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Soul's Distillations

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

Tin title expresses only a part of what we propose here to deal with. It is an affair not simply of distillations, but of extractions, of subtilisations, the whole of the processes in short by which raw material is refined, transmuted, raised to a higher power. We want to inquire whether anything similar to this is to be found in the inner life of the soul. We are all more or less familiar with the outside operations. At Cognac there are great establishments where we may watch the turning of wine into brandy. It is a distillation. Else-where men obtain spirit from beet-root, from potatoes and other sugar compounds. In other directions we have subtle essences, where the force spread originally over a vast quantity of the originating material has been concentrated into a few drops. The greatest triumph of modern extraction is the miracle of radium, where, out of tons of quartz, crushed, pounded, passed through one process after another, we see emerging at the end a substance which stands as the very quintessence of energy ; a substance into one ounce of which is compressed a power computed to be capable of raising 10,000 tons a mile high. It would seem as though the material progress of the world, the whole triumph of man in this sphere, will become more and more an affair of this concentration of energy ; of the elaboration of methods by which the power of winds and waves, of the solid earth and its elements, will be distilled into new and ever subtler forms, obedient to his lightest touch.

With this before us we may now come to our special inquiry. Does the inward life in any degree correspond in this aspect to the outer ? Have we there also what, with any accuracy, may be called distillations or extractions ? Do we discern in the soul such a thing as the conversion of raw material, the raising it to a new quality and power ? The inquiry is not a merely speculative one. It opens up questions of the utmost importance in psycho-logy, in religion, and the general conduct of life.

We cannot look long into the nature of the life within us without coming to the conclusion that the analogy is a very close one. As we think the matter over we begin to suspect, indeed, that the soul is the greatest of all distilleries. Its one business is a transmutation, an obtaining and using of essences. The soul begins by distilling for itself a body. According to an eminent French psychologist, M. Delanne, the theory that best fits modern research is that " a human being is a psychic form which assimilates matter. When its energy is exhausted it assimilates matter no longer, the physical body is disintegrated, and the soul in another form pursues its career." " A mere hypothesis," says someone, " and a disputable one." It may be disputed, we admit. But whatever view we may take as to the precise form in which the relation of soul and body is presented, we have all to acknowledge the wonder of that unknown energy by which out of air and water, out of vegetable and animal, the unseen something within is extracting perpetually the thing we call our visible selves.

What is quite certain also is that the outside world, as we recognise it, is a distillation of our own mind. When we speak of seeing sun, moon and stars, the world and our fellow men, what we mean is that we receive certain ether vibrations on our retina, which are translated, by some process unknown, into sensations, to which then, by another process, we attach certain ideas. In a sense we all make our world. That it agrees with the world our neighbour makes is, we may say, a guarantee of harmonious mental co-operation, and a help to the belief that our sensation has some solid relation to the outside reality. But what, after all, lies behind sight, touch, hearing, and our other sense perceptions is over the unknown. We know our distillation ; that is all.

With that as a beginning—a somewhat bewildering one it must be confessed—let us come to some processes in which we may feel more at home. On this theme we find ourselves dealing, not only with our individual consciousness, but with that universal consciousness, that world soul, if we may so term it, in which our own swims, and of which it forms a part. We belong, we discover, to a mental universe which has been made what it is by an age-long series of distillings and extractings. Our language is one of these results. When we use such words as " whiteness," " humanity," any abstract term in short, we are handling mental tools which it took our remote ancestors thousands of years to fashion. Out of a multitude of objects constantly presenting themselves to his mind, man, bit by bit, sorted out words that covered not only one of these objects, but a multitude of them, and enabled him to think from the particular to the general. A more striking mental distillation is that of scientific discovery. An observer, planted down amidst a heterogeneous congeries of apparently isolated facts, watches, compares, experiments, until, it may be suddenly, as in a flash, there takes place in his brain a kind of precipitation. Out of the seeming confusion he has extracted a law which makes all plain. Or he has struck on the application of a force—steam it may be, or electricity—which henceforth quadruples human powers. What has come to this solitary soul, this new distillation from the outside, comes next into the world-soul. The new generation is born with this extraction—this fresh power essence—as part of its inheritance. The world-soul will continually add to these acquisitions, until it becomes mighty beyond our present dreams.

