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The Crown Of Thorns by E. H. Chapin

OUR RELATIONS TO THE DEPARTED

|She is not dead, but sleepeth.| Luke viii.52

A Great peculiarity of the Christian religion is its transforming or transmuting power. I speak not now of the regeneration which accomplishes in the individual soul, but of the change it works upon things without. It applies the touchstone to every fact of existence, and exposes its real value. Looking through the lens of spiritual observation, it throws the realities of life into a reverse perspective from that which is seen by the sensual eye. Objects which the world calls great it renders insignificant, and makes near and prominent things which the frivolous put off. Thus the Christian, among other men, often appears anomalous. Often, amidst the congratulations of the world, he detects reason for mourning, and is penetrated with sorrow. On the contrary, where others shrink, he walks undaunted, and converts the scene of dread and suffering into an ante-chamber of heaven. In this light, the Apostle Paul speaks of himself and others, |As sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing all things.| Indeed, all the beatitudes are based upon this peculiarity; for the true blessing, the inward, everlasting riches, are for those who, in the world's eye, are poor, and mourning, and persecuted. Jesus himself weeps amid triumphant psalms and sounding hosannas, while on the cross he utters the prayer of forgiveness, and the ejaculation of peace.

No wonder, then, that the believer views the ghastliest fact of all in a consoling and even a beautiful aspect; and death itself becomes but sleep. Well was that trait of our religion which I have now suggested illustrated at the bed-side of Jairus' daughter. Well did that noisy, lamenting group represent the worldly who read only the material fact, or that flippant skepticism which laughs all supernatural truth to scorn. And well did Jesus represent the spirit of his doctrine, and its transforming power, when he exclaimed, |She is not dead, but sleepeth.|

Yes! beautifully has Christianity transformed death. To the eye of flesh it was the final direction of our fate, -- the consummate riddle in this mystery of being, -- the wreck of all our hopes, --

|The simple senses crowned his head,
Omega! thou art Lord, they said;
We find no motion in the dead.|

Ever, though with higher desires and better gleamings, the mind has struggled and sunk before this fact of decay, and this awful silence of nature; while in the waning light of the soul, and among the ashes of the sepulchre, skepticism has built its dreary negation. And though the mother could lay down her child without taking hints which God gave her from every little flower that sprung on that grassy bed, -- though the unexhausted intellect has reasoned that we ought to live again, and the affections, more oracular, swelling with the nature of their great source, have prophesied that we shall, -- never, until the revelation of Christ descended into our souls, and illuminated all our spiritual vision, have we been able to say certainly of death, it is a sleep. This has made its outward semblance not that of cessation, but of progression -- not an end, but a change -- converting its rocky couch to a birth-chamber, over-casting its shadows with beams of eternal morning, while behind its cold unconsciousness the unseen spirit broods into higher life. |He fell asleep,| says the sacred chronicler, speaking of bloody Stephen. |Our friend Lazarus sleepeth,| said Christ to his disciples; and yet again, as here in the text, the beautiful synonyme is repeated, |She is not dead, but sleepeth.|

But I proceed to remark, if the Christian religion thus transforms death, or, in other words, abolishes the idea of its being annihilation, or an end, then it gives us a new view of our relations to the departed. What are these relations? The answers to this question will form the burden of the present discourse.

I. There is the relation of memory. It is true, we may argue that this relation exists whether the Christian view of death be correct or not; -- so long have those who are now gone actually lived with us, -- so vivid are their images among the realities of the soul, -- though the grave should forever shut them from our communion. But this relation of memory has peculiar propriety and efficacy when associated with a Christian faith. If the dead live no more, what would memory be to us but a spectre and a sting? Should we not then seek to repress those tender recollections, -- to close our eyes to those pale, sad visions of departed love? Should we not invoke the glare and tumult of the world to distract or absorb our thoughts? Would we not say, |Let it come, the pleasure, the occupation of the hour, that we may think no more of the dead, plucked from us forever, -- let us drive thoughtlessly down this swift current of life, since thought only harrows us, -- let us drive thoughtlessly down, enjoying all we can, until we too lie by the side of those departed ones, like them to moulder in everlasting unconsciousness.| I don not say that this would always be the case without religious hope, but it is a very natural condition of the feelings in such circumstances, -- it is the most humane alternative that would then be left. At least, no one so well as the Christian can go into the inner chambers of memory, feel the strength of its sad yet blissful associations, and calmly invoke the communion of the dead.

