WORDS OF HELP AND COMFORT
Trials and Opposition to be expected--The Various Classes of Arguments Urged against the Decision--The Argument of Unbelievers--The Objections of Believers--The Advice of Worldly Wisdom--The Counsel of Sympathizing but Dissuading Friends--Duty to Consider Family Needs--What of Real Weight--Theological Opponents and their Objections to the Life--The Question of Vows--The Entreaties of Relatives and Friends--The Appeal to the Affections, "Don't break up the Family "--The Choice between Christ and all Others--In Colloquy with Christ, the Soul finds the Confirmation of its Choice, the Answer to all its Fears, and its Abiding Peace.
IF you decide to apply to some Sisterhood, you must expect to have your decision combated from many quarters, and by every kind of argument. Yours may be the privilege of a home filled with grace-endowed and peace-laden souls, where the heart of Jesus is the common centre and the interests of Jesus reign supreme. There it is well known that nothing separates,--not time, nor place, nor work, nor death itself, but only sin; and that every act of sacrifice for Christ's sake only binds all hearts more closely together in an eternal fellowship of divine love. Such parents feel that God is sealing with His approval their union, and doing them the greatest of honours, and that they are doing Him their most acceptable service, in giving their child to God.
But it is more likely you will be made to realize the truth of Christ's words, "I came not to bring peace on the earth, but a sword," and, "A man's foes shall be those of his own household." You will need to take shelter under the Master's sayings, "If a man love father or mother more than Me, he is not worthy of Me;" and, "Everyone that hath forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for My Name's sake, shall receive an hundredfold, and shall inherit everlasting life."
The objections raised against your proposed course may be roughly classified under these five heads: as the arguments of worldly wisdom; of unwise spirituality; of a personal character; of a mistaken theology; and of appeals to your affections or fears.
I. As Christian goodness always rouses the hatred of the unbelieving, you must expect to have it said that this notion of yours to give up your position, prospects, social duties, and pleasures, is a gigantic folly; that it only belongs to the superstition of Christianity, which is fast dying out; that if you will be a Christian, at least you should be a sensible one, and have nothing to do with this kind of mummery, which intelligent persons and the higher social classes simply ignore.
II. Or your unbelieving adviser may be answered by another counsellor, who will tell you that it is nonsense to say Christianity is dying out, for never were there so many Christians, or any possessed of more intelligent or better tested grounds for their faith, or any more devoted than those of our times; but that you have been led astray by foolish or designing friends, and become enamoured with a life which belonged to the dark ages, and whose usefulness, if it had any, has passed away, and whose introduction now is ruining the Protestantism of our Church. Yet another and fairer mind will tell you that Christianity is indeed true, and would not have you other than a good Churchman; that this dedicated life did exist in early times, and has some scriptural warrant, but that you can more acceptably serve God elsewhere; that you have work for Christ to do in your parish, or in the many societies to which you belong, or in the schools, or among the poor and in your home; that you have plain duties lying right before you, and why should you give them up?--why, with so many opportunities for Christian usefulness at your own door, should you go away to make others for yourself?
III. Again, a friend may come closer to your own line of thought, and say sympathizingly that the foregoing reasons are not such as to affect one who feels she is called by God to this life. "These good people misunderstand us. I believe in Sisterhoods, and wish them well. They are excellent institutions for doing the Church's work. God does indeed call some persons to them, and if God called you I admit you ought to leave these present duties for others. It is a true spiritual maxim that, if God calls, He will provide for what He calls us from. You, however, are not strong enough; or you are too young and inexperienced and scarcely know what you are giving up; or you are too old and your habits too fixed; or you are naturally so bright and gay and fond of society that you would not be happy under the restraints of the conventual life.
You will not refuse to give to these and like suggestions all the weight they deserve. It may here be remarked, however, that the degree of strength necessary depends somewhat upon the character of the work and personal service required in the proposed Sisterhood. With this you should acquaint yourself.
As to the age, the Roman Church has decreed that at the age of sixteen one may be professed, and censures those parents who would hinder their children from so early embracing religion. If this seem to us Anglicans decidedly too young, then entrance might be allowed at such an age as that at which one is ordinarily permitted to choose the state of matrimony, while profession might be deferred to a later period. The great care taken as to the final admission to the Life almost precludes the possibility of a wrong decision, while an early entrance upon its privileges as a Novice has its own advantages. The young heart offers to the Heavenly Gardener a most productive soil, and the habits of devotion are more easily acquired in youth. Yet God often calls those quite advanced in years. They bring hearts specially sanctified by trial, and often a docility of will greater than that of inexperienced youth, and a knowledge of the world which, for many practical purposes, it is useful a Community should possess.
