IT is Good Friday, April 6, 1917. Flags are flying all up and down the streets; they are streaming from every big building, and fluttering on automobiles. The President’s great war message to Congress is being scattered by aviators inside the German lines. The newspapers blare out the headlines, ‘Britain Proud of America’s Decision’ — ‘Wilson’s War Speech Stabilizes Russia’ — ‘Italy Profoundly Impressed’ — ‘Poincaré Cables Wilson.’ Our President has spoken for us. Our solemn and glorious hour has come. We are at war with Germany.
And now what are you going to do about it? What response is each individual American going to make at this tremendous time to the need of his country — to the need of the world?
Before this paper can be printed the first flare of war will be over, ‘ the tumult and the shouting’ will have died. We shall be getting into our stride, shall be finding ourselves; and, perhaps, a few quieter moments may come in which to look into deeper things.
These are perhaps the most momentous times, the most pregnant and farreaching, that have been vouchsafed to humanity since the coming of Christ. It is possible, indeed, that, now is actually the accepted time of the Lord. Other periods have presented the picture of isolated countries, one after another, being thrust into the crucible; but now every morning the newspapers spread before our eyes the awful spectacle of a whole world in a vast fiery furnace. The times are mad with change. Tidal waves of it are sweeping in on every shore of humanity, and no one may say what is approaching on silent feet out of the dark of the future into the white light of the present. But terrible as the times are, and more terrible as they may become, surely no one can fail to be proud to have had granted to him or to her the inestimable privilege of life at this momentous hour. These are no times to breed the ‘idle singers of an empty day.’ They are so wide, so vast, so fraught with astounding possibilities, that while, on the one hand, awful dangers lurk within them, still, on the other, no ideal for the general benefit of mankind is too high to hope now for its possible fruition. No American may dare to live lightly in the present; for whether our country rides the waves of change successfully, or is swamped by them, is going to depend not upon this person or upon that, or upon some high official in Washington, but upon you, upon the backbone of the whole nation, upon the dedication and highmindedness of every individual within its borders.
It would seem as if Fate had gathered up the visions, the hopes, the highest dreams and most passionate ideals, out of all the past years, and now for their possible fulfillment was holding them out with overflowing hands to the people of this age. It may be — who knows to the contrary — that each of us alive to-day has been especially invited into life at this extraordinary moment, with some grave responsibility, some definite and solemn part to play — no matter how small — in the great world-drama. And we, moving in the spot-light of the present, may well be awed and consecrated by the feeling that the eyes of all the noble dead who poured themselves out lavishly in the past for the furtherance of great ideals are watching now from behind the scenes to see how we take our parts in these great issues, in these magnificent opportunities; to see if we belong to, or fail of, that
The noble living and the noble dead.
And we of America, men and women and children, we, who strangely enough have gone to war on Good Friday, are we going to disappoint our own noble dead ? Our President has spoken a great word for us; shall we fail now of its loftiest interpretation? Shall we not rather deepen the channels of the spirit, and, consecrating ourselves for a higher service, take our place worthily among the nations, for the honor of the past, for the salvation of the present, and for the hope and lifting up of the unborn future?
The picture of the times is as shifting as a kaleidoscope; ‘history in these days,’ as some one has lately phrased it, ‘comes on in seven-league boots.’ No man may predict from one day to another, what fresh aspect of the situation will be spewed up in the great maelstrom. Whether we are in for a long and terrible struggle, or are headed instead toward a sudden peace, no one knows; but whichever it is to be, America, along with all the rest of the world, is going to need now all the highest faculties, all the loftiest qualities of the spirit of which human nature is capable. Because the times are so big, so pressed down and running over with far-reaching opportunities for the coming of a new and better era, our country must rise now to her full strength, not alone for herself, but, please God, for the rest of mankind as well.
