Beholding And Becoming
( Originally Published 1912 )
But we all with unveiled face beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord are transformed into the same image.— Paul.
The doctrine of Evolution makes much of the fact that all forms of life are powerfully affected by their surroundings. Some have thought that the influence thus exerted, if not able to create, at least greatly modifies existing physical types of life. Carrying this fact into human history, Buckle and other writers have noted its influence in giving shape and direction to civilization. The conditions among which a nation finds itself largely determine its character and destiny. Climate, soil, food, and the kind of natural scenery surrounding it are some of the moulding and guiding influences.
However this may be in the larger affairs pertaining to the formation of species or civilizations there can be no doubt that, in individual human experience, occasional or habitual surroundings impress their color and structure upon the soul. Looking in meditative mood upon the sea one will find his mind over-flowing its accustomed boundaries and trying to imitate the vast outspread scene. Stirred into tempestuous fury the ocean will make a similar tumult in the soul. Lying in repose beneath the sunlight or moonlight some of its infinite calm will be transferred to the beholder. Studying the beautiful, in art, the mind becomes more beautiful. A poet, recognizing this, advised an actress to maintain the grace of her form by every day dwelling for a time amid some works of noble art and fixing the mind upon some elevated poetic sentiment. Some authors temporarily become the characters they are portraying. Before writing Iphegenia, Goethe saturated himself with the art and literature and manners of the people and times among which the tragedy occurred. He lost his usual identity. He became essentially a Greek. Beethoven fixed his whole soul on music. When awake he thought music; walking, he stepped to music; sleeping, he dreamed music. When no longer he could hear any "concourse of sweet sounds" with the natural ear, such had become the prevailing habit of his life that immortal harmonies were still sounding in his soul. He had become music incarnate. The same law is fully active in the realm of morals. Life resembles that which it most contemplates. We become that which we longest behold. That which we most love we finally are.
Without pausing to inquire how or whence they came, the ideals of the race reveal its character at any given time. They show most clearly that which it most wished to become. They are a record of progress,-milestones in the great human journey. Awaking in the morning, the lonely wanderer erected a monument to commemorate the place where he had seen the heavens opened to the coming and going angels. His action is a sample of that which the world is always doing. What are laws, institutions, arts, religions but so many, monuments erected by humanity showing where some glorious vision was beheld and the attempt was made to mark the place? In their exalted moments they saw vision of that which might be for their countrymen and Moses, Lycurgus, and Solon gave their laws to realize it in life. The Parthenon was a dream remembered and realized. In its inception Christianity was the effort to report and embody in practical hours that which had been seen in hours of inspiration. That the attempt was a partial failure is only to confess that it was subject to the decree limiting every performance. The deed rarely matches the intention. Actual Christianity is not much more like ideal Christianity than the stone pillar of Jacob was like the angel-thronged stairway of his dream, but it shows that great thoughts and high purposes once enraptured the souls of a few mortals.
In addition to becoming an inspiration ideals are, at times, a cause of grief. When the soul is fully awakened to become that which it beholds it is full of joy; when, in whole or in part, it fails, a shadow, dense or light, falls upon it hiding its sunshine. Ideals are at once the delight and despair of every ardent heart.
Nevertheless, in spite of every failure to make the vision into life, every mortal should try to behold the perfect. One day ending, a new day begins; and, lying down, weary and disappointed in the evening, we must rise with new hopes and new efforts in the morning. The mistake of the woman in the legend was that she ceased to look forward. We must not make a similar mistake in our moral journey. Although we do not advance very rapidly, we must, go forward as if Sodom were behind and the mountains of safety and honor before us.
It is doubtless a wise provision of nature that we are partly fastened to the present and its rugged facts. We are forbidden to become dreamers and devotees of the remote and impossible. The exigent demands of each passing day lay their strong hands upon us. We may soar into the empyrean, but we must return to earth in time to buy fuel for the winter. On all sides we are admonished to be practical. Do not try to see beyond the horizon The visible earth is large enough for all our activities while we live and will furnish a resting place when we die. Let us study arithmetic and abjure poetry. Be logical instead of sentimental. Store the mind with facts. Learn how many pounds of pressure you must have to the square inch, and how many feet of grade to the mile. The object of the earth is to grow food for mankind. The sea is to float ships. The mountains are to hold gold and silver and iron. The object of life is to make a living and as much more as possible. Thus we are chained to the actual with its facts and specifications.
