Side Talks with Girls/Chapter 7
A GIRL'S RELIGIOUS LIFE
N every language it has been said that "a women without religion is like a flower without perfume," and that it is true is best proven by the fact that men who have no belief grieve bitterly if the women who belong to them are unbelievers. I am going to have a little talk with my girls about what religion means to them, and what I think it should mean. I say religion because I hope that every one of them respects the faith which is lived up to by the other, and that no one of them would dare question the right or the wrong of a belief that gave forth beautiful blossoms of purity, sweetness, and charity.
First of all, then, your religious life must be real. You probably wonder what I mean when I say this, and I am going to try, as well as I can in black and white, to tell you. Each one of you has, please God, been taught when you were a little girl to say your prayers, to read certain devotional books, and to do as nearly as possible that which is right. This you have accepted with the beautiful faith that comes only to a child. As you near womanhood, you begin to think about the meaning of things. You decide for yourself what is right, you make a public announcement of your belief and of your intention to live up to that belief. Almost invariably this is followed by an effort to live what you think is a spiritual life. You mark out for yourself certain pages that are to be read, you think out the prayers you wish to say, you are willing to work for the cause in which you believe, and nothing gives you so much joy as the absolute giving up of yourself, mind and body, to religion. This is what might be called the ecstasy of religion. You who are feeling it will think that I am cruel in saying that it is almost worse than no religion at all, because all such violent emotions have their opposites and are certain to turn sooner or later in that direction.
RELIGION WITHOUT RELIGION
Wrapped up in prayer you find your daily duties troublesome; uplifted by heavenly words you regard the ordinary speech of life as coarse; thinking of the lives of saints and martyrs you seem wicked, and there is an absolute pleasure in reminding yourself of that fact. Now, my dear girl, this is only an evidence of vanity. You are by no means the greatest sinner that ever lived, and you give yourself pleasure, and do not mortify yourself when you say so. If you face the situation you will realize that your sins are mean, nasty, petty little ones—that you do not commit great sins, that you are not tempted to, and that you are telling what is an absolute untruth when you call yourself the greatest sinner in the world. So put down vanity as one of your faults.
It seems most important to you that a certain number of prayers be said each morning; that is right, if the prayers are said at the right time as well as in the right spirit, but when you linger over your prayers, keep the breakfast-table waiting, or find it impossible to give a helping hand in the household because of your religious duties, your prayers are, in the sight of God, of no worth whatever. If you wish them to be as a lovely fragrance before the great white throne, get up half an hour earlier and in this way make faith and works combine. The tired mother, who sent a small child up to "sister" to be amused, only to be informed that "sister" was reading her good book and couldn't be bothered with him, is not to be blamed for sympathizing with Martha for being troubled about many things.
THE SPIRITUAL AND MATERIAL
Your religious life is absolutely worthless unless you can make the spiritual side show itself in your daily life. Dear old George Herbert long ago wrote, "Let thy mind's sweetness have its operation upon body, clothes, and habitation." Now, are you doing this? Or are you simply using your religion as a course of æsthetic pleasure for yourself? Are you living a negative life—that is, doing what you think correct, as far as the outward observance of your religion demands, and, as you put it, "doing no harm to anybody"? That last condition does not exist. When you don't do harm to people you do them good, and so you must be influencing them in some ways. To your brother, your sister, your father or mother, you are showing something of your religious life. Are you giving them the impression that religion is good to think of and talk about, but not to live by?—that it makes very little difference whether one has a belief or not when it comes to a question of every-day life? If this is so, do you realize that you are announcing that while it is interesting, it is neither worth living by, nor dying for? Harsh? No, I am not that. I am only trying to show you of how little use is religion unless you make it a working one. I do not mean by this that you shall separate yourself from your people to work solely for this, though there are thousands of orders where great and good work is done by women who are called by God to do this work, but I am talking to you who are in the world and of the world, and who, each in your own way, can make that world better.
