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The Crown Of Thorns by E. H. Chapin


|And yet I am not alone, because the Father is with me.| John xvi.32.

These words are found in the farewell address of Jesus to his disciples. They were uttered in the dark hour of coming agony, and in the face of ignominious death. Because Christ was divinely empowered, and possessed the spirit without measure, let us not suppose that to him there was no pain or sorrow, in that great crisis. With all his supernatural dignity, he appears to us far more attractive when we consider him as impressible by circumstances, -- as moved by human sympathies. He is thus not merely a teacher, but a pattern for us. In all our trials he not only enables us to endure and to triumph, but draws us close to himself by the affinity of his own experience. We see, too, how the best men, men of the clearest faith, may still look upon death with a shudder, and shrink from the dark and narrow valley; not because they fear death as such, but because of the agony of dissolution, the rupture of all familiar ties, and the solemn mystery of the last change.

But death and suffering, as Jesus was now to meet them, appeared in no ordinary forms. He was to bear affliction with no friendly consolations around him; but alone! -- alone in the wrestling of the garden, and amid the cruel mockery. Not upon the peaceful death-bed, but upon the bare and rugged cross, torn by nails, pierced with the spear, crowned with thorns, taunted by the revilings of the multitude, the vinegar and the gall. He must be deserted, and encounter these trials alone. He must be rejected, betrayed, crucified alone. And as he spoke to his disciples those words of affection and holiness-those words so full of counsel and sublime consolation-he remembered all this; he remembered that they who now clung to him, and listened in sorrow to his parting accents, would soon be scattered as sheep without a shepherd, and leave him to himself in all that shame and agony. But even as he foretold it there gleamed upon his spirit the sunshine of an inner consciousness, -- a comfort that no cloud could darken; and instantly he added, |And yet I am not alone, because the Father is with me.|

Having thus considered the circumstances in which these words were spoken, I now proceed to draw from them a few reflections.

I would say, then, in the first place, that the great test which proves the excellence of the religion of Christ is its adaptation to man in solitude, -- to man as a solitary being; because it is then that he is thrown upon the resources of his own soul, -- upon his inner and everlasting life. In society he finds innumerable objects to attract his attention and to absorb his affections. The ordinary cares of every day, the pursuit of his favorite scheme, the converse of friends, the exciting topics of the season, the hours of recreation, all fill up his time, and occupy his mind with matters external to himself. And looking upon him merely in these relations, if we could forget its great social bearings, and the harmonies which flow from its all-pervading spirit out into every condition of life, we might, perhaps, say that man could get along well enough without religion. If this world were made up merely of business and pleasure, perhaps the atheist's theory would suffice, and we might feel indifferent whether controlled by plastic matter or intelligent mind. We will admit that happiness, in one sense of the term, does not essentially depend upon religion. Nay, we must admit this proposition. A man may be happy without being religious. Good health, good spirits; -- how many, possessing these really enjoy life, without being devout, or religious according to any legitimate meaning of that term.

But change the order of circumstances. Remove these external helps, -- substitute therefor sorrow, duty, the revelations of our own inner being, -- and all this gayety vanishes like the sparkles from a stream when a storm comes up. The soul that has depended upon outward congenialities for its happiness has no permanent principle of happiness; for that is the distinction which religion bestows. He who cannot retire within himself, and find his best resources there, is fitted, perhaps, for the smoother passages of life, but poorly prepared for all life. He who cannot and dare not turn away from these outward engrossments, and be in spiritual solitude, -- who is afraid or sickens at the idea of being alone, -- has a brittle possession in all that happiness which comes from the whirl and surface of things. One hour may scatter it forever. And poorly, I repeat, is he prepared for all life, -- for some of the most serious and important moments of life. These, as I shall proceed to show, we must meet alone, and from within; and therefore, it constitutes the blessedness of the Christian religion that it enables man when in solitude to have communion, consolation, and guidance. In fact, it makes him, when alone, to be not alone, -- to say, with glad consciousness, |I am not alone, because the Father is with me.|

To illustrate this truth, then, I say, that so far as the communion and help of this outward world and of human society are concerned, there are many and important seasons when man must be alone. In the first place, in his most interior and essential nature, man is a solitary being. He is an individual, a unit, amid all the souls around him, and all other things, -- a being distinct and peculiar as a star. God, in all the variety of his works, has made no man exactly like another. There is an individual isolation, a conscious personality, which he can share with no other; which resists the idea of absorption; which claims its own distinct immortality; which has its own wants and woes, its own sense of duty, its own spiritual experiences. Christianity insists upon nothing more strongly than this. Piercing below all conventionalisms, it recognizes man as an individual soul, and, as such, addresses him with its truths and its sanctions. Indeed, it bases its grand doctrine of human brotherhood and equality upon the essential individuality of each man, because each represents all, -- each has in himself the nature of every other. It demands individual repentance, individual holiness, individual faith. One cannot believe for another. One cannot decide questions of conscience for another. One cannot bear the sins or appropriate the virtues of another. It is true, we have relations to the great whole, to the world of mankind, and to the material universe. We are linked to these by subtle affinities. We are interwoven with them all, -- bound up with them in arterial unity and life. They have all poured their results into our souls, and helped to form us, and do now support us; and we, in like manner, react upon them, and upon others. This truth is a vital one, not to be neglected. But a deeper truth than this and one upon which this depends, is the individual peculiarity of each, -- his integral distinctiveness, without which there would be no such thing as union, or relationship; nothing but monotony and inertia.