I speak not now of what occurs in those first bitter days of grief, when the heart's wound bleeds afresh at every touch, -- when we are continually surprised by the bleak fact that the loved one is actually dead. But I speak of those after seasons, those Indian summers of the soul, in which all the present desolation is blended with the bloom and enjoyment of the past. Then do we find that the tie which binds us so tenderly to the departed is a strong and fruitful one. We love, in those still retired seasons, to call up the images of the dead, to let them hover around us, as real, for the hour, as any living forms. We linger in that communion, with a pleasing melancholy. We call up all that was lovely in their character, all that was delightful in their earthly intercourse. They live again for us, and we for them.

In this relation of memory, moreover, we realize the fact, that while the departed were upon earth we enjoyed much with them. This is a truth which in any estimate of our loss we should not overlook. Do we mourn that the dead have been taken from us so soon? Are we not also thankful that they were ours so long? In our grief over unfulfilled expectation, do we cherish no gratitude for actual good? So much bliss has God mingled in our cup of existence that the might have withheld. He lent it to us thus far; why complain, rather, that he did not intrust us with it longer? O! these fond recollections, this concentrated happiness of past hours which we call up with tears, remind us that so much good we have actually experienced.

In close connection with this thought is the fact, that, by some delicate process of refinement, we remember of the dead only what was good. In the relation of memory we see them in their best manifestation, we live over the hours of our past intercourse. Though in extraordinary instances it may be true that |the evil which men do lives after them,| yet even in regard to the illustrious dead, their imperfections are overlooked, and more justice is done to their virtues than in their own time. Much more is this the case with those around whom our affections cling more closely. The communion of memory, far more than that of life, is unalloyed by sharp interruptions, or by any stain. That communion now, though saddened, is tender, and without reproach.

And even if we remember that while they lived our relations with them were all beautiful, shall we not believe that when they were taken away their earthly mission for us was fulfilled? Was not their departure as essential a work of the divine beneficence as their bestowal? Who knows but if they had overstayed the appointed hour, our relations with them might have changed? -- some new element of discontent and unhappiness been introduced, which would have entirely altered the character of our recollections? At least, to repeat what I have just suggested, what Christian doubts that their taking away -- this change from living communion to the communion of memory -- was for an end as wise and kind as were all the love and intercourse so long vouchsafed to us?

Vital, the, for the Christian, is this relation which we have with the dead by memory. We linger upon it, and find in it a strange and sweet attraction, and is not much of this because, though we may be unconscious of it, the current of faith subtilely intermingles with our grief, and gives its tone to our communion? We cannot consider the departed as lost to us forever. The suggestion of rupture holds a latent suggestion of reunion. The hues of memory are colored by the reflection of hope. Religion transforms the condition of the departed for us, and we consider them not as dead, but sleeping.

II. There is another relation which we have with the dead, -- the relation of spiritual existence. We live with them, not only by communion with the past, by images of memory, but by that fine, mysterious bond which links us to all souls, and in which we live with them now and forever. The faith that has converted death into a sleep has also transformed the whole idea of life. If the one is but a halt in the eternal march, -- a slumbrous rest preceeding a new morning, -- the other is but the flow of one continuous stream, mated awhile with the flesh, but far more intimately connected with all intelligences in the universe of God. What are the conditions of our communion with the living -- those with whom we come in material contact? The eye, the lip, the hand, are but symbols, interpretations; -- behind these it is only spirit that communes with spirit, even in the market or the street. But not to enter into so subtle a discussion, of what kind are some of the best communions which we have on earth? We take up some wise and virtuous book, and enter into the author's mind. Seas separate us from him, -- he knows us not; he never hears our names. But have we not a close relation to him? Is there not a strong bond of spiritual communion between us? Nay, may not the intercourse we thus have with him be better and truer than any which we could have from actual contact, -- from local acquaintance? Then, some icy barrier of etiquette might separate us, -- some coldness of temperament upon his part, -- some spleen or disease; we might be shocked by some temporary deformity; some little imperfection might betray itself. But here, in his book, which we read three thousand miles away from him, we receive his noblest thoughts, -- his best spiritual revelations; and we know him, and commune with him most intimately, not through local but through spiritual affinities.

And how pleasing is the though that not even death interrupts this relation. Years, as well as miles -- ages may separate us from the great and good man; but we hold with him still that living communion of the spirit. Our best life may flow to us from this communion. Some of our richest spiritual treasures have been deposited in this intercourse of thought. Some of our noblest hopes and resolutions have been animated by those whose lips have long since been sealed, -- whose very monuments have crumbled.

