Of Inner Discipline
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
THE Lenten discipline which, through long centuries, has been recognised in the Roman and allied Churches reaches its height in the days that immediately precede the anniversary of the Passion. In what may be called the inner circles of devotion—in monasteries, in sisterhoods, amongst the clergy—we hear of fastings, of penances, of vigils, carried often to the utmost vcrge of physical and mental endurance. At the spectacle thus presented the outside world looks on with a mixed feeling. The mind of the age, working with a freedom unknown to earlier times, is observing this side of religion from a new standpoint. It is by no means unsympathetic. It believes in inner discipline, realising its immense import for life. But it demands a basis for it which shall be more than traditional —which shall also be rational. It will, one may hope, be helpful if we look now a little into this subject, as it opens in the light of the modern consciousness.
The world, we say, knows this theme as a great one. Indeed, incomparably the greatest of all man's histories is the history of his fight with himself. Amiel speaks of our chief function in life as that of tamers of wild beasts. Plato, ages before, had said the same thing. We remember the vivid passage in the " Republic " where he describes that " wild beast in our nature which, gorged with meat and drink, starts up and leaps about and seeks to satisfy his desires, under whose power there is no conceivable folly or crime, how-ever shameless or unnatural, of which a man may not believe himself capable." A Continental philosophy of our day, conceived apparently on the principle of running amok among all the deepest experiences of the race, has ridiculed this whole business of interior taming and subduing. According to Nietzsche, man's prime blunder has been the fight against his animalism. It is an infinite pity that he ever thought of turning the forces which aforetime he used for war, capture and sensual gratification, in upon himself for an unnatural campaign against the primal desires and passions. Nietzsche will have no terms with " this secret self-violation, this burning into oneself a criticism, an opposition, a contempt, a ` No ' ; this dismal work of a voluntarily divided soul which because it delights to make suffer, makes itself suffer." Paul, the apostle of inwardness, is to him " the much tortured, the much to be pitied man," for whom he has no good word. This kind of talk has had its vogue in circles which pride themselves on " originality in morals." But it is shallow enough. The verdict of humanity is against it. The human evolution has made no such blunder as is here suggested. Man, on his way to be superman, on his way from brutal to spiritual, could travel by no other route than this. The " internalisation," the turning of life's fight inward, against which our philosopher exclaims, is the fact which, above all others, suggests at once the greatness and the uniqueness of man's destiny.
This is not to say that in the details of the process there have not been mistakes and perversions. There has been enough of them. It is, indeed, precisely upon this point that the saner criticism of to-day is turning itself. It would fain sift out, from the confused jumble of theory and experience which the past has bequeathed to us, the good from the bad, the elements that make for the proper conduct of life from those which are only the deposits of ignorance and misunderstanding. We have reached here some principles which earlier times failed to discern. We have ceased, for instance, to believe in asceticism ; in privation and starvation for their own sake. We find no inherent virtue in privation. The notion of shutting the eye to the world's beauty, of banning the development of its inner wealth, is to us a barbarism. When St. Bernard, writing to Abbot William against ornaments in churches, says : " We monks who have reputed as filth all that shines bright, or sounds sweet to the ear, what fruit do we expect from such things ? " we regard his mental condition as, in this respect, -a pitiable one, Sir Thomas More, Catholic though he was, gives the coup de grâce to asceticism in that fine passage of the " Utopia " where he argues that, if a joyful life is in itself an evil, then we ought to refrain from all that increases the joy of others. But if it is a good to others, then it must be good for ourselves.
These legacies of the past in the matter of inner discipline contain indeed a vast amount of rubbish which it were well to have incontinently swept away. In this category comes the monkish notion of a whole fraternity being drilled and patterned upon one minutely detailed scheme of living. The endeavour to make men by machinery can have only one result—that of making them machines. Ecclesiasticism, in striving for uniformity, is going clean contrary to Nature's whole way of development, which is rather to create variety and spontaneity. The allied notion of monkery, of crushing the individual will and reducing all to one level of passive obedience, is another of the deadly cosmic heresies. What is wanted in the individual is not less will, but more and ever more of it. There is no character in subjection. It is in volition, the subtlest, mightiest, most wonderful thing in the universe, in the fullest, freest, most reasoned exercise of it, that man's value really consists. It is to an ill-instructed past also we owe the religion of solemnity and severity, as though these in themselves were of the essence of virtue and holiness. In a period when the world was conceived to be under a terrorism ; when cruelty was deified ; when men, with Tertullian and Aquinas, could picture the sufferings of tortured souls as adding to the pleasures of heaven, such a view was consistent enough. But we are emerging from this darkness. We are asking about the theologic significance of laughter as well as of tears. And by aid of this better conception we are depriving gloom and sourness of their ancient religious vogue. We are with La Rochefoucauld in defining the gravity of certain people as " un mystère du corps, inventé pour cacher les défauts de l'esprit."
