The Hours of Life
Timothy Shay Arthur, 1856
[Editor's note: The following article seems to be a poetic journey that Arthur took through various human philosophies — and finally coming back to the truths of Scripture.]
TWILIGHT. The dewy morning of childhood has passed, and the noon of youth has gone, and the gloom of twilight is gathering over my spirit. Alas! alas! how my heart sinks in a wan despair! One by one, my hopes have died out, have faded like the gleams of sunshine that have just vanished beneath the grove of trees. Hopes! Ah, such warm, bright, beautiful, loving hopes — which once lived upon the earth, unlike the gleaming rays of sunshine that are fed from Heaven. The earth's darkness dims not their glory; pure and radiant they shine behind the black shadow. But human hopes are earth-born; they spring from the earth, like the flitting light of night, and lead us into bogs and quagmires.
Yet it is beautiful to realize that we have had hopes; they are the past light of the soul, and their glow yet lingers in this gloomy twilight, reminding one that there has been a sunny day, and memories of pleasant and joyous mingle things, with the present loneliness and cheerless desolation.
Words which excited hopes, and which awoke thrilling emotions, linger on the listening ear. But, ah! the heart grows very sad, when the ear listens in vain, and the yearning, unsatisfied spirit realizes that the words, so loved, so fondly dwelt upon, were but words — empty, vain words. But, to have believed them, was a fleeting blindness. They served for food to the yearning heart, when they were given — and shall the traveler through the desolate wilderness look back with scorn upon the bread and water that once satisfied his hunger and thirst, even though it is now withheld? No — let him be thankful for the past; otherwise, the keen biting hunger, the thirsty anguish of the soul, will have a bitterness and a gall in it, which will corrode his whole being. Ah! what is this being? if one could but understand one's own existence, what a relief it would be; but to understand nothing — alas!
Life is a weary burden. I feel weighed down with it, and I do not know what is in the pack that bows me so wearily to the earth. I do know that in it are agonized feelings, bitter disappointments, and a desolation of the heart. But there is a something else in it; for, now and then, come vague, vast perceptions of a dim future; but I shut my eyes. I cannot look beyond the earth. I could have been satisfied here with a very little; a little of human love would have made me so happy. Yes, I would never have dreamed of an unknown Heaven. Heaven! What is Heaven? I remember when I was a little child, lying on my bed in the early morning twilight (ah! that was a twilight, unlike this, which is sinking into a black night, for that was ushering in the beautiful golden day), but it was twilight when I looked through the uncurtained window; and through the intertwining branches of a noble tree I saw the far, dim, misty sky — and I wondered, in my childish way, "if Heaven is like that;" and all at once it seemed to me that the dim, distant sky opened, and my dead mother's face looked out upon me so beautifully, I did not know her, for she died when I was an unconscious infant, and yet I did know her. Yes, that beautiful face was my mother's, and my heart was full of delight. That my mother could see me, and love me, from the far heavens, was like a revelation to me. And often, on other mornings, I awakened and looked through the very same branches of the tree, out into the far sky, and thought to see my mother's face shining through the window and watching over her lonely, sleeping child. But my imagination never again conjured up the vision. Imagination! What is imagination? If one could but understand, could grasp the phantom and mystery of life! And above all, if one could but understand what Heaven is!
When I was a child, Heaven was to me a peopled place, a wonderful reality; and I remember a dream that I had — what a strange dream it was! For I went to Heaven, and I saw a shining One, sitting on a throne, and many beautiful ones were standing and seated around the throne, and my father and mother were there; and they had crowns on their heads, and held each other by the hand, and looked down upon me so lovingly. I knew that it was my father, because my mother held him by the hand, though my father died the day I was born, and I stood before them in the great light of a Heavenly Presence, as such a poor little earth-child, but I was happy, inexpressibly happy, only they did not touch me; but I was not fit to be touched by such soft, shining hands. And what was yet a greater joy than ever to see my unknown father and mother on the other side of the throne, I saw my brother, my dear, gentle, beautiful brother, who, seven years older than I, had loved and played with me on the earth. He was clothed in white garments, and was grown from a child to a youth, and was so full of a noble and beautiful grace. He smiled upon me; he did not speak; none spoke. All was so still, and serene, and bright, and beautiful. Next morning I awoke as if yet in my dream, so vivid was the whole scene before me. I could have danced and sung all day, "I have seen my father and mother and brother in the heavenly courts." But what are dreams?
