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The Sins Of Saints

There is a saying reported of St. Teresa that " she saw one good thing in the world, namely, that it would not condone the faults of saints, and that the power of its murmurs made them the more perfect." The vivacious Spanish lady was here repeating one of the commonplaces of morals. She recounts the penalty which in every age visits those who profess a higher mode of living than that of their neighbours. Their very virtues are a danger. There is no such advertisement for a black spot as a white background. A reputable man may go on doing a thousand good things without attracting attention. Let him do one bad thing and the world will ring with it. And if the sins are not there they will be invented. If we judged the early Christians by the accounts of their enemies we should think them a set of scoundrels. According to these stories, they were atheists and child murderers their religious services were the occasion of nameless debauchery. Justin Martyr, in a striking passage tells how, in his heathen days, he had listened to these slanders against Christians until an investigation of their actual character showed him " it was impossible they could be living in wicked self-indulgence."

But the topic we are discussing is by no means summed up in observations of this kind. The " sins of saints " are not all inventions, nor even exceptions. There are grave faults attaching to some forms of the religious temperament against which all who seek a sane and whole-some way of living need to be on their guard. We have scarcely yet waked to the significance of the fact that Christ's severest criticisms were directed against this very typo of character. The Pharisees were the Puritans of their time. Anyone inquiring after the saints then in vogue in Jewish society would have been directed to their ranks. The attitude of Jesus towards them, especially when compared with His attitude to less considered classes outside, is a revelation on our subject of the highest kind. It shows us how far, in the Supreme Teacher's estimate, is any one kind of temperament, even the most religiously attractive, from representing the wholeness of humanity ; hew easy it is to give to certain spiritual qualities a wholly false character value. It was a long experience of Richard Baxter, and one, let us remember, obtained amongst the severest types of religion, which led him in his old age to say : "I see that good men are not so good as I once thought they were, and find that few men are as bad as their enemies imagine."

But when we talk of the sins of saints we must first of all define, What are sins, and what are saints ? Both words represent a continuous development of ethical standard. We speak of the Old Testament " saints," and the word is, in respect to them, not at all a misnomer. Nevertheless, the man in the street of to-day, with no pretension to sanctity, would not dare to imitate their conduct. Did he attempt it he would find himself in gaol within a week. David was a true spiritual leader, but his actions, judged by our standard, would fit him for Portland rather than the pulpit of St. Paul's. It is absurd to judge of religious characters apart from the moral level of their own time. Even Christianity, with all its lustre of spiritual revelation, has had to wait for, and to work with, the tardy evolution of conscience age after age. This slow and universal movement has put the common man of to-day in important respects far above the saints of even Christian centuries. And there is no room for a sneer in this. When we read of Augustine advocating religious persecution, of Calvin advising our protector Somerset "to punish well by the sword Catholics and fanatic gospellers," and especially to avoid moderation, and a saintly Fenelon approving the dragonnades, there is here no argument against sainthood, nor against those men as though they were mere pretenders to it. All that such illustrations show is, that the noblest personalities obey the law of their environments. The light in them, showing clear and full on certain sides, is on others merged in the common consciousness of the time.

It is not along such lines that the subject is really reached. No enlightenment comes, on this or any other theme, from the process of picking holes in the coats of great men of the past, doing their best under barbarous conditions. The really important study here is as to the special dangers of what may be called the spiritual temperament. Religion in its wholeness is, of course, something far other than a temperament. There are, nevertheless, departments of its expression for which certain temperaments seem specially fitted, and the possessors of these are almost certain to be chosen as guides and leaders. There are varieties here, widely differing, and an accurate analysis would have to take in a large gradation of subtle shadings. Speaking broadly, however, there are two well-marked forms of religious character, each wielding immense power, each capable of noble service, but open both of them to dangerous and even deadly defects. We may call them, respectively, the aesthetic and the ascetic.

The former, which in certain varieties might perhaps be even better described as the emotional, is singularly open to impression. Delicately strung, with an artist's soul for beauty, vibrating to life's subtlest overtones, with an intense sense of the awe and mystery of life, it is made for the religion of feeling. Its faith at the fullest is a rapture, an ecstasy. It is an epicureanism of the higher sensations. It beholds visions, it listens inwardly to melodies which no mortal music ever made, and when it comes to expression, there are none can speak so pleadingly, so persuasively. Men listen as to angel voices. But all this is at a price. Humanity would have got on badly enough for its religion without this temperament, but still worse had it been the only one. As if to teach the lesson of the human solidarity, the lesson that the whole world of us, and no one individual or type, is the true man, we find this character full of weaknesses and leaning always heavily upon others.

