Project Canterbury

Six Altars: Studies in Sacrifice

By George Craig Stewart

Milwaukee: Morehouse Publishing, 1930.

Transcribed by Wayne Kempton
Archivist and Historiographer of the Diocese of New York, 2012

"ALL THE plans of Charles Lamb, his ambitions, his hopes for the future, were voluntarily placed on the altar of brotherly affection, and the world has seen nothing finer than the loving care which he lavished on his sister Mary, the one who had brought such agony to his heart."
—J. W. G. WARD.

"THE STERN hand of fate has scourged us to an elevation where we can see the everlasting things that matter for a nation—the great peaks we had forgotten of Honor, Duty, Patriotism, and, clad in glittering white, the towering pinnacle of Sacrifice pointing like a rugged finger to heaven. We shall descend into the valleys again, but as long as the men and women of this generation last they will carry in their hearts the image of those mighty peaks whose foundations are not shaken, though Europe rock and sway in the convulsions of a great war."

O LORD, give us more charity, more self-denial, more likeness to Thee. Teach us to sacrifice our comforts to others, and our likings for the sake of doing good. Make us kindly in thought, gentle in word, generous in deed. Teach us that it is better to give than to receive; better to forget ourselves than to put ourselves forward; better to minister than to be ministered unto. And unto Thee, the God of love, be all glory and praise, both now and for evermore. Amen.



"Lo I come to do thy will, O God!"
—HEBREWS x: 9.

Now we are come to the closing chapter in this series on the Altar. All the external and material evidences of worship are, after all, but shadows of the real, Sacraments of the invisible, witnesses to intangible truths which have their existence on another plane. The great fruit-bearing realities of the spiritual life of man are reflected in the waters of time and space. We behold all these material things as mirrored appearances or symbols of the true. They speak a language which is but the faint echo of those high and holy and mysterious movements which go on within the soul of man.

There, for example, in the church is the lecturn (originally a Roman couch), and on it what we call a holy book. The lecturn is the [71/72] symbol of the flaming message communicated by God to the inward ear of the lawgiver and the prophet, the psalmist and the evangelist.

Or there is the organ and choir—

"In service high and anthems clear
As may with sweetness through mine ear
Dissolve me into ecstasies."

They are, as Milton said, but means for the

"Untwisting of the chains that tie
The hidden soul of harmony."

And here is the altar standing in the innermost sanctuary of the temple, the high and holy meeting place of God and man, where the awful Presence is manifested in sacramental mystery, and

"Heaven comes down, our souls to meet,
While glory crowns the mercy seat."

It would not be there, were it not first here, within the human heart. Indeed, the whole temple of the Church itself is in its very form a touching and dramatic witness to the inner life of man. There is, in each of us, an outer court which whosoever will may enter and feel at home. It is open to all. A man has but to meet us, to say, "How do you do," and he has entered the porch; he sees us, says he knows us, and in a sense he does; he notes almost at once, [72/73] the moment we open our lips, whether our life has dignity and height and beauty and sweep and richness of texture and a fine air of being worth while. But there is within us another level, a deeper sanctuary, a holy place where only a few enter—relatives, perhaps, or very dear and what we call "intimate" friends ("intus"—"within"; "intimus" the superlative of "within"), who know the little peculiar windings of our minds, the curious hidden nooks and corners of our characters, the pathetic notes of our childishness, the rare and hidden secrets of our charm, of our tragic failures, of our occasional heroisms.

And then there is the holy of holies in every life, where a curtain hangs, through which no one enters—no one except the soul itself "in converse with itself" and with its God. There, there in the innermost, veiled to all outsiders, and even to all intimates, there is, what we are considering in this chapter, the Altar in the Life, where sacrifice of body, mind, and soul is offered to what the soul esteems its highest good.

In many a life, if we should enter there into the deepest sanctuary, we would be smitten with horror at the altar and its god. There we would see, as did Ezekiel, a presence and [73/74] a power, a something terribly primitive, something horribly reminiscent of Baal and Ashtaroth, of Vishnu and Siva, of dark and unholy rites, of "shapes of beasts and creeping things."

"The walls are hung with velvet that is black and soft as sin,
And little dwarfs creep out of it, and little dwarfs creep in."

