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   Chapter 3 THE FIRST STEPS

The Ascent of the Soul By Amory H. Bradford Characters: 19623

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

The first movements of the awakened soul are difficult to trace. Observation, painstaking and long-continued, alone can furnish the desired information. In the attempt to recall our own experiences there is always a possibility of inaccuracy. Bias counts for more in self-examination than in an examination of others. There is also danger of confusing religious preconceptions with what actually transpires. What we have been led to imagine should be experienced we are very likely to insist has taken place. The truth concerning the Ascent of the Soul will be found in the conclusions of many observers in widely different conditions.

The soul awakens to a consciousness of its responsibilities and to a knowledge that it is in a moral order from which escape is forever impossible. This is our point of departure in this chapter.

The new-born child has to become adjusted to its physical environment, to learn to use its powers, to breathe, to eat, to allow the various senses to do their work. In like manner the newly awakened soul has to become adjusted to the moral order. The moral order is the rule of right in the sphere of thought, emotion, and choice. It is the government of the soul as the physical order is the government of the body. It may be best explained by analogy. There is a physical order ruled by physical laws. If those laws are obeyed, strength, health, sanity result; but if they are disobeyed, the consequences, which are inevitable and self-perpetuating, are weakness, disease, insanity. If one violates gravitation he is dashed in pieces; if he trifles with microbes their infinitesimal grasp will be like a shackle of steel. No one can get outside the physical universe and the sweep of its laws.

There is also a right and a wrong way to use thought, emotion, will. The mind which has hospitality only for holy thoughts will become clearer, and its vision more distinct; but the mind which harbors impure thoughts, gradually, but surely, confuses evil with good, obscures its vision, and becomes a fountain of moral miasm. If we choose to recall and to retain feelings that are animal, and are the relics of animalism, the natural tendency toward bestiality will gather momentum; but if emotion is turned toward higher objects, and we are thrilled from above rather than lulled from below, the sensibilities become sources of enduring joy. The moral order is like the physical order in its universality and in the remorselessness of the consequences which follow choices.

How does the soul become adjusted to the moral order? This question is difficult to answer. At the first there is sight enough to see that one course is right and another wrong, but the vision is indistinct. Gradually the ability to make accurate discriminations increases, and, with time and other growth, the faculty of vision is enlarged and clarified.

The first step in the Ascent of the Soul is the development of ability to discriminate between right and wrong. The powers of the soul are enlarged and vivified with the bodily growth, but whether there is any necessary connection between the growth of the one and that of the other, we know not. This alone is sure-clearer vision, with ever-increasing distinctness, reveals the certainty that moral laws are universal and unchangeable. The process of adjustment to the moral order is partly voluntary and partly involuntary. It is hastened by the hidden forces of vitality, and it may be hindered by its own choices. As a human being who refuses to eat will starve, so a soul which turns away from truth will starve. The law in one case is as inexorable as in the other. This consciousness of the moral order is sometimes dim even in mature years because neglect always deadens appreciation. Paul said that the law is a schoolmaster leading to Christ. By that he intended to teach that we must realize that we are under moral law before we can know that its violation will result in a state of ruin needing salvation. First that which is natural, then that which is spiritual. The phrase "natural law in the spiritual world" means that the consequences following right and wrong are as inevitable and essential in the realm of spirit as in that of matter.

The progress of the soul is dependent on the realization that there is a moral quality in thoughts, emotions, choices; that the consequences following them grow out of them as flowers from seed, and that they determine not only the character but the happiness and welfare of the one exercising them.

The next step in the upward movement of the soul is the realization of its freedom. It is possible for one to know that he is under law, without at the same time appreciating that he is free to choose whether he will obey. I may see a storm sweeping toward me and know that behind it is resistless force, and know, also, that to step outside the track of that storm is impossible; and it is conceivable that a soul may know itself as able to think, feel, act, and, at the same time, be under the dominion of forces before which it is powerless. The practical question, therefore, for all in this human world is not, are there spiritual laws? but, may we choose for ourselves whether we will obey or disobey them? Until the soul knows itself to be free to choose, there will be no deep feeling of obligation, without which there can be no motive impelling toward the heights. Here also we walk in the dark. The genesis of the consciousness of freedom has never been observed. DuBois-Reymond has called it one of "the seven riddles of science." We are no nearer the solution of the problem than were our fathers a thousand years ago. But one thing at least we do know: He who believes himself to be a puppet in the hands of unseen forces will never fight them. If freedom is a fiction the universe is not only unmoral, but immoral. The final argument for freedom is consciousness. I know I could have chosen differently from what I did. But how do I know? The process cannot be pushed farther back. Consciousness is ultimate and authoritative. But what then shall be said of heredity? A child when first born is little but a bundle of sensibilities. Its growth seems to be but the unfolding of inherited tendencies. Every man is what his ancestors have made him plus what he has absorbed from his environment. How can we say then that any are free? That man who is surly, uncomfortable, ugly, as hard to endure as a March wind, is but the extension of his father. When one knows the elder it is difficult to do otherwise than pity the younger. He is but living the tendencies which were born in him and which are an inseparable part of his nature. He cannot be genial and urbane. Are not some born moral cripples as others are born with physical deformities? Are not some spiritually deaf, dumb, and blind from birth? It cannot be doubted. We are all more or less what our fathers were, but our surroundings do much to modify us. Many men seem to be driven on wings of passion, as leaves by tornadoes; and yet we know that we are free, and that all life and conduct, individual and social, must be ordered on that hypothesis. Teach men that they are not free, and anarchy and chaos will quickly follow. No freedom? Then there is no obligation. No one feels that he ought to do what he cannot do, and no one will try to do what he does not feel that he ought to do. If men are but machines, moving only as the power is turned on, there is no moral quality in any action. If we live in a moral world, whether we can understand it or not, we must be free to choose for ourselves. The possibility of the soul's expansion depends on its freedom. There is no right and no wrong, no truth and no error, if it is a slave to the inheritance with which it was born. What gives to the invitations of Jesus a quality so serious and so solemn is the fact that they may be rejected. The power of choice is the most sublime endowment which man possesses. When we have learned to know ourselves as free a long step forward has been taken. The soul grows by a right use of the power of choice.

