Project Canterbury

Alexander Heriot Mackonochie: A Memoir

By E.A. Towle

Edited by Edward Francis Russell.

London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner, & Co., 1890.

Chapter XIII. 1875-1882 (continued).

Religious aspect of Mr. Mackonochie's work--Spiritual letters--Dealings with the young--Thoughts upon death

We have said that Mr. Mackonochie's life during these last years at St. Alban's was neither pre-eminently parochial nor controversial. Not only in its motive power, but in its ordinary-everyday occupations it had become of an almost exclusively religious character. No doubt 'the ideals of conduct require,' as it has been said, 'to be constantly reasserted and applied with renewed earnestness to the individual, social, political, and religious life of mankind;' but it was with the individual and religious life that he was chiefly concerned.

He had not the breadth of vision which with a sort of prophetic instinct sees the influence of extraneous elements upon the one object in view, and instinctively recognises the almost invisible links which make the interests of the individual inseparable from those of the community. He may almost be said to have had no theories; no schemes of widespreading social or legislative reform. When he had dealt with these questions at all it had been in a practical manner; and from the beginning he had been chiefly concerned about the highest interests of his people. From the day of its consecration the Church had been the centre of the work at St. Alban's, and the mission of the Church is evangelistic. It was no question of civil rights, of temporary alleviations, or mere philanthropy. The Apostles of the Redemption must of necessity be lovers of men, not merely of mankind in the abstract, but of each separate soul, and their work is consequently of an essentially personal character.

No doubt this is more especially the case with those who by reason of their office, and with a full appreciation of its obligations, are constantly becoming acquainted with the sins, temptations, and deeper spiritual necessities of their people; and, as time went on, it was inevitable that Mr. Mackonochie should be more and more engrossed in ministering to persons who came under his own immediate influence or voluntarily sought his help. From the first he had had the power of inspiring confidence in those who were absolute strangers to him: and now, after more than twenty years at St. Alban's, and after holding numberless missions and retreats, the large and varied experience which he had gained in dealing with all classes of people and with all sorts of mental or spiritual difficulties had naturally led many who had no connection with his church or parish to seek his ministrations. Every week he was occupied in hearing confessions in his own church for many hours, irrespective of his work at St. Saviour's Priory, whilst he may be said to have been almost always at the command of those who sought his help; sacrificing his time and convenience without hesitation to claims which were often unreasonable or inconsiderate.

His correspondence was large, but mostly not of a character for publication. His letters were, as a rule, short, very much to the point, and frequently only of interest to the person addressed. Their very brevity and decisiveness is, however, characteristic, and amongst those entrusted to us we have selected the following as specially illustrating the intimate connection which existed in his own mind between spiritual insight and moral sensitiveness; the 'absolute harmony of inward desire with outward obligation,' in fact, the influence of unseen things upon the ordinary circumstances of every-day life.

'On a first Confession.' October 24, 1878. A first confession, especially if made when any one has reached your age, is a great point in the spiritual life. It looks both backwards and forwards. Looking backwards it gathers up the works of the 'Old Adam' in us and forces them to appear in judgment before the great Judge of all the world; not merely with the object of forgiveness, and the varying of these old works; but even more for their expulsion, and for a fresh gift of strength from God to lead a life free from them. Looking forward it faces the long battle of life, pledges the soul to perseverance through the Blood of the Lamb of God and the Anointing of the Holy Ghost, and then presents to the soul the last confession, which we hope to make calmly, quietly, resolutely, once more of our whole life, when the shell of this world's existence is going to break and the true life to shine from within us.

Remember specially these things:

(1) You cannot get the benefit of this great Sacrament, except in the Power and Anointing of the Holy Ghost. Our Saviour was Incarnate, was baptized, was tempted and conquered, was agonized in His Passion, was crucified, died, rose, ascended--is enthroned in Heaven, all by the anointing of the Holy Ghost. He is emphatically the Christ, i.e. the Anointed. And we too are what we are, Christ's anointed ones in Him. Therefore prepare in the power of the Anointing of the Holy Ghost; make your confession in that Power, receive Absolution, and do your penance in the same Power. Remember

(2) That in Absolution the Holy Ghost not only washes your soul in the Blood of the Lamb, but in the same Blood promises to you special gifts of strength for future battles, first against fresh temptations to the old sins, and then against any other temptations by which the devil may assail you.

(3) Remember, not as an oppressing thought, but as one full of joy and satisfaction, that those about us have a right to expect visible results (I do not mean instantaneous) from habitual confession. They have a right to see habitual faults giving way, especially any by which we observe that we give offence to others as well as to God.

(4) Remember that your Communions are the seal of the confession. Therefore be specially careful to keep the grace of the Absolution intact as far as possible, till after your Communion. . . .

