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The Ascent of the Soul By Amory H. Bradford Characters: 22202

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

In the ascent of the soul two forces are ever at work: one is internal and the other external. The internal is that which promotes growth; it is resident within the soul, and, while it may be modified by conditions, it is in no sense dependent on them. But environment is a potent factor in all progress. Life necessitates growth, but environment determines the end toward which it will move. Environment in large part is composed of the circumstances into which we are born, of the spiritual companionship from which none can escape, and of the training which is provided by parents and friends. So much of the environment as is furnished by others we will call nurture, and those influences and instruments of advancement which the soul chooses for itself we will call culture. This discrimination is not entirely accurate, but it is sufficiently so for our present purpose. It at least indicates the lines along which our thought will move. According to this definition nurture has to do with that period of our existence when we are not able wisely to make choices for ourselves. It is for those persons who are in infancy and early youth, and also for those whose normal development has been thwarted or hindered. The influences of the home, and of the church so far as they are related to its younger members, are in the line of nurture rather than of culture.

Culture, on the other hand, is something which a responsible being seeks for himself, to the end that his power may be increased and his faculties have harmonious development.

The soul grows according to its innate tendencies; it is also subject to attractions from without. All souls are bound together; and all, whether they wish or not, vitally and permanently affect those by whom they are surrounded. Hence nurture and culture alike are both conscious and unconscious.

The growth of the soul is largely affected by the nurture which it receives. This is usually provided for it by parents, or by those who take the places of the parents; and, where possible, their unwearying efforts should be to remove all obstacles from the pathway of their children, to surround them with a pure and helpful environment, and to provide them with such training as will make their progress inevitable and easy. The importance of wholesome domestic influences cannot be exaggerated. Their part in the formation of character is greater than that of all others, because they touch the powers and faculties of the child during those years in which it is most plastic. Neither the school nor the university can ever entirely counteract the effect of the home. The whole period of childhood is one in which the soul is under tutelage, and in which more is done for it by others than by itself. It can no more select its own environment than it could have chosen its parents, or the time and place of its birth. For a few years it is utterly dependent. The question as to how its growth may most wisely be promoted is, therefore, one of surpassing importance.

The object of nurture is to provide an unhindered path along which the soul may move, to bring into full and free exercise all the powers which it possesses, and to secure for them development and harmony. To insure for each individual soul in the struggle of life a fair opportunity to be itself is the end of nurture. Emerson has said that at birth every child is loaded with bias, and that the purpose of culture is to remove all impediment and bias, and to secure a balance among the faculties so as to leave nothing but pure power. The same may be said as to the object of nurture. Since impediment and bias are never a part of the essence of the soul, the statement that the aim of nurture is to furnish a full and free opportunity for each individual to secure a normal development is, practically, identical with what Emerson has said of culture.

What are the agencies which have most to do with promoting the ascent of the soul? The first is atmosphere. In a bright, clear, sunshiny atmosphere the body attains its most healthful growth. So with the soul. Atmosphere is one of those intangible things that every one understands and no one can easily define. It is composed of a thousand different elements. The atmosphere of a household is the spirit by which it is pervaded. Are all reverent, earnest, cheerful, optimistic? Do love and mutual helpfulness prevail? Do the members of the family live as if God were a near and blessed reality, and right and duty were more sacred than life? Then there will be an atmosphere of hopefulness, devotion, service, reverence, pure religion, which will affect all as sunlight and air, unconsciously but evidently, grow into the beauty and fruitfulness of meadows and gardens. The rare spirituality, the urbane manner, the exquisite regard for others, the dignity and deference which are found in some persons have no explanation except that they have been absorbed from the households in which their early lives were passed. Nurture is chiefly a matter of mental and spiritual atmosphere. Attraction is always stronger than compulsion. A child born into conditions in which love prevails, where truth, duty, honor, are reverenced, and where all dwelling together seek the highest things, will need neither instruction in morals nor motives in religion. It will naturally turn toward truth and righteousness. It will revere virtue and worship God as inevitably and spontaneously as it breathes. We are all influenced more by the words which we hear and the examples which we see than by the lessons given us to learn, by the spirit of a man, or an institution, rather than by rules. Persons show the conditions in which they have been reared by their choice of words, their bearing, the subjects of their conversation, by their mental and spiritual attitude. Reverence is seldom found except in an atmosphere of reverence, and sincerity grows among those who are sincere. It is a moral necessity that some men should be earnest and enthusiastic, and impossible for their neighbors to be other than cringing and mean. The largest element in environment is atmosphere, and in the development of character environment is quite as potent as heredity. Indeed, in the sphere of the spirit, as in that of the body, heredity is always modified by environment. The chief factor in nurture, therefore, is atmosphere. If that is healthful, growth will be toward beauty and strength; if that is malarial, no antiseptic force but the grace of God will be able to counteract its influence.

