Weak and oppressed nations are fundamentally spiritual; strong nations are, as a rule, chiefly materialistic. The one, cherishing religious ideals, soars to certain spiritual heights and now and then produces a seer to justify its languor and indolence; the other, seeking material things, bores into the earth for its treasures and keeps going down, down till its dynamic forces reach an impenetrable sterility and explode in a sudden, terrible reaction. The life of such a nation is symptomatic of a diseased state of the soul. The life of the other undermines, to say the least, its physical strength. The dwarfing tendency is equally potent in both. But a nation without a soul is more grotesque, more hideous than a nation of ascetics.
It is not my purpose to startle and provoke the reader with sweeping generalities, or to bamboozle him with dogmas old in garments new. The foregoing paragraph imposes, therefore, the necessity of a little digression. To say that we in America are primarily materialistic is to repeat a commonplace. To say that there is a religious revival in the country,—that we are beginning again to have spiritual needs, aspiring, longing, groping for the higher things of life, is to echo what is but a vague expression of our present state of unrest and discontent.
Before we admit or question the sincerity and the soundness of this spiritual revival, let us inquire first what is meant by the spiritual. Does it consist in turning, for guidance and solace, to the Orient, or to Christianity, or to spiritism, or to the Society for Psychical Research, or to theosophy and mystic lore? There is in all these movements of the present day a common desire, to be sure, to turn from materialism, if only for a spell—and for a change. But every definition of the spiritual that they embody differs substantially from the other.
The question is, Can our spiritual aspirations be realized only by turning to Christ or to Mother Church? Must they, to be sound, have a scientific basis? Are they, to be genuine, to come only from the Orient? Should they, to be vital and vitalizing, emanate from the hidden sources of mysticism and occultism? Or are they genuine and sound and vital and enduring only when they are articulate in the rapping table or behind the velvet curtains of the medium?
If I were to go out seeking enlightenment on the subject, I would find myself in a haberdashery of spiritual fads, or a maze of spiritual profundities, or a Vantine-shop of pseudo-Orientalisms. No, dear Reader, I am not going to suggest to you such a futile, though sometimes amusing, adventure. Let me assume, therefore, that, like myself, you have doffed the uniform of religion and shaken off the fetters of dogma; that you sometimes go into a museum to see your superstitions and your ancestors' exhibited in glass cabinets, or into a lecture hall to hear a professor dissert upon the protoplasm and the chemical basis of life;—that you even go to church now and then to rest and relax. Very well. What is there left us then?
If we are not wholly satisfied with materialism, if we do not find sufficient nourishment in the fruits of science, if the church has become a cave of winds and the creeds a desert of sterility, where, I ask you, shall we find the comfort and solace that that unmaterial something within us longs for and craves? In the mystic circles of the so-called Orientalists of our day, whose spiritualities have ever an eye to the newspaper column and another to the cash register? In the platitudes and inanities that are doled out from a pulpit which was once resplendent with the glory and power of the church? In the book of the psychoanalyst or in the records of the Society for Psychical Research, where our restlessness is patted on the back and our crying soul-hunger is silenced with a cheese sandwich from the cupboard of the dissecting room? Or cheated with a toy from the show-case of classified abnormalties? Gramercy, no.
What is the spiritual then? And wherefor do we seek it. I have made it clear, I think, that neither in the religious dogmatism of the past nor in the spiritual gropings and posturings of the present do the higher aspirations of a free-thinking, emancipated being find adequate expression. Once we used to pray: now we philosophize. Once we were good because we believed in a future reward or feared a future punishment; but now, that we neither believe in the one nor fear the other, we are seldom inclined to make the sacrifice that goodness often entails. And in our desire to achieve the good and true—far be it from me to deny the existence, even the sincrity of such a desire—we often choose the line of least resistance. We must be practical, and we must have our creature comforts. Moreover, we expect, we insist upon, our reward within a certain time in the material things of the world, even though it be a column of gossip in the daily press. No checks on heaven, please, no promisory notes—and no ethical evasions. We are a practical people—very busy—in a hurry. We have no time for ethics.
