In his account of the ascent of the Matterhorn in the '80's, A. F. Mummery, the mountain-climber, tells with charming humor how his party was mystified, and in the case of his Swiss guides terrified, by the appearance of strange wandering lights on the glacier below. These, Burgener, the chief guide, insisted were "Geister," evil ghosts, who would surely take vengeance upon those who dared to assault their sacred mountain. Nothing could save the party from death by fall or avalanche — except by intervention of the saints.
To invoke and make sure of such aid, each vowed a "candle of peculiar size and splendor to a saint of Burgener's acquaintance"!
Thus fortified by pious determination, the party, not without further happenings of a hair-raising nature, not only reached the summit but returned in safety to Zermatt; whereupon the group's intention to provide so large and beautiful an offering showed signs of considerable modification. Burgener doubted whether the saint had really earned the candles, and reflected that their escape might well be due to a necklet he was wearing which contained the "tooth or thumbnail of an exceptionally holy Saint" — a charm of great potency he said. However, he figured with commendable caution, "in bargains of this sort it is always the better to pay, especially when a few francs only are at issue."
We may smile at the superstitions of these Swiss guides; yet are not most of us very like them? In our ascent of the mountain of Life we meet with many terrors, and fall into many crevasses. We are bombarded by "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune," as we think, and tripped up by the weaknesses and peculiarities of our own natures.
In our instinctive cry for help, in remorse for errors committed, we may vow renewed and eternal loyalty to our ideals — if only we may be spared the suffering that threatens, or the result of our own wrongdoing, we promise never again to stray from the path of righteousness! And are we not doing what Burgener did, offering our propitiation, subject of course to the provision that the "saint enables us to baffle the malignant Geister"?
We make a bargain with our conscience. If our sin brings no immediate evil result, if our dishonesty is not discovered, do we not all too often weaken in the resolution, made so eagerly when fear of consequences lay like a dark shadow upon our days? The avalanche has passed to left or right, death or dishonor no longer threatens. After all, nothing very drastic has followed our backsliding, no vengeance of the gods, no loss of prestige. We made no verbal promise, signed no document. None but our own heart bore witness to the vow we made under such duress.
When such insidious temptations come, when we find ourselves willing and ready to indulge the same weakness, then is the time to take stock with the concentrated lens of the observer; and if we face the matter squarely, the result should not discourage us. If we believe, as Browning did, that "we fall to rise, are baffled to fight better, sleep to wake," the result should not be a cowardly avoidance of danger or temptation, a withdrawal from circumstances likely to set the stage as before, but a firm determination, coupled with an invocation to the God above and within us, for strength — strength, not to avoid the evil in our own nature, no, but to meet it, deal with it, and overcome it. Above all, there should remain to enrich the character the refined gold of experience, giving us a deeper understanding of the temptations of others, and a greater love towards all.
With the knowledge that "As ye sow, so shall ye reap," combined with the conviction that all is Compassion, we can go forward calmly and with joy. Let us indeed honor our vow, buy one "candle of peculiar size and splendor" with the coin of true dedication, and by its light tread the path with renewed and sustained aspiration.
(From Sunrise magazine, January 1954; copyright © 1954 Theosophical University Press)