Religion - Illumination
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
IN that section of its course where the Hudson is used as a source of power, one frequently sees the force of the stream transmuted into an electric current, to furnish light for towns and villages. Men of practically all faiths have found illumination in their contact with God.
The pages of the Bible are full of this experience. "The Lord is my light," one of the psalmists begins. Another pictures believers turning their faces Godward, and catching and reflecting the glow of dawn : "They looked unto Him and were radiant." When Isaiah describes what the Spirit of God will mean to the ideal Ruler of the nation, he stresses his intellectual enlightenment : four out of the six nouns in the description have to do with the enrichment of intelligence: "The Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel, the Spirit of knowledge"; and the first of the four titles applied to this Monarch is "Wonderful Counsellor." In the poetry and proverbs of the Hebrews, we are told again and again that those who trust Jehovah find guidance : "He leadeth me in paths of righteousness," "Thou shalt guide me with Thy counsel," "In all thy ways acknowledge Him, and He will direct thy paths," "The path of the righteous is as the dawning light, that shineth more and more unto the perfect day." One large section of the Biblical literature represents God as coming to man chiefly as Wisdom. The New Testament is even more full than the Old of this experience of enlightenment. Paul connects the coming of Jesus with the story of the creation, and asserts: "God, that said, Light shall shine out of darkness, shined in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ." John declares that "God is light," and introduces his account of Jesus with the statement : "The life was the light of men." And on Jesus' own lips he records the saying : "I am the light of the world : he that followeth Me shall not walk in the darkness, but shall have the light of life." The climax of the whole Bible is the vision of the city of God, brilliant in nightless day, in whose light the nations walk,—a city whose illumination is religion, for the glory of God light-ens it, and the lamp thereof is the lamb.
Both believing and unbelieving men agree that life is a puzzling affair. Along with these utterances of enlightenment on the pages of the Bible, one finds as frank expressions of bewilderment, and we cannot forget that He who spoke of God with the utmost assurance died with a question on His lips : "My God, why?" The confident Christian, William Wordsworth, acknowledges
"the heavy and the weary weight
and his agnostic admirer, Sir William Watson, agrees with him :
Think not thy wisdom can illume away
In ordinary conversation few remarks are commoner than: "Well, this is a queer world." All our attempts to reach an explanation that will carry us surefootedly through life must begin with the recognition of its strangeness and oddity. Religious and unreligious alike admit that "it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps"; but the latter think there is nothing for it but to use the best light they possess in themselves and stumble on, while the former are confident that even amid the puzzling shadows, and often black darkness, it is possible to walk in the light and be children of the day.
For devout men and women, while they—may feel themselves hopelessly puzzled, begin with the assertion: "God knows." A Greek dramatist places in the mouth of a character caught in a harrowing tragedy the line :
A thought deep in the dark of my mind cleaves to a Great Understanding.
Augustine in his Confessions addresses God as One "in whose presence are the causes of all uncertain things and . .. with whom do live the eternal reasons of all those contingent chance-medleys, for which we can give no reason." The unbelieving have frequently used with sarcasm the saying "God knows." The Persian skeptic, Omar, writes :
The Ball no Question makes of Ayes and Noes,
And He that toss'd thee down into the Field,
This singular world has seemed to not a few thoughtful persons a grim joke, and the only sound they could fancy in the silent skies was ironical laughter. That mood has not been altogether lacking among the believing. The Old Testament several times ascribes scornful humor to the Most High : "He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh." The sayings of Jesus are frequently touched with humor. He pokes fun at bigoted ecclesiastics who scrupulously strain out a gnat and gulp down a camel ; and some of His phrases, which over-serious people have taken with bald literalism, are playful exaggerations, purposefully one-sided to force His listeners to think. A world that is queer evokes humor in the Divinest ; but it is the light-hearted humor of a buoyant spirit, confident that even the absurdities of life are being worked out by a Father who understands and loves.
