Spiritual Realities and High Explosives


THE dream came back across the years, vividly and poignantly. No physical circumstance could have been more remote than the gray stone walls of the Theological Seminary within which it disturbed my sleep so long ago. Even the world in which I had lived when it visited me was dead and gone — gone since August, 1914. I was sitting on the unlighted deck of a liner ploughing its desperate way through the submarine zone. No conscious fear was in my heart at the moment, no echoes of serious discussion troubled my mind. There seemed to be nothing but the impenetrable, illimitable, implacable darkness, and the rhythmic swish of the water as the ship rushed through the night. Then memories of the dream returned.

I was in a police court; a sergeant stood by my side in the dock (I could see the three white bands on his sleeve); a bewigged and flinty-faced judge sat on the bench.

‘Your Honor, the prisoner is charged with Sabellianism! ’

I heard it with ears and brain and soul. I trembled.

The judge looked at me with his severe and pitiless eyes, but I pleaded, ‘Not guilty!'

How long the trial lasted, the nature of the evidence, the appearance of the witnesses, the summing up, I forget. But the sentence rang out so harshly that an eternity of charity could not mute it: —

‘You are sentenced to be driven about the city in a cart, and at each street intersection one tooth shall be drawn from your head; at the Queen’s Cross your tongue shall be cut out and thrown to the dogs in the pound.'

For some time I could not cast off the spell. Passengers felt their way along the rail and kicked the foot of my chair; a few moonbeams struggled through a rift in the clouds and laid a momentary sheen of silver on the water; someone laughed merrily not far away.

No sooner did the Sabellian horror relax its hold than another waif of that academic period drifted into the zone of consciousness and insisted upon being recognized. ‘Come, which of us will you take?’ it seemed to say. ‘You cannot have both of us. Everyone must choose between us. Nor can you be non-committal.’

‘ I am Homoousion,’said one.

‘And I am Homoiousion,’ said the other.

Did not Thomas Carlyle once say that the Christian world had been torn to pieces over a diphthong? But I could not verify the reference and find the interesting context while the ship was driving bravely through the fiendinfested waters of the Bay of Biscay.

Other words came, as if from the depths around me or within me: ‘Filioque,’ ‘Nestorianism,’ ‘Gnosticism,’ ‘The Council of Chalcedon.’ Chalcedon was a very euphonious word; there ought to be a romance behind it; there must be poetry—dreamy, fragrant and passionate poetry — in it; but out on the waste of waters I could do nothing with the word.

Then, sharply, I seemed to feel unreality in it all; perhaps it was not unreality, but it was certainly irrelevancy. Doubtless there are sophists and casuists aplenty who might prove to their own satisfaction that all the ancient orthodoxies and heresies are locked in their latest conflict in this war, and that a decisive victory in Flanders or Picardy will establish truth forever and a day. Such men still live, I am told.


My quest eastward, to the fields of France, where the red poppies seem like Nature blushing for the red blood of innumerable heroes, was for reality. Why should the wraiths of those ancient heresies haunt my path? Did they come to daunt or swerve me? Or were they subconscious memories of immaturity and perversity projected outward as a background to accentuate my findings? Or — for a moment the possibility stood over me as a torturing menace — were they the realities everlasting; the things for which men must ever live and die, which I need not have sought in the horrible mêlée of war, but which dwell within brown covers on my shelves; the things which shall ultimately cure all the aberrations and abnormalities of this insane and suffering world?

One perfect day in June I tried to think it out in the squat little village of Domrémy, as I looked off over the rich fields of the Meuse country and saw the same physical features which Jeanne d’Arc saw as she tended her flock and held the lattice of her soul wide open. Jeanne was more real that day than all the councils and creeds of ecclesiastical history. The American soldiers felt her reality as they sang in mingled pleading and peremptory modulations: —

‘Joan of Arc! Joan of Arc!
Do your eyes, from the skies, see the foe ?
Don’t you see the drooping Fleur-de-lis ?
Can’t you hear the tears of Normandy ?
Joan of Arc! Joan of Arc!
Let your spirit guide us through;
Come lead your France to victory;
Joan of Arc, they are calling you.’