A dear friend goes away from us to a foreign land. We watch the receeding sail, and feel that that is a bond between us, until it fades away in the far blue horizon. Then it is a consolation to walk by the shore of that sea, and to realize that the same waters lave the other shore, where he dwells, -- to watch some star, and know that at such an hour his eye and thought are also directed to it. Thus the soul will not entertain the idea of absolute separation, but makes all those material objects agents for its affinities. But how much nearer does that absent one come to us, when we know that at such an hour we both are kneeling in prayer, and that our spirits meet, as it were, around the footstool of God!

Thus we see that even in life there are spiritual relations which bind us to our fellows, and that often these are dearer and stronger than those of local contact. Why should we suppose that death cuts off all such affinities? It does not cut them off. It only removes the loved from our converse and our sight; but if, when absent in some distant land of this earth, we are conscious of still holding relations to them, do we not retain the same though they have vanished into that mysterious and unseen land which lies beyond the grave? |She is not dead, but sleepeth.| Christianity has taught us to look away from the ghastly secrets of the sepulchre, and not consider that changing clay as the friend we mourn, but as only the cast-off and mouldering garment. It has kindled within us a lively appreciation of the continued existence of those who have gone from us; taught us to feel that the thoughts, the love, the real life of the departed, all, in fact, that communed with us here below, still lives and acts. And our relations to them are relations which we bear, not to abstractions of memory, to phantoms of by-gone joy, but to spiritual intelligences, whose current of being flows on uninterrupted, with whose current of being our own mingles. I know not how it is with others, but to me there is inexpressible consolation in this thought.

But I would suggest that, as spiritual beings, we bear even a closer relation to the departed. I said that Christianity has transformed the whole idea of life. It has shown that we are essentially spirits, and that our highest relations are spiritual. If so, it seems an arrogant assumption to deny that any intercourse may exist between ourselves and the spiritual world. Possessing as we do this mysterious nature, throbbing with the attraction of the eternal sphere, who shall say that it touches no spiritual confines, -- that it has communion only with the beings that we see? It is a dull atheism which repudiates all such intimations as superstitious or absurd. To speak more distinctly, I allude to the consoling thought which springs up almost intuitively, that the departed may, at times, see us, and be present with us, though we do not recognize them. For wise and good reasons, our senses may so constrain us that we cannot perceive these spiritual beings. But the same reasons do not exist to shut them from beholding and visiting us. The most essential idea of the immortal state is that it yields certain prerogatives which we cannot possess in our mortal condition. May it not be, therefore, that while it is our lot to be restricted to sensuous vision, and to behold only material forms, it is their privilege, having received the spiritual sight, to see both spiritual and material things?

Nor need we imagine that immortality implies distance from us, -- that change of state requires any great change of place. Looking through this earthly glass, we see but darkly; but when death shatters it we may behold close around us the friends we have loved, and find their spiritual peculiarity is not incompatible with such near residence. The homes of departed spirits may be all around us, -- these spirits themselves may be ever hovering near, unseen in our blindness of the senses. At all events, we deem it one of the grand distinctions of spirit that it is not confined to one region of space, but may pass, quick as its own intelligence, from sphere to sphere. And while I would rebuke rash speculation, I would also rebuke the cold materialism which unhesitatingly rejects an idea like this which I have now suggested.

I maintain, moreover, that such speculation is not all idle. It serves to quicken within us the thought of how near the dead may be to us, to purify that thought, and to breathe upon our fevered hearts a consoling hope. And when I combine its intrinsic reasonableness with the spirit and spiritualism of Christianity, and that intuitive suggestion which springs up in so many souls, I can urge but faint objection to those who entertain it, and would, if possible, share and diffuse the comfort which it gives. Nearer, than, than we imagine -- close as in mortal contact, and more intimately -- may be those whom we, with earthly vision behold no more; visiting us in hours of loneliness, and affording unseen companionship; watching us in the stillness of slumber, and reflecting themselves in our dreams.

