The Friendship of Art

by Bliss Carman


A Christmas Reverie

 

    WHEN the first daring missionaries, full of zeal for the new creed, set forth from Rome to carry the glad tidings into old Britain, they found there a race just budding into civilization. They must have had much the same feeling towards the inhabitants of that far-off province that we find in ourselves toward the dwellers in Darkest Africa or the Islands of the Utmost Sea. Buoyed by an unquestioning faith, they went fearlessly forward to carry the Word, the only truth, to those who sat in impenetrable darkness, as it seemed to them. There could be no question in their mind as to the saving value of the new belief. They preached with conviction and warmth, because they believed with fervour and without [Page 253] equivocation. And it would hardly occur to them to look for anything of good in the ancient earthly beliefs they were so eager to supplant. With that singleness of purpose, that persistency of sublime confidence to which nothing is denied, they went about their task with unquenchable ardour and decision. A mere handful of devoted souls at first, following the footsteps of the chosen Twelve to whom the Message was originally entrusted, they went cheerfully about the business of persuading the known world to their way of thinking. How well they succeeded, let modern civilization attest.

    Let us never depreciate the power of so supreme a faith, a devotion so consuming and so noble; for that is the very spirit we need at all times, a spirit of hopeful belief in the ultimate triumph of ideals. But we have come at this end of time to look upon the earth and our own history with a more dispassioned eye, and to regard the events of our racial evolution with a certain mental detachment, [Page 254] which we call the scientific spirit. And that is well, too; for we must have the absolute truth, at all costs, for our peace of mind, just as we need ultimate goodness for our peace of heart, and utmost beauty for our enjoyment of life. We have come to see in the outworn religions of the earth which Christianity has supplanted, not mere heathenish superstition, but the first crude efforts of the human soul, endeavouring to formulate its instincts for righteousness, its intuitions of the sublime, its inherent belief in a divine origin and outcome for all things. The beautiful gods of pagan Greece, whose cult has given to modern art and literature such an immeasurable stimulus; the pitiful gods of the Polar night; the subtle and still-living gods of the mysterious Orient; the lore of all these human creeds is not to be despised, but to be studied. Very likely they are inadequate in their conception of the universe, and unwise in many of their moral sanctions; still they stand there in testimony of man’s [Page 255] reach after the infinite. Pan and Vesta and Hanuman and the unrecorded divinities of outlandish tongues are neither hateful nor despicable, but only imperfect. They are, surely one must believe, partial revelations of the truer Truth, the better Goodness, the more imperishable Beauty.

    So, too, we may be sure that the rude worship of our ancient fathers in the wilderness of Britain, little as we know of it, was not without lovely traits and touches of aspiration. Those watchers who gathered to see the sun rise over Stonehenge last midsummer day must have been impressed by a solemn regard for the old druidical faith which planted those monoliths in their significant ring, so that the great light of day at his summer solstice enters exactly through the door of that primitive temple. Not sun-worshippers, perhaps, but nature-worshippers our fathers must have been, when the new teaching came to them in their island fastnesses. In the names Yule and Easter, [Page 256] marking certain pagan festivals of nature, vague records of these Northern religions come down to us, and upon the dates of those festivals other festivals of the Christian cult were grafted. So that when we celebrate our winter holiday, we are not merely keeping the memorial of Christ’s nativity, but, all unconsciously, are following the immemorial rites of an earlier custom, strange and barbarous, yet natural, after all.

    In the story of all peoples there will be things too far off to be remembered save in the most shadowy tradition. The worship of Linus or Adonis among the earliest Greeks is surrounded with impenetrable mystery. It had changed and been lost before the time of records began; but we know it was something typical of the changing seasons, the pulse of life and death through the revolving year. We may fancy, in the same way, that the most elemental facts of nature, the waxing and waning of the days from summer to winter, the perishing of the year at autumn and its [Page 257] revival in spring, would be the first to be celebrated in forms of worship among a people so dependent on the favour of the sun. They would see in the great luminary, if not a divinity, at least a direct administration of the Divine Mind. And, as it passed in its huge pendular swing from solstice to solstice, from the long days of an English June to the brief and reluctant hours of the shortest day of winter, they would feel their dependence on the Unknown, their need of a beneficent Providence, their pleasure in abundant warmth, their shrinking at the pinch of cold, and their helplessness before the vagaries of every season’s vicissitudes. The winds and rains of spring, with the returning birds in the forest; the heats of summer setting all the land at leisure; the ripening of fruits in autumn; these things would make their hearts unfold. The generous year would enter their blood to mitigate the darker strain of human sorrow and inexplicable death. They would grasp quickly at the poetic analogy between [Page 258] the life of man and the life of nature through the season’s progress. Seeing all nature die down and revive, they would eagerly guess at a future for the soul, an eternal springtime supervening upon the autumn of mortality.

