Be ye therefore perfect.
Therefore leaving the beginning of the doctrine of Christ let us go unto perfection.
In all the historic period there have been those who have dreamed of and tried to picture a perfect civilization. Plato wrote of the Ideal Republic. Jesus spoke frequently of a kingdom of God. Sir Thomas More called his ideal condition Utopia. Sydney called his Arcadia and Lord Bacon grew eloquent over the New Atlantis. Of course it is unnecessary to say that the dream has never become a reality. Society still remains imperfect.
The great human world is a collection of individuals,as a forest is a vast group of separate trees. Thus the public character of any era is the aggregate of all the private characters of that period. There will be as much intelligence or as much virtue in the state as there is intelligence or virtue in the men and women who compose the state. In moral, as in material things, no more can come out as result than was put in as cause. In religion and politics, as in hydraulics, the stream will rise no higher than the fountain. The pope would have no extraordinary power were it not for the millions who think he possesses extraordinary power. Do preachers indulge in too much cant and nonsense? That is because their congregations are .not sufficiently intolerant of cant and nonsense. A rational church can only be composed of rational, a superstitious church can only be composed of superstitious persons. There is a proverb : “Like priest like people.” Reversed it is more true: “Like people, like priest.” If the large majority of private persons should firmly decline to support the convention that loads its platform with pretenses and promises which it never intends to keep, and when, selecting a candidate looks no farther than avail-ability, the mistake would not be made a second time. If there is too much stupidity or saloon influence or fraud in the administration of municipal affairs, it is because too many of the population of the city are indifferent to stupidity and bar-room influence and dishonesty. The high minded city, the noble state, and the true church are the flowering of whatsoever is high and noble and true in those minds and hearts which compose them.
But perfect humanity, like a perfect civilization, is a dream as yet unrealized. It is a journey whose goal is not yet reached. There are not wanting many traces and suggestions of the good and beautiful in humanity, but these qualities are nowhere found in completeness. They are partial and fragmentary.
Walking among the ruins of some ancient temple, one might find in separate places, many remains of a former grandeur and harmony. Here is a column lying upon the ground with the wreath of acanthus leaves once crowning its summit detached and broken and discolored; there is part of a statue that had been shattered by its fall. Here is a section of the wall that has survived the general ruin; there the remains of a marble stairway now fallen in confusion. Thus, to some, man has appeared. A mystic called him : “A God in ruins.”
More recent and more exact investigation pictures a different scene. Man is not seen as the remains of a past, but the beginning of a future grandeur. The block of marble has long since been brought from the mountain quarry. Upon its surface was outlined a noble form. Under a million blows of hammer and chisel much rough material has fallen away. The torso is partially revealed. An arm is freed from the original mass. The face is unveiled and its outlines are noble and full of promise. All that is lacking time and patience and toil will surely bring. Thus, to some, man appears. He is not a God in ruins; he is a God in the making.
Whichever way of thinking may be more correct, there is general agreement that humanity is incomplete. Man’s goodness, his knowledge, his love of truth, his perception of beauty is only rudimentary. The exceptional or miraculous men of history; prophets, poets, inventors and discoverers, seekers of great principles and doers of great deeds; those movements which, flowing from the human mind and heart, have made epochs in the world’s history, revolutions in government, reformations in churches, uplifting and regeneration of society and the dawning of a new day for wide parallels of earth ; those experiences clear, but evanescent which, however dull and unimpressionable we may be, are not wholly denied to any of us ; those heats and enthusiasms of the spirit when all things are seen in their more vivid meanings apprising us that we are in possession of many unusual powers; those unclassified facts of the spiritual world,
“Which, be they what they may,
Are yet the fountain-light of all our day,
Are yet the master-light of all our seeing,
Uphold us, cherish, and have power to make
Our noisy years seem moments in the being
Of the eternal silence,”
all these are, indeed, eloquent indications of human greatness, but of greatness unbalanced and incomplete. The momentary flash of lightning that rends the cloud, in substance, is one with the electric light that turns night into day. Thus the greatness, the goodness, the beauty of humanity is only as a flash in a dark night. There is only needed that the law of these gleams be discovered and that they be converted into a gentle, but constant and universal light.
