THE CHIVALROUS RELIGION OUR CITIZEN SOLDIERS WILL REQUIRE
SURELY with our non-drinking, non-smoking, non-swearing, non-gambling, and our attendance at the Church, we are but on the outskirts both of morals and religion! It is not what a man doesn't do that marks him off as a Christian. It is what he does and is. The Christian characteristics stand out plainly in the Gospels. Love is the virtue of virtues. 'God is love.' 'Love is the fulfilling of the law.' 'Thou shalt love' is Christ's summary of Christianity. St. Paul also places love on the pinnacle: 'Faith, hope, charity, these three, but the greatest of these is Charity.' Charity is the mother and nurse of goodness. The first test, therefore, of a Christian is, 'Has he charity? Does he love?' It is also the first test of the Church. 'Does the Church love? Has it charity?' The soldier knows that Christianity is love. In the Citadel Cemetery on the Somme I saw this inscription on a white cross:
No. 4878, Pte. S. WILLIAMS,
2nd R. War. R.
Killed in Action,
'Greater love hath no man.'
He died to save another.
Does the Church love? Does it die to save others, as did its Master? I have lived five long years in the East End of London, and have walked by night and day through its miles of stinking streets, where the poor are housed worse than the rich man's horses. The pale, thin faces of the children haunt me as the horrible sights on the Somme will never haunt me, for a ragged, starving child is more terrible to think of than a youth blown to fragments or lying on a stretcher in mortal agony. The tragedy is deeper and more enduring. I have a stray dog here; to-night I offered her buttered toast, and she declined it. But where in the East End is the child that would turn away from buttered toast? When, at Christmas, we gave them bread, spread with jam, and cheap cake, they stuffed themselves like ravenous wolves, and then, by stealth, hid what they could under their clothing. Think of their poor bodies and poorer souls, and of the dark way before them! In face of this massacre of innocents, infinitely greater than Herod's, what does the Church do? She washes her hands, like Pilate before the murder of Christ. 'The poverty of the poor,' we say complacently, 'is due to their drinking habits and thriftlessness.' The libel stifles the clamour of our consciences, and so we hug it to our hearts. Many of the poorest never touch drink, and many of the thriftiest are starving. Thrift? Thrift is a fine art taught by mother to daughter from generation to generation. How can a woman practise it in one or two rooms without an oven, boiler, or cupboard? If we had cared two pins for the poor we should have gone to see them, and if we had seen them in their rooms we should have been incapable of talking such drivel. Drink? Many who drink were predisposed to it by ill-feeding and misery. As one of the poor women said, 'To get drunk is the only way to get out of Whitechapel.' Drink is the only morphia for their pain, a wild attempt to forget their misery. But if, as we pretend, drink has made Whitechapel, Stepney, Shoreditch, Poplar, and Bow Common, what have we done to the drink? The Church was horrified at the sinking of the Lusitania and denounced the perpetrators, but it is not horrified at the sight of thousands of men, women, and children drowning in a darker and deeper sea.
Does the Church love? When a mother loves, though she be a queen, she becomes interested in soap and water, sheets and blankets, boots and clothing, and many other mundane things. And when the Church loves she will have something to say about rents and wages, houses and workshops, food and clothing, gardens, drains, medicine, and many other things. Where is the Church's mother-love? Where is her fierce mother-wrath as she sees the children trampled in the mire? It is easy to go to church, and to abstain from drinking, swearing, and gambling, but it is not easy to love. Love brings labour, and sorrow and self-sacrifice. Love sometimes says, 'Sell all that thou hast, and distribute unto the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.' This is not like going to a home missionary meeting and giving the price of a meal to the collection. It is leaving beautiful houses, and pictures, and gardens, and music, and going into mean streets and dirty dwellings. It is leaving congenial friends and joyous fellowships for service among the unfortunate, unattractive, and, perhaps, depraved. It is giving where you cannot hope to receive in return. There is the sweat of heart and of brain, the carrying of sicknesses and sorrows. To your own cares and troubles there is added the unspeakable trouble of the multitude.
'How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God?' It is much harder than being a teetotaller, or going to services, or paying other people to live and work among the poor. To those who treasure the beauty of the fields, the sky, the drawing-room, and places where music and charm linger, it is not easy to follow Christ into mean streets to minister to the aged, sick, blind, or starving. It is not easy to turn on the oppressors of the poor, and in hot, pure anger scourge them as Christ scourged the money-changers in the temple. If Christians but loved, vast stretches of poverty would cease to exist, and the reproach which we have brought on Christianity would be lifted. But we 'pass by on the other side,' and leave the wounded and robbed to be cared for and defended by others who name not the Name.
