A civilization as precariously poised as ours needs sustenance from within to keep it in balance. In the words of Dr. J. Stuart Innerst, Minister of the First Friends Church of Pasadena, California, we need to "think more about the basic issues of life, what our values should be, how to live in peace with others." Otherwise phrased, we need to re-discover the art of reflection with a practical turn, closely tied in to the daily problems and the daily opportunities, yet searching for the roots of these in the underlying "basic issues."
It is appropriate to our civilization that we should remain aggressively active through all our able-bodied years. We feel this instinctively, but in the course of our career there must often come moments when we recognize that getting and spending and the race for success are not in themselves the completion of experience. The difficulty is ever to get quiet enough to hear the inner voice, to call to mind the timeless truths left to us by the thinkers of the ages.
There is no doubt that the writings of the mystic philosophers do help to implement our effort to elevate the mind and blaze a path. Charles Lamb said that men need "matter to feed and fertilize the mind." Life cannot be all action, in the outer sense of the word. The quality of thinking that we do determines the quality of all our acts. But the question arises: Is anyone going to go backward and think thoughts that were written centuries ago? Would such reading be in keeping with the need of our time? Yet the greatest of the mystics have uttered thoughts that are universal in their scope and not contained in times and eras. A single such thought can act as a springboard into a finer thought-world which we can make our own.
When we read in Marcus Aurelius:
All present time is but as one point of eternity —
and comprehend its meaning, the thought flings wide the shutters of the mind, and startles the thinker — you, me — into an unsuspected breadth of vision in which, slowly, our daily situations fall into place and are seen in their proper proportions.
In the same way, at Emerson's wonderful image:
We wake and find ourselves on a stair; there are stairs below us, which we seem to have ascended; there are stairs above us, many a one, which go upward and out of sight —
a concept of endless eras of experience, out of the past and into the eternity, is born in our consciousness. And Cicero opens another door to us when we assimilate his thought that
freedom from desire is more delightful than enjoyment (of the objects of desire).
A mind nourished with a strengthening philosophy is relatively unmoved by the storms of life. But to reach that point of strength, action has to be united with contemplation; in fact, action has to precede contemplation. By right action, says the Bhagavad-Gita, we attain — which implies that humble effort in the necessary acts of life must come first, and then we are rewarded with the peace of mind that invites the inner wisdom to come forth. We recognize the same idea in the words of John, vii, 17, where he says:
If any man will do His will, he shall know of the doctrine.
It seems that there are steps to this within ourselves. Deeper than our sometimes heedless self of every day, there is the thinking self, and greater than that is the discriminating principle which gives us judgment and the certain knowledge of what is right to do. All of these are involved in the process described by the French mystic, Saint-Martin:
to go more and more down into the depths of our being, and not let go till we can bring forth the living vivifying root . . .
Walt Whitman gave a fresh approach in his familiar line:
I loaf, and invite my soul,
suggesting a rest from distraction, an easing of tension, an entering into the fields of being where life flows in its fulness, where, if nowhere else, we are supreme and inviolate. It is our own domain; we can make of it what we will. We can take bearings, and see where we stand in relation to others and to our responsibilities. The picture in which our life moves comes into focus.
Yet, if quiet reflection begins to be in any sense an escape from the duties of life, then it has already lost its reality. Dr. Innerst introduces a positive note when he says that it is not enough to meditate and worship. These must lead to action: for "the end of worship must be the beginning of service: only so can the religious experience be complete and vital." He illustrates this idea with an incident that happened to him in New York City. Being disappointed that the din of traffic prevented his hearing the notes of the famous carillon on Riverside Church, he entered the secluded quadrangle of Union Theological Seminary where street noises did not penetrate, and there he heard the bells clear and unhindered. It was an ideal place for getting away from "the rush and roar of modern life in order to hear the voice of God." "We need solitude and unhurried time to discover the truth by which we live," he was saying to himself, when suddenly a troop of boys with lusty voices and a football invaded his sanctuary. His first impulse was to chase them out. Then — "I felt that God had sent them to remind me that there was a needy world toward which I had a duty — that action must follow thought."
And deeper than thought is the steadfast presence of aspiration which can go with us in a strengthening companionship through the hours of the working day; not distracting our minds, but enhancing the quality of all our decisions, the springboard of all our acts.
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The world is too much with us; late and soon, Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers: Little we see in Nature that is ours; We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon! This sea that bares her bosom to the moon; The winds that will be howling at all hours, And are up-gather'd now like sleeping flowers; For this, for everything, we are out of tune; It moves us not. — Great God! I'd rather be A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn; So might I, standing on this pleasant lea, Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn; Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea; Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.
— William Wordsworth