The Acropolis and Golgotha
THE following letters contain a true record of a mind’s journey.
ATHENS, May l, 1914.
MY DEAR FRIEND : — We drove in from Eleusis this afternoon, once more breathlessly watching the Acropolis offer its white and golden marbles to adornment by the setting sun. Our Greek winter is drawing to an end and this was our good-bye visit to the Mysteries. How clear and lucid the beauty of the place seemed to-day, from the brightness of the sea and the firm modeling of the mountains to the bloom of the placated earth! Demeter and Persephone were evidently together in safety, the mystery of the unseen forgotten in the palpable joy of life restored.
On our way back we stopped, of course, at the Convent of Daphne, to make ourselves tea in the sunlit courtyard, and to take one more look at the Byzantine mosaics. I confess that this time they seemed to me quaint bits of the wreckage of mediævalism cast up on the shore of Hellenism. If the mediæval part of Christianity is as inextricable as you say it is, then I will grant you that ‘Christian thought’ is an outworn system compared with the immortal mind of Greece. As we crossed the bridge over the Cephisus, the Parthenon, which is far more mutilated than the little convent, once more sent abroad from broken colonnades and crumbling pediments the impression that some perennial spirit and undying vitality had, indeed, as Plutarch once suggested, mingled in its very composition. The Shrine of Wisdom seemed to take up and weld together all the mysticism and all the rationalism of the world.
Was it really ten years ago that I wrote to you after such another journey along the Sacred Way? And ten more still since I last saw you at the little station of Eleusis? You were going back to Patras to take ship for Italy, and we — and those others — had ended an afternoon spent among the ruins by speculating on
I remember how sure you were that the wilder ideas in the Mysteries, which allowed for the redeeming death of gods and over-stated immortality, were but vagrants in the ordered area of Greek reason and sanity. Somebody older and wiser than I began to appeal to Plato on behalf of Greek transcendentalism, but you retorted that he was only the most disorderly vagabond of them all. Then your train clattered into the toy station, and you held my hand for a moment and said with a kind smile, ‘ Au revoir, petite savante, icibas.'
But we never have seen each other again and probably never shall. Only an odd accident, you know, led to the annual letters which have spun the leisurely web of intimacy between two travelers so disparate in age and in nationality. You said that the differences in our experience, speech and traditions were lost in our common pilgrimage to Greece. Mv youth reminded you of the youth of Hellas, your age embodied for me her store of wisdom.
It is your book which has set me on the trail of these old memories. For when we began our letters you said that, since we knew little of each other’s objective lives, we should have to concern ourselves with inner impressions; and now your printed opinions open up the question how the years have treated us in this matter of subjective experience. For one thing, automatically they have made me your equal. When we met, you, at fortyfive, had experienced middle age. At sixty-five you are but confirming its revelation. You have yet to come to the fresh experience of old age. So that now, when I am forty-five, I may for a time talk with you eye to eye.
Your twenty years, unless you have misled me, have held no transforming experiences. Joys have but grown more dear and familiar. Sorrows, of a shattering kind, have let you alone. Your work prospers, your fame is assured, your children have grown up to be well in body and mind. All your fruit is ripening in the tranquil sunshine. My years, on the other hand, sweeping me out of the twenties into the forties, have been packed with fresh happenings to heart and head and will. Disaster has been left out of the brew, but almost everything else I have tasted. Perhaps this difference between us — unless it is one of sex — explains why you, in the books you have written lately, deal with philosophies and religions as if they sprang, Athena-like, out of the intellect, while to me they seem the issue of a normal union: if they are begotten of thought they are brought forth in anguish by experience.
In this last book you are interested in Hellenism and Christianity as forms — or attributes — of ‘civilization.’ I cannot forget that each of them means the way in which men and women have managed and are managing their diurnal round. You remember, don’t you, the delightful story of Plato lecturing one day in the Academy on the Absolute Good and his audience drifting away from him — except one man who was Aristotle? I have often wondered about the different things the other men did that day after they had run away from the Idea! At any rate the complex was as ‘Hellenic’ as the conversation of the philosophers.