(5) Remember that we each have an inner life in which we are already by baptism, in a literal sense, dead, buried, risen, ascended, seated at the Right Hand of God. . . . Read Ephesians iii. 21, and see what is the work which God is seeking to carry out in us, and how He is not satisfied till He has completed it by our being filled with all the Fulness of God--literally filled even up to all the Fulness of God. It is this inner life which will eventually shine forth gloriously from within us, as the Christ-life in the manifestation of the sons of God.

How habitual and intense his own realisation of that inner life was is apparent in all his letters upon religious subjects. Often commonplace, always unargumentative, there is a direct truthfulness of feeling and expression which could only proceed from a pure and simple nature, living in intimate communion with God. Take, for instance, the following, written in a time of great anxiety in answer to some remonstrances as to the line of conduct which he thought it right to pursue:

April 10, 1885.

I am not going to write much. I see the force of all you say, if there was not something else to be said.

We are not put into this world to find our life but to lose it. This is the very foundation of Our Lord's Kingdom and also His plain teaching . . . our gift is the cross. God lived and died in misery--not to make us comfortable but that we should live His Life in ourselves, as far as we can in this world, and then be seated on His Throne for ever in Heaven. I do not think there is one promise in the Gospel that we shall be happy in this world--it is impossible, this world is under the curse, and our Baptismal life, the life which we are called upon to live, is a life in a hostile country. . . . From the Beatitudes to the end of Revelation you find no other promise for time. But what for eternity! What will not have been secured by Christ for us if we will enter into His Sorrows, and abide in them with joy in this world; when He shall come with His 'Come, thou good and faithful servant, enter thou into the joy of Thy Lord.' ... If soldiers of earth can give up their lives--perhaps without a hope for the next world--in obedience and enthusiasm for a human leader; what ought we not to be ready to do and to suffer when led by the King of Kings?

Again on Easter Day, 1882, he writes:

This of all the great seasons is the one in which all can join because it is the festival of the Eternal joy. Others in some way think of earth; but the day on which the Saviour conquered death and made life the trading time for heaven--in which the more we lose of the interests of the dying earth, the more we may gain of the land which is very far off--speaks only of things certain, founded upon the Kingdom of the risen Lord.

And yet this spirit of almost instinctive detachment, this constant looking beyond the horizon of this present world, never made him lose interest in the ordinary joys and sorrows, cares and pleasures which in any way affected other people's lives. In times of sickness or bereavement he would enter into every circumstance of the case with the most sympathetic appreciation of its special trials, being always particularly anxious that physical weakness or depression should not be confounded with spiritual failings.

I am very sorry indeed that you have that terrible cloud hanging over you (he writes to one of his spiritual children). Still I can but tell you the truth: that it is more closely allied to the back than anything else. I would gladly say otherwise, because it would be easier to prescribe spiritual remedies than to give hope out of bodily ailments, when they take this very common, though most trying form. . . . Try to commit thy way unto the Lord. . . . The darkness is His first, yours only in a shadow.

Here again is a practical answer to some questions which had been addressed to him on the subject of vocation:

The objections and the answers rest on the same mistake. Sisters are not angels. . . . They take into the cloister the flesh and blood and the same imperfect interior that they had in the world. In the cloister they find a rule, a habit of devotion and other things which help them; and a far harder assault of the devil than they ever had in the world. If they have chosen their vocation rightly, they will on the whole serve God better in religion than out of it, but still with many things which hastily judged may cause scandal to outsiders. If they have not chosen their vocation rightly, the issue may be a terrible downfall, and will certainly be a fierce struggle. An out-ward call does not mean a person being without a happy home, and driven to a convent for sympathy. A vocation might possibly arise under such circumstances, but would need to be very carefully sifted. If God calls you into religion you ought to go, but if He does not, it is certain (not probable only) that you can serve Him much better out than in. It is also most certain that you ought not to seek such a life from cowardice. There are some to whom God has not given strength for the struggles of the world; these might seek a convent, not from cowardice, but as one catches at a post to avoid falling. Excuse this hasty reply. I do not like to delay longer, and think this really covers the whole ground.