But, whether we indulge this notion or not, let us realize the relation which we have with the departed by the ties of mutual spirituality. Let us not coldly restrict or weaken this relation. If the material world is full of inexplicable things, -- if we cannot explain the secret affinities of the star and the flower, -- let us feel how full of mystery and how full of promise is this spiritual universe of which we are parts, and whose conditions we so little know. Let us cherish that transcendent faith, that quick, spiritual sympathy, which says of the departed, |They are not dead, but sleeping.|

III. Finally, we have with the dead the relation of discipline. Though we should see them only in the abstractions of memory, -- though it should be true that they have no spiritual intercourse with us, -- yet their agency in our behalf has not ceased. They still accomplish a work for us. That work is in the moral efficacy of bereavement and sorrow. In their going away they lead our thoughts out beyond the limits of the world. They quicken us to an interest in the spiritual land, as one who looks upon a map, and listlessly reads the name of some foreign shore, so, often, do we open this blessed revelation not heeding its recital of the immortal state. But as, when some friend goes to that distant coast, that spot on the map becomes, of all places, most vivid and prominent, so when our loved ones die, the spiritual country largely occupies our thoughts and attracts our affections. They depart that we may be weaned from earth. They ascend that we may |look steadfastly towards heaven.| If this is not our everlasting home, why should they all remain here to cheat us with that thought? If we must seek a better country, should there not be premonitions for us, breaking up, and farewells, and the hurried departure of friends who are ready before us? I need not dwell on this suggestion. We are too much of the earth, earthy, and bound up in sensual interests. It is often needful that some shock of disappointment should shake our idea of terrestrial stability -- should awake us to a sense of our spiritual relations -- should strike open some chasm in this dead, material wall, and let in the light of the unlimited and immortal state to which we go. We need the discipline of bereavement in temporal things, to win us to things eternal. And so, in their departure, the loved accomplish for us a blessed and spiritual result, and instead of being wholly lost to us, become bound to us by a new and vital relation.

But these loved ones depart, no merely to bind our affections to another state, but to fit us better for the obligations of this. Perhaps, in the indulgence of full communion, in the liquid ease of prosperity, we have scantily discharged our social duties. We have not appreciated love, because we have never felt its absence. We have shocked the tenderest ties, because we were ignorant of their tenderness. We have withheld good offices, because we knew not how rare is the opportunity to fulfil them. But when one whom we love passes away, then, realizing a great loss, we learn how vital was that relation, how inestimable the privilege which is withdrawn forever. How quick then is our regret for every harsh word which we have spoken to the departed, or for any momentary alienation which we have indulged! This, however, should not reduce us to a morbid sensitiveness, or an unavailing sorrow, seeing that it is blended with so many pleasant memories; but it should teach us our duty to the living. It should make our affections more diligent and dutiful. It should check our hasty words, and assuage our passions. It should cause us, day and night, to meet in kindness and part in peace. Our social ties are golden links of uncertain tenure, and, one by one, they drop away. Let us cherish a more constant love for those who make up our family circle, for |not long may we stay.| The allotments of duty, perhaps, will soon distribute us into different spheres of action; our lines, which now fall together in a pleasant place, will be wide apart as the zones, or death will cast his shadow upon these familiar faces, and interrupt our long communion. Let us, indeed, preserve this temper with all men -- those who meet us in the street, in the mart, in the most casual or selfish concerns of life. We cannot remain together a great while, at the longest. Let us meet, then, with kindness, that when we part no pang may remain. Let not a single day bear witness to the neglect or violation of any duty which shall lie hard in the heart when it is excited to tender and solemn recollections. Let only good-will beam from faces that so soon shall be changed. Let no root of bitterness spring up in one man's bosom against another, when, ere long, nature will plant flowers upon their common grave. |Let not the sun go down upon our wrath,| when his morning beams may search our accustomed places for one or both of us, in vain.

Thus, if the dead teach us to regard more dutifully the living, they will accomplish for us a most beautiful discipline. Their departure may also serve another end. It may teach us the great lessons of patience and resignation. We have been surrounded by many blessings, and yet perhaps, have indulged in fretfulness. A slight loss has irritated us. We have chafed at ordinary disappointments, at little interruptions in the current of our prosperity. We have been in the habit of murmuring. And now this great grief has overtaken us, that we may see at what little things we have complained, -- that we may learn that there is a meaning in trouble which should make us calm, -- that we had no right to these gifts, the privation of which has offended us, but that all have flowed from that mercy which we have slightly acknowledged, and peevishly accused. This great sorrow has stricken us, piercing through bone and marrow, in order to reach our hearts, and touch the springs of spiritual life within us, that henceforth, we may look upon all sorrow in a new light. Little troubles have only disturbed the surface of our nature, making it uneasy, and tossing it into fretful eddies; this heavy calamity, like a mighty wind, has plunged into the very depths, and turned up the foundations, leaving us, at length, purified and serene. I believe we shall find it to be the general testimony that those who have the least trouble are the loudest complainers; while, often, the souls that have been fairly swept and winnowed by sorrow are the most patient and Christ-like. The pressure of their woe has broken down all ordinary reliances, and driven them directly to God, where they rest in sweet submission and in calm assurance. Such is the discipline which may be wrought out for us by the departure of those we love. Such, and other spiritual results, their vanishing may secure for us, which we never could have gained by their presence; and so it may be said by some departing friend, -- some one most dear to our hearts, -- in a reverent sense, as the Master said to his disciples, |It is expedient for you that I go away; for if I go not away the Comforter will not come unto you.|

