The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Mors et Vita. [Death and Life]

by E. A. Skurray.
Volume 13, 1902, pg. 868-873

"Recollect that Mors means death and decaying, and Vita means life and life-giving, and try always not to mortify yourselves but to vivify yourselves."--Ethics of the Dust, J. Ruskin.

This is one of those apparently paradoxical sayings Ruskin delighted in, and at first sight it seems to contradict much of the teaching of the New Testament, that life of perfection, which means a life of renunciation, a daily taking up of the Cross to follow Christ. But if we think over these words a little more deeply, we shall see that they contain a truth, the forgetting of which has led to many errors, and at the best to a maimed Christianity. The man who wrote, "You cannot save men from death but by facing it for them, nor from sin but by resisting it for them," [Art in England.] could not mean any condemnation of the higher life of self-denial.

Is it not possible that we may be confusing two very different things, mortification with self-denial? This latter we must exercise daily, hourly, if we would "rise from our dead selves to higher things": but we have to mortify (i.e., kill) nothing but sin, or the tendency which may lead to sin. Those vices which, in the words of the collect, we pray God to "mortify and kill"--or, to go back to still earlier teaching, that "death unto sin and a new birth unto righteousness," which comes to us as an echo of the days of our childhood.

It is true St. Paul tells us to "mortify" our members which are upon the earth" (Col. iii. 5.), which he goes on to define, and a very formidable list of evil it is. When, again, he speaks of mortifying the "deeds of the body," it is with the same intent.

Ruskin's words cannot, of course, be pressed too far; there is a very real sense in which life can only be reached through death: that the corn of wheat must "fall to the earth and die" before it can generate life a thousand-fold, is one of the facts of nature, as well as a deep spiritual truth. For there are those the keynote of whose lives seems to be mortification; those who, as Heine said, lie on their "mattress grave," with every sense crucified.

But even here the lesson such lives are meant to learn is life, not death, the perfecting of character through the discipline of pain. The triumph of mind over matter, the subjection of the flesh to the spirit, the wisdom which is gained through life's experience burnt in by suffering. Browning has expressed this very beautifully in La Saisaiz:--

"Only grant my soul may carry high through death her cup unspilled,
Brimming though it be of knowledge, life's loss drop by drop distilled,
I shall claim it mine--the balsam, bless each kindly wrench that wrung
From life's tree its inmost virtue, tapped the root whence pleasure sprung,
Barked the bole, and broke the bough, and bruised the berry, left all grace
Ashes in death's stern alembic, loosed elixir in its place!"

There are two typical instances of mortification: First, the monastic ideal, which taught that everything that belonged to the nature was wrong and ought to be crushed out; that the body was evil in itself, the Manichaean heresy which has done so much harm. On the other hand, we have the Puritan, who, though his creed was so different, had much the same ideal, with his stern renunciation of the beauty and much of the joy of life.

Although the monastic ideal might not be the highest per se: yet as we look back upon history we cannot fail to see it was often under the circumstances the only one possible, not only to carry on the torch of learning, but also to keep alive a higher spirituality.

There were times when only the greatest and most heroic souls could be "in the world and yet not of it." Moreover such lives might never have arrested the attention of a careless world, as did the asceticism of a St. Antony of Padua, though from our modern standpoint we grieve he should literally have thrown his life away; while for that most joyous servant of Christ, St. Francis d'Assisi, in spite of the severity of his self-denials, the word mortification seems hardly appropriate. All his asceticism was the outcome of a boundless love, towards God, his fellow-men, and all living creatures.

Nor can we fail to see the strength and backbone Puritanism brought to our race: truth is many-sided, and from time to time she must accentuate some one aspect of it, and so drive her lessons home. And because her instruments are human and frail, truth becomes distorted from her original form. We should not, however, allow our admiration for the best sides of monasticism and Puritanism to blind us to the defects in these systems: it may be necessary to cut off a right hand, or pluck out a right eye, if they offend, but it is a perversion of their legitimate use if they do. Such a life will be a maimed one: it may be necessary, but at best it is a necessary evil.

The Incarnation has shown us that the body is capable of being transformed and made instinct with life. As Christ said, "I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly." (St. John x.10.)

"'Tis life, whereof our veins are scant,
Oh life, not death, for which we pant;
More life, and fuller, that I want."
     ("The Two Voices," Tennyson.)

All the emotions, affections, and instincts of our nature may be consecrated to God through the right control of the will: the intellect dedicated to His service Whose greatest gift is the light of reason, and Who is Himself called "the Father of lights." (St. James i. 17.)

Life is eternal, a part of the very Being of God, while death is temporal, the penalty of sin, partaking of its nature and is its type. The perfect ideal is such a training of the body as shall make it a fit instrument through which the higher nature of man may act. This will certainly not be done by a soft and luxurious life, but by "Plain living and high thinking": "the intellect of man, that sword," kept keen and bright, with the spirit animating all.

With regard to a life of perfect development and the ascetic life, we have no more striking examples than our Lord and St. John the Baptist. Christ has shown us that the highest life is not the hermit life of the solitary and the ascetic, but a holy life of self-denial lived amongst our fellow-men. Who can doubt which would have been the easier life for Christ; the loneliness of the desert would have meant, not loneliness, but the refreshment of commune with the Father.

