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   Chapter 4 HINDRANCES

The Ascent of the Soul By Amory H. Bradford Characters: 20707

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


When the soul has heard the far call of its destiny and realizes that it may respond to that call, and that it has, in conscience, a guide which will not fail even in the deepest darkness, it turns in the direction from which the appeal comes and begins to move toward its goal. Almost simultaneously it realizes that it has to meet and to overcome numerous and serious obstacles. To the hindrances in the way of the spirit our thought is to be turned in this chapter.

The moral failure of many men and women of superb intellectual and physical equipment is one of the sad and serious marvels of human history. What a pathetic and significant roll might be made of those who have been great intellectually and pitiful failures morally! It has often been affirmed that Hannibal might have conquered Rome, and been the master of the world except for the fatal winter at Capua. Antony, possibly, would have been victor at Actium if it had not been for something in himself that made him susceptible to the fascination of the fair but treacherous Egyptian queen. Achilles was a symbolical as well as an historical character. There was one place-with him in the heel-where he was vulnerable, and through that he fell. Socrates was like a tornado when inflamed by anger. Napoleon laid Europe waste and desolated more distant lands, but he was an enormous egotist and morally a blot on civilization.

The life-history of many of the poets is inexpressibly sad. Chatterton, Shelley, Byron, Poe-their very names call up facts which those who admire their genius would gladly conceal. Many artists are in the same category. It explains nothing to ascribe their moral pollution to their finer sensibilities, for finer sensibilities ought to be attended by untarnished characters. It is, perhaps, best not even to mention their names lest, thereby, we dull the appreciation of noble masterpieces which represent the better moods of the men. One of imperial genius was a slave to wine, another to lust, another was too envious to detect any merit in the work of others of his craft. There are statesmen of whose achievements we speak, but never of the men themselves; and there have been ministers of the Gospel, unhappily not a few, who have suddenly disappeared and been heard of no more. Into a kindly oblivion they have gone, and that is all that any one needs to know. What do such facts signify? That many, or most, of these men have been essentially and totally bad? Or that they are moral failures? They signify only that they have not yet risen above the hindrances which they have found in their pathways. The world knows of the temporary obscuration of a fair fame; it does not see the grief, the tears, the gradual gathering of the energies for a new assault upon the obstacles in the road; and it does not see how tenderly, but faithfully, Providence, through nature, is dealing with them. Some time they will be brought to themselves-The Eternal Goodness is the pledge of that. It is not with this unseen and beneficent ministry of restoration, however, that I am now dealing, but with the awful wrecks and failures which are so common in human history, and concerning which most men know something in their own experiences. How shall they be explained?-since to evade them is impossible. In other words when a man is awake, when he feels that he is in a moral order, is free, and hears the call of his destiny, why is his progress so slow and difficult? No one has ever delineated this period in the soul's growth with greater vividness than Bunyan. The Valley of Humiliation, the Slough of Despond, Giant Despair, Doubting Castle are all pictures of human life taken with photographic accuracy. What are some of these hindrances?

The soul is free, but its abode is in a limited body. The movement of the soul is swift and unconstrained as thought. It is not limited by time. It may project itself a thousand years into the future or travel a thousand years into the past; but it dwells in the body and is more or less restrained by it. Bodily limitation narrows experience and compels ignorance. It makes large acquaintance impossible. The flowers beneath the ice on the Alps are small; the flowers of the tropics have the proportions of trees. Thus environment modifies growth. The body cannot put fetters on the will, but it may hold in captivity the powers which acquire knowledge, withhold from the emotions persons worthy of affection, and make the range of objects of choice poor and pitiful. The soul has often been compared to a bird in a cage,-fitted for broad horizons but confined within narrow spaces. This hindrance is a very real one. The man who grows swiftly must be in the open world with beings to love and to serve ever within his reach. Hence the life beyond death is often called the unhindered life because of its freedom from the body. The old story of "Rasselas" is symbolical. In the Happy Valley a man might be as good, but he could not be as great and wise, as in the larger world. The soul will meet fewer temptations there, but those it does encounter will be more insistent and harder to escape. He who would respond to a call to service must needs have about him those whom he may serve. Large views are for those who are able to rise to the heights. He who lives in a cave may be true to his little light, and surely is responsible for no more, but he will see far less than the one whose home is on the mountaintop. Thus even bodily limitations, to which are attached no moral qualities, are hindrances to the growth of the being, whose destiny is not only purification but expansion:-its movement is not only toward goodness but also toward greatness; not only toward virtue but also toward power.

