Project Canterbury

Turning Points in My Life.

By William Porcher Du Bose, M.A., S.T.D.

New York, London, Bombay and Calcutta: Longmans, Green and Co., 1912.

Chapter I. Early Spiritual Life

I AM here today, in my old home and in my so long accustomed seat, not as a host but as a guest. I come at the instance and by the invitation of those who were my sometime pupils and followers--some of whom have become in the most real sense my leaders and teachers. I have most carefully pondered all the terms in which the request to me to be here has been variously expressed, with this desire: that what I may have to supply or contribute to the purpose of our reunion may be as nearly as possible conformed to the demand. I have been asked, first, to sit here, in this old seat, for several consecutive days, and talk just as I used to talk to you just as you used to be. That is, perhaps, in many ways the most impossible form in which the request has come to me. But in the one way in which it was felt and meant, I am going to try my best to comply with it.

It has been said again, or hoped, that I should, at this our last session together, sum up and put as it were into a nutshell the special truth, the definite lesson of life, which I was for thirty-six years endeavoring, with your help, to learn and to teach. Yet again, it was suggested, not at all inappropriately considering my threescore years and fifteen, that I was to give my last counsels for the time, and the times to come.

You may imagine that a call such as this has awakened long, long thoughts in me, both of the past and of the future. It has made me live my life over and ask: What has it been for me and for others? I have nothing to give you but what I myself have got. We can never really give to others anything but what is ours and ourselves. And now as we meet in this relation for the last time, I ask myself: What has life given me--what has it given me that I have taken and that I have--that I may give you, if you will take it? Reflections such as these have led me to take as the subject of the three lectures this week: The Lesson of my Life--or, perhaps better, Lessons from my Life. What I mean is: the lesson or lessons that life has taught me, and that may perchance be of help and use to you. I am very far from thinking that my life is the properest life, or the properest thing, to present to you; but it is the only life and the only thing that is mine to give: such as I have, give I unto you.

I have another motive in the selection of this subject. This is a personal reunion, a fellowship of souls, and not a comparison of views or clash of opinions. As to these latter we are of all sorts, but we come together to illustrate the unity of life that lies down underneath the infinite diversities of thought or view or human expression. This is a social gathering, and let nothing be lacking to it of the light or the graceful or the playful that properly adorns the surface of all pure human social intercourse. But first of all let us secure that unity of the spirit which will make our fellowship together a fellowship too with the Father and with the Son. The Life was manifested, and we have seen it and know it, and all our fellowship is with it and in it.

I have always spoken from myself, but I have never spoken of myself. It is not easy for me to do so now, and I do it only in the privacy of this old class, always changing yet always here with me through all the years that I was here. I speak then in the intimacy and the confidence of those whom I know and trust, and who know me. In the course of nearly sixty years of actual and conscious spiritual experience and observation, I have touched and felt Christianity on pretty much all the sides which during that time it has presented to us. I could not recall or portray myself except in all those several aspects or phases, and in such a composite, or I should say unity, of them all as I am now conscious of in myself. In describing my life then, I shall do it in three lectures: (1) as Evangelical, (2) as Churchly, and (3) as Catholic (in the widest sense), these being distinctly phases, and not stages.

It has been said that life is really lived, and is itself, only in its supreme moments: only the gods can sustain it continuously at its height. I don't know that any of us can claim to have attained to supreme moments. At any rate we have had superior, or relatively supreme ones; and of some such I will speak, but only of such as were not only what they were at the time, but have been with me since, and are in me still. I think that you will agree, when I have described its moments, that my conscious, voluntary religious life, beginning say at eighteen, was distinctively of the type that we have called evangelical.