The great fact, then, which I would impress upon you is, that, essentially as spiritual beings, we are alone. And I remark that there are experiences in life when we are made to feel this deep fact; when each must deal with his reason, his heart, his conscience, for himself; when each is to act as if the sole-existent in the universe, realizing that he is a spirit breathed from God, complete in himself, subject to all spiritual laws, interested in all spiritual welfare; when no stranger soul, though it be that of his dearest friend, can intermeddle with all that occupies him, or share it.

Such experiences we have when reflection binds us to the past. Memory then opens for us a volume that no eye but God's and ours can read; -- memories of neglect, of sin, of deep secrets that our hearts have hidden in their innermost folds. Such experiences sometimes there are when we muse upon the external universe; when we reflect upon the vastness of creation, the littleness of human effort, the transciency of human relations; when our souls are drawn away from all ordinary communions, and we feel that we are drifting before an almighty will, bound to an inevitable destiny, hemmed in by irresistible forces. Then, with every tie of association shrinking from us; then, keeping the solitary vigil; then with cold, vast nature all around us, we are alone. Or, there is a solitude which oppresses us even in the heart of the great city; -- a solitude more intense even than that of naked nature; when all faces are strange to us; when no pulse of sympathy throbs from our heart to the hearts of others when each passes us by, engaged with his own destiny, and leaving us to fulfil ours. In this tantalizing solitude of the crowd, in this sense of isolation from our fellows, if never before, do we feel, with sickness of heart, that we are alone. There is a solitude of sickness, -- the solitude of the watcher or of the patient, -- a solitude to which, at times, duty and Providence call us all. There are, in brief, countless circumstances of life when we shall realize that we are indeed alone, and sad enough will be that solitude if we have no inner resource, -- no Celestial companionship; -- if we cannot say and feel as we say it, that we are not alone, for the Father is with us.

But, while I cannot specify all these forms of solitude, let me dwell upon two or three of the experiences of life in which we are peculiarly alone.

First, then, I would say, that we must be alone in the pursuit of Truth and the work of Duty. Others may aid me in these, but I must decide and act for myself. I must believe for myself. I must do right for myself; or if I do wrong, it is also for myself, and in myself I realize the retribution. By my own sense of right and wrong-by my own standard of truth and falsehood-I must stand or fall. There is in this world nothing so great and solemn as the struggles of the solitary soul in its researches after the truth, -- in its endeavors to obey the right. We may be indifferent to these vital questions, -- it is to be feared that many are; we may glide along in the suppleness of habit, and the ease of conventionalism; we may never trouble ourselves with any pungent scruples; we may never pursue the task of introspection, or bring to bear upon the fibres of motive and desire within us the intense focus of God's moral law; we may never vex our souls with tests of faith, but rest contented with the common or hereditary standard; -- but he who will be serious in the work of spiritual discipline, who will act from a vital law of duty, must endure struggles and conflicts than which, I repeat, there is nothing more solemn under the sun. He will often find himself opposed to the general current of human faith and action. His position will be singular. His principle will be tried. Interest will direct him another way; his strictness will be ridiculed, his motives questioned, his sincerity misunderstood and aspersed. Alone must he endure all this, -- along cling to the majestic ideal of right as it rises to his own soul. And thus he must wage a bitter conflict with fear and with seduction, -- with sophistries of the heart, and reluctance of the will.

Often, too, must he question his own motives with a severer judgment than that of the world, as his scrutiny is more close, and his self-knowledge more minute. He knows the secret sin, the mental act, the spiritual aberration. He knows the distance between his highest effort and that lofty standard of perfection to which he has pledged his purposes. Alone, alone does the great conflict go on within him. The struggle, the self-denial, the pain, and the victory, are of the very essence of martyrdom, -- are the chief peculiarities in the martyr's lot. His, too, must be the solitude of prayer, when, by throwing by all entanglements, -- in his naked individuality, -- he wrestles at the Mercy Seat, or soars to the bliss of Divine communion. In such hours, -- in every hour of self-communion, -- when we ask ourselves the highest questions respecting faith and duty, it is the deepest comfort to the religious soul to feel and to say, |I am not alone, for the Father is with me.|