We cannot fathom, because we have not His sinless and perfect nature, what it was to Him to live in the world surrounded by everything most distasteful and alien to every fibre of His Being; we can never understand in this life what is the deadly antagonism between sin and the perfectly holy.

Besides this, there was that blank wall of ignorance to overcome, His very friends and followers misunderstood Him. What a feast to Him, who ate in the Pharisee's house, would have been the locusts and wild honey of the desert, and the freedom which the raiment of camel's hair seems to imply. St. John the Baptist, the Fore-runner, had to prepare the way for Christ by preaching the baptism of repentance; it was the natural sequence of his life and mission that he should teach renunciation pure and simple. He gave up life with all its joys and sweets, gave it up in absolute renunciation, even to dying for a cause he did not fully understand.

While St. John best fulfilled his work as the ascetic, so Christ fulfilled His as the perfect Man, and lived His life in the world for the sake of those He came to seek and save. He, the typical Man, unites all perfection in Himself, and teaches us how, in all our relations of life, the Christ-life can be lived. He shared in innocent joy (St. John ii. 1-10.), and loved with a special love His Mother and St. John.

Mortification, discipline, a ruled life, may all have their uses at different times, but the more perfect way is in the acceptance of that life which Christ holds out to us: full, perfect, eternal life, that "grace and truth" which perfect the law (St. John i. 17.). We have been "buried with Him in baptism" (Col. ii. 12.), there to receive the germ of life eternal, which is ever strengthened and renewed in that other Sacrament, of which Christ said, "As the living Father hath sent me, and I live by the Father: so he that eateth me, even he shall live by me." (St. John vi. 57).

Greek genius, with an insight which amounts to inspiration, foreshadowed, albeit "as in a glass darkly," the mission and character of Christ, in its conception of Prometheus. For Christ did in very deed bear not only the burden of humanity, but also that of human nature so alien to His own, that He might draw it up into union with His own divine nature. It was a wonderful conception, that of Prometheus, with his fire which he stole from heaven in defiance of Jove: with it he animated the first man and woman he made out of clay. For this he is tied to a rock on Caucasus, with a vulture tearing out his liver, in unending pain.

Here, again, he is a type of Christ in His life of pain, His death of agony; but it was no stolen gift of divine fire which Christ brought down to man, from His home in the Eternal Godhead: rather was it the free gift of divine life, typified after the Ascension in tongues of living fire. Mr. Stephen Phillips gives us a great and illuminating thought in his Christ in Hades. On that first Good Friday, Christ visits the Hades of classic tradition. As He passes through it, to each soul is given some mitigation of its pain, by the mere fact of that Holy Presence there: with one exception, Prometheus, for not even Christ could for one moment lessen the pain of the man who was His type.

After all it just comes to this: in us all there is the double ego; the old, old contest between good and evil, the higher and the lower self. All philosophers and ethical teachers have felt this, and St. Paul works out the idea for us in Romans, summing up his conclusion thus:--"If then I do that which I would not, I consent unto the law that it is good. Now then it is no more I that do it, but sine that dwelleth in me." (Romans vi. and vii; Rom. vii. 16, 17.) If we can so live that filled by heavenly harmonies the lower ego of evil has no power over us, as Browning's Pippa passed through life with her pure heart, and a song on her lips, that is surely best. Then there may be no need for the surgeon's knife; but if that lower ego predominates, we must fight it with every weapon in our power so as to "keep down the base man." This brings to mind another old classic legend, that of Ulysses, Orpheus, and the Syrens. It holds a deep spiritual truth, and, moreover, it aptly illustrates the quotation from Ruskin.

The story runs thus: so many people had been enticed to their destruction by these Syrens, who first lured on their victims by the sweetness of their song which none could resist, and then destroyed them: that both Ulysses and Orpheus determined to see if something could not be done to resist their spells. As Ulysses neared the shore which looked so beautiful and alluring, but was really white with bones of their victims, he has the ears of his crew stopped up with wool, and himself so firmly bound to the mast that he could not get away. They were thus able to pass in safety, although when Ulysses heard the seductive song he struggled madly to break free, but could not because he was bound. Orpheus also took the same voyage, but he placed no restraint on either himself or his crew. Instead he sings to them, and his song is so much more beautiful than that of the Syrens, they are not even heard, so Orpheus also passes in safety; and how much better is his method. Here we have in a picture mortification and life. On the one hand, we have those who pass through temptation, bound down like Ulysses with the cords of hard and fast rules: or they remove themselves as far as possible from temptation, like the crew with their ears stopped. On the other hand are those who, like Orpheus, pass through temptation free, fettered by no outward restraint, only that highest restraint of all, their minds are filled with something infinitely greater, more beautiful than any melodies on earth: even those heavenly melodies, of which George Herbert writes:--

"A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
. . .
Church bells beyond the stars heard, the souls' blood,
A land of spices, something understood."

Those whose minds are filled with celestial melodies will be drawn by no lower attractions, however seductive; for they will be attuned to a higher pitch, a truer harmony. It is by keeping our spiritual nature clear and bright, and in tune, we are able to hear, above earth's noises, that "music of the spheres."

"There's not the smallest orb which thou behold'st,
But in his motion like an angel sings,
Still quiring to the young-eyed cherubins:
Such harmony is in immortal souls;
But whilst this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it."
                    ("Merchant of Venice.")

Typed by Blossom Barden June 2021, Proofread by LNL, Apr 2022