As to your temperament, your powers of endurance, your stability, your general fitness, how can these be determined by those who have had no experience of the Life, or whose knowledge of your abilities is necessarily imperfect. You cannot well know them yourself, and are forced to suggest that it would seem the wiser course to make a personal trial of the Life, which alone could settle the question or give peace to your mind.
IV. But you may have to meet with some good and pious persons who, with the best intentions, will hotly assail you with the ancient and somewhat rusty weapons of their theological armory.
"Do you expect to save your soul by going into a convent? Do you think any amount of good works will make you acceptable to God? Has not Christ paid the debt for all our sins, and have we anything more to do than just to believe? 'Only believe and trust'--that is all we have to do."
You suggest that trusting, even "trusting your trust," with God is doing something, and that for your acceptance you prefer not to rest on anything you are or do, but solely on Christ, whose grace is pledged in the Sacraments and whose word cannot return to Him void; but at least one may, out of love for Christ, be allowed to try to be holier, and so less unworthy of His love, who has died for us.
"Do you think," replies your friend, "that you will become holier by turning away from the good things God has provided for our enjoyment? Has He not made the world exceedingly beautiful and full of delights, and spread a most bountiful table before us; and does He want any of us to go away into a corner and munch a crust of bread by ourselves? "
You waive the argument of the sanctifying power of sacrifice with one who cannot understand it, and good-humoredly say that when you consider all the attractions of a Religious House, its Rule, and quiet, and freedom from care, and its means of grace, you think that instead of a crust of bread you are getting the best of the feast.
"So, then," your opponent replies, "you are actuated by a cowardly motive; you are running away to escape the trials and discipline and temptations of life by shutting yourself up in a cell, or you are selfishly leaving your present duties and influence for your own spiritual gratification." Oh, no! you are able to rejoin, you greatly mistake both the Life and my motives. This Life is not free from trials and temptations. The life is a hard one. It is a life of sacrifice. It is a union to a crucified Lord by a life of crucifixion. It is a special union with Him wrought out through special trials. The spiritual trials which God sends in it are the means of sanctification. The life of a Religious is that of a Christian athlete. He goes to give battle, not to avoid it. It is not to escape temptations Christ summons him into His companionship, but that he may abide with Him in His temptations. Christ calls souls into union with His own conflict against evil that He may extend His victories through them.
As to my motives, you may say, God must judge of them. I am not going into Religion to please myself, to have a quiet life, to indulge in pious reverie, to enjoy exalted feelings, to cultivate the emotional side of my nature. I go not because the life is one of my own choosing and more than any other suits my inclinations and fancy. If I did so, woe is me! I go because He calls me. True, He gives in the Religious Life special helps and consolations and means of grace. These are, indeed, dear to me. But my motive is no more selfish in desiring that life than yours in being a Christian. God fills the Christian life with many spiritual delights. You are not in any unworthy way to be called selfish because you find joy in God's service. God has bound these things inseparably together. You cannot unselfishly seek His greater glory without seeking to save your own soul, and you cannot seek to save your soul without seeking your own highest happiness. To serve Him and Him only; to be His and His alone; to be conformed to His life of poverty, chastity, and obedience, is to me the greatest conceivable joy. But it is what He desires more than I do, and it cannot be called selfishness in me without condemning Him. As a Christian, you cannot deny that He who says to one, "Go home," says to another, "Leave all and come." You do not question that He calls young men to the ministry who, at their ordination, declare they believe themselves truly "called of God." It must be equally possible for God to call women into His service, and certain, therefore, that they must be able to know it. By the double testimony of the outward signs of His providence and of the drawings of my own heart, I believe myself called by Him.
But again it may be said to you, "I would not interfere with God's work, if it is His work, but in this proposed life you take vows; it is this that makes the matter so dreadful and so repugnant to your friends. Suppose after a number of years you should change your mind. Persons do change their minds about many matters, and not infrequently."
Yes, you reply, persons do very often, but it is equally true that God never does. God is not a man, that He should lie or repent. Has He spoken, and shall He not do it? He has created this state of life, and knowing all my possible future duties, now calls me into it, just as He called His Apostles to follow Him. He says, "Ye have not chosen Me, but I have chosen you"--and whether I took a yow or not, it would be wrong to go back from His call. Abraham was under no vow, but he would have been guilty if he had disobeyed. A call of God cannot be abandoned without sin and the forfeiture of God's proffered blessings.
"Why, then, do you take the vows? They are not commanded in Holy Scripture."