Yet, it is wonderful to go back to the dreams and thoughts of childhood; they are so distinct; such living realities. I often remember a speech I made in those far childish days. I was lying in bed with a friend in the early gray morning. All at once I started up and said — "Oh, how I wish I had lived in the days when Jesus lived upon the earth!"
I was asked why? And I replied, "Because I could have loved Him; I would have followed as those women followed Him; I would have kissed the hem of His garment."
A laugh checked the further flow of my talk; but I lay down again, and then my thoughts wandered off to the mountains of Judea, and I saw a Divine Man walking over the hills and valleys, and women following Him. In those days I knew two passages in the Bible, and that was all that I knew of it, for I never read it. But I learned at Sunday school, Christ's Sermon on the Mount, and the first five verses of the first chapter of John. And I remember how confused I always was over the WORD, for some told me it meant "Logos."
What was "Logos?" I could never fathom it. Now I know what "Logos" means. And yet the mystery is not fathomed. Well, let that go. I could never understand the Bible. However, in those days it was something holy and sacred to me; because the Bible that I owned belonged to my dear father, and I often kissed it, and loved the Book dearly, but I could not read it by myself. But I did read occasionally in the Bible, to an old woman; she lived on the way to the village school, in a dilapidated, deserted country store; she occupied the little back room, in which was a fire-place, and I was permitted to take a flask of milk to her every day, as I passed to school; and with what a glad heart I always hurried off in the morning, that I might gather broken brush-wood and dried sticks, for her to kindle her fire with. Charitable people sent her wood, but it was wet and hard to kindle, and the poor old woman, with her bent back, would go out and painfully gather the dried sticks that lay around her desolate home; but when I came, she would take my book and dinner-basket into her house, and leave me the delight of gathering the sticks. Ah! I was happy then — when I knelt on the crude hearth and blew with my mouth instead of a bellows, the smoking, smouldering wood into a blaze, and heard the loving words that the good old woman lavished upon me. She loved me — but not as much as I loved her. She was my peculiar treasure — something for me to live for, and think of. I always left my dinner with her, and at noon returned to eat it with her; though I would feel almost ashamed to spread out the cold meat and bread before her, she looked so much like a lady.
But she always asked a blessing; that was what I never did, and it gave me an awe-stricken feeling, and my meal would have something of a solemn and tender interest — what with the blessing, and the old woman's love for me, and mine for her — and we ate it in a dark and gloomy room, for there was no table in the little back room, so we used the counter of the old store; and the empty shelves and the closed doors and shutters, with only the light from the back-door, made me often look around shudderingly into the gloom and obscurity of dark corners — for I abounded in superstitious terrors, and I pitied the poor, lonely old woman for living in such a home more than I ever pitied the cold and hunger she endured.
Often when our dinner was over, I read aloud to her in the Bible. She could read it herself. But perhaps she liked to hear the sound of a childish voice, and perhaps she thought that she was doing me good. Did she do me good? At all events, she left a beautiful memory to gild this dark twilight that grows upon my soul.
But the loving, trusting childhood is gone, and why do I dwell upon it? Why does its sensitive life yet move and stir in my memory? Has it anything to do with the cold, dark present? The Present! Alas! what a contrast it is to that childish faith! I almost wish that I could now believe as I did then. But no. Reason has dissipated the visions and dreams and superstitions of childhood. It has made unreal to me that which was most real. In its cold, chilling light, I have looked into the world of tangible facts and possible realities.
Ah! this cold, cold light, how much of beauty and love it has congealed! It has fallen like a mantle of snow over the warm, living life of the earth; and blooming flowers, that sent up fragrant odors on the soft air, have crumbled to dust; and bright summer waters that reflected the heavens in their blue depths, and glittered in the light of stars and moon and sun — have now been congealed into solid, dull opaque masses, which yield not to the tread of man. Alas! no bird of beauty dips its wing in these dead waters, and plumes itself for an aerial flight of love and joy. But the cold contraction chains down all the freer, beautiful life — into a hopeless, chilling inanity.
