The Little Church of Those That Stumble and Rise

THERE is a church loved by its members with a passion transcending all other affection which humanity may show toward the creeds which it professes. For this church is the only one above all creeds. Its religion is as universal and as intimate as the heart of man itself. Its animating spirit is too profound and cloistered too deeply within the consciousness of its communicants for them to rear temples to it in the light of common day. Its delicate, emulous spires are builded within the streets of the Forbidden City, the city of the soul. To most it is too shy a spiritual habitation ever to be named; but to some, who more plainly hear the silent cry of the human heart, it is known as The Little Church of those that Stumble and Rise.

It is at once the most catholic and the most vigorous of all faiths. In it believer and unbeliever bear an equal yoke. Its charity is so broad that it never bars its holy bread and wine from one who has once tasted of them. At the same time no other order lays so strait an exactment upon its professors. For, as its ideals are self-imposed, so no contrition under other laws can be so poignant as the agony of him who knows that he has broken its faith.

Unlike the case with special denominations, no man can ever say just when he becomes a member of this nebulous church. Nor can he at any time throughout life be confident, of his membership therein. It is only at the end of life that one may be able to say with Paul, “ I have fought the good fight, I have kept the faith.” Its members’ hearts are bruised with repeated failures, and they have learned past forgetting the bitter lesson of their own uncertainty of strength.

But if he may not say till the end of life that he has “kept the faith,” still no one of these utterly abandons hope before the end of life. The basal animus of the little nameless church is the unquenchable resolve to arise from each stumble and press on. This is the heroic aspect of humanity. Only in this attempt to reunite with the divine does the pitiable race of man show a divine attribute.

The greatest names among its members are those of the world’s greatest sinners. Paul, the man of the world who fought his passions to the end, Peter, who repeatedly gave way to weakness; Wilde, Verlaine, and Dowson, who “were faithful in their fashion; ” Webster, who fell, like Wolsey, from great honors; Renan and Ingersoll, who toiled in search of truth like soldiers detached from their commands and stumbling down darkening roads, Beecher, the maligned, Heine, the apostate Jew,—all these are on its thrilling roll, together with the names of those pure and saintly women who have been too humble and contrite in heart to guess their own spiritual beauty. The distinguishing characteristic of the servant of this faith is his sympathy for the sinning, knowing himself to be no stronger, and his prayer is that of the publican, — “God be merciful to me a sinner.”

The rewards of service in The Little Church of those that Stumble and Rise are as secret as the mental growth which brings them. In reality they are nothing other than this growth itself. The hidden structure of character, built up day by day, of little acts, unexpressed longings, inexpressible yearnings, may in one moment be shattered and dashed to the ground; only its foundation remains, the dumb but unshakable grappling of the soul to the hand which heaven holds out to it. What reward is this, that one is given continually “ to strive, but never to arrive”? It is that strange wage which the weary hospital nurse seeks who pins upon the wall of her little room the sentence, “Give me the wages of going on and not to die.” It is that strange wage, sublime in its utter disassociation from all earthly standards of reward, which the broken spirit finds in its painful, faltering progress toward the goal itself has set. Earth has nothing of its own to which these seemingly empty rewards are comparable, and nothing so beautiful as the hidden faith which drives its possessor persistently to desire them.

We have spoken of this church as one whose membership includes all humanity ; in this sense it is indeed great; but in its more intimate aspect it is always a “little” church, for no man knoweth, or can know, that any beside him is worshiping at its secret shrine. Only in rare instances does the stuff of souls, transcending speech, pass silently from one to another, proclaiming that another breaks the sacramental bread and drinks the ghostly wine of The Little Church of those that Stumble and Rise.