Humility is the sister of Charity, and they are never far one from the other. The Church's lack of love has made the East End possible, and her lack of humility the West End. Christ opened His Sermon on the Mount with humility. It was placed as the gate to the kingdom of God. Humility does not mean timidity or lack of spirit. History reveals no courage so fearless as the courage of the humble. It does not mean 'ordering ourselves lowly and reverently to all our betters.' It does not need Christianity to teach us that. A contemptible thing like snobbery can do it, and do it much better than Christianity. The labourer bows before the farmer, the farmer before the squire, the squire before the baron, the baron before the duke, the duke before the king; and yet every one of them may be as proud as Lucifer, and as far from humility as darkness from light. When popes had temporal power, even kings kissed their toes, but it had nothing to do with humility.
Humility is ordering ourselves lowly and reverently before our inferiors. When Christ, the King of heaven, chose fishermen to be His companions, He was humble; and when He washed their feet He gave us the supreme example of humility. It was largely because of His humility that the proud Pharisees hated Him. 'Here,' they said, 'is a rabbi as much the darling of the mob as a mountebank. He has "no respect for the cloth," and is "lowering religion" in the popular estimation. He feeds the multitude like a baker, and brings fishes into Peter's net like a catchpenny. He opens men's eyes with clay like a quack-doctor. He associates freely with drunkards and harlots. He is a "wine-bibber," for "birds of a feather flock together." He has not the dignity proper to a rabbi. He went into a respectable man's house, like Simon's, and had no more respect for Himself, or His host, than to let "a woman in the city, which was a sinner, wash His feet with tears and wipe them with the hairs of her head."' When Christ came to wash His disciples' feet, even Peter rebuked Him. Peter thought his Master had not a proper opinion of Himself.
Humility is compact of spiritual insight, wonder, and compassion. It cannot look on even fallen human nature without reverence. Man is God's temple, and however battered and dilapidated it may be, when we stand before it we are standing on holy ground. A snob is lowly only before his social 'betters,' but a true Christian is lowly before a beggar or a drunkard. I have been in many a shattered church on the Front, and they fill me with not less awe than the churches out of danger. So with a fallen soul. It is still God's temple, and the ruin that has come upon it ought to make us the more reverent. This soul has been in the firing-line. The soul is as I might have been. Some day God's hands may rebuild it, and make it more glorious than before its fall. Before the fallen souls of men Christ stood reverently, and, loving them, died for them. He would forgive men seventy-times seven, and turn none away. Even the woman taken in adultery He would not give over to the stoning. 'Go, and sin no more,' He said. Without a trace of condescension He mingled with the poorest and the most sinful. What is, perhaps, more, He mingled with the rich and the proud without a touch of self-consciousness. Rich or poor, all were the temples of God, and He regarded them with reverence and love.
Where is the Church's humility? We can not even leave our ostentation outside the church door and kneel as brothers at the throne of grace. When a stranger comes into our pew, do we feel honoured? Do we feel that our pew has been made the trysting-place for a soul and God?
But there are deeper tragedies that spring from our pride. An innocent, trusting girl, or it may be a wild, wilful girl, gets into trouble. The man deserts her, and she is overwhelmed with shame and sorrow. Her parents are supposed to be Christians, but do they act as Christ would act? She has been forsaken. Her hope of happiness, and honour, and home has perished like the flowers of spring. Her conscience is outraged, and she cannot still its voice. Her intelligence rebukes her for ignorance and folly. Her heart cries out against her for having brought sorrow and shame upon her loved ones. Her imagination turns against her with terrible visions of the Valley of Pain through which she must pass. She is weak, ill, and beside herself. She needs a father's forgiveness, counsel, and protection. She needs a mother's love, sympathy, and understanding. What often happens? Her Christian parents turn her out of doors, or 'go on at her' till home becomes unbearable, and she flees from it. Her condition, or lack of training, prevents her from getting work. Friends and neighbors cannot be expected to shelter one whom parents turn adrift. What becomes of her? It is not the parents' purity that dooms her to a life of sin and shame; it is the parents' pride. She has brought disgrace on an honoured name, and by turning her out of the home they will show the world how they abhor such conduct. Yet they call themselves followers of Christ, who refused to give a worse woman to be stoned---a milder fate. Christ saved these women. The Church cannot. Why? Because it is not like Him.