MIDNIGHT. The gloom has gathered into a darkness that may be felt; and seeing nothing, I would stretch forth my hands to feel if there is anything within my mind to rest my soul upon. But, alas! in a deep sorrow, how little do mental acquisitions avail! All the beautiful systems and theories that delighted my intelligence, and filled my thought in my noon of hope and life, have sunk into darkness. How is this? Sometimes I think that all light comes through the heart into the mind; and when love is quenched, behold, there is only darkness; the beauty and life and joy are gone. Ah, woe is me! Have I nothing left? — no internal resources — no wealth of knowledge, with which to minister to this poverty of hope and life? It cannot be that all past efforts, all struggles and self-sacrifices, to attain this coveted and natural knowledge, were useless, vain mockeries. I thought I should live by this knowledge; that when the outer life palled upon me, I could then retire within my own being to boundless stores of riches and beauty.
Well — this time has come, and what do I find? Truly it is no Aladdin-palace, glittering with gold and gems. It is more like a cavernous depth, stored with rubbish, and from its dark deeps comes up an earthy odor, that almost suffocates my spirit. But this is my all, and I must descend from the life of the heart to the life of the mind, and scan my unsatisfactory possessions.
Well, here is a world of childish, school-day memories. Once it was a great delight to me to learn that the world was round, and not square; but I cannot see that a knowledge of that fact affords me any great satisfaction now, for it has shaped itself to me as an acute angle. And the earth's surface! how I used to glow with the excitement of the bare thought of Rome! and Athens! and Constantinople! and their thrilling histories and wonders of art, and beauties of nature, seemed to me an indefinite world of unattainable delight and ecstasy. But now, I have lived in all these places, and the light and glory have gone. They have fallen within the freezing light of reason. They are no longer like beautiful dreams to me. They are squared down into fixed, unalterable facts. I cannot gild them with any light of imagination; and I cannot extract from them anything like the delight of my childhood. So I will turn from these fixed facts and look out for those philosophical theories which gave me a later delight, as more interior mental pleasure.
Well, when I first broke through the shackles of the old childish faith, Percy Bysshe Shelley was my high-priest. Through him I thought I had come into a beautiful light of nature, vague, shadowy, and grand, filling vast conceptions of the indefinite. He discarded the God of the Hebrews, who was fashioned after their own narrow, revengeful passions; a Being of wrath and war. And a brooding spirit, an indefinite indwelling life of nature, was a new revelation to me. I grew mystical and sublime and sentimental, in this new mental perception. But I wearied of that. I could not walk on stilts always, and I descended to the earth and read Voltaire, and laughed and sneered at all the old religious forms and superstitions of man. But this does not afford me any enjoyment now — the unhappy do not feel like laughing at a ribald wit; but, alas! this rubbish is stored here, and here I must live with it. It blackened and blurred the pictures of the angels which adorned my childish memories. It wiped out all heavenly visions, and left only the earthly life.
But the human heart cannot live without a God; and I tried hard to make one, for myself, through German pantheism. But I turn this rubbish over disconsolately, for it is a material God, and does not respond to a spiritual nature. It seems rather to react against it. Alas! alas! I sink down into a Cimmerian darkness here; it seems as if the Stygian pools of blackness had closed over me, and a cry of anguish goes forth from my inmost soul, piercing the dark depths to learn what is God? What manner of existence or unity of Being is He? Who is He? Where is He? And how can I attain to a knowledge of Him? But through the echoing halls of my dark mind, there is only a wailing sound of woe, of misery, of disappointment, of a yearning anguish of spirit for a something higher and better than I have ever yet conceived of or known.
But there is yet more of this mental rubbish. Ah! here is a whole chapter of stuff — and I once thought it was so wise. I called it the "progressive chain of being," and wove it out of the Pythagorean philosophy. I said man's nature begins from the lowest, and ascends to the highest. Nature gives the impulse to life; and the flower that blooms in South America may die, and its inner spirit may clothe itself in a donkey born in Greece! and so it goes on transfusing itself from climate to climate, in ever new and higher forms, until man is developed. Well, was there ever foolish such stuff concocted before? I almost hear the bray of that donkey, who originated in a flower. And please, most sagacious self — what is nature? It seems now, to me, a form, a mere dead incubus of matter. And could this inert tangible matter, sublimate in its hard, dead bosom, an essence so subtle, as to be freer of the bonds of time and space? At such a preposterous suggestion, even a donkey might bow his ears with shame. So I will hand this "progressive chain of being" over to a deeper darkness, and pass on.