There have been, indeed, souls of this order, with a beautiful spiritual expression, and yet so halting on other sides that they could not even preserve a decent morality. No more truly spiritual mind or greater spiritual teacher existed in the England of his time than Samuel Taylor Coleridge, but, on the side of conduct, what, to say the least, a poverty-stricken record ! And in the next generation we have poor Hartley Coleridge, with religious instincts, fully as deep and keen, and the speech of an angel, yet mingled with animal outbursts which led him periodically to the sty t The genius for recognising spiritual beauty has, indeed, been too often weighted with an over-mastering passion for the sensuous. Our antinomian has soared so high as to get quite out of sight of the Ten Commandments. Within Chateaubriand, says a modern critic, was an obscene Chateaubriand, and the same was true of Lamartine. Often enough the prophet of this order, after the moments of his highest exaltation, finds himself at closest grips with the devil.

Apart, however, from such open lapses, there are other weaknesses of the emotional religious temperament in much need of candid treatment, but which we cannot stop even to name. One only may we find room for in passing, and that is its frequent lack of sheer truthfulness. That defect in the religious minds of former ages is giving us no end of trouble to-day. If only the makers of church chronicles had had the grace to observe accurately and record faithfully ! If only Pascal's maxim that "the first of Christian truths is that truth should be loved above all " could have been inscribed on the wall of every theologian's study ! As it is we have the era of pious frauds, a Saint Bonaventura stuffing his life of another saint with impossible legends, and a Ritualist Oxford don of the nineteenth century emitting the sentiment, " Make your-selves clear that you are justified in deception and then lie like a trooper ! " Before we have got much further in the twentieth century it is to be hoped we shall have made up our minds that religion shall at least speak the truth.

We have space in closing for the barest mention of that other variety of the religious temperament the ascetic and of the moral defects which beset it. This character, of which every age produces specimens, with its superb reaction against the slothful indulgence of the masses, develops often into a potent and magnificent spiritual leadership. Founding itself on a heroic mysticism that discerns from the beginning the essential emptiness of material and sensuous pleasures, it presses on behind the veil to find its joy in spiritual reality. It is enamoured of renunciation, and finds a marvellous liberty in following that austere road which St. John of the Cross indicates in his motto : "Whatever you find pleasant to soul or body, abandon ; whatsoever is painful, embrace it." Men of this temperament and Pusey was a conspicuous example--have a sense of sin and shortcoming which causes them at times the keenest anguish. Yet, strangely enough, the defect most conspicuous in them is one of which they never think of accusing themselves. They have found an inner world which is good and glorious, but they have made the prodigious mistake of declaring the world they have renounced to be intrinsically bad. It is not so, and that they have failed to see its goodness and enjoyableness is, if they only knew it, a fault far greater than those they deplore.

It is time we were done with the pseudo-Christianity whose leading characteristic is the exhalation of gloom. There is no grace in this November fog. Sourness is a crime of lese humanite. To what, 0 my bilious brother, do you propose to convert the world P To your own grimness P It were hardly an improvement. The world wants saving into soundness and light, and it shows a healthy discrimination in refusing the overtures of morbidity and darkness. When the Church thoroughly understands this it will mend some of its ways. In teaching the higher life of the invisible, it will show always its appreciation of that fair world of the seen which is the other's vestibule. It will teach that man belongs to the two, and may be a proficient in both. It was said of Sir Walter Scott that he enjoyed more in twenty-four hours than other men did in a week. It should be counted to him as a grace.

The man who enjoys helps others to enjoy. He cannot keep his sunshine to himself. It is here that, turning from the imperfections of its followers, we see the Divine wholeness of the Master-life. A Prophet of the invisible, Christ knew and loved the seen. The world of birds and flowers, of happy sunshine and human fellowships, was also His world. A Messenger from the Centre, He dwelt with gladness in the outer court, knowing it also was a part of the Father's house.

( Originally Published 1903 )

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