Charles Beard.

Beside the Still Waters online

. (page 1 of 1)
Online LibraryCharles BeardBeside the Still Waters → online text (page 1 of 1)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

Produced by Tamise Totterdell and the Online Distributed
Proofreading Team at











In Memory of



"He leadeth me beside the still waters."
PSALM xxiii. 2.

There has been a period of geological speculation, at which all the
changes which have taken place upon the earth's surface, and have left
their unmistakable marks in countless relics of animal and vegetable
life, were attributed to the action of sudden and violent forces, of
which, to-day, earthquake and tempest and volcano are only the feeble
and transitory types. Those changes have manifestly been so great and so
universal, as to stand out in vivid contrast to the imperceptibly slow,
the gently gradual processes, which are all that we are now able to
watch and to record: surely we can attribute them only to causes as
exceptional as themselves. We see Niagara cutting its backward way
through the ravine, so many feet in a thousand years; the lava stream
descends the mountain-side like a black and burning glacier, and
destruction too plainly marks its path; a storm bursts upon the hills,
and for long miles the valleys are choked with barren mud, the bridges
scattered in ruin through the stream, the cheerful husbandry of men laid
hopelessly waste. But we cannot watch the slow upheaval of a long line
of coast, where the fisherman hardly knows at the end of a lifetime
whether the sea has drawn back or his own landmarks have been moved; we
are all unable to note how new continents are now being formed in the
ocean's stillest depths, from whose hardened and uplifted strata future
ages may dig out the relics of so much that has been dear and precious
to us; we fail to notice how every running stream, from the tiniest
mountain rill to muddy Po and fertilizing Nile, is perpetually at work
to carry down the hills into the plains, and to change the world's
familiar face. But so it is, and so, we have some right to conclude, it
has been always. God's chosen ways of working in the physical world are
not wholly of the sudden and violent sort. Storm and earthquake and
flood have undoubtedly played their part; but not more than - perhaps
hardly as much as - the perpetually dropping rain, the wind that seems to
blow as it listeth, the tides that come and go and no man heeds them,
the sun that shines upon barren rock and fertile meadow with serene
impartiality of blessing. God seems to work, by preference, slowly and
in silence. To Him a thousand years are but as yesterday when it is
past, and the dial on which His operations are recorded takes no note of
human thoughts and expectations.

The same is true, I think, in the moral world. It is indeed difficult to
over-estimate the force of a great soul; though it is needful to remark
that not all great souls work in the full light of publicity and have
their path marked by revolution, and equally needful to remember that
not all dislocating and disturbing spirits put forth any true claim to
greatness. We are far too apt to confound the occasions with the causes
of any great change, and to forget that if fire do indeed come out of a
noble heart, it can only kindle other hearts that are already prepared
to burn. Many souls were hot with Luther's indignation, before he
burned the Bull in the market-place of Wittenberg; many spirits had
inwardly rebelled against the deadness of the age, before Wesley told
the Gospel tale to the colliers of Kingswood. One indeed speaks what the
many feel; to him has been given a clearer insight, a diviner ardour, a
more articulate speech; but his word is with power because of the dumb
aspirations stirring in many breasts, and an universal emotion which has
not yet found fit expression. And this is even more the case with regard
to moral operations of a quieter and less signal, though hardly less
important kind; forces which do not so much suddenly change the world,
as keep it (in some poor and imperfect way) sweet and pure, and perhaps,
in the course of ages, urge it a little nearer the throne of God. Is the
faith of Christendom sustained from generation to generation by the
succession of heroes and saints, to whose achievements all men look up
with despairing admiration, and in whose acknowledged and recorded
excellence they see the full embodiment of their own desire, or by the
thousand nameless fidelities to duty, and obscure victories of
self-devotion, and hidden glories of purity, that pass away without
celebration? If you, my brethren, have any stoutness of heart to resist
mean temptation, if you are conscious of any uplifting of desire towards
better and more stable things than form the common stuff of life, if any
quiet trust in God sustains you amid the world's chance and change, to
what do you owe them? In the last resort, doubtless, to God Himself, and
to God working through Christ; but immediately, and in a large measure,
to hidden forces, unseen influences, which you perhaps can track only in
part, but of which others know nothing. A father's integrity - a
mother's sweet goodness - the quiet air of a happy home - a domestic
courage and patience, at which you have looked very closely, and whose
every line and lineament you know - some ancestral saintliness, which is
a household tradition and no more, but which has never withered in the
fierce light of public estimate, - these things have inspired and
nourished your nobler part. They are the refreshing dew and the
fertilizing rain, the restful night and the kindling day, of God's moral
world. We grow up with them, and hardly know them for His activity; they
are among the necessary conditions of our existence; and when we seek
for tokens of Him, it is rather in the crises and catastrophes of
life - in the sharp wound that pricks a sleeping conscience, in the call
of duty which turns the whole current of our energy, in the sorrow
which destroys for ever our trust in the world. But He has been with us
all the while in the gentler motions of His will.