Here is the secret chamber of a bad man's mind, and he is offering sacrifices—his body, his imagination, his conscience, his will (think of it), his honor, his name, his wealth, his inheritance, his all, to what? To the beast, to the beast in himself, to what the Church calls the World, and the Flesh, and the Devil. Is it possible? It is. God help them, this is the only inward altar some abandoned souls know. "And they worshipped the beast, saying, Who is like unto the beast? and all that dwell upon the earth shall worship him whose names are not written in the Book of Life of the Lamb slain from the foundations of the world. And he causeth them to receive a mark in their right hand or in their foreheads and that no man might buy or sell save that he had the mark of the name of the beast." These are the men and women who have but one altar in their lives, the high altar [74/75] of the worldly, sensual, devilish. They are those who say, "Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die"; those who "walk after the flesh"; those who sell themselves, Faust-like, to Mephistopheles and "drink the cup of devils," and slip and slidder down into the hell of the lecher and the sot.

In many another life we see a different altar. Watts painted it! Chesterton interpreted the painting. Above that altar rises "a throned figure with the face of a blind beast, an imperial thing with closed eyes, and fat, sightless face; he lets his heavy hands and feet fall, as if by a mere pulverizing accident, on the naked and godlike figures of the young, on men and women; and in the background rises a raw and turgid smoke as if from some invisible and horrible sacrifice, and by one final, fantastic, and triumphal touch the all-destroying god is adorned with the ears of an ass, declaring him to be royal, imperial, irresistible, and, when all is said, imbecile." This is Mammon, who wins his way, as Byron says, "where seraphs might despair." One all-absorbing interest, one object to which body and soul and spirit are entirely consecrated—time, energy, imagination, culture, friendliness, kindness, generosity, mercy, religion, all—to money, money, money. [75/76] And Jesus speaks, "Ye cannot serve God and Mammon!"

You see behind these monstrous pictures of heathenish altars one great principle; it is self, self, self, and the horror of it is that when Narcissus worships himself he fades away until there is finally no soul at all, no self at all, no personality, but only the hollow spectre that has never learned the folly of gaining the whole world and losing his own life.

Come, let us turn to more heroic scenes. We renounce all this—"the devil and all his works, the pomps and vanities of this wicked world, and all the sinful lusts of the flesh." We turn to the nobler souls whose altar in the life is something quite different, a Christian altar, an altar marked with the Cross, with the redemptive body and blood offered for others.

Here in an eastern college is a son, born of good parents, brought up in a Christian home. Upon him have been lavished all the benefits which love can suggest and affluence provide. He despises his birthright. He drinks, gambles, goes in for dissipation, finally forges his father's name on a check, and goes to jail. And then he writes his father. And his father comes. Behind the bars he clasps his [76/77] son in his arms, the tears streaming down his face. He is wounded for his boy's transgressions, and bruised for his iniquity. Upon the altar of his innermost life he offers the sacrifice of everything he has for the redemption of his son.

Or here is a child dying from diphtheria. She will be choked to death before the doctor comes. And the mother puts her own mouth to the child's and sucks away the deadly phlegm until the little one can breathe without distress. She does it again and again. The child lives, and the mother dies. She has sacrificed herself upon the altar of family love.

Or here is Rupert Brooke, or any other patriot of any country, taking his fine young life, abounding, free, exalted, and offering it upon the altar of his country, dying for a flag, a cause, a principle, a whole people—

"If I should die, think only this of me:
That there's some corner in a foreign field
That is forever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed,
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave once her flowers to love, her ways to roam;
A body of England's, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home."

[78] What altar is that? It is the larger self of a beloved community.

Or here is Titus Oates, companion of Captain Scott on that fateful expedition to the Pole, who would not hold the others back. "His last thoughts," Scott entered in his Journal, "were of his mother. It was blowing a blizzard yesterday. Oates said, 'I am just going outside, and I may be some time.' He went out, and we have not seen him since. We knew he was walking to his death, but though we tried to dissuade him we knew it was the act of a brave man and an English gentleman!" In the innermost, on a high altar where Jesus is, with His broken body and pierced hands and wounded side and blood poured out, that man had faced God and offered himself as a sacrifice for his fellows. Over him they put a cross, and on it, "To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield!"

