THE last great adventure is the phrase by which a man once described death as applied to himself, when the disabled ship, on which he was, plunged to her doom. We can understand how gallant a heart it was to whose lips these words sprang instinctively when he was suddenly called upon to die. He was not an ecclesiastic or a religionist. He was an actor.
That is exactly what death is--not something apart from or hostile to life, but the final stage in the experience of mortality. If we have been walking by faith, that is to say, making each day a new adventure into the unknown, death cannot take us by surprise or do anything worse than challenge us to move into the inevitable as though it were our deliberate choice. A man can never choose death for death's sake. That is suicide, the largest insult to human nature which can be offered. It is due to the fear of living. There is no temper of soul more horrifying and cowardly than fear of living. Here is the classic description of its ultimate fate. The Lord shall give thee a trembling heart, and failing eyes, and pining of soul; and thy life shall hang in doubt before thee; and thou shalt fear night and day, and shalt have none assurance of thy life; in the morning thou shalt say, Would God it were even! and at even thou shalt say, Would God it were morning! for the fear of thy heart which thou shalt fear, and for the sight of thine eyes which thou shalt see. The fear of living is always due to a single cause, the deliberate refusal to accept life as a high-hearted adventure in the name of God and for the sake of mankind. It takes its beginnings in shirking duty, in seeking ease, in sheltering self. Its cure consists in flinging self-protection to the winds and trusting oneself to some big scheme, the bigger the better, of a sort of which we are assured God will not be ashamed. Many a man's life has been suddenly simplified and given point to by the call of humanity for help in the war. There has happened to him what happened to a character in modern fiction. His course "was simple because he now took no thought of what would happen to himself;--that no longer even interested him,--he was thinking only of what he ought to do. And strangely enough, while he was not considering his own needs, he knew without any doubt what he ought to do for others." It is the old story of losing life to save it.
The awful fate of fearing to live was something our Lord meets. He urges upon us not to give ourselves up to anxious thoughts for material needs or the contents of to-morrow. God removes all the menace there may be in them without the help of perturbed or gloomy anticipations. Indeed, most of the terrors of the unknown are those we inject into them by our timorous proleptic disposition. It is the completeness of God's grasp of affairs that is our assurance that we can trust Him to look after His business, provided we do not thwart Him by trying to do it for Him, and if we attend to our own. We have a right to become solicitous for the future and for the condition of mankind only to the extent we are responsible for it. Solicitude for others, their present and future, meets with no rebuke from God. Such solicitude is but a phase of love and is the parent of remedial and saving effort on our part. It has its suffering, of course, for it is signed powerfully and deeply with the sign of the Cross, but it is not a disease, like self-solicitude is; it is a vitality.
Self-saving is a process of death; saving others a process of life. Consequently the self-saver must be afraid to live, for life is his antipode. The saviour of others cannot be afraid to live, for his sole business is life and abundant life. The self-saver must be afraid to die because he is not experienced in adventure into any sphere where he cannot handle affairs to his own advantage. He fears what lies lurking in the unknown. It is full of possible enemies and terrors. The saviour of others cannot be afraid to die because having died daily, he is skilled in the practice of immortality. His large experience in adventure has revealed to him the glory of the unknown, so that he is assured that behind the last great adventure is the grandest and best part of life. For him there can be no shadows or terrifying foes in any realm presided over by his Father, in whom and from whom are all things.
St. Paul, who is a master of simplicity where he is not a master of obscurity, gets at the root of the matter in brief and simple language. O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting? The sting of death is sin; and the power of sin is the law; but thanks be to God which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Wherefore, my beloved brethren, be ye steadfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, for as much as ye know that your labour is not vain in the Lord.
