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The Crown Of Thorns by E. H. Chapin

THE CHRISTIAN VIEW OF SORROW

|A man of sorrow, and acquainted with grief| Is. Iii.3.

There is one great distinction between the productions of Heathen and of Christian art. While the first exhibits the perfection of physical form and of intellectual beauty, the latter expresses, also, the majesty of sorrow, the grandeur of endurance, the idea of triumph refined from agony. In all those shapes of old there is nothing like the glory of the martyr; the sublimity of patience and resignation; the dignity of the thorn-crowned Jesus.

It is easy to account for this. In that heathen age the soul had received no higher inspiration. It was only after the advent of Christ that men realized the greatness of sorrow and endurance. It was not until the history of the Garden, the Judgment-Hall, and the Cross had been developed, that genius caught nobler conceptions of the beautiful. This fact is, therefore, a powerful witness to the prophecy in the text, and to the truth of Christianity. Christ's personality, as delineated in the Gospels, is not only demonstrated by a change of dynasties, -- an entire new movement in the world, -- a breaking up of the its ancient order; but the moral ideal which now leads human action, -- which has wrought this enthusiasm, and propelled man thus strangely forward, -- has entered the subjective realities of the soul, -- breathed new inspiration upon it, -- opened up to it a new conception; and, lo! The statue dilates with a diviner expression; -- lo! The picture wears a more lustrous and spiritual beauty.

The Christ of the text, then, -- |A man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief,|-has verily lived, for his image has been reflected in the minds of men, and has fastened itself there among their most intimate and vivid conceptions. Sorrow, as illustrated in Christ's life, and as interpreted in his scheme of religion, has assumed a new aspect and yields a new meaning. Its garments of heaviness have become transfigured to robes of light, its crown of thorns to a diadem of glory; and often, for some one whom the rich and joyful of this world pity, -- some suffering, struggling, over-shadowed soul, -- there comes a voice from heaven, |This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.|

I remark, however, that Christianity does not accomplish this result by denying the character of sorrow. It does not refuse to render homage to grief. The stoic is as far from its ideal of virtue as the epicurean. The heart of the true saint quivers at pain, and his eyes are filled with tears. Whatever mortifications he may deem necessary as to the passions of this poor flesh, if he imitates the example of Christ he cannot deny those better affections which link us even to God; he cannot harden those sensitive fibres which are the springs of our best action, -- which if callus we become inhuman. He realizes pain; he recognises sorrow as sorrow. Its cup is bitter, and to be resisted with prayer.

There is nothing more wonderful in the history of Jesus than his keen sense of sorrow, and the scope which he allows it. In the tenderness of his compassion he soothed the overflowing spirit, but he never rebuked its tears. On the contrary, in a most memorable instance, he recognized its right to grieve. It was on the way to his own crucifixion, when crowned with insult, and lacerated with his own sorrows. |Daughters of Jerusalem,| said he, to the sympathizing women, |weep not for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children.| As though he had said, |You have a right to weep; weep, then, in that great catastrophe which is coming, when barbed affliction shall pierce your hearts, and the dearest ties shall be cut in sunder. Those ties are tender; those hearts are sacred. Therefore, weep!|

But Christ did more than sanction tears in others. He wept himself. Closest in our consciousness, because they will be most vivid to us in our darkest and our last hours, are those incidents by the grave of Lazarus, and over against Jerusalem; the sadness of Gethsemane, and the divine pathos of the last supper. Never can we fully realize what a tribute to sorrow is rendered by the tears of Jesus, and the dignity which has descended upon those who mourn, because he had not where to lay his head, was despised and rejected of men, and cried out in bitter agony from the cross. He could not have been our exemplar by despising sorrow-by treating it with contempt; but only by shrinking from its pain, and becoming intimate with its anguish, -- only as |a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.|

But, on the other hand, Christianity does not over-estimate sorrow. While it pronounces a benediction upon the mourner, it does not declare it best that man should always mourn. It would not have us deny the good that is in the universe. Nay, I apprehend that sorrow itself is a testimony to that good, -- is the anguish and shrinking of the severed ties that have bound us to it; that it clings closest in hearts of the widest and most various sympathies; that only souls which have loved much and enjoyed much can feel its intensity or know its discipline. In the language of another, |Sorrow is not an independent state of mind, standing unconnected with all others...It is the effect, and, under the present conditions of our being, the inevitable effect, of strong affections. Nay, it is not so much their result, as a certain attitude of those affections themselves. It not simply flows from the love of excellence, of wisdom, of sympathy, but it is that very love, when conscious that excellence, that wisdom, that sympathy have departed.| They, then, who deem it necessary for man's spiritual welfare that he should constantly feel the pressure of chastisement, and be engirt with the mist of tears, do not reason well. Jeremy Taylor reasons thus, when he says in allusion to certain lamps which burned for many ages in a tomb, but which expired when brought into open day: |So long as we are in the retirements of sorrow, of want, of fear, of sickness, we are burning and shining lamps; but when God lifts us up from the gates of death and carries us abroad into the open air, to converse with prosperity and temptations, we go out in darkness; and we cannot be preserved in light and heat but by still dwelling in the regions of sorrow.| |There is beauty, and, to a certain extent, truth in this figure,| says a writer, in reply; |but it by no means follows that continuous suffering would be good for man; on the contrary, it would be as remote from producing the perfection of our moral nature as unmitigated prosperity. It would be apt to produce a morbid and ghastly piety; the 'bright lamps' of which Taylor speaks would still be irradiating only a tomb.| (Edinburgh Review No 141 The article on Pascal) We may doubt whether there is more essential religiousness in this seeking of sorrow as a mortification, -- in this monastic self-laceration and exclusion, -- than in the morbid misery of the hypochondriac. Neither comprehends the whole of life, nor is adapted to its realities. Christ was |a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief;| but he was also full of sympathy with all good, and enjoyed the charm of friendship, and the light of existence. Around that great Life gather many amenities. Below that face of agony beats a heart familiar with the best affections of human nature; otherwise, we may believe, the agony would not appear. The sadness of that last supper indicates the breaking up of many joyful communions and the history which closes in the shadow of the cross mingles with the festival of Cana, and lingers around the home at Bethany.

