Joyous Gard by Arthur Christopher Benson
We ought to learn to cultivate, train, regulate emotion, just as we train other faculties. The world has hardly reached this point yet. First man trains his body that he may be strong, when strength is supreme. When almost the only argument is force, the man who is drawn to play a fine part in the world must above everything be strong, courageous, gallant, so that he may go to combat joyful and serene, like a man inspired. Then when the world becomes civilised, when weakness combines against strength, when men do not settle differences of feeling by combat and war, but by peaceable devices like votes and arbitrations, the intellect comes to the front, and strength of body falls into the background as a pleasant enough thing, a matter of amusement or health, and intellect becomes the dominant force. But we shall advance beyond even that, and indeed we have begun to advance. Buddhism and the Stoic philosophy were movements dictated more by reason than by emotion, which recognised the elements of pain and sorrow as inseparable from human life, and suggested to man that the only way to conquer evils such as these was by turning the back upon them, cultivating indifference to them, and repressing the desires which issued in disappointment. Christianity was the first attempt of the human spirit to achieve a nobler conquest still; it taught men to abandon the idea of conquest altogether; the Christian was meant to abjure ambition, not to resist oppression, not to meet violence by violence, but to yield rather than to fight.
The metaphor of the Christian soldier is wholly alien to the spirit of the Gospel, and the attempt to establish a combative ideal of Christian life was one of the many concessions that Christianity in the hands of its later exponents made to the instincts of men. The conception of the Christian in the Gospel was that of a simple, uncomplicated, uncalculating being, who was to be so absorbed in caring for others that the sense of his own rights and desires and aims was to fall wholly into the background. He is not represented as meant to have any intellectual, political, or artistic pursuits at all. He is to accept his place in the world as he finds it; he is to have no use for money or comforts or accumulated resources. He is not to scheme for dignity or influence, nor even much to regard earthly ties. Sorrow, loss, pain, evil, are simply to be as shadows through which he passes, and if they have any meaning at all for him, they are to be opportunities for testing the strength of his emotions. But the whole spirit of the Christian revelation is that no terms should be made with the world at all. The world must treat the Christian as it will, and there are to be no reprisals; neither is there the least touch of opportunism about it. The Christian is not to do the best he can, but the best; he is frankly to aim at perfection.
How then is this faith to be sustained? It is to be nourished by a sense of direct and frank converse with a God and Father. The Christian is never to have any doubt that the intention of the Father towards him is absolutely kind and good.He attempts no explanation of the existence of sin and pain; he simply endures them; and he looks forward with serene certainty to the continued existence of the soul. There is no hint given of the conditions under which the soul is to continue its further life, of its desires or occupations; the intention obviously is that a Christian should live life freely and fully; but love, and interest in human relations are to supersede all other aims and desires.
It has been often said that if the world were to accept the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount literally, the social fabric of the world would be dissolved in a month. It is true; but it is not generally added that it would be because there would be no need of the social fabric. The reason why the social fabric would be dissolved is because there would doubtless be a minority which would not accept these principles, and would seize upon the things which the world agrees to consider desirable. The Christian majority would become the slaves of the unchristian minority, and would be at their mercy. Christianity, in so far as it is a social system at all, is the purest kind of socialism, a socialism not of compulsion but of disinterestedness. It is easy, of course, to scoff at the possibility of so far disintegrating the vast and complex organisation of society, as to arrange life on the simpler lines; but the fact remains that the very few people in the world’s history, like St. Francis of Assisi, for instance, who have ever dared to live literally in the Christian manner, have had an immeasurable effect upon the hearts and imaginations of the world. The truth is not that life cannot be so lived, but that humanity dares not take the plunge; and that is what Christ meant when He said that few would find the narrow way. The really amazing thing is that such immense numbers of people have accepted Christianity in the world, and profess themselves Christians without the slightest doubt of their sincerity, who never regard the Christian principles at all. The chief aim, it would seem, of the Church, has been not to preserve the original revelation, but to accommodate it to human instincts and desires. It seems to me to resemble the very quaint and simple old Breton legend, which relates how the Saviour sent the Apostles out to sell stale fish as fresh; and when they returned unsuccessful, He was angry with them, and said, “How shall I make you into fishers of men, if you cannot even persuade simple people to buy stale fish for fresh?” That is a very trenchant little allegory of ecclesiastical methods! And perhaps it is even so that it has come to pass that Christianity is in a sense a failure, or rather an unfulfilled hope, because it has made terms with the world, has become pompous and respectable and mundane and influential and combative, and has deliberately exalted civic duty above love.
