Chapter III: I Sight the Gate
Let me here draw attention to one of the pleasing contrasts which the spiritual life affords to the physical. The probability of failure which overshadows even the noblest effort in the lower life considerably increases the burden of existence. On the contrary, in the higher life nobility of aim and purpose invariably commands success. It is a fundamental law of the kingdom, declared by the Christ, that “every one that asketh, receiveth; and he that seeketh, findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened” (Matt. vii, 8). Why, if this—one of the least attractions it has to offer—were the only inducement heaven held out, should it not be enough to gather in every crushed, bruised, disappointed and defeated soul? Can one wonder at the tormented Hamlet pondering:
To die,—to sleep:—
No more; and, by a sleep, to say we end
The heart-ache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to—’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished.
but it is not the totality of heaven’s bestowal upon the “weary and heavyladen” who respond to the invitation to “Come in and rest.” ’Tis but the fragmental earnest of the good things that are yet to come, which are given to all liberally—“good measure, pressed down, and running over.”
It is this superabundant outpouring of rest, joy, peace, sympathy, compassion, and love, that makes heaven to be the supreme attraction of every oppressed and lonely soul. I was but just beginning to feel the fascination of it at the time of which I speak. I had heard of love—had been possessed of a yearning I did not understand but I had not tasted of its sweetness—was ignorant of the real food for which I hungered. Then Vaone became the angel of my resurrection, calling me into a newness of life by her question, that mysterious ray opened my eyes to behold that vision which brought the invisible into view and made me see the God inherent in the creature working out the grand enigma of redemption.
Looking back from the light that was afterwards revealed, and to the comprehension of which I wish to confine myself entirely to the end of this volume—even then I shall but vaguely have indicated all that my soul would declare. Looking back, I say, from the clearer vision of the shadowless morning, I can see that when Vaone came to me with her enquiry, the immediate result to be attained concerned myself far more than I anticipated. She would benefit, but the seed of the ministry I was called upon to perform had to be sown, germinate, take root, grow and ripen before the harvest could be reaped. In myself another harvest had been maturing almost unconsciously, while my active interests had been more energetically engaged in other directions. Or, should I not say that my eyes had been riveted on the things which were more superficial, to the neglect of the hidden things which were “working out a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory.” It proved to be even so. The moment for Vaone’s query to be propounded, the precise form in which it had been framed, and the nicety of detail with which it was balanced, made it successful in its twofold purpose, leaving the immediate advantage very unexpectedly to myself.
Fortunately, she had left me, and I was free again to pursue my desired meditation, to which the interruption—had it served no other purpose – had certainly the advantage of turning it in a definite direction. It promised to provide me with meat and drink, for which I had hungered without being able to discover the source of its supply. So, in order to escape any further hindrance to my desire, I left my retreat and wandered off with no other object than feasting on the meditation to which I had been so auspiciously directed.
It was most unusual for me to covet a brown study when taking exercise; it was equally a novelty to find myself forsaking the law and assuming the office of critic and expounder of the gospel; but, by far the most amazing thing, was to find my sober, judicial mind straying into the fields of romance, in its eager determination to reach the goal of a nebulous ideal. Yet it was so.
I was like one who had awakened from a restless evading dream before daybreak. I had been searching through the darkness for a robe I yearned to possess. Again and again my nervous, outstretched fingers had touched its silken fringe, but I failed to seize the prize. In my disappointment I awoke—confused. Through the darkness a mystic fore-gleam of the morning quivered, and for an instant I beheld the object of my quest. Thank God, it was not a phantom of my dreams. It had reality. The morning was breaking. I would go forth and find it, trusting to the voice within which I heard crying, “This is the way,” to lead me to my goal.
Perhaps, to paraphrase a thought from one of Eilele’s poems I have already quoted:
When mine eyes can bear the glory
Which my victory revealed—
when the burst of exultation has subsided, and I am in a position to review the experience, as I am now enabled to recall my previous progress up to the close of my previous volume—I shall know the way I took, and what of adventure I encountered in reaching the place where I next found myself.
