It is not hard to find fault; anyone can do that. When one is in the mood for criticizing and pointing out the flaws in things or in men's lives, he can do it most easily.
And to do it in controversy is one of the most common tricks of argument. The Roman Catholic disputant attacks the Anglican about his Church and points out faults and failings in all sorts of directions, not always truly yet often with considerable show of fairness. The discouraged Anglican feeling the truth of much that is said fancies his own Communion is far less perfect than he had supposed,and is then quietly persuaded by his Roman antagonist that the only sensible thing for him to do is to seek shelter and certainty and peace in the papal fold.
A more experienced Anglican would answer his opponent by simply ignoring his assaults on Mother Church and pointing out on his side the far more serious flaws in Romanism, For example, when the ardent Roman dilates upon the moral shortcomings of king Henry the Eighth to whom the Anglican reformation owed so much, the undisturbed Churchman replies "I admit much of what you say about the English king, but tell me what you think on your side of Pope Alexander the Sixth, the infamous Borgia, or of those wretched occupants of the papal throne in the tenth century." Methinks our Roman brother would find it difficult to continue the argument under such circumstances.
The truth is that in every system which has anything of the human element in it flaws can always be found. The Church is Divine and therefore imperishable and infallible in her inspired utterances; but she is also human, and in her members liable to fall both into sin and into grievous errors of judgment. The marvel is and the greatest argument for the Divine constitution of the Church that in spite of all the sins and quarrels of men among themselves, she has endured and kept the faith whole and undefiled for eighteen centuries and will surely do so until the end of time.
I would not be understood to think that the flaws which men are so fond of pointing out in the Church's practice, sometimes also in her faith, are always real flaws. Very often indeed they are only misrepresentations of the truth or actual falsehoods related concerning our holy Mother. In old times Scribes and Pharisees strove to prove evil against our Lord Himself. The Master points out their malice and inconsistency in this. He says, "John the Baptist came neither eating bread, nor drinking wine, and ye say, He hath a devil." The holy Baptist was a Nazarite, an ascetic of the strictest type. His life was so evidently austere and spiritual that the common people acknowledged him at once for a Prophet and would have accepted him as the Christ had he permitted them to do so. His asceticism was a standing rebuke to the haughty Pharisees and his popularity with the multitude enraged them, therefore they said he was a madman.
Then came the Master Himself living among the people without extraordinary asceticism outwardly, just as they had said St. John ought to live, and their cry was, "Behold a gluttonous man and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners." Their criticism of these two holy ones was nothing but the carping of malice and envy. Yet possibly one might think, Was there not some foundation for it in the fact that the lives of St. John and of our Lord were outwardly so different? Why should one have been such an ascetic, and the other have lived in the world? They were both ministers of the same Divine religion, were both sent from God with their several places in the wonderful system of redemption, why then should not both of them have been ascetic or else both secular?
The same sort of difficulty may present itself to our minds in the criticism made by the world upon the Church's keeping of Lent. Why should we fast and practise self-denials in innocent things for forty days, and then return to our ordinary joys and feastings? If Lent be a true type of the manner of Christian living, Easter joys are unsuitable; and if we blamelessly keep Easter is not Lenten observance fanaticism? The worldling puts it even more bluntly: he says, Episcopalians believe in being religious for forty days in the year, and in being worldly all the rest of it.
If the ascetic type be the true type, why did not our Lord live as St. John the Baptist, neither eating bread nor drinking wine; but if our Lord be the true example of devout humanity, must we not pronounce St. John a fanatic?
It does not quite meet the point to say that the strictly ascetic life is the higher life of the counsels of perfection to which only a few are called, and that for the rest of humanity the lower and more secular type is ordained, for no Christian can doubt that the life led by our Lord was the highest and most perfect of lives possible to humanity. No one would venture to assign to Him a lower vocation than that of the holy Baptist. So you see the subject is somewhat complicated.
Let us then first inquire why St. John's vocation was so distinctly and exclusively ascetic; he lived alone in the desert, having locusts and wild honey for his food, and his raiment of camel's hair with a leathern girdle about his loins. We are ready with the answer that his mission was a distinct and exclusive one, the preaching of repentance. Repentance is undoubtedly all important to the receiving of Christ's religion, but it is only the first step in it, it is not the sum and substance of that religion. We may say that our Lord Himself also preached repentance, and so He did, but He preached much more than that, the whole gospel of redemption and sanctification. St. John preached only repentance, his mission was limited to preparing the way for our Lord. Repentance means the clearing away of all obstructions, and making the ground fit for the erection of a perfect and glorious building; one might even go so far as to say that it is the laying of the foundation of that building, but it is nothing more than that; it is not the glorious superstructure of sanctity which Divine grace erects upon the footing-stones of repentance.