Lo! here lie the statues of broken gods, headless divinities. I tried to believe in Greek mythology; to imagination that the world had gone backwards, and that there were spirits of the earth and air, which took part in the life of man. But these were poetic visions that shifted and waved with every fleeting imagination.
But now this would be a pleasant faith. What if I could appeal to an invisible, higher spiritual being, who sympathized with my nature, to lead me out of this darkness of ignorance into a true world of light, of truth, of definite knowledge, concerning life and its origin — concerning God and His nature? If I were only an old Greek, how I would pray to Minerva for help, and call upon Hercules to remove this Augean dirt, which pollutes and lumbers all the chambers of my mind! But when the old Greeks called — were they answered? Ah, there is nothing to hope for!
Yet Socrates believed in these spiritual existences; he ordered a rooster to be sacrificed to Esculapius as he was drinking the hemlock. To him, they were not mere poetic creations; he believed to the last, that he was guided and guarded by his demon. What if we all are? What if even now, in this midnight darkness, stands a beautiful being, veiled by my ignorance, who loves me, from a world of light; sees the tangled web of my thoughts, and would draw it out into form, and order, and beauty? If such there be, oh, bright and beautiful one! pity me, love me, and enlighten me. Alas, no! — all is yet dark. What would a being reveling in light and beauty, have to do with this poor, jaded life of mine? Alas! that was a fleeting hope, that, like a pale, flickering ray, gilded the darkness for a moment.
But, here is a something which gives somewhat of joy and life to the mind. It is a beautiful thought of Plato, that there is a great central sun in the universe, around which all other suns revolve. What if this be an inner sun, which is the fountain of spiritual life? That is something to believe. Yet the mind sinks appalled from it. The heart desires a God that it may love, and trust in, that it may speak to and be heard; and if the fountain of life is only a sun, what is there to love in it? True, we rejoice in the light and beauty of the sun which upholds this world in its place; but what is this enjoyment compared to the bliss of human love? A man — a living, breathing, loving man — is the perfection of existence; and one could be happy with a perfect man, if all the suns in the universe were blotted out.
A MAN! what is he, in his essential attributes? What is it that gives a delight in him? Ah! I am full of ideal visions — for in all history I find not one man who altogether fills my vision of what a man should be. From the Alexanders and Caesars, I turn with loathing — their fierce, crude, outer life — their selfish, grasping ambition — suggest to me the vision of snarling wild beasts, battling over the torn and palpitating limbs of nations. These men could never have touched my soul; they could never have dispelled the darkness of my mind; they could not be friends.
But was there ever a man who could have answered the questions for the solution of which my spirit yearns? Plato was beautiful; around him was a pure, intellectual light. But, after all, he knew very little; his writings are mostly suggestive. But suppose here was a man who could reveal all the hidden things of life? How sudden would be the delight of learning of him, of communing with him? And what if he knew, not only everything relating to this world, and my own intellectual being, but could tell me of all the universe, of all the after-life? Oh! what a joy such a man would be to me! How would this midnight darkness melt into the clearest and most beautiful day!
But did such an one ever exist? Why is it that now comes over me the vision of my childhood, of the Divine Man walking over the hills of Judea? Oh, Christ! who were You? My thought goes forth to You; beautiful was Your life upon the earth. It had in it a heavenly sanctity, a purity, a grace and mercy, a gentleness and forbearance, that seems to me God-like and Divine. Yes — what if God descended and walked on the earth? I could love Him, who He had lowered Himself to my comprehension. But God! the Infinite and Eternal — in the finite human form, undergoing death! I cannot comprehend this!
