The Lonely Seas

‘Voyaging strange seas of thought, alone.’

THE poem this fragment belongs to is lost to my memory, but the line stands complete in itself, with its great conception, as adequate an image of the indescribable as could be made of words. It must have detached itself at once, in order to have come home to my mind as an idea of my own that had found its fitting expression, for it will picture to me the conditions of the spiritual life as long as I have conscious existence.

Schiller has a line of like significance, evoking a vision of what we darkly feel, and know —

‘ Freedom is only in the land of dreams.'

But that does not suggest space sufficient for the soul at large to range in. Dreams are not all your own, but often visitors from you-know-not-where, and land is a term connoting things and people, that beguile and coerce and obstruct and hem you in; also gods that are not God, but idols made with hands, in Christendom as in Heathendom, presenting the features of archaic man. Whereas Wordsworth’s metaphor of the Lonely Seas, where nothing comes to you, but you yourself go forth, untrammeled, independent, to voyage where you will, — far and wide in the quiet sanctuaries of thought, with only the god you know for God, Spirit of the illimitable Universe, without form, but not void, nay, living in every breat h of air, every pulsing wave, every shining star,—a still, deep, surrounding Sympathy, beyond the definitions of human sense, — this answers satisfactorily to the name of freedom, if any figure of speech can do so.

Not dreams, but thoughts, sane and real and reasoned out — your own, that have cast off reserve and cast out fear; and the beaten tracks are not yet for them, nor the common ear and understanding. They must sail alone on the seas of silence, in the liberty of solitude, which still is not solitary, because of the One Who knows All. Him — It — the Something that has no shape and needs no name, supreme above us — only in that company, and away from all other, can you be yourself, which is surely to serve the end of your being in the one legitimate way.

Out in the open — analogous to the sea which forever defies the ingenuity of man to bind it — there you know, or you think you know, that the secret of right living is just one thing only, personal sincerity, no more, no less. Not that each of us may be a law unto himself (in the sense commonly read into the phrase), but that the law for you, the ultimate law, the fulfilling of all law, is the law of Truth as your private conscience puts it. Your private conscience may not be infallible; it may have received in the rough-and-tumble of its career unsuspected warpings that all the long years have not been long enough to straighten out; but it is still your divine-born light of knowledge of good and evil, the only lamp to steer by, within yourself, and not without in the hands of others.

But, O Heaven! what it costs to arrive at this! It is the delusion of the unthinking, who have never slipped their moorings, that the deep-sea voyager is but a careless runaway from home and duty, a shirker of sacred obligations, just everything that he particularly and peculiarly is not. He gets used in time to these shallow misjudgments, and very early in the day he learns the futility of attempting to combat them; but they are amongst the sore difficulties of the lonely course. hard indeed to bear when it is his own nearest and dearest with whom he must live, spiritually, an utter stranger. But a bitterer trial is the long, long passage through the twilight of the awakening mind, when he cannot himself see whether he is a renegade or not.

What years and years, and what agonizing years, for me! I smile now, looking back from my place of peace, at the passionately devout girl who flung aside housework and everything to go twice a day to church and district-visit the poor between the services — to think what an immense time it took to cure her of the wild longing to be as that soul in bonds again! ’Indifferent’ (the brand of the orthodox upon the unorthodox) I knew I had not grown in growing from girlhood to maturity, but I did not know, as I know now, that it was the same religious spirit that drew me on which turned me back. ‘Except ye be as a little child’ — how the immemorial voices reproached me! How I suffered in my involuntary apostasy, wailing inwardly night and day, ‘ If I could only believe and trust and pray as once I did!’ How gladly, how slowly, how painfully, the old kinks of conscience get even loosened, not to say straightened out!

It is the first question that does it. And when you are born with an inquiring mind and an inclination to be truthful, you are bound to ask it sooner or later. In my case, strange to say, it was a venerable archdeacon who inserted the thin end of the wedge destined to break my allegiance to ecclesiastical authority. He was a cultured reading man, who paid me, not half his age, the compliment of making mean intellectual companion; and in one of our discussions he showed me how the legends on which our church was based — he did not call them so, but legends they became from that moment — had their counterparts in, and probable derivations from, the scriptures of more ancient peoples, faiths that had flourished before ours was born; thus presen ting the Bible to my mind, for the first time, as not a holy thing that had come straight down from Heaven, but just a book, a most valuable old book, but historically inferior to certain older books — heathen books at that — of which it was more or less a plagiarism. Poor man! He bitterly regretted his unprofessional candor. Each time that I met him subsequently and we fell into serious talk, he was more and more distressed and exasperated to find how I had followed up his clue. At our very last meeting before his death he tried to scold and lecture me back into the fold, losing his temper over it. But it was too late.