I was standing before what I believe to be the most surprising botanical phenomenon I ever had, and probably ever shall, behold. It was at once a grove of giant trees, and a vast, exquisitely proportioned cathedral nave, with an aisle. on either side which contributed in no small degree to the completeness of the architectural design. Its length might be three hundred yards or more, with which its breadth and height most proportionately corresponded. There were twelve trees on either side, standing in well-dressed lines and equi-distant—not simple, rounded stems like crude Norman columns, nor gnarled deformities to introduce discordance into the scheme, but their massive trunks had, in growth, been moulded into stalwart and shapely piers from which arch and groining sprang to carry out its stately Gothic plan.
The ends were free and open; the sides were walled by the dense foliage of some giant flowering shrub, the roof being perfectly provided for by the luxuriant leafage of the trees. The floor was carpeted with a thick, short velvety sward into which the feet nestled as into the embrace of the most alluring pile.
At the base of each tree a most inviting lounge had been arranged, thickly covered with aromatic mosses, soft as down, while other conveniences for repose or converse were placed here and there both in the nave and aisles.
The central feature of the around plan was a slightly sunken fountain, lying in an artistic basin of pink coral, which, when rising above the grass, was worked into most delicate tracery through which the slender tendrils of the aquatic plants crept with most charming effects, while the slender threads of dancing water added a suggestion of fairyland to the whole scene.
At the further side of the fountain from where I stood, the floor took a very slight almost imperceptible rise, just enough to break the idea of a dead level, a feature which was continued for some little distance beyond the end of the court. It was in following the extent of this triviality, that I made a discovery which surprised me with wonder that I had not noticed it before.
Standing just over the rising ground, but directly confronting me, were two round, open towers connected by a delicate bridge of material and construction en suite with the basin of the fountain, and clothed with an equally attractive creeper. Beneath the bridge, from either tower, opened twin gates, which seemed to me to be of opal or mother-of-pearl, so beautiful they looked in the soft, sympathetic light.
Looking from the gate to the fountain, then back again to the gate and its surroundings, I asked myself whether there was not some close connection between the two, and, if so, what was its nature and import?
It was vain to ask. I was not in a position to furnish the reply.
This brought me back again to the consciousness of my own inability to stand alone. How, then, could I hope to find my way through the thousand problems by which I felt myself surrounded, without the assistance of a guiding hand? Oh, for another illuminating ray or a voice to whisper, “This is the way.”
For the first time since my arrival I had a sense of being overshadowed— enveloped in a cloud of loneliness and indecision. Alone with an invisible and undefinable presence, which awed and was slowly but surely gaining a stronger control over me. I was wavering on the balance of some portentous crisis, as one poised on the moment of suspense preceding a false sentence. “I looked, and there was none to help, and I wondered that there was none to uphold” (Isaiah Ixiii, 5).
Under the pressure of the situation I turned my eyes to see if, among the groups occupying the Court, I could discern one to whom I might appeal for some assistance and relief—for, although I have not mentioned the fact, the court was not by any means deserted. The effort was successful in reducing the tension. It proved to be the trifle that arrests the attention and distracts the mind at the fateful instant. The suspense was eased, and I began to notice how many varied and hitherto unknown colours were to be found among the robes worn by different members of the various groups. My curiosity excited interest, and I soon found myself attempting to find names for, and classifying all the novelties in colour which were before me.
While thus occupied with an impossible task, my attention was arrested by someone approaching from the opposite side of the Court. My interest in him was aroused in that, with the exception of myself, he was the only solitary person to be seen, and the number was small in comparison with the area occupied.
