DELIVERED BY THE
Rev. J. P. F. DAVIDSON,
FIFTEENTH ANNUAL MEETING,
TUESDAY, MAY 15th, 1888.
In addressing you for the first time, as the President of the Guild, I feel it to be my first and pleasing duty to tender my grateful acknowledgments to the Council, and to the Members generally, for the honour they have conferred upon me in electing me to this important office.
In the next place, I am anxious to assure the Members of the Guild, how deeply sensible I am both of the importance of this office, and of the difficulty of fulfilling it worthily.
I say, advisedly, the importance of the office. For no one, reflecting for a moment on the deep mysteries with which this Guild, in the more Spiritual aspects of its work, has to deal, can be blind to the very serious responsibility which attaches to every word that is uttered and every counsel that is given on so intensely sacred a subject.
The subject-matter, in fact, is the Spiritual world:—“the things which eye hath not seen nor ear heard, neither hath it entered into the heart of man to conceive.”
And the Apostle reminds us, that in approaching such a sphere, we need more than human light. For human language [3/4] must fail adequately to represent the super-human thought; and the words “which man’s wisdom teacheth” must here at least give way to those, “which the Holy Ghost teacheth.” Even natural analogies cannot in this matter be wholly depended upon; where all is supernatural, and so far beyond the range of our present experience.
“This Spiritual must be compared with Spiritual.”
It may, then, be well for me, on this occasion, being yet unversed in the details of the history and working of the Guild, to invite your attention, for a short time, to some general considerations, bearing upon its main purpose: its points of contact with other spiritual associations, and its possible influences upon the thought and life of the Church.
And first: One not uninteresting point is this: that in the general deepening of the religious thought of the Church, and the clearer perception of her relations to the unseen world,—the sacred subject with which the Guild is concerned, is tending to attract, and, in a certain sense, to unite different schools of thought. It is contributing, in its measure, to the Unity of the Church.
No one, for instance, can read that interesting volume,—“The Spirits in Prison, and other studies in the life after death”—by the present Dean of Wells, without feeling, how minds, widely separated on other matters, are drawn together,—though it may be from different points of view,—towards this one sacred subject, so absorbing in its interest and of such practical moment to us all,—“the Life after Death”—the conditions, the possibilities, the activities of the Intermediate State: and our present relation to it. Canon Farrar, whom I [4/5] am not going, for a moment, to accuse of being a Theologian, (because he would be the first himself to resent the imputation), yet seems, on this and kindred subjects, at times to join hands with one, from whom, on other points, he so widely diverges, one whom we all revere as the great Theologian and the great Saint of the English Church, of our own day:—the ever venerated Edward Bouverie Pusey: whose spirit, surely, from within the veil ceases not sill to help and to love the Church, which he so loved here on earth. I venture to think that this, though an indirect, is not an unimportant influence of our Guild,—its contribution, in one direction, to unity of thought and feeling within the Church.
But to pass on to another point:—another indirect, though not less useful service, which the Guild may render to the Church of our own day.
At a time like the present, when a great development has taken place in the outward Order and Ritual of Divine Service, it is, I think, a point of no little moment to have the mind of the Church balanced, if I may so speak, by the special consideration of some of the deeper and more spiritual verities of the Faith. There is always a tendency in the progress of Ritual to outrun its own significance: to lose touch of the deep truths of which it is the symbol: and so to become simply an external adjunct, or a piece of mere aestheticism, which has lost its power to instruct the spiritual understanding, or even to kindle the devotion of the heart.
In face of such a danger, and in order to the maintenance of the due relation between the outward and the spiritual, it is, I conceive, a very valuable safeguard to the Church, to have its [5/6] thought concentrated on some deep spiritual mystery; the contemplation of which may serve to counteract this too great tendency to the material and the external.