As I have already touched upon the region of speculation, I hardly dare drop a hint which belongs here, though it grows out of a remark made under the last head. But I will say that it is not unreasonable to suppose that the departed may perform a more close and personal agency than this which I have just dwelt upon. Often, it may be, they are permitted messengers for our welfare; guardians, whose invisible wings shield us; teachers, whose unfelt instructions mysteriously sway us. The child may thus discharge an office of more than filial love for the bereaved parents. The mother may watch and minister to her child. The father, by unseen influences, win to virtue the heart of his poor prodigal. But whether this be so or not, certain are we that the departed do discharge such an agency, if not by spiritual contact with us, or direct labor in our behalf, by the chastening influence that their memory sheds upon us, by uplifting our thoughts, by spiritualizing our affections, by drawing our souls to communion with things celestial and with God.

Let us see to it, then, that we improve this discipline; that we quench not the holy aspiration which springs up in our sorrow; that we neglect not the opportunity when our hearts are softened; that we continue the prayer which first escaped our lips as a sigh and a call of distress; that the baptism of tears lets us into the new life of reconciliation, and love, and holiness. Otherwise, the discipline is of no avail, and, it may be, we harden under it.

And, finally, let me say, that the faith by which we regard our relations to the departed in the light that has been exhibited in this discourse, is a faith that must be assimilated with our entire spiritual nature. It must be illustrated in our daily conduct, and sanctify every thought and motive of our hearts. We should not seek religion merely for its consolations, and take it up as an occasional remedy. In this way religion is injured. It is associated only with sorrow, and clothed, to the eyes of men, in perpetual sadness. It is sought as the last resort, the heart's extreme unction, when it has tried the world's nostrums in vain. It is dissociated from things healthy and active, -- from all ordinary experiences, -- from the great whole of life. It is consigned to the darkened chamber of mourning, and the weary and disappointed spirit. Besides, to seek religion only in sorrow, -- to fly to it as the last refuge, -- argues an extreme selfishness. We have served the world and our own wills, we have lived the life of the senses, and obeyed the dictates of our passions so long as they could satisfy us, and now we turn to God because we find that he only can avail us! We seek religion for the good it can do us, not for the service we can render God. We lay hold of it selfishly, as something instituted merely for our help, and lavish our demands upon it for consolation, turning away sullen and skeptical, it may be, if these demands are not immediately answered. Many come to religion for consolation who never apply to it for instruction, for sanctification, for obedience. Let us learn that we can claim its privileges only by performing its duties. We can see with the eye of its clear, consoling faith, only when it has spiritualized our entire being, and been developed in our daily conduct. Affliction may open religious ideas in the soul, but only by the soul's discipline will those ideas expand until they become our most intimate life, and we habitually enjoy celestial companionship, and that supersensual vision of faith by which we learn our relations to the departed.

That faith let us receive and cherish. If we live it we shall believe it. No sophistry can steal it from us, no calamity make us surrender it. But the keener the trial the closer will be our confidence. Standing by the open sepulchre in which we see our friends, |not dead, but sleeping,| we shall say to insidious skepticism and gloomy doubt, in the earnest words of the poet,

|O! steal not thou my faith away,
Nor tempt to doubt a lowly mind.
Make all that earth can yield thy prey,
But leave this heavenly gift behind.
Our hope is but the seaboy's dream,
When loud winds rise in wrath and gloom;
Our life, a faint and fitful beam,
That lights us to the cold, dark tomb;

Yet, since, as one from heaven has said,
There lies beyond that dreary bourn
A region where the faithful dead
Eternally forget to mourn,
Welcome the scoff, the sword, the chain,
The burning waste, the black abyss: --
I shrink not from the path of pain,
Which leads me to that world of bliss.

Then hush, thou troubled heart! be still; --
Renounce thy vain philosophy; --
Seek thou to work thy Maker's will,
And light from heaven shall break on thee.
'Twill glad thee in the weary strife,
Where strong men sink with falling breath; --
'Twill cheer thee in the noon of life,
And bless thee in the night of death.|

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