It is right that we are thus held. We do not wish to become impracticable and unrelated to earth. Yet there is something in the soul that cannot be forever stayed by any barriers built by the understanding and experience, and, if an age or an individual ignores this or tries to destroy it, it does wrong. It may be that the revolt from philosophic idealism which denied the existence of matter and the validity of experience was a necessary movement, but it is possible the revolt went too far. In pulling up the weeds many flowers were destroyed. In the sixteenth century the religion of Scotland needed reforming, but in accomplishing that work it was not necessary to make a complete ruin of Holyrood and Rosslyn Chapel and Melrose Abbey. In itself a noble deed, the reformation became partly a wrong when it included the destruction of so much beauty. Religion without mystery and beauty is a sky without stars, an earth without flowers. Thus, while the philosophy of idealism, coming into our century from the Platos and the Berkeleys of the remote and more recent past, needed to be reformed, the reformation was not asked to become a destruction. It is written of Jesus that he drove out of the temple those who were defiling it, but he did not disturb the true worshipers. Perhaps our practical age has not been as wise and discriminating. That which commands life to look long and lovingly upon the Perfect and be transformed by the vision into its own likeness ought not to have felt the lash. It has the chartered right to dwell in the soul. It is not there for barter. It is there for inspiration and the exaltation of life. Without it our existence becomes common and sordid and hopeless.
The ideal does not seek to sever itself from the useful. It only strives to lift it to higher levels. It believes that the thoughts of the mind may become the acts of experience. As prophecy is history fore-told, so idealism is the mind running in advance of experience. Thoughts are things in the making. The universe is a thought realized. Every advocate of utility and experience as a motive and method of human existence is so far a man of faith as to believe that the perfect condition has not yet been reached. Whoever pronounces the word "better" over the next day or the next century is so far a prophet of the ideal. He has gone beyond the facts of experience. Nature and human history have trooped along after thought as an army follows its flag. Their glory is a reflection of its glory. That which it invaded they conquered. Striving to overtake it has been their only cause of advance. Nature and man have both been led forward by a promise. Beholding the better they have been gradually transformed into its image.
Thinking of all progress it would seem as if some model must have been in view. To conform to this the mould of things has been changed a thousand times. With the refinement of the worker the work has refined. How nature has striven to realize her dream of completeness! In the midst of most unlovely and unpromising surroundings the work was begun. Fire-mist, out of which worlds were to be made! Blazing planets upon which life must appear and be nourished! At last life, in microscopic form in the ocean depths, and, ages later, uncouth monsters swimming through the seas and mastodons crashing through the forests. Discouraging indeed; but with unconquerable constancy the work went on. With the model still in view new patterns were made and finally out from the moulds came man and then finer and still finer man. Something transcending any known power of chemistry to produce became strangely inwoven with this form and started it on an amazing career. One obstacle after another has been surmounted. When a result has fallen below expectation, another attempt has been made. Instructed by failure, man has gone forward. On the ruins of the old, he has built new plans. Leaving incomplete laws and states and arts and religions in his track, he has gone in search of those more nearly complete. He goes onward in quest of the justice and virtue and beauty which his soul sees, and, if they are not over-taken in time, eternity is demanded in which to continue the pursuit.
The years through which we have been passing might be called an era of realism. Observation, search for the fact, stating everything in exact terms has been the aim. The scientific method has invaded every department of life. Art, literature, education, history, religion has been captured by it. The creative has been subdued by the critical spirit.
Having served its purpose this era of realism may now decline. We have all discovered that its value is modified. Observation is good until it destroys imagination; then it is an evil. The mind that can only observe becomes sterile and hopeless. To have none is as great a misfortune as to have too much imagination. The love of facts is valuable only up to the point where it arrests thought concerning their cause. Stating the nature of things in exact terms is a triumph of the mind only so long as it is not forgotten that there are some things in the universe which cannot be thus stated. The mysteries of being are so many and so great that man may, at times, dismiss all his pride over that which he may know. Often he may be like a child in wonder and trust.
When the spiritual imagination of man is low everything sinks to the saine level. Art, literature, education, religion all fold their wings and become creatures of only the earth. When the soul rises these all rise. Their wings are unfurled and, feeling their new power and gladness, with a song they spring away from the ground and freely soar through the upper air. It is hoped that a new era is near when enthusiasm for the best, when moral earnestness, when love for the highest goodness and beauty, when devout aspiration, when faith in God will be present in more and more hearts. With these noble-powers in full activity life is sustained in the present and cheered for the future. They give strength for all the duties of life's long day and paint its evening sky in colors rich and glorious.