Believers are sure that God knows, but His children, however intimate they may become with Him, cannot al-ways expect to share His knowledge. An Old Testament writer has a suggestive classification when he divides "secret things" and "things that are revealed" ; and he re-marks that "the secret things belong unto the Lord our God." We are not forbidden to let our curiosity pry into them and "press bold to the tether's end allotted to this life's intelligence." But when the tether's end is reached, and we are brought up with a jerk, and strain and tug as we may can get no farther in our thinking, it is surely something to be able to say : "This is God's secret." It may well be that He would like to tell it to us and cannot, because we are too immature to understand Him. Those who have attained closest friendship with Him do not speak of Him as secretive. Jesus asserted : "There is nothing hid, save that it should be manifested; neither was anything made secret, but that it should come to light." The obscurity of things is God's way of tempting us to investigate and of leading us on to more accurate knowledge—knowledge which is the result of our own discoveries. But whether God cannot, or of purpose does not, make plain to us matters which we are dying to know, there is at least this in religion, that it enables believers "to bear without resentment the divine reserve." Thomas Arnold said: "Before a confused and unconquerable difficulty my mind reposes as quietly as in possession of a discovered truth." In every man's life there are experiences in which his most inquiring thought and eager prayer seem to be answered "What I do thou knowest not now; but thou shalt understand hereafter." In 'a world which to us is inherently puzzling, whether it was meant to be so or not, it is much that faith helps us to accept the inexplicable with patience and hope.
And in the whole queer universe nothing is queerer to us than ourselves. We agree with Clough :
What we, when face to face we see
In one of Mrs. Humphry Ward's novels, Lady Lucy Marsham says to Lady Niton : "I thought, Elizabeth, you would have tried to understand me." Elizabeth Niton shook her head, "There's only your Maker could do that, Lucy, and He must be pretty puzzled to account for you sometimes." When we are overcome by feelings beyond our power to control, when we tremble at disclosures of capacities for iniquity within us which we did not suspect were there, when our crankiness and stupidity become too difficult for us to manage, it is no small matter to be able to look up and say : "He knoweth our frame," and to trust Him to help us to handle ourselves. "Thy hands have made me and fashioned me : give me understanding that I may learn Thy commandments." When despite damaging appearances to the contrary we know that we sincerely mean to do right, when we must appeal to our own con-sciences against the disapproval of those whom we most respect, it is everything to be able to say with Job: "He knoweth the way that I take"; and with Simon Peter: "Lord, Thou knowest all things; Thou knowest that I love Thee."
There are many, many things which we can afford not to know; our only concern in this perplexing world is to know enough to live usefully. Religion assures us that even when we do not know where we are going, or why events befall us, and walk as in a maze, we may still be divinely guided. A prophet sums up a large chapter of religious experience when he makes God say : "I will bring the blind by a way that they know not; in paths that they know not will I lead them." Those of us with only a little faith, when we survey our past, have borne in on us that a Wiser than we has had a hand in our careers. We may not be able to prove it to others; we should not care to try, for the facts are too personal to divulge; but for ourselves we cannot help feeling that there were :secret preparations for things as yet years ahead, that we were intentionally thwarted here and encouraged there, that the best things which happened us came largely without our effort, and sometimes in spite of our effort. A man phrased his experience to an inquiring college professor: "God has frequently stepped into my life very perceptibly." We conclude with George Eliot's Silas Marner, "There's dealings wi' us, there's dealings"; with the Quaker, George Fox, we speak of "great openings"; and we say with Robert Louis Steven-son : "There stood at the wheel that unknown steersman whom we call God."
An English man of letters has described the career of one of his own friends:
"He had to bear a series of devastating calamities. He had loved the warmth and nearness of his home circle more deeply than most men, and the whole of it was swept away; he had depended for both stimulus and occupation upon his artistic work, and the power was taken from him at the moment of his highest achievement. His loss of fortune is not to be reckoned among his calamities, because it was no calamity to him. He ended by finding a richer treasure than that he had set out to obtain; and I remember that he said to me once, not long before his end, that whatever others might feel about their own lives, he could not for a moment doubt that his own had been an education of a deliberate and loving kind, and that the day when he realized that, when he saw that there was not a single incident in his life that had not a deep and an intentional value for him was one of the happiest days of his whole existence."
Now in all this it may seem that religion brings no illumination; it brings only the assurance that we are led in the dark. But that is not how it seems to religious folk. The French naturalist, jean Henri Fabre, was once asked by a visitor : "Do you believe in God?" To which he replied emphatically: "I can't say I believe in God; I see Him. Without Him I understand nothing; without Him all is darkness. Not only have I retained this conviction; I have aggravated or ameliorated it, whichever you please. You could take my skin from me more easily than my faith in God." A similar confession is made by a professor of Greek in the Spanish University of Salamanca, Don Miguel de Unamuno, who says : "I believe in God as I believe in my friends, because I feel the breath of His affection, feel His invisible and intangible hand, drawing me, leading me, grasping me; because I possess an inner consciousness of a particular providence and of a universal mind that marks out for me the course of my destiny." Others who would hesitate to speak of "seeing" God, or of possessing this inner consciousness, would say that He is "the Master Light of all their seeing." God is an assumption which illumines and interprets for them an else unintelligible world. In His light they see light. One of the leading theological teachers of the last generation, Henry B. Smith, said : "My determination to seek religion was formed solely in consequence of my complete persuasion of its reasonableness. I did not feel any need of it." While such souls lack the mystic sense which enables them to say that they see God, they walk in His brightness, and their experience validates for them the assumption which they have made. Their illumined way in which they step surefootedly convinces them that He whom they have darkly trusted is light.