Next to atmosphere as an element in nurture I place ideals. For these children are usually dependent on their elders. They reverence what they are taught to revere. Ideals are placed before them by example and by precept. Children grow like those whose deeds attract them, and they seek those ideals toward which they are most wisely directed. Laws are never as potent in the formation of character as examples. Men are made brave by the sight of bravery, and honorable by contact with those who will swear to their own hurt and change not. There is deep philosophy in the saying that the songs of a people influence their institutions and history more than legal enactments, for songs are usually of bravery, of love, of victory. They create ideals; they excite enthusiasm. The Marseillaise and The Watch on the Rhine send thrills through the blood of those who hear them because in the most vivid way they suggest patriotism and heroism. A good man inspires goodness. Philanthropy makes others philanthropic. One courageous act sometimes makes heroes of a hundred common men. If a father would have his son physically brave, and he is a wise parent, he will not waste time in urging him to undertake some forlorn hope, but he will read to him the story of the Greeks at Thermopyl?, of Marshal Ney at Waterloo, of Nathan Hale and his holy martyrdom, of Nelson at Trafalgar. If he would have that son a helper and servant of his fellow-men he will tell him the story of Pastor Fliedner and his work at Kaiserwerth, of Florence Nightingale at the Crimea, of Wilberforce and Buxton, Whittier and Garrison in their efforts to awaken their fellow-men to the enormity of human slavery. The strongest force for making a young man brave and generous, honorable and Christian, is the example of a father possessing such qualities. Men are usually like their ideals, and their ideals in large part are created by the examples of those who are most admired and loved.

But example is not all. Training also does much. Conduct is but the expression of thought. If one can determine what shall be the subject of another's thinking, he will have gone a long way toward fixing his character. This is a fact which deserves more attention than it has yet received in plans for the education of the people. Parents have no holier privilege than that of directing the thought of their children. By their own conversation, by the friends whom they invite to their homes, by the books which are given a place on their tables, by the amusements to which they take their families, they determine for them the channels in which their minds shall run. As a man thinketh in his heart so is he. Boys usually dwell upon the same subjects as their fathers, unless the fathers by skilful conversation are able to hide the subjects to which they give most time. Children usually admire what their parents admire, and shun what they shun. The organic unity of the household is a large factor in individual and social progress. Both by direct effort, and by the indirect operation of example, it furnishes subjects for the youthful mind. The personality, whose seat is in the will, is never determined, but it is very largely influenced both by the example of those who are admired and by the thoughts which they suggest.

Environment in large part is composed of atmosphere, example, and ideals. All these are provided for the growing child by others. He has little or no voice in saying what they shall be. And environment has more to do with the progress of the soul toward full and free self-expression even than what is called education. Education is more by atmosphere, example, and mental suggestion than by teachers and text-books. When we speak of nurture we usually think of the period of discipline in school and church; but we often make the mistake of not taking into account the fact that the most effective training is seldom that which comes directly from teachers. It is rather that which is derived indirectly from the atmosphere, example, and ideals by which the child is surrounded in his home. If I could determine those for a child I should dread very little any malign force in the shape of an incompetent teacher. Schools, in reality, are only for the unfinished work of the homes. They may make the child better than his home, and they may undo the good work which it has done; but, usually, what the home is the child will be some time.