As in forming a rain-drop or an ocean, so in forming the character of an individual or a race respect must be paid to proportion. In a chemical product, the increase or diminution of an element may be fatal. It may turn a food into a poison. It is thus in life. There must be, not only a meeting of good qualities, but they must be present in right proportions. Oxygen is necessary to existence, but an excess of oxygen is a destroyer, and not a nourisher of life. It is so in character. If the condition demand justice, then mercy must not be in excess. Reverence is becoming in all mortals. It is the soul going out freely in awe and admiration toward that which is above it. It is an antidote for personal vanity. But, unmodified by a true personal freedom and individual self-reliance, reverence may end in superstition. Praise may be given to tenderness of heart. It endeavors to instil sunshine and summer air, balm and beauty into life. But, separated from strength of purpose and a certain austerity of behavior, in those cases in which conscience or the moral sentiment is involved, sympathy becomes a defect; an amiable fault indeed, but none the less a fault. Love is a great force; yet, apart from reason, it cannot bear life upon a lofty and sustained flight. It is a bird trying to fly with only one wing. On the other hand, truth without charity has but little power. Knowledge is most desirable, but unguided by a good purpose it is worse than useless. Life cannot but lack if deprived of religion, of regard for spiritual laws, of the reproofs and sanctions that seem to come from above, recognition of which gives a richer coloring to the soul and becomes a motive of all high endeavor. Nevertheless, there is the every day life to be lived; physical wants to be met; debts to pay; and all the myriad duties holding us in our appointed places and keeping us steadily engaged at tasks from which long since all inspiration faded away. If we are going toward the sky, we must first cross the earth.
The course of human history is not a direct line. It has often been interrupted and turned in a new direction. It likes to pursue the line of least resistance. Proceeding in one direction, for a long period of time, suddenly, or gradually, a nation will change its course. Now it is following power, now liberty, now art, now religion. The historic revolutions and reformations are the race taking new departures. But, in each case, the aim, conscious or unconscious, is the same. It is the effort to find something bet-ter than had hitherto been attained.
This is a large picture of each individual. There is an innate tendency in man to seek the better. Each day he tries to rise above the limitations of the preceding day. This is, at once, his inspiration and his grief. The artist toils to realize his dream, but when his task is completed he is not the possessor of happiness. He is happy in his toil, but not in its results. Either he has failed to reach his original goal, or else, while he was journeying to-ward it a new vision was created by his thoughts, and now a higher longing possesses the heart that was so satisfied in days gone by. Ideals are only mile-stones. They do not mark the end of the journey, but only its stages. Jacob made of his stony pillow a monument to mark the place where he had passed the night and seen the angels; but no second traveler came along to repeat the sleep and the glorious vision. Thus the excellence of, past times tells where the travelers were, but they will never be revisited. It is not only the good or the better, but the best that man seeks.
When Jesus said : “Be ye perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect” this principle of perpetual advance was in full view. He did not find the pattern of excellence in historic or present society, for no one had appeared on earth who might not be over-taken and surpassed. Many noble persons had adorned earth by their presence who possessed some virtues worthy of imitation, but each one had some defects that would mar the life which copied them. Hence his behest was not: “Try to be as sages and prophets were, but only to go in the direction they have gone.” He did not make himself the end of all advance. He only asked his friends to follow him whither he was going. Once he said that those who came after him should do greater works than he had done, because his earthly career was soon to cease. Passing by all human models, he pointed to the di-vine excellence as the goal of all aspiration. He opened the gates of the future and bade mankind set out on an endless journey.
Strange this something hidden in the soul that makes, it attempt new and more difficult tasks ! Every ascent is but the preparation for another as-cent. All idols erected to commemorate an excellence in the past are shattered. Every loiterer in the moral march is bidden: “Up and away. That which you seek is not here. It is not in Athens. It is not in Jerusalem. It is not in this twentieth century America. Leaving Greece and Palestine and America you must press onward in your search.” In pure mathematics there is a problem that represents a line as ever approaching but never reaching a curve. So, in spiritual science, the problem on earth is that of human life forever conforming, but never coinciding with the curve of Infinite Life.
Whether in this respect our age is more defective than other periods we cannot tell, but it is evident that the spiritual motive is not very strong. We find our life motives in the street, in the shop, in money, in custom, in society, in organization rather than in the sky and the down streaming light sent hither to illumine the soul of every mortal that comes into the world. The days of our life are linked together by an iron chain of events, house, trade, office,by an endless list of minor duties, inevitable and many of them beneficent; but they are not bound by a golden band one end of which is anchored beyond the stars. Perhaps it cannot be otherwise. No common human task should be slighted. Our every day work is necessary; and, whatever is necessary must in the long run be benevolent and salutary. But, as in the celestial calendar, one day was intercalated that a god might be born, so, amid our hurrying years, some hours should come in which the higher meanings of our existence are made manifest.