Sometimes, I am inclined to think, we insist too much on our own
estimate of small and great in the moral world, forgetting that any
single fact or individual life is but one link in an endless chain of
causes and consequences, of which we ought to know the whole before we
can rightly estimate a part. And looking back where some light seems to
rest upon our own or others' history, it is easy to see how what we
should call great and signal, stands next in the line of causation to
what seems (but only seems) to be trivial, and is certainly obscure. Let
us take the most remarkable instance of all, - the Christ, whom no
scepticism can dethrone from the foremost place in human history, - who,
whatever else he was, must be admitted even by unbelief to have set his
mark upon mankind more deeply than any other son of men. Yet how he
emerges upon the world out of secrecy and silence! Whatever bright cloud
of hope and prophecy had formerly floated about his cradle, has long
been scattered and forgotten; and he comes, from his Galilean hills, one
of the simple folk who earned their bread in the sweat of their brow,
unlearned save in the ancestral wisdom of his people, unheralded but by
the village estimate of a sweet and innocent life, to finish the work of
a long line of prophets, and to lift humanity nearer to God. And we are
often so eager to prove the singularity of his mission, and to take him
out of the category of other workers for God, as to miss the great
lesson which is to be learned of the way in which the Father always
trains and educates a faithful and victorious Son. Of his mother, who
knows anything, save what the few hints and statements of the
Evangelists disclose? A superstition, not without its tender and
graceful side, has taken her from her cottage home at Nazareth, and
crowned her Queen of Heaven; till all the familiar extravagances of
mythology have obliterated even from men's imagination the lines of a
sweet and strong human character. And yet what a marvellous woman must
have been this unknown mother of Christ! What depth of tenderness, what
steadiness of judgment, what a majestic and yet winning purity, what a
faculty of self-devotion (not yet too hardly tried), what a simple
intensity of devoutness, must have watched and helped the child, as he
grew and blossomed into man! What airs from heaven must have blown about
that lowly roof, filling all who dwelt beneath it with a noble
simplicity of content with their own lot, and one, with a nobler
discontent with the world's innumerable wrongs and sufferings! These
were God's quiet ways, and the very record of them has disappeared; they
survive only in their result. But there is no son in whom mother's blood
does not flow, and though now we know not how or where, the Mary of whom
the world is ignorant, lived and spoke and died in the Christ, to whom
the world looks up.