This is the gospel of trade, which we hold sacred. Barter is one of its cardinal tenets. We are no longer such fools as to throw our bread on the water or to squander our goodness on the wind. Visionaries, to be sure, we are not. Now, it is this attitude, this commercial consciousness, which we have faithfully upheld in precept and practice, that is creating in us a subconscious reaction. This is the source, I maintain, of all our restlessness, our dissatisfaction, our gropings and longings for that something which materialism does not give. The principle of barter leaves us in the end disconsolate, devoid of sympathy, and deploring the lack of sympathy in others.
We are, in a word, drifting away from the path of vision. We no longer find joy, as did the ancients, in pure thought. Pragmatism and utilitarianism are our gods. We would make religion sweep our streets, deodorize our slums. We lament the waste of water in a cataract, the loss of energy in an electric storm. We deplore the futility of an abstract idea, an intellectual image. We would leave nothing for the soul and mind. Even such ideals as are purely spiritual we would materialize to serve a passing and questionable need.
The Sufi, for instance, has evolved a theory of colors with which to guide his path of vision. It makes very pleasant reading in the book of mysticism. To him colors denote different states of soul, and point the way to different goals—to a union, partial or complete, with humanity or divinity, or a progressive union from one to the other, and so forth. How futile to us these arbitrary denotations. But the Sufi, who sees colors with closed eyes, can distinguish all the variations of a chromatic circle as it develops from a point in vermillion. And he finds ineffable joy in beholding the development and verifying, as it were, his progress in the path of union and vision.
"The soul gives sight to the eyes," says a Sanskrit aphorism, "and he who gives sight to the soul is Siva." The Sufi accepts this, changing Allah for Siva. With him, colors are as real to the soul as they are to the naked eye. But the scientist and the esthete of to-day, who have also developed a theory of colors, consider only the material, the physical side of the matter. They can see colors only with the naked eye. They have, therefore, divided them into three classes: namely, the palliative, the stimulative, the excitative. And one lady I know, a very charming personality and very erudite, who commercializes the scientific theory of colors, and looses her vision of the beautiful in the process. Personally, I prefer to hear a discourse on the subject than to see the material exteriorizations of it. Indeed, there are things that are purely for the soul and mind. And whatever beauty and charm they may have, is lost entirely in the materialization.
"A body," says Umapati in a chapter on the Soul's Enlightenment, "lives by union with the soul; so the embodied soul lives by union with pure Thought."
This is the highest, noblest form of spirituality;—the divine essence, which can be attained only by those who follow devotedly the path of vision,—those who seek the light that bridges the darkness between eye and soul, and without which there can be no vision. But there is what might be called a workaday spirituality, which is within the reach of all. And we need not be afraid to yield in this to the practical spirit of the times to discover the light within us. For the path of vision, which isolates for a time the individual, brings him in the end, if his patience and devotion do not give way, to complete union, like the Sufi, with humanity and God.
And it will then dawn upon him that to give without expecting a return of any kind, immediate or distant, is as natural as to accept the gifts of the sun and the air and the mountain streams. Indeed, we can be religious without being conscious of it;—we can be religious without religiosity. To invest our heart-capital in the inherent goodness of humanity, to save a drowning swimmer, as Thoreau says, and go our way;—this is the practical workaday spirituality which either points to us the path of vision or unfolds before us, according to our degree of enlightenment, one or more of its hidden secrets. Which is a reward greater and more enduring than anything the world can give. It is the harmony we achieve within us; the satisfaction we feel in a healthy, strength-giving reaction; the knowledge and power that every noble, unselfish deed affords; the only reward, after all, in our triumphs and our only consolation in defeat.
Nay, there is no such thing as defeat for those who achieve harmony within. There is no such thing as disappointment for those who continue to cherish the selflessness of which is born the noblest inner self. There is no such thing as failure for those who invest in the potentialities of the Ideal of the Soul. And no matter how humble and obscure, how poor or how rich in the material things of the earth, the spiritually-bound and spiritually-directed of men, though they may not be counted among the great of history, are the true heroes of the race, the agents of the World-Spirit.