I was born and bred in the Church, and brought up religiously in what St. Paul calls the nurture and admonition of the Lord. No life, natural or spiritual, is of ourselves, and it is impossible to tell just when and how it begins. Its causes, influences, and processes are in operation before our consciousness of it awakens. I cannot say when religion in jne began; but I am now concerned only with the rise and progress in myself of conscious and voluntary religion. Whatever be my own theory of Christian nurture, and of the imperceptible and continuous genesis and growth of spiritual life under it, as a matter of fact my own, at least conscious, life began with a crisis--with what had all the appearance of a sudden and instantaneous conversion. It has been with me a life-long matter of scientific as well as religious interest to analyze and understand that experience. More and more, as I grow older, I live over again through every minutest detail of it and apply anew to myself what I know to be the eternal and essential truth and meaning of it. In this day of the attempted scientific verification of spiritual as well as other phenomena, I should not hesitate among just ourselves to submit to you all the facts in this case, as they are still indelibly fixed in my memory--if only we had time. As it is, I will narrate only the essential points. Three cadets, returning from a long march and series of encampments, and a brief stoppage at their common home, spent on their way back to their garrison a night in a certain city, and returned at midnight hilarious and weary from what was called a "roaring farce" at the little theatre, to occupy one bed at the crowded hotel. In a moment the others were in bed and asleep. There was no apparent reason why I should not have been so too, or why it should just then have occurred -to me that I had not of late been saying my prayers. Perfectly unconscious and unsuspicious of anything unusual, I knelt to go through the form, when of a sudden there swept over me a feeling of the emptiness and unmeaningness of the act and of my whole life and self. I leapt to my feet trembling, and then that happened which I can only describe by saying that a light shone about me and a Presence filled the room. At the same time an ineffable joy and peace took possession of me which it is impossible either to express or explain. I continued I know not how long, perfectly conscious of, simply but intensely feeling, the Presence, and fearful, by any movement, of breaking the spell. I went to sleep at last praying that it was no passing illusion, but that I should awake to find it an abiding reality. It proved so, and now let me say what of verification my life has given to the objective reality of that appearance or manifestation.

God has His ways of coming to us, of entering into our world and into our life and making them new: heaven is with us when our eyes are open to see it. There is only one earthly and very far-off analogy which God Himself uses and we may therefore venture modestly to use. There comes to a man the love of a woman, which is different in kind from any other human love. It comes for a reason and with a meaning, for the endless ends of a relation which is the highest and holiest that can exist between mortals, and that is the earthly source and spring of all other human relations and of all human life. What we call "falling in love" comes to us just as naturally and just as mysteriously and inexplicably as that other only more spiritual experience of which the Lord says: "The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh or whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit." The human love comes simply because of the fact that the man is made for the woman and the woman for the man, and neither is complete or satisfied without the other. The divine love in which God makes Himself one with us comes simply for the reason, and because of the fact, so perfectly expressed in the ever new old words: "My God Thou hast made me for Thyself, and my soul will find no rest, until it rest in Thee."

My proof, I may say my verification, of the fact of God's coming to me, apart from all mystery of the way, may be expressed in this simple truth of experience, that in finding Him I found myself: a man's own self, when he has once truly come to himself, is his best and only experimental proof of God. The act of the Prodigal's "coming to himself" was also that of his arising and returning to his Father.

As this was the beginning of my awakened and actualized spiritual life, and must be supposed to have contained in it the potencies and promise of all that was to be, I have sought to recall just what, at the time, there was in it. And the first thing that strikes me was its lack of explicitness: so little was there in it of the definite and defined features of Christianity, that it would scarcely seem to have been as yet distinctively Christian. Of course I knew my catechism and was familiar and in sympathy with the letter of Christianity, but I am tracing my religion now solely as it became the living and operative fact and factor of my actual spiritual being. There was then no conscious sense of sin, nor repentance, nor realization of the meaning of the Cross, or of the Resurrection, or of the Church or the Sacraments, nor indeed of the Incarnation or of Christ Himself. What then was there?--There was simply a New World without me, and a New Self in me--in both which for the first time, visibly, sensibly, really, God was. In just that, was there already implicitly and potentially included the principle and truth of Regeneration, Resurrection, and Eternal Life, of the putting and passing away of old things and the coming to pass of new, of the as yet hidden meaning of the Cross, of the heavy cost to both God and man of the only possible or real human redemption? To instance in a single item: I for a long time thought it strange that in my conversion, if that was it, there was with me so little conscious thought or conviction of sin. But then, also, I recalled that there had been a previous state of self-dissatisfaction, which however had been all swallowed up and lost in the consciousness of being lifted out of it into a new life of love and life and holiness. Had there not been implicit repentance and faith, although I did not yet know in them all the death upon the Cross of the one, or all the life from out the grave of the other? I recalled also that when, after the spiritual crisis, I returned to my natural habits and duties, the form which the intervening change in me assumed was mainly that of a sensitized and transfigured--not only consciousness, but--conscience. I had a sense of walking in the light, and of at least desiring and intending to have no darkness in me at all. I can perfectly recall the ways and even the little instances in which this disposition manifested itself. The task of materializing or actualizing that as yet only ideal, of embodying the sentiment of it into habit and character and life, I was indeed far enough from realizing. But were not the principle and the potency of the whole already present and operative in me?

