Great Texts of the Bible
The Continual Fire
Fire shall be kept burning upon the altar continually; it shall not go out.—Leviticus 6:13.
Ancient religion spoke much by emblem and symbol. Words were not its sole medium of communication with men. Its faith did not come by hearing alone. All the senses were more or less employed as a door of utterance, and observances and ceremonies appealing to the imagination were used to awaken and direct devout feeling and thought. Its symbolism was no mere priestly invention and device; it sprang from and it met a real human need. Then, as now,
Words there are none
For the heart’s deepest things,
and hence, of course, ceremony had its natural and legitimate place in the vocabulary of religion as of love. Then, as now, men could not live by the prophet’s message alone: the aspirations of the soul could not always be translated into the dialect of the understanding; spiritual passion demanded other vehicles of expression than the common forms of speech; carved wood and stone, altar and fire and sacrifice, movement and music and colour, were used to speak the word of God and the soul’s sincere desire; and stately services made great ideas vivid and impressive in a way not otherwise possible. Then, as now, things material and temporal were types of things spiritual and eternal; and religion as an institution was made to develop, to quicken and nourish religion as a life. Even the most spiritual and best of ancient religions made free use of this symbolic language; spoke to its children in acted parables, and exhibited dramatically the lessons which it was charged to convey. It loved to enact its instructions, picturing them as upon a canvas, displaying them as upon a stage from generation to generation.
But man, the twofold creature, apprehends
The twofold manner, in and outwardly,
And nothing in the world comes single to him,
A mere itself,—cup, column, or candlestick,
All patterns of what shall be in the Mount;
The whole temporal show related royally,
And built up to eterne significance
Through the open arms of God.1 [Note: E. B. Browning, Aurora Leigh.]
The ritual custom of which our text speaks is one beautiful and instructive in itself, and full of large suggestion—long since dead as to the letter, but living still as to the spirit. The allusion is to the altar of burnt-offering in the court of the Tabernacle. It was concerning this altar and offering that the instruction was given that the fire should ever be kept burning and not be suffered to go out—an enactment well fitted to convey and to make clear and impressive the idea and duty of maintaining without break or interruption the worship and service of the living and true God in the life of Israel and in the life of every Israelite.
Let us ask three questions—
I. What is the fire?
II. How is it kindled?
III. How is it maintained?
What is the Fire?
Among some of the ancient heathen nations, fire was kept constantly burning as a religious symbol. Thus among the Persians (and among the Parsees of India to this day) fire was, and is, the visible representation of the Godhead; and the continual burning of it the emblem of eternity. The perpetual fire of Vesta (“the oldest goddess”) among the Greeks and Romans was the emblem of the inmost, purest warmth of life which unites family and people—the hearth, as it were, the heart of a house or of a State. But we shall be led astray from the true significance of the ever-burning of the altar fire if we fix our attention chiefly upon the “fire” itself, upon the fire, that is, apart from the altar. If we would get at the real meaning of this symbol, we must contemplate it in its inseparable connexion with “the altar.” It was not mere “fire” that was to be kept perpetually burning, but the fire of “the altar”—“the fire shall be kept burning upon the altar continually.”
Consider the significance of the various sacrifices which were required to be offered upon the altar. They consisted of three kinds, viz. sin-offerings, burnt-offerings, and peace-offerings. The first of these, the “sin-offering,” typified the death of the offerer to sin and self, through and by means of “the one offering for sins for ever,” which was to be offered by Jesus Christ. The “burnt-offering” symbolized the life of the offerer dedicated to God; just as the fire wholly consumed the burnt-offering, so the life of the offerer was to ascend up before God in living consecration to His will. And “the peace-offering” was intended to set forth the privilege which the pardoned and consecrated believer enjoys of fellowship with God and with His people. May we not gather from this the signification of the command, “The fire shall be kept burning upon the altar continually”? Is it not this—viz. that what was signified by the sacrifices of the altar was to be the unceasing experience of God’s people? In other words, by the fire being constantly kept burning upon the altar was denoted the unceasing, uninterrupted character of the spiritual state or life which was indicated by the sacrifices of the altar.
1. The fire on the altar, therefore, denotes that inner life of reverence and love, trust and consecration and loyalty towards God which constitutes the religious spirit and creates the truly religious character.
2. The fire on the altar is not the outward acts of devotion, but the spirit which expresses itself in these acts. By multitudes the religious life is looked upon as consisting or made up of a series of religious duties or acts of worship continually repeated. It is thought that those are undoubtedly religious who are conscientious in the performance of the public and private duties of religion as they recur. But this is an utter misconception of the true nature of the religious life. We may be most exact in our discharge of the external duties of religion and yet be utterly devoid of true religion itself. Were not the Pharisees of our Lord’s day as diligent as it was possible to be in all these duties? and yet, did not our Lord say to His disciples, “For I say unto you that, except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the Scribes and of the Pharisees ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven”? And so, too, the apostle speaks of some whom he describes as “having a form of godliness”—a phrase which, of course, includes a diligent attention to the externals of religion—but who, nevertheless, “deny the power thereof.” No; true religion consists not in the intermittent practice of religious duties, but in the ceaseless burning of the fire of devotion to the will of God.