    The feast of Yule, we may guess, was one of merrymaking, because then the year was at its bitterest, hope apparently at the last ebb with the ebbing sun, and men, therefore, driven indoors for intercourse and entertainment. For frost, in moderation, is a great civilizer, necessitating the home and the fireside. It is difficult to play the vagrant in a country where you cannot sleep under the stars, but must have a rooftree above you and a fire to keep you from perishing. It is in cold countries that men’s energies are knit up to the point of accomplishment, and their physique tempered and hardened to endurance. Cold that congeals the ground and the running streams, consolidates men, too, and favours that concerted action which is the [Page 259] beginning of civic liberty and free institutions. In a land of rigorous climate men are accustomed to struggle. Their life from day to day is an unremitting warfare with the elements, and breeds in them fortitude, endurance, resourcefulness, and a light-hearted eagerness to cope with difficulty. The north wind, whipping about their ears, stings the blood to the cheek, stirring courage from the bottom of the heart at the same time; and those happiest zones, where nature is neither so bountiful as to encourage idleness, nor so bitter as to discourage and stultify growth, give us our best of humanity.

    In such a country men attain a certain poise of mind, not too sober nor yet too frivolous, and come to look upon the world with discretion, with serenity, with temperate joy. Their intimate life is infused with a tincture of natural piety, unaffected and wholesome. And whatever revealed religion (as it is called) is imported to their shores must be coloured and modified by the original temperament [Page 260] of the race. So that old traditions and customs and superstitions and habits of thought are found surviving amid the pure doctrines of newer belief, as blackened stumps survive a forest fire to be found long afterward, when the young green is tall and luxuriant all about them.

    In every Christian land there are customs and tales and scraps of folk-lore, held in popular regard, which are not quite believed, perhaps, but which are kept alive in memory none the less. They are surviving remnants of creeds which once had a religious value and now retain no more than a sentiment of their former sanction. They may once have been obligatory as a duty, a votive commemoration, an expiatory offering; but their earlier use is forgotten and we cannot tell why we observe them any more, — so tenacious are we of forms and ceremonies, so oblivious of spiritual origins. We hang up our childish stockings for the good little saint to fill with gifts and gewgaws, or we stick a spray of [Page 261] mistletoe in the chandelier — a dare to bashful youth — and never guess how came these customs nor what they may once have signified. So there linger about all the festivals of the Church — Christmas, St. John’s Eve in midsummer, of Hallowe’en — legends and simple rites, which are lightly held memorials of some older faith, once, perhaps, significant and stupendous. For religion is not only from above but from below (if we may permit ourselves to use that manner of speech), not only the living Word sent down to us from the clear skies, as we are apt to fancy, but the whisper breathed from the ground as well. Whether natural or revealed, the source of our religious aspirations is the same. The eternal spirit utters itself obscurely in the dark hearts of heathen kings, or speaks in articulate clear words through the radiant minds of chosen seers and glowing young prophets, with equal authority. The same spirit of truthfulness, desiring only that beautiful goodness should be accomplished on the [Page 262] earth, whispered in the ear of Buddha, dwelt with the aged John in Patmos, was a law of righteousness to the King Poet of Israel, spoke in accents threatening as thunder at the shrine of Delphi, and makes itself heard at a hundred unknown altars in the far corners of the earth to-day. For there are not a thousand such, but only One, though the inventive mind of man has imagined a thousand forms in which He has been supposed to reside. His true residence, all the while, has been neither at Paphos nor Cumæ nor upon Sinai, but in the human heart, — in the house of the soul.