But I remark, once more, that while Christianity neither despises nor affects to desire sorrow, it clearly recognizes its great and beneficial mission. In one word, it shows its disciplinary character, and thus practically interprets the mystery of evil. It regards man as a spiritual being, thrown upon the theatre of this mortal life not merely for enjoyment, but for training, -- for the development of spiritual affinities, and the attainment of spiritual ends. It thus reveals a weaning, subduing, elevating power, in sorrow.

The origin of evil may puzzle us; -- its use no Christian can deny. A sensual philosophy may shrink from it, in all its aspects, and retreat into a morbid skepticism or a timid submission. If we predicate mere happiness as |our being's end and aim,| there is no explanation of evil. From this point of view, there is an ambiguity in nature, -- a duality in every object, which we cannot solve. The throne of infinite light and love casts over the face of creation an inexplicable shadow. If we were made merely to be happy, why this hostility all around us? Why these sharp oppositions of pain and difficulty? Why these writhing nerves, these aching hearts, and over-laden eyes? Why the chill of disappointment, the shudder of remorse, the crush and blight of hope? Why athwart the horizon flicker so many shapes of misery and sin? Why appear these sad spectacles of painful dying chambers, and weary sick-beds? -- these countless tomb-stones, too-ghastly witness to death and tears? Explain for me those abrupt inequalities, -- the long train of necessities, poverty and its kindred woes, those fearful realities that lie in the abysses of every city, -- that hideous, compressed mass which welters in the awful baptism of sensuality and ignorance, -- the groans of inarticulate woe, the spectacle of oppression, the shameless cruelty of war, the pestilence that shakes its comet-sword over nations, and famine that peers with skeleton face through the corn-sheaves of plenty. Upon this theory of mere happiness no metaphysical subtlety can solve the fact of evil; -- the coiled enigma constantly returns upon itself, inexplicable as ever.

But when we take the Christian view of life, we discover that not happiness merely, but virtue, holiness, is the great end of man; though happiness comes in as an inevitable consequence and accompaniment of this result. And in the light reflected from this view, evil assumes a powerful, and, I may say, a most beautiful office. It is just as necessary for the attainment of virtue as prosperity, or any blessing. Nay, in this aspect, it is itself a great blessing, and

|Every cloud that spreads above
And veileth love, itself is love.|

It is evident that, without the contact of sin and the pressure of temptation, there might be innocence, but not virtue. Equally evident does it seem that, without an acquaintance with grief, there would soon be but little of that uplifting tendency-that softening of the heart, and sanctifying of the affections-which fit us for the dissolution of our earthly ties, and for the communions of the spirit world. Beautiful is this weaning efficacy of sorrow. By the ordinance of God, youth is made to be content with this outward and palpable life. The sunshine and the air-the flow of animal pleasures, encircled mysteriously with the guardianship of parents, and the love of friends-are sufficient for the child. But as we grow in years, there springs up a dissatisfaction, a restlessness, of which we may be only half conscious, and still less know how to cure. With some, this may subside into merely a fearful and worldly discontent; others may heed the prophecy and lay hold on a celestial hope, an immortal possession as the only remedy. In this secret sense of want, which neither nature nor man can fill they will hear already that low, divine voice, -- |Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.| But generally another and more emphatic missionary is necessary. It is the veiled angel of sorrow, who plucks away one thing and another that bound us here in ease and security, and in the vanishing of these dear objects indicates the true home of our affections and our peace. Thus, by rupture and loss we become weaned from earth, and the dissatisfaction and discontent which sorrow thus induces are as kind and providential as the carelessness of youth.

