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The Crown Of Thorns by E. H. Chapin

THE VOICES OF THE DEAD

|And by it he being dead yet speaketh.| Hebrews xi.4.

Much of the communion of this earth is not by speech or actual contact, and the holiest influences fall upon us in silence. A monument or symbol shall convey a meaning which cannot be expressed; and a token of some departed one is more eloquent than words. The mere presence of a good and holy personage will move us to reverence and admiration, though he may say and do but little. So is there an impersonal presence of such an one; and, though far away, he converses with us, teaches and incites us. The organs of speech are only one method of the soul's expression; and the best information which it receives comes without voice or sound. We hear no vocal utterance from God, yet he speaks to us through all the forms of nature. In the blue, ever-arching heaven he tells us of his comprehensive care and tender pity, and |the unwearied sun| proclaims his constant and universal benevolence. The air that wraps us close breathes of his intimate and all-pervading spirit; and the illimitable space, and the stars that sparkle abroad without number, show forth his majesty and suggest infinitude. The gush of silent prayer -- the sublimest mood of the spirit -- is when we are so near to him that words cannot come between; and the power of his presence is felt the most, felt in the profoundest deep of our nature, when the curtains of his pavilion hang motionless around us. And it is so, I repeat, with all our best communions. The holiest lessons are not in the word, but the life. The virtues that attract us most are silent. The most beautiful charities go noiseless on their mission. The two mites reveal the spiritual wealth beneath the poor widow's weeds; the alabaster box of ointment is fragrant with Mary's gratitude; the look of Christ rebukes Peter into penitence; and by his faith Abel, being dead, yet speaketh.

Yes, even the dead, long gone from us, returning no more, their places left vacant, their lineaments dimly remembered, their bodies mouldering back to dust, even these have communion with us; and to speak of |the voices of the dead| is no mere fancy. And it is to that subject that I would call your attention, in the remainder of a brief discourse.

|He being dead yet speaketh.| The departed have voices for us. In order to illustrate this, I remark, in the first place, that the dead speak to us, and commune with us, through the works which they have left behind them. As the islands of the sea are the built-up casements of myriads of departed lives, -- as the earth itself is a great catacomb, -- so we who live and move upon its surface inherit the productions and enjoy the fruits of the dead. They have bequeathed to us by far the larger portion of all that influences our thoughts, or mingles with the circumstances of our daily life. We walk through the streets they laid out. We inhabit the houses they built. We practise the customs they established. We gather wisdom from books they wrote. We pluck the ripe clusters of their experience. We boast in their achievements. And by these they speak to us. Every device and influence they have left behind tells their story, and is a voice of the dead. We feel this more impressively when we enter the customary place of one recently departed, and look around upon his work. The half-finished labor, the utensils hastily thrown aside, the material that exercised his care and received his last touch, all express him, and seem alive with his presence. By them, though dead, he speaketh to us, with a freshness and tone like his words of yesterday. How touching are those sketched forms, those unfilled outlines in that picture which employed so fully the time and genius of the great artist -- Belshazzar's feast! In the incomplete process, the transition-state of an idea from its conception to its realization, we are brought closer to the mind of the artist; we detect its springs and hidden workings, and therefore feel its reality more than in the finished effort. And this is one reason why we are impressed at beholding the work just left than in gazing upon one that has been for a long time abandoned. Having had actual communion with the contriving mind, we recognize its presence more readily in its production; or else the recency of the departure heightens the expressiveness with which everything speaks of the departed. The dead child's cast-off garment, the toy just tossed aside, startles us as though with his renewed presence. A year hence, they will suggest him to us, but with a different effect.