To some such hours do come. They catch fugitive glimpses of a nobler life. The perfect beckons to them and, for a moment, they are impulsively urged toward it. In some hour of thought or worship or music they are borne aloft amid different scenes. Then life seems to be renewed. The noblest sentiments seem native to the soul. The good, the true, the beautiful unfolds as naturally as flowers in the summer sunbeams. All egotism, all petty things fall back, as in the legend of the war in heaven, Satan retreated when the shining arch-angel advanced against him. They seem to be al-most in that sublime Presence of which they have often heard and dreamed. Like the noble Christ they feel that they may become one with God. The supreme moment is almost here when, suddenly, a rude awakening comes. The wings of their thought grow. weary and are furled; the music which, like a chariot of the sun, was bearing them through star-sown spaces descends to earth and leaves theme in a dusty highway; the vision vanishes; the familiar earth-impulse again possesses them; life, with its small ambitions and hot competitions for that which perishes, with its fret and hurry moves forward in its narrow grooves. With a half suppressed sigh they say, Ah! that was beautiful while it lasted, but it was too fanciful and too unrelated to be practical. It may have done for the quiet life of the Orient in the far off first century; or it may have done for the air-fed saints and mystics of medieval days or for poets in our day to dream such dreams, but not for those who have their living to make or fortunes to gain or reputation to earn with hostile circumstance hedging them in on every side. When the standard is reduced more nearly to our common level, when this flying excellence accommodates its speed to our laggard gait, it will receive our attention.
But the order of things, re-enforced by our own experience, teaches that we are asking the impossible. The ideal never halts, never descends, never bargains, never compromises. To every mortal it says: “I cannot descend to thee; thou must ascend to me.”
In unfurling the standard so far in advance of the marching host Christ and Paul made no mistake. No more than they can we, in our exalted moments, set limits to the soul’s progress. When the under-standing is active, we may sometimes conclude that the end of the journey has been reached; but, be-fore our tent is pitched, that which seemed to be an impassable mountain wall suddenly opens into a plain and, in the far distance, the plain merges into a blue and benignant sky. Poor as our life may be and apparent victims of fate as, at times, we all are, yet we are not wholly abandoned. We cannot so become the slaves of habit and routine as to shut out all spontaneous emotions and surprises. Even while we are on the treadmill of common and uninteresting duty, the clouds will sometimes suddenly open, revealing an unexpected glory.
“Man cannot be God’s outlaw if he would,
Nor so abscond him in the caves of sense
But nature still shall search some crevice out
With messages of splendor from that Source
Which dive he, soar he, baffles still and lures.”
“Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear.”
“Here we’re sunk low enough;
But not so low that moments
Sure though seldom, are denied us,
Stand out plainly from their false ones.”
We live truly only when we are obeying our highest instincts implicitly as trees and flowers obey the law within them, and, no more than they, doubting that thus we are fulfilling the purpose of our existence. There is an ancient fancy that a Genius stands by the gate through which mortals pass from another into this existence and gives to every one a drink, causing him to forget his past life, that the experiences of the two worlds may not be confused. For most of us the potion has done its work effectually, for we have forgotten all past worlds and what we may have been. But no cup has been given us mixed strong enough to blot out hope nor make us wholly unmindful of what we might become.
We know how strong the counter-statement is. Barriers are all around us. Sometimes something stronger than gravitation pulls us down.
“We hope, we resolve, we aspire, we pray;
And we think that we mount the air on wings
Beyond the recall of sensual things
But our feet still cling to the cumbrous clay.”
Work, work, everywhere . work in order to keep up with our appointed task. Stocks, bonds, briefs, sermons, lessons, offices, housekeeping, conventions, ceremony, clap-trap, penury, hunger, moans of the suffering, birth, death, our huge world maintaining its steady, impassive course through time and space insensible to all our longings and prayers ! At times the temptation is very strong to become merely a part of the natural and social machinery, smother all our aspirations, be content with merely doing the work of each day and, at nightfall, receive the pittance we have earned. But we are not thus abandoned and left to malign influences that would remand us and our race backward. We are constantly reminded that the law of our world is advance and not retreat. We are smitten and aroused by calls from above. Our time serving content is put to shame. We are apprised that, while we live in the present world and cheerfully perform our full share of its duties, yet we are moving toward a higher condition.
Neither the goal nor the method of reaching it can be described in detail. We only see that the method of nature continues in mankind. That which appears in the external world as order and beauty, in the soul we behold as truth and goodness. There is one source for all things. The soul came from the self-same Power whence came the goldenrod in the October fields and Arcturus yon-der in the sky. Thought and emotion are brother and sister of the oak and the rose. There is but one law. All life is a growth under influences at once immense and benevolent. As the planets in their awful journey through space manifest the power and splendor, so, in his course across earth and beyond, man is to display the virtue and wisdom and beauty of the Creator.
Studying well the method of nature, is it not reasonable to conclude that man is under a law of perpetual progress? Does not the whole course of things, now in whisper, now in trumpet tones declare that here we are put in training for a high and ever higher existence? Passing from duty to duty, from good to good, from ideal to ideal, for many beautiful years, we trust that then man shall find himself in a realm in which the symbol yields to the reality and the mortal becomes immortal.