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The Ascent of the Soul By Amory H. Bradford Characters: 21861

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

As despondency and a feeling of failure comes to every soul with the realization of its mistakes and sins, so there will some time come to all a period of Re-awakening. This statement is the expression of a hope which is cherished in the face of much opposing evidence. Nevertheless, that this hope is cherished by so many persons of all classes is a credit to humanity. It is difficult to believe that in the end an infinitely wise and good God will fail of the achievement of His purpose in regard to a single one of His creatures.

The saddest fact in the ascent of the soul is sin. However it may be accounted for, it cannot be evaded, but must be honestly and resolutely faced. Sin is the deliberate choice to return to animalism, for a longer or shorter time, by a being who realizes that he is in a moral order, that he is free, and who has heard the far-off call of a spiritual destiny. It is the choice, by a spirit, of the condition from which it ought to have forever escaped. Imperfection and ignorance are not, in themselves, blameworthy and should never be classified as sins. Weakness always palliates a wrong choice. An evil condition is a misfortune; it does not justify condemnation. Sin always implies a voluntary act. That all men have sinned is a contention not without abundant justification. The better the man the more intensely he is humiliated by the consciousness of moral failure.

After long-continued discipline, after much progress has been made, the soul again and again chooses evil; and, after it ought to have moved far on its upward career, it is found to be a bond-slave of tendencies which should have been forever left behind. This is the solemn fact which faces every student of human life. It is not a doctrine of an effete theology but a continuous human experience. The consciousness of moral failure is terrible and universal. This consciousness requires neither definition nor illustration. Experience is a sufficient witness. Who has been able exhaustively to delineate the soul's humiliation? ?schylus and Sophocles, Shakespeare and Goethe, Shelley, Tennyson, and Browning have but skimmed the surface of the great tragedy of human life. Hamlet, Lear, Macbeth, Faust, and Wilhelm Meister, Beatrice Cenci, the sad, sad story of Guinevere, and the awful shadows of the Ring and the Book-how luridly realistic are all these studies of the downfall of souls and the desolation of character! If they had expressed all there is of life it would be only a long, repulsive tragedy; but happily there is another side. To that brighter phase of the growth of the soul we turn in this chapter.

What is the difference between the awakening of the soul and its re-awakening? Are they two experiences? or different phases of the same experience? The awakening is nearly simultaneous with the dawn of consciousness. It is the adjustment of the soul to its environment-the realization of its self-consciousness as free, as in a moral order, and as possessing mysterious affinities with truth and right. This realization is followed by a period of growth, during which many hindrances are overcome, and in which the ministries of environment, both kindly and austere, help to free it from its limitations and to promote its advance along the spiritual pathway. But while the soul dimly hears voices from above it has not yet, altogether, escaped from the influence of animalism. It dwells in a body whose desires clamor to be gratified. It is like a bird trying to rise into the air when it has not yet acquired the use of its wings. Malign influences are still about it, and earthly attractions are ever drawing it downward. It falls many times. I do not mean that it is compelled to fall, but that, as a matter of fact, its lapses are frequent and discouraging. In the midst of this painful movement upward, there sometime comes to the soul a realization of a presence of which it has scarcely dreamed before. It begins to understand that it is never alone, that its struggle is never hopeless because God and the universe, equally with itself, are concerned for its progress. It is humiliated by its failures, but it has learned that, however many times it may fail and however bitter its disappointment, in the end it must be victorious because neither principalities nor powers, neither things on the earth nor beyond the earth, can forever resist God. Thus hope is born, and he who one moment cries, Who shall deliver from this body of death? the next moment with exultation exclaims, I thank God through Jesus Christ, our Lord.

The light which shines into the soul from Jesus Christ is the revelation of the co?peration of the Deity, and of the forces of the universe, with every man who is moving upward. The realization that, however deep the darkness, humiliating the moral failure, constant and imperious the solicitations of animalism, "the nature of things" and the everlasting love are on the side of the soul is its re-awakening.

It now not only knows that it is free, in a moral order, and that voices from a far-off goal are calling it, but also that those who are with it are more than those who can be against it. Thus hope, confidence, power to resist, and faith even in the midst of failure dawn, and will never be permanently eclipsed. The re-awakening of the soul is now complete.

