Letters and Religion
‘PERHAPS,’says Mr. Chapman, ‘one can express the gigantic spirit that is in the air to-day, and sets a distance between passing events and our own souls, by saying that it is the Spirit of Waiting. . . . Sheer waiting is almost the essence of religious truth.’
This is the authentic voice of Quietism, a manner and an art of living all but lost in our Western World. The would-be literature of ‘sheer waiting’ too often slips into what Wordsworth calls ‘that majestic indolence, so dear to native man,’ or weakly aspires to the thin temper which Browning terms, ‘the lone, sad, sunny idleness of Heaven.’
Because Mr. Chapman is in dead earnest, because in this volume he takes his place with the first-hand mystics and is not a mere editorial camp-follower of mysticism, his pages are entirely free from the double peril of pedantry and sentimentality which attends so many contemporary adventures into this realm.
Very appropriately the book falls into two parts—the first half having to do with ‘Words and the Spirit,’in which the austere and deathless beauty of classicism both in letters and religion is celebrated, and the second half being ‘Comment and Reflection’ upon the incarnations of the ideal in actual life. In this conception of his task Mr. Chapman has grappled fairly with, the central problem of religion: how to live in two worlds at the same time. In the execution of the task he has vindicated the possibility of working solutions to the problem.
The opening chapter on the Greek and Latin classics sets us free from the songs of Circe and her wine, and once more ‘we hear, like Ocean on a western beach, the surge and thunder’ of the living spirit of all undying letters. The longest essay in the book, that upon the ‘Story and Sayings of Jesus’ has captured again that disconcerting casualness and moment of arrest in the Gospels — a story and a teaching, as Mr. Chapman has it, ‘uninterrupted by intention’ — which are so clearly there and yet are so uncongenial to systematic creeds and codes.
And then from the realm of the eternal values this modern mystic passes without strain or artifice into the world at hand. He moves familiarly and surely among the sciences and arts which we know, discovering their fitness or unfitness to incarnate the true classicism and the indubitable spirit of religion. A Japanese scientist hunting for the bacillus of syphilis, a Rockefeller Foundation doctor dying of yellow fever, an American business man collecting Persian vases, in all these ways the real is becoming actual and dwelling among us. In short, a brief rare book in which religion speaks for itself and not a tedious and interminable affair in which someone talks about religion.
And all this at the hand of a master of style, whom one delights to honor. Here are delicacy and sensitiveness of spirit feeling for the inevitable expression. ‘For all human thought is indeterminate, and can, at best, do no more than point in the direction of truth, trembling and oscillating like the magnetic needle under the current that swings it. The scientist and the theologian nail down the needle: the poet and the prophet let it swing.’
WILLARD L. SPERRY.