How may it be adjusted to this knowledge? It will undoubtedly grow to it, but the process will be slow. It may, however, be hastened by a use of the experience of others. No man should be allowed to begin the battle of life as ignorant as his father was. Each new soul should have the benefit of the experience of all who have lived before. Children should be taught by example and conversation, in the home and the school, that the beginning of wisdom is a right use of the experience of others. However this lesson may be learned, and however swift may be the process of growth, the next step in the soul's progress, after its realization that it is in a moral order, must be its adjustment to the fact that it is a free agent and sovereign over its own choices.

No man is ever forced into any course of conduct. Character is the resultant of many choices rather than of necessity. The moral law may be obeyed or it may be violated. Its seat is, indeed, in the bosom of God. It is the only guarantee of individual progress and social harmony. Its sway is without bound and without end. To know how to live in a moral world, and how best to use the gifts of liberty, is a subject for an eternity of study. That this consciousness of freedom comes slowly is an immense blessing; otherwise the soul would be dazed as, for the first time, it looked around on the solemnities and splendors of the spiritual universe; and be overwhelmed as it realized, at the very beginning of its career, that it was endowed with a sovereignty as mysterious and potent as that of God.

The next step in the upward movement of the soul is appreciation of a moral ideal. That is a solemn and sublime moment when t

he newly awakened soul realizes that it dwells in a moral order and is free to make its own choices. But another moment is equally thrilling-that in which, in faint and scarcely audible accents, it catches the far call of the goal toward which, henceforward and forever, it must move. It now knows not only that there is a difference between right and wrong, but that there are mysterious affinities between itself and truth and right. Later the sound of that far-away voice will become more distinct. But in its infancy the soul is more or less confused. It hears many sounds and does not always know how to distinguish between siren voices and those which prophesy its destiny. It also has to learn to distinguish truth and right. The task of making moral discriminations is not easy at any time. Amid a babel of noises to detect the one clear call which alone can satisfy is almost impossible. The mistakes, therefore, are many, but even by mistakes the soul learns to distinguish the true from the false. But how is it to be taught to appreciate that one voice only in all that confusion of strange sounds should be heeded, and all the rest disregarded? The same answer as before must be given. This knowledge, also, will come in large part with the years. It seems to be the cosmic purpose to provide fresh light with every new step of progress. No one is ever left in total darkness. As the soul advances it learns to distinguish between the voices which speak to it. The necessity of growth is the angel of the Lord whose ministries and prophecies are the hope and glory of the race. Growth may be hindered, but it can never be banished from the universe. It moved in chaos, and never faltered in its march, until under its beneficent leading all things were seen to be good. It led the cosmic movement until man appeared; and now it has taken man in hand, with all the vestiges of animalism clinging to him, and it will never leave him as he rises toward the perfection and glory of God. The law of growth answers most if not all of our questions. The soul of man must grow. With its growth will come vision, strength, and progress toward its goal.