And when one turns to Christianity,— why, the very philosopher who first intellectualized a Way and a Life had himself been born anew of the intensely personal experience of sin and repentance. Do you know Frederic Myers’s Saint Paul?— ah! there was a ’Greek scholar’ who understood a Christian! —
All he hath shown me or shall show me yet,
Spring from an infinite and tender sorrow,
Burst from a burning passion of regret.
You, reading history, would be willing to obliterate Christianity and restore Hellenism as a universal ideal. I would rather see them united in each separate life.
Before I explain what I mean by this I must beguile you by some agreement with you in your criticism of ‘cardinal ’ Christian doctrines! You are right, I think, in objecting to the emphasis laid by the church upon a future life. But you seem to me unnecessarily disturbed by a theory. Christians, like the followers of many other faiths, do ‘ believe ’ in immortality. In fact, I suspect that only specifically intellectual people actually disbelieve in it — and, with all respect to yourself, I must add that the opinion of intellectualists on the destiny of the spirit fails to hold my attention! The authority of the spiritually gifted — including both Socrates and St. Francis —is overwhelmingly on the side of the soul being immortal. But does that make any more difference in the life of the flesh to-day than in the time of Alcibiades? Mediæval Christians certainly went mad over heaven and hell; but who now neglects Demeter’s green earth for apocalyptic visions? You are depressed by a shadow cast from the printed page. Stop reading and look about at your friends! They are not too startled by the white radiance of eternity to install the latest electric lights!
As to your horror over the Christian ‘adoration of suffering,’ that seems to me better founded in view of the historic and continued insistence upon the cross as a symbol. I agree with you. I can scarcely express the revulsion which I feel in picture galleries before the endless succession of crucifixions and tortured saints. Until we conquer disease or discard violence there will be physical suffering in the world. But it is a thing to fight against, not to worship. For man to have painted and carved as beautiful a racked body seems to me an insult to the God who made straight limbs and fair flesh, and a strange betrayal of the Galilean who wished to heal the suffering of others as long as he lived, and only accepted it for himself as an incidental necessity at the end. He had no mediæval disregard for the flesh. The agony in Gethsemane consisted in facing the obligation to offer up a body and a life which were very precious to him. The glory consisted in the sacrifice, not in the temporary torture to which it led. Love, not suffering, is the core of Christianity. A truer symbol than the defeated body on the cross would be the same body strong and beneficent among men.
Here the Periclean sculptor would have done better for us than the mediæval painter. But only here. Neither he nor any of his contemporaries could have understood Gethsemane. Their greatness consisted in their selection, out of the prodigal abundance which lies before man, of noble possessions. They were far superior to the Puritans in that they retained art with morals, and they were equally superior to the modern Romanticists in that they picked and chose only such beauty as they believed could be amalgamated with character. Their inferiority to the Christians lay in their failure to hold their treasures in trust for humanity.
And now I come back to my argument against you. We who boast of being the ‘ heirs of the ages ’ need not be as limited as you imply. The modern man or woman can combine the Greek ideal of self-development with the Christian ideal of self-dedication. In reality, I am not arguing, but asserting. I know that this union is possible by the only evidence which is admissible — the evidence of a life. I have known for many years one person who unites in a normal experience your grandiose abstractions of Christianity and Hellenism. This person is my mother. Do not take her sex as an obstacle. She is a better example than some famous man might be, because her character is not obscured by public achievement. She has none of the limitations of a profession or career, or of some unique strain of genius. What she is creates careers or feeds genius. She is the most complete human being I have ever known, and yet her wholeness is a presage of what we all might become. It is to a life like this that you ought to go when you take stock of the philosophies of the world!
My mother’s external fortune, judged by Greek standards, is good — too good, of course, for a woman. She has received from fate much that would have satisfied a Greek man: the consciousness of citizenship in a proud and prospering nation; health, long life, an active mind, and enough money to live tastefully; and, finally, satisfactory children (if I may be permitted to say this) and the approval of her fellow citizens. The Greek estimate of the importance of such approval springs, I suppose, from intense feeling for the communal life. No Greek man could be mentally less confined to the walls of a house than is my mother, and an Athenian voter could scarcely have served his polis more completely than she serves our little town. The only difference here between her and a Periclean citizen is that she is perplexed and shy rather than expectant and gratified when evidences of public approval are forced upon her.