Again; there are experiences of Sorrow in which we are peculiarly alone. How often does the soul feel this when it is suffering from the loss of friends! Then we find no comfort in external things. Pleasure charms not; business cannot cheat us of our grief; wealth supplies not the void; and though the voice of friendship falls in consolation upon the ear, yet with all these, we are alone, -- alone! No other spirit can fully comprehend our woe, or enter into our desolation. No human eye can pierce to our sorrows; no sympathy can share them. Alone we must realize their sharp suggestions, their painful memories, their brood of sad and solemn thoughts. The mother bending over her dead child; -- O! what solitude is like that? -- where such absolute loneliness as that which possesses her soul, when she takes the final look of that little pale face crowned with flowers and sleeping in its last chamber, with the silent voice of the dead uttering its last good night? What more solitary than the spirit of one who, like the widow of Nain, follows to the grave her only son? -- of one from whom the wife, the mother, has been taken? The mourner is in solitude, -- alone, in this peopled world; -- O, how utterly alone! Through the silent valley of tears wanders that stricken spirit, seeing only memorials of that loss.

Indeed, sorrow of any kind is solitary. Its deepest pangs, its most solemn visitations, are in the secrecy of the individual soul. We labor to conceal it from others. We wear a face of unconcern or gayety amid the multitude. Society is thronged with masked faces. Unseen burdens of woe are carried about in its busy haunts. The man of firm step in the mart, and of vigorous arm in the workshop, has communions in his chamber that make him weak as a child. Nothing is more deceitful than a happy countenance. Haggard spirits laugh over the wine-cup, and the blooming garland of pleasure crowns an aching head. For sorrow is secret and solitary. Each |heart knoweth its own bitterness.|

How precious, then, in the loneliness of sorrow, is that faith which bids us look up and see how near is God, and feel what divine companionship is ours, and know what infinite sympathy engirds us, -- what concern for our good is, even in this darkness, shaping out blessings for us, and distilling from this secret agony everlasting peace for the soul. How precious that faith in the clear vision of which we can say, |I am not alone, for the Father is with me.|

Finally, we must experience Death alone. As I said in the commencement, the best, the most pious soul, may naturally shrink from this great event. We may learn to anticipate it with resignation, to look upon it with trust; but indifference respecting it is no proof of religion. It would be, rather, a bad sign for one to approach it without emotion; for however his faith may penetrate beyond, the religious spirit will, with deep awe, lift that curtain of mystery which hangs before the untried future. That is a fact which we must encounter alone. Friends may gather around us; their ministrations may aid, their consolations soothe us. They may be with us to the very last; they may cling to us as though they would pluck us back to the shores of time; their voices may fall, the last of earthly sounds, upon our ears; their kiss awaken the last throb of consciousness; but they cannot go with us, they cannot die in our stead; the last time must come, -- they must loosen their hold from us, and fade from our vision, and we become wrapt in the solemn experience of death, alone! Alone must we tread the dark valley, -- alone embark for the unseen land. No, Christian! not alone. To your soul, thus separated in blank amazement from all familiar things, still is that vision of faith granted that so often lighted your earthly perplexities; to you is it given, in this most solitary hour, to say, |I am not alone for the Father is with me!|

I repeat, then, in closing, that the test which proves the excellence of the religion of Christ is the fact that it fits us for those solemn hours of life when we must be alone. Mere happiness we may derive from other sources; but this consolation not all the world can give, -- the world cannot take it away.

Let us remember, then, that though we seldom look within-though our affections may be absorbed in external things-these solitary seasons will come. It behoves us, therefore, as we value true peace of mind, genuine happiness, which connects us to the throne of God with golden links of prayer, -- it behoves each to ask himself, |Dare I be alone? Am I ready to be alone? And what report will my soul make in that hour of solitude? If I do wrong, if I cleave to evil rather than the good, what shall I do when I am alone, and yet not alone, but with the Father? But if I do right, if I trust in Him, and daily walk with Him, what crown of human honor, what store of wealth, what residuum of earthly pleasure, can compare with the glad consciousness that wherever I rest or wander, in every season and circumstance, in the solitary hours of life, and the loneliness of death, God is verily with me?|

Surely no attainment is equal to that strength of Christ, by which, when approaching the cross, he was able to say, |I am not alone, for the Father is with me.| By this strength, he was able to do more than to say and feel thus. He was able to strengthen others, -- to exclaim, |Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.| So we, by spiritual discipline, having learned of Christ to be thus strong, not only possess a spring of unfailing consolation for ourselves, but there shall go out from us a benediction and a power that shall gladden the weary and fortify the weak, -- that shall fill the solitude of many a lonely spirit with the consolations of the Father's love, and the bliss of the Father's presence.

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