The West End and the East End are the measure of the Church's failure. They are standing proofs of a deficiency of chivalry in the Church; and a Church without chivalry will never appeal to the men who have, time without number, risked their lives for others on the Somme and elsewhere. There can be no religion of chivalry without humility and love as the dominant notes; and for these cardinal virtues we must go back to the Gospels, and study the teaching, life, and death of Christ. Meanwhile, the majority of men in our heroic citizen Army stand outside our sanctuaries. They are waiting for us to manifest the heroism and grandeur of the Christianity of Christ. This high demand is really the finest possible tribute to the formative and all-persuasive influence of the Church in the era that has now closed. We have, by making known the example and teaching of Christ, raised the standard of public opinion and expectation. We have spread abroad a new Christian idealism, and it is by this that we are being judged. Things that were passable in days gone by are intolerable now. Slums are now a reproach to Christianity; but in the old days they were regarded as the natural products of life, and as much to be expected as rain and frost. The poor existed for the development of charity in the rich. To a degree hitherto unknown the Church has succeeded in leavening politics, journalism, literature, and social organizations with the ideas of Christianity. The standards of life and thought outside the Church have therefore risen, and the Church can only keep its leadership by a closer following of Christ. The moral greatness of our citizen Army is at once a tribute and a challenge to the Church. The Christian conception of life and conduct has been generally accepted as the ideal, and we have to make it the real. Christian conduct must no longer be merely conventional. It must be creative. There is a call for spiritual daring and adventure. As St. Paul christianized Greece and Rome, so we must christianize industry and politics and abolish poverty and vice. To abstain from evil is not enough; we must adventure as Wesley, Dr. Barnardo, and Florence Nightingale adventured. We have made our doctrines known; now we must experiment, and show how they may be applied in communal life. The monastic ideal has prevailed too long, and we have been too content with conserving and fencing-in our religious life. We must leave our hermit cells and go abroad into every department of life to make it Christian. We need spiritual pioneers, investigators, and discoverers---men who will experiment in the application of Christianity to our complex social life. The Church must convert Christian thought into Christian action, and teach in deeds what it has already taught in doctrine. Our soldiers are not hostile to the Church. They are disappointed with it. They look for a leadership they do not receive, and turn away more in sorrow than in anger. After the War the Church will have a new and supreme opportunity---the finest history has provided. But it must prepare for it; and the only adequate preparation is a fresh study of the life and teaching of Christ. This must be free from both prejudice and cowardice. We must neither twist His words nor water down His teaching. We must obey His commands as a private obeys his captain, no matter where they may lead, or what sacrifices they may involve. The cultivation of such creative virtues as humility and charity, accompanied by absolute loyalty to the teachings of the Gospels, would give the Church the undisputed leadership of the world. Our soldiers go to mutilation and death at the word of a second-lieutenant. Shall we shrink from an equal loyalty to Christ? Without such obedience there can be no leadership for the Church, and she will fail to win the allegiance of our chivalrous soldiers. As England took its stand by the side of Belgium, so the Church must take its stand by the poor and weak and fallen. Every one knew where to look for Christ; and when the Church is found following in His steps and performing the same acts of chivalry, there will be a glorious rally to her flag. The Church must lure the brave and noble as the court of King Arthur lured the knights of old, and they must be encouraged to sally forth redressing wrongs, protecting virtue, and delivering the oppressed.
THE UNTOUCHED CROSS
I WAS visiting some of my men in a neighbouring village on the line. It is indeed a 'deserted village.' Long ago the civilians were driven out, and there is not a house that is not torn with shells. The fields around have run to waste, and, as they have no hedges, they look like a prairie. The road is almost deserted in the daytime, and the only living things to be seen are gunners dwelling in the ground like rabbits, and appearing in the open from time to time. Overhead was spread the vast impassive sky---a calm ocean of blue studded with innumerable islands of pure white cloud. There was no sound but the sound of the guns, and, looking up at the beautiful sky, it was hard to realize that one was cycling over the plain of death, and that it would be well to make haste. Nature seemed to be in one of her mocking moods ---a woman with an angel's face and a devil's heart, luring one to destruction amid scenes of innocence.