The animal entail is one of the greatest mysteries of our mortal life. The soul in its moments of illumination feels that it is related to some person like itself, but far higher, and aspires to it. Sir Joshua Reynolds' figure of "Faith" in the famous window in the chapel of New College, Oxford, suggests the attitude of the newly awakened soul. In freshness and beauty it is turning toward the light. But in human experience something occurs which Sir Joshua has not tried to depict. A clammy hand reaches up from the deeps out of which rise suffocating clouds, and that pure spirit finds itself enveloped in darkness and fastened to the earth. The humiliation is complete. What has occurred? Only what has happened again and again; and what will continue to happen for no one knows how long. The animal has gotten the better of the spirit. The soul has sinned-for sin is little, if anything, but a spirit allowing itself to return to the fascinations of the animal conditions out of which it has been evolved, and from which it ought to have escaped forever. The animal entail is the chief hindrance to the aspiring spirit. The animal lives by his senses. He is content when they are satisfied. It can hardly be said that animals are ever happy. Happiness is a state higher than contentment. Paul said he had learned in whatsoever state he was to be content, but even he never said that in all states he had learned to be happy. Animals are contented when their senses are gratified and they are savage when their senses are clamorous. Lions and bears are dangerous when they are hungry, and cruel when other desires are obstructed.

Whatever the theory of evolution, from the beginning of its upward movement, the nearest, most potent, and most dangerous hindrance to the soul is this entail of animalism, which it can never escape but which it must some time conquer. The spirit and the body seem to be in endless antagonism, and yet the body itself will become the fair servant of the soul when once the question of its supremacy has been determined. The tendency to revert to animalism has been vividly depicted by the poets, and the clamorous and insistent nature of the passions portrayed by the artists.

The liquor in the enchanted cup of Comus may be called "the wine of the senses." Its effect is thus described by Milton. Comus offers

... "To every weary traveler

His orient liquor in a crystal glass,

To quench the drought of Ph?bus; which, as they taste

(For most do taste through fond, intemperate thirst)

Soon as the potion works, their human countenance,

The express resemblance of the gods, is changed

Into some brutish form of wolf or bear,

Or ounce or tiger, hog or bearded goat."

A famous passage from Ovid's "Metamorphoses"[4] represents Act?on as changed into a stag; but, if I read the fable aright, the glimpse of Diana in her bath, while not an intelligent choice, was more than a mere accident-it was the uprising of innate sensuality; for even the Greek gods were supposed to have had senses.

"Act?on was the first of all his race,

Who grieved his grandsire in his borrowed face;

Condemned by stern Diana to bemoan

The branching horns and visage not his own;

To shun his once-loved dogs, to bound away

And from their huntsman to become their prey;

And yet consider why the change was wrought;

You'll find it his misfortune, not his fault;

Or, if a fault it was the fault of chance;

For how can guilt proceed from ignorance?"

The story of Circe is the common story of those who have yielded to the flesh. The companions of Ulysses visited the palace of Circe, were allured by her charms, and the result is read in these words:

"Before the spacious front, a herd we find

Of beasts, the fiercest of the savage kind.

Our trembling steps with blandishments they meet

And fawn, unlike their species, at our feet."

The strong words of Milton are none too strong:

"Their human countenance

The express resemblance of the gods, is changed

Into some brutish form."

A common subject with artists has been the temptations of the saints. They have fled from luxury, and what they supposed to be moral peril, but have found no solitude to which they could go and leave their bodies behind. In the silences faces have appeared to them full of alluring entreaty, and more than one anchorite has found to his sorrow that he carried within himself the cause of his danger.