Believers never stop with the mere assumption of God's existence; they are confident that they can so connect themselves with Him that He will lighten their path in life. We may illustrate this in two typical instances of men who expected and received such illumination.
The first is an Old Testament story of guidance in one of life's most momentous choices—the selection of a wife. Abraham and his confidential servant, to whom he entrusts the finding of a wife for Isaac, resolve to be. led by God, and in the narrative there are four steps which were taken to secure this leading:
First, Abraham and the servant determine to follow God's will, not their own, in this matter. They wish it to be a marriage made in heaven; and they are confident that God wills for Isaac a wife who will share his faith and be sympathetic with the purpose to which his life is dedicated. So the servant is sent where such a woman is likely to be found, though it involves a long journey. There is no promise of illumination except to the obedient. "Unto the upright there ariseth light in the darkness." The first requisite in those who would be unerringly led is willingness to follow God's will to whatever it may carry them.
Second, the servant puts himself into a receptive attitude to get guidance. He prays : "O Lord, send me good speed this day. Behold I am standing by the fountain of waters; and the daughters of the men of the city are coming out to draw water." He waits upon God; he holds his mind open to divine suggestion.
There is a story of two of Queen Elizabeth's statesmen, that Sir Francis Walsingham, wishing to consult Lord Burleigh, had to wait in the latter's office because Burleigh was in church at prayer. When he came into the room, Sir Francis said jocularly that he wished himself so good a servant of God as Lord Burleigh, but that he had not been at church for some time past. To which Burleigh gravely Teplied: "I hold it meet for us to ask God's grace to keep us sound of heart, who have so much in our power; and to direct us to our well-doing for all the people, whom it is easy for us to injure and ruin; and herein, my good friend, the special blessing seemeth meet to be discreetly asked and wisely worn." Prayer for direction is the unfolding of the mind for the entrance of light.
Third, the servant uses his brains. One might think that he abdicates the use of his intelligence by asking for a sign: "Let it come to pass, that the damsel to whom I shall say, Let down thy pitcher, I pray thee, that I may drink; and she shall say, Drink, and I will give thy camels drink also; let the same be she that Thou hast appointed for Thy servant Isaac." Had he suggested a sign that was no indication of the girl's character; had he said, Let it be the girl with dark hair, or with red in her dress, it would not have Shown that he was testing the girl's nature; but knowing Isaac's lack of initiative and resource, the girl who would both promptly comply with a request and of her own accord suggest something additional was the type of ready and self-reliant woman whom Isaac needed. The sign was not an attempt of this man's to shift responsibility from himself to God, but to let God meet and guide his own intelligence.
There is a similar use of a sign from God in a f arreaching decision in our American history. Shortly after the battle of Antietam, Mr. Lincoln called his cabinet together, and taking up a draft of a proclamation freeing the slaves which he had previously submitted, said, "When the rebel army was at Frederick, I determined, as soon as it should be driven out of Maryland, to issue a Proclamation of Emancipation such as I thought likely to be most useful. I said nothing to any one, but I made the promise to myself and"—here he hesitated a little—"to my Maker. The rebel army is now driven out, and I am going to fulfill that promise." "It might be thought strange," he added, "that he had in this way submitted the disposal of matters, when the way was not clear to his mind what he should do. God had decided this question in favor of the slaves." Mr. Lincoln was a shrewd judge of public opinion, and he was by no means abdicating the use of his brains. A decisive victory seemed to him the opportune moment to launch this contemplated proclamation. He let God meet his own best judgment.
Fourth, having put himself in line with God's will, having prayed, having used his brains, Abraham's servant waits for an inward sense of assurance before he completes his decision : "And the man looked steadfastly on her, holding his peace, to know whether the Lord had made his journey prosperous or not." Those who are accustomed to asking God's guidance know the feeling of being right for which this faithful man was waiting. Frequently one hears people say: "Everything seemed favor-able, but somehow I did not feel satisfied to go on"; or "There were many contrary opinions, but I could not get away from the sense that it just had to be." One put it colloquially : "I had been thinking and praying to see my way, and it came over me in a flash; I just had a `hunch' that this was God's plan for me." What a difference the presence or absence of this assurance makes! It is light versus darkness.