Boys from the Middle West, from New York and New England, from the mountains of North and South Carolina; sons of the Scotch Covenanters; descendants of the Dutch who fought under the Prince of Orange against the Duke of Alva; scions of the Puritans and Pilgrims; Methodists and Baptists and Unitarians, and probably every nondescript sect of America; singing, as they marched along the white roads, a song that was an urgent prayer to the heroine-saint of France! Yet not one of them believed dogmatically in the invocation of the saints.

Then, in the midst of my reverie, an airplane began to drone in the distance, and soon passed overhead with a whir and roar which made the air vibrate painfully and drove away my musings. But I felt that I had come nearer to reality than at any time during many sad and anxious months. Behind and beneath all our inherited or intellectual differences there is an identity which is indigenous to the human spirit, a postulate neither theological nor ecclesiastical, reached neither by logic nor by experience; but an enveloping and penetrating necessity holding us together as gravitation and cohesion and chemical affinity bind all physical substances. To define it is more than difficult: to call it ‘faith,’ or ‘love,’ or ‘grace,’ or any other term which has been mauled in the arena of polemics since the beginning of time, would be to endanger its recognition; to insist upon a new name might be to invite the birth of still another paltry sect. But it may be described as the instinct for establishing and retaining contact with the Supreme Being. This instinct has innumerable modes of expression; sometimes it seems crude and vulgar, and at other times beautiful and sublime. Fetishism, spiritualism, the invocation of the saints, astrology, the countless litanies of the churches, are all but dissimilar outreachings of the same instinct. Perhaps the least objectionable covering phrase is prayer.

When speaking to our troops, whether in the camps of the back zones or in hastily gathered groups at the very battle-front, I found that the one subject which did not lead to controversy or call for dissent was prayer. Amid the fluid conditions of war the theme could be stripped of all accessories of time and place and posture; it could be simplified to the point at which it fitted into every grade of intelligence or any kind of circumstance; it could be made so adequate that it expressed every yearning, hope, and fear which the men felt. When men are marching into battle along the muddy road or through the dripping forest; when they are lying out in No Man’s Land with every nerve aquiver and the chilled blood drawing back into the heart; when they rush forward in the wild charge, and see their comrades fall thick about them until the venture seems the most foolhardy and suicidal thing ever done; when they toss for weary weeks in a hospital and live through interminable nights of torture, prayer is the only exercise in which both mind and heart can find relief. It is an act so elemental that all the usual aids and habits and accessories of prayer are superfluous, and the men realize that they have established contact with the Divine, although the eyes do not close, or the lips move, or the knees bend. They have told me so.

Such is the first reality that I found at the Front. In the uncertain, or terror-shadowed, or anguished periods of a man’s life, everything that had once seemed inseparable from civilization and culture is swept away, and there remains only the instinctive impulse to establish contact with God. And the act is sufficient, for the man becomes calm, brave, hopeful, or patient, as his need may require.

Sitting one Sunday morning in a trench which ran out from a desolated village in the Toul sector, my mind winged its way back to America, where men and women were assembling in the churches of 168 different sects. Shells were passing overhead, some from our artillery and some from the Boche. A skylark beat its way upward and its song pulsated down into the trench intermittently — rich and full when not muffled by a screaming shell. One hundred and sixty-eight denominations! And yet anywhere, at any time, and under any conceivable circumstances, any man can establish contact with the Infinite, without even the preliminary of bowed knees or closed eyes, and without an audible medium! One hundred and sixtyeight denominations, with their creeds, and rituals, and polities — stupid! — a purely gratuitous stupidity too, the silliest practical joke a wrong-headed but right-hearted humanity has ever played upon itself! So I found myself laughing, while exploding shells knocked down a few more yards of the roofless walls in the village and while the lark still hovered and sang overhead in the blue sky. Then I thought suddenly of the mutual rivalries and jealousies and animosities of the competing sects, and I grew sad and angry that the one thing men hold in common should actually drive men apart when they seek to give it concrete expression.