But growth is not all. The voices to which we choose to give heed will sound most distinctly in our ears. Here we face a fact which is often in evidence. The earth and animalism will never cease to make appeal to our senses, while at the same time voices from above will call from their heights to our spirits. To distinguish between desire and duty, between truth and tradition, between the spiritual and the animal, is a step which has to be taken, and which is taken whether we appreciate how or not. By the pain which follows wrong choices, or by the intuitions of the spirit, the soul comes to realize that its obligation is always in one direction; that its choice ought to be in favor of the morally excellent. But how shall it discern the morally excellent? The process of learning will be a long one, and never fully completed on the earth. This is a realm that poets and dramatists, who are usually the profoundest and most accurate students of life, have not often tried to enter. Such questions can be answered only after careful and long-continued inductive study. Moralists are usually content to stop short of this inquiry. How the soul comes to learn that it is obligated to truth and right we may not fully know; but that it does learn, and that no step in all its development is more important, there is no doubt. In His dealing with this question Jesus preserves the same attitude as toward all subjects of speculation. I came not to explain how life adjusts itself to its environment, He seems to say, but to give life a richness and a beauty which it never had before; I came not to answer questions, but to save to the best uses that which already exists. Nevertheless, the question as to how the soul is taught to distinguish the morally excellent is of serious importance. If we do not recognize the sanctity of truth and right we may not give them hospitality; and we may not appreciate their sanctity if we are ignorant of what gives them their authority. How, then, does it learn what truth and right are? Are there any clearly defined paths by which this knowledge may be reached? Is not truth a matter of education? And is there any absolute right? A Hindoo Swami, of the school of the Vedanta, lecturing in this country, solemnly assured an intelligent audience that there is no sin; that what is called sin is only the result of education; that what is vice in one place may be virtue in another; and that in the sphere of morals all is relative and nothing absolute. Then there is no wrong, for wrong and sin are closely related; and no right because if right is not a dream it implies the possibility of an opposite. There is little permanent danger from such shallow theories. The peril from confusion is greater than from denial. But even confusion at this point is not long necessary because in every soul there is a voice which men call conscience, which never fails to impel toward the true and the good. Conscience may be likened to a compass whose needle always points toward the north. When it is uninfluenced by distracting causes conscience always shows the way toward truth and right. The Spartans believed that lying was a virtue if it was sufficiently obscure; and a Hindoo woman who throws her child to the god of the Ganges does so because she is deeply religious. Are not such persons conscientious? Yet they perform acts which are in themselves wrong? Of what value, then, is conscience? That they are both conscientious and religious I have no doubt. It is their misfortune to be ignorant. The light appears to be colored by the medium through which it passes, and yet it is not colored; and conscience seems to approve what is wrong, and yet it never does. It always impels toward the right, but men often make serious mistakes because of their ignorance. The needle in the moral compass is deflected by selfishness or false teaching. The Hindoo mother might hear and, if she dared to listen to it, would hear a deeper voice than the one calling her to sacrifice her child-even one telling her to spare her child. She has not yet learned that it is always safe to trust the moral sense. Superstitions are not conscience; they are ignorance obscuring and deadening conscience. Every man is born with a guide within to point him to paths of virtue and truth, and one of the most important lessons which the growing soul has to learn is that when it is true to itself it may always trust that guide. The call of his destiny finds every man, and, when he hears it, he asks: How may I reach that goal? It is far away and the path is confused. Then a voice within makes answer, and, if he heeds that, he will make no mistake. That voice, I believe, is the result of no evolutionary process, but is the holy God immanent in every soul, making His will known. Evolution gradually gives to conscience a larger place, but there is no evidence that it is produced by any physical process. It may be hindered by physical limitations, but it can be destroyed by none. Why are we so slow in learning that conscience, being divine, is authoritative and may be trusted? I know no answer except this: We so often confuse ignorance with conscience that at last we conclude that the latter is not trustworthy. But there we mistake. It is trustworthy. It never fails those who heed its message. That realization may now and then come early, but it seldom comes all at once. Nevertheless it is a step to be taken before the progress of the soul can be either swift or sure.

The moment that the soul realizes that God is not far away, but within; that all the divine voices did not speak in the past, but that many are speaking now; that whosoever will listen may hear within his own being a message as clear and sacred as any that ever came to prophet or teacher in other times, it will begin to realize the luxury of its liberty, and something of the grandeur of its destiny. Truth and right are not fictions of the imagination, they are realities opening before the growing soul like continents before explorers. They always invite entrance and possession. They have horizons full of splendor and beauty and music. They alone can satisfy. But the soul has not yet fully escaped from the mists and fogs and glooms of the earth. It is surrounded by those who still wallow in animalism, and the sounds of the lower world are yet echoing in its ears. But at last its face is toward the light; the far call of its destiny has been heard; it knows itself to be in a moral order; it is assured that, however closely the body may be imprisoned, no bolts and no bars can shut in a spirit; that before it is a fair and favored land, far off but ever open; and, best of all, that within its own being, impervious to all influences from without, is a guide which may be implicitly trusted and which will never betray. Why not follow its suggestions at once and press on toward that fair land of truth and beauty which so earnestly invites? Ah! why not? Here we are face to face with other facts. There are hindrances, many and serious, in the pathway of the soul, and they must be met and forced before that land can be entered. This is the time for us to consider them.

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And many, many are the souls

Life's movement fascinates, controls;

It draws them on, they cannot save

Their feet from its alluring wave;

They cannot leave it, they must go

With its unconquerable flow;

They faint, they stagger to and fro,

And wandering from the stream they go;

In pain, in terror, in distress,

They see all round a wilderness.

-Epilogue to Lessing's "Laocoon". Matthew Arnold

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