THE full, rich, innocent use of gifts and opportunities how little do we understand it! For every purpose of noble gladness, how much more might almost every one of us make of our life than we do ! How do we throw away the substance for the shadow, and the healthy reality for the feverish dream ! How do we crowd out the natural effects, and make all life artificial! We spend our life, as it were, on the stage and under the gaslight, when we might be walking in the sunlight under heaven. We talk of poverty and limitation, while we make life "a haggard, malignant running for luck," and are daily neglecting the elements of purest and loftiest pleasure. "Give me," says an American writer, "health and a day, and I will make the pomp of emperors ridiculous." But to enable us thus to enjoy the gifts of nature we all need more open eyes, more grateful hearts. I often think that most of us in life are like many of those sight-eers who saunter through this Abbey. Their listless look upon its grandeur and its memorials furnishes an illustration of the aspect which we present to higher powers, as we wander restlessly through the solemn minster-aisles of life. For this Abbey appeals in different ways to different feelings. There are some who, with no special knowledge or education, have yet a heart to feel at once the genius of the place. Its grandeur and solemnity strike into them an involuntary awe. They feel as even the puritan Milton felt when he spoke of the " high-embowed roof," the massy pillars, the storied windows, the pealing organ, the full-voiced choir, the solemn Psalms. They have at least the innate sense of what is great, and, amid these ugly wildernesses of brick, the Abbey, blackened as it is by the smoke and fog which hangs over this city year by year, and with its battlements and stones corroded by the sulphurous acids of the air, still speaks to them in a nobler language than they hear in the shops and streets. Others, who have some knowledge of Architecture, can exult in each exquisite detail of sculpture, each harmony of proportion, each impress of the thought of those ages of faith to which these cathedrals of England owe their origin. Others have a deep interest in History, and the memorials around us seem to give them a deeper comprehension, and a more living union with the past. Others, again, thrill with sympathy as they stand among the tombs of the mighty dead, and amid these records of past lives they hear in its softest tones " the sad music of humanity." But when all these feelings are combined, then a visit to the Abbey leaves those rich and vivid impressions of delight and elevation which you may find recorded in the descriptions of an Addison, a Washington Irving, or a Macaulay. How is it then that myriads who come here do but look round with dreary indifference and listless vacancy, while they would be roused to an enthusiasm of delight by the buffoonery of a comic singer, or the horrible fling of an acrobat on a trapeze ? To them as to the most gifted the Abbey presents the same outward appearance; the same vision strikes their retina. But the eye can only see what it brings with it the power of seeing. The difference is in them, and mostly through no fault of theirs. They have neither the sense of beauty, nor the knowledge of art, nor the feeling for history, nor the interest in noble lives, which should make these walls speak to them. Music can be nothing to the deaf ear; nor the glories of the sunset to the blind eye; nor the highest utterances of poetry to the ignorant, dead, and callous heart. To them that have is it given, and they have more abundantly.
Even so it is with life, with the temple of the outward world. We talk of human misery; how many of us derive from life one-tenth part of what God meant to be its natural blessedness ? How many of us drink the deep draughts of joy which every pure heart may drink out of the river of His pleasures ? Sit out in the open air on a summer day, and how many of us have trained ourselves to notice the sweetness and the multiplicity of the influences which are combining for our delight—the song of birds; the breeze beating balm upon the forehead ; the genial warmth; the delicate odour of ten thousand flowers; the play of lovely colours; " the soft eye-music of slow-waving boughs " ? How many of us ever watch the pageant of the clouds, or take in the meaning of a starry night, or so much as see the sunrise? How many of us notice, as loving and gifted observers might help us to notice, the multitudinous beauty and tenderness of the burst of spring; the black ash-buds in March; the glistening chestnut-buds in April; the blaze of celandines; the golden dust in the catkins of the hazel; the rosy sheath of the larch-tree's fresh green leaves ? A poet speaks of one to whom "A primrose by a river's prim, A yellow primrose was to him, And it was nothing more".
He means by those lines to express the difference between bare sight and divine insight; between the cold, unfurnished, sensual soul, and the soul that sees the Unseen, sees God in all things, and sees all things in God. Truly "the misery of man appears like childish petulance, when we explore the steady and prodigal provision which has been made for his support and delight on this green ball that floats him through the universe".
"More servants Wait on man than he'll take notice of".
We all live on far lower levels of vitality and of joy than we need to do. We linger in the misty and oppressive valleys when we might be climbing the sunlit hills. God puts into our hands the Book of Life, bright on every page with open secrets, and we suffer it to drop out of our hands unread.