The other nations which have been fighting so heroically on the side of justice and humanity are feeling at last the awful strain and weariness of the breathless conflict. They have said themselves that they will welcome, not only America’s material assistance, but also the fresh inspiration which she may afford to the ideals of the whole. Untouched as yet by the world-disaster, our country swings now into the ranks, lusty and strong and fresh, high-hearted and enthusiastic, and in so doing she may have offered to her such opportunities for altruistic service as perhaps no country in all the history of mankind before has ever had offered to it. If she can purify herself now, if she can bring herself to higher spiritual levels, if, in short, out of the stress of these solemn moments she can experience a re-birth, — as other nations have been born again, — then indeed she may be enabled to play some great, some unselfish part, to render some deep service for the whole of humanity, such as may be written in the annals of our history for the lifting up and the ennobling of the sons of men for all time. Out of the blood and tears and destruction of the old world, a new world is being born, and America may be permitted to assist at that birth. But she will be so permitted only if the hearts of us individual Americans — every one of us in the nation — can ardently be set upon the highest and noblest desires.
What services may be permitted to us no one can foresee as yet, but there are many and glorious possibilities before us. Our vigorous entry into the war at this juncture may serve to hasten peace, and may help as well to free the German people themselves. Moreover, we have the opportunity of leading the rest of the nations into some worldfederation for a permanent peace. Perhaps, also, we in America may generate a sufficiently altruistic sentiment to feel anxious to give, not lend, some vast sum for the succor and rehabilitation of our stricken friends abroad. Or again, perhaps some genius among us may devise a means for marshaling and organizing all our agricultural resources so that the threat of starvation that is now stalking abroad in the land may be brought to naught. To end this overwhelming war; to further the establishment of democracy; to open the way to a permanent peace; to assist largely in binding up the wounds of Europe; and to prevent starvation — are these little things? Indeed, they may well quicken the imagination and broaden the vision; and would to heaven that they might also fire the heart of every one of us!
Is America going to be able to accomplish any of them? Who can say? Mr. Wells has written, ‘Every country is a mixture of many strands. There is a Base America; there is a Dull America; there is an Ideal and an Heroic America.’ If we individually and collectively are content now to rest in the base and dull America, great and shining opportunities will come striding up to our very doors and thunder upon them, and we shall be too gross, too unawakened, to hear; or, if we hear, too weak and cowardly to respond. But if we can now break through to that Heroic and Ideal America, can walk in its garment, put upon us its armor of light, then indeed may we be permitted to go forward upon jubilant feet for the service of mankind.
No doubt there will be many among us to jeer at the idea of America helping the world. America! who, as some assert, has come near to the losing of her own soul! Some have said, indeed, that if we go to war we should do so in sackcloth and ashes. Well, one may merely retort that with a nation no more than with an individual are great achievements possible so long as only small ones are expected. No doubt we have sinned and been found wanting many times, and seasons of real repentance are vital, soul-restoring. It is well to realize that our country as a whole has been slow to awake to the awful greatness of the times; but now, at last, she is awakening, is going forth gloriously! And as in the past we have not shown ourselves altogether ignoble, so let us hope and believe that we still have some gifts of heroism that will not altogether fail us in the present.
Whether we as a nation shall be considered worthy of any great service is certainly not for us to decide. That decision fortunately rests with God. Our concern should be that out of the tremendous pressure of the times there may be distilled in the heart of every American a little extra drop of nobility, to create, as a whole, a deep reservoir of idealism ready to be drawn upon should the call for an heroic American ever be sounded. And the bringing about of this desired consecration will depend, I reiterate, upon you and upon me. It will not lie with any one section of the country: not with the East or with the West; neither with the Republican nor with the Democratic party, nor with the Army or the Navy; but it will rest upon the shoulders of every human being in all the length and breadth of the land. It is a responsibility that clutches us all and that none of us may deny. And because this is true, it behooves us all, amid this turmoil of material preparation and the making of war, to seek more ardently than ever before a mobilization of the spiritual forces as well, and to sound a call for all the highest and best of which the heart is capable.
No other call that can be sent forth will make such an immediate and universal demand upon the whole of the nation. It will come to men and women and children; to rich and poor alike; to high and low, weak and strong, clever and simple; to every single human being, in short, who is old enough to distinguish between right and wrong. In these swift, these terrible, seething, shifting times, we need truly to find deep anchorages on which to stay our spirits and the spirit of the nation. Have you any gift of truth? Now is the time to seek and find it. Of courage and unselfishness? Surely we shall want them now. Of faith? God knows that it is needed. And in finding these things we shall be saving, not simply our own small souls, but the soul of our country.
