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Full Online Book HomeEssaysThe Silent Isle - Chapter 8
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The Silent Isle - Chapter 8 Post by :eggibiz Category :Essays Author :Arthur C. Benson Date :May 2012 Read :1055

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The Silent Isle - Chapter 8

CHAPTER VIII

Religion, as it is often taught and practised, has a dangerous tendency to become a merely mechanical and conventional thing. Worse still, it may even become a delusion, either when it is made an end in itself, or when it is regarded as a solution of all mysteries. The religious life is a vocation for some, just as the artistic life is a vocation for others, but it is not to be hoped or even desired that all should embrace and follow the religious vocation; it is just one of the paths to God, neither more nor less; and the mistake that the technically religious make is to regard it as a kind of life that is or ought to be universal. One who has the vocation is right to follow it, but he is not right to force it upon others, any more than an artist would be right in forcing the artistic life on others. It is too commonly held by the religious that formal worship is a necessity for all; they compare the relation of worship to the spiritual life to the relation of eating and drinking to the physical life. But this is not true of all human beings. Public liturgical worship is a kind of art, a very delicate and beautiful art; and just as the appeal of what is spiritual comes to some through worship, it comes to others through art, or poetry, or affection, or even through some kinds of action. There is no hint that Christ laid any stress on liturgical or public worship at all; he attended the synagogue, and went up to Jerusalem to the sacrifices; but he nowhere laid it down as a duty, or reproached those who did not practise it. He spoke vehemently of the practice of prayer, but recommended that it should be made as secret as possible; he chose a social meal for his chief rite, and the act of washing as his secondary rite. He did indeed warn his followers very sternly against the dangers of formalism; he never warned them against the danger of neglecting rites and ceremonies. On the other hand, it may be confidently stated that when religious worship has become a customary social act, a man who sympathises with the religious idea is right to show public sympathy with it; he ought to weigh very carefully his motives for abstaining. If it is indolence, or a fear of being thought precise, or a desire to be thought independent, or a contempt for sentiment that keeps him back, he is probably in the wrong; nothing but a genuine and deep-seated horror of formalism justifies him in protesting against a practice which is to many an avenue of the spiritual life. A lack of sympathy with certain liturgical expressions, a fear of being hypocritical, of being believed to hold the orthodox position in its entirety, justifies a man in not entering the ministry of the Church, even if he desires on general grounds to do so, but these are paltry motives for cutting oneself off from communion with believers. It is clear that Christ himself thought many of the orthodox practices of the exponents of the popular religion wrong, but he did not for that reason abjure attendance upon accustomed rites; and it is far more important to show sympathy with an idea, even if one does not agree with all the details, than to seem, by protesting against erroneous detail, to be out of sympathy with the idea. The mistake is when a man drifts into thinking of ceremonial worship as a practice specially and uniquely dear to God; every practice by which the spiritual principle is asserted above the material principle is dear to God, and a man who reads a beautiful poem and is thrilled with a desire for purity, goodness, and love thereby, is a truer worshipper of the Spirit than a man who mutters responses in a prescribed posture without deriving any inspiration from them.

The essence of religion is to desire to draw near to God, to receive the Spirit of God. It does not in the least degree matter how the individual expresses that essential truth. He may love some consecrated rite as being pure and beautiful, or even because other hearts have loved it,--the rite is permitted, not commanded by God--he may express God by terms of co-equality and consubstantiality, and even desire to proclaim such expressions, in concert with like-minded persons, to the harmonies of an organ, so long as it uplifts him in spirit; but such a man falls into a grievous error when he vilifies or condemns others for not seeing as he does, or enunciates that thus and thus only can a man apprehend God. The more firmly that a Church holds the necessity of what is unessential, the more it diverges from the Spirit of Christ.

It is by the essentials that we live and make progress. The man who apprehends such a statement of doctrine as the Athanasian creed affords, as a sweet and gracious mystery, thereby draws nearer to God. But if he goes further and says, "The essence of my finding inspiration in any particular creed is that I should believe it to be absolutely and literally true, and that all outside it are thieves and robbers, or at the best ignorant and misguided persons," then he stumbles at the very outset. His own belief is probably true in the sense that the truth doubtless transcends and embraces all spiritual light hopefully discerned; but the moment that a man condemns those who do not exactly agree with himself, he sins against the Spirit. Is it not a ghastly and inconceivable thought that Christ should have authorised that men should be brought to the light by persecution? Or that any of his words could be so foully distorted as to lend the least excuse to such a principle of action? It matters not what kind of persecution is employed, whether it be mental or physical. The essence is that men should so apprehend God as to desire to draw nearer to him, and that they should be goaded or coerced or terrified into submission is intolerable.

The true worshipper is the man who at no specified place or time, but as naturally as he breathes or sleeps, opens his heart to God and prays for holy influences to guard and guide him. There are some who have a quickened sense of fellowship and unity, when such prayers and aspirations are uttered in concert; but the error is to desire merely the bodily presence of one's fellow-creatures for such a purpose, rather than their mental and spiritual acquiescence. The result of such a desire is that it is often taught, or at all events believed, that there is a kind of merit in the attendance at public worship. The only merit of it lies in the case of those who sacrifice a personal disinclination to the desire to testify sympathy for the religious life. It is no more meritorious for those who personally enjoy it, than it is for a lover of pictures to go to a picture-gallery, for thus the hunger of the spirit is satisfied.

It would be better, perhaps, if it were frankly realised and recognised that it is a special taste, a peculiar vocation. It would be better if those who loved liturgical worship desired only the companionship of like-minded people; better still if it were recognised that there is no necessary connection between liturgical worship and morality at all, except in so far that all pure spiritual instincts are on the side of morality. But so far from holding it to be a duty for a man to protest against the importance attached to worship by liturgically-minded people, I should hold it to be a duty for all spiritually-minded men to show as much active sympathy as they can for a practice which is to many persons a unique and special channel of spiritual grace.

It is not the business of those who are enlightened to protest against conventional things, unless those conventions obscure and distort the truth. It is rather their duty to fall in with the existing framework of life, and live as simply and faithfully inside it as they can. To myself the plainest service is beautiful and uplifting, if it obviously evokes the spiritual ardour of the worshippers; and, on the other hand, a service in some majestic church, consecrated by age and tradition and association, and enriched by sacred art and heart-thrilling music, appeals as purely and graciously as anything in the world to my spiritual instinct. But I would frankly realise that to some such ceremonies appear merely as unmeaning and uninspiring; and the presence of such people is a mere discord in the harmony of sweetness.

The one essential thing is that we should desire to draw near to God, that we should faithfully determine by what way and in what manner we can approach him best, and that we should pursue that path as faithfully and as quietly as we can.

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