When It Is Heaven
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
LAMB, writing to Wordsworth, on receiving from the poet a copy of his just issued " Excursion," declared the reading of it had given him " a day of Heaven." There may have been a friendly exaggeration in the words, but, all the same, one reads them with pleasure. That such words are in the language is in itself suggestive. Their significance deepens when we remember that they stand for a truth, for a valid experience. This word " heaven " has been coined out of human life. It would never have been here apart from what men have felt and seen. In its religious use it points mainly to transcendental ideas, to a world beyond this ; but it would be entirely without meaning were it not for things we know of the life here and now. Men believe in a heaven yonder because they have already found a heaven closer at hand. They remember elect times when the consciousness has been lifted to its highest, when the soul has tasted its noblest satisfactions, and has revelled in the bliss of the good and of the beautiful. With some these moments are too few ; to some they come never at all. Faust, in one of the scenes with Mephistopheles, is willing to wager his soul if the tempter can procure him a moment ,of which he can really say, " Verweile doch, du bist so schon." He is sure there is no moment so perfect that he could wish it to stay. But Faust was in a bad state. There are myriads of such moments ; and when our race has developed further towards its true dimensions and its true goal there will be myriads more. That man has reached the idea of all this, that he has had fleetingest sense of his true joy is a pledge of what is to come. It is the sailor's glimpse from the wave top ; a vision of land which no subsequent tossings or fog bewilderments can henceforth disprove.
It is the healthiest of exercises to turn the mind to this side of its experiences. " Life is twice lived," says the Roman poet, " in the enjoyment of our past." The sunshine of those soul-festivals will irradiate the darkest sky, and give it promise of better to-morrows. As we look back we realise through what different gateways our heaven has opened upon us. How often, to begin with, has nature filled us to the very full ! There are diviner scenes on this earth than any apocalypse has pictured. And the remembrance comes back to us of the rapture beyond words with which we have gazed upon them. The present writer can never forget the sensations of one summer day when, solitary amongst the mountains of the Grisons, he was held as in a trance by the scene before him. The magical hues of the atmosphere playing over the far-stretched valleys and lower heights, the blue of the cloudless sky, the hush upon all nature seemed supernatural ; while the vista of mighty peaks, virginal in their snowy whiteness, soaring into the very heavens, seemed visibly to link our world to a fairer universe beyond. One had seen the mountains before ; for years the view of them had daily fed the eye, but never before or since has there been in contemplation of them such a quality of feeling. It was as though the utmost essence of all that was beautiful had suddenly passed into the soul. There was nothing for it but worship. It was heaven.
At other times the soul reaches these heights in human fellowship. There has been nothing more lovely in history, and nothing more potent, than those groups and circles of eager souls, that in every age have formed round some great spirit, athirst for the truth and grace it distilled. That is why men left home and business for the society of Jesus. To follow Him was the divinest of luxuries. In this fellowship men tasted life's choicest fruit. Fed with such words, such tones, their inmost nature vibrating with such harmonies, men felt that poverty, homelessness, persecution, were no hardship. They tasted through all that inner joy which, as Matthew Arnold has it, overflowed upon the world and was their secret of its conquest. It has always been so. In every age we see the mysterious attraction, surpassing all others, of the prophet and his circle. Now it is Origen, whose disciples declare that in his presence there is " perpetual sunlight," and the inspiration of divine things " ; later it is Bernard fleeing into the wilderness, pursued by young knights, who give up arms and the world for his society ; again it is Francis at Assisi, making men realise that absolute poverty, plus his companionship, was a wealth beyond that of pope or emperor. It is under the same instinct that further on in those mediaeval times we have formed the Gottesfreunde, circles of brethren who, outside the ceremonies of the popular religion, seek together for deeper spiritual realisations. The Methodist circles with their marvellous store of ecstatic feeling are the Gottesfreunde of the eighteenth century. Under far different circumstances, but illustrating the same instinct, is that circle at La Chenaie, where Lamennais gathers around him in religious retreat such choice spirits as Maurice de Guérin, Rohrbacher, Montalembert, and Lacordaire. And not only has it been among the élite that exquisite emotion of this kind has been known. In humble gatherings of unnoted men and women, in conventicles and bare rooms, the heart has been caught by the Spirit's deepest tides, and unspeakable things realised. " This is heaven," has been the common thought. The experience of these people has borne witness to the great saying of Hegel in his " Philosophy of Religion " : " All the various peoples feel that it is in the religious consciousness they possess truth, and they have always regarded religion as constituting their true dignity and the Sabbath of their life."