If we suffer from limitation of the insight which would open our blind souls to myriads of happy impressions, how do we suffer also—all mankind alike—from the neglect of our own powers! Our capacities—and the full exercise of every capacity is a source of happiness— largely exceed our attainments. No nation has ever desired to train a particular faculty of man without finding that faculty capable of indefinite development. Why does the wild Indian track his path with unerring certainty through the interminable forest? Why was there no limit to the hardy endurance of the Spartan boy ? Why was the young Athenian a model of grace, agility, and beauty? Why can the Arab tell you the number of approaching horsemen where you barely see a speck on the horizon ? Why do the muscles stand out so strong upon an athlete's arm ? The faculties, the gifts are there—they are a part of our natural heritage—but they lie undeveloped in us all. They perish for lack of training, and become as though they were not. We talk of education; we call this an age of education. For myself, I doubt—such poor blind creatures are we at the best—whether, after millenniums of its existence, the human race has grasped one tenth part of the secrets of education; whether many of our aims and methods of education are not deplorably foolish ; whether, while aiming at our fineries of Latin Verse and other trivialities, we have not grievously retrograded from sensible ideals; whether much of our so-called highest education is not — in comparison with much that we might do — an elaborate missing of the mark. At any rate who shall venture to say that, in the use of our blessings, in the training of our powers, we have as a race attained to anything like what we might be, or done even a fraction of what we might do ? Far better and brighter is the world than we will see, or suffer it to be for us ; far more rich in capabilities of power and blessedness than we have made them are the immortal souls which God has given us, the mortal bodies into whose nostrils He has breathed the breath of life.
Man complains of his misery on earth; but "this," it has been said, " we may discover assuredly; this every true light of science, every mercifully-granted power, every wisely-restricted thought may teach us more clearly day by day, that in the heavens above, and in the earth beneath, there is one continual and omnipotent Presence of life, and of peace, for all who know that they live, and remember that they die." Alas! do we not, too often, and too many of us, live as though we should never die to earth, and die as though we should never live beyond it ? Do we not make of life a living death till we have sunk so low that the best boon for us might well seem to be an everlasting oblivion ?
Oh, my brethren, if men would but make a more serious effort to live, as they were taught by their catechisms to live, in temperance, soberness, and chastity; to live as they pray in their prayers to live, a righteous, sober, and godly life; to live as all wise men have urged us to live, in " plain living and high thinking; " to live as nature teaches us to live, by the rule of " not too much;" to live as Scripture urges us to live, " not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying; "—and how much more if we would but strive to live by " putting on the Lord Jesus Christ, and making no provision for the flesh to fulfil the lusts thereof:"—how vast a change would even one single generation see in the health, the happiness, the ennoblement of mankind ! And if we could, by energy, and faith-fulness, and earnest prayer for the aid of God's Holy Spirit, teach but the youth of one generation that the sowing of the wind means always the reaping of the whirlwind; that each man is mainly what he makes himself; that there is an inevitable congruity between the seed and the fruit; that he who would be truly courageous, who would dare all things, who would be a benefactor of his race, who would look unabashed into the face of all mankind, though they were arrayed together to crush him, who would achieve the highest purposes of his reason and the most generous ideals of his soul,—that he who, though he sternly mastered his passions, would combine calmness and peace with force and fire, whose life would be a poem though he wrote none,—that he who would live as one " who loves all beauty, whether of nature or of art, and hates all vileness, and respects others as himself," and whose life, as it draws its strength from holy inspiration, so spends that strength in devoted service; if, I say, we could teach the youth of but one generation that he who would do thus, and be this, "must retain from his earliest youth, and in the most secret sessions of his memory, a spotless title to self-respect," by a pure, a self-denying, and a holy life ; then how soon would these mortal bodies of ours, these harps of a thousand strings, not only keep in tune, but ring with the very melodies of heaven ! Then would the nations grow in strength, in health, in nobleness, and would eliminate from among themselves, each man for himself, and all by united allegiance to the interests of their race, not a few out of that multiplicity of afflictions for which Christ sighed, and from which He came to set us free. Then should old age and death be like the dropping of ripe fruit from the tree; —say rather, like a sleep sent by God to His beloved when their day's work is done — a sleep which shall awake amid the eternal realities of heaven. Is this a path worth the efforts of mankind to walk in? It was described long ago: " And an highway shall be there, and a way, and it shall be called The way of holiness; the unclean shall not pass over it; but it shall be for those: the wayfaring men, though fools, shall not err therein. No ravenous beast shall go up thereon; but the redeemed shall walk there: they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away".
Ephphatha Sermons, p. 191.