A Noble Life Motive
( Originally Published 1912 )
And he said unto them, how is it that ye sought me ? Knew ye not that I must be about the business of my Father? —Jesus.
The story from which these words are taken is one of the most beautiful in the New Testament. It has been celebrated in poetry and has furnished a subject for painters. In quiet evening hours mothers have told it to their children and it has awakened aspirations in the breast of many an ardent youth. In mature years it still appeals to the imagination and leads the mind to reflect over the greater meanings of human life.
Some of the critics insist that, as history, the story is untrustworthy. It is found in only one of the four accredited biographies of Jesus, and is perhaps inserted in this one merely to break the long silence lying in the other narratives between infancy and full manhood. But, even if this is true, its moral usefulness does not decline. Fable teaches as well as fact. Poetry is often as valuable as history.
Whether the scene in the temple is historical or not there must have been some exceptional quality in the youth who forms its central figure. Milton says : " Childhood shows the man as morning shows the day." Perhaps this is not always true. Circumstances are variable; and, like the waters of a river, life is partly shaped and colored by the kind of country through which it flows. The promise of child-hood is not always fulfilled in manhood. And yet the poet's words are sufficiently exact to become the expression of a general law. But if the man may be inferred from the boy, the boy may also be inferred from the man. If youth is in any degree a prophecy of age, in the same measure age is the unfolding history of youth. Thus a remarkable manhood of Jesus demands a remarkable boyhood. Of all the thousands who visited Jerusalem that Passover Week the story is only associated with one name. Whether questions were asked and answered by the young Jesus that astonished the wise men in the temple at this re-mote day we have no means of knowing. What we do know is that there was present in those days in Palestine a youthful soul out of which in after years flowed great spiritual principles, a conviction of duty, and devotion to human welfare that has never been surpassed.
Of all the company that had come up from Nazareth there were doubtless not many who were fitted to see the spiritual meaning beneath the external show of things. The procession, with its waving banners, winding through the valleys and over the hills lying between the Jordan and Jerusalem ; the many voices chanting a psalm of thanksgiving as the Holy City was approached ; the splendor of the city itself with its walls, and towers and the golden pinnacle of the temple shining in the rich Syrian sun-light ; the crowds, not only from Palestine, but from more remote regions, all moving in one direction ;—there would be enough in these things to satisfy many of the pilgrims. The brilliant pageant ended, they were ready to return home and wait for the next annual feast. Not so with one ardent boy. The horizon retreated before him, and a new meaning of existence was unveiled before his wondering eyes. Nestled among the hills, his Nazareth home may have been dear to his heart, but its attraction faded for the time. At any time he could return thither, but now he must enjoy the vision opening before his spirit. In future days he could join in the duties and pleasures of his village home, but this day must be given to serious thoughts and to gaining wisdom for guiding his life toward larger issues. Thus reasoned one, while many others were preparing to move or were already moving toward their homes satisfied with what they had seen or heard and anxious only for food and sleep and news and the smaller things of existence.
The story is a page from human history. The affairs of earth are divided into two classes. Here are those things belonging to the body and the present hour ; there are those belonging to the soul and the boundless future. Many are satisfied with the first. The superficial, the external, that which meets the immediate want is sufficient. But not all thus find their satisfaction. They go beneath the surface and show of things. They seek for principles. They fill their minds with thoughts and bring their conduct into subjection to a noble motive. After the noisy, self-seeking multitude have gone away they linger in the temple to think of all the impressive truths of God and man and destiny.
Doubtless both classes of affairs are essential. The surface is as necessary as the core and the leaf has uses as well as the root. While we live on earth the body has claims as well as the soul. We need philosophers, but we also need plowmen. We can as easily dispense with thought as with action. Work must follow worship. No less than the temple, the home has claims which cannot be slighted. So far as he is fulfilling the law and aptitude of his nature the eating, drinking, planting, building, money-making, office-seeking man is worthy of respect. He has his place in the plan of nature and renders some service to the world.
In itself no natural fact is unworthy. Seen from the point of the intellect, everything has the right to exist. Beneath all things, from the atom to the planet, from the instinct seeking for food to allay hunger to the instinct seeking for fame or power, from the desire to preserve life in the lowest forms of animate creatures to the craving for immortal existing in man, a cause reposes. This cause is sufficient explanation of all things that exist.
