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   Chapter 5 THE AUSTERE

The Ascent of the Soul By Amory H. Bradford Characters: 22735

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

The soul has discovered that it is in a moral order, that it is a free agent, and that it has mysterious affinities with truth and right. It has taken a few steps, and with them has learned that its upward movement will not be easy.

It next discovers that it has no isolated existence, but that it is surrounded by countless other similar beings all indissolubly bound together and having mutual relations. With the dawn of intelligence comes the realization of relations. This realization is dim at the first, but it is very real. Soon the soul learns that the relations between it and other souls are so intimate that the interest of one is the interest of all. Appreciation of relations is a long advance in the movement upward, and it necessitates other knowledge. The realization of relations leads, necessarily and swiftly, to the consciousness of responsibility. The process of this growth cannot be described in detail, but the path is clearly marked and its milestones may be numbered. Each soul is always in a society of souls. Each one, therefore, affects others, and is affected by them. It is free and, therefore, responsible for the influence which it exerts. Moreover, it is bound to other souls by love, and love always carries with it the possibility of sorrow; for sorrow is usually only love thwarted. It is not far from the truth to say that when there is no love there is no sorrow, and that the possibilities of sorrow are always increased in proportion to the perfection of being.

In time the soul finds itself not only one among myriads of souls, but it realizes that its relations to some are more intimate than to others. It needs not to seek the causes of this fact, since it cannot escape from the reality. Thus it finds itself in families, in tribes, in nations, in social groups where the bonds are strong and enduring.

Some souls, more capacious than others, have a richer and more varied experience, and thus inevitably become teachers. The process goes on, and, with both teachers and scholars, the horizon expands and the strength increases with each new day. The soul has found that it is not a solitary being dazed and saddened by the consciousness of its powers, but that it is in a society in which all are similarly endowed, and that all are pressing toward the same goal. It has discovered that its growth is hastened, or hindered, by its environment; and that the spiritual environment is ever the nearest and most potent.

Each new step in this pilgrim's progress reveals something more wonderful than the opening of a continent. It is an entrance into a larger and more complex world. A strange fact now emerges. Every enlargement of being, either of faculty or capacity, is attended by pain either physical or mental. "Whom the Lord loveth He chasteneth," seems to be a universal law rather than an isolated text. All life is strenuous because it is always attended by growth. The soul moves not only onward but upward, and climbing is always a difficult process.

Before a second step is taken the soul begins to experience suffering and sorrow; and as its growth advances it never afterward, so far as human sight has penetrated, escapes from them. Why are they allowed? and what purpose do they serve?

The soul exists in a body, and the body is the seat of sensations. Those sensations, whether pleasing or painful, belong to the physical organs, but they affect the spirit, and escape from them is impossible. Pain has a perceptible effect on the soul, even though the latter has no other relation to the body than that of tenant to a house. It suffers because of the intimate relations which it sustains to the organs through which it works.

The individual soul is related to other souls. Therefore it has plans and purposes concerning them, and it has affinities which are inseparable from existence in society. Those purposes and affinities may be gratified or thwarted. The soul sometimes finds a response from the one whom it seeks and sometimes it does not. Pain belongs to the body, and sorrow is an experience of the soul.

The body is in constant limitations, subject to diseases and accidents, and the soul is affected by all that the body feels. Because of these intimate relationships the soul is limited by ignorance, and defeated in its purposes. It becomes attached to other souls, and those attachments are either rudely shattered or roughly repulsed, and, consequently, the life of the soul is as full of sorrow as is a summer day of clouds.

It faces its hindrances and rises by overcoming them. It finds pain besetting nearly every step of its advance, and the constant shadow of its existence is sorrow. Along such a pathway it moves in its ascent and, in spite of all opposition, it is never permanently hindered; while sorrow and suffering continually add to its strength. The austere experiences through which all pass hasten their spiritual growth. They are ever ministers of blessing; they pay no visits without leaving some fair gifts behind.

Questions arise here which it is difficult to answer. Why are such ministries needed? Why could not the ascent of the spirit be along an easier pathway? Why should it be necessary to write its history in tears and blood? Inquiries like these are insistent. Optimism assumes that the end always justifies the means, even when we are in the dark as to why other means were not used; and that it is better to comfort ourselves with the beneficent fact than to refuse to be comforted because we may not penetrate the depths of the Cosmic process. The emphasis of thought may well rest here. The austere is never merely the severe. What seems to human sight to be evil and only evil, always has a side of benefit. The soul is purified and strengthened as it rises above animalism; it is made courageous by bodily pain; tears clarify its vision. Even Jesus is said to have been made perfect by the things which He suffered. The universal characteristic of life is growth, and growth ever reaches out of old and narrow toward new, larger and better environment.

