Some Grand Beauty

From “The Citizenship of Heaven,” The Cardinal Virtues, 135-139 (1908)

Heaven, then, is not a hermit’s cell, whither I escape by resolutely turning my back on all that hinders or detains me, which I reach at last by casting off every encumbrance, and every duty, by a feverish anxiety to secure my personal salvation. Heaven is a city, and Heaven has its constitution and its citizens all around me. I move as one of a vast throng.

I move as one who is influenced by the lives of others, and who, in turn, sheds an influence out of his own life, as he fills a post in a vast community, and discharges a function in a great commonwealth. There it lies in the Creed, practically unmeaning to most people who pronounce it, virtually otiose, and redundant in a document otherwise so condensed — “I believe in the communion of saints.” How seldom we pause to think of what we owe to the past; if we think of the men of the past at all it is to smile at their maimed life and their imperfect ideas, their crude civilization, their feeble grasp upon the treasures of life. But what we owe to the past, daily and hourly, who shall say? The very Creed which we utter was hammered out by men who had reached its truth in their own experience, and never rested until they had made it explicit, using themselves all the stored-up riches of the past, so that “ the doctrine of the Trinity was the synthesis and summary of all that was highest in the Hebrew and Hellenic conception of God fused into union by the electric touch of the Incarnation.”

What a debt do we owe to the past again in those who did not think of this island of ours as merely a place to plunder, but a region to be evangelized with the good news of salvation! What a debt we owe to the great men who have made this kingdom what it is, who built us churches, who endowed our holy religion with their money forever, who adorned it with the beauty of a good life! What a debt we owe to that cloud of witnesses drawn up from the rapid river of life, its stagnant pools, its foul marshes, until they became the glory of the firmament of the Christian Church! . . .

The Church has her calendar of saints who have passed through the same scenes as those through which we are passing, and out of the same passions and the same temptations have produced, by the grace of God, the dignity of a saintly life. The world has its heroes, who have made tradition, its philanthropists, who have consecrated benevolence, its pioneers, and explorers, and inventors, who have developed its resources. The good life is not the lonely contest we are sometimes tempted to think it, not the mere struggling through the waves to the unknown shore, on a thin plank of life, saved out of the full ship from which we have tossed pleasure after pleasure, the wheat and the tackling, and our very self, in order to be saved. The communion of saints is an influence all around us, it is heaven begun on earth; only it is incumbent on us to make the good life more a present power, to let our light shine before men, that they may see our good works, and glorify our Father which is in heaven.

If we feel lonely, there are others lonely too; every good life fearlessly lived, makes it easier for some other life to glorify God. When we approach God it is as “Our Father,” and we ask God to have mercy upon us, not upon me. It is a thing to labor for, and live for, to make the signs of God’s kingdom, its cries of victory, and its shouts of triumph, its voices of blessing, and its beautiful strains just as prominent as the shouts of ribaldry and the roar of vice, the hideousness and the coarseness and the ugliness of sin, which make the citizen of heaven now seem but a stranger and a pilgrim in an alien world.

Heaven is worth living for, but heaven is no dream of a sick man who has lost, or of a prisoner who has failed, or of a visionary who cannot enjoy life, Heaven is around us and about us now, and when we die, the earth will fall away from us like a jealous curtain which has hid some grand beauty; and Paradise will lead us into the full enjoyment of the perfect vision. God makes up the beauty and joy of heaven, and God is here to be found at the end of the avenues of worship, and at the end of every path of true beauty, which ends in him. The absence of evil is a negative joy of heaven; it means the omnipotence of the hand of God, and that hand is omnipotent here.

Heaven is filled with the glorious cloud of saints and is rich in the citizenship of the blessed. Here, too, consciously or unconsciously, each man moves onwards, formed and fashioned by the countless influences of many lives. Do we hope at last to go to heaven? If we will but “find God,” we are there already.

William C.E. Newbolt (1844-1930) was an influential Tractarian leader, who served as principal of Ely Theological College and canon of Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London. He was a noted preacher and valued spiritual guide to the clergy. His The Cardinal Virtues is a collection of sermons preached at Saint Paul’s.

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