A DAY OF YOUR LIFE
Just take a day of your life and work it out. You get up a little late, and if you stop to say the long prayers that you usually do you can't help the children to dress. What ought you to do? Kneel down for a minute and reverently ask God's help during the day, and thank Him for His care during the night. Then go to your work. Don't do it sullenly, don't do it as if it were a trouble, but do it cheerfully as a sister should. Later on different duties arise, and do not shirk one. I feel like saying many times that there is nothing so pleasing to God as work that is done cheerfully; it is a prayer, a very rosary of deeds. Try throughout the day to speak the kindly word, and be charitable even in your thoughts. If you have time to be alone for a little while, then the book you are fond of, or the prayer you wish to say can be attended to, but God who made you and placed you where you are, He, who can read the heart, thoroughly understands that to do what your hand findeth to do is worship.
THE DUTIES OF TRUE RELIGION
I would not seem for one minute to underrate the duties of religion, but I must say that I think young girls are too apt to remember the letter of the faith rather than the spirit. It is right that you should show the world what you believe, that there should be the outward visible sign in the attendance at church, in the respect shown to those occupying spiritual positions, and in the doing of charity, but, and this is too often the case, these good acts are counted first of all, and the duties that come into one's life, and which are just as important, are neglected. A girl of my acquaintance, who was very enthusiastic, said during Holy Week, last year, to her clergyman: "Oh, Mr. Brown, I am so weak, I can hardly walk to church, I have almost starved myself this Lent!" She expected approbation, she got none; instead the clergyman said to her: "You are not only a foolish, but a wicked girl. You are not strong and should not have fasted at all. As it is you will be ill, you will cause your mother, who is a very busy woman, much trouble and a great deal of worry, and in the sight of God you have committed a great sin. You have lacked consideration for others, and you have ill-treated the body which was made in His image. If you had kept yourself well and strong and been a help to your mother, your Easter day might have been a happy one, but as it is, it can only be filled with remorse. Pray for wisdom."
This explains better than I can what I mean when I tell you that you must make your material and your spiritual lives in perfect harmony. The soft answer that turneth away wrath does more to convince your brother of the value of your religion than all the prayers ever written, if you are ill-tempered. The forgiveness rendered some one who has hurt you is more convincing of the beauty of the golden rule, and of your living up to it, than all the societies that were ever formed for the benefit of the heathen. To make religion beautiful in your own home and among your own people is a great work. And if every girl did that there would be no heathen. I know it is hard to always do the right thing. I know it is hard when there are beautiful, high, and noble thoughts that we would like to enjoy alone to have to sweep a floor, or mend a gown, or bathe a baby, but the doing of any of these gently and cheerfully is better than thinking high thoughts—it is living them.
THE GIRL AT PRAYER
I do not know that I can tell any girl how to pray, for each of us unconsciously has her own way. All that I can do is to tell you mine. God Himself has never seemed far off from me, and there is nothing for which I would not ask Him. I think He knows my temptations, and He knows me physically and mentally. Therefore, when I say: "Dear God, take away this sorrow," or "give me this pleasure," I know He understands, and will do as seemeth best to Him. When the burden of the day becomes almost too great, the cry is only, "Lord, help me." And I tell you from my heart that I have never prayed and found my prayer unanswered, not always, perhaps, just in the way I expected it, but in time I saw the wisdom of it all. I believe in spoken prayer, but I believe also in the greatness of the prayer that is never uttered by the lips. I believe that with God every intense wish is a prayer, and so I warn you, as did the preachers long ago, to beware of that for which thou wishest with all thy heart. Many girls, not content, or not feeling sure of the words that would come from their own hearts, appreciating the majesty rather than the mercy of God, prefer a formula of prayer.
Of this I only have to say, do not get into the habit of repeating it thoughtlessly, but linger over the beauty of its words and realize what they mean every time they are uttered. The universal prayer, the one which asks "Our Father" for help, and wisdom, and charity, and sweetness, belongs to all of us, is simple enough for the youngest to understand, and magnificent enough in its words and intention to satisfy the most intellectual. That is all I can say about prayer, because when we pray and how we pray must be arranged by each, only we do not want our prayers to be mere words, nor do we wish to go on the housetops or the highways to make them.
