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Life's Healing Forces

IN that creed of experience which people, by the time of middle age, have generally built up for themselves, a central article will, with most of them, we fancy, be a conviction of the immense healing power hidden away in every department of the world's life and available for every circumstance of it. For some of us who have reached the " grand climacteric," or are beyond it, the reflection that we are alive at all is a source of constant astonishment, while the consciousness that we are happy is yet more wonderful. It is the men and women who have been well knocked about who are most sensible of nature's marvellous doctoring. When we have had the body laid low by all manner of ailments and yet have survived; when fate's ploughshare has gone clean through one after another of our most cherished projects, to leave us, as we discover afterwards, not one penny the worse ; when, after our inmost affections have been smitten by shattering bereavements, we rise from the blow not only still loving, but still enjoying, we become conscious, as no tyro or mere surface skimmer can, of a vis medicatrix naturae, of a vast system and force of healing, spread through the whole constitution of things, which becomes hence-forth one of our most delightful and most instructive studies.

Apart from its great speculative outlooks, to which we shall come presently, the subject is, we say, for itself most pleasant to linger over. Is there anything in the world so tender, so entirely motherly, as that caress with which Nature, when we are sick or overwrought, woos us back to strength Robust health is very well in its way, but there is a subtle happiness it does not know. It is that tasted by the man of nervous organisation when, strained to exhaustion point, he flies for recovery to his healer; when, away on the sea, or meeting the keen breeze of the moorland, he knows that every breath he draws, every glint of the open heaven, every bit of scenery his eye rests on, every moment of the delicious resting-time, is forming part of one great system of beneficence that is working to make him well. One might expatiate, too, on Nature's surgery ; how, when the bodily economy is broken in upon by sword-cut or bullet-wound, she immediately summons her forces to the point attacked ; how there she commences a process of stanching, of spinning and weaving of tissues, of expulsion of dangerous matter, and building up of new and healthy substance, all in a way so wonderful and masterly. Not less beautiful is her manner of handling wounds of the mind and heart. When in our grief we refuse to be comforted, and put joy from us as something forbidden, she waits, and gently insists until we smile again. Tourgenieff's statement of the difference between youth and age that "youth will eat gilt gingerbread and fancy it is daily bread, too ; but a time comes when you're in want of dry bread even," is one of those exaggerations which are the bane of antithesis. Nature is kinder than this. The after-life affords us dry bread and something more. The middle-aged world has had wounds enough of body and mind to kill it a dozen times over; but it is alive and cheerful; it has found healing for its hurts.

But we may launch out now a little and touch, cautiously, one or two of those speculative points to which this topic directly invites. The first of these is the question, " How far do these remedial agencies go P Is there, in the realm either of the material or of the spiritual, anything that is irremediable P" One of the most impressive features, it will be remembered, of "Butler's Analogy " is his conception of Nature's teaching of the irremediable. Courses of conduct relating both to body and mind that contravene her laws may, up to a certain point, be condoned, and their evil results averted ; carried beyond that point, their penalty is utter ruin. This, he says, is true of the physical body, where the sentence is death, and of communities and nations, where the judgment is final destruction. And the analogies here from the present life, he argues, may be taken to hold of the life to come.

We doubt whether, if Butler had lived in our day, he would have been so ready with this particular argument. For he would have had to take into consideration the fact, of which modern science and the modern philosophy of history are continually reminding us-that the final judgments on which he lays so much stress are, after all, not finalities; that the destructions, when looked into, are not so much destructions as healings. Of the national "days of judgment " few have been more impressive in their apparent hopelessness than the fall of the Jewish State under Nebuchad- nezzar, and its after and completer destruction by the Romans under Titus. But we now realise that to the former the Jews owed their highest conception of God, their greatest literature, in short, their spiritual selves ; while to the latter, with its consequent dispersion of the race over the face of the earth, we trace the immense world-wide Judaic influence of to-day. The " destruction " was, in fact, a remedy. When Augustine penned his "De Civitate Dei," the shadow of the impending Vandal invasion was already over his beloved North Africa, and the Roman State was every-where crashing into hideous ruin. It was natural that he, with the other Christian thinkers of the time, should see here the final doom of the world-powers ; the coming catastrophe in which everything outside the Catholic Church was to perish. We, who are on the farther side of these events, judge them differently. The old Rome fell, it is true, but it died only to rise again to rise in a dozen new and vigorous communities, who in their laws, their institutions and their spirit, inherited what of it was fitted to live. Rome's day of judgment was neither a ruin nor a finality. It was, again, a remedy.