Not explicitly commanded, it is true. Nor do we find baptismal, ordination, or marriage vows commanded in Holy Scripture. Nothing is said about any of these vows. God, however, has established these different states of life: that of the Christian, of the priest, and of marriage, and no less clearly the celibate one, and a vow is the natural way of expressing the permanence of that relationship to Christ into which the Religious is called.
"But would it not be better and nobler to give yourself to Christ's service day by day, and not work under the fetter and obligation of vows?"
Is not this, you may reply, precisely the popular argument employed to do away with marriage vows? But if vows are a help in the marriage state they are also in the Religious. They are the expression of love and devotion in both cases. If they are to be valued in the one case, why not also in the other? They may appear to others to be fetters, but if so, they are like the fetters wisdom binds on all her children, seeming chains, heavy to be borne, and shackles fettering freedom, but which, when worn, turn by the wearing into a "robe of glory" and into grace-dyed "purple lace."
Besides, the vow is dear to God. We give thereby not only what we do, but all we are. We give not the fruit of the tree, but the tree itself. We show, moreover, our trust in Him, and so, as Bishop Jeremy Taylor has uttered the wisdom of the Church: "If the vows be prudent in the manner, holy in the matter, useful in the consequence, and safe in all the circumstances of the person, it is an endearing us and our prayer to God by the increase of duty and charity, and therefore a more profitable way of making our prayers generous and acceptable."
V. But if you can get thus easily rid of your theological and other argumentative friends, it is not so easy to meet those who appeal to your fears or affections, and who urge you to abandon your purpose for the sake of family peace, or at least to postpone it. You can indeed truly say that you do not lov£ parents, or brothers, or sisters, or friends the less, out your words have little effect. They fall as impotently as the dissolving snow-flakes on an angry sea. The storm that rages in their hearts needs another Voice to calm the waves. But how can you meet the saddened looks, the tears, the reproachful utterances of mistaken love? By your conduct, so it will be said, you have cast a gloom over the house, you have disgusted your brothers with religion, you have driven persons back from good Churchmanship, you are making all about you miserable, and breaking up the happiness of your home.
How can you meet this? How bear the cross, heavy with such misunderstandings? How accept the trial that as a sword pierces the heart? Only in one way. "Go and tell Jesus." He has called, and will not fail to succour. When father and mother forsake us, then the Lord will take us up.
With the prayer that this little book may bear God's message to souls, the writer humbly asks anyone who has so far followed the argument in earnest about her own case, to read what follows, not in the ordinary way, but in the posture of prayer, and with pauses, and very slowly, and not to leave any point until she has made it her own.
THE VOICE OF THE DISCIPLE:
My Lord and Master, my desire is to love Thee and to serve Thee, but I am sore perplexed. Is it right for me thus to give pain to those I love? Mine is, as Thou knowest, the greater pain. Speak Thou, O Lord, to them, and in Thy pity enlighten me.
THE VOICE OF THE BELOVED:
The pain they suffer is not from thee or Me, but from themselves. I grieve that they suffer, and I wait to bless. Whenever their wills become one with Mine they shall find joy and peace. Then will they rejoice with thee that thou art called of God. Hinder not My work in them by yielding to the entreaty of their mistaken tears.
THE VOICE OF THE DISCIPLE:
Dear Master and most loving Lord, bear with me for Thy tender mercy's sake. If I know myself, I would give up all to follow Thee. But the way sometimes is dark before me. I cannot see Thy guiding hand, and herein is my distress. "Speak, Lord, for Thy servant heareth." "If Thy presence go not with me, carry me not up hence." If it be Thy voice, I can go in this Thy strength, since Thou hast sent me. "Lord, if it be Thou, bid me come to Thee," but give me, if it be right, some sign, that I may know the call is Thine, and all is well.
THE VOICE OF THE BELOVED:
I show My will clearly by those external signs which forbid or permit thy coming. I speak not now by audible voice, as when, visible in the flesh, I dwelt with men. Yet still "My sheep hear My voice," and some may know it by miracle, or answered prayer, or providential sign, or certified vision. But ask not for these. Walk, My child, by faith, not by sight. When I call, shalt thou not know it? When thy mind and will are so possessed with Mine that thou art willing to leave all for love of Me, and desirest to be one with My crucified yet risen life by the same counsels I practised, thou art truly called.
THE VOICE OF THE DISCIPLE:
Truly, dear Lord, this is my desire, to live for Thee, and with Thee, and in Thee. This is indeed my wish, to be a whole burnt offering, consumed on the altar of Thy heart, Thy will to be my will, Thy love my love, Thy counsels my counsels, Thy motives my motives, Thy life the model and mould of my own. But, most loving Master, do not many deceive themselves and think themselves ready to give up all when they are not? And so may not I?