Fortunately a considerable number of men are growing wiser, particularly those who have tried to exercise and apply their spiritual possessions on the various battle-fronts. No one can tell yet whether there will be a shrinkage or an enlargement of the content of faith as a result of the war, but there are certain to be many sharp reactions against ecclesiasticism. No foible of our intricate social structure has been hit harder than sectarianism; wherever the frightful drama which is to reshape the race is being played out, such things as Presbyterianism, Methodism, Episcopalianism, — yes, even Protestantism and Catholicism, — seem to be an irrelevance and an impertinence. What concerns men over there is not the differentiations, but the few vital elements which all churches and all individuals hold in common. And the agency through which this new mood works most fully is the Young Men’s Christian Association. Not the Y.M.C.A. as the average American knew that institution before the war — an institution staffed by professional employees of a hybrid type, not ministers, but so nearly akin to the clergy that they could not be definitely classiified; a body of men shot through with revivalism and pre-millenarianism — a kind of vigilantes who picketed the churches and sentineled the creeds against a surprise attack by non-evangelicals; no, but a new and broader Y.M.C.A., spiritual without being sectarian, ethically virile and yet not puritanic, opportunist without huckstering basic principles, and withal thoroughly human and highly sensitive to the needs of the men it serves.

The feature which impressed me most profoundly was the amazingly wholehearted manner in which this institution took to its unique task. All types of men in its service were doing things cheerfully and enthusiastically which they had never dreamed of doing before, without regard to the effect upon the dignity of the position they had previously held, and altogether oblivious of the social or ecclesiastical status of their fellow workers.

‘What denomination at home?’ I asked a man in Y.M.C.A. uniform.

He looked surprised, implying that the question was as remote from the point as though I had asked whether his ancestors lived in Wessex or Mercia before the Norman invasion of England. He had lost all his equipment and personal possessions when the Germans made their ill-starred drive near Soissons in the middle of July; and he was in Paris only to refit.

‘Unitarian; New England Unitarian minister,’ he replied; and then, evidently puzzled, ‘but this is the first time I have been asked the question in France.’

All the way from the port of debarkation to the red, quivering lip of the inferno, I saw clergymen serving the troops as Y.M.C.A. secretaries, and only by dint of inquiry could I find their denominational affiliation. They were doing things also which had never been taught in their respective theological seminaries. A prominent Baptist minister had been handling boxes for months, ten hours a day, in a Y.M.C.A. warehouse; an Episcopalian rector had ceased to think about the channel whence his grace of apostolic succession flowed, and was running the cinema for a circuit of Y.M.C.A. huts; a Presbyterian divine drove a supply camion day after day, and had not found time to preach a sermon since his arrival in France; a Methodist preacher organized the athletics for an entire division, including boxing and wrestling, and he did it with all the fervor that his ministerial predecessors had put into camp-meeting revivals.

These are not isolated instances, but genuine types; there are hundreds of clergymen, representing all the denominations, who have cast aside all prepossessions and established habits and are bending themselves to serve the American, French, and Italian troops in any way that will bring comfort and profit to the soldiers or heighten the morale of the Allied armies. Side by side with them are college presidents and professors, bankers, judges, lawyers, stockbrokers, manufacturers, merchants — all ineligible for military duty, but eagerly giving themselves, under the Red Triangle, to any form of work, however menial or apparently trivial, which can serve the soldiers.

The individual may have as his personal motive the increase of efficiency in the fighting units; or he may make his sacrifices on purely humanitarian grounds; or he may have been carried to the front by a surging patriotism which could find no other outlet; or he may be consumed by a passion of righteousness for the overthrow of foul tyranny; it does not matter — he is nevertheless part of an organization which represents the application of a religious motive. In a broad but in a very real sense, the Y.M.C.A. has as its raison d’être the interpretation of Christianity. If it were using the exigencies of war as an opportunity for self-enlargement, ninety per cent of its present staff would desert its standard immediately; if it were exploiting its facilities for any one particular brand of religious propaganda, its best friends would turn and rend it; if it were representing a merely theoretical or sentimental type of religion, it would be ridiculed off those heroic, hallowed fields of Europe in a trice. The Y.M.C.A., as I saw it in France, and as I studied it with critical and incredulous eyes, stands for one thing, and for one only: an interpretation of religion which shall be of immediate and permanent benefit to the soldiers.