The thought, my dear friends, of the unseen life, and of the great realities within the veil may well help to correct and to arrest any movement towards a merely sensuous devotion: while it will shed upon the order and beauty of our earthly worship a light, as it were, from heaven; some little reflex, from Paradise, of the spiritual worship of those, who apart from the body, are resting “under the Altar,” in the very precincts of the spiritual and the eternal.
So far as such an influence extends, it cannot fail to be of service to the Church, in one of the dangers of the present time.
And this leads us to a further consideration. A wider question here arises:—In what relation does our Society stand to the tendencies of the age in which we live? How does it meet them? What, so far as its influence extends, is that influence upon them? Here, again, we come across a very important part of our work. The Guild of All Souls is, by its very existence, and within the sphere of its working, a witness against the materialism and the scepticism of the day.
By your reverent care for the bodies of the departed, you fulfil, certainly, a last and tender office towards those who are passed from our sight. But you do more, far more; you testify to the preciousness of the Body, as that which, one day, will rise again. You tend it and honour it, not only for what it was, but for what it is to be,—an indestructible and glorified Body; to be dissolved indeed, but not to perish for ever: and, in due time, in the order of God’s mysterious working, to be [6/7] again the dwelling-place of the Incorruptive Spirit, and itself to partake of that incorruption.
In that you embalm, with loving devotion, the bodies of the dead, you embalm them against the Day of their Resurrection.
And how much, my friends, is involved in this practical faith in the Resurrection of the Body! It is a safeguard against false theories of annihilation, suppression of the individual being, absorption into universal life; and so on. And it forms one, though often an unconscious, witness to the enduring personality and identity of the human Being.
But further: it is not with the bodies of the departed only that we are concerned.
As the very name of our Society implies, we follow, as far as we may,—within the limits of Holy Scripture and under the guidance of Catholic tradition,—the path of departed souls into the sphere of their spiritual existence.
And one great result, surely, of this should be,—a clearer realization of the spiritual world. The prolonging of human interest, of undiminished affection, of hope and prayer, beyond this visible scene, is a practical recognition of he reality of that other world, and an effort to sustain the consciousness of that reality, amid the too absorbing claims of time and sense.
And in an age when material conceptions are filling the minds of men, and material interests are so all engrossing, I cannot but think that it is the work of such a Society, within its own sphere, (thought it is as yet, but limited,)—to counteract in some little measure, and that, doctrinally as well as practically, these materialistic tendencies of the day. In this 19th Century, and in our own land, with its civilisation and its great progress in the material arts,—not less, surely, than in the refined and [7/8] sceptical city of Corinth, in the days of S. Paul, does the thought of the age need the warning of the Apostle: “To look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.”
To touch on one point more in connection with this branch of our subject. If you follow up any tendency in human history,—whether social, political, or religious,—you will generally observe, that, in course of time, a re-action sets in, and that re-action assumes, not unfrequently, an exaggerated and a delusive form. Is not something of the kind already taking place in respect of the materialism of the day? There are signs, certainly, in our own midst, and still more prominently among our transatlantic brethren in America (where, unchecked by the caution of the old mother country, each development of thought or practice takes an extreme form), there are signs of such a re-action:—of a strong current of feeling, setting the other way, towards a false and a grotesque spiritualism.
No one can read the accounts of the séances of spiritualists in America or elsewhere, without feeling painfully, that, while the reality of the spiritual world is indeed brought forward, it is invested with such surroundings and associated with such unworthy purposes, as utterly to rob that world of all its solemnity, and its greatness; and to turn the sacred mystery of that life into a farce.
The influences of such a spiritualism, it is needless to say, are even more corrupting than materialism itself.
And to correct such influences is a duty of the Church, no less important than the counteraction of materialistic tendencies.
It is, surely, one reason for the existence of such a Society as [8/9] ours, and one object it may humbly help towards,—to set forward a chastened, sober, reverent, view of the unseen world: in order that the reality and the power of that world may make itself felt, and may exercise a correcting influence, upon the thought and life of our own day.