Instructing the youth of his land a Greek teacher asked his pupils to pass by the pictures of two artists and fix their minds on those of a third. The first painted men as we behold them in actual life with their virtues and vices in full view. Thus they were without danger, but also without inspiration to the youth. The second painted only the limitations and ignoble qualities of man. Thus he robbed heroism of its luster and virtue of its beauty. His pictures were not only useless, but vicious. The third painted the good and beautiful qualities of human nature thus elevating the mind and heart of the beholder and awakening his desire to become like the picture.
Such teaching is still the best. It is wrong to dwell too much on human faults and foibles. I rom studying man as he is we should pass to a long and deep meditation over man as he might be. It is a misfortune to see nothing but earth. We ought often look upward toward the sky. The soul contracts-or expands to fit that which it most sees and most loves.
Sometimes imagination and reason are spoken of as if they were enemies. This is not true. Imagination is only reason extended. The ideal is the real living for a time in the future. All our actual truth and goodness was once an ideal truth and goodness. Its only existence was in thought. It was all imaginary. All our science and discoveries and inventions are merely prophecies fulfilled. Our hospitals and charities and humane societies are dreams that have come true. They exist in fact, because there were those capable of running forward and sketching the outlines of the possible. Thus without imagination reason would be powerless to move the race for--ward. As well ask the tides to rush from shore to-shore, without some celestial power to draw them, as ask life to move forward and upward without its faiths and dreams and enthusiasms.
The picture of the possible is not made a substitute for the actual. It is not a means of escape from the duties of the present condition. It does not pre-vent one from taking a calm and just measurement of earth. Recognizing the tyranny of circumstances it believes that they can be modified. They are partly amenable to thought and effort. There is no condition that is hopeless. It is only when seen with the eye-of sense or the understanding that things seem irreparable. To the soul they are never so. As even granite is soluble if the right method be employed, so the hardest facts can be made pliable and obedient to thought. Seen by sense, whose vision is partly veiled, death is the impassable barrier of existence. Not so when seen by the spirit. Flying forward over the many or few intervening years that, which at a distance, seemed a stone wall becomes a transparent curtain through which life passes onward forever.
Does staying the mind on the best make one weak and unsteady of purpose ? It is sometimes thus charged. It cannot be true. Hero's torch did not make Leander vacilliating. Falling on his upturned eyes, in the old shameful days, the beams of the North Star did not fill the Slave with indecision and cowardice. Imagination did not keep Florence Nightingale away from the soldiers of the Crimea nor Grace Darling from the drowning sailors. It was imagination, the power of picturing the suffering and the happiness of others that send them forth on their errands of mercy. The power to think of an earth free from sin and sorrow did not make Jesus halt and turn back. It was the life motive which impelled him forward. Thus it is not probable that indecision and indifference will possess the heart which, beleaguered by the sin and sorrow of the present, has caught glimpse of a possible condition when the happiness of earth has become one with the happiness of heaven.
We should not think of spiritual imagination as merely a passing fancy of an idle hour. This would have no transforming power. Steadiness of gage, staying the soul upon truth and goodness and beauty can alone change us into their likeness. Let every one lay this to heart,—the ideal is exigent and austere. It commands us, not only to behold, but to become that which we behold. However sensitive we may be,—reveling in the delights of music and soft warm colors, weeping over a romantic sorrow or raging over a romantic tragedy,—we do not yet know the meaning of the ideal. We must become the poem we admire. Dreaming of universal liberty, we must shatter the manacles with which a bad habit has bound us. Is temperance unveiled before our eyes ? Then, we will not only refuse the fatal cup, but we will go into Circe's cave and help restore our deformed companions. Does the youth have a vision of virtue ? Then he will break the spell which some wily Vivien is weaving around him. Does he see a home far away across the blue waters ? Then let him not taste the Lotos lest the vision vanish. If the heart is stirred by deeds of heroism, it must become partaker of the same quality. Truth, fidelity, courage have only completed their work when they have been transformed into life. Have they not been thus transformed ? For answer see the catalogue of saints and heroes from Athens and Jerusalem onward. In all ages there are those who, beholding the Divine image, have been trans-formed into its likeness.
The earth only needs more and more of such transformations. All mortals should often turn their eyes toward the imperishable. They should see unveiled all the treasures of the spiritual world. Led forward by visions of goodness and beauty their life will be full of hope and gladness and their unending course will be from glory to a greater glory.