And here is Major Ross, studying for two years in Indian swamps, hunting the mosquito that carries malarial fever. I see him on the eve of that discovery, wasted, anemic, searching, seeking for a fact which, once discovered, shall save hundreds of thousands of [78/79] lives. Listen; here are his very own lines, a noble prayer which God answered:

"In this, O Nature, yield, I pray, to me;
I pace and pace and think and think and take
The fevered hands and note down all I see,
That some dim distant light may haply break.

"The painful faces ask, Can we not cure?
We answer, No, not yet; we seek the laws.
O God, reveal, through all this thing obscure,
The unseen small, but million myriad cause."

God answered with light, and Major Walter Reed over here in America caught up the torch
and yellow fever was wiped out.

Had we space we might add many a name to the roll of martyrs in the cause of science, men like Noguchi of Japan who died in Africa, victim of African yellow fever, of which he had just identified the cause; Sidney Wilson of Manchester, smothered in his own gas mask as he experimented with anaesthetics; women like Mary Davies, the Welsh bacteriologist, who died in France a year ago, self-inoculated with gangrene germs as she sought a remedy for the terrible malady which killed thousands of soldiers in the World War.

And here in Louvain is a young man [79/80] educated for a business career and a life of prosperity and pleasure. But when he was eighteen years old he volunteered as a missionary. Out yonder he saw the leper colony of Molokai. He must go there. He did. He spent the rest of his days there bringing to desolate hearts the cheering rays of the love of God. There he contracted the foul disease, and thirty-nine years ago died at this post, and all the world loves Father Damien. He had the spirit of the Crucified. He knew the fellowship of His sufferings and the power of His resurrection.

And here is Ignatius of Antioch approaching martyrdom and crying out, "Grant me to be poured out as a libation unto God. Come fire and iron and grappling with wild beasts, breaking of bones, crushing of the body, only be it mine to attain to Jesus!"

And Polycarp burning as he cries, "How can I speak evil of my King Jesus?" And Perpetua and Felicitas and Attalus and all who gladly died as martyrs,

"Assured the fiery trial, fierce though fleet,
Would from their little heaps of ashes lend
Wings to the conflagration of a world."

[81] Why go on multiplying instances of such self-sacrificing heroism, some on the altar of scientific truth, some on the altar of art, some on the altar of goodness? There is but one God, and He is perfect beauty, perfect goodness, and perfect truth. "To this end was I born," says Jesus, "and for this came I into the world to bear witness to truth. I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life."

What we see and see clearly is that sacrifice is the one and only secret of beauty and culture and character. Even the perfect man is made "perfect through suffering." Even God in human life must suffer upon the Cross. The law of perfect life is the broken body and the poured out blood. The highest principle in life, both human and divine, is the principle of the Cross. Jesus is God in perfect human life calling for followers, "If any man will be My disciple he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me."

We offer upon our Christian altar the sacrifice of Jesus; that is true. But it has a corollary: Here, with that sacrifice, we offer "ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice." The altar there is an expression of an altar here.

[82] "There is an altar I must build,
Strong and foursquare of rough hewn stone,
With bitter labor shaped and laid,
And I must build it all alone.

"No other hand but mine must rear
That altar in the secret place,
Remote, untrod, where even now
God waits to meet me face to face.

"There is no back but mine must bear
The faggot up the long incline;
The wood of kindling must be laid
In order by no hand but mine.

"There is one law for man and God:
Who for another will atone,
Must bring no sacrifice but self
Nor blood of sprinkling but his own."

Life goes on. The altar stands forever. Sacrifice is "a towering pinnacle, pointing like a
rugged finger to heaven." And pain and suffering—parents breaking hearts over children, adventurers for knowledge gladly dying for truth; artists pouring out the wine of their own young lives to live again in poetry, or painting; and saints of God dying gladly to bring in the kingdom of heaven—pain and suffering mark the heroes of our race.

You love the Church and its altar. Is it a picture of the innermost in your life? Jesus of [82/83] the Cross dwell in you! Jesus the Sacrifice make your life sacrificial! Jesus of the broken body strengthen you as the body breaks! Jesus of the poured out blood be your life when the blood runs slow!

"Hold fast His hand!
Though the nails pierce thine too, take only care
Lest one drop of the sacramental wine
Be spilled of that which ever shall unite
The soul and body to thy living Lord!"

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