In these days, when the beat of the wings of the angel of death is ever sounding in our ears, and when daily, hourly, whole legions of young men are, to use the stock phrase, going before their time, in the sense of dying with but few years to their credit, it is our duty to look at the unfearful side of death. Let it be said, with the glorious certainty that belongs to the assertion, death in its Christian character is a superb victory, crowning all the victories of life. As a natural process it is the direct act of God, long antedating man's appearance on earth. It is the counterpart in man of that spring seedtime when the corn of wheat is joyously put into the ground that the world may be clothed in verdure and beauty and nourishment. It belongs to the same category as birth, and--I am not speaking of the process of dying which is slow and painful often--is less painful. Its sinister and inimical character is that which becomes attached to it by human self-will, which is disobedience to God and the source of all wickedness. It is hostile to-day only so far as we choose to make it so. The terror of death is in ourselves rather than in death. Christ made clear by illustration that in Him death was a new upward and onward stride. Apart from life as a Son of God it is animal dissolution. As the last experience, like birth a sort of boundary experience, of the life of a Son of God it is spiritual transfiguration. St. Francis, the most healthy-minded of saints, spoke of his sister, the death of the body. The only death which he considered hostile was the death of sin---soul death.
I believe that it is the horror and fear of dying that is our chief trouble. The protracted suffering, the fading faculties, the repulsiveness of the natural processes, lead us astray. Probably all of us would choose, if we were allowed to, the manner of our going. We would prefer to stride out quickly at an opportune moment. We would avoid the autumnal method for ourselves and others. But the autumn, the canker and the storm are for men as for trees. Whatever the guise in which death greets us, death is in itself never more and never less than death. To the person concerned, the disfigurement and physical mutilation of war probably means a much speedier and less tedious entrance into the last great adventure than if he had lived to succumb to disease. Our over-careful preservation of the dust of the dead is receiving a shock, a needed shock to-day, when frequently no dust is found to care for.
If I should die, think only this of me:
That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust conceal'd;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam.
The dust which is part of the great world even when it is animated by a living soul, cannot be kept from mingling with mother earth. We can label it as though we were cheating her of her own, but it is only a label. There is something fine in the thought that the whole earth or the whole sea is the grave of gallant men who gave their lives for the whole and for the holy. Who could choose for Kitchener a more appropriate grave than the transparent, calm depths of the great ocean!
The moment is an opportune one in which to get a truer and more wholesome and more whole view of death than that which ordinarily prevails. There is too much black about Christian death. If for us it is a hard discipline to say good-bye for a while, the going from earth marks a gala day for the one who goes. The house of death should abjure the artificial. The tone of triumph should dominate our farewell. We cannot force ourselves into this temper of mind, but it will follow on as the logical result of a Christian view of death.
The mournful death is that which is due to our own fault, the death that snatched away the sinner in his sin. Even here the mercy of the Father rises and overshadows the weak and erring child. The Fatherhood of God is as potent in death and after as it is in life.
We can afford to leave the time and the manner of death to Him Who is the Conqueror of death. We should shut our minds to a consideration of these elements over which we have no control. Brooding over these diseases of the imagination, frequently it induces or aids processes which end in physical disablement. There is among the soldiers at the front a rather fine type of fatalism which is not fearful but trustful.
Through joy and blindness he shall know, Not caring much to know, that still Nor lead nor steel shall reach him, so That it be not the Destined Will.
I have wondered at times whether the Church has not over-mysticized the conception of life beyond the grave, and, in so doing, made death not an incident but a break in life. The book of the Apocalypse is the basis of most pictures of the other world. Its oriental colour and richness, its deep symbolism, its figurative mode of expression are foreign to Western thought and method. It has not been translated enough, and we have failed to get the purport of its mystical measures. Our untrained imaginations have fallen a prey to literalism. I am not objecting to the glow of mystery which is part of the charm and part of the reality of any attempt to depict that which is interior to and beyond our life and experience. Nor is it desirable to express the other world in terms of this. What is necessary, however, is to leave no room to men to suppose that after death they are any different than they were before in their inmost self, to accentuate the continuity of life, and to keep all artificiality out of the picture of the great beyond.