May we not say the same of death itself ? On the physical side it is Nature's way out of an impossible situation. It is her heroic surgery. When the forces of disease have prevailed against her ordinary methods of healing, she dissolves in this way a combination that has become simply painful. Nothing has been destroyed. What has happened is that the arrangement of particles round a hopelessly weakened centre has come to an end, leaving these particles free for a new and sounder grouping. And even in this, the harshest of her processes, it is wonderful to observe Nature's tenderness. In a recently-published German work, which has gone through eight editions, "Vom Zustande des Menschen kurz vor dem Tode," the author, Professor Hornemann, gives a scientific analysis of the experiences of the dying. Ile declares that the "death agony" is painful to the spectator rather than to the patient; that the sense of dread of death which haunts so many during life almost invariably disappears at its actual approach; that, in fact, as is shown by the testimonies of people brought back from the verge of the grave, a special consciousness of remarkable calm and peace is a normal experience of the closing hour. From beginning to end, and even through what we call the " end," Nature appears ever as the healer.

But having come so far we must go farther. We are confronted now with the question, " What bearing has all this upon spiritual disease, and specially upon the Christian doctrines of sin, redemption, and the future ? " We must remind ourselves, to begin with, that Christianity contemplates man's spiritual history as, throughout, a pathology. It considers him as morally infect. It starts with the doctrine of a Fall. The science of the sixties, we remember, hotly joined issue at this point with religion, declaring that Evolution knew nothing of a fall, but only of a perpetual rise. It forgot, what it has since thought of, that there might be such a thing as a fall upwards, a fall as part of the process of rising. Indeed, when, according to Pascal's famous analogy, we consider the whole race as a single human being perpetually growing and perpetually learning, we realise that some such event is exactly what we should expect. In the history of every child a moral tumble is part of its process of inner growth. Beginning on the purely animal plane, with physical instincts in place of moral perceptions, it gradually evolves the moral sense and with it the capacity of sinning. Its first spiritual failure is thus at once a rise and a fall.

The line of thought here opened points to more than a reconciliation between physical science and Christian theology, though that is something. In the minds which it fairly enters it will react with immense effect on the shaping of the theology itself. It will, for instance, influence our whole conception of evil, both as to its nature and its final results. While not dogmatising about evil, or pretending fully to understand it ; while avoiding, on the one hand, the Neoplatonic optimism which regarded it as merely a not being, the necessary foil of the good, the shadow of the light, "the transitoriness cleaving to the many in opposition to the one " ; and on the other the pessimism, orthodox and unorthodox, which has made evil a hopeless blackness that must for ever cloud the universe, we do at least along this line of investigation come across some rays of light. When we see in the physical world a system of diseases kept in check by a ubiquitous counter system of remedial powers, and this carefully limited action positively used as one of the great moral educators of the race, we may well ask whether a similar thing may not be predicated of man's spiritual condition. Without going the length of the daring " peccando promeremur " of some early Christian thinkers, we may, at least, with St. Paul, believe in the abounding of " grace over sin "; believe even that the action and reaction, in this sphere of evil and its remedy, will produce some high result impossible without it, but as yet not ascertainable by us.

We have touched here the merest fringe of an immense subject. We have said nothing of the factors in this system of spiritual healing; of the Cross which is its centre; of the vicarious suffering which is its principle; of the myriad human ministries by which that principle is applied. It is enough to have emphasized the fact that the human sickness of body and soul is no ground for despair, but rather for hope.

It is something if we can believe that the world's evil is not irremediable ; that for its diseases there are remedies; that in these very diseases themselves may be discerned an ulterior purpose of good.

But hush ! For you can be no despair :
There's amends ! 'Tis a secret; hope and pray.

( Originally Published 1903 )

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Of False Conscience

Religion And Medicine

Spiritual Undercurrents

On Being Inferior

Our Contribution To Life

The Gospel Of Law

Of Fear In Religion

Life's Healing Forces

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