But what is infinity? When I look within myself and realize my ever-changing and fleeting feelings, now glancing in expansive ranges of thought from star to star — I realize an infinity in mind, which is not of the body. What if it were thus with the Holy Man, Christ? What if He were God as to the spirit — and man as to the flesh? If this were so, well may I have wished "to live when Jesus walked the earth," for He alone could have revealed all things to me. How wonderful must have been His wisdom! And if His indwelling spirit was God, then Christ yet lives — lives in some inner world of love and beauty. Ah, beautiful hope! for, if immortality is my portion, I may yet see Him, and learn of Him in another existence. Methinks the night of my soul is passing away; upon the rayless darkness, a star has risen — a fixed star of love and hope!
Oh, Christ! holy and beautiful Man! if You yet live in far-away realms of light and blessedness — grant that I may see You, and learn of Your wondrous wisdom. Enlighten my darkness, and allow me to love You as the Divinest type of man that my thought has yet imagined.
THE DAWN OF THE MORNING. I have gone back to my Bible with the old childish love and reverence. I read it with an object now. I know that in it, the beautiful Christ-nature was portrayed; and I read with infinite longings to find Him, the "unknown God;" and bright revealings come to me through this Book. I feel that it is Divine, and the light grows upon me; and sometimes like the Apostles, who awakened in the night, and saw Christ transfigured before them, I also saw a transfiguration. I lose sight of the mere material man, and I perceive an inner glory of being, a radiance of wisdom, and purity, and love — which clothe Him in a Divine light, and make His countenance brilliant with a spiritual glory.
This transfiguration, what was it? My thought dwells upon it so — it was a wonderful thing. I know that the scoffing philosophers ridicule the idea of there being any reality in it; they regard it either as a fiction on the part of the writers, or as a dream or a delusion of the senses. But I believe that it all happened just as it was narrated. For it is beautiful to believe it. If it did not happen, I am none the worse for believing it, even if the whole life was a fiction, which all history proves to have been true; and had no Christ lived upon the earth — yet, as a work of art, this fiction would have been the highest and most beautiful dream of the human thought! But if it is all literally true; if Christ was "God manifest in the flesh," how much do I gain by believing in him! I have attained the highest and best of all knowledge — I know GOD!
And this transfiguration becomes a wonderful revelation! It was the Spirit of God shining through the Man. And this spirit was a substance and a form. And what was its form? — that of a man, with a face radiant as the sun. Now I know how to think of God. He is no longer a vague, incomprehensible existence; an ether floating in space. But He is a living, breathing human form, a Man! in whose image and likeness we were created. Oh, how I thank God that He has revealed this to me! Now, I know what manner of Being I pray to; and like as the apostles saw Him, in His Divine spiritual-human form, will I now always think of Him. I will look through His veil of flesh, I will love Him as the only God-man who ever existed.
When I think thus of the inner Divine nature, clothed in a material body, how wonderfully do the scenes of this drama of the life of Christ strike me! Imagine Him, the God of the universe, standing before the Jewish Sanhedrin, condemned, buffeted, and spit upon. How at that moment in His inmost Divine soul, He must have glanced over the vast creation, that He had called into being; and knew that an Infinite power dwelt in Him. One blazing look of wrathful indignation, would have annihilated that rude rabble. But He had clothed himself in flesh — to subdue all of its evil and vile passions; to show to an ignorant and sensual race, the grace and beauty of a self-abnegation — a Divine pity and forgiveness. And thus did the outer material Man die with that beautiful and touching appeal to the Infinite-loving soul, from which the body was born: "Father! forgive them, they know not what they do!" Oh, Divine Jesus! make me like unto You in this heavenly and loving spirit.
How clear many things grow to me now! I smile when I think of the old childish trouble over the word "Logos," for this Logos, That is, truth, has been revealed to me. In the knowledge that Christ was the Infinite God — the Creator of the universe, I see Him as the central truth. Thus Christ was the Logos — the Word; the Divine Truth, and now I read, that "In the beginning was Christ, and Christ was with God, and Christ was God." And I am happy in this knowledge — my thought has something to rest upon outside of myself; and my affections grow up from the earth to that wonderful Divine Man, who, after the death of the body, was seen as a man, a living man! Immortality is no longer the dream of a Plato. It is a demonstrated fact.
