War and the Christian Faith/Conformity

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It will seem a violent paradox; but I do believe that the chief aim of prayer is to raise us to the condition and state of the beasts; to raise us, not to reduce us, to their state. I think that the most profound utterance that I ever heard in a life that is beginning to be long was this: "You must remember that it is we, not the beasts, who were driven out of paradise. They were not driven out; they are still in paradise."

This is a saying that I have pondered for the last seven years, and I do not think that I have yet penetrated to its depths. It is a shock, at first, to think of what we call animals, or "the beasts," as occupying a higher place than ourselves. And yet we say, "I was as happy as a bird." We use the old phrase, in a sort of half-conscious way; and I suppose if some one pulled us up and asked: "Do you really mean that? Do you seriously imagine for an instant that a bird is in any intelligible, human sense happy?" we should at once begin to excuse ourselves and to explain, and to say that the old phrase was no doubt suggested by the apparent careless fleeting of the birds through the air, and we should end: "A metaphor, of course; a way of saying, 'I feel as irresponsible as a bird on the wing, as happy as if I had no duties to discharge, no anxieties to bother me, no office to go to.'"

Thus we make void the old wisdom, which is so curiously enshrined in popular and proverbial sayings, in scraps and tags of language: in tags so old and worn and accustomed that we have long ceased to consider them as having any meaning in particular, much less an exact and literal and often most astounding meaning. They have become phrases as devoid of significance as "Bless me!" in the West, and "Hail, Protector of the Poor: with you be peace!" in the East. They have become mere phrases, empty, formal conventions of speech. Yet I shall never forget how a friend of mine said to me eighteen years ago: "I was walking up Rosebery Avenue this morning towards Sadlers Wells, when I suddenly realised that the old phrase about 'walking on air' was not a metaphor, but literally true. The pavement was actually resilient; the treading on it was a physical delight, as the motion of a sailing boat is a delight to a good sailor. But," he added, "that's tellings."

These tags and old phrases and worn proverbs, then, may be much wiser and truer than they seem—there is, by the way, a whole secret philosophy in "Absence makes the heart grow fonder"—and so "Happy as a bird" may be a literal truth; a bird may really be happy. But, then, there is the other tag, "As busy as a bee." This is true also; but we hardly realise that the two sayings might be varied: "As busy as a bird," and "As happy as a bee." These are no less true, and true for the same reason. The bird on the wing seems almost as happy as an idle man about town, the bee gathering honey seems almost as good as a Coketown factory hand. But in reality, each is equally busy. And each is absolutely happy because it is living in perfect conformity to the order of its being. Each is leading a single, and not a double, life. A swallow, catching insects, does not long to be a bee, gathering honey. And the bee revelling in the clover does not want to eat flies. These creatures, then, the beasts, are perfectly happy because they are perfectly conformed to the rule and order of their being; in other words, they are still in paradise. They have not eaten of the fruit of that deadly tree that we have all tasted; and so, though they seem to die, they live with the joy of immortals. Dwelling wholly in the body, they suffer, indeed, the discomforts and pangs of the body; but not the anguish of anticipation and dread which gives their sting to human pains. What man cares, seriously, for the fiercest toothache? What man's spirit does not go faint and sick at certain slight painless tremors that assure him that his days in the world are numbered?

The beasts, then, are happy, because they are wholly immersed in their proper businesses; they are fish altogether in the water; they are fishmongers, let us say, who do not even conceive the possibility of making a living by writing sonnets or painting pictures, much less desire such adventures. The bee gathers honey all the day, and would be completely wretched only if you prevented him from gathering honey all the day.

Now, our misfortune is that we are fish half in and half out of the water. We are fishmongers with an uneasy feeling that we ought to be writing sonnets for a livelihood—or, we are sonneteers who could have made a really good thing out of Billingsgate. We are not sure of our real business. We are something in the City; but we do not know which city—of London, or of Syon. We are more or less miserable, because of this uncertainty as to our true business; as "the busy bee" would be miserable if it cast an anxious eye on the ox, and tried to swallow a mouthful of clover in admiring imitation; or as "the happy bird" would be miserable if it endeavoured to live on honey. We are thus distracted, and thus miserable, because we do not realise, because we cannot keep on realising, that we have only one real business: and that is God; God immanent and transcendent, in all and above all. Prayer is the effort to realise this; the effort to attain the state of perfect conformity to the eternal will, whatever it may be; to attain to the state of the bee and the bird, who, being in paradise, cannot so much as conceive the desire for an order and life which do not belong to them. Our true order, and true life, are the Divine Will; the ocean of our true being, in which we shall be fish in the water and not out of it, is the great deep of God.