But though not with such an impressive tone, yet just as much, in fact, do the productions of those long gone speak to us. Their minds are expressed there, and a living voice can do little more. Nay, we are admitted to a more intimate knowledge of them than was possessed by their contemporaries. The work they leave behind them is the sum-total of their lives -- expresses their ruling passion -- reveals, perhaps, their real sentiment. To the eyes of those placed on the stage with them, they walked as in a show, and each life was a narrative gradually unfolding itself. We discover the moral. We see the results of that completed history. We judge the quality and value of that life by the residuum. As |a prophet has no honor in his own country,| so one may be misconceived in his own time, both to his undue disparagement, and his undue exaltation; therefore can another age better write his biography than his own. His work, his permanent result, speaks for him better -- at least truer -- than he spoke for himself. The rich man's wealth, -- the sumptuous property, the golden pile that he has left behind him; -- by it, being dead, does he not yet speak to us? Have we not, in that gorgeous result of toiling days and anxious nights, -- of brain-sweat and soul-rack, -- the man himself, the cardinal purpose, the very life of his soul? which we might have surmised while he lived and wrought, but which, now that it remains the whole sum and substance of his mortal being, speaks far more emphatically than could any other voice he might have used. The expressive lineaments of the marble, the pictured canvas, the immortal poem; -- by it, Genius, being dead, yet speaketh. To us, and not to its own time, are unhoarded the wealth of its thought and the glory of its inspiration. When it is gone, -- when its lips are silent, and its heart still, -- then is revealed the cherished secret over which it toiled, which was elaborated from the living alembic of the soul, through painful days and weary nights, -- the sentiment which could not find expression to contemporaries, -- the gift, the greatness, the lyric power, which was disguised and unknown so long. Who, that has communed with the work of such a spirit, has not felt in every line that thrilled his soul, in every wondrous lineament that stamped itself upon his memory forever, that the dead can speak, yes, that they have voices which speak most truly, most emphatically when they are dead? So does Industry speak, in its noble monuments, its precious fruits! So does Maternal Affection speak, in a chord that vibrates in the hardest heart, in the pure and better sentiment of after-years. So does Patriotism speak, in the soil liberated and enriched by its sufferings. So does the martyr speak, in the truth which triumphs by his sacrifice. So does the great man speak, in his life and deeds, glowing on the storied page, so does the good man speak, in the character and influence which he leaves behind him. The voices of the dead come to us from their works, from their results and these are all around us.

But I remark, in the second place, that the dead speak to us in memory and association. If their voices may be constantly heard in their works, we do not always heed them; neither have we that care and attachment for the great congregation of the departed which will at any time call them up vividly before us. But in that congregation there are those whom we have known intimately and fondly, whom we cherished with our best love, who lay close to our bosoms. And these speak to us in a more private and peculiar manner, -- in mementos that flash upon us the whole person of the departed, every physical and spiritual lineament -- in consecrated hours of recollection that upon up all the train of the past, and re-twine its broken ties around our hearts, and make its endearments present still. Then, then, though dead, they speak to us. It needs not the vocal utterance, nor the living presence, but the mood that transforms the scene and the hour supplies these. That face that has slept so long in the grave, now bending upon us, pale and silent, but affectionate still, -- that more vivid recollection of every feature, tone, and movement, that brings before us the departed just as we knew them in the full flush of life and health, -- that soft and consecrating spell which falls upon us, drawing in all our thoughts from the present, arresting, as it were, the current of our being, and turning it back and holding it still as the flood of actual life rushes by us, -- while in that trance of soul the beings of the past are shadowed -- old friends, old days, old scenes recur, familiar looks beam close upon us, familiar words reecho in our ears, and we are closed up and absorbed with the by-gone, until tears dissolve the film from our eyes, and some shock of the actual wakes us from our reverie; -- all these, I say make the dead to commune with us as really as though in bodily form they should come out from the chambers of their mysterious silence, and speak to us. And if life consists in experiences, and not mere physical relations, -- and if love and communion belong to that experience, though they take place in meditation, or in dreams, or by actual contact, -- then, in that hour of remembrance, have we really lived with the departed, and the departed have come back and lived with us. Though dead, they have spoken to us. And though memory sometimes induces the spirit of heaviness, -- though it is often the agent of conscience, and wakens u to chastise, -- yet, it is wonderful how, from events that were deeply mingled with pain, it will extract an element of sweetness. A writer, in relating one of the experiences of her sick-room, has illustrated this. In an hour of suffering, when no one was near here, she went out from her bed and her room to another apartment, and looked out upon a glorious landscape of sunrise and spring-time. |I was suffering too much to enjoy this picture at the moment,| she says, |but how was it at the end of the year? The pains of all those hours were annihilated, -- as completely vanished as if they had never been; while the momentary peep behind the window-curtain made me possessor of this radiant picture for evermore.| |Whence came this wide difference,| she asks, |between the good and the evil? Because good is indissolubly connected with ideas, -- with the unseen realities which are indestructible.| And though the illustration which she thus gives may bear the impression of an individual personality, instead of a universal truth, still, in the instance to which I apply it, I believe it will very generally hold true, that memory leaves a pleasant rather than a painful impression. At least, there is so much that is pleasant mingled with it that we would not willingly lose the faculty of memory, -- the consciousness that we can thus call back the dead, and hear their voices, -- that we have the power of softening the rugged realities which only suggest our loss and disappointment, by transferring the scene and the hour to the past and the departed. And, as our conceptions become more and more spiritual, we shall find the real to be less dependent upon the outward and the visible, -- we shall learn how much life there is in a thought, -- how veritable are the communions of spirit; and the hour in which memory gives us the vision of the dead will be prized by us as an hour of actual experience and such opportunities will grow more precious to us. No, we would not willingly lose this power of memory. One would not say, |Let the dead never come back to me in a thought, or a dream; let them never glide before me in the still watch of meditation; let me see, let me hear them no more, even in fancy;| -- not one of us would say this; and, therefore, it is evident, that whatever painful circumstance memory or association may recall, -- even though it cause us to go out and weep bitterly, -- there is a sacred pleasure, a tender melancholy, that speaks to us in these voices of the dead, which we are willing to cherish and repeat. It makes our tears soft and sanctifying as they fall; it makes our hearts purer and better, -- makes them stronger for the conflict of life.