In my mind is the stirring of a new life, as in the light of an early morning-glory; the voice of singing birds is in my heart, and an fragrance of blooming flowers expands itself in the delight of my new day. I see the morning sun in a fixed form, yet flooding worlds with the radiations of its light and heat, and shining in its glory on the dew-bespangled blade of grass. Oh Christ! — you are my Sun — and I, the tiny blade of grass, rejoice in Your Divine wisdom and love! Look down upon me, oh, holy One! from the "throne of Your glory, and the habitation of Your Holiness," and exhale from me, through the dew of my sorrow, the incense of my love. Draw me up from the earth, even as the sun draws up the bowed plants, and let me drink in the beautiful life of free heavenly airs.
NOON-DAY. How the light grows! In the warm love of my soul, a summer's day glows — so serene and bright, so full of ceaseless activities, that the fruits ripen in a smiling, rosy beauty.
The living Christ has heard my soul's prayer; and books, which I never before heard of, have revealed to me all those wonderful truths after which my spirit yearned.
First of all, the mystery of the Bible has been made clear to me. I see it now as a beautiful whole. The Infinite knew from the beginning, that He was going to descend upon the earth, and take upon Himself a human nature; and that He was to purify and enlighten, and make Divine this fallen nature, that man might know God in a material form, and love Him. All this is written out in the Bible.
I stand on the threshold of a wonderful science. There are innumerable things that I do not comprehend in the Bible; but what I see and understand awakens in me a thrilling delight, and I can never exhaust this book; for it is full of the nerves of life; and I can no more number them than I can count the sensitive fibers which spread themselves from my brain, to the innumerable cellular tissues of my skin. But as the body is full of a sentient life, so is every word of the Bible full of an indwelling life.
And now do I recognize the good that my patient, suffering old friend did me in my childhood; would that I had read the Holy Bible to her many other days. Doubtless she is now a beautiful one in Heaven.
The angels — and Heaven! Now I understand the inner existence; and the dreams and visions of my childhood were, after all, blessed realities; and the dead father and the dead mother, after whom my childish heart yearned so lovingly, were revealed to me as a living father and a living mother, in a wondrously beautiful life. Thus was a warm inner love kept alive in my soul; and now I know that death is but a new birth. As a glove is drawn away from the hand, so is the body drawn away from the spirit; and, I too, will eventually enter Heaven. Life is again crowned with a beautiful hope.
Life! — and this mystery also is solved. God is the sole life, and finite human spirits are forms receptive of life from God. God is the soul and creation is His body — and from this infinite Divine soul, life flows forth into every atom of the body. Beautiful thought! The Lord sits enthroned in the inmost, and is cognizant of every nerve that thrills through His boundless universe of being. Every thought and feeling that passes through my heart and mind is as clearly perceived by Him, as are the sensations of my body perceived by my soul.
And how vast is the thought that suns, and their peopled worlds, are to God but as the drops of blood to the finite human body; and who can count these drops? for as they flow forth, and back to the heart, they ever grow and change, and increase — and who can measure the Infinite! and this Being, sentient of all things in the universe, providing for all things; seeing all things; maintaining order, down to the minutest particle, in a system which the finite thought of man can never grasp — and loving his creatures in myriads of worlds, of which man never dreamed! How inconceivable must be His boundless wisdom, and His infinite love! Can we wonder that one so glowing with love, so radiant in intelligence, should shine as the sun? Thus, were "all things made by Him; and without Him was not anything made that was made;" and "in Him was life, and the life was the light of men."
The thought sinks after this far flight — we worship and adore the Infinite. But the Lord must forever remain apart from our weak natures — as far as the sun is above the earth. He lives, in His incomprehensible self-existence, at an immeasurable distance from us.
Oh, blessed and beautiful providence of God! that two human hearts and minds may intertwine in mutual support, and look up to the Infinite. And in the glorious sunshine of life, grow ever young and beautiful, in an immortal youth.
Oh, you suffering, sorrowing children of earth! turn your affections and hopes from the fleeting things of time; from the outside-world — to the beautiful inner spirit-life, where eternity develops ever new and varying joys. Then only can the day dawn upon the human soul, and the midnight darkness be dissipated by boundless effulgence of light!