In natural endowment, also, my mother is singularly Greek, because she possesses diverse qualities harmoniously welded into one whole. We are conscious of no contradictions in her, and yet she is both sane and imaginative, sensitive and practical, dominating and gentle.
Finally, in her conscious activities she is Greek. There is, for example, her moral insistence upon form and beauty. If you could live in her house for a day you would see Hellenism as a diurnal practice. Her taste is flawless; everything she touches turns to beauty and to a tranquillizing order and simplicity. She selects a vase or a baking dish with the æsthetic fastidiousness which beset the artists and artisans of Athens.
And, furthermore, she is Greek in her perennial enthusiasm for fresh knowledge. Her enjoyment of life seems to me intense because she is never tired of exploring the world through every kind of human achievement. She has the curiosity of the Hellenic mind. The Athenian men who were like her made it worth while for other men to be scientists and philosophers and poets.
And yet my mother is a Christian. You see what I believe she has and is. Well, all of this she takes in her two hands and offers daily. Of course, she believes in immortality, but she never talks about the future life, and I have told you of her vigorous interest in this one. Of course, too, she has known many sorrows — who has not at seventy?— but she has consistently concealed pain and suffering instead of enthroning them. Her Christianity is compounded of Love. As it streams out from her it is the creative, regenerating passion for humanity which transcended the reasoned good-will of the pagan philosophers and transcends the materialistic serviceableness of the modern humanitarians. In the noblest pagan literature there is no emotion in the least resembling that which suffuses the New Testament. In this emotion my mother lives and moves and has her being.
I snap my fingers at Nietzscheism when I realize that she is the strongest personality in my little world. She dies daily for us, but we live her way! No superman could impose his will more effectively than this Christian in whom power and sacrifice are one. God is love. If all history tried to make me a skeptic my mother’s nature would keep me a believer.
Cannot confound nor doubt him nor deny:
Yea with one voice, O world, tho’ thou deniest,
Stand thou on that side, for on this am I.
I have spoken of my mother’s health and energy. Just lately these have flagged a little, and I came away this time with some misgivings, and only for my husband’s sake. But her letters have quite reassured me. Lately she wrote, ‘I am daily thankful that nothing prevented you from spending this winter on the Acropolis. In thinking of you I can’t manage to dislodge you from the hill long enough to eat and sleep.’
She knows me! We have traveled all over the country this year, but always come back to Athens and the Attic plain as to the heart of Greece. We went to Egypt in midwinter and on our return hurried almost from the ship to the Parthenon. It had snowed lightly and the whitened summits of Pentelicon and Hymettus and Parnes lay in sharp relief under the brilliant sky. A Greek friend of mine, looking at these fleshless mountains, said proudly, ’It is not every one who dares show her bones.’ Attica needs no softening mist, no glamorous moonlight, no romantic obscuration. Her beauty is born of light and her teaching is light. In Egypt man was mocked by the desert. Small wonder that the Christian saints hid themselves there to punish their poor bodies! Here man seeks the sun and stands erect in his dignity. Mediævalism, I grant you, must make way for this immortal humanism. The ‘mystery of suffering’ is an invention of distorted minds. Stripped of disguise, suffering is merely an evil to be done away with by Love. This, I take it, is the message of the Acropolis to the Christian.
We are leaving next week for a month in London, and then home. May Fortune multiply your royalties and Athena inspire another book!
P.S. The American mail is just in. A letter from a neighbor in my native town says that no one in my mother’s house will disobey her order that I am not to be sent for, but that I am greatly needed. It is possible that she will not live until I can reach her. We shall sail for New York day after to-morrow. My world begins to crumble.
April 20, 1915.