From the instant that I saw him, I was confident his coming was to give me the help and guidance I so anxiously sought. That he had already identified me was equally certain from the first, since he came the whole length of the Court directly towards me, merely making a sign of recognition as he passed one or another, but never stopping on his way. He came forward with that calm leisureliness which becomes so natural to this higher life, giving me ample opportunity to observe and feel assured that I should find in him such another friend as Myhanene had already proved to be.
“I am Rael, a friend both of Omra and Myhanene,” he said as he drew near, “on whose behalf I come to lend you whatever assistance I am able to give.”
With this he made a gesture towards a seat.
“I know Myhanene well, and have come to look upon him almost as a brother,” I replied, as I took the proffered seat, “but I am almost a stranger to Omra and at present stand somewhat in awe of him.”
“That is not difficult for me to understand, since I know the circumstances under which you saw him. You would have the same feeling when you first saw Myhanene yet you have learned to love him now, and I am equally certain that you will so esteem Omra when you know him better. As to you being a stranger, that is a strong commendation with me,” he went on, with a touch of Myhanene’s sparkling pleasantries twinkling in his eyes. We have an exhortation in regard to this, which we regard as an imperative royal command, which says, ‘Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares’ (Hebrews xiii, 2).
“I am afraid you will not experience such a discovery in connection with myself,” I replied, already captivated by the fraternal spirit he manifested. “But how did Omra know of my presence—I just stumbled on this place, while I was lost in the labyrinth of a reverie?”
“Have you travelled so far across the border without making the discovery that we have many means of communication that are unknown to the earth?”
“No! I should have been blind indeed had I not made acquaintance with at least one or two of these wonderful methods. Still, I do not know of any by which Omra could learn of my coming. I had told no one—in fact, as I say, I was lost in a reverie, and had no idea of anything outside until I woke to the admiration of the beauties of this court.”
“Then you have still one or two further discoveries to make concerning us. I am hoping to be of some assistance to you in this direction. But, returning to our other reference—angels are not infrequent visitors here, and Omra is always watchful to be advised of all who pass.”
“I hope his reward is greater than I am afraid he will find in the present instance.”
“Why so?” he asked laconically, in a tone suggesting a possible difference of opinion.
“Because—well, simply because I am one of the very last who could lay claim to any such title.”
“That may or may not be so,” he replied; “I should like to read you a little better before venturing any opinion concerning it.”
“But I think I may lay claim to that better knowledge in this case,” I ventured.
“Yes, that is possible; and yet, even on that point I should need a better acquaintance before I commit myself to an opinion. Earth limitations and view-points frequently suggest erroneous and unjust conclusions, and it is more than possible that you may not be, at present, quite so far from them as to do justice even to yourself.”
“Are you so charitable as to imagine that I should let them influence me to my own undoing?”
“If you insist on drawing inferences,” he answered with an indulgent smile, “suppose we agree to leave it so for a while.”
“Your reference to the earth limitations, and the probable mistakes that may arise from them, prompts me to ask a question that was exercising me at the time of your arrival, if I may.”
“I am here for the purpose of assisting you, and am entirely at your disposal to give what help and guidance I can,” he replied.
“I scarcely know how to explain myself,” I began apologetically, but he considerately came to my relief at once.
“We will waive all explanations,” he suggested, “and come at once to the question. The explanation may be reached more naturally and easier later.”
“I don’t see how.”
“Perhaps not. It would surprise me if you did,” he interjected with a kindly and reassuring smile. “I think I understand this situation more clearly than you anticipate. Experience has made me quite familiar with the confusion you are feeling, and I want you to let me take my own way in dealing with it. Like the Israelites when crossing the Jordan into Canaan, you need to be reminded that you ‘have not passed this way heretofore,’ and you stand in need of a directing voice and a guiding hand—how absolutely necessary this is you will soon discover. I have been asked to accompany you, because I have been considered the best adapted to your particular requirements, and am hoping to see you pass the gate triumphantly.”
“Only so far as the gate? Are we to part company there?” I asked, surprised at his suggestion.