I was visiting men who the previous Saturday had, from the neighbouring village, flung themselves over the parapet, and through three curtains of fire had charged down upon the enemy. The survivors of that fiery blast were now in this shattered village, or in the adjoining trenches, now flooded to the waist by the previous day's thunderstorm. I arranged for a service on the coming Lord's Day, and afterwards visited the men in their billets and dugouts. Then, drawn from my path as one would be by the sight of a wounded man, I turned towards the ruined church. For three centuries it had stood the storms of nature and the ravages of war, but it had bowed its noble head before the fiery blast of this War. I dared not enter by the front door, for half the steeple had gone, and the other half stood like an old man trying to straighten himself, and ready to fall at any moment. The graveyard was waist-deep with weeds and grasses. The gravestones were shattered with shells. The outside walls of the church were pitted with shrapnel, and the windows were blown into fragments. I clambered over heaps of stones and through long grasses to the farther side, and entered through the doorless doorway. A ghastlier sight never met the eyes of Jeremiah. The roof had fallen through, and the white clouds looked down upon the debris. The floor could not be seen for fallen stones. The figures of saints had been blown to fragments. I picked up the crown of one, and laid it down again. There was a golden star on the brow, but the gold was dim. I picked up fragments of shell, and, walking round the walls, I picked shrapnel bullets out of the plaster. Nothing had escaped. Not a yard. The walls were pitted with shrapnel like a man with small-pox.
I had walked round three parts of the church, and was looking at the rubbish on the floor, when suddenly something caught my attention, and I looked up. The sight startled me, for somehow it had escaped me as I had glanced round the church on entering from the other side. There before me stood a large wooden cross fastened against the wall, and bearing, nailed upon it, a life-sized figure of the Saviour. It stood intact-the one thing in the church undamaged and untouched. The altar had gone, the saints had gone, the roof and the windows had gone, the chairs had gone---all had gone save Jesus only. The worshippers had fled, but He remained. The church was in ruins about Him, but He was untouched. It was an awesome sight amid that scene of desolation. Amid the fiery blast of bullets He had remained with arms outstretched interceding with God for a ruined world. And no bullet had touched Him. There was not a mark on his body. The priest, when he had seen the warning finger writing upon the wall, had taken away the church treasures, but, with sure religious instinct, he had left the crucifix, which he revered most of all. He would not touch that. Christ would be His own protector, and bear the full blast of the world's malignity in His own strength. He needed not the poor device of man. And amid the awful hail of shells and falling masonry nothing touched Him. A few minutes later I stood outside, looking at the steeple and speaking with a passing soldier. 'It is a. strange thing,' he said, 'that the crucifix inside should have remained untouched through it all.'
Strange indeed! The clock in the steeple was still and in ruins. No more would it use its hands in dumb show to speak to the people below. It was the symbol of time and all things earthly, and the shells had destroyed it. But the crucifix was the symbol of the Eternal, and of the Undying Love which no shell can touch. In all that deserted village the crucifix alone stands untouched. Even the iron finger-posts were smashed and lying in the mud beside the road. The villagers have nothing left but the cross. It alone has borne the blast. It alone will give them welcome when they return. Their homes are in ruins, and their fields are waste. Even their church and the graveyard of their dead are a heap of ruins. But there are two arms outstretched still to bid them welcome.
Like that blasted village and ruined church, the world of our thought and feeling lies a heap of ruins about our feet. When victory and peace come, who will have heart left to ring the bells or put out the flags? We have buried our heart's love in a strange land, and the city of our dreams is a heap. The very finger-posts are broken. What can we do when the excitement of the War is over but return to the ruins of our former life and weep over them? Our wasted fields we can plough afresh and sow. We do not mind being poor. But our homes! God help us when the boys for whom we have kept the home fires burning come not back, and when the father asks the children to spread out wider at the table that the gap break not the mother's heart. Our churches, too, how shall we find them? Will the War have shattered our Church life? Who can tell? Our businesses, our homes, our churches, all will have changed. The mark of the shell will be on them all. Where shall we turn then to the unchanged and unchangeable?