The soul needs strength, vision, sympathy, faith. These qualities are the fruit of experience. Muscle is converted into strength by use; and its use is possible only as it finds something to overcome. Vision is largely the fruit of training. The man on the lookout discovers a ship ahead long before the passenger on the deck. That fine accuracy of sight has come to him as he has battled with the tempests, and learned to distinguish between the whiteness of flying foam and the sunlight on a sail. Clearness of spiritual vision is acquired in the same way. He who can see even to "the far-off interest of tears" has been taught his discernment by reading the meaning of nearer events.

Sympathy is the art of suffering with another without the definite choice to do so. One soul spontaneously enters into the condition of another and bears his pains and griefs as though they were his own; that is sympathy. But who ever bore the griefs of another before he himself had felt sadness? Sympathy is a fruit that grows on the tree of sorrow. So intensely is this felt that even kindly words in hours of deep trial are ungrateful if they come from one who had had no hard experience of his own. In proportion as one has borne his own griefs he is presumed to be able to bear the griefs of others. He who has passed through the valley of the shadow, and who knows the way, is the only one whose hand is sought by another approaching the same valley. No human characteristic is more beautiful, or more appreciated, than sympathy; but its genuineness is seldom trusted unless the one offering it is known to have suffered himself.

Jesus is said to have been a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, and, therefore, has led the long procession of the broken-hearted toward hope and peace. There is no other place known among men for the cultivation of sympathy except the school of suffering.

If possible, faith even more than sympathy is dependent on struggle. There is no other conceivable means by which it can be acquired. It cannot be imparted. No multiplying of words increases faith. If one has been in the blackest darkness and some way, he knows not how, has been led out into light, it will be easier for him to think that the same experience may be realized again. If every sorrow has had in it some hidden seed of blessing; if the overcoming of hindrances has ever increased strength; if at the very moment that calamity seemed ready to destroy the storm has blown around, and this has occurred again and again, it is impossible to refrain from expecting, or at least hoping, that behind the darkness an unseen hand is making things to work for good. Faith is essential to courage. He never cares to struggle who knows that failure is just ahead. Courage is required as the soul progresses, and becomes more deeply conscious of the mysteries and enemies by which it is surrounded. Faith results from the experience of beneficent leading. If one has been guided by love through many periods, and if that love has always been found waiting for its object on every corner of life, it will, ere long, be expected, watched for, and trusted.

Strength, vision, sympathy, courage, the fair attributes of the soul, all appear as it overcomes difficulties, fights doubts, goes deep into sorrow, and thus learns to realize that it is being led. It is easy to see how sorrow, pain, and death in the older legends and poetry were so often spoken of as beneficent angels. They are like those Sisters of Charity who hide beneath their long black bonnets serene and angelic faces. The austere in human life has never yet been explained, but it has been justified millions of times, and will be justified every time a human soul rises toward the goal for which all were created and toward which all, slowly or swiftly, are moving.

These conclusions have many confirmations, and with some of them it will be worth while to spend a little time. Every thinking man's experience assures him that he grows by overcoming. Emerson has finely said that we have occasion to thank our faults, by which he means limitations; and he has also reminded us that the oyster mends its broken shell with pearl.

We do not like overmuch to read with care our own experiences; but, when we are honest, we see that every struggle has left a residuum of added strength, that every loss has been a gain, that every calamity has opened doors into a larger world, and that what has been dreaded most has really most enriched us. Experience is a wise teacher.

History confirms the witness of experience. The strong man has always gained strength by struggle. The story of a few of the pre?minent teachers is impressive reading. Mahomet knew the bitter pangs of poverty; Epictetus was a slave; Socrates was regarded as a fanatic, if not a lunatic, by most of the people of Athens; Siddhartha is said to have been a useless and luxurious young man until, wearied with the monotony of his father's palace, he ventured into the larger world and saw wherever he went poverty, sickness, death. He was startled into activity by the want, woe, and misery through which his pathway led.

