THE WAY OF THE SOUL

By L. S. P.

There is a homely proverb which tells us that "the longest way round is the shortest way home." Whether the mathematical demonstration of so paradoxical an assertion would be easy or difficult I shall not undertake to decide. My concern is with its application to the spiritual; and with such a reference, are there not many in these hurrying days who would be benefited by a serious attention to it?

Do you doubt its truth? Reflect, and you will be convinced. Have you never groped darkly after a principle, of which you had some dim revelation, and which you strove with mightiest working to make your own? Still as you seemed about to seize it, it eluded your grasp; you were sure that it was there; but to lay hold of it was beyond your strength. You gave up the effort, turned your thoughts to a new channel, and busied yourself with other investigations—when lo! a revelation; and the truth you sought, burst upon you as a ray from the eternal splendor.

Or, perchance, you have been all the day perplexed and wearied with doubts, relating, it may be, to some point of practical moment to you, and seeming to demand a solution, which yet you are unable to give. You would fain come to an end, but you cannot even see an opening; only here and there an uncertain glimmer, which vanishes when you approach it more nearly. Your soul is faint and harassed; you go forth at sunset to commune with nature, and in her communion to forget your perplexities. You gaze on the calm glories of the departing sun, and the calm enters into your soul; the cooling breath of heaven comes to you, and you listen to the many voices, "the melodies of woods and winds and waters," that go up in one harmony to heaven. You behold, and listen, and love;—and with love comes light. Yes, a light, so pure, so soft, so mild, that it seems not of earth rests upon your soul, and your darkness, and doubts, and perplexity are gone.

Oh, never let it be forgotten that the road to truth is a winding road; it lies through the heart as well as through the intellect; for, says the wise man, "Into a malicious soul, wisdom shall not enter." Thou must learn to love, before thou canst learn to know; and never shalt thou behold the serene and beautiful countenance of Truth, until thy aim be honest, and thy soul in harmony with nature.

And are not Nature's paths circuitous? It is man who has constructed the broad high road, and made for himself a straight way through forests and streams, levelling the mountains, and filling up the valleys—but it is not thus in nature. Her paths are wild, and devious, and rambling; following "the river's course, the valley's playful windings," and ever and anon turning aside to some sunny nook, or steep ravine. The rain which falls upon the earth travels not by a plain high road to the springs and fountains whither it is bound; but gently, slowly wins its way, drop by drop, till a little stream is formed, and the stream winds its noiseless and hidden track to the fountain.

In her processes too, Nature is patient and long-waiting. She doth not say to the seed just planted in the earth, spring up and bear fruit forthwith, or you shall be cast out, but she waiteth for the unfolding of the tender germ, and the striking of the new-shooting roots; and hath long patience, and with slowliest care, and a mother's enduring love, she bringeth forth to light the first green leaf. Then she calleth for the sun to shine, and the dews to descend upon the young plant, and many days doth she wait for the ripe fruit.

But man, impatient man would be wise in a day. He waits not for the holy and mysterious processes of nature, he leaves not the wonderful powers within him to unfold in silence and secrecy, but must ever disturb them with his foolish meddling and impertinent haste, like some silly child, who digs up the seed he has planted an hour ago, to see if it have yet sprouted. And are there not some who deal in like fashion with other minds than their own? Educators let them not be called, for never do they bring out what is within. The young mind is not to them a germ to be unfolded, an infant to be nursed into manhood, but rather a receptacle to be filled, and stuffed, and crammed as expeditiously as possible; and this, thanks to the numerous machines lately invented for the purpose, is very quick indeed.

There have been times when you seemed to make no progress in your favorite pursuit. You struggled without advancing as we sometimes do in dreams, or though you stepped up and down, it was as in a treadmill. So it seemed to you. But was it so? Nay, the process was going on within, though its visible manifestations may have ceased. If no addition was made to the superstructure, yet the foundations were deepening and widening; if the branches and leaves did not grow, yet the root strengthened itself in the earth.