In the midst of our fallen civilization the Cross stands untouched. Christ has stood in the midst of the fiery blast with outstretched arms calling the stricken peoples to the shelter of His love. His arms are outstretched still, and there is room for the world between them. Broken business men, bereaved parents, lonely maidens, fatherless children, there are shelter and solace for all beneath the shadow of the abiding cross. It towers above the wrecks of time. If that had gone all had gone. We could not have replaced the cross. We can build new churches, new homes, and new businesses, but not a new cross. If the Saviour had perished, all had perished. If it had not been for the vision of Him I should have gone out of the advanced dressing-station and wept when, on that Saturday, I saw the wounded come back to us in such numbers that they had to lie down by the wayside and wait for us to deal with the worst cases first. I had seen them march out singing a few hours before, and to see them come in wounded so soon after would have broken me down had I not seen a vision of Christ broken on the cross and saving the world by His bleeding wounds and cruel death. Well I knew that the lads who had gone over the parapet to their death had seen through the hail of bullets and shells the vision of the crucified Christ welcoming them with outstretched arms. After the last Sacrament before the battle one of them said to me, 'If I fall, write and tell mother that I died trusting in Christ and at perfect peace.' The old world lies in ruins at our feet, but the cross stands untouched, and we shall build our new and better civilization round the cross.
THE BELLS OF MAUREPAS
It was the 'Tanks' day out. We had made their acquaintance some weeks before. In a quiet place well behind the line our division and the 'Tanks' had gone through a rehearsal together. We had, metaphorically speaking, been allowed to look up the conjurer's sleeve before the show began, and were pledged to secrecy. But the day had now come for Sir Douglas Haig to play his trick on the enemy, and he emptied his sleeve with a vengeance. We had watched the monsters assembling for some days, and one night, when lost, I had been guided as to my whereabouts by the clack, clack of a 'Tank,' and had been entertained to supper in the 'Tank' officers' tent. While the 'Tanks' were going over the parapet and unconcernedly shuffling across 'No Man's Land,' belching forth fire and smoke, I was searching for one of my regiments. It was not in the battle, but in a reserve trench with the rest of the division, awaiting eventualities.
Even guides go astray on the Somme, and there I soon found that I had a genius for getting lost. If there are two tracks (and there are twenty-two, or more) I almost inevitably take the wrong one. On this day I was thoroughly lost, and coming upon a sergeant who was sheltering his ammunition wagons behind a low hill, and allowing them to go to the guns but one at a time, I asked the way. He was a very intelligent man, and spoke with confidence. I had to continue the road into the valley, climb the hill on the other side, and a few hundred yards beyond the crest I should find the regiment. Of course, he was mistaken. They always are.
When lost on the Somme one should never ask the way. It is better to grope for it if you cannot find an officer with a map. Tell a Tommy where he has to go, and by some mystic method he inevitably arrives there, but he neither knows nor cares what lies a yard beyond or to the right or left of him. His work-a-day philosophy seems to be, 'One step I see before me. 'Tis all I need to see.' There is some thing uncanny in his superb indifference to all that lies outside his own well-defined duty. Yet, when you are lost, he, in the largeness of his heart, takes pity on 'You. He will not confess his absolute ignorance, for that would make you feel more lost than ever. He therefore guesses, and guesses wrong, as you afterwards find out. In the teeth of all former experience I trusted the sergeant's directions. On the other side of the valley I passed through the French batteries. The gunners joyfully informed me that the English were advancing, and bade me look through their glasses at the smoke-enveloped battle-line, and at the cavalry in the rear. The French were more excited and joyful than Englishmen would be even if they were beholding the German Army jumping into the Rhine in the wholesale manner of the Pied Piper of Hamelin's rats. At last I reached the hill-top, and found to my amazement that I was in Maurepas, the village next to Combles. I tried to make a French officer understand where I wanted to go, but he seemed to regard me as a trophy---perhaps a spy---and asked me to follow him to the commander of the division. There I found an English major acting as liaison-officer. He introduced me to the general, and explained that I was a curé. They were watching the battle, and the major explained to me the points already won. The smoke of battle obscured the view, but under its pall the English Prime Minister's eldest son was dying, and many another of Britain's best. The major showed me the neighbourhood of our trench, and I made my way back into the valley. There I left the road and cut across country, taking cover where I could. In this way I reached the regiment quickly.