This experience is traditionally called conversion. It is usually associated with an appropriation of the teaching of Jesus Christ, and inevitably follows an appreciation of His words and His work. But all the revelations of the Christ have not been through the historic Jesus. In every land, and in every age, souls have come to this new consciousness. It was said of Isaiah that he saw the Lord; and of Melchizedek that he was the priest of the most high God. The former was a Hebrew, but the latter was not in what was to be the chosen line of succession. The assurance that they are never alone has found many in what has seemed impenetrable darkness, and they have risen and moved upward. Instances of this kind are not limited to Christian lands, although they are most common where the Christian revelation is known. I cannot doubt that those who have not had this vision on the earth will have it some time and somewhere. The Divine power and purpose to save, and to save to the utter-most, are revealed with perfect clearness in the teachings of Jesus Christ. Nothing could be more explicit than His message that God loves all men, and that it is His will that all should repent and come to the knowledge of the truth.

This stage of advance may be called the crisis in the ascent of the soul. Before this it has moved slowly and with faltering steps. Henceforth it will move more confidently and swiftly. But that does not mean that it will find that hindrances are all removed, or that no unseen hand will draw it downward. Some of the bitterest hours are to follow-days and, possibly, longer periods of spiritual obscuration; darkness like that of Jesus in which He cried, "My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me." Who can explain the appalling humiliation of a man when, as if a star had fallen from heaven, he sinks into awful and inexplicable selfishness or sensuality? It is not necessary that we explain, but we should remember that the goodness of God has so ordered things that even disgrace may lead to stronger faith, clearer vision, and tenderer sympathy.

Austere ministries are still needed; only fire will consume the dross. The re-awakening of a soul is not its perfecting; but it is its realization that the process of perfecting must go on, and will go on, if need be along a pathway of shame and agony, until all that attracts to the earth and sensuality has disappeared, and the spirit, like a bird released, rises toward the heavens.

The law that whatsoever a man soweth that shall he reap will never be transcended, and if an enlightened spirit ever chooses to sink once more into the slime it may do so; but it will at the same time be taught with terrible intensity the moral bearing of the physical law that what falls from the loftiest height will sink to the deepest depth.

At last the soul realizes that it is in the hands of a sympathetic, holy, and loving Person, a Being who cannot be defeated, and who, in His own time and way, will accomplish His own purposes. That vision of God is the re-awakening, an inevitable and glorious reality in spiritual progress.

What are the causes of this re-awakening? The causes are many and can be stated only in a general way. Moreover, spiritual experiences are individual, and the answer which would apply to one might not to another.

The shock which attends some terrible moral failure, not infrequently, is the proximate cause of the re-awakening of the soul. There is a deep psychological truth in the old phrase, "conviction of sin." Men are thus convicted. Some act of appalling wrong-doing reveals to them the depths of their hearts and forces them in their extremity to look upward. Hawthorne, in his story, "The Scarlet Letter," has depicted the agony of a soul, in the consciousness of its guilt, finding no peace until it dared to do right and to trust God. In the "Marble Faun," in the character of Donatello, the same author has furnished an illustration of one who was startled into a consciousness of manhood and responsibility by his crime. It is the revelation of a soul to itself, not of God to the soul. In Donatello we see a soul awakened to self-consciousness and responsibility, but in "The Scarlet Letter" we have the example of a man inspired to do his duty by the revelation of God. Adoniram Judson was brought to himself by hearing the groans of a dying man in a room adjoining his own in a New England hotel. Luther was forced to serious thought by a flash of lightning which blinded and came near killing him. Pascal was returning to his home at midnight when his carriage halted on the brink of a precipice, and the narrowness of his escape aroused him to a realization of his dependence upon God. The sense of mortality, and the wonder as to what the consequences of wrong-doing in "the dim unknown" may be, have been potent forces in the re-awakening of souls.

Still others have been given new and gracious visions of "the beauty of holiness." They have seen the excellence of virtue, and in its light have learned to hate the causes of their humiliation, and to press forward with courage and hope.

Speculations concerning the causes of this spiritual change are easy, but they are of little value. Observation has never yet collected facts enough to adequately account for the phenomena. Probably the most complete and satisfactory answer that was ever given to such questions was that of Jesus when He was treating of this very subject: "The wind bloweth where it listeth, thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh,

and whither it goeth."