Let us not content ourselves, however, with fine phrases and a vague idealism, which may run out into a thin and inadequate emotion. I have nothing vague in mind, but something so radiantly clear-cut and tangible that, should it come to pass, it will be almost possible to touch it with the hand, and it most certainly may be seen with the eyes. No less, indeed, than the re-birth of a country through the lifting up of each one of its members. America, through her people, has risen to these higher levels in the past; other nations are doing so now; who can doubt our capacity to do likewise in the present?
The germ of a larger life, a life more abundant, lies deep within every nation, as it lies within every human being. Religion, history, and psychology, all affirm this, and personal experience responds with its eager testimony. Sometimes it flowers suddenly into being; the spirit rushes forth with an unimagined violence, and the individual is swept, breathless and dazed, to higher levels of existence, and there offers in his ecstasy some such testimony as this:
‘My triumph can be compared to nothing but the experience in which life is generated in the midst of death, or the resurrection from the dead.’
‘Heaven and earth were changed for me. Everything was glorious because of its relation to some great central life — nothing seemed to matter but that life.’
‘Suddenly a great light seemed to burst upon me: not an external light, an inward light. It was a new and glorious world, a world of ineffable love and light which seemed to emanate from a Presence which I knew to be there, but which I could not see. ... I had a sudden vision of a central self which almost overwhelmed me. It was a reservoir of new, unguessed powers, measureless capacities, and unfathomed emotion; a reservoir from which I had never drawn because this present life offered neither time nor scope for what was there, and I involuntarily exclaimed, —
‘ “ Now I know I am immortal! I am more than I dreamed I was.” ’
More often, perhaps, the development comes gradually through the patient upbuilding of character and the persistent seeking of the will. But whether it comes gradually or is born in a sudden moment, there are few of us who cannot affirm with Wordsworth, —
That lives, who has not known his godlike hours.
And as this re-birth is possible for an individual, so events have lately proved it to be possible for a nation also. Ten years ago what was uppermost in regard to Belgium? Was it not her terrible rubber atrocities in the Congo? But in 1914, when she lost her life for a principle, did she not save it most gloriously, not only for herself but for all the people of God? Was she not born again? And will not all treaties be more sacred hereafter because of Belgium’s faithfulness? And France — We may well pause here a moment to rejoice that France is our special friend among the nations. In the contemplation of that friend shall we not draw into our own souls some fresh and glorious inspiration to nobility? ‘Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.’ Indeed, for our soul’s health at this time we in America may well think upon France.
And now, Russia — A Russian lady in this country, on being asked what her first thoughts were when she heard of the revolution, turned swiftly to her American interlocutor and replied, ’I thought first of all of that line in your hymn, “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
Yes, other nations have found their larger life, have been born again. Shall America on this, her heroic day, fail to find hers ? We have been slow to awake. Many of our own people returning from service abroad regard us with a profound depression. They have witnessed the nations of the old world stripped to their very soids, and they return to find us affluent and luxurious, still skimming over the foolish surface of things. They have witnessed the agony of Belgium; they come back to New York to be told that the ‘Toddle’ is the latest dance. They know something, I think, of the bitterness of Moses when he came down from Mount Sinai to find the children of Israel worshiping a golden calf. Our long and lazy and affluent years have softened us, no doubt. As old Lafayette used to say, ‘Ah, you are too happy— Yes, you are too happy! Yes, I t’ink so, I t’ink him so, yes!’ In the great crisis now before America let us see to it that, looking down on us from the skies, he shall not have cause to say again of the country which appeared to be the dreams of a noble youth come true, ‘Ah, you have been too happy! Yes, I t’ink so, I t’ink him so, yes!’
If there are crucial times before us now, let us not be dismayed. It is the crucial times that stretch men’s souls. It is when one is hard pressed against the wall of circumstance, that sometimes that wall opens suddenly into one’s own larger life, and so into God. And we who, on Good Friday, have gone to war, may well reflect deeply that the Christian ideals for which we fight, and the Resurrection of Easter, were born, not out of peace and comfort and ease, but out of Gethsemane, Golgotha, and the Crucifixion. And while we face these times soberly, let us also face them gladly, for out of them may come for America a refreshing and a renewing of the well-springs of life.