MY DEAR FRIEND : —
As I begin this letter there flashes into my mind the last sentence which I wrote to you a year ago from Greece — that my little world was crumbling. And since then how your own world has been shattered, and the universe almost set reeling in its course! I remember how I talked on in that letter about areas of experience, blocking you off into twenty-year periods! I thought then that only the years would carry us into new seas. But in twelve months you have been swept from the moorings of your middle life. France is again facing the enemy as she did in your boyhood, but now your sons are risking lives more precious than your own. Your wife and daughters arc nursing the wounded and the stricken. You, ‘too old to fight,’—and so in a flash set forward into old age, — are nevertheless finding your pen tipped with passion instead of with philosophy. One of your lyrics is being sung in the trenches. You are no longer an intellectualist, but a voice of France. And thousands upon thousands of other men and women are experiencing a similar metamorphosis. Who knows what new philosophies and religions will be born?
I have been wondering whether you would still call Plato an intruder and vagabond in Hellenism. Greek thought changed under the shock to Athenian civilization caused by the Peloponnesian War. By this abstraction do we mean anything else than that Plato and other men had brought home to them the transitoriness of prosperity, the helplessness of morals, learning, and art before a recrudescence of primitive violence, and the limitations of humanism? The material stage in those days was small — little states waged a little war — but in view of her spiritual importance the suffering of Athens was a world-experience of the first magnitude. Possibly Plato seems to you now less a vagrant than a pilot.
For certainly our ‘new religion,’ if we bring one to birth, cannot be composed of truths wholly unknown before. Some of our new creative energy will go into stripping the veil from the face of that Reality which men at one time and another have beheld. I find it easy to believe this because through an intensive personal experience of my own I have been brought to perceive a truth which is two thousand years old. Last year I argued about Christianity, choosing this part, discarding that. This year I have knelt and touched the hem of the seamless robe. The experience would be too intimate and sacred to reveal were it not bound up with your own. Let me tell you about it. It is the only way in which I can talk with you about your sons who are facing death and suffering.
I wrote you that I was called home from Athens by my mother’s illness. She died last month. During the intervening months revelation after revelation came to me. My mother had grown worse rapidly and at first I was shocked to my innermost heart by the change in her. All her strength seemed turned to weakness. Her rich and varied life had shrunk to the hushed quiet of a sick-room. Her tranquil face had become haggard. Her eager intellect had slipped away from her. There was nothing left of the beautiful Hellenism of her life. A Periclean Greek would now have seen in her only an illustration of the shadow lurking within the sunshine, the tragedy of bodily weakness and old age and death.
And since she no longer had riches to offer, what had become of her Christianity? The question could not frame itself, for I was caught and lifted out of my despair by the swift impression that about my frail mother there glowed a radiance which outshone the sunlight of her active years. The dayspring from on high had but put to flight the lesser stars. Every one who could see her was conscious of it. One of her nurses said to me, ‘She is so different from the weak people I’ve seen before. I feel so warm, somehow, when I’m with her.’
A further revelation was that my mother was done with life and with us. She was exquisite in her treatment of us, managing in receiving still to be the giver. One day she said to me, unforgettably, ‘You are making pain and sickness very beautiful.’ But that inward eagerness of hers which had led me to believe that she had the Greek feeling for this world was now turned toward a new and vaster world. She had exhausted the experiences of this life —marriage and children, work and achievement, knowledge and beauty, joy and sorrow. In seeing this I saw too how far short they fall of the potentialities of an immortal soul. With her energy and imagination she had drained every drop out of them, but now she tossed them aside for some new wine.
The only time she ever spoke to me of the death which I was sure she knew was drawing close, she did it lightly, with that humor which was a part of her sanity. The doctors had just left her room after consulting about some new form of her sickness, and she turned to me with a smile and said, ‘Don’t repair me too often! I shall never get free if I don’t get worse.’ But she told a friend of her own age that nobody could imagine how eager she was to be gone. ‘I can hardly wait,’ she said, ‘to find out about it all. The only thing that troubles me is that the others will be sorry.’ I am not sorry. Since she wanted eternity without my grief, she shall have it.