In 1855 the Earl of Shaftesbury was asked by Lord Palmerston to accept office in the Cabinet. "I never was in such perplexity in my life," he told a friend. "On one side were ranged wife, relations, friends, ambition, influence; on the other, my own objections, which seemed sometimes to weigh as nothing in comparison with the arguments brought against them. I could not satisfy myself that to accept office was a divine call; I was satisfled that God had called me to labor among the poor. There was no Urim and Thummim; no open vision. I could do nothing but postpone, and, in doing this, I was placing Palmerston in a most awkward position. But God interposed for me." And he told how in an uncertain frame of mind he prepared to go to the Palace to meet the Queen with the rest of the cabinet ministers. "I never felt so helpless. I seemed to be hurried along with-out a will of my own. I went and dressed, and then, while I was waiting for the carriage, I went down on my knees and prayed for counsel: Then, there was some one at the door, as I thought to say that the carriage was ready. Instead of that a note, hurriedly written in pencil, was put into my hands. It was from Palmerston: `Don't go to the Palace.' That was thirty years ago," added the Earl, "but I dance with joy at the remembrance of that interposition, as I did when it happened." Everything seemed to make for his acceptance, but he lacked the sense that it was God's will, and waiting, as too few are sufficiently patient to wait, God's leading came.
The other instance is that which is supreme for Christians—Jesus' search for light which led to His decision that the cross was His Father's will for Him. In that search, as it is summed up in its final moment in Gethsemane, we discover the same four steps so clearly marked in the Old Testament example.
First, He committed Himself to God's purpose, and to that alone : "Not as I will, but as Thou wilt."
Second, He prayed, holding His mind alert and open to admit God's light. Not once but three times in the Garden He addressed Himself directly to heaven : "O My Father."
Third, He used His judgment as far as His mind could take Him. "If it be possible" shows His thought can vassng alternatives, and time after time returning to death as the Divine cup for Him.
Fourth, He waited for the feeling of certainty. How else explain the repeated prayer ? The light did not break clearly all at once, so He kept on seeking it until the shadows dissolved. Matthew's account makes an interesting interpretative change in the material taken from Mark. The latter reads "Again He went away, and prayed, saying the same words." But according to the first evangelist, He had prayed: "My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass away from Me," while the second prayer is given : "My Father, if this cup cannot pass away from Me except I drink it, Thy will be done." Is not this evangelist trying to interpret Jesus as becoming more confident each time He knelt that death was the cup assigned Him ? Waiting on God, assurance came.
What is there in religion to illumine life's perplexities ? Is it fanciful to press the picture of our parable of the Hudson—a town lighted by an electric current generated by the force of the stream? The illumination does not abolish night; all about the town is the enveloping blackness, and only here and there the lights gleam. Life's mystery is about those who believe.: "We know in part" But why lay the accent on "in part ?" Suppose it be night, the streets of the town are light enough for its inhabitants to walk safely and its homes glow with friendly brightness. Suppose our knowledge be partial, still "we know," We move along life's puzzling ways illumined by the Spirit of Christ and homes and shops and pleasure-places and public offices are lit with a kindly light, wherever His love glows.
The current of the river had to be transmuted before it gave light, and transmuted by men's skill and labor. God's wisdom flows as a river in the experiences of the godly of all the ages, in the many-times-tested experiences preserved in the Bible, most fully in the experience of Jesus. This stream of the Divine Spirit flows still in our time, and we can gain from present occurrences, from books, from the voices of the living, from the memories of the dead, hints and intimations of God's will for us. But there must be something in us which takes the hint, which sees the light of Christ, which appreciates and interprets the wisdom of the seers of old. Call it spiritual discernment, the intuition of faith, the inward light, or by some other name, it is the Spirit of God formed in us. The light which is latent in God's presence has to be transmuted into enlightened eyes in our hearts. Here is the process of transmutation—commitment to God's purpose in Christ, minds held by prayer receptive to His suggestion, intelligence actively thinking out the most Christlike course available, self-controlled waiting for assurance. Obviously the process does not need to be consciously repeated with every decision. When the electric light is once in-stalled, householders are not aware of the part played by the Hudson in generating the current when they press a button and turn on a light. Believers who establish relations with the living God have in themselves the mind of Christ. But when for some reason the illumination seems dim, the authorities of the electric company investigate the connections. The transmuting process must be in such operation that the light shines where its illumination is required. Believers must go over their contacts with God sufficiently often to make sure that within them is the brightness which lit up the path of Christ : "If a man walk in the night, he stumbleth, because the light is not in him." "If therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light."