But the modern consciousness, in shaking itself loose from ideas of this kind, is, we have said, not less emphatic than was antiquity about the necessity of an inner discipline. But observe the difference of outlook ! Not from the terror of vengeful powers, not from a despairing sense of the essential evil of the world but, on the contrary, from a feeling of the entire good of things, of the glorious possibilities of life, of the limitless destinies of the human spirit, do we to-day find our reason for inward government, for the daily drill and regimen of the soul. Religion and science are one in recognising that the goal to be aimed at, the principle which is to give law to conduct, is the fulness and furtherance of life. And for this fulness and furtherance we perceive that the upper must ever govern the lower. The body in its very con-figuration is here the image of the mind. The head towers above the stomach, the upper nerve-centres control the reflex action of the lower and local ones. The body here is, we say, the soul's parable. And thoughtful men, of every shade of theologic and anti-theologic thinking, perceive the fact. Maeterlinck, occupying the extremest left of the sceptical movement, insists with the most orthodox that sterile pleasures of the body must be sacrificed ; all that is not in absolute harmony with a larger, more durable energy of thought." He insists on a reform of our eating and drinking as a necessity of spiritual advance. And assuredly not without reason. In one department here we have made, it is true, a great move forward upon the habits of our fathers. What a condition of things do records like the Greville Memoirs and the Creevey Papers reveal in the early nineteenth century, and that amongst the most eminent public men ! " Lord Grey came in drunk from the Duke of York's, where he had been dining." " Old Sidmouth was never sober." Brougham, speaking in the House of Commons in 1827, " was so very tipsy that for some time he did not know what he said." Lamb's half-humorous, half-bitter, " D n temperance and he that first invented it some anti-Noahite ! " represents pretty much the feeling of the time. We are a clear step beyond that. But what of our eating ? The fare offered you at a modem hotel for breakfast, luncheon and dinner represents the average feeding of comfortable Society ; and in flesh food alone, as science is now loudly telling us, the menu contains three times more than we have any business to swallow. When shall we attain to an hotel that will feed us rationally ? Here is a reform for which we must look, not to the House of Commons, but to a clearer knowledge amongst men, and rich men especially, of the essential laws of life.
In connection with bodily habit, as related to inner discipline, a cardinal principle should be the maintenance and daily assertion of the supremacy of the instructed will over all custom and usage.
It is well to try a fall with our habits now and then, if only to see how we stand to them. When the smoker is reduced to despair by a week's deprivation of tobacco, it is time for him to give up his pipe. If our faith in God and man depends on so many hours in bed, it were well to straightway revise our time-table. Whether the Chinese in South Africa are slaves or not may be a moot point, but there is no doubt there are abundance of slaves, well-to-do and well-fed, in England, and it is time they shook off their chains. At all costs let us carry in us a free and independent soul.
Thus of the outer, but there is also the inner. That is an admirable definition of fasting which Clement of Alexandria gives us in the " Stromata " " Now fastings signify abstinence from all evils whatsoever, both in action and in word, and in thought itself." " In thought itself ! " Our religion has done nothing for us unless it has given us an easy control here. It is in this realm, indeed, that its whole triumph lies. Its grandest product is the entire and joyful acquiescence in whatsoever befalls us. The notion of religion as an assurance against calamities is too naive. It is rather a preparation for them and a state of soul for meeting them. Circumstance may play its worst trick upon us ; it may reduce us in a moment from wealth to poverty, from strength and activity to the extremity of weakness. The soul, disciplined by faith, will meet that extremity and not be cowed by it. It will realise with Vauvenargues that " despair is the worst of our errors." Its whole development will have taught it to accept life, in whatsoever strange and repelling form it for the moment offers itself, as a present good and the promise of an infinite better. It is a great thing to be taught our utter nothingness. After we have tasted that sensation we are ready for what generally comes next, the sense of the Divine sufficiency. We rest in a system of things which is too vast for our comprehension, but which we feel to be good. We know ourselves as in an orderly universe with Infinite Perfection at its centre.
It is by such inner discipline, and by no other process, that we arrive at the perception of the higher truths. Good comes first, truth afterwards. Les grandes pensées viennent du coeur. The heart knows truths which the reason cannot formulate. We require a certain inner height to discern life's greatest secret. It is given alone to the pure in heart to see God.