For, as the church itself will tell you, to ‘doubt the Bible’ is to pull the corner-stone from under everything. To me it was an experience too dreadful for words. I went out from the fatal colloquy stunned, ruined; made an excuse to go to bed early (I was visiting at his house), and cried all night. And then it became a matter of life and death to dispel or substantiate that doubt.

So I thought and read, and read and t hought, pursuing the inevitable course. All sorts of sign-posts stretch back along the road: Greig’s Enigmas of Life in the far distance, John Morley’s treatise, On Compromise, Mill On Liberty, Huxley’s controversies with the Duke of Argyll and Dr. Wace in the Nineteenth Century, heart-to-heart talks with the already emancipated, and so on, and so on. It is not necessary to trace the steps of this pilgrimage, since it is only the first that counts.

Suffice it that here I am, with almost nothing in the way of a religion to swear by, except the religious spirit: that has driven me hither, with its one clear call to be sincere at every cost. My body still in subjection to the governments under which it lives, constrained by the ‘weak brother,’ who is so overwhelmingly strong, to such sacrifices as can be made without overt hypocrisy, my soul is at large on the Lonely Seas, and has been so long that now it could not breathe elsewhere. And profoundly at peace.

I know that must seem incredible to the dweller in tabernacles, for whom the door has never opened to invite him forth. A faith that has ‘no hope’ is to him a contradiction in terms. It is useless to ask him what he means by hope, for he does not know himself; it is something provided for him which is never, so far as one can see, of any service to him as a sanctification of life; yet he holds it indispensable. He makes what he thinks is the conclusive reply— ‘a belief in a future state’ — and does not perceive that he leaves the matter totally unexplained. What sort of future state? And how ‘believe’ in it? Never mind.

If that is as far as he can go, he is as honest as I am. None could have been more sincere than a beloved friend of mine, who, horrified at my suspected unorthodoxy, warned me with tears that a time would come when I should find out my mistake. ‘In the hour of death, if not before, you will come back,’ said she; meaning back to the point of view of my inexperienced girlhood, beyond which she had never traveled, and probably never would. ‘ Then you will know the truth.’

As to that last prophecy, so I did. What was to all intents and purposes the hour of death came to me twice when my brain was awake to know it, so that my negative faith was put to the great t est. On t he last occasion I was in a private hospital, apparently failing to rally from a severe operation. My family was far away, unaware of my condition at the moment; and the head of the institution, daughter of a dean and a D.D., did her best to cope with the crisis on my behalf. She bent over me as I lay, almost powerless to lift a finger, but otherwise as acutely alive as I had ever been, and said, in the hushed, sick-room voice, ‘Mr.——is here.' This was the clergyman whose business it was to be there when patients were dying or dangerously ill, and whose ‘consolations’ every such person was supposed to need. I understood, and at the same moment, instinctively, without stopping to think about it, called upon all my strength to repel the invader. ‘Oh, no, no! Don’t let him in! ’

Though it were my last breath, I had to use it to defend my soul’s sanctuary at such a solemn time. I remember wondering if I could prevail against a church-woman’s sense of duty, my desperate fear that I could not; but I did (by appeal to the sordid argument that it was my private room by right, and he an uninvited person), and was left unmolested. My soul was out on the Lonely Seas, with the One Who knows All; and never did official religion, with its complicated dogmas and impossible demands, seem more purely official, more unreal, and out of place.

On the earlier occasion I was brought suddenly to the brink of the grave by one of those accidents to which expectant mothers are liable while pursuing the business of life as usual in my own country home; this illness, by the way, accounting for the other, although there were several years between them. I was really and truly at the point of death. Our bush doctor, who had worked over me all day, had given up the effort to save me and gone home. Vitality was so low that I was past speech and movement, but I was as ‘sensible’ as I could be, singularly awake to the situation in all its bearings. And yet I never bothered myself for a moment about my soul and the future state — never thought of them; all my concern was to keep my exhausted body going, if the will could do it, to fight for the next breath and the next, so faint and elusive, to hold on anyhow, until I could work back the power to fill my lungs again; with the subconscious knowledge that it was here and with my family that I belonged and should remain. But a still more significant circumstance was that a clergyman watched by my dying bed and did not bother about my soul and the future state either. Had I been an ordinary parishioner he might have prayed my life away, but I was his wife, representing the real thing amid all the shadows and make-believes, and so he sat on my pillow and fed me with drops of brandy-and-water instead.

Although the doctor had given me up, he continued the struggle to keep that life, that, mortal life—which in church he might persuade himself to despise as worthless—in its house of flesh and its home of earth, and out of the ‘hands of God’ into which the parson at the hospital would unhesitatingly have commended it; nothing else mattered to him any more than to me. Of course not. And so — because I could not have held on through the collapsing crisis without the brandy-and-water which I was unable to ask for — I owe it to him that I am not ’in bliss,’ but still inhabiting (to the satisfaction of us both) this miserable vale of tears.