But what has the life of asceticism to do peculiarly with the preaching of repentance? Obviously, first of all, it suits the message. The manifest austerity of the preacher is an object lesson to men to carry out his precepts by the austerities of penance. We may not doubt that St. John's preaching was far more moving because of the asceticism of his life than it would have been had he lived in secular fashion. This is only one side of the matter however. God would not call upon His servant to live so hard a life merely for the effect it should have upon his hearers. There was virtue in the austerity of the holy Baptist which gave mighty spiritual assistance to his burning words, even as we know in our own experience how helpful an ally fasting is to prayer.
Not that we should fancy St. John had grievous sins of his own to repent of, that he might be set before the eyes of men as a model penitent. We know from our Bibles that he was filled with the Holy Ghost even from his mother's womb. But it is certain that a man can bear penalty on behalf of his fellow-men in such wise as to bring upon them special dispensations of Divine mercy. Always however in temporal days only. No man may deliver his brother nor make agreement unto God for him. In this sense our Lord Christ is the only vicarious sufferer the world has ever known, or ever will know. Nevertheless devout men may obtain by their piety many blessings and mercies for their sinful fellow-men in this world. Would not God have spared Sodom if ten righteous men could have been found there? It is said most significantly in Genesis that God remembered Abraham and sent Lot out of the midst of the overthrow, when He overthrew the cities in the which Lot dwelt. So our Lord tells us that in the awful persecution of the faithful in the time of Antichrist, at the end of the world, God will shorten the days for the sake of His elect. It all means that the righteous have power by their austerities and prayers to win for their guilty fellow-men what Daniel hoped forking Nebuchadnezzar, a lengthening of their tranquillity, that is greater space for and more powerful inducements to repentance. We may surely believe that St. John Baptist's asceticism helped his preaching in this way, as well as by the effect of example.
Our Lord's work was to build up in the glorious privileges of the Gospel those who came to Him by repentance. It was a greater mission, afar more extended field of labor. And then this further truth appears that the life of extraordinary asceticism is not in most cases the best for developing the likeness of God in man. This may seem strange, but let me explain more fully what I mean.
God has chosen to work for man's salvation through natural agencies. He makes some of these indeed the vehicles of supernatural grace as the water made use of in Baptism and the bread and wine appointed for the Eucharist. Yet in the work of our sanctification all the harmless surroundings of our natural life become in a sense sacramental in character. We must not be pessimists. The Apostle says · "For every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused, if it be received with thanksgiving." Man turns God's good gifts into evil things by misusing and abusing them; the glutton makes food a curse instead of a blessing; the intemperate man turns wine, which was meant to gladden the human heart, into a blighting thing; and the covetous man makes money, the blessed instrument of charity, an idol to dethrone the Most High.
Nevertheless God meant all these things when rightly used and received with thanksgiving to be the means of our development in His likeness. Wealth when regarded as a trust and administered in the fear of the Lord may make a human life gracious and beautiful with true imitation of our Master Christ. As for marriage, it is honourable in all and the bed undefiled. Used in the fear of the Lord it becomes the very means of keeping untainted the soul's purity and of raising up children unto God. And that one should not feel bound by any law of obedience to a superior or to the rule of some special society, is but his opportunity of rendering the more spontaneous free-will obedience to the precepts of Christ our Lord. Thus the circumstances of our lives become our opportunity of building up our characters as God would have them. St. John Baptist represents one aspect of human life, the penitential; but our Lord, the Son of Man, came eating and drinking, not outwardly an ascetic, that He might teach us that in the surroundings of natural life, for the large majority of mankind, the opportunities of sanctification are to be found.
It may be urged that while our Lord's life was not ascetic in the same way as St. John's yet it may not be said that He lived without special austerity. He certainly was voluntarily poor, for although rich for our sakes He became poor; He never married but was quite as much a model of celibacy as the holy Baptist; as for obedience His whole life was one constant surrender of His own will to that of His heavenly Father.
To this it is to be said that we are obliged to make a distinction between the teacher and the taught, the shepherd and the sheep, as well as between the ascetic and the secular. This is clearly seen in the Church, for while there are religious who live under the three vows and seculars who do not take those vows, there are also the clergy who are under a special vow of their own, and lay people; the clergy themselves being perhaps regulars, that is under the religious vows, or seculars who do not take those vows.
It is but reasonable that the ascetic element should be more manifested in the life of the priest, even though he be not a religious, than in the lives of ordinary laymen. For repentance must ever be a large part of the burden of the priest's message to his people, and his life an illustration of that penance-doing which he urges upon his flock. And as I pointed out to you in St. John Baptist's case, the minister of God may well feel that he is himself called upon to make intercession for his flock, and to win by his penances on their behalf much long-suffering on the part of God, and prolonged opportunity of repentance.
It would be no true priestly life therefore which did not illustrate the principle of asceticism. Some have thought that the clergy ought never to marry, but all are agreed that they ought not to live as rich men, even though they have large possessions, that they ought to show moderation in the use of marriage if they feel free to marry--"A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife"--and that they should live under some rule of prayer and good works.