So no mistake can be greater than to suppose that all the world's best
work is done by the eloquent tongue and the busy hand. I will not
compare what may be achieved by these means, with the less conspicuous
results of a goodness which propagates itself less by word and act than
by the unconscious contagion of example; for it is not given to us to
choose the form and method of our obedience. The call of conscience is
to action; God cannot be acceptably served in inglorious ease. The
command comes in many forms: "Work while it is day; the night cometh
when no man can work," cries one voice; and then another, "Whatsoever
thy hand findeth to do, do it with all thy might;" and again a third,
"The fields are white unto harvest, but the labourers are few." But God
Himself provides a diversity of work for His own purposes, and at the
same time a variety of example for us, when He chooses some lives, and
laying upon them, what seems to be a heavy burthen of sickness and
infirmity, or filling them with a great modesty and retiringness of
spirit, or shutting them up within very narrow and insurmountable
barriers of circumstance, says to them, in a voice which it is
impossible to misinterpret, "Serve Me in darkness and in silence; and
let it be enough that I accept the faithfulness which is unknown of
men." Sometimes a command like this finds a ready echo in a timid and
sensitive spirit, to which it is a deliverance not to be compelled by
conscience to go down into the throng of life; quite as often it lies,
at least for awhile, like a galling fetter upon the active mind and the
eager will. But God tempers His weapons in His own way, and all to the
best effect; and presently the busiest and most versatile intellect
finds new depths and fresh possibilities of interest in the things that
lie closest at home; the widest and the warmest heart learns that
faltering feet and feeble hands cannot restrain love's farthest and
highest flight; and as for God, with all that is involved in the soul's
upward strain towards communion, and His descent of help, He may easily
be nearer to the silence of an enforced quietness, than to the noise and
press of men's common life. And so it often happens that, under
circumstances like these, a character is built up which, if it
necessarily shine upon but a few lives, shines for them with a
brightness all the purer and more intense. Such virtue is not the beacon
flame upon the hill-top, wakening half the land to heroic courage and
stern endurance, but the quiet lamp which giveth light to all that are
in the house, for sweet patience, and fine courtesy, and the practice of
all homely goodness.

Such a life, withdrawn as it is from common temptations, is not without
trials and difficulties peculiarly its own; but of these it is not
needful now to speak. It is more to my purpose to point out that it is
susceptible of a singular symmetry and completeness. The very narrowness
which has been imposed upon it by God, and which we are so ready to
regard as a privation, is only in another shape the restriction upon the
indefiniteness of duty which many dutiful souls so passionately desire.
For the claims upon an energetic nature are so many, so various, often
so conflicting; it is so hard to know which of two competing duties
ought to take precedence, so impossible to adjust effort at precisely
its right intensity, and to hit the mean between base self-saving and
foolish self-squandering, - that I think it must be a common wish for
keen consciences to have the boundaries of industry a little more
plainly marked out by God, and to be relieved from the perpetual
perplexity of choice. If only one had but a fixed and limited place to
fill! If only one could always clearly distinguish between what one
ought to do, and what it would be wrong and foolish to attempt! And
therefore, in this sense, God's prison may be the soul's liberty, and no
round of duty so cheerfully and completely trodden as one which we, who
are burthened with too large a capacity of flight, think sadly and
hopelessly circumscribed. Then, so God has willed it, Quietness and Pain
are sister angels, that have a singular privilege of access to Him; and
the soul to which they minister, through the weary hours of the day and
in the long watches of the night, may frequently mount upon their
friendly wings into the sanctuary of His Presence, bringing with it,
upon its return earthward, one knows not what glow caught from the
infinite and eternal Brightness. The difficulties of a busy life are apt
to throw mind and heart back upon themselves; the necessities of a quiet
life have in them this fine quality, that they directly lead mind and
heart to God. So ripen, slowly as the seasons pass and the years come
and go, that sweetness and roundness of character which we call
saintliness; and as we come in from our worldly work and struggle, with
its soil still clinging to us, and the joy of achievement always dashed
with the recollection of failure, we wonder at a goodness in which we
can hardly detect a flaw, and upon which already rests a foregleam of
the presence of God.