Here is another letter to one troubled about the apparent and visible triumph of evil:

The hypothesis is not true. It is not true that x bad men can do more harm than x good men can do good. They seem to be able to do so, because the evil which already lies dormant in a man's nature is a much more active and volatile principle than the good, so that converts to evil are commonly made much more rapidly than converts to good, but then the evil to which they are converted has no real foundation to stand upon, and is therefore only upheld by the powers of evil. If they are withdrawn for a moment the edifice falls, and the spot is again clear for God to work upon. The point where you went astray was in not seeing from the first that the evil man is just as much under the power of God as the evil spirit, but God all the time keeps the ordering and governing of their devices in His own Hand. Hence neither one nor the other can tempt a man more than that man is able to bear, or afflict a man more than is good for him, or do anything which shall not in the end turn to the great increase of sanctity and the glory of God. Many things tend to give a false appearance to the power of evil, but this is the truth. One thing is the great difference in the way in which God and Satan work. God never enslaves a man's will. The will is God's own Image and too noble for Him to wish to enslave it. The moment it is enslaved it is destroyed. God's work is to set it free; to open its eyes to show it the beauty of the things of God, and to strengthen it to act according to the right reason with which He has endued it. In proportion as God's work succeeds, the will sees the nothingness of its own manhood, and on the other hand the infinite goodness and attractiveness of God. It therefore abhors itself and willingly enslaves itself to the Will of God. This is the slavery of which St. Paul speaks, which is perfect freedom.

What strikes one perhaps most forcibly in so many of these letters is the tone of absolute and unhesitating confidence; a confidence more active and buoyant than resignation, which not only touches the present, but reaches onward to the future, and interprets his past. It had always been his safeguard in moments of success, and his support in failure.

Those who work honestly for God, to the best of their power (he wrote to an elementary teacher) may not produce the best result, but the work will bo true and thorough, full of life and hope, and will receive God's blessing--will accomplish the work whereto He sends. This work which God does through our work is not always such as can be written down in statistical returns or class lists.

Here again is a letter of practical advice to some one in a difficulty about obtaining ordinary means of grace:

We must be satisfied with what God gives us--it is to us our 'daily bread,' or, as the Greek word most likely means, our sufficient bread. . . . What you say about the difficulties, about manner in church, &c., is quite true; but I think the need of self-restraint in such things in certain places is good for us. It helps us to see that such things are matters of reverence dependent upon circumstances, not necessaries for the protection of interior reverence. You will, I think, value them the more for the having to give them up for a time, especially if you can be careful to make them (as it were) inwardly in thought and intention.

In September 1879 we find a letter of advice of another kind, its tone of decision upon the one point in question, irrespective of minor considerations, illustrating at once his own temper of mind, and also what he understood by 'counsel' in the theological sense of the word.

My dear child,--My advice is not to read non-Christian books. Such are not simply non-Christian, but un-Christian. Christianity is the revelation of God and admits no rival. The theory of non-Christianity is that against which Christianity has from the first had to contend. The world was perfectly ready to accept Christ, provided He would have allowed non-Christianity to live alongside of Him.

Do not let yourself be deluded by the sophistry that 'one's religion cannot be worth much if one cannot read a book by a non-Christian.' You might as well say that one's constitution cannot be worth much if one cannot take poison. Of course, the Faith would not be worth much if it could not be tested, but it is not every one that is called of God to test it. The principles of physic, surgery, law, mechanics, &c, would be worthless if they would not bear testing, but it does not follow that every one is called to test them. Avoid non-Christianity in all its forms. Strengthen your spiritual intellect by the positive study of Christianity, and you will find no difficulty in throwing off its opposite. You may not be always able to give a scientific answer to every objection--though the Christian instinct will seldom fail even in that--but you will feel that it is, what it calls itself, non-Christian, and therefore false. Keep as much as possible aloof from people who are non-Christian, and remember that when with them you are sent to them from Christ, that your life and patent loyalty to your Master may be His witness to them. He does not want you to be a skilful fencer in the school of polemics, but a manifestly devoted Christian in the school of Christ.

The letters which follow are addressed to young people or to children, and, as we have seen, though fond of children, his very reverence for their innocence and simplicity generated a sort of constraint, whilst in teaching he undoubtedly expected too much from their restless bodies and volatile spirits. But it was altogether different in his dealings with the individual child. His brother's children looked forward to his visits as the happiest times in their lives; to them he was the most sympathetic of companions, entering with all possible zest into their schemes and pleasures, and it was the same with his friends' children, or indeed any with whom he was brought into direct personal contact. They shared the confidence which their elders reposed in him, and showed it with all the simplicity of their age. A Sister tells how she one day observed two little girls waiting for a long time patiently in the part of the church where he was hearing confessions, and at last, perplexed at the businesslike aspect of these very small penitents, she asked them what they wanted. 'They were waiting,' they answered, 'for Father Mackonochie;' and then in reply to further inquiries they confidentially disclosed their further object--' They wanted to see Father Mackonochie to show him their new dollies!' It is a trifling incident enough, yet not without its significance; and here is a note to a small godchild, written in large hand, which bears upon the same point:

Mind you must be a good little governess to yourself. Whenever self wants to play at wrong times or do things which are not allowed, you must put her in the corner of your own little heart, which is self's own room, until she is good again, and then you will save other people the trouble of keeping you in order. God bless you. In Him, your affectionate godfather,

A. H. M.

Love is no doubt in its right place in the heart of any one (he wrote again), but if it has an earthly throne it is the child's heart.