But the mind cannot avoid making distinctions. It gives things rank in proportion to their character. If in a sensitive and devout moment we find God in everything, see all things, from the mote in the sun-beam to Arcturus in the sky, thrilling with energy as if some mighty Heart were sending a warm current of life through them, following that, quickly comes the logical faculty declaring that there is a difference in things although animated by the same force and existence under the same law. The same creative Spirit may flow into and inform all objects of the world, but the inflowing is limited by circumstances. The wave at least conforms to the shape of the shore. Deity may be in all forms of microscopic life, but not as much as in a mother bending over her child or in a philosopher thinking God's thoughts after Him. The fire-fly is not equal to the sun. Thus all the things pertaining to man are not of the same rank. Raiment is necessary for the body, but it is less than the body. The body is necessary for the mind, but the mind excels it in value. Man eating is not as great as man thinking or worshiping. Watching a procession go along the street, he is not as noble as when endowing a hospital or rescuing the outcast and sinful. Man laughing ranks below man reflecting and wondering.
Life is a series of expanding circles. Every new experience is an enlargement of the old areas. The awakening of any new power,—the attempt to reason, adjusting the movement of the hand to the thought of the brain, a better memory, a stronger hope, the arrival of love, obliterates former boundaries. It is the soul overflowing its banks and making wave-marks on further and higher shores. In mountain climbing each step creates a new horizon; so, in life, each fresh experience enlarges the sky-line of the soul.
At first we are conditioned in sense. To eat, to drink, to see, to hear suffices. Then comes the power of imitation. From example we learn to walk and talk and unconsciously begin to explore the mysteries of light and sound and gravitation. Then we discover the presence of cause and effect and learn the source of our pains and pleasures. Conciousness unfolds, and the line between self and the world is manifest. The abyss whence issue pride, passion, jealousy, love and generosity is open to our gaze. Then we begin to make our choices. We reflect up-on the true meaning of existence. Then follows the resolution not to live an empty and useless life and after that comes the effort to realize our resolves. Thus does true life expand until it becomes conterminous with the divine laws and, at last, moving in whatever direction meets no barriers but, like him of Judea, enjoys the supreme felicity of being one with God.
But this process is sometimes arrested. The strata of earth show where energy seemed for a time to expend itself. There are periods of thousands of years when nature seems to have done nothing but make rocks to band the globe together. Then for thousands of years she seemed to be content to make shell fish without end. Then immense forests were grown. After that gigantic animals were formed and there seemed to be no other end in view. At every stage there was the tendency to rest forever in what had been done.
This process is repeated in human life. As down among the rocks forms of life have been caught and imprisoned, so in society are those who are hopelessly enchained by the senses. Having thrown out the body, the mind is content with that effort. Learning how to get food and raiment, it wishes for nothing else. Finding an amusement, it wishes only for an amusement. Able to make money, it cares only to make money.
This is not enough to ennoble life. More is need-ed. In creation, after a pause, nature moved up-ward into higher forms; so there is something in man which must be dissatisfied until the best is attained. Circumstances may be rigid, but they cannot imprison the resolute soul. It has power within itself to create circumstances. Its motion is forward and up-ward. Nature went onward from atom to planet and from matter to spirit. So man should go on from instinct to reason, from laughter to duty, from amusement to reflection, from gazing at the gayety of a feast to meditation in the temple over the greater things of the world.
There is nothing wrong in laughter and amusement, in costume and business and politics. The wrong begins when they monopolize life. Every one should, at times, turn away from the huge pageant of politics and money making and fashion, in which we all march for much of the time, that he may have hours of communing with the Highest and, apart from the noise and confusion, in the stillness, hear some strains of that music which comes from above.
What is the history of nations long since fallen into ruins ? Founded in poverty and virtue, they became rich and vicious. The sound of revelry made reflection impossible. External splendor mastered all hearts. Rich food, luxurious houses, fashionable raiment so employed the time that none was left in which to attend to justice, truth, fidelity, purity. They sought outward prosperity rather than inward grace ; sensuality rather than spirituality; power rather than goodness ; increase of foreign territory rather than increase of domestic virtues. Our mod-ern nations should recall that no law of nature is ever repealed and heaven will grant no special legislation on their behalf. If they are on the same track of the former nations they will reach the same goal.
The future is great and can bear much, but it is often overloaded. Too many noble intentions are postponed. In one of the school books of our young days there was a story of a prince who decided to en-joy youth ten years, then study ten years, then travel ten years, then reign ten years. After all this was done he intended to begin a period of religious meditation and good deeds. The moral attached to the story was found in the intimation that when he reached the religious period his mind had been so preoccupied with other things he could not transfer his attention to higher themes. The moral was thus deduced because it is thus in life. The man who is worth fifty thousand dollars intends to pause when he is worth a hundred thousand and bend his mind in some other direction. He who is worth a hundred thousand dollars will cease when he has a million. He will then retire and give the young men a chance. He will turn his influence toward helping society into better ways and will live to benefit the public. This is not often done. In the estimate of the plan of life the same mistake is frequently made that the young prince was guilty of making. It is forgotten that the qualities of the soul that are most used, like. the muscles of the body, grow strongest and those disused in time lose all power of action.