And how may we individuals, on whom depends the lifting up of the nation’s ideals, find these spiritual uplands? Well, one perceives that the life more abundant comes to pass in different ways for different people. Love, service, danger, beauty, necessity, patriotism, artistic creation, prayer, meditation, renunciation, love of God — these are all gateways into the spirit. They are all more or less different, but they have this one thing in common — the insistence on the renunciation of the narrow self, the losing of the lesser life that the greater may be found. There is no good in asking ourselves the old foolish question, ‘Shall I be carried to the skies on flowery beds of ease?’ as though there were any choice in the matter; for most emphatically there is not. Flowery beds of ease carry one anywhere but to the skies. It is the hard way, the straight, the breathless, the terrible way, that leads to the skies. It is when the spirit pricks us forth from ease and luxury and our own little selves, that we sometimes step through the narrow portals of self, and emerge into the spirit of our country, of humanity, and of God.
A newspaper correspondent tells of an old Frenchwoman found in the devastated region which the Germans evacuated in March. She had lost absolutely everything. Her home had been destroyed, her husband and brothers killed, her two sons led off to slavery, her three daughters carried away with the retreating Germans. ‘She told her story simply,’ it is reported, ‘in a low unfaltering voice; but she shuddered when she spoke of her daughters. “And how do you feel now,” ’ the correspondent inquired, ‘ “with husband, brothers, sons, and daughters all gone and you left here alone?” I shall never forget the sight of her gray head. She looked up into my face and replied, “To-day, monsieur, I am with France, and I have confidence.” ’ All the things of her own life were swept away, but that day she had entered the life of her country.
God forbid that America should ever experience such unspeakable suffering, and grant that we may help to prevent such a crucifixion ever occurring again in Europe! Let us not, however, fail to exercise ourselves in some sternness and hardihood of the spirit. And in pursuance of this, which is to be for the nation even more than for the individual, let each one of us in these crucial moments look more passionately than before to his or her own hidden ideals; for it is through the ardent dedication at this time of every one of us to our own best selves that the whole of the nation will be lifted up. So deeply do I believe this to be true, that I would these pale and inadequate words might be so lighted up, so shot through with conviction, that they might become fiery torches to kindle the sacrificial blaze in the hearts of the whole nation. If we are now— each one of us — more earnestly set than ever before upon the pursuit of our own higher ideals, then indeed shall our country be swept to magnificent heights, not for herself alone but for all the world. Then indeed shall our Stars and Stripes become ‘an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.’
Surely there are very few who have no ideals, who have not a secret, but none the less real, larger and higher possibility of life — a best self — which on happy and successful days of the spirit we know that we have attained. Many of us would not be able perhaps to describe this ideal self in words, or even to formulate it very accurately to ourselves in thought; nevertheless, all of us know well enough when we are living in it, by a certain inward feeling of rightness and well-being, of spiritual comfort and completeness; as all know also when we are failing of it, by an acute and painful sense of astrayness and falling short. This best self is not necessarily the super-self, such as was alluded to in the discussion of re-birth and of the possibility of the godlike hours. That super-self is hardly ours to be commanded. It is something over and above our everyday life; something that is unexpectedly and gloriously added unto us, we know not how or why. The ideal self, on the contrary, is within the possibility of each one of us, provided we stretch continually up to the highest and best of which we are capable. Moreover, though the super-self is not ours to command, we may be confident that the surest road to it leads by way of the ardent practice of the ideal or best self.