At Maurepas I was amazed at the destruction that had been wrought. It was a heap. There was not a house or shed left standing. The tallest bit of wall left was not more than a yard high. Broken ploughs and reapers mingled with household utensils in indescribable confusion. On the left of the road, as I returned, was the site where the church had stood. I needed no informant, for there, like two huge pears, stood the church bells. They were about five feet in height, and of great weight. They were lying exactly as they had fallen when the steeple tumbled down. Of the church itself nothing remained, and but for the bells I should never have known anything of its existence. The sparing of the bells was another of the strange freaks of war. The church had gone, but its music lingered.
In peace time, the music of the bells had floated out over the rolling downs and through the sleeping valleys that lie around the village. As the people ploughed the land, gathered in the corn, or tended their stock, the sound of the bells came to them as a voice from heaven. Daily, like the peasants in Millet's picture, 'The Angelus,' they had, at the call of the bells, bowed their heads and said an evening prayer ere the passing of the sun brought on the night, with its train of stars. On the first day of each new week they had left their fields at the sound of the music, and, donning their best garb, had sought in the church the absolution of their sins, and a fresh start. Mothers looking on the picture of the Virgin and Child had felt a new sacredness in the duties of motherhood. Fathers had gazed upon the crucifix and become reconciled to a life of self-renouncing labour for their offspring. Children, with wondering eyes, had looked upon the picture of the angels surrounding the ascending Lord, and felt the power and glory of the world to come. All had listened to the simple words of the village priest, and been reminded that they were but pilgrims, and must not set their affections too deeply on farmstead or field, but on the things which are eternal and beyond the chances and changes of this mortal life. When Christmas had come the bells had rung merrily, calling to the farmers as aforetime the angels of Bethlehem had called to the shepherds, 'O come, let us adore Him, Christ the Lord.' Holy days had come and gone, but never without the bells calling the people from the toil of the fields to rest and rejoicings in home and church. When the children went to their first communion, or when the church's blessing was given to a bridal pair, how happily the bells rang! And how sadly when some old man finished his journey and went to his long home! Back home old people and young children often die without any notice being taken of their passing. They just slip away like the birds in autumn. But in the district around Maurepas neither man nor child could pass away unnoticed and unlamented. The bells tolled the news to all, and expressed the sorrow of all. Now the church in which the old and young had prayed, bridal parties rejoiced, and mourners wept, was no more. Only the bells remained. But as
Music, when soft voices die,
Vibrates in the memory,
so there abide the spiritual experiences to which the bells called.
Our army in France is cut off from its churches as completely as if they had been destroyed. Yet the music of the church lingers in our memories. 'We don't like parades in which we are marched to and from the services,' said 'a youth to me; 'we like to walk to the services of our own freewill just as we did. a 'home.' It is all 'home.' They want the same order of service, and the same hymns and tunes as at home. They want nothing new. It is the old things and the familiar portions of Scripture which content them. Life is too uncertain for new things. They just hold on to the old. 'How nice it will be,' wrote one in a letter I censored, 'to be back in my old place in the choir.' The music of the sanctuary vibrates in their memory, and they share the feelings of the Psalmist as he wrote, 'When I remember these things, I pour out my soul in me: for I had gone with the multitude, I went with them to the house of God, with the voice of joy and praise, with a multitude that kept holy day.' After Holy Communion in a barn a Presbyterian officer came to me and said, 'It is a great happiness to have received the Sacrament this morning, because I am to-day being received into the membership of our church at home, and my heart is there.' A little while back some fifty men came to a service in the corner of a field. At the close I asked all who wished to consecrate themselves to God to step forward and seal the covenant by partaking of the Sacrament. And all stepped forward. I have no doubt that every one of them was an old Sunday-school scholar. They responded to my appeal because the music of the old Sunday. school teachers' voices was still ringing in their hearts. Once I stood in Bishopsgate Street, London, watching the traffic, and listening to its roar. Soon, however, I found myself listening to another voice. It came from above, and was heard through the tumult of the street. it was the voice of the bells of Bishopsgate church, and they were singing to the busy and overladen passers-by Sullivan's sweet melody, 'Lead, Kindly Light.' So here amid the horror and tumult of war, the sweet voice of the church 'which we have loved long since and lost awhile,' comes to our hearts with healing power. One of our men told me that while out with a burial party he found in a shell-hole the body of a soldier who had died of wounds. In his hands was a Bible, and it lay open at the twenty-third Psalm. He had learned the Psalm at his mother's knee or in the Sunday school, and often he had heard it in church. Dying there alone in a shell-hole, with the battle raging round him, the old familiar Psalm came back to his memory like the sound of distant bells. It was one of
Those first affections,
Those shadowy recollections,
Which, be they what they may,
Are yet the fountain-light of all our day,
Are yet a master-light of all our seeing;
Uphold us, cherish, and have power to make
Our noisy years seem moments in the being
Of the eternal silence; truths that wake,
To perish never;
Which neither listlessness, nor mad endeavour,
Nor man, nor boy,
Nor all that is at enmity with joy,
Can utterly abolish or destroy.