But not only so—you seemed to be going backward. Even the ground slipped from under your feet, and where you had heretofore a firm standing-place, you found but a swamp. And have you never considered that Nature too sometimes works backwards? See that withered leaf which flutters in the breeze, maintaining yet an uncertain hold upon the branch which nurtured its younger growth. A fresh gust of wind loosens its hold, and it is blown in circling eddies to the earth. There it rests till the elements of decay in its bosom have finished their work, and it mixes with the dust. "What is this? Can a mother forget her child? Does Nature destroy her own productions?" Ah, look again. In that fresh-blooming flower, dyed with tints of infinite softness, behold the withered leaf. Nature was as really working to the production of that flower when she decomposed the elements of the leaf, as when she unfolded the germ, and elaborated the juices, and blended the tints of the flower itself. It was but a glorified resurrection. And your spiritual growth is going on as truly and steadily, if not as visibly and delightfully, when you cast aside the slough of some old prejudice, or painfully tear yourself from a cherished delusion as when the dawning of a new truth flashes light and joy upon your soul.

For what Coleridge has said of nations, is equally true of individuals. "The progress of the species neither is nor can be, like that of a Roman road, in a right line. It may be more justly compared to that of a river, which, both in its smaller reaches and larger turnings, is frequently forced back towards its fountains, by objects which cannot otherwise be eluded or overcome; yet with an accompanying impulse that will ensure its advancement hereafter, it is either gaining strength every hour or conquering in secret some difficulty, by a labor that contributes as effectually to further its course, as when it moves forward in an uninterrupted line."

I might go on to illustrate the application of this truth to self-knowledge, but it is one easily made, by each for himself. Its bearing upon our moral growth must not be so lightly passed over.

You have learned that you have a spirit which may be, must be trained for immortality and heaven. You have found too that there are difficulties in the way of this training. There is a constant under-current of selfishness ready to insinuate itself into all you do; there is contempt for your inferiors in birth or cultivation, ever offering to start up, and there is a spirit of resentment against those who have injured you ready to take fire on the least provocation. What is to be done with these? You do not forget that to Him, whose "still, small voice" can speak with authority to the spirits He has made, must be your first appeal; but neither do you forget that his help is vouchsafed to those only who help themselves. And how will you help yourself? Will you in the plenitude of your might, and the resoluteness of kindled energy, will the extinction of those unruly passions? Try it; exert the volition; will to stop the flowing tide of revenge in your breast, and to cause love and forgiveness to spring up in its place. Well, have you done it? But what means that glowing cheek—that flashing eye—that compressed brow? Is such the expression of love? Nay brother, you have mistaken the way. Not the straight path of direct volition will ever lead you to your object.

But come forth with me into the field. Here are "sweet, strange flowers," to glad thy heart with their innocent beauty, and delight thee with their fragrance; here is the broad and blessed "sky bending over" thee, and the quiet lake at thy feet.

"The air is spread with beauty; and the sky
Is musical with sounds that rise and die,
Till scarce the ear can catch them; then they swell,
Then send from far a low, sweet, sad farewell."

And who art thou that bringest discord and rough, angry passions into a scene like this? Ah, thou bringest not discord, it has stolen from thy heart; thou art at peace. For it is not a poetic fiction when we are told that a wayward spirit, is subdued by nature's loveliness and lovingness.

"Till he can no more endure
To be a jarring and a dissonant thing,
Amidst this general dance and minstrelsy;
But, bursting into tears, wins back his way,
His angry spirit healed and harmonized,
By the benignant touch of love and beauty."

We asked, perchance, that our hearts might be lifted above the earth, and taught to repose with a surer love, and a more child-like trustfulness on the Father of Spirits. And did we know that our prayer was answered when the light of our eyes was torn from us; when our souls were rent with bitter agony, and lay crushed and bowed beneath the stroke of His hand? Yes, it was answered; we know it now, though we knew it not then. The weary bird never reposes so sweetly in its nest, as when it hath been battered by the tempest and chased by the vulture; never doth the little child rest so lovingly and rejoicingly on its mother's breast, as when it hath there found a shelter from the injuries and taunts of its rude play-fellows; and the christian never knows the full sweetness of the words, "My Father in Heaven," till he can also add, "there is none that I desire beside Thee."