Nearly all moral and spiritual leaders have had to suffer and thus grow strong. Mere genius has done l

ittle for human progress. It has made physical discoveries, but seldom touched the sphere of the soul. Elijah heard the voice of God in the midst of the terrors of the wilderness in which he was ready to die; Isaiah shared the usual fate of reformers and spoke his message into the ears of those who returned insult for warning. The story of Job is a long tragedy,-the world's tragedy, the tragedy of the soul in all ages. What deeps of anguish Dante fathomed before he could begin to write! Who can read the story of "Faust," as Goethe has interpreted it, without feeling that in it he has given the world in thin disguise much of his own life-story? Shakespeare alone, of men of genius of the first rank, seems to have learned comparatively few of his lessons in the school of suffering. But, possibly, if more were known of Shakespeare, it would be found that Lear, Macbeth, and Hamlet are but the expressions of lessons learned as he fought life's battle.

The "In Memoriam" of Tennyson, the "De Profundis" of Mrs. Browning, and the rich and glorious music of Robert Browning could have come only from souls which had been profoundly moved by grief and pain. All men listen most attentively to those who have gone farthest into the dark shadows.

The austere in human experience always accomplishes a purpose of blessing; and the soul comes into such an environment, not for the purpose of being humiliated, but in order that its strength may be developed, its sight clarified, and its powers perfected.

Thus we reach a rational basis for optimism. It has been said that optimism must not only show that beneficent results are being accomplished in human life, but it must also justify the means by which such results are achieved. It is not enough to show that all will be well in the end; it must be shown that even grief, pain, loss, and death are ordained to be the servants of man. This is evident to all who allow themselves to reach to the deeper meanings of their limitations and sufferings.

Opposite conclusions have been reached by some of those who have studied the hard and harsh phenomena of human life. The dreamy Hindu mind at first seemed to discern the truth that suffering is but the under side of blessing, and the hymns of the Vedas are full of hope and anticipation of better times; but, under the stress of prolonged disappointment and measureless calamities, bewildered in his attempt to explain the mystery of suffering, the Hindu at last came to deny its reality. But no bitter trials can be escaped by denial, and in India, to-day, disappointment and calamity are no less frequent than in elder ages. Refusal to believe in darkness effects no change in a midnight. The negation of precipices makes the ascent of a mountain no easier, and the denial of sickness, sorrow, and death deliver none from their presence. On the other hand, the very rocks that are the most difficult to scale will lift the climber toward an ampler horizon; and he who places his feet upon his temptations and sorrows will see in his own life the increasing purpose that widens with the suns.

Slowly, and over many obstacles, the soul rises from its humiliation and presses toward the heights, and every forest passed and every mountain scaled adds to its stature, to the swiftness of its advance, and to the glory of its vision.

The teaching of Jesus concerning the ministry of the austere has greatly changed the popular estimate of the value of many of the experiences through which men pass. Sorrow, pain, and death were formerly regarded as enemies, and only enemies, and they are still so regarded where the full force of His message is either not welcomed or not understood. The common opinion in many quarters, even to this day, is that suffering is either a hideous mistake in the universe, an awful nightmare, or a cruel mockery. Paul, using language as men used it in his time, spoke of death as an enemy. That he was speaking popularly, rather than technically, is evident because he also said that the sting of death-that which made it dreaded-is sin. Jesus, however, justified the method by which men are perfected; and His teaching harmonizes with what may be learned by a reverent scrutiny of the nature of things. The more carefully "the Cosmic process" is studied, the clearer it becomes that events are so ordered that, sooner or later, everything helps toward richer and better conditions. A tidal wave or a pestilence may seem to be inexplicable, but even pestilence teaches men habits of thrift and cleanliness, and tidal waves warn them of their points of danger.

What has made the average of human life so much longer than it was formerly? That very mysterious pestilence has turned attention toward its causes, and thus the race has been made cleaner, purer, more fit to endure. Why do men live in houses with scientific plumbing, fresh air, and have well-cooked food? Because that fierce teacher, pestilence, has taught them that any other course means weakness and death. Whom nature loveth she chasteneth is a truth as clearly written in human history as "Whom the Lord loveth He chasteneth" is written in the Bible. The true attitude toward the austere, for a philosophic as for a Christian mind, is one of complacency. Every severity is intended for benefit. By wars the enormity of war is made evident. By disease the necessity for observation of the laws of health is emphasized. Even death, in the order of things, at last is a blessing, for one generation must give place to another, or the evils that Malthus feared would be quickly reached. Moreover death, in its proper time, is only nature's way of giving the soul its freedom. Hindrances in its path do not indicate the presence of an enemy but of a friend who discovers the only sure way of securing its finest development. The cultivation of the philosophic and Christian temper, which are practically the same, would make this a happier world. We could endure trials with more courage if we would but remember that they are as necessary to our growth as the cutting of a diamond is necessary to the revelation of the treasury of light which it holds.