But it is time to pass on to the more direct work and purpose of the Guild.
Thus far we have touched rather upon its indirect, though, I think, not unimportant influences.
Let us take now a brief survey of its own direct and proper work.
This may be described in various ways. I suggest the following as a comprehensive description of that work:—the realization of the Unity which exists between the Church Visible and the Church Invisible; and of the unbroken relations which bind together the members of each portion of the Church:—those yet in warfare on the earth and those at rest.
For the Unity of the Church must ever form one central thought and aspiration of the Christian mind; since the day that our Lord Himself made it the great purport of His own Divine Intercession. And this Unity may be looked at, and approached, from various points of view; may be sought for under various combinations.
Hence various associations, within the Church, may work out each, some distinct aspect of the one great idea; on lines, separate indeed from each other, yet converging towards the same great Centre.
The “Association,” e.g., “for promoting the Unity of [9/10] Christendom,” looks primarily at the divided fragments of the Church on earth; and aims at their re-union.
The Confraternity, again, of the Blessed Sacrament, (whose venerate Superior has been among us to-day), takes up, as its special ground, the true source of Unity in the One Body of the Lord.
Distinct from each of these, yet in harmony with both, the Guild of All Souls brings out into special prominence another phase of this Divine Unity: the Unity between the present and the departed members of the Church: between that portion of the Church which is yet in warfare and that which is at rest.
And this particular view of the Unity of the Church, as you will readily perceive, opens up some most deeply interesting trains of thought.
Let me direct your attention to two such:—two lines of thought which traverse this mysterious sphere of Unity, and, as it were, link together, in one Body, the Church on earth and the Church within the veil.
One rises out of the great Doctrine of the Passion: the other is connected with the operations of the Holy Ghost.
To trace each one, separately, a little way: as far, that is, as our imperfect vision may reach.
(a) First: as regards the Passion, and its bearing upon the unseen world.
For, both in respect of the Passion, and of the work of the Holy Spirit, are we not too apt to fore-shorten our view? to limit our thoughts, too arbitrarily, to the present visible order of the Church, and so to raise up a barrier, which does not exist in Scripture, between the Church on earth and the Church at rest?
 The fact, if we duly realize it, of the unbroken Unity between the present and the departed members of the Church corrects and enlarges our view of these two great Doctrines: extends, so to speak, the virtue of the Passion and the operation of the Holy Spirit beyond the visible sphere into the invisible. For both spheres are one. And the influences of the Passion and of the Holy Ghost exist for both, for the whole Church in all time: not merely for that part of it which is militant here on earth. Under altered conditions, no doubt, corresponding with the altered sphere of life; in perfect accord with the Divine Law for the probation and the perfection of the individual soul; and with an absolutely just regard to the opportunities of this life, and the special capabilities of the life unseen:—the Power of the Passion is felt within the Veil, and, in that His own congenial sphere, the Holy Ghost carries on His mysterious work. A new and fuller light falls on that saying of our Blessed Lord: “I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto Myself:” and the souls of the departed recognize the mighty attraction of the Cross, as, in the light of Paradise, it draws them onward, with ever-increasing measures of its cleaning and redeeming virtue, even to the Perfect Day.
In this connection, it is, I think, interesting just to refer to the statement of the Apostle S. Peter on this subject. In a well-known passage he speaks, you will recollect of this extension of the virtue of the Passion, and this quickening of the Spirit, in the unseen world. He tells us that our Blessed Lord having accomplished His Passion on earth,—i.e., “being put to death in the flesh”—“was quickened in the Spirit,” and “went and preached to the Spirits in prison:” carried i.e., the tidings and the powers of His Redemptive work into the region of departed souls.
 Observe how the two main thoughts in this passage correspond with the two great doctrines on which we have been touching:—the two great lines of thought we have been tracing: viz., the Passion and the work of the Spirit of Christ as operating in the unseen world: “Being put to death in the flesh,” but “quickened in the Spirit.”