Blessings on the inconsistencies, the unconscious inconsistencies, of professing Christians! They know what true religion is in the time of need —or, I should rather say, what it. isn’t — just as much as they tell us we do.

But there is a sharper test even than the hour of death, as now I know.

What about the hour when you find yourself in the sixties, an old man — far, far worse, an old woman? To have to consider yourself ‘out of it,’as regards all the most interesting affairs of life; to realize that you have had your day and ceased to be, as a necessity or a power or a treasure of the world; that your place is on the shelf, with old-fashioned, outworn, discarded things; that you have eaten your cake to the dry crumbs and can expect no more — nothing but to grow daily feebler and uglier and more obsolete and superfluous, declining to that death which at last is inescapable — what an awful pass to come to! So I used to think in my young days, as the young still do; aye, and those that are neither young nor old, but at forty or thereabouts, still see a future beckoning to mundane delights. It is the time when the society queen, her prestige and beauty gone, retires to a convent; when religion, whatever the patterns of it may be, is called upon to justify itself once and for all. In those popular oleographs which depict Faith as a woman clinging to a cross in a raging sea, the figure should have been that of an old hag and not a fair young girl, for it is when all else fails that the church offers itself as the last, only, and sufficient buttress against despair.

All our woe and sadness
In this world below,
Balance not the gladness
We in Heaven shall know.

I often wonder, in the company of my contemporaries, how many, who profess what I cannot profess, find the substantial support in the eternal hope that t hey say they do — how many, who seem to accept its paper vouchers as infinitely more than full value for golden money spent, are really satisfied that the investment is sound.

However, it is not for me to question the bona fides of a cause for which the noblest of men and women have sacrificed and suffered all. If in these liberal times their intellectual descendants, themselves acknowledging that the age of martyrdoms was in some sort exclusively the age of faith, show a consistent reluctance to practice what they preach, and particularly to anticipate the bliss and glory of the future state which they profess in hymns and prayers to pine for, that proves no more than that human nature is indestructibly human and natural, willing spirit in weak flesh.

I speak only for myself. No, not only for myself, but for those others of my way of thinking who are or soon will be in my place — personally at the end of all things, so far as we know. Does nerve fail and heart sink at this tragic result of keeping conscience clean and honest? All our lives it has been dinned into us that we live in vain unless we live forever, and I have quailed myself, many a time, at the desperate temerity of stepping into the eternal dark without the eternal hope to cling to — which to a mother means, first of all, the recovery of her lost children. But, O comrades, it is all right! Never, in the years that lie behind me, have I been more absolutely convinced of it. Far from fulfilling t he prophecy of my old friend and wishing myself back to the point of view of my inexperienced girlhood, I do not regret a single step that has led me away from it, every one having been taken, not willingly but of necessity, in obedience to what, for me, has been the divine call. The divine call may have notes for others which I cannot hear; indeed, I do not doubt it. But I am entirely satisfied that I did not mistake my own. Out on the lonely seas it has come to me, straight and clear, nothing to deflect the message or confuse my ears — ‘Be true.' It is my course laid down, and whither it leads is no business of mine. I do not know — I cannot know —I do not want to know. It does not matter in the least.

Because in this immensity you get out of yourself as well as out of other thralls. With such a sweep of vision, you perceive something of the relative proportions of things, and, amongst them all, your place.

How this vastness dwarfs to nothing the absorbing interests of narrowed minds — financial and social success, and all the rest of it! How in this solemn apprehension of the whole, the commotions in the little parts — the particles of the little parts, and the warring nations are no more — exhibit their pitiful paltriness! In these large perspectives how incredibly valueless the Religion commonly spelt with the capital R, the religion of the ‘ vicious circle’ that begins and ends in self! How supremely important the high, elemental loyalties of man to man, of men to their trust of life, whereof the Religion of the capital R takes so little cognizance! But, above all, how utterly insignificant— apart from these forgotten obligations to make our world worthy of the celestial company it keeps — how preposterously overestimated ourselves and our affairs, in presence of the majesty here unveiled, the Power that gave us being and is our fate !

The brief day is ending, but one can float into the night, if without hope, without a t hought of fear. If I perish, I perish — that is all. Evening falls and the shadows deepen, and in all this immeasurable expanse no saving cross is visible sticking up out of the waves. But waves are calm under the darkening sky, and the voyager does not feel himself drowning. Too long has the soul been sailing open water to be afraid of it now. The ‘Ocean of His Love’ has become its home, and no place could it find less lonely. Everywhere, everywhere, — in every breath of air, every pulse of sea, every glint of star,—lives t he Spirit of the illimitable Universe, the One who knows All, never missed or lost.

Possibly it is they who have thought and sought for themselves, the technical unbelievers, who have ‘fought the good fight’ and ‘kept the faith,’ who have got ‘ religion’ and ‘ found God.’