The heights of character are slowly reached, and, usually, only by the ministry of the austere; but once they are reached the horizon expands, and the soul finds in the clearer light peace if not joy.

This course of reasoning does not make the mistake of regarding sin as less than dreadful. Every sin has hidden in its heart a blessing; but sin as such is never a blessing. It may be necessary for Providence to allow a spirit to sink again into animalism in order that it may be taught its danger, and made to realize that only through struggle can its goal be reached-but the animalism in itself is never beneficent.

When we say that the process by which a man rises may be justified, we do not mean that all his choices are justifiable. The process of his growth provides for his fall, if he will learn in no other way, but it does not necessitate his fall; that is ever because of his own choice. A spirit may choose to return to the slime from which it has emerged. That choice is sin, but it can never be made without the protests of conscience which will not be silenced, and it is by those protests that a man is impelled upward again, and never by the sin in itself. No one was ever helped by his sin, but millions, when they have sinned, have found that the misery was greater than the joy, and this perpetual connection of sin and suffering is the blessed fact. Sin is never anything but hideous. The more unique the genius the more awful and inexcusable his fall. Even out of their sins men do rise, but that is because there sounds in the deeps of the soul a voice which becomes more pathetic in its warning and entreaty, the more it is disregarded. Those who desire to justify sin say that it is the cause of the rising. It may be the occasion, but it is never the cause. The occasion includes the time, place, environment,-but the cause is the impelling force; and sin never impels toward virtue. Satan has not yet turned evangelist.

Because in the past the soul has risen, one need not be unduly optimistic to presume that, in spite of opposition, it will meet no enemies which it will not conquer, and find no heights which it will not be able to scale. Prophecy is the art of reading history forward. The spirit having come thus far, it is not possible to believe that it can ever permanently revert to the conditions from which it has emerged; neither can we believe that it will fail of reaching that development of which its every power and faculty is so distinct a prophecy.

No light has ever yet penetrated far into the mystery of human suffering, sorrow, and sin. Why they need to be at all, has been often asked, but no one has furnished a reply which satisfies many people. With the old insistent and pathetic earnestness millions are still "knocking at nature's door" and asking wherefore they were born. Hosts of others are looking out on desolation and grief, thinking of the tears which have fallen and the sobs which are sure to sound in the future, and asking with eager and pleading intensity, why such things need be. Out of the heavens above, or out of the earth beneath, no clear answer has come.

As we wonder and study, still deeper grows the mystery. Three courses are open to those who are sensitive to the hard, sad facts of the human condition. One is to say that all things in their essence are just as they seem; that sorrow, sin, death none can escape, that they are evils, and that a world in which they exist is the worst of possible worlds, and that there is neither God nor good anywhere. Then let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die, and the quicker the end the sweeter the doom.

Another way is simply to confess ignorance. Out of the darkness no voice has come. The veil over the statue of the god of the future has never been lifted, and inquiry concerning such subjects is folly. To this I reply agnosticism is consistent, but it is not wise. Because it cannot explain all things it turns from the clues which may yet lead out of the labyrinth.

The other course, and the wiser, is to use all the light that has yet been given and from what is known to draw rational conclusions concerning what has not yet been fully revealed. Deep in the heart of things is a beneficent and universal law. In accordance with that law hindrances are made to minister to the soul's growth, the opposition of enemies is transmuted into strength, and moral evil resisted becomes a means of spiritual expansion and enlightenment.

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I, Galahad, saw the Grail,

The Holy Grail, descend upon the Shrine:

I saw the fiery face as of a child

That smote itself into the bread, and went;

And hither am I come; and never yet

Hath what my sister taught me first to see,

This Holy Thing, fail'd from my side, nor come

Cover'd, but moving with me night and day,

Fainter by day, but always in the night....

And in the strength of this I rode,

Shattering all evil customs everywhere,

And past thro' Pagan realms, and made them mine,

And clash'd with Pagan hordes, and bore them down,

And broke thro' all, and in the strength of this

Come victor.

-The Holy Grail. Tennyson.

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