A singularly vivid painting represents one of the saints in the desert, and clinging to him, with their arms around his neck, are

two figures of exquisite physical beauty. Their charms are so near and perilous that the pale and haggard man in desperation has shut his eyes, and in this extremity, with his one free hand, is frantically clinging to a cross. The artist has accurately depicted the condition in which the soul finds itself as it begins its growth;-its chief enemies are those of its own household.

Happy indeed is it for all that none see at the first the obstacles in their way. Faint and far shines the splendor of the goal; the hindrances are reached one by one, and each one, for the moment, seems to be the last.

But close and persistent as is the animal entail, it is not unconquerable. Many a Sir Galahad, and many a woman fair and holy as his pure sister, have lived on this earth of ours. They were not always so; and their beauty and holiness are but the outshining of spiritual victory.

Is this environment of evil necessary to the development of the soul? We may not know; but we do know that it can be conquered, and some time and somehow will be conquered; and that then men, like ourselves, grown from the same stock, evolved from the lower levels, will constitute "the crowning race."

"No longer half akin to brute,

For all we thought and loved and did,

And hoped, and suffered, is but seed

Of what in them is flower and fruit."

These are a few samples of the hindrances which the soul must face in its progress through "the thicket of this world." But these are not all. Hardly less serious is the ignorance which clothes it like a garment. It comes it knows not whence; it journeys it knows not whither, and apparently is attended by no one wiser than itself.

Hugo's awful picture of a man in the ocean with the vast and silent heavens above, the desolate waves around, the birds like dwellers from another world circling in the evening light, and the poor fellow trying to swim, he knows not where, is not so wide of the mark as some thoughtless readers might suppose.

The soul is ignorant and timid, in the vast and void night, with its environment of ignorance and of other souls also blindly struggling. At the same time there is the consciousness of a duty to do something, of a voice calling it somewhere which ought to be heeded, and of having bitterly failed.

The solitariness of the soul is also one of the most mysterious and solemn of its characteristics. The prophecy which is applied to Jesus might equally be applied to every human being: He trod the wine-press alone. In all its deepest experiences the soul is solitary. Craving companionship, in the very times when it seeks it most it finds it denied. Every crucial choice must at last be individual. When sorrows are multiplied there are in them deeps into which no friendly eye can look. When the hour of death comes, even though friends crowd the rooms, not one of them can accompany the soul on its journey. It seems as if this solitariness must hinder its growth. Perhaps were our eyes clearer we should see that what seems to retard in reality hastens progress. But to our human sight it seems as if every soul needed companionship and co?peration in all its deep experiences; and that the ancients were not altogether wrong in their belief in the presence and protection of Guardian Angels. But something more vital and assuring than that faith is desired. It is rather the inseparable fellowship of those who are facing the same mysteries and fighting the same battles as ourselves; but even that not infrequently is denied.

Is this all? There is another possibility which observation has never detected and which science is powerless to disprove. Can we be sure that no malign spiritual influences hinder and bewilder? We cannot be sure. The common belief of nearly all peoples ought not to be rudely brushed aside. No one willingly believes in lies nor clings to them when he knows that they are lies. Superstitions always have some element of truth in them, and the truth, not the error, wins adherents. The most that we can say, at this point, is that we do not know. It is possible that the common beliefs of many widely separated people have no basis in fact, that they are born of dreams and delusions; and, on the other hand, it is equally possible that the spaces which we inhabit, but which we cannot fully explore, have other inhabitants than our vision discerns, and that those beings may help and may hinder us in our progress. It is not wise to dogmatize where we are ignorant. While the scales balance we must wait.

Are the hindrances in the path of the soul without any ministry? That cannot be; for then they are exceptions to the universal law, that nothing which exists is without a purpose of benefit.