The moral so far I would draw in passing is this: the spiritual irrationality and impossibility of extorting from converts or beginners, or indeed of Christians all, any true or real confession of the sum total or detailed contents of Christianity. The articles of the Creed may properly be required to be repeated for entrance into the Church, but only so as they are outwardly confessed and accepted as being the historic, organic, and developed faith of the Church, and assuredly not as all digested, assimilated, and converted into the actual life of the incipient member. In other words, there is a great deal which we may outwardly confess as the faith, which we rightly hold on the reasonable external authority of corporate and historical Christianity, which nevertheless to be compelled to profess, as in its totality our personal subjective actual and attained faith, would simply involve us in either self-deception or hypocrisy. On the other hand, I shall endeavor by my own example to justify the humble acceptance of the Church's faith in the beginning, and then the life-time process, as one can, of gradually digesting, assimilating, and converting that faith into one's own, and finding in it the full food and content of one's life. But to exact of every Christian at every moment full conversion to every item or every particular of even the essentials of a complete Christianity is no more a Christian procedure than it was that of Jesus Christ Himself.

I do not wish to lose sight of the fact that, in even so inchoate a conversion and faith as that I am describing, there was, however implicit, the reality of a distinctly Christian life. The God into living relation with Whom it brought the soul was none other than just the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. God has been always in the world, and there has always been in the world a less or more true conception and knowledge of God, but the only full and real God of the soul is the God of Christianity. The soul of man is our only ultimate judge of what is true of or in God, and that for the reason that the human soul and God are correspondent and correlative entities and energies. That is God, in correspondence with Whom the soul is its complete and perfect self; and that is the soul, in which God most truly and completely realizes and reproduces Himself. At the very beginning and ever since, my one all-sufficient evidence of God and of religion has been this: that in Him and in it, and nowhere else, am I my own truest and best self; the better and more closely I know Him, the truer, better, and higher I am, and the reverse: when I least believe is always when I am at my lowest and my worst. If we are to judge truth by the principle of "values," then that which puts the most reason and meaning, the most fulness and blessedness, the most worth and consistence and permanence into human life, is in itself the truest. My conversion made me a worthier and higher self, and my life a more valuable and a happier life: and the more that is the case, the more I know it to be true.

Not only is there the distinctively Christian's God in such an experience, but the most developed Christian doctrine of the status and relation between the soul and God is likewise implicitly presupposed and involved in it: we are reconciled, justified, at-one-d, and made one with God--not by any act or work or merit of our mere selves, but only by placing ourselves within and identifying ourselves with the love, the grace, the fellowship with us, of God Himself. The little child, no matter how weak, how bad, whatever it be, finds not only love and peace and rest, but hope and fresh strength and new beginnings of life in the bosom of its mother. And to come to God "just as we are," not waiting to be good, and find in Him, in His eternal love, His infinite grace, His perfect fellowship, all we want for holiness, for righteousness, and for eternal life, is only a simple way of putting all the vexed doctrine or dogma of justification by faith.

Once more, this may seem, so far, that merely personal religion which is in terms the opposite of what religion means: "God and the soul, the soul and its God!" And I must confess that for long that was all that was in it for me. I wanted to keep it all to myself, to hide it as much as possible from all others. Yet at the very time I was to all others, as well as to myself, better and more than I had ever been before. In fact I was, so far as I can measure, never after so communicative to others of the good I was receiving and estimating for myself as in that time in which I was least presuming--nor, I fear, caring--to help or save others. In every one of three acknowledgments from fellow-students, which I can never forget, of what I had been to them in their college lives,--when I had to plead guiltless of any intention or even conscious will to help them, the answer was that it was just that, that if I had ever interfered even in thought to do them good, I should have failed to do it. There is this of truth in that, that we help or hinder others most in and by what we are, and not by what we say or do. Know God and yourself, be true to God and yourself, and you will be to others all that you are to God and yourself. For when you truly come to look for God and yourself, you will never find them in yourself for long, but only in others.

