of course toil cannot be unremitting. There must be some time for leisure. But leisure should, be like a school vacation. It should not be extended over the whole term. The presence of a class of youth in our land' who are or will be in possession of immense fortunes, which they have not helped' produce, may add to the natural unpopularity of industry. The increasing prominence of games and all kinds of amusement, the exaggerated importance given to so-called athletics in all the small and great educational institutions, the evident tendency to remove so many of the difficulties which once had to be surmounted by the youth who would gain a real education, the ease with which the scholar's title may be acquired without the possession of true scholarship, suggests that we may be approaching a time when idleness and luxurious ease will not only be popular but regarded as honorable. The indolent rich may be permitted to set the fashion for coats and hats and scarfs and drinks for themselves, but it would, be a misfortune for the multitude of our young men to accept the fashion of education or business or general manhood from them. Life needs enough of discipline to bring out all possible energy of mind and heart. One of Shakespeare's characters says:

"In my stars I am above thee, but be not afraid of greatness; some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them."

But speaking truly no one was ever born great. He is only born with great tendencies and opportunities. Neither did any one ever have true greatness thrust upon him. Only the title and semblance of greatness can be thus conferred. The only greatness worthy of the name is that which is achieved by toil. It is to be hoped that the large multitude of our youth will see that indolence and luxury are fatal to success. All valuable things are placed where, to attain them, an effort must be made. "Beyond the Alps lies Italy,"Alaric said, and pressed onward. So it is a law of our world that education, wisdom, and all honorable fame lie beyond a mountain wall and the youth who would gain them must needs clamber up its rugged side.

Founded in necessity, doubtless in its final out-working this law is beneficent. If it appears that after the wilderness is a Promised Land, after wild animals and famine are ministering angels, after the poverty of Homer his harp makes music that sweetly sounds through thirty centuries, after Val-ley Forge a Republic, after Gettysburg freedom, after a Iog cabin and a boy reading by its flickering hearth-flame, a statesman honored by a world of mankind, after a nameless multitude of boys struggling with ignorance and poverty, men of learning and wealth and nobility of character, we cannot justly blame a world in which such an order of things prevails. We may rather rejoice that we live on a planet in which poverty may become imperishable riches, and hardship may lead to a happiness that will attend life far beyond its sunset.

Thus, made half holy by the historic churches, these weeks may to us be an emblem of something very real. We need not feel guilty if we omit some of their conventional customs. Our abstinence may be regulated by our own reason. Repentance need be only such as overtakes the heart when fully conscious of its own short-comings. Worship need be only that which, on any day, well befits a soul when meditating over the greatness and splendor of the world and that Power which caused and sustains it. But, as during these six sacred weeks, winter will change to spring and where now snow is lying grass will be growing and flowers blooming, we may remind ourselves anew of One who lived and toiled and died to bring a great summer-time to our race; and that imbued with his motives our lives will pass from severity to serenity, from struggle into peace. Are we here sometimes under a cloud? Are we compelled to travel through a wilderness? Yes. But it is a cloud whose farther edge is rimmed with sunlight; it is a desert with angels awaiting us on the distant hills.

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