    A Christmas meditation for many of us must partake of the character of a philosophic or poetic reverie, rather than of religious exaltation. The touch of the supernatural has disappeared; but that does not mean that the feeling of wonder has vanished; it only means that the sentiment of worship is more natural than ever. If we cannot feel the awe and terror of a personal Supervisor of the universe, [Page 263] as in our childhood, we can feel much more certainly and definitely the presence of an unmeasured Power within ourselves, more real and beneficent than the Deity of our infant fancy.

    It was said that in a certain house there are many mansions; and I cannot help believing that hospitable edifice is designed to shelter the unbeliever as well as the believer. Indeed, I cannot imagine such a creature as an unbeliever, though many there be (and excellent souls, too) who subscribe to none of the tenets of established creeds. I must leave to others the expounding of Christian doctrine as upheld by this church or that with so much vigour and confidence, and content myself with the modest irresponsible task of looking upon the teaching of the Man of Nazareth, his life and work, with the innocent eye of a bystander. Had I all the learning of the ancients and moderns, I fear I should never have the temerity to be a preacher, — to offer to others as sure and indubitable [Page 264] fact what is in its essence so changing and volatile and dependent upon personal sentiment. For my part, I would rather have the simplest moral reflection from an old woodsman or a young scholar, whose life was clean and whose mind was free, than all the gravest homilies of bishops, hedged by tradition and restricted by instituted authority. Is the breath of God less free than the sweet wind of heaven? or is it less likely to form itself into an unmistakable message to you or me than it was to call to the saints of old? The great ones of all time, whose august names inspire us still, whose philosophy forms the basis of our common wisdom about life, were born to no greater possibility of inspiration than those children dancing in the street below. Whatever our fund of inspired revelation, we are awaiting other revelations fresher still. The story of the world is not finished. There are other years to come, other centuries, other peoples, and civilizations unimagined. Will they, think you, lack their [Page 265] poets and philosophers and prophets? The last word of inspiration has not been uttered, nor will it be, until the last man’s lips are still.

    It was the habit of our Puritan progenitors to discountenance the merrymaking of old England, and only to lay stress on the purely spiritual side of life. Old customs savoured to them of ungodliness, and they must have only the soberest truth at all times. Our more liberal tenor of mind allows us to revert to many of the old usages which were discarded by those stern New Englanders, and we incline to make merry with as hearty a goodwill as our fathers used before Puritanism was heard of. Without at all discrediting the austere creed, we may be glad that its extreme rigour has been mitigated with much of the old spirit of joviality. For joy and light-hearted mirth are not heathenish, but truly of the essence of the religion of love, which we profess. It is only logical, too, that the generous promptings of the heart [Page 266] should find vent and freedom and play, that kindly thoughts should express themselves in kind deeds. Moreover, the good deed induces better thoughts, and through the custom of charity we are insensibly led to charitable tenderness of heart.