Who does not see that it is so, -- that as we journey on in life there are made in our behalf preparations for another state of being, -- unmistakable premonitions of that fact which the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews so eloquently states, that |here have we no continuing city|? The gloss of objects in which we delighted is worn off by attrition, -- is sicklied o'er by care; the vanity of earthly things startles us suddenly, like a new truth; the friends we love drop away from our side into silence; desire fails; the grasshopper becomes a burden; until, at length, we feel that our only love is not here below, -- until these tendrils of earth aspire to a better climate, and the weight that has been laid upon us makes us stoop wearily to the grave as a rest and a deliverance. We have, even through our tears, admired that discipline which sometimes prepares the young to die; which, by sharp trials of anguish, and long days of weariness, weans them from that keen sense of mortal enjoyment which is so naturally theirs; which, through the attenuation of the body, illuminates the soul, and, as it steals the bloom from the cheek, kindles the lustre of faith in the eye, and makes even that young spirit look, unfaltering, across the dark river, and, putting aside its earthly loves and its reasonable expectations, exclaim, |Now I am ready!| But it would appear that equal preparation, though in different forms, is provided for most of us, in the various experiences of sorrow which we are called upon to know, and which, if we would but heed them, have a celestial mission, seeking to draw us up from this lower state, to induce us to lay up our treasure where neither moth nor rust corrupts. And in the Christian view of man as an heir of the spiritual word, does not sorrow, in this its weaning tendency, receive a most beautiful explanation?

And, because it accomplishes this work, may be the reason why sorrow always wears a kind of supernatural character. It is true that blessings, equally with afflictions, come from Heaven; but this truth is not so generally felt. A sharp disappointment will suddenly drive us to God. The mariner of life sails, unthinking, over its prosperous seas, but a flaw of storm will bring him to his prayers. And religion, reason as we will, is peculiarly associated with affliction. And does not sorrow possess this supernatural air, not merely because it interrupts the usual order of things, but because, more than joy, it has a weaning and spiritual tendency, -- is sent, as it were, more directly from God for this specific purpose? At least, after the sanctifying experience of sorrow, we hold our joys more religiously.

There are other tendencies of sorrow akin to this, upon which I might dwell, and which show the explanation that it receives in the Christian light. The humbling effect that it has upon the proud and hard-hearted; the equalizing result which it works, making the rich and poor, the obscure and the great, stand upon the level of the common humanity, -- the common liability and dependence. I might, expanding the topic already touched upon, speak of the influence which sorrow sheds abroad, chastening the light, at tempering the draught of joy, and thus keeping our hearts better balanced than otherwise. But I have sufficiently illustrated its mission. I have shown its use, even its beauty, in the Christian view. I have shown why Christianity, as the universal religion, is rightly styled the |religion of sorrow,| and why Christ, as the perfect teacher and example, was |a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.|

Let us all, then, recognize the fact that life itself is a discipline. That for each of us sorrow is mingled with joy in order that this discipline may be accomplished. No one reaches the noon of life without some grief, some disappointment, some sharp trial, which assures him, if he will but heed it, that life is already declining, and that his spirit should train itself for a higher and more permanent state. In the failure of mortal excellence let him recognize the proof of an immortal good, and from the bitterness that mingles with these earthly waters, turn to drink of the celestial fountain. Of all things, let us not receive sorrow indifferently, or without reflection. Its mission is for discipline, but we feel it to be discipline only by recognizing its source and its meaning; |it yieldeth the peaceable fruits of righteousness| only |to them that are exercised thereby.| Otherwise, it may come and go as the storm that rends the oak, or the drenching tempest that glides off as it falls. It may startle us for a moment, -- it may hurt us with a sense of pain and loss, -- it may awe us with its mystery; but unless it rouses us to solemn thought upon the meaning of life, to self-communion and prayer, to higher and holier action, it availeth little. It should not smite the heart's chords to wring from them a mere shriek of distress, but to inspire it with a deeper and more elevated tone, and by the element of sadness which it infuses make a more liquid and exquisite melody.

But while we are thus taught to chasten our views of life, and to hold even our joys with seriousness, and with wise forethought, let us not look upon things with any morbid vision, or cast over them a monotonous hue. Let us not live in gloom and bitterness. The Christian, of all others, is the best fitted for a cheerful and proper enjoyment of life, because he wisely recognizes the use of things, understands their evanescent nature, and sees the infinite goodness that has so ordained it. He is not surprised by sudden terrors. He is prepared for sorrow, and thus can rest in peace with the good that he has; while those who bury heart and soul in the present enjoyment, and know nothing but sensual good, are broken down by calamity. The sudden change, like a thunder-gust, puts out their light, and darkens all their life; and it is they who are apt to fall from the summit of delight into a morbid gloom; while the Christian, with his balanced soul, inhabits neither extreme.

Finally, let us remember that it is not the object of sorrow to overcome, but to elevate; not to conquer us, but that we, by it, should conquer. It converts the thorns that wound us into a crown. It makes us strong by the baptism of tears. The saint is always a hero. This explains that grand distinction between Heathen and Christian art, of which I spoke in the commencement; that expression of power blended with agony, -- of celestial beatitude refining itself upon the face of grief. Christianity has made martyrdom sublime, and sorrow triumphant. Christ is |the Captain of our salvation,|-the leader of |many sons unto glory;| for he was |a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.|

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