The mystery of the soul's re-awakening has never been fathomed. Sometimes there has been flashed upon conscience, apparently without a cause, a deep and awful sense of guilt. Whence did it come? What caused it? Calamities many times sweep through a life as a tornado sweeps over a field of wheat, and when they have passed there is more than an appreciation of loss; there is a vision of the soul's unworthiness and humiliation. Again death comes exceedingly near, and, in a single hour, the solemnities of eternity become vivid, and the soul sees itself in the light of God. And again, the essential glory of goodness is so vividly manifest that the soul instinctively rises out of its sin, and presses upward, as a man wakens from a hideous nightmare. The more such phenomena are studied, the more distinct and significant do they appear and the more impossible becomes the effort to explain them. They may be verified, but they can never be explained. They are the results of the action of the Spirit of God on the spirit of man. Is this answer rejected as fanciful or superstitious? Then some of the most brilliant and significant events in the history of humanity are inexplicable.

What caused the revolution in the character of Augustine by which the sensualist became a saint? Was it the study of Plato? or the prayers of Monica? or the preaching of Ambrose? We know not; rather let us say it was the Spirit of God. Who can define the process by which Wilberforce was changed from the pet of fashionable society to one of the heroes in the world's great crusade against injustice and oppression? Such inquiries are more easily started than settled. I repeat, the only rational and convincing word that was ever spoken on this subject is that of Jesus. The Spirit of God, whose ministry is as still as the sunlight, as mysterious as the wind, and as potent as gravitation, was the One to whom He pointed.

How has this epoch in the ascent of the soul been treated in literature? I refer with frequency to the literary treatment of spiritual subjects because poets, dramatists, and writers of fiction, more than any other class of authors, have studied the soul in its depths, in its inspirations, and in the process by which it rises and presses toward its goal.

The illustrations of this subject in the Scriptures are almost idyllic in their simplicity and beauty. There is more than flippancy in the remark that Adam's fall was a fall upward. The statement is literally true. The fall was no fiction, but a condition of enlightenment and growth. The exit from Eden was the beginning of the long, hard climb toward the City of God.

The very moment when Isaiah saw Uzziah, the king, stricken with leprosy, he saw the Lord.

The classical delineation of a soul attaining the higher knowledge is that of the prodigal son, who, when he came to himself, saw clearly that his father was waiting to welcome him.

The "Idylls of the King" are a kind of "Pilgrim's Progress." In various ways they trace, and with matchless music rehearse, the growth of souls and their victories over spiritual enemies. One of the most pathetic stories ever told is that of the beautiful Queen Guinevere, who by shame and agony learned that "we needs must love the highest when we see it;" and who never appreciated the great love in which she was enfolded until Arthur, "moving ghost-like to his doom," had gone to fight his last great battle in the west.

The world owes George MacDonald gratitude it will never repay;-such spiritual souls are never paid in the coin of this world. In "Robert Falconer," he taught his time with a lucidity and sweetness that none but Tennyson and Browning have equaled, and that not even they have surpassed, that a "loving worm within its clod were lovelier than a loveless God upon his Throne," and in "Thomas Wingfold" he has traced with epic fidelity the growth of a soul from moral insensibility to manly strength and vision. The description of the process by which Wingfold is brought to see that he, a teacher in the church, is a fraud and a hypocrite, and by which he is then lifted up and made worthy of his vocation as a minister of the glorious Gospel of the blessed God is a wonderful piece of spiritual delineation.

With Guinevere the external humiliation was an essential stage in her soul's development; but with Wingfold there was no public disgrace,-only the not less poignant shame of a man who, looking into his own heart, finds nothing but selfishness and duplicity. His condition was a matter between himself, his friend, and his God; but none the less the humiliation was the means by which his soul's eyes were opened and his heart fired with a passion for reality.