The agencies of nurture, by which a soul is helped on its upward pathway, are atmosphere, example, ideals, and

direct training. Of these the least important is the last, although the value of that is self-evident. By the intellectual and spiritual air that we breathe, by the sight of heroic and consecrated service, by the possibilities of noble achievement the best that is in a man or a boy is usually drawn out. Afterward the teacher may take him in hand and, by training, remove the impediment and bias and thus make a balance in the faculties, or take out of his way the obstacles which oppose his progress; but he seldom does very much toward determining the direction in which the child will move. That is decided by others in the years which are most plastic. The soul naturally, and inevitably, grows toward truth and God. How could it be otherwise, since its being is derived from Him? But a part of the mystery of growth is the influence of environment, and early environment is almost altogether composed of the circumstances and influences into which one is born.

The question of nurture, therefore, is of vital importance. What shall one generation do for those which are to come after it? Each soul may hinder or help the growth of countless other souls. The influence of those nearest is always most potent for good or ill. Impediment is increased, and bias exaggerated, by evil example. The effort to rise becomes easy when the way is seen to be full of those whom we love and honor going before us toward the heights, and it is difficult when no familiar face is seen. Nurture is not so much a matter of teacher and text-book, of church and catechism, as of atmosphere, example, and inspiration. It is the effect of the contact of one pure and noble soul upon another; it is something which father, mother, and friends give to the child; it is the result of the spirit in which they impart instruction and of the reverence and consecration which shine from their lives.

The best and only enduring nurture is that of a sweet, serene, optimistic, and thoroughly Christian environment. With that, inherited tendencies toward weakness and evil will go of themselves,-indeed will seem never to have had existence.

But all too soon the time comes in which the soul faces its own responsibility, and realizes that it must choose for itself what its course shall be. It has learned, if it has observed, that there is ever with it an unseen leadership, and it has heard, faint and far, the call of a noble destiny. What shall it now do for itself? Shall it choose simply to exist? Shall it yield to the limitations and solicitations of the body? or, shall it seek to prepare itself by discipline, and the cultivation of right choices, for the goal whose intimations it has heard? Nurture, if it has been wise, has been the forerunner of culture. Atmosphere and example have inspired lofty ideals, but those ideals, if they are to be realized, will require training. Matthew Arnold, quoting Bishop Wilson, has said that culture "is a study of perfection." In other words, it is the means which are used for the perfection of the soul. Shall we choose to leave ourselves to grow like trees in a forest, however they may, or shall we seek those conditions which will make progress sure and swift? Culture is always a matter of choice; and it is vastly more than anything which can be taught in the college or university. The cultured man is he who has learned so to use the forces and conditions of life as to make them minister to his perfection. The one most cultured may come out of a factory, and the man of least culture may be found in a university. Indeed colleges and universities, not infrequently, are haunts of provincialism and of dread of enthusiasm. The object of culture is the perfection of the spirit to the end that all that hinders, or limits, may disappear and only pure power, clear vision, and full self-realization remain. Those whose growth is most evident are ever eager to use all experiences as means of progress. They study books in order that they may better understand what others have thought concerning the mystery of existence; they discipline their minds in order that they may the better serve their fellow-men; they seek fineness of manner and beauty of expression to the end that their utterance of truth may be more persuasive and convincing. Culture and the discipline of life are identical. Consequently, the wise man chooses to put himself where he will best be taught by the events through which he passes, by what he sees, and by what he may learn from others. It matters little who have been the teachers, or what have been the schools,-the real teacher is always life, and the real university is the human experience.

I do not make light of the benefit which may be derived from books and institutions of learning, but I do insist on the recognition of the deeper fact that the lessons which no one can afford to neglect are those which can be taught only by overcoming obstacles. We can learn how to live only in the school of life. The most vital books are always those which tell us what others have done, and of the paths by which they have been led to power. What shall the soul do for itself in order that it may promote its own growth? It must first recognize where the sources of knowledge and strength are to be found, and then put itself where it will feel the touch of the vitality which can come only from other souls. Quickly enough every man reaches the time in which he may determine his own environment. When we are young others choose our circumstances for us, but when we become older we select them for ourselves. That means much. No monarch is mighty enough to compel me to associate with those who will hinder my progress. He only is a slave whose mind and will are in bondage. My body may be with boors but, at the same time, my spirit may be holding companionship with seers and sages. I may be compelled to work in a mine like John the Apostle, but I, too, like him may hear One speaking whose voice is as the sound of many waters, and whose eyes are like a flame of fire. Our real associates are ever our spiritual companions; and no one can force another to hold fellowship with those who are either intellectually or spiritually uncongenial.