On the other hand it is not to be forgotten that they are to be shepherds of the sheep, ensample-s to the flock; that they have to preach and practise not only repentance but all holy living in Christ, and therefore they must in most cases lead lives more in the world and in touch with the everyday life of their people than the religious can do in loyalty to their vows.
It is evident also that the ordinary Christian layman may not altogether overlook the obligation of a certain degree of austerity in his life All are called to do penance for their sins, as well as to use the things of this world as not abusing them. To Jo penance means to refrain voluntarily from innocent things that give one pleasure, for the sake of afflicting one's soul. This is the meaning and the purpose of the Church's fasting seasons. Then she cries "Let the bridegroom go forth of his chamber, and the bride out of her closet." She bids her children practise abstinence in their food, and to give more abundantly than at other times in alms. Yet this is but for a season because the further duty is laid upon them of growing in grace and developing in sanctity as well as repenting of their sins. To say that Lent-keeping should be the rule for the devout Christian throughout the whole year is to say that the whole Christian life consists of repentance only; to say that one need not keep Lent at all, but live soberly and use without abusing all the good things of God, is to say that man has no need of repentance, is not called upon to do penance for his sins.
The same thing is well illustrated by those two great Sacraments for practical Christian living, that of the Altar and that of Penance. If repentance were the whole of our Lord's gospel, then were the Confessional alone needed, after Baptism. Yet all believe that the grace and edification, the building up in sanctity which the holy Eucharist is meant to supply, is fundamental to true Christianity. No doubt there are those who hold that the Eucharist is everything, after Baptism, that there is no need at all of the Confessional, and such might well also hold that it was superfluous to keep Lent and to observe Friday in every week, for man has no need to do penance for his sins since our Lord has died for us on the Cross. Yet if we must still partake of His precious Body and Blood in order to be sanctified, although they were offered once for all upon the Cross for us, it is not unreasonable to believe that we must still wash in that precious Blood in order to be cleansed from our sins, although it was poured out so freely upon the Cross to take those sins away.
Notwithstanding it seems to me that it is with wise moderation that our Anglican Mother does not insist upon her children going to Confession before each Communion, unless they cannot quiet their own conscience without so doing, but rather leaves it to be understood that the devout will go to -the Altar for the Holy Food every Lord's day, and on less frequent occasions, though systematically, seek the cleansing of their souls in the Confessional.
Great then is the opportunity of the faithful follower of Christ, though he be not under the vows of religion, of imitating his Master in all holy living. To feel that while God has not called him to go and sell all that he has and become actually a poor man, he may be poor in spirit, using all his substance, whether great or small, as held in trust for his Master, so that while he has the right to live of it he may also generously and wisely distribute large proportion of it and win for himself the crown of a faithful steward.
To feel that while God has not called him to live the celibate life, he is free to show that he will be pure in heart, guarding the marriage union as a holy mystery, in which he has part that he may glorify God in his body and help to make up the number of the elect without whom the kingdom of heaven cannot come in.
To feel that while God has not called him to surrender his will to that of a Superior or to the provisions of a religious rule, he is free only that he may surrender himself altogether to the service of the Lord Christ, that he may daily make real in his life, both in enduring and in doing, the Master's prayer, Thy will, not mine, be done. It is a great thing to be free to serve God whether in the religious life, or as a secular; whether called to the priesthood or in lay life. Wisdom is justified of all her children. Her callings are not all the same, she has different vocations for different ones; yet great true principles of holiness and the love of God run through all and make them harmonious though diverse, one grand perfect chord though made up of many different notes.
That Church would not truly represent the religion of Christ that had not in it the ascetic life, that had not its John the Baptists preaching repentance and doing penance on behalf of all mankind under the three vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. It was a blessed day when the Anglican Communion revived Sisterhoods and Brotherhoods and made them honourable in her pale. It will be a doleful day when such holy orders of religious cease to exist among us.
That Church would not truly represent the religion of Christ that had not in it priests secular as well as religious, living self-denying lives yet not bound by the three vows; priests set as examples to the flock in using the world's good things as not abusing them, going in and out among their people teaching that while repentance is most necessary for all and the very foundation upon which holy living is based, there is also the life of sanctification for which we have abundant opportunity in our circumstances, it being possible for us by the power of grace to do all things to the glory of God.
Once more, and finally, that Church would not truly represent the religion of Christ which did not keep ever before its members the whole round of Divine truth, the lessons of festival and fast, the graces of the Confessional and of the Altar, that Lent is to be kept for forty days but not for the whole year, that most weeks are not abstinence weeks yet Friday in every week is a day for abstaining, that wisdom is justified of all her children though she sends to us both St. John Baptist the type of asceticism the preacher of repentance, and the gentle Christ Who lived in the world yet was not of the world, Who in His own Person has supplied for everyone, great or small, religious or secular, priest or layman, a perfect example through faithful following of which we shall surely attain to the perfection of the Saints of God.