The dying soldier was a boy again, and the battle was forgotten as he sank to rest in the arms of God. Out here we have to live on our memories, and draw upon the reserves we unconsciously laid by when children. Thus
The thought of our past years in us doth breed
I have seen an officer in mid-years almost break down in tears because I casually quoted the children's hymn:
Now the day is over,
Night is drawing nigh,
Shadows of the evening
Steal across the sky.
It appeared that for several years his mother had repeated the hymn to him every evening. In the hour of danger and death, or when the spirit is lonely, these things come back on us. It is the lingering music from the church of our childhood. Even Napoleon, Bourrienne tells us, wept one evening when he heard the bells of a village church. They reminded him too vividly of a little church in Corsica which he had attended when a boy. The churches of our childhood may be destroyed, but not their music. The bells will still linger among the ruins.
Some day new houses and a new church will be built at Maurepas, but it is the old bells that will ring in the steeple. They will be the link between the old and the new. The War cannot silence them for ever, and after its tumult, as before it, the bells will call the tillers of the ground to worship Him who is, 'from everlasting to everlasting God.' And when we come back to the home-land and the new Church, it is the old Bible and the old hymns that we shall want to hear. We shall listen for the old bells whose music came to us in a strange land and in valleys deeply shadowed. And we shall want to worship the adorable One who is 'the same yesterday, to-day, and for ever,' for in the land of our journeyings the music of His voice has never failed us.
THE VIRGIN MOTHER OF MONTAUBAN
I WAS riding on a motor-lorry from Guillemont (where Raymond Asquith lies buried) to Carnoy; and it was evening. As we passed through Montauban I saw a strange sight on the right of the road. Poised, so it seemed, in mid-air, and about six feet from the ground, was a figure in white. 'What can that be?' I asked. In the twilight it looked like a ghost. Around the figure I could just discern a number of broken tombstones. And on each side of the road I knew there were many soldiers buried. Was it a spirit, some ancient cottager, revisiting the desolated village? Or could it be the ghost of some soldier? Surely not, for none ever sought a return to the Somme. Yet who could set a limit to the devotion of one who had died for his country? Might he not return to encourage the lads who were marching up to the trenches with fear and foreboding gripping at their hearts? Had not Moses and Elias returned to comfort and strengthen Jesus ere He left the Mount of Transfiguration for Calvary? Or was it some mother who could not rest in heaven while her boy took that terrifying road to Lesbeufs? Jesus had to come to us from heaven when we wandered in the wilderness of sin and suffering, and how often the angels have come to man in his need we shall never know. The Bible tells us of a few visits, but not of all. If the figure had been the sainted mother of one of the boys marching by, I do not think it would have given me much surprise; for I am sure heaven is ever very near us, and that there is no lock on the door to prevent a mother ministering to her boy when, in the hideous darkness that seems alive with shrieking fiends, his young heart beats against his ribs as though it would escape from the unspeakable horror. Or was the white figure some wife or mother from England? Had one left her sleeping body and slipped away to her love on the Somme? Where are we when our bodies sleep? What are our souls doing? Can love find out no way for the soul to escape from its prison house of flesh for a fleeting visit over the sea? I have seen so many dead that I have come to think of lifeless bodies ---as I think of deserted houses. The owners have not ceased to exist. They have merely gone away. And when the body is not dead but asleep, may it not be possible for the soul to lock up the house for a time and slip away? We. are 'fearfully and wonderfully made,' and live in a world where the spiritual is more potent than the material. We know not what is possible either to the living or to those we pronounce dead.