And we also select our own subjects of thought. Who can govern the thinking of another? At the very moment when one, who is stronger, is rejoicing in what seems his supremacy, our thoughts may be ranging through the spaces, and finding companionships among the stars. And we choose our own examples. In youth they were put before us according to the will of others, but later our heroes come to us at our bidding, and no one can shut the gates against them. Whom shall we admire? Let them be men of the spirit, who have sought truth and hated lies, "who have fought their doubts and gathered strength," who would rather suffer wrong than do wrong. The perfection of being is the end of effort, therefore we will read what will best help our growth in vision, in moral earnestness, in spiritual sensibility; therefore our books shall treat of subjects which will ennoble; our amusements shall be pure and clean; and our chief companionships shall be with the prophets and masters, the noble and the good, because by associating with them we shall become like them.

Intellectual acuteness, mastery of faculty, elegance of expression, are something very different from insight into the meaning of life. The cultured man is he who has learned his relations to his fellow-men, who recognizes his obligations toward them; and his relations to the unseen and his duty toward it.

Discipline which will produce such results will ever be sought by the awakened soul. It will be satisfied with nothing less.

The relation of nurture and culture to the ascent of the soul is now evident. Both are the agencies by which all impediment and bias are to be removed, and by which the soul is to come to the realization of pure power. They are the means by which complete self-realization is to be attained; they are the study of perfection. Nurture is what is done for the soul by parents and friends in its plastic years; culture is the means which the soul chooses in order that its growth may be hastened. Nurture is chiefly promoted by lofty examples, noble ideals,-in short, by beneficent environment; but culture is attained by the conscious effort of the individual, by his own choice of healthful environment, worthy example, inspiring companionships, and, perhaps still more, by long and patient study of the facts of our mortal life, of the revelations which have come from the unseen, and of the prophecies of the future which are within the soul. There is a deep and almost terrible significance in the text, "No man liveth to himself." Every person is independent and free and yet is bound to every other. Most delicate and vital of all human relations is that of parent and child. How far one may be responsible for the other may be difficult to decide, but that the one influences the other, inevitably and forever, is beyond question. In many ways the child is what he is made by the parent. Therefore the welfare of the child as a spirit, and not merely as a body, should be a continual study. He who has dared to become a parent can never honorably shirk the duty of nurture. The connection between souls is a great mystery, but the mystery does not lessen the obligation. We are responsible not only for the existence of our children, but equally for their growth. It is the parent's privilege to make sure that they start on the journey of life properly equipped, and with no undue obstacles in their pathway-to make them realize that they are not only his children but also children of God; and that they are to live not only in time but in eternity.

The training of the body is needful, and that of the mind still more so, but that of the spirit is absolutely essential to its welfare. Therefore plans and provisions for nurture first, last, and always should be to the end that the soul may realize that it is from God, and that its goal and glory are union with Him.

And those who realize that they are free, that they are in a moral order, that a noble destiny awaits them, should make everything in thought, in study, in association, in companionship, bend toward the perfection of being, the development of power, and the realization of the life of the spirit. Nurture does much for every man, his parents and friends also do much but, at last, when all mysteries are disclosed and self-revelation is complete, it may be found that each one does quite as much for himself as any one else, or every one else, does for him.

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It's wiser being good than bad;

It's safer being meek than fierce;

It's fitter being sane than mad.

My own hope is, a sun will pierce

The thickest cloud earth ever stretched;

That after Last, returns the First,

Though a wide compass round be fetched;

That what began best, can't end worst,

Nor what God blessed once, prove accurst.

-Apparent Failure. Browning.

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