‘Of immediate and permanent benefit!’ The separation must not be made too sharp, but a classification ought to be attempted. As immediately beneficial I would place, —

1. The Canteen. It was at General Pershing’s request which is practically a command, as the Y.M.C.A. is a recognized part of the American Expeditionary Force — that the Y.M.C.A. took over the Post Exchange in France. A canteen is a general store in which tobacco, cigarettes, chocolate, soft drinks, and sundries necessary to the soldiers’ comfort, are sold at cost. Canteens are extremely difficult to run for three reasons: the Y.M.C.A.’s lack of experience in store-keeping; the scarcity of provisions owing to restricted shipping and rail-transportation; and, at the front, the constant movement of army units. Nevertheless, despite all obstacles, they are operated with an amazing degree of success, and the presence of American women as canteen workers serves to make them attractive and homelike.

2. Amusements. Several hundred actors, actresses, vocalists, lecturers, and general entertainers have been sent to France, to travel from camp to camp and station to station, giving free entertainments in the Y.M.C.A. huts.

3. Organized athletics. Under trained physical directors, often coaches from universities and schools, every possible form of athletics is organized within the army unit, and all the equipment provided gratis by the Y.M.C.A.

4. Writing and reading rooms. All the material for correspondence is given away and the soldiers are encouraged and urged to write home as often as possible. Right in ChâteauThierry, while the battle which will be known as the Gettysburg of the war was raging within a few kilometres of the place, I saw the Y.M.C.A. providing every facility for the men to write letters of assurance to their friends in America. During that same battle I not only saw cigarettes and chocolate given away in the front lines of the battle, but I coöperated in the welcome distribution. The American Library Association distributes books and magazines (though not yet in sufficient quantities) through the Y.M.C.A. huts.

5. Hotels, both for enlisted men and officers, and officers’ clubs in many centres. These forms of immediate service take much of the sting out of foreign duty and bridge the gulf between the old civilian life and the new military régime.

As permanently beneficial I would place:—

1. Opportunities for worship. Religion is not overemphasized by the Y.M.C.A.; it is not thrust upon the men at inappropriate times; it is not confused with ecclesiasticism; it is never presented in a polemical or dogmatic form. Preachers of every type speak to the men at certain advertised dates, and almost invariably with simplicity and directness on a noncontroversial and universal aspect of religion or ethics.

2. Education. A plan has been devised whereby any man, from the utterly illiterate to the college graduate, can pursue studies either needed in military service or valuable after demobilization. The Y.M.C.A. is also arranging for American undergraduates to pursue their studies — for which credit will be given in the home college— in one of the European universities during the period between the cessation of hostilities and embarkation for home.

3. Banking. Tens of thousands of soldiers are sending portions of their pay to America, through the Y.M.C.A., either to be placed on deposit, or for the benefit of dependent relations. Besides this, the Y.M.C.A., even at the front, acts as an exchange, giving the men a rate a little better than the current Paris rate.

To carry on this work the Y.M.C.A. has more than 3000 secretaries in Europe, supplemented by over 1000 French civilians. These operate about 1500 huts and stations in the sectors held by American and French troops. Up to August first, there had been over fifty casualties, eleven, of whom were killed while on duty. Of the ministers engaged in the work, four have met death while serving at the front and many others have been permanently injured. This record shows the hazards of the task and also reveals the calibre of those who have volunteered for the service. Some day a French historian will write the splendid story of how the American Y.M.C.A. steadied the morale of the war-weary French army in its darkest hour, and adequately chronicle the inexpressibly gracious contribution made by this institution through the Foyers du Soldat. Italy, Macedonia, Russia, Palestine will be able to add thrilling chapters.

Of course, there have been mistakes of administration; anyone can point out scores of things which the Y.M.C.A might do or could do more efficiently. Similar criticism may be offered concerning the plans of the Allies, concerning many phases of our own military programme, and concerning the marvelously beneficent work of the Red Cross. Human frailty assures a vein of weakness in every human enterprise. But here is a venture in religion more daring than anything that has been undertaken in the history of the world — an institution, dependent not only upon voluntary contributions for support, but dependent also upon untrained and inexperienced volunteers to realize its object; working more than three thousand miles from its base of supplies; crippled by the physical impossibility of obtaining its equipment; merging in its plan a score of functions which have never before been operated in unison; hampered by a thousand restrictions which military necessity lays upon it; held under suspicion, or openly libeled, by men who are too dense or coarse to see the splendor of its endeavors; and doing it all without thought of praise or reward.

