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The Inner Life - THE BETTER LAND Post by :markwar Category :Essays Author :John Greenleaf Whittier Date :April 2012 Read :983

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The Inner Life - THE BETTER LAND

(1844.)

"THE shapings of our heavens are the modifications of our constitution," said Charles Lamb, in his reply to Southey's attack upon him in the Quarterly Review.

He who is infinite in love as well as wisdom has revealed to us the fact of a future life, and the fearfully important relation in which the present stands to it. The actual nature and conditions of that life He has hidden from us,--no chart of the ocean of eternity is given us,--no celestial guidebook or geography defines, localizes, and prepares us for the wonders of the spiritual world. Hence imagination has a wide field for its speculations, which, so long as they do not positively contradict the revelation of the Scriptures, cannot be disproved.

We naturally enough transfer to our idea of heaven whatever we love and reverence on earth. Thither the Catholic carries in his fancy the imposing rites and time-honored solemnities of his worship. There the Methodist sees his love-feasts and camp-meetings in the groves and by the still waters and green pastures of the blessed abodes. The Quaker, in the stillness of his self-communing, remembers that there was "silence in heaven."

The Churchman, listening to the solemn chant of weal music or the deep tones of the organ, thinks of the song of the elders and the golden harps of the New Jerusalem.

The heaven of the northern nations of Europe was a gross and sensual reflection of the earthly life of a barbarous and brutal people.

The Indians of North America had a vague notion of a sunset land, a beautiful paradise far in the west, mountains and forests filled with deer and buffalo, lakes and streams swarming with fishes,--the happy hunting-ground of souls. In a late letter from a devoted missionary among the Western Indians (Paul Blohm, a converted Jew) we have noticed a beautiful illustration of this belief. Near the Omaha mission-house, on a high luff, was a solitary Indian grave. "One evening," says the missionary, "having come home with some cattle which I had been seeking, I heard some one wailing; and, looking in the direction from whence I proceeded, I found it to be from the grave near our house. In a moment after a mourner rose up from a kneeling or lying posture, and, turning to the setting sun, stretched forth his arms in prayer and supplication with an intensity and earnestness as though he would detain the splendid luminary from running his course. With his body leaning forward and his arms stretched towards the sun, he presented a most striking figure of sorrow and petition. It was solemnly awful. He seemed to me to be one of the ancients come forth to teach me how to pray."

A venerable and worthy New England clergyman, on his death-bed, just before the close of his life, declared that he was only conscious of an awfully solemn and intense curiosity to know the great secret of death and eternity.

The excellent Dr. Nelson, of Missouri, was one who, while on earth, seemed to live another and higher life in the contemplation of infinite purity and happiness. A friend once related an incident concerning him which made a deep impression upon my mind. They had been travelling through a summer's forenoon in the prairie, and had lain down to rest beneath a solitary tree. The Doctor lay for a long time, silently looking upwards through the openings of the boughs into the still heavens, when he repeated the following lines, in a low tone, as if communing with himself in view of the wonders he described:--

"O the joys that are there mortal eye bath not seen!
O the songs they sing there, with hosannas between!
O the thrice-blessed song of the Lamb and of Moses!
O brightness on brightness! the pearl gate uncloses!
O white wings of angels! O fields white with roses!
O white tents of peace, where the rapt soul reposes
O the waters so still, and the pastures so green!"

The brief hints afforded us by the sacred writings concerning the better land are inspiring and beautiful. Eye hath not seen, nor the ear heard, neither hath it entered into the heart of man to conceive of the good in store for the righteous. Heaven is described as a quiet habitation,--a rest remaining for the people of God. Tears shall be wiped away from all eyes; there shall be no more death, neither sorrow nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain. To how many death-beds have these words spoken peace! How many failing hearts have gathered strength from them to pass through the dark valley of shadows!

Yet we should not forget that "the kingdom of heaven is within;" that it is the state and affections of the soul, the answer of a good conscience, the sense of harmony with God, a condition of time as well as of eternity. What is really momentous and all-important with us is the present, by which the future is shaped and colored. A mere change of locality cannot alter the actual and intrinsic qualities of the soul. Guilt and remorse would make the golden streets of Paradise intolerable as the burning marl of the infernal abodes; while purity and innocence would transform hell itself into heaven.

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