VALUE OF SELF-EXAMINATION
There is probably no way to arrive at one's religious condition so valuable as by self-examination, and by this I mean the living over in your thoughts the hours of the day, and the seeing wherein you have made mistakes, and how in future they can be avoided. Sometimes this practice is carried to such a degree that hope is driven away from one, but this is only when one is not looking at the world justly, and is too prone to see the dark side of the cloud and not its silver lining. Probably the best way to examine one's conscience is to say to one's self the Ten Commandments, giving a thinking time after each, to see if one has committed the small sins that, while they are not mentioned by words, are yet really included in the Commandments. True, you may not have stolen anything, but have you been quite just? Certainly you have not killed anybody, but have you been cruel in act or word? You have not been unchaste, but have you looked at or listened to anything that you would not like to tell God about? Have you by a quick word, a sullen temper, or an ungracious manner shown lack of respect to your elders and superiors? Have you, even by innuendo, or by a silence that spoke louder than words, borne false witness against your neighbor? And have you with that question of "who is my neighbor?" neglected to do a kindness? Do you know that in a beautiful garden where the rose-trees grow there sometimes comes one poisonous plant that kills their beauty at once? But this seldom happens. Much oftener, when no attention is given to it, thousands of little weeds spring up and choke off the growth of the roses so that they wither and lose their loveliness little by little. Now, if you will only recognize the little sins and pull them up every day you will be in condition, if the great one comes, to hew it down with the sharp battleaxe of religious strength, so that it will not hurt you.
A LIVING FAITH
What I want to make you understand, my dear girls, is that yours is a faith to live by, as well as to die by. It is a faith that will send forth beautiful blossoms of love and consideration, will make sweet your daily walks, and it is only when you make it a living faith that it is worth while. I do not wish to seem to underrate repentance, even if it be at the last hour, but I want you to distinctly understand that the beautiful life dedicated to God, lived out in His honor, certainly does more for the world at large than the mere giving to Him of one's self at the very end. I wish I could tell you more plainly what I think comes from a living faith. It seems to me that it must make all the words spoken sweet, all the looks kindly, and all the actions unselfish, and yet with it all there must be so much of humanity in you that you never once suggest to the other girls that you are anything but the most agreeable girl they know, and the best one. I wouldn't have you a hypocrite for the world; I would not have you assume any virtue that you do not possess, but I am more than anxious that you should get so close to every virtue that it will become a part of you, and that your life will be a picture of perfect faith as shown by works.
WHEN HOPE SEEMS GONE
There comes to every one of us a time when life seems full of darkness, and all the asking for light remains unanswered. There comes a time when everything we do is darkened, when hope seems gone, and life itself is made up only of the dark and dreary times. These days always come with the greatest intensity to the girl who is most enthusiastic and most emotional. And these are the times when she needs to pray continually for help to hold on to her belief. Sometimes this condition comes from purely physical reasons, again from mental ones; sometimes one is so tired with working and seeing no apparent result, and, again, one grows weary of calling for help and apparently getting none. The wisest girl once in awhile grows weary in well-doing. Unbelief walks like a skeleton everywhere.
The true faith may be yours, it may be mine. The good Samaritan had it, for he took care of the poor and the sick and asked no questions. It is the faith that makes men and women live better lives, do more good in the world, and teaches them to let their own lives be the lanterns to guide the doubting over the troublesome path. Are you going to let the world scoff at your faith? Are you going to let it be only the spoken and not the active belief? Or are you going to let people see how happy and how good it is to have such a faith, by letting them see how happy, how good, how loving, and how charitable, your own life is? Unless you mean to do this, to try to do this, you will never convince anyone that you have the true faith. You will never convince anyone that yours is the true faith when you attack every other.
In the Talmud is the story of the many pilgrims who came to the gate of a great city; each was hungry and thirsty, each spoke in a different language and said one word. They looked angrily at each other, and it almost seemed as if they were coming to blows, when the keeper of the gate sent for an interpreter. He listened to each one, smiled, and said: "Give them grapes, each in his own tongue has asked for them." Peace was restored and they became friends. Now, each of us in our way is trying to get to the Kingdom of Heaven; each of us may take a different mode of expression, but as we know what the desire of each is, shall we scoff at the mode of speaking? My dear girls, respect the belief of every human being, no matter how different it may be from your own, for it is God, not you, who will judge of the right and the wrong.