THE VOICE OF THE BELOVED:
Look, then, if thou wouldst avoid future disappointment, not at the externals, or at the work only, but at the inner life. Count well the cost before you build. Consider what it is to give up all and to be united unto Me. It is to give up all earthly wealth, honour, ease, in order to share My poverty, its hardness, its weakness, its often scorn, yet to possess its supernatural strength; to give up thy will by living by rule and under obedience, as I did, in order to be conformed to My likeness; to give up all other love to be My bride and be possessed by Me alone. Poverty, chastity, obedience! These are the bracelets and signet I offer. These are My bridal tokens and pledges, blessed with powers the world knows not of; yet the cross they make is a real cross, and the wearing of them is often trying and hard to bear.
THE VOICE OF THE DISCIPLE:
My Lord and Master, it is a life hard with the hardness of the Cross. This I know; I would not have it otherwise. Where my Lord is, there would Thy servant be. How can I please Thee better than by union with Thee on Thy Cross? Naught so unites as common toil and common suffering with those we love. All I have and am Thou hast given me, and all I have I freely give to Thee. It is not self, dear Lord, I seek, but Thee. Thou art my life, my heart's delight, and nothing would I have apart from Thee. With Thee, nothing is too hard to bear; without Thee, earthly joy is misery. With Thee will not the Rule be but a cloistered garden, shutting out the world and shutting me in with Thee? Will not poverty be to me a girdle, binding me ever by its constant pressure to Thyself? Will not love make all toil easy and all burdens light? Thy Word teaches me there is a sweetness to be found in the slain, and honey in the banquet of sacrifice. It is not hardship, or discipline, or sacrifice that makes me waver in my choice, but those dear words of Thine calling me to be Thy bride. It may be for those fair lilies in Thy garden who have kept unsoiled their snowy petals, but Thy very offer pains me. Now that I see Thee, I loathe and abhor myself and repent in dust and ashes. All too well, even now, I love Thee, to be willing to disgrace Thee. Let me indeed follow Thee. Make some little place for me, anywhere near Thee, for I cannot live without Thee--but rather, dearest Master, as a humble servant than as a bride.
THE VOICE OF THE BELOVED:
Let this My pledge and promise be thy stay. Thou hast not chosen Me, but I have chosen thee. Those most I love who most desire the lowest place. Realize thy nothingness, and let Me be thine all. Thine but to assent, and obey, and trust. Mine to re-create, and adorn, and glorify. Man cannot undo his past, but I can make it as though it were not. I can cast all thy sins behind My back and bury them in the depths of the sea. I can re-create and make thee a new creature, and give thee a new heart. My call to the Religious Life is, as My saints have said, like unto a second Baptism. The fruit of all My victories are at thy disposal, the wealth of all My merits are thine. My robe of Righteousness is about thee. The Holy Spirit's blessing waits for these espousals.
"Arise, My love, My fair one, and come away."
THE VOICE OF THE DISCIPLE:
O Lord, God over all, blessed and blessed-making, before Whom the cherubim veil their faces and the strong angels tremblingly rejoice, Thee I worship and adore. To Thee, Who hast made and re-made me, Who hast redeemed and bought me by Thy precious blood, and Who hast called me, I surrender myself, all I have and am, to be forever Thine. "Be it unto me according to Thy word." "Where Thou goest would I go." Make me what Thou wilt. Do with me as Thou wilt. Safely in Thee I rest, on Thee I lean. I will no longer doubt or fear; for Thou, Lord, dearest and most longed for, wilt surely lead me on. "The darkness is past, and the day-star now shineth."
THE VOICE OF THE BELOVED:
Let peace dwell in thy heart and quiet joy. Commit thy way unto Me and I will direct thy going. Go in this thy strength,--"have I not sent thee?" Be humble and little in thine own eyes, so shalt thou find favour in those of My servants. Be of good courage. "When thou passest through the waters I will be with thee; and through the rivers they shall not overflow thee; when thou walkest through the fire thou shalt not be burned; neither shall the flame kindle upon thee." "I have called thee by thy name; thou art Mine." "Believe that ye receive and ye shall have." "Ask what thou wilt and it shall be done unto thee." Renew daily thy offering. "I will not leave thee nor forsake thee." "Underneath are the Everlasting Arms." "My grace is sufficient for thee." "According to thy day so shall thy strength be." "Neither shall any pluck them out of My Hand."