It is along lines that are strictly parallel with the religious consciousness, though not generally regarded as immediately connected with it, that the mind finds other experiences that give it the noblest expansions. One of these is great music. We are not at the bottom yet of all the soul's subtle alliances. We are sure, however, that harmony, as it expresses itself in sound, is flesh and blood relation to whatsoever is highest in us. Plato saw this when he associated music so closely with education in virtue. Browning has put it all into three lines where, in " Pauline," he speaks of
Music, which is earnest of a heaven,
Who that has heard the great Fribourg organ, or sat at the feet of Joachim, or listened (as we did once in boyhood—enraptured hour !) to Thalberg, but has felt at moments that this too was heaven, the heart's heaven, filled to the full so that it could hold no more !
But often man's heaven reaches him without any external aids whatever. It comes to him sometimes in dreams. There are experiences here, at rare intervals it may be, of a feeling so intense and so exquisite as to make the waking a kind of expulsion from Paradise. Where and what is that realm we have left ? Is it less real that we saw it with another eye than this in its socket ? Some have. had these dreams in their waking hours ; as Jacob Boehme, in that " Sabbath of the Soul " which he describes as lasting seven days, when he was " as it were inwardly surrounded by a Divine light," and when " the triumph that was in my soul I can neither tell nor describe " ; or as Plotinus, who speaks of being caught up into an immediate con-tact with God ; or Philo, who, when coming to his work empty suddenly became full, ideas being invisibly showered upon him and, as it were, implanted in him from on high " ; or that sudden vision of the American doctor of whom Professor James speaks, who " saw that the universe is not composed of dead matter, but is, on the contrary, a living Presence, that all men are immortal, and that the cosmic order is such that all things work together for the good of each and all."
But there is more. Surely the crowning wonder is when men, and weak women, have found heaven in the midst of cruellest sufferings and approaching death ! We with our comfort standard, with our income and four meals a day as the essentials of well being, find that story of the martyrs almost psychologically impossible. And yet it is true. We have their inner mind in their own words. Here is Perpetua, the young mother, at Carthage, who, when lodged in the horrible prison, writes : " The gaol became to me suddenly a palace, so that I liked better to be there than anywhere else." She writes up her diary to the night before her delivery to the wild beasts, closing it thus : " This is what I have done up to the day before the sports : how the sports themselves will go let someone else write if he pleases." Men have felt the goodness of God while actually burning. We read of Fructuosus in the Valerian prosecution calling out to his brethren from the flames : " The kindness of the Lord can never fail, either here or hereafter. This which you see is but the weakness of an hour." The greatest refutation of pessimism is surely the story of the world's sufferings.
The world's history is then, we see, full of sublime realisations, wrought out of all kinds of material, entering the soul through the most opposite roads. As we study them they suggest to us irresistibly certain questions. Are such times—the heart's triumphant hours—on the increase among us ? Are they to be looked for and worked for, as life's normal and legitimate products ? And is the mode of life to-day the best calculated to develop them ? About one thing we may feel sure. The way of the true life lies always in the direction of these experiences. The world's real wealth is a wealth of the nobler feeling and of the conditions and opportunities for it. And man is meant for these things. He is made for his heaven. Any road that leads away, any method of living that dulls the appetite and clogs the capacity for these states of the soul, is to be avoided as a road, a method of death.
If that be so, what shall we say of our own time ? To judge by much we see, the twentieth century might appear in this matter to be trying its hardest to contradict the verdict of history and of the nature of things. It is trying after a heaven for the body rather than for the soul. It spends so much time and labour over the preparation for living that it has none left for life itself. Millionaires are building palaces, and forgetting that these caravanserais can never exhale the perfume of a home. They are consumed with the passion for dollars, as if dollars could breed either great ideas or noble emotions. There are multitudes whose heaven is frankly sensual. Their paradise is an orgie. The world ought by this time to know better. That way has been so often tried and always with one result. What a sensualist once said to the present writer is so universally true. " It all becomes very disgusting after a time." It is a profound student of human nature who observes on this point : " We find as man grows more civilised (he might have said spiritualised) sexual love assumes ever less value in his eyes if there go not with it, if there do not precede, accompany, and follow it the emotions built up of our thoughts and feelings, of our sweetest and tenderest hours and years."
No. The way to the human heaven is not by following the animal in us, but rather by the extrication of ourselves from it. It is a foundation to build from, not a house to live in. We are here to grow the soul in us, a soul worthy of the heaven above and around, which waits to reveal itself to us.
It is precisely as-the soul thus grows, and finds in this world its ethereal food, that it becomes sure of the other heaven. It is with such natures, that with the passing years, the certitude increases that
This life of mortal breath