All the analogies of nature indicate that human limitations are intended to serve some good end, since, so far as observation has yet extended, it has found nothing which is caused by chance. Emerson says, "As the Sandwich Islander believes that the strength and valor of the enemy he kills passes into himself, so we gain the strength of the temptations we resist;"[5] and St. Bernard says, "Nothing can work me damage except myself; the harm that I sustain I carry about with me, and never am a real sufferer but by my own fault."[6]

And St. John says, "To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life."[7]

The mission of the austere is the development of strength. Concerning this suggestion we shall inquire later. The souls which have reached the serene summits have ever been those which have most resolutely faced the obstacles in their pathways. Even apparent hindrances always exercise a beneficent ministry. As Jesus was made perfect by the things which He suffered, so, in the Cosmic plan, all souls must come to strength and perfection by the difficulties which they overcome and the enemies which they subdue.

What should be the attitude of the soul in view of the hindrances by which it is environed? It should be taught to fight them at every point. Nowhere is the kindness of nature more evident than in the patience and persistence with which this instruction is conveyed.

Nature withholds her favors until they are earned. New light comes only to those who have used-the light they had. Strength is developed by resistance. Growth is for those who place themselves where growth is possible. Nature gives the soul nothing, but she always waits to co?perate with it. This lesson was impressed long ago. It ought never to require new emphasis. Let the younger study the experiences of their elders. They will be saved many failures and much pain. The soul can never be coerced, but it may be taught. Milton has enforced this great lesson in Comus:

"Against the threats

Of malice or of sorcery, of that power

Which erring men call Chance, this I hold firm-

Virtue may be assailed, but never hurt,

Surprised by unjust force, but not enthralled;

Yet, even that which mischief meant most harm,

Shall in the happy trial prove most glory;

But evil on itself shall back recoil,

And mix no more with goodness, when at last

Gathered like a scum, and settled to itself,

It shall be in eternal restless change

Self-fed, and self-consumed; if this fail

The pillar'd firmament is rottenness

And earth's base built on stubble."

No one should believe, after all the growth of the ages, that the soul was made to be imprisoned in a fleshly prison. It was intended that it should burst its barriers and press toward the light. There is an eternal enmity between the serpent and the soul, and the serpent's head must be bruised, but the soul resisting all the forces and fascinations of the flesh, rising on that which has been cast down to higher things, slowly but surely, painfully but with ever added strength moves toward the ideal humanity which has never been better defined than as "the fullness of Christ."

Meanwhile it is well to reinforce our faith by remembering that it is written in the nature of things that truth and goodness must prevail.

This is a moral universe. Error never can be victorious. It may be exalted for a time, but that will be only in order that it may be sunk to deeper depths. Evil and error are doomed and always have been. Evil is moral disease, and disease always tends toward death, while life always and of necessity presses toward larger, more beautiful, and more beneficent being.

Here let us rest. Many things are dark and impossible of explanation, but we have already been taught a few lessons of superlative importance. We have learned that the soul is made for the light; that it can be satisfied only with love and truth; that every hindrance may be overcome; that the animal was made to be the servant of the spirit; that the body makes a good servant but a poor master; that strength comes to those who refuse to submit to the clamors of appetite: thus we have been led to see something of the way along which the soul has moved from animalism toward freedom and victory.

And we have learned one thing more, viz., that the Over-soul is not a dream, but a reality; that the individual may be in correspondence with the Over-soul and from it be continually reinforced. Or, to put our faith in sweeter and simpler form, we have learned by experience which cannot be gainsaid that God is a personal spirit, interested in all that concerns His children, and anxious for their growth; and that He can no more allow His love for them to be defeated than He could allow the suns and planets to break from their orbits. How much more is a man than a sun! Therefore, since God is in His heaven, all must be right with the world and with man, and some time all the hindrances will be changed into helps, all obstacles be converted into strength, and "all hells into benefit."

* * *

THE AUSTERE

We cannot kindle when we will

The fire which in the heart resides;

The Spirit bloweth and is still,

In mystery our soul abides.

But tasks in hours of insight will'd

Can be through hours of gloom fulfill'd.

With aching hands and bleeding feet

We dig and heap, lay stone on stone;

We bear the burden and the heat

Of the long day, and wish 'twere done.

Not till the hours of light return,

All we have built do we discern.

-Morality. Matthew Arnold.

* * *

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