I remark, finally, that the dead speak to us in those religious suggestions -- those consolations, invitations, and hopes -- which the bereaved spirit indulges. Our meditations, concerning them naturally draw us more closely to these spiritual realities which lie beyond the grave, and beget in us those holier sentiments which we need. That such is the tendency of these recollections experience assures us. They open for us a new order of thought; they bring us in contact with the loftiest but most neglected truths. Even the hardest heart feels this influence. It is softened by the stroke of bereavement and, for the time being, a chastening influence falls upon it, and it always thinks of the dead with tenderness and awe. They speak to our affections with an irresistible influence; they soothe our turbulent passions with their mild and holy calmness; they rebuke us in their spiritual majesty for our sensuality and our sin. They have departed, but they are not silent. Though dead, they speak to us. Sweet and sanctifying is their communion with us. They utter words of warning, too, and speak to us by the silent eloquence of example. By this they bid us imitate all that was good in their lives, all that is dear to remember. By this, too, they tell us that we are passing swiftly from the earth, and hastening to join their number. A little while ago, and they were as we are; -- a little while hence, and we shall be as they. Our work, like theirs, will be left behind to speak for us. How important, then, that we consider what work we do! They assure us that nothing is perpetual here. They bid us not fasten our affections upon earth. In long procession they pass us by, with solemn voices telling of their love and hatred, their interests and cares, their work and device; -- all abandoned now and passed away, as little worth as the dust that blows across their graves. Upon all that was theirs, upon every memorial of them, broods a melancholy dimness and silence. They recede more and more from the associations of the living. New tides of life roll through the cities of their habitation, and upon the foot-worn pavements of their traffic other feet are busy. Their lovely labor, or their stately pomp, is forgotten. No one weeps or cares for them. Their solicitous monuments are unheeded. The companions of their youth have rejoined them. The young, who scarcely remembered them, are giving way to another generation. The places that knew them know them no longer. |This, this,| their solemn voices preach to us, |is the changeableness of earth, and the emptiness of its pursuits!| They urge us to seek the noblest end, the unfailing treasure. They bid us to find our hope and our rest, our only constant joy in Him, who alone, amid this mutability and decay, is permanent, -- in God!

Well, then, is it for us to listen to the voices of the dead. By so doing, we are better fitted for life, and for death. From that audience we go purified and strengthened into the varied discipline of our mortal state. We are willing to stay, knowing that the dead are so near us, and that our communion with them may be so intimate. We are willing to go, seeing that we shall not be widely separated from those we leave behind. We will toil in our lot while God pleases, and when he summons us we will calmly depart. When the silver cord becomes untwined, and the golden bond broken, -- when the wheel of action stands still in the exhausted cistern of our life, -- may we lie down in the light of that faith which makes so beautiful the face of the dying Christian, and has converted death's ghastly silence to a peaceful sleep; may we rise to a holier and more visible communion, in the land without a sin and without a tear; where the dead shall be closer to us than in this life; where not the partition of a shadow, or a doubt, shall come between.

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