Virtue has no time but the present. He who would become a musician does not defer all study of music until he is seventy years old. Neither does he who expects to become artist or poet or mechanic postpone his efforts. So benevolence or purity or sincerity or reverence is as little likely to spring up suddenly late in life as the power to paint a picture or write a poem or make a watch. Those who can defer virtue will probably never overtake it. If we expect to love music much next year we must begin by loving it a little this very hour. He who does not intend to become the slave of drink or money or fashion should begin now to assert his freedom. He should put out the fire in which his chains are being forged. No old drunkard or libertine or miser or bigot intended to become such when he was young. He only postponed the time when temperance or chastity or generosity or charity was to begin to control his life. If procrastination is the thief of time, it is often the murderer of virtue.
At a recent meeting of prominent teachers in Norway the lament was made that the Norwegian youth of these days are painfully lacking in idealism. To a great extent, it was thought, this is due to the kind of literature that is most popular. It is on the plain of utility and is devoid of lofty motives. It glorifies force and immediate personal success. The methods of education were also partially condemned. They have respect for utilitarian aims and too much omit the forming of noble character.
Whether the same lament may be uttered over our American youth or not one thing is true: If literature and education do not inspire as well as instruct they are partial failures. They should minis-ter to life's greatest possibilities. They should become agents of the moral sentiment. The educated mind must be accompanied by the refined and aspiring heart. The best teacher is that one who, along with the communication of technical knowledge, leads the pupil by the noblest path toward the worthiest end. There are such teachers. Endowed with a believing soul and a conscience for the ideal, the pupils come forth from their hands, not only well instructed, but with high motives. It is upon them and not upon armies and navies rests the bur-den of making our country glorious. May a kind heaven send us many more such teachers!
Life will be no greater than its motives. The mark that is hit may be lower, but it will not be higher than the aim. Motive must equal destiny. If the soul have the infinite within it, it must not plan only for the finite. Pleasure is good and prudence is good, bût love and truth and justice are also good. Having learned to walk along the paths of earth where wealth and power, pleasure and luxury are found, man should not be satisfied. He should ascend to where he finds beauty and goodness, truth and benevolence; where a noble thought is more valuable than gold, a lily surpasses the splendor of royalty, and a dream of immortality is more precious than any wide awake philosophy of life whose beginning and ending are both confined by earthly limits.
The moral is the only true measure of life. To that standard men and nations must come at last. After we have asked, Is it expedient ? Is it timely ? Will it succeed? Will it increase my reputation ? Will it add to my wealth or power ? We should ask, is it right ? This is the crucial question and upon its answer everything must stand or fall. To accept any measurement of life except the highest brings calamity. Whoso loses faith in the ideal soon reaches the limit of his power. His step becomes uncertain, his course vacillating, his courage forsakes him, his voice loses its power to persuade and inspire. When a noble motive is gone from a soul or a nation all is gone.
Great is commerce, great is wealth, great is empire, great the power of arms, great the industry of our age. It may be a mistake to utter a single word against all this colossal material magnificence. The problem is how it can be turned to the lasting benefit of mankind. Our generation is entitled to the pro-duct of its toil. As it sows, it shall reap. It is time for it to consider whether the harvest will be what the world most needs. There is no splendor of em-pire worthy to be compared with that of the moral law. From the long vanished past, from the great pages of literature, from the silent grave into which earth's millions have fallen and are falling, from the august sky in which all good and brave souls have found a home comes the unerring lesson that the spiritual is greater than the material and righteousness is the truest glory and the only safeguard of any nation. May our statesmen and all our private citizens learn this lesson before it is too late.
The picture of the young Jesus in the temple is full of meaning. When the feast had failed to satisfy him, and the gay scenes attending the homeward journey could not interest him, he found within the sacred place that which he sought. Thence returning to Nazareth he carried thoughts and emotions which turned into wisdom and holiness. Becoming first among the lovers of God and man, he went forth to teach and live his faith. Soon he was met by opposition; then by death. Then he became a ten-der and beautiful memory and afterwards a spiritual guide and friend of all who aspire to live stainlessly. Now, more than any other mortal, he is revered and loved and perhaps the future ages may not be able to dim his fame.
Around our youth lie many responsibilities and many opportunities. They must live in the world partaking of its pleasures and its common duties, but they may sometimes rise above the world. They may join the great company of feasters; they must also at times linger in the great temple of religion. From the crowd with its tumult they may draw apart and hear tones sweet as the wind rustled wheat and sublime as the thunder rolling among the hills. From their sacred communings they may return to life and its many duties inspired by nobler motives. They will have courage and hope. They will rebuke what-ever is low and unworthy. Believing in God, believing also in the spiritual nature of man, they will endeavor to live in harmony with their belief and shall thus become guides and saviors of mankind.