“Only so far as the gate,” he repeated with a quiet significance.
“But suppose it should prove to be a more lengthy journey than the distance appears to indicate? What if it turns out to be a case of ‘so near, and yet so far?’ Have you not already discovered how full this life is of surprises?”
“Indeed I have; but there cannot be much of surprise hiding in that which is so obviously transparent,” I ventured to suggest.
“One would scarcely think it to be possible,” he replied, as though quietly debating the proposition. Then, with more of confident animation: “Let me suggest that it would be more interesting to keep that idea prominently before your mind as we proceed. It may be that we should like to refer to it again later on; but just now you have other questions which are of more immediate importance.”
“I have, certainly; but I am in such a confused state of mind that I positively don’t know how to frame them.”
“I understand and fully sympathize with you. Shall I state them for you, omitting the preamble?”
“You would do me a great service if you would.”
“I will; and in doing so I shall follow the advice I gave you, and omit unnecessary explanations. If there is anything regarding your past I am not at present acquainted with—that is another surprise you were unprepared for,” he facetiously threw in—“it is easily accessible when needed, so we can come at once to your two simple questions, ‘Where am l,’ and ‘How did I come here’?”
“Yes, that is what I wished to ask; but how did you know?”
“By the exercise of a faculty that is enjoyed by every soul who reaches our estate—a faculty you had a prevision of when Vaone put to you the question as to whether heaven had proved to be all you anticipated. Ah, you start again! You will come to accept these surprises as matters of course presently. They are the commonplace experiences of a condition of being where we all ‘know as we are known’—a condition across the frontier of which you are about to pass. This Court of Voices is an antechamber or vestibule to the gate, the passing of which is the most momentous step in the soul’s great pilgrimage – I am speaking of that mystical second birth which the Christ discussed with Nicodemus. It is a change of far greater magnitude than the throwing off of the flesh, and was intended to be—but very rarely is—reached before the body is discarded.
“All your experiences, and the teaching you have received since your coming here, have had the one object of preparing you for this, and the underlying motive of all you have passed through has been to encourage and unfold the mysterious faculties and powers which you are just beginning to notice and employ with such astonishment. You are in the position of a child struggling in the birth-throes—all the energies you possess are being exerted to free yourself from your present limitations and gain the boundless freedom of immortality which intuitively impel the soul.”
“Do you suggest, then, that I am bound to go forward, have no choice, no free will in the matter?”
“Free will, like all other terrestrial conditions, has its natural bounds and limitations. It would scarcely be thought of in the throes of a climax, such as I mention—Nature would simply assert itself and carry the process through. But, wishing to avoid a digression by discoursing free will and its limitations, let me reply to your enquiry by saying—I will not go so far as to say that you must go forward, but I do say that you will do so.”
“Are you sure of it? I am not asking this captiously, but because I would like to hear your assurance.”
“I understand you perfectly,” he answered, “and have much pleasure in granting your desire. If you were now free to make your choice as to remaining here or going back to earth, which would you choose?”
I laughed at the ease with which he had so successfully captured me.
“Can there be the slightest doubt about it?”
“Let me make it doubly sure,” he went on. “Now, in your second choice, would you rather remain here, where we are resting, or go forward as far as the gate?”
“Why, go on to the gate, of course,” I replied, as I rose in readiness to do so.
“Not too hurriedly,” he gently admonished me. “I knew what your choice would be, because with us the attractions on before are always greater than those we have already passed. That is why I am sure you will go forward. The attractive force of the future is irresistible, it is very beautifully expressed by Isaiah, where he puts these words into the mouth of God: ‘I have loved thee with an everlasting love, therefore with loving-kindness have I drawn thee.’ Who would break away from everlasting and omnipotent love after once feeling its sweet influences? Come, let us go now to meet Omra,” he said, rising. “Perhaps he may have something to say that will help you towards true liberty.”
With this we went forward towards the gate.