Where this view of things grips us as individuals will, however, be seen more clearly when we study some of its practical applications. We note, for instance, how our spiritual culture to-day is an affair of inner distillations. Take, for instance, the present position of religion.' It is offered to us externally as a matter of Bibles, of creeds, of churches, and their allied institutions. A great deal of the material here is crude enough. Much of what our fathers accepted as facts has become legend. Many of the credal statements held throughout generations as necessary to faith are to us incredible. We can no longer say credo quia impossibile. Yet faith lives and the churches thrive. Never was religion more active, more potent in the lives of men. Why is this ? We discover the secret in the soul's method of inner extraction. The institutions, the theologies, the sacred books are there, and of service, not for what they are in themselves. They are the materials in a process. Out of them, with all their roughness, their inequality of value, their nearer or farther approximation to fact, the soul, by its own infallible methods, has in each age extracted the nutriment it needed, and to-day its organs are performing the same office. It is not because the churches have maintained this or that opinion that they have lived. It is because they have stood age after age close to the souls of men ; stood there with a history, an example, a force, out of which these souls drew love and courage, and the spirit of brotherly service. The material itself is, we say, open to every criticism, but these essences extracted from it are beyond criticism, and are the life of the world.

The truth of this statement can be discerned by anyone who cares to study history. We make the direst of blunders if we judge of the Church's function in any generation by its outward symbols, Am I to judge of the early Benedictines by their theology ? I think rather of them issuing in the sixth century from Southern Italy to cover Europe with their faithful labours, making waste places fertile with the toil of their hands, and preserving for us the ancient literatures by the labour of their brains. Is the thirteenth century Church a mere triumph of the Papacy ? We look beneath to see a spirit developed as truly evangelical, as passionate for truth, for righteousness, for the soul's freedom as the world has ever known. Nay, for a proper view here we must extend our survey beyond Christendom. Let us read our Plutarch on the true inwardness of the ancient religious feasts. Says he : For it is not abundance of wine and well-baked meats that gladden our hearts in a religious festival ; it is our good hope and belief that God Himself is graciously present and approving our acts." The outward material here, we say, is " a pagan festival." But words like these show us how true souls extracted from the materials their age and place offered, those essences of faith and love which are religion's highest and ultimate meaning.

It is most interesting, in this connection, to note how men who have fought most stoutly for their own separate formulas have come sooner or later to realise the truth of our doctrine here. They find that the root of the matter lies not in the " ism " they quarrelled about, but in the distillation it yielded. Wesley in his old age declares himself sick of opinions. " My soul loathes the frothy food. Give me solid and substantial religion ; give me a humble, gentle lover of God and man ; a man full of mercy and good faith, without partiality and without hypocrisy ; a man laying himself out in the work of faith, the patience of hope, the labour of love. Let my soul be with those Christians, wheresoever they are and whatsoever opinions they are of." On the opposite side let us hear Martineau. " In Biblical interpretation I derive from Calvin and Whitby the help that fails me in Crell and Belsham. In devotional literature and religious thought I find nothing of ours that does not fail before Augustine, Tauler and Pascal. And in the poetry of the Church it is the Latin or the German hymns, or the lines of Charles Wesley, or of Keble, that fasten on my memory and heart, and make all else seem poor and feeble." We may go beyond Martineau to Huxley, who testified in a letter to Kingsley that, outside theology, life had taught him a deep sense of religion, that love had opened to him the sanctity of human nature, and impressed him with a deep sense of responsibility. These men in their several stations had been surrounded with materials widely differing in outer character. They belonged to schools of sharply opposed thinking. But it was not these oppositions ; it was the invisible essences their souls drew from the outward surrounding that make their memories alike dear to-day to all who love truth and goodness.

As with outside substance so in the soul there are double and quintuple distillations. A man pours his discourse upon me. It is powerful because it is the essence of his own life experience. But to be of profit to me I must make an extract of this extract. We do the utmost damage to ourselves if we allow any other man to make us in his own image. I must instead distil from his individuality the drop that feeds my own. It is also in the light of this doctrine that we discern the meaning of the human passions. We understand by it that striking phrase of Vauvenargue's that " we perhaps owe the greatest advantages of the spirit to our passions." The man who prospers most inwardly is not the monk or ascetic, who denies half his nature. It is he rather who, recognising within their true limits the social and passional instincts, uses them as material from which, in co-operation with the higher spiritual powers, he develops that highest love in which he sees his relation to the Divine nature.

There seems no limit to this power of the soul. It can distil and doubly distil, until it has become a repository of all the forces. From the rough experiences of his life a man draws the need and then the power of faith and of prayer. These first spiritual acquisitions become in their turn the material for others, more refined and yet more powerful. The process, in some great natures, has continued until their simplest word has fallen as fire on the souls of men, and kindled conflagrations there.

The doctrine, so potent in its applications for this life, supplies us with what seems the best of clues to the life beyond. All the distillations are a step upward ; a movement from a lower to a higher quality and power. On this analogy death will be the human step upward. It will be the transmutation of our experiences hero our sorrows, joys, knowledges, our triumphs and failures—into an existence which is the essence of them all, while immeasurably more than they.

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