Opportunities for humane and morale-conserving service are so innumerable in France that no unselfish effort is superfluous. Knitted together as an organism, if not as an organization, are several societies which reveal the intrepid and chivalrous spirit of America. Their efforts are never competitive, because, if each multiplied its personnel by a hundred and possessed unlimited equipment and supplies, there would still be areas left untouched. The Y.M.C.A. and the Knights of Columbus coöperate in a most illuminating manner, and if they vie with each other at all, it is in the measure of devotion which each can give. The Salvation Army is doing everything that its means will allow, and doing it with utter impartiality to Catholic and Protestant. And it would be cavalier, indeed, not to praise the Young Women’s Christian Association, which has ventured into pioneer paths without even momentary reluctance. At the base hospitals I visited the huts for American nurses, where the Blue Triangle means all the refinements and seclusions and respites which the splendid bands of nurses had been accustomed to at home. Hostess-houses for our enlisted men are being opened as rapidly as possible, in which the soldiers find an environment possessing all those feminine touches which they miss more than anything else while on foreign service. For the women munitionworkers the Y.W.C.A. has founded the Foyers des Alliées in a score of places, and the Frenchwomen are flocking to them with unbounded gratitude, happy beyond expression because of the new comradeship. The Union Chrétienne de Jeunes FillEs, or the club work for girls engaged in government employment, was started at the invitation of the French government and is already outgrowing its facilities. In one of the spacious buildings, right in the heart of Paris, the girls gathered about the piano and sang first ‘Verdun, and then ‘The Star Spangled Banner,’ with an abandon which made one feel, not only their appreciation of the sacrifice being made by American women on their behalf, but a recognition of the genuine sisterhood which has been established in the common tragedy.

But everywhere in France it is service; no one has a right there except as a servant of the great cause, or as a servant of those who are carrying that cause through to a final victory. Never before have there been such suffering, fear, and horror in the world; but never before has there been such uncalculating devotion. On a scale so vast that no one can measure or chronicle the length and breadth and height and depth, Christ is overthrowing Caliban.


To say that one feels the universal realities more vividly and convincingly in prayer and service, in establishing an immediate and personal contact with the Divine, and in ministering unstintingly to the transient or permanent needs of one’s fellows, is not necessarily to brand other expressions of religion as false. Nor is it an attempt to put all the rich manifestations of the multiform spiritual nature of man into tabloid form. During these passionate days there are very few thoughtful men and women who are not groping. Strange dissatisfactions are creeping into the most secure and comfortable sanctuaries. Nothing to-day is considered essential because it has been long established. A faith which was decorative when men droned out their days in offices, shops, parlors, or country clubs, will be discarded with scorn if it fails to nerve and sustain and comfort men amid the horrors of the battle-front. Realities are the things that are relevant under all conditions. Books from the front which unveil the more solemn phases of the individual soul are the ones most eagerly read. What are to be the permanent, that is is to say, the spiritual, contributions of this terrible but glorious struggle to humanity? Whatever treaty of peace is signed, it may some day be abandoned or modified; whatever changes the war may make in the currents of trade, they cannot hold their new direction forever. But the spiritual marks left upon the race will abide till the end of time, and no subsequent events will be able to erase them. To know what the days and nights of unrelieved strain and pain are writing into the lives of one, two, or three millions of men, to know what spiritual experiences are imprinting themselves upon the retina of their souls, is to know what will be the distinctive marks of religion for many years to come.

When I found men instinctively establishing immediate contact with the forces of the Unseen World, and doing it without the formal accessories with which the act has always been associated; when I saw a religious institution rendering every possible form of service and on an unprecedented scale; when I realized that each of these things excited no comment but was accepted as normal; then I felt sure that many of the artificialities and superficialities which now separate men into a multitude of competitive sects must pass away as the operative factors in religious development. And when, in the security and quietude of my home, I read again the story of Jesus Christ as told by the three Evangelists, I found little in it that was not the record of how the purest, bravest, and divinest of the race established and maintained contact with God and dedicated Himself entirely to the service of his fellow men.