Each person’s ideal of life is conceived to fit his or her peculiar circumstances, and general ideals devoid of this individual quality have little or no value; therefore I would not if I could attempt to prescribe a cut-and-dried ideal for all. I would merely suggest that a successful ideal by which to live in relation to God and to our neighbor is not something forever beyond us. Nor is it, on the other hand, something too easily attained. It should be rather a desired mode of life which, in moments of high endeavor, when all our spiritual energies are keyed to their best effort, — when, indeed, our souls stand up on tiptoe, — we really do attain for definite and golden periods. If the ideal is touched too easily and too frequently, with no striving and straining of the spirit , — with, so to say, our moral feet flat upon the ground, — then it is undoubtedly too low and too comfortable a one, and is in need of being pushed up a point, or two beyond our everyday reach. Surely this is no time to be satisfied with too comfortable a best self. Yet again, it should not be a counsel of perfection, something so high as to be forever beyond our powers of realization. When we were children it was the possibility of being tall enough to reach the things on the mantel-shelf, not to pluck the leaves on the tops of the trees, which set the pace for our infant aspirations, for the reason that we believed the mantel-shelf might indeed some day be within our reach while we guessed that the tops of the trees were forever beyond us. Some such pattern as this, it seems to me, should serve us in the pursuit of our ideal self.
Most of us will be denied much active participation in the carrying on of this war, and some of us, in consequence, are already experiencing a sense of futility. We are filled with a burning desire to serve, but for the most part we are offered little outlet to that desire. But this call for the best self is open to us all. No matter who you are, where you are, or what you do, you can make to it now in your everyday life an immediate and passionate response, and by so doing know that you are not alone laying up for yourself treasure in heaven, but are as well laying up in the heart of a rich and powerful country a vast national treasure of the spirit, which may be drawn upon from time to time for the help of a cruelly afflicted world. The greatness of a whole nation is so inextricably bound up with its individuals that I beg again each one of you now to say to himself or herself, ‘ This means me. It means me and my life, my best self, my highest ideals, if the magnificent opportunities of the times are to be realized.’
One wishes that this appeal might come with especial force to the young people among us. They are not yet poured into the inflexible moulds of age. Their spirits are still high enough to believe in the best, to dare the impossible. 0 young men and maidens, the call is upon you now as never before to dream dreams and to see visions!
All of us will not be moved by this appeal. Some will account it foolishness, and some will think it impossible; but if only a handful respond, they may yet be sufficient to leaven the whole, to make an opening through which the Spirit may pour itself into the world. Whatever else the doctrine of atonement may hold within its depth for those of us possessing the gift of meditation, at least this much of it is evident: No human being can dedicate himself passionately to some high adventure and the rest of the world fail to be lifted up by it. Thank God! in these days when the finger of scorn has been so persistently pointed at America, and when we have seemed, even to ourselves, to be caught in a terrible quicksand of timid indifference, there have been some of our men and our women who have made the supreme sacrifice, have shaken themselves free of self, have lost their lives to find them, and who in so doing have ‘offered and presented themselves, their souls and bodies ’ as an atonement for America. When some of them died in their various missions abroad, we said that they died for this country, or for that, little realizing that first of all they died for their own — for the awakening and enlightening of that base, that smug and satisfied America. They have been thanked and decorated repeatedly by the countries they have served abroad, but I will take this opportunity of thanking them from the depths of a passionate gratitude for the service that they rendered to America. Oh, you who poured yourselves out in some high mission for the stricken nations abroad, remember that while you were helping to save and nourish the bodies of men and women and children over there, you were first of all helping to save the souls of your own countrymen! And you who have fought and died gloriously in the ranks of the Allies for the preservation of a principle, be glad that you died first of all that that principle might have its resurrection in America!
The times, I repeat, are more fraught with magnificent possibilities than any times have ever been before. Nothing is too great to be hoped for out of them; and now, if there can be made to run through the veins of all of us a burning fire of idealism, it cannot fail to blaze forth more and more often in geniuses and great leaders of the nation, who will know how to interpret this hidden flame in deeds and words and in a broadened vision; who will lay hold mightily upon the greatness of the hour and weave out of it some glorious redemption for all the world.
0 people of America! There is not one among us to-day who can escape this solemn weighing in the balance! Will you not offer an heroic response to the trumpet-call of the times? Will you not lift up your lives, purify your ideals, and open your hearts as never before, that the King of Glory may come in for the refreshment, the re-creation, the salvation of all humanity?
For my expectation is from him,
He only is my rock and my salvation:
He is my high tower; I shall not be moved:
With God is my salvation and my glory;
The rock of my strength, and my refuge, is in God.
Trust in him at all times, ye people;
Pour out your hearts before him;
God is a refuge for us.