It seems to me that it is the business of all serious Christians deliberately to face this fact; and equally it is not their business to try to destroy the social organisation of what is miscalled Christianity. That is as much a part of the world now as the Roman Empire was a part of the world when Christ came; but we must not mistake it for Christianity. Christianity is not a doctrine, or an organisation, or a ceremonial, or a society, but an atmosphere and a life. The essence of it is to train emotion, to believe and to practise the belief that all human beings have in them something interesting, lovable, beautiful, pathetic; and to make the recognition of that fact, the establishment of simple and kind relations with every single person with whom one is brought into contact, the one engrossing aim of life. Thus the essence of Christianity is in a sense artistic, because it depends upon freely recognising the beauty both of the natural world and the human spirit. There are enough hints of this in the Gospel, in the tender observation of Christ, His love of flowers, birds, children, the fact that He noted and reproduced in His stories the beauty of the homely business of life, the processes of husbandry in field and vineyard, the care of the sheepfold, the movement of the street, the games of boys and girls, the little festivals of life, the wedding and the party; all these things appear in His talk, and if more of it were recorded, there would undoubtedly be more of such things. It is true that as opposition and strife gathered about Him, there falls a darker and sadder spirit upon the page, and the anxieties and ambitions of His followers reflect themselves in the record of denunciations and censures. But we must not be misled by this into thinking that the message is thus obscured.
What then we have to do, if we would follow the pure Gospel, is to lead quiet lives, refresh the spirit of joy within us by feeding our eyes and minds with the beautiful sounds and sights of nature, the birds’ song, the opening faces of flowers, the spring woods, the winter sunset; we must enter simply and freely into the life about us, not seeking totake a lead, to impress our views, to emphasise our own subjects; we must not get absorbed in toil or business, and still less in plans and intrigues; we must not protest against these things, but simply not care for them; we must not be burdensome to others in any way; we must not be shocked or offended or disgusted, but tolerate, forgive, welcome, share. We must treat life in an eager, light-hearted way, not ruefully or drearily or solemnly. The old language in which the Gospel comes to us, the formality of the antique phrasing, the natural tendency to make it dignified and hieratic, disguise from us how utterly natural and simple it all is. I do not think that reverence and tradition and awe have done us any more grievous injury than the fact that we have made the Saviour into a figure with whom frank communication, eager, impulsive talk, would seem to be impossible. One thinks of Him, from pictures and from books, as grave, abstracted, chiding, precise, mournfully kind, solemnly considerate. I believe it in my heart to have been wholly otherwise, and I think of Him as one with whom any simple and affectionate person, man, woman, or child, would have been entirely and instantly at ease. Like all idealistic and poetical natures, he had little use, I think, for laughter; those who are deeply interested in life and its issues care more for the beauty than the humour of life. But one sees a flash of humour here and there, as in the story of the unjust judge, and of the children in the market-place; and that He was disconcerting or cast a shadow upon natural talk and merriment I do not for an instant believe.
And thus I think that the Christian has no right to be ashamed of light-heartedness; indeed I believe that he ought to cultivate and feed it in every possible way. He ought to be so unaffected, that he can change without the least incongruity from laughter to tears, sympathising with, entering into, developing the moods of those about him. The moment that the Christian feels himself to be out of place and affronted by scenes of common resort-the market, the bar, the smoking-room-that moment his love of humanity fails him. He must be charming, attractive, genial, everywhere; for the severance of goodness and charm is a most wretched matter; if he affects his company at all, it must be as innocent and beautiful girlhood affects a circle, by its guilelessness, its sweetness, its appeal. I have known Christians like this, wise, beloved, simple, gentle people, whose presence did not bring constraint but rather a perfect ease, and was an evocation of all that was best and finest in those near them. I am not recommending a kind of silly mildness, interested only in improving conversation, but rather a zest, a shrewdness, a bonhomie, not finding natural interests common and unclean, but passionately devoted to human nature-so impulsive, frail, unequal, irritable, pleasure-loving, but yet with that generous, sweet, wholesome fibre below, that seems to be evoked in crisis and trial from the most apparently worthless human beings. The outcasts of society, the sinful, the ill-regulated, would never have so congregated about our Saviour if they had felt Him to be shocked or indignant at sin. What they must rather have felt was that He understood them, loved them, desired their love, and drew out all the true and fine and eager and lovable part of them, because he knew it to be there, wished it to emerge. “He was such a comfortable person!” as a simple man once said to me of one of the best of Christians: “if you had gone wrong, he did not find fault, but tried to see the way out; and if you were in pain or trouble, he said very little; you only felt it was all right when he was by.”