And with tender vigilance he guarded it, lest by careless handling it should be rashly profaned.

Thirteen years old! (he wrote in February 1876 to one of his little nieces). What a sage person both in the French and English sense you ought to be! Thirteen years of Christian life and more than one of communicant life are a great treasure to have to thank God for; and like so many talents have to multiply in the use of them. So far they have been laying the foundation of the life yet to be lived--one foundation more in the Heavenly City--now they have to be built upon. Think how life with all its powers, and joys, and knowledge, and hopes, and purposes, and bright careless happiness for a child in the protecting hand of God, has grown and developed itself in these thirteen years. And then there is the future for development, and fresh joys and wider knowledge and more happiness, some perhaps as careless as the past and some other whose very essence will be its fulness of care. . . . Before you get this you will have made your birthday Communion, and I shall have remembered you in the best way I can at the altar. So many blessings upon the day, and upon all the years, be they many or few, which lie between it and the brighter eternity. God bless you in Him. Your most affectionate uncle,

Alex. Heriot Mackonochie.

Again, on the occasion of a confirmation, he writes:

None put on the armour of the Holy Spirit without having to prove its temper . . . The enemies who seek to mar your warfare are not far off, it will be for you, in the power of the armour which you will wear, and of Him Whose it is and Who will clothe you in it, to make each conflict an occasion for learning better to handle your weapons and to keep unsullied the brightness of your robes and arms. Jesus Christ the same yesterday, to-day, and for ever will be your watchword and your strength; study and learn Him in your Bible, and work Him out in your life, and each day and year will fill you more and more with the bright joy of conquest. To copy Him we must rub out self. Our souls are like those old manuscripts on which once God's word was written, and men have rubbed It out to write instead some common poem. The poem of self is written upon our souls in some language or other, but it is the Word of God which lies underneath, and the words of which we are so often seeing glimpses in our prayers and holy desires. We must rub out the poem and restore the Word.

Space does not allow of many more quotations, and with some extracts from letters to an older person upon the subject of death we must close the chapter.

The ministering to the bodies of the departed is most painful and most blessed. There is such a stern reality about it. The fight is over and God has recalled the spirit to His Own Presence, whence it came forth to earth, and the earth is claiming its own. We see ourselves as we shall soon be. ... Then the last struggles, however faint, tell one of the mortal part of our being in terrible conflict with the invisible enemy. We see the instinct which God has implanted--that which is simply mortal refusing as it were to die . . . There is no haste, each struggle seems to end in the triumph of the victim, but each ends in the firmer closing in of the arms of the enemy--then the last drop of life is sucked out and death has conquered. But all this makes one ask, is this all? and the glorious words ring in one's ears, From death to life; from sorrow to joy; from a vale of misery to a Paradise of mercy. The house has fallen to pieces, but the inhabitant is first sheltered in the courts of his Father's Palace. Then the mystery of the unseen world. What is the vision of the soul now? Has it seen Jesus? How has it borne that awful moment--the first of true and unclouded knowledge of Jesus and of herself. Has he seen those of his own friends who have gone before him? What has been the face of his guardian angel? Has he seen the sweet face of Blessed Mary? Till at last our own soul finds rest only in the profession of its own faith.

Simply to His Grace and only
Light and life and power belong;
And I love supremely solely
Him the Holy, Him the Strong.

And again; you will naturally be turning your thoughts mostly to him who is keeping his first Sunday on the other side of Jordan. It is so hard to realise the strangeness of new revelations in that world which is so near and seems so far off from this in which we live. And it always seems that when God has taught any one so little as He seems to have your brother, that the beatific vision must be something so infinitely more startling than to those who have realised it ever so little in this life. It seems so no doubt, and yet perhaps it is not. I often think in those lives which seem to be left so much to themselves and the light of nature there may lie manifold operations of the Holy Spirit working out the implanted life of Christ in ways none the less real though unseen by us and perhaps realised by him. Then the passage through the veil would be a marvellous opening out of instincts, suggestions, hopes, of movements of the soul hitherto unintelligible; it would be a reading into sense of voices heard in the soul but as yet not comprehended, an interpreting, in fact, of the enigmas of life.

There is something remarkable about the absolute truthfulness of tone upon a subject around which so many tender fictions have naturally twined themselves. There is no suggestion of any false comfort to the mourner. The separation is a stern reality, and death is terrible; and faith, though it shines upon the mysteries beyond, fails to solve them. Here by the grave-side, if anywhere, he must be true. His earthly life is drawing to a close, but no familiarity has deadened his sense of reverence, and the great secrets with which he is so soon to become acquainted are as full of awe for him as ever.

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