    We may be glad, then, of the outward and visible signs of Christmas, and never fear they will impair its inward and spiritual grace. I like to have in mind all the old pagan piety attaching to this Festival of The Shortest Day, as well as the better and braver sentiments which Christianity gave to it. Surely there is no need to cast aside any pleasant and innocent scrap of ancient faith as vicious, simply because we need it no more. Superstition is only faith out of date; and is only bad because it is antiquated, and because, if we hold it, it interferes with knowledge. A little harmless superstition (so long as we do not actually believe in it) often lends charm to our faith, as a smile may soften a strong face; and many quaint observances [Page 267] may be kept alive to add grace to our too monotonous life. When it comes to the veritable spirit of the Christmas season, what are we to say? We may leave all the theological pronunciamentos, which the churches have repeated so often, to be repeated once again from desk and pulpit, and yet have our own thoughts on Christmas quite beyond the pale of authority. No amount of fine logic nor thunderous oratory can shake my quiet soul from its own convictions. Very likely you and I, my friend, shall have to find ourselves in the position of onlookers in the church on Christmas Day, if indeed we cross the threshold. But for all that, we need not count ourselves unbelievers. It behoves us to stand for our right to be numbered among the faithful, though we subscribe to no single tenet of orthodoxy. Truth and goodness are not natural monopolies, but are free as light and air. They form the wholesome atmosphere of an intellectual and moral being. Shall I pay toll for a breath of the sweet wind of [Page 268] heaven, or enjoy the sunlight at another man’s pleasure? No more will I receive without question any man’s idea of the truth or beauty or goodness, though I will hear all gladly. The truth that comes to me over the pulpit rail must be perverted indeed, if it cannot stand this test, if it dare not take its chances with my reason. This is the attitude of our modern world toward religion. The mistake we make is in thinking it a dangerous attitude. Surely the soul of man is the only tabernacle of the veritable God. The sense of living humanity as to what is true, what is good, what is beautiful to see, is the only sanction for belief. You and I, standing outside the reach of an obsolete authority, believe and cherish the words of the Sermon on the Mount not because Christ uttered them, but because in our inmost being we cannot help assenting to their lofty truth. It is a mark of truth that it must win our belief in the long run; it is a mark of goodness that it must command our love; just as it is a mark [Page 269] of beauty that it must arouse our admiration. So that the sublime teachings of Christianity are quite secure, without all the artificial sanctions with which men have invested them. They only need to be separated from superstition, to appeal to us with all their charm and power. Think what a stir any one of the four Gospels would make if it could be published to-morrow for the first time. Would we not at once receive it with eagerness, and set it among our treasured books? “More sublime than Emerson,” we would say — “More subtle than Maeterlinck.” And I believe it is only when we approach the words of Christ with just such an open mind and expectant spirit that we perceive their beauty and truth to the fullest.

    But see, how in all this overcareful considering of the matter we miss the very germ of the gospel, which is the spirit of love. We worry ourselves over forms and patterns of conduct; we strain our logic to find out the truth; our sensitive and scrupulous mind [Page 270] will be satisfied with nothing less than exact science; we give our days and nights to lay up knowledge; we shed rivers of blood for this creed or that dogma; and all the while the greater truth, the spiritual kernel of life, lies by the roadside waiting to be picked up. You think love an easy matter, and the Golden Rule the simplest of moral laws? Reflect that men, with all their good intentions, have never been able to make love the lodestar of the world for a single day in its history. It is the distinction of Christ’s teaching that he offered us a rule of conduct which still remains approachable but unrealized, drawling our fullest assent to its impracticable sublimity. And why impractical? Only because of our lack of courage. No man dares square his action according to his most generous impulse, for fear his neighbour will get the better of him. So that our whole system of civilization is infected with this sordid poltroonery, and we continue in a state of distrust and social strife, divorcing our faith from our life. [Page 271] Knowing in our hearts the goodliness of love, the efficacy of kindness, we still carry on the concerns of life with a cowardly disregard to our ideals and aspirations.

    The more welcome, then, is this greatest of all festivals, when we commemorate the birth of the Master whose life still stands as the most eminent reproof to our timidity and self-seeking. Once a year, at least, we are put in mind of the Better Way, the way of the glad heart, the open hand, the unsuspicious mind. You say that no business could be successfully conducted on Christian principles, under modern conditions? Then let us do without business. You say that cities could not thrive, nor nations grow, nor individuals prosper in an age of strenuous competition, if they attempted to abide by the law of love? Then let us do without prosperity.

    The fact remains that all our contrivances for outward reformation of institutions are but futile tinkering with the body of society, [Page 272] when it is the soul of man that needs attention. A little more honesty, a little more love, a little more courage, a little more kindliness and gentleness and helpful generosity in the heart of average men and women, — these are more important than the passage of a thousand laws or the instituting of any new schemes of social betterment. Love is an old, old remedy for the unhappy plight of the world. The curious thing is that, while we all profess to believe in it efficacy, we cannot summon up enough resolution to put it to the test. It has never been thoroughly tried yet; for most of our attempts, though some of them have been brave enough, have been but half-hearted.

    Suppose we try to carry a little of the Christmas elation over into the New Year. Suppose we try to make the new year a little less heathenish, a little less full of cruelty and noise and terror and greed, a little less absurdly at variance with all our professions of religion than most of these nineteen [Page 273] hundred years have been! The Golden Age is never far away, but is only waiting until we adopt the Golden Law, to return with gladness among men. [Page 274]