The first and best illustration of the effect upon personality of death is found in Jesus Christ. After His reappearance from the grave He is unaltered in character, tone of thought and fundamental relationships. He is the Son of Man that He was, with widened scope and powers, and freedom from, in the best sense of the word, unnaturalness. The life of His companions fits into His and His into theirs. What strikes one forcibly is the absence of anything like a break in the continuity of His personality.
If we think of death as an introduction into conditions wholly foreign and unsuited to human nature, death must be something to be feared. It is unwonted in that it is untried. But it is thoroughly human in that it is part of universal human experience. It is suited to us. It is the next thing we need when we have finished here. Our Lord promises by His own representative career what will happen to us. Of course the Resurrection and all it means still lies beyond, but the interim period is as well fitted to human life as the post-Resurrection period.
Dante does a great service in the Divine Comedy by his method. He carries earth down to the Inferno and up to the Purgatorio and the Paradiso. The language used and the country depicted are such as are familiar. The mystical is not absent, but it is not overwhelming. As we think of the multitudes of our own generation who are going into the other world in close comradeship, it will be well for us to consider the wholeness of life, and, whatever new and developed features there may be, how fitted it is for those who are entering it. A friend, in full view of the great change, once wrote me: "Paradise by every description is a nice place, and it's a wonder how reluctant most of us Christians are to go there. This is a jolly old world full of discouragement and joy, pain and triumph, a continual riddle and paradox--which is one of the things which makes it interesting. . . . The thought is overwhelming that by the time you get this letter ... I may know more than you do about lots of things."
Then as to our nearer relationship with God. We use the phrase Beatific Vision to indicate that complete realization of God's presence and our nearness to Him which is the greatest gift of heaven. After death the earliest impact of God, so to speak, will be His self-giving, His tender love. A little while since a child lay dying, and exclaimed: "I see the good God and He is so gentle to me. I want to pray." Then later: "This is a beautiful house, I think I shall stay here,"--the child spoke profound truth, to the age to which she belonged for so short a moment. The other world which welcomed her was a place prepared for her, and God was chiefly gentle.
Julian of Norwich is always eloquent on this last point. In her Sixth Revelation, which is one of the choicest, she pictures God's appreciation of what His children do. "The good Lord said: I thank thee for thy travail, and especially for thy youth." Her vision is of our Lord as lord in His own house entertaining His dear worthy servants and friends at a stately feast. His humility is the first thing she noticed--the Lord took no place in His house, but He reigned there royally, filling it full of joy and mirth, "Himself endlessly to gladden and to solace His dear worthy friends, full homely and full courteously, with marvellous melody of endless love, in His own fair blessed countenance." Then she describes the three degrees of bliss that every "soul shall have in heaven that willingly served God in any degree on earth." The first is the worshipful thanks of our Lord God--you see He is not exacting but giving--the second is that the thanks are made publicly in the presence of all Heaven. "A king, if he thank his servants, it is a great worship to them, and if he maketh it known to all the realm, then is the worship greatly increased." And the third is, that "as new and as gladdening as it is received in that time, right so shall it last without end.''
It is not because I believe there is absence of discipline beyond the grave when we have achieved the last adventure that I have given chief place to the gentle courtesy of God, but because the thought of God's austerity can be borne only upon the background of His mercy. Such discipline there is. I know I shall need it. Our own sense of justice will welcome it. Whatever it may be we have no reason to fear it, for it will be but a single element in the great bath of God's love which will receive us, and will be exactly that which we need to shape us into the sort of persons we most desire to be. Beloved, now are we children of God, and it is not made manifest what we shall be. We know that, if He shall be manifested, we shall be like Him; for we shall see Him even as He is. And every one that hath this hope set on Him purifieth himself, even as He is pure.
We bless Thy holy Name for all Thy servants departed this life in Thy faith and fear; beseeching Thee to give us grace so to follow their good examples, that with them we may be partakers of Thy heavenly kingdom. Grant this, O Father, for Jesus Christ's sake, our only Mediator and Advocate.