I am telling the story of my evangelical, not yet of my high-church or my broad-church self. During my university life I did little more than hold fast that whereunto I had attained. I was busy, under physical difficulties and discouragements, with my mental work; spiritually I was, as it were, marking time,--that is, keeping up the motions without much forward movement. And it is not my desire to record anything else than actual steps forward, permanent and integral additions to my spiritual self and life. When I passed from university to seminary and took up directly the study of religion and of Christianity, I did so not without what I am a little disposed to call pietism,--but will not, because I think it was not altogether unworthy of the better term piety. But still my religion was very much in myself, and there very much in idea and sentiment. I think that with me naturally idea is more than sentiment, I am rather disposed to be ideal than sentimental. But at that time certain things, most of all music, moved me very deeply and always religiously. Under the spell of such cobperant emotion my mind was very active with its ideals and speculations.

I remember just at that period a singularly trifling incident which nevertheless in its effect has been present with me as an actual force for fifty years. What a very little spark may kindle the most destructive conflagration, or sometimes the most illuminating and beneficent flame! In this case so ridiculous a suggestion could not have awakened so lasting a train of thought and consequence if the occasion and material had not been ripe and ready for it. In an idle moment I chanced to pick up an old magazine in which were narrated the military experiences and exploits of a certain Lieutenant Poop. His Christian name was Ninkum--Mr. Ninkum Poop. First, in most descriptive and expressive terms, were elaborated and described the heroically high and noble ideals and sentiments with which the newly fledged lieutenant devoted himself to the sacred service of his country, the great British Empire,--what aspirations, what hopes and expectations and high-wrought purposes, what dreams and visions of self-sacrifice, and then of honor and greatness and glory! Lieutenant Ninkum Poop arrives at the seat of war, where all his ideas are to be put into action and all his sentiments to be converted into conduct and character and achievement. He goes through it all, his thoughts and expressions to the end swelling with the magnanimity of the great-souled, his actions on the contrary evincing only the pusillanimity of the little-souled, the coward and the poltroon.

I would not tell this simply as the undignified illustration of a principle; I give it as an historical life-moment and life-movement in my spiritual history. That arrow went home and still rankles in my breast. I cannot tell how often I have found and called myself a Ninkum Poop; how often, in very other terms, I have preached the fact it illustrates to myself and others:--that life is not life as long as it is only in the mind, or even in the heart; that it is only life when it has been converted into life. Christianity has only begun when it begins to live what it believes and what it feels: "If ye know these things, blessed are you if ye do them." Have we the Christianity that does what it says, that practises what it preaches? What we want is not to have a new Christianity, but to have a new way of having Christianity: a new way which is the old one, the way of Him who was, and still is, the Way. He is not alone in Himself the truth and the life, but no less the way to us of really knowing the truth and living the life.

There was nothing to me for some time in seminary life beyond pleasant association and useful routine work. The first thing that touched and really set going the forward movement of life and thought in me came in the form of provocation from a fellow-student. There was in our diocese at that time a centre and school of Calvinistic low-churchmanship, over against another party of moderate anti-Calvinistic high-churchmanship. An intelligent and aggressive theological student of the former school had gone to Princeton to find there under the Hodges and Alexanders of that day meat strong enough for his spiritual pabulum, and had then been brought home by the Bishop to spend his senior year at our seminary, where we were entering as juniors. Being fresh from the university and more immediately at home in Greek than the rest of us, I was drawn by our senior friend into the question whether the language and argument of St. Paul did not necessitate all the essential principles, the five points, of Calvinism. It is impossible to overstate the difficulties and perplexities into which I was thus led for several years to come, and the results in all my future thinking and teaching. It soon passed with me beyond the mere issue or question of Calvinism, to which, as you know, I have never reverted; although, as a living question in that day, it did sorely try me until, having absorbed what of truth and of discipline I found in it, I had passed beyond into higher unities and reconciliations. But at the time I encountered and had to overcome this temptation : We are often enough tempted to believe what antecedent prejudice or inclination makes us wish to believe. Sometimes a strained honesty compels us to accept what we do not wish to believe, as a heroic sacrifice of inclination or prejudice. I asked myself, Am I prepared to make the necessary sacrifice in order to follow the truth wherever it may lead me? And I came near identifying that query with this one, Am I strong enough and selfless enough to accept Calvinism? Whereas it should have been this, Am I open and prepared to accept Calvinism if it is indeed, and I fairly find it to be, the truth?

But the permanent profit of that experience was that it made me such a life-long student and companion of St. Paul's faith and life, as has really determined my whole subsequent character and career. How that disposition and bent was intensified and fixed in me by the long interruption and peculiar circumstance of the war, which followed immediately upon this phase of my spiritual experience, I must reserve for another chapter.

Project Canterbury