Thus, in this significant record, are the powers of the Passion and the influences of the Spirit carried on in all their living energy beyond the confines of this present scene into the world beyond the grave.
One interesting and practical reflection here suggests itself. There is no question, perhaps, that at once more interests and perplexes us than that of “Prayers for the Dead.”
Is not some clue to our searchings of heart, some guidance in our perplexity, and even some direction as to the very form of our prayers, offered to us by these considerations?
In praying for the departed, the Passion should be, more than it is, our great and continual plea. Our prayers might take this form: “Within the limits which Thy Holy Will has fixed, grant, O Lord, that the virtue of Thy Passion may be effectual to the cleansing, and the healing, and the life, of the souls for whom we pray.” For, “by the Blood of His Covenant will he send forth the prisoners out of the Pit.”
This very form of prayer, you will remember, is that which we offer at the Altar, when, in the words of the Liturgy, we pray, that “we and all Thy Whole Church may receive remission of our sins, and all other benefits of His Passion.”
(b) But I must hasten on to say a few words, before closing, on the second point connected with this mysterious Unity [12/13] between the faithful here, and the faithful departed; viz., the continued operation of the Holy Ghost in the unseen world.
“There is”—as S. Paul reminds us—“One Body and One Spirit.” As the Body reaches on, in unbroken unity, into the world unseen, so, of necessity, does the Spirit. The continued fellowship of the Church in Paradise with the Church on earth involves the continuance of the operations of the Holy Ghost in that Body, which, visible or invisible, is yet One Body.
As “there is One Body,” so there is “One Spirit,” pervading that One Body, in all stages of its existence. And if we may be permitted, in the region of such mystery, humbly and devoutly to speculate, may we not suppose, that, in that spiritual world, the Holy Spirit finds the more special and congenial sphere for His operations?
Here, again, I venture to think, another, not uncommon perplexity may find some measure of solution.
It is an anxious question, sometimes asked, whether a process of purification in the unseen world is not inconsistent with the rest of the faithful in Paradise.
The purification, let us remember, is the purification of the Spirit:—of Him, Who is, at once, the Purifier and Comforter. And each advancing measure of that purification only assures and deepens the Rest of the faithful soul, making it more and more one with Him, in Whom it rests. Even here upon earth we are wont to pray that the Holy Spirit may cleanse, with His Purifying Fire, both our hearts and bodies: and each renewed cleansing brings more perfect peace. Shall it not be so, even yet far more in Paradise, where the longing of the soul for that Spiritual Cleansing will be yet more intense, and the intenser purifications of the Spirit work for us a far more exceeding Peace!
 O true and blessed Purgatorial Fire! the Purifying Fire of the Holy Ghost! purging, refining, transfiguring the souls of the faithful, unto the perfect Day! until, the dross being wholly cleansed away, the great Purifier shall behold at length, in the purified soul, the perfect reflection of His own Image: and be satisfied with it! And, whatever the discipline may be,—that purifying discipline of the Comforter in the unseen world,—there also, most surely, as in all spheres of His working, shall “the work of righteousness be peace, and the effect of righteousness quietness and assurance for ever.”
To sum up: Thus have we to-night, in our brief survey of this great subject, glanced rapidly at the following considerations:
(1.) The tendency of the subject to unite different schools of thought:
(2.) Its possible influence in deepening and spiritualising our Ritual:
(3.) Its action upon the materialism of the day, and upon its false spiritualism: and,
(4.) Its own direct purpose in bringing more steadily into view the real unity which exists between the Church on earth and the Church at rest; and the momentous issues of such unity.
It remains only to add that, in proportion as this unity is duly realized, its influence must be felt also in the individual life: a new and very effective power is added to the soul in its conflict with the things of sense; and a continual attraction supplied to draw it ever upward, (in the words of the Collect of the week) to that same Place, whither our Saviour Christ is gone before.