One result of the soul's re-awakening is the realization that it has relations to God and that they are at once the nearest, the most vital, and the most enduring of all its relations. Before, it had felt the call of duty and had recognized that it had affinities with truth and right; but now it has come into the consciousness of sonship. God is not distant and unrelated, but near and personally helpful. In a very real sense He is Father. He is interested in the welfare of His children; and His will has now become the law of their lives. The first awakening is to the consciousness of a moral order and of freedom; the second awakening is to the consciousness of God and of a near and vital relation with Him. The path of progress is still full of obstacles; there are still attractions for the senses in animalism and solicitations from something malign outside; but never again will the soul be without the realization that it is in the hands of a compassionate, as well as a just, God. I am inclined to think that the elder Calvinists were right in their contention that when the soul has once come to this saving knowledge of God it can never again "fall from grace," or from the consciousness of its relation to the One mighty to save. This does not mean that there may not be repeated and awful moral lapses. The soul's realization of God does not imply that it has become perfected. It has taken a long step in its ascent; it is now conscious of its destiny, and of the power which is working in its behalf; but far away stretch the spiritual heights and, before they can be reached, many a cliff must be scaled and many a glacier passed; and few reach those altitudes without many a savage fall, and without frequent hours of weariness, doubt, and despair. The sufferings and the chastisements of those who have come to this altitude often increase as the vision becomes clearer.

The difference between the former condition and the present is this: in the former there was growth toward God without the conscious choice of God; but in the latter the soul sees and chooses for itself that toward which it has, heretofore, been impelled by the "cosmic process."

That is a solemn and glad moment when, in the midst of the confusion, the soul hears faint and far the call of its destiny; but the one in which it realizes that it is related to God, and chooses His will for its law, is far more glad and solemn. That consciousness may be obscured, but never again will it utterly fail. The soul that knows that it came from God, and is moving toward God, never can lose that knowledge, nor long cease to feel the power of that divine attraction.

A practical question at this stage of our inquiry concerns the relation of one soul to another. May those who have realized this experience help others to attain to it so that the process may be hastened and made easier? Must those who have been enlightened wait for those who are dear to them to be awfully humiliated by sin, or terribly crushed by sorrow, before the light can fall upon their pathway? Is there no way by which a soul may be brought to the knowledge of God except by bitter trials?

One individual may help another to acquire other knowledge,-must it make an exception of things spiritual? That cannot be. What one has learned, in part at least, it may communicate to another, and the constant and growing passion with those who know God is to tell others of Him. All plans of education should include the communication of the highest knowledge. He who seeks the physical or mental development of his boy and cares not to crown his work by helping him to a realization that he is a child of God, and a subject of His love, has sadly misconceived the privilege of education. All curricula should move toward this consciousness as their consummation and culmination. Geology, biology, physiology, the languages, philosophy, the science of society should be so studied as to lead directly to Him in whom all live and move and have their being. The home, the school, the church should be organized so as to obviate, in great measure, the necessity of learning the deepest truths in the school of suffering.

No holier privilege is given to one human soul than that of whispering its secret into the ears of another who has not yet attained the wisdom which comes only by living.

God be merciful to the parent who is anxious about the mental culture of his child and never tells him of the deeper possibilities of his life, or never repeats to him the messages which he has heard in silent and lonely hours. The growth of a soul in the knowledge of God may be measured by the intensity of its desire to help other souls to the same knowledge.

What will the re-awakened soul do? It will be as individual and distinctive in its action as before. The divine life in the souls of men manifests itself in ways as various and numerous as solar energy is manifested in nature. Variety in unity is the law of the spirit. Every person will be led to do those things, to hold those beliefs, and to minister in the ways for which he has been prepared.

The experience of one can never be made the model for another, and the message which the Spirit speaks in the ears of one may never be spoken in the ears of another. Uniformity is neither to be expected nor to be desired. The soul which realizes that it belongs to God will choose to live for Him, and in its own way will forever move toward Him. Henceforward His will will be its law. This is all we know and all we need to know.

* * *


I say, the acknowledgment of God in Christ

Accepted by thy reason, solves for thee

All questions in the earth and out of it,

And has so far advanced thee to be wise.

-A Death in the Desert. Browning.

'Tis the weakness in strength that I cry for! my flesh that I seek

In the God-head! I seek and I find it. O Saul, it shall be

A Face like my face that receives thee; a Man like to me,

Thou shalt love and be loved by, for ever: a Hand like this hand

Shall throw open the gates of new life to thee! See the Christ stand!

-Saul. Browning.

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