For one secret source of the influence which such a life may exercise,
undoubtedly lies in its contrast to men's common and more active
existence. I have just indicated one element of that contrast; the
completeness with which a comparatively narrow place may be filled, over
against the want of balance, and symmetry, and thoroughness, of which
all day-workers in the world must be conscious. But this is not all.
There is a great charm in the difference between the heated air in which
we fight our battles even for goodness, and the still atmosphere which
environs these quiet lives: we come back to them from the struggle, and
find that while they too are full of all fine aspiration for right, and
thrill with a divine indignation against wrong, their aspiration is
without restlessness, their indignation has no root of bitterness in it;
they are not unduly elated by successes which have turned our heads, nor
daunted by failures which have utterly cast us down; their faith is, as
ours should be, far more in God than in any of His human instruments.
Their characteristic excellences answer in many respects to our
weaknesses, and we admire and love them all the more: we cannot wait,
and their existence is one long patience: the noise and the light of
publicity are our life, and God has hidden them in His pavilion from the
strife of tongues: we argue, and wrangle, and fight, while they but love
and pray: health and energy are the very conditions of our activity, and
their life is rooted in weakness and in pain: we converse continually
with men, and it is a familiar thing with them to be alone with God. And
so it often happens that the chamber of long and disabling sickness, or
the sofa from which the invalid rarely moves, is the fountain of the
finest influence, and the centre of the noblest activities. For there
the charities of life may be all astir, and the quick affections thence
make their far journeys of sympathy; thither may come the workers, now
for the refreshment of peace, now for the balm of consolation, now,
again, for the inspiration of a purer dutifulness; while over all
constantly broods the presence of God, who gives and who denies the
power of active service; who bids this child toil and struggle, while
from that He asks only that she should "stand and wait." So in the
weakness of one many are made strong; and the activities of earth are
bathed and freshened in the airs of heaven.

Such lives are rarely counted happy; the world pities, while it admires
them; and there is often a note of commiseration even upon the lips of
those who know them best. I cannot think that it ought to be so; that it
is so, arises from the fact, that when we speak of happiness, we use the
word in some shallow and conventional sense which does not answer to our
best and deepest knowledge. For although one who lives so narrowed a
life as I have described, and, like a caged lark, praises God in clear
strains and out of a full heart, might well desire, were such a thing
yet possible, a restored activity and an enlarged power of service, it
would almost always be for others' sake rather than her own; not that
she might multiply occasions of pleasure, but that she might extend the
ministry of love. The truth is, that such an one has penetrated far more
deeply than most into the true secret of human happiness; learning that,
so far as external things go, it stands much more in the limitation than
in the satisfaction of desire; and that for the things within, to lie
close to God, and to be able to do and bear all His will with a complete
and ready assent, is the single sufficient source of a Peace which the
world can neither give nor take away. And then there is a grace of
character which is one of the rarest gifts of healthy, active life; but
which, wherever it shews itself, is almost always a plant of God's own
rearing and tending, - I mean a willingness to live or die, as He
pleases; and a genuine conviction, that whatever He pleases in this
respect is wisest, kindest, best. How little do we feel this, my
brethren, we who come here for an hour's repose from the world's
turmoil! Our life's work, we think, is half undone; our best hopes have
not yet reached fruition; our vital capacity is still unexhausted; a
thousand interests claim us. If God called us now, we should obey the
call with sorrowful reluctance, and innumerable backward glances to the
work and love in which our hearts are centred. Not so with those who
have long dwelt in the silence and the seclusion which lie between life
and death. It is the counterpoise of their suffering and the reward of
their patience, that to them there is no terror, but a great
deliverance, in God's last message. It opens the door of the
prison-house, and sets the captive free. It is the summons to exchange
pain for peace, and enforced quietness for the vigour and the joy of
service. The God who has straitened them so long is He who now sets
their lives in a large place; and from the twilight of faith they pass
into the noon of sight. Amen.


Online LibraryCharles BeardBeside the Still Waters → online text (page 1 of 1)