As I sped past the figure I questioned what it could be; but there was none to answer. When Jesus came to His disciples walking on the sea, they thought He was a ghost, and were afraid. After the resurrection He came to them when the doors were closed, and in other mysterious ways, and they were amazed, but not afraid. Could this figure be Christ? Even after his ascension he appeared to St. Paul. Might He not, in our hour of need, be appearing to us? We know that He is on the Somme as truly as we know the Prince of Wales is. A friend of mine, a cyclist orderly, told me that one day when he dismounted he found the Princes of Wales close beside him scraping the mud from a bicycle. The Prince has camped with his regiment close to my own, and a number of our men have seen him go by on his bicycle. It is almost certain that at one time or another I have passed him on the road, but because I was not expecting to see him, or because I did not realize how like an ordinary man a true and gallant prince can be, I have not recognized him. In like manner many have failed to realize the presence of Christ; but that He is on the Somme is proved by many testimonies. He has revealed Himself to men in their need, and ministered to them. Was this figure a manifestation of Him that none might doubt? Had He remembered the way of the Cross and come to cheer the brave soldiers as they went by to die? Was He holding a review of those who follow in His train?
Any of these surmisings I believed possible as an explanation of the figure, and yet I regarded none of them as probable, for of human life beyond the body we have but little assured knowledge, and are almost entirely in the realm of faith, hope, and love. And in regard to the Divine Figure, we have not seen Him with mortal eyes.
The day following I had to walk to Guillemont, and as I passed through Montauban I suddenly came upon the figure again. The road was crowded with traffic, yet never a soldier passed without turning to look at this watcher by the wayside. By night and day multitudes have gazed upon it with astonished eyes. It is all that is left of Montauban. There is not a house nor barn standing, and of the church there is not one stone upon another.
This figure, the figure of the Virgin Mary, is all that the War has spared. It is but a plaster cast resting on a slightly built trestle, and, seen by daylight, is in the traditional colours. Under the trestle lie two 'duds'-shells that have failed to explode. One is of the usual size, but the other is an immense fifteen-inch shell. The statue is slightly damaged at the back, but this is hardly noticeable. It had evidently been in the church, but how every building of brick and stone could be utterly destroyed by shell fire, and a statue of plaster be preserved, passes the wit of man. The Virgin stands above the open graves and broken tombstones, gazing with downcast eyes towards the road where the soldiers go marching by. Her hands are slightly extended in front of her as though in lamentation. She stands like Rachel weeping for her children.
There is not a living woman within many miles of Montauban. There is just this plaster statue of one. She has been left to remind the lads of the mothers at home who never cease to yearn over them and pray for their safety. The statue is the figure of a mother, and a mother separated from her Son. In most pictures and statues of the Virgin Mother her Son is nestling in her arms. But this is the mother of His manhood, He has left His village home and gone out into the world. She wonders how He is faring. Is He well or ill? There is no post to tell her. Are men kind to Him or cruel? Oh that she could go to Him and protect Him as in His infancy! Why could He not have remained a babe for ever? She would not have wearied with nursing, and only the approach of old age would have caused her dismay. She cannot rest in Nazareth. She must go up to Jerusalem. She has a sister, and it will be sisterly to visit her. Surely some premonition has warned her that Jesus is in danger, for can anything be hidden from a mother? Have they not special endowments of the soul? She finds Him, but the shadow of death is already upon Him. In helpless grief she stands beside His cross, and the sword that goes through His heart pierces her own. That is the statue left at Montauban ---a mother without her boy, and searching for Him where the shadows of death fall thickest. It may not be any special providence that this figure of a mother has been spared where no living mother may come; but it looks like one. Thousands of those who pass by will never see their mothers again in this world, nor even the picture of one. She is the last woman to be seen on the way through the valley of the shadow of death that begins at Montauban. She stands there as the representative of the world's womanhood, sorrowing over the noble men who are passing by into the deepening shadow. While one gazes at her the roadsides seem to throng with the sad faces of mothers, each one of whom anxiously looks at the soldiers in the passing regiments to see if her own boy is there.
Strong buildings of iron and stone have been blown to fragments, but the frail image of motherhood has survived. Iron shells can destroy buildings of iron and stone, but they cannot destroy the love and solicitude of a mother. Love will follow even where it cannot save, and the dying are comforted by the sense of its presence. It is inconceivable that in the wrestle with death love will be vanquished. With our Lord, who is 'the resurrection and the life,' we shall surely meet our loved ones on the other side of the, grave, and, looking back, say, 'O death, where is thy sting? O grave, thy victory?'
Chapter XVIII: The Open Church in Man's Land
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