In the last few months Nature did us one of her not uncommon services. Much of my mother’s physical strength came back to her, as if at the end the body was determined to be a fit mate for the soul it had so long accompanied. She could move about once more in her little polis. During my last visit at home I was enchanted by a sweet and bubbling gayety which seemed to flow from some hidden spring of contentment. A week later she died swiftly, before I could reach her. All our friends talked to me of the light in her face during that week, and an old bedridden Irish servant, telling me of a visit from her, exclaimed, ‘I kept thinking that she was just like a bride, dressed so beautifully and looking so happy.’ The Christian figure of the soul and God! The old Celtic eyes had seen the truth. Of such substance was my mother’s faith in a future life. It was, indeed, the evidence of things unseen! I perceived the fresh heart of Christianity in a belief so aged that it had built the pyramids centuries before it set up the temples at Eleusis. Never again shall I be found chattering while the great trumpet blasts for immortality echo down the ages.
But before my mother’s death another veil had been lifted for me. Behind it I found the meaning of the cross. The experience will hardly bear words. It was very simple, the issue of intimate daily living, but it transformed one human mind as Bible and church, history and art had never done. On the day it happened to me I was open to no impressions from without. The weather was severe in our northern town whose normal beauty is not un-Greek in its austerity and lucidity. A stormy east wind drove dark clouds across the sky, and our firs and pine trees loomed black and forbidding. I turned from the window to the soft loveliness of my mother’s room. There my heart and mind were closed to all abstract thoughts and large emotions, for the nurse was away and I was absorbed in the details of thermometer and medicines. My whole being was centred in the hope that I might make my mother comfortable during those hours. With inexpressible tenderness I began to bathe her, doing for her in her frailty at the end of life what she had so often done for me in mine at the beginning. Then it was that my eyes were opened. You know what a Greek would have seen in a body worn with age, emaciated by sickness, bearing many marks of suffering. But I beheld in it the central beauty of the world. If the noblest of the marble Aphrodites had stood in the room I should have recoiled from her in horror. I knew that my mother’s sickness was due to her prodigal waste, for us, of her natural strength. Her flesh had been spent for us —for me. In a sudden supreme moment I was at one with the disciples, passionately loving the friend who had given his body to be broken for them; at one with the mad Christian iconoclasts, shattering heathen statues; at one with the mediæval artists, painting and carving the crucified Christ.
Later I came to see that only in that hour had I grasped the significance of my mother’s life. At first I had thought of her suffering as subordinate to her love, an incident among her sacrifices. Now I know it to be a sacramental reality, preëxistent in all her earlier beneficence and at the end the earnest of her immortality.
Later still I realized what had happened. In an obscure individual hour had been reënacted an experience which once befell the world. The antique order was swept away by a tidal wave of emotion, and in its place was left a new life and thought and art. Mediævalism, which had offended me in history, issued from the feeling of men and women as unknown as myself, married to the expression of thinkers, poets and artists. In understanding, at last, the feeling, I came to understand the way in which it was expressed.
When the Christian world, recovering its balance by means of the Renaissance, once more accepted the worth of antiquity, it refused to surrender the new treasure which it had gained in its temporary recoil from humanism. Popes on the throne retained the symbol which had comforted slaves in the Catacombs. The same cross survived the Reformation and persists, plastically and verbally, as the sign of modern Christianity. Until lately this paradox was as strange, in its way, as that of a Borgian posing as Vicar of the Crucified. Last year I saw all kinds of people trying to obliterate suffering: the intellectualists were denying its efficacy, the humanitarians its necessity, the Christian Scientists its reality. In our various modern forms of speech we were addressing prayers to Hygeia, enshrined on the Acropolis.
Then, with terrible suddenness, the roar of guns interrupted us.
Closed upon Camelot.
Some one light in the encircling gloom we must have, if we are to work our way out into a renewal of civilization. Are we to discover it by still another paradox, in the very mystery of suffering which we have been denying? If one of your sons (which God forbid!) should be brought home mutilated, you would not choose to remember him in his young strength and beauty, because he would seem more beautiful to you stretched upon his cross. You would not rest in your agony, or in your fierce anger that such things are possible in the world. You would pass from these to the conviction that his suffering for France made his humanity divine. I do not pretend to understand the matter. I only know it to be true. Even the Greeks presaged it at Eleusis, but they forgot it as they turned homeward. For us it still lies beyond reason, but is beginning to be clearer than the axioms of reason. The mystery of suffering is more lucid than the fact of well-being.
My friend, may we not look upon this as the answer of Golgotha to the Acropolis?