THE VALUES OF LIFE : IV. THE VIRTUE OF CONTEMPLATION
By ERNEST BARKER
The Heaven into which we can rise while we are still on earth is for most of us a mixed Heaven. It comes in different ways and different glimpses. It comes in private prayer and meditation, and in the common service in Church ; and that is a way so great and sovereign that it may well seem the only way. But there are also other ways in which Heaven breaks in upon us. There is a glory in great literature, when words are married to thoughts in a glowing fusion which transports the mind. Milton's poem on Time, which is some twenty golden lines ; the first chorus of the Agamemnon of Aeschylus ; Wordsworth's lines on Tintern Abbey ; the beginning of Goethe's Faust ; the end of Shakespeare's Tempest ; a couple of the poems of Francis Thompson—all these, and many more, are doors to Eternity. There is a splendour in great music which has the same quality ; and there are paint- ings which are eloquent of far more than what they depict. Indeed there are many cues which make us start and say " 0 world invisible, we view thee,
0 world intangible, we touch thee."
There are revelations in personal friendship which touch the soul of goodness. There are star-lit nights which reveal the army of unalterable law, and sober the mind with a sudden sense of the march of eternal truth. (Perhaps it is one of our simple duties to walk abroad under the stars at night, when the world is hushed.) There is, in a word, a many-sided discipline which men can cultivate in order to practise the sense of eternity and the feeling for Heaven.
The fundamental discipline, and the fundamental duty, in the face of the eternal is prayer. I speak of it as a discipline because it is more than an outpouring and far more than an entreating. It is a gripping of the self, by an act of painful and arduous abstraction from the concerns of time and space, for the purpose of facing eternity and speaking with the Eternal. Heaven breaks in upon us, by grace : we have also to break in upon Heaven, by prayer. Prayer has no meaning, except to a person : whenever we pray, we pray to the Eternal who inhabits eternity and the Father which is in Heaven. We make an assumption, when we dare to think of the personal : but we equally make an assumption when we dare to think of eternity. The assumptions go together : neither is possible without the other ; and both are warranted by the same testimony. Whatever the assumptions involved, I cannot but make them ; and having made them I am bound by the supreme duty of practising the sense of eternity and of facing (as best I may) the Eternal. How often we fail, and how often the practice becomes a mere mechanism !
" My words fly up : my thoughts remain below : Words without thoughts never to Heaven go."
But the discipline and the duty remain—unless we have said in our hearts that for us there is no Heaven and no eternity which has any room for a person.
Even for those who deny the personal there is still a duty and a discipline to be faced—so long as they recognise that there are values called Beauty and Truth and Goodness, and that these values must be cherished. Admit that these values, in their way and on their level, are so many forms of Heaven and so many phases of eternity. They have still to be culti- vated : they demand their discipline : they impose their duty. There is no automatic or ready-made apprehension of Beauty, even if some are more naturally gifted than others to apprehend it. Beauty demands a discipline ; " it is not to be had unless a man will make himself a slave to its having." There is a duty even here ; and art itself has its Puritanism. To peep into Heaven through the door of beauty is not a matter of simple sensuous experience : it involves a refining of sense, a training of taste, a voluntary asceticism of self-discipline. It is one of the perils of our age that we should forget and lose this discipline. Literature is unloaded in its masses : the visible is paraded to the eye, and the audible is iterated in the ear : a writer lamented lately, in a memorable phrase, " The standards have been destroyed, and the values adulterated." Effort is needed to purify values, to recover standards, and to escape from the mass of the transitory into some communion with the abiding " idea." There is room even here, and on this level, for the spirit of prayer and the temper of mind which leads to prayer.
That temper and spirit demand the virtue of contemplation ; and the virtue of contemplation demands the quality of mind which is patient of solitude and dares to be alone. Con- templation is a virtue which was cherished in the thought of Greek and Roman antiquity as well as in Christian thought. It was accompanied by the idea of leisure, the leisure not of vacuity but of the free activity of the higher faculties ; it was also accompanied by the idea of solitude, and the younger Scipio could claim that " he was never less alone than when he was by himself." One of the injunctions (and I am sure that it is an injunction) which I find it most difficult to obey is the injunction " Dare to be alone." I know that there is a corollary added to the injunction : if I expressed it fully, I should say, " Dare to be alone—in order that you may be in the great company." But there is a natural terror of solitude. One longs to be in the swim : the gregarious instinct, which has its rights and demands its dues, is a terribly compelling instinct. But the duty of solitude remains. There is much to be done in the stream of the world, but the world will see to that : there is also something to be done in stillness, and there is also a time " to stand and stare." Where shall a man find his secret chamber, and the leisure to spend time there, and the courage to enter and shut the door ? It is the most difficult of the questions which we are asked to answer. But it contains, or it implies, the last and ultimate duty which a man owes to himself, to others through himself, and to the self which is behind himself and all other selves.
Solitude never need be solitary ; and contemplation is so far from being the opposite of action that it is, at its height, the mother and mainspring of all considered and fruitful action. " In the patience of thyself thou shalt gain the soul of thyself." The soul that is gained in solitude and contem- plation goes out beyond itself, even in the act and article of standing by itself. It goes out to practise the sense of eternity and communication with the Eternal. It goes out to practise, with a strong and fresh advantage, the duties it owes in the concentric circles (family, neighbourhood, country, continent, general humanity) through which it moves. Whatever we have seen and learned in the secret of contemplation we are bound to express and communicate. It is no easy thing to do. One sometimes wonders whether one has anything to express or give : there is so much talking in the world ; and all that is good has been said, and said far better, already. I often find the words coming into my mind, unbidden and with no reference to my immediate thoughts, Est et fideli luta sdentio merces. But that is perhaps a sort of cowardice. Sometimes one finds, after an interval of years, that the word which was said and the advice which was given long ago have stuck and remained, for good. And_the matter is not merely a matter of words and 'advice and counsel, spoken or written ; it is also, and mainly, a matter of action. Communication with others, in some course of common action, is the best way of communicating to others whatever we can report and whatever we are able to give. In common action we learn from others, who have also seen and can also report ; and we learn far more than we teach. That is how we come back from solitude to home and neighbours and country—to the circles of communication—to -.the . company of social rights and social duties. Wordsworth returns to the mind again—as he so often does. In one of his poems to a skylark (the less rapturous and the more profound) he sends the lark to the last point of vision and . beyond, but brings him back to his nest upon the dewy ground :
"Type of the wise who soar, but never roam, True to the kindred points of Heaven and Home,"
That is the wisdom with which we can all of us long to be wise.