3. The fire on the altar transforms every act and makes it an act of devotion. Just as the sun shining upon the dark drops of falling rain transforms them into shining prisms of rainbow beauty, so “the fire” of the “ever-burning” Christian life renders everything done by the Christian a spiritual act, well-pleasing in the sight of God. “Whatsoever toucheth the altar,” says Moses, “shall be holy.” Even things so common as “bulls and goats, and doves and flour and oil” became “holy” by mere contact with “the altar.” And, in like manner, the earthly duties of the man who is truly living to God are rendered holy; for “the fire” of devotion to the will of God is “ever burning” on the altar of his heart. Charles Wesley has well caught the spirit of the text in his hymn—
O Thou, who earnest from above
The pure celestial fire to impart,
Kindle a flame of sacred love
On the mean altar of my heart.
There let it for Thy glory burn
With inextinguishable blaze;
And trembling to its source return
In humble prayer and fervent praise.
Jesus, confirm my heart’s desire,
To work, and speak, and think for Thee.
Still let me guard the holy fire,
And still stir up Thy gift in me.
Ready for all Thy perfect will,
My acts of faith and love repeat;
Till death Thy endless mercy seal,
And make the sacrifice complete.
4. In what spheres of life is the devotional spirit to be manifested?
(1) In the Personal Life.—In that temple of God which we each are, upon the altar of the personal heart and life, the fire of devout desire and affection ought ever to be kept burning and never allowed to go out.
There is a secret place of rest
God’s saints alone may know;
Thou shalt not find it east nor west,
Though seeking to and fro.
A cell where Jesus is the door,
His Love the only key;
Who enter will go out no more,
But there with Jesus be.
If thou hadst dwelt within that place,
Then would thine heart the while,
In vision of the Saviour’s face,
Forget all other smile;
Forget the charm earth’s waters had
If once thy foot had trod
Beside the river that makes glad
The city of our God.
(2) In the Home.—Religion is necessary to the home. A house where we merely lodge and eat together is not a home; and a home, though it may have all things else—love, friendship, comfort, refinement—does not fulfil its true idea unless the influence of real religion is adequately there. To preserve family life from decay, to give strength and beauty to the domestic relations, to bind the home together and make its circle a unit and a source of elevating influence, nothing helps so much as simple and sincere devotional usages and habits.
A worldly home cannot be a deeply united and happy one. There must be a common life in God and union there. The best we can do for our children is to create in the home an atmosphere that is favourable to reverence and faith. For they grow, like air-plants, chiefly by what they absorb from the atmosphere around them. If allowed to grow up in a non-worshipful atmosphere they will be injured for life. Herbert Spencer has enriched our educational vocabulary with the phrase “complete life,” and the quiet and gradual awakening and culture of the religious affections are as necessary, yea, more necessary, to the complete life of our youths and maidens than any physical or mental training.1 [Note: John Hunter.]
So far as it is a sacred place, a vestal temple, a temple of the hearth watched over by Household Gods, before whose faces none may come but those whom they can receive with love,—so far as it is this, and roof and fire are types only of a nobler shade and light,—shade as of the rock in a weary land, and light as of the Pharos in the stormy sea;—so far it vindicates the name, and fulfils the praise, of Home.2 [Note: Ruskin, Sesame and Lilies, 137.]
(3) In the Church.—In that temple of God which we call the Church, upon the altars of our sanctuaries, the holy fire ought ever to be kept burning and never be suffered to go out. We shall not quarrel about words and phrases, and mistake form for substance and semblance for reality, but it is prayer and the prayer-spirit which make a Church out of a congregation. Gatherings together to hear argument and rhetoric, anecdote and music, may be good in their way, and serve some useful purpose, but they are not such gatherings together as make one feel and say, “the Lord is in His holy temple.”
It seems to me that what we most need in our land and day is an order of churches which unite great spirituality and deep devotional power with pure and high intelligence, and can be satisfied with naught but reality and truth; Churches of the Reconciliation, we might call them, for they would stand for the union of the devout and fervent spirit with the open and enlightened mind, and with the whole scope and temper of modern Christian thought.1 [Note: John Hunter.]
How is the Fire Kindled?
1. Recall the circumstances in which the words of the text were spoken. The altar of which the writer of the Book of Leviticus speaks was the brazen altar that stood at the door of the Tabernacle of the congregation. It was there that the sacrifices were offered unto God by Israel; and the sacrifices were all of them of necessity consumed by fire that was God-kindled. When the Tabernacle was completed and the worship of God begun in it, Moses and Aaron complied with every direction for the offering of sacrifice which God had given them. The wood was laid upon the altar; the body of the victim was laid upon the wood; a cake of meal-offering was laid upon the body of the victim; the incense and the salt were laid upon the cake; the blood was poured out about the altar; and the wine was mingled with the blood; and every direction that God had given them was fulfilled. But there the sacrifice lay upon the altar a dead thing; and then fire came down from the Lord, kindled the wood, consumed the sacrifice, and the offering came up into the presence of the Eternal through the fire which He had given. Precisely the same scene is repeated when the Tabernacle gave place to the Temple. Solomon again obeyed each of those ritual laws. And then he prayed; and it came to pass, “when Solomon had made an end of praying, the fire came down from heaven, and consumed the burnt offering and the sacrifices.” And when the people saw it they said: “The Lord is good; His mercy endureth for ever.” It was an old law of Israel that no offering could come up for acceptance before God unless it were burned with fire that came down from God.
2. Now this altar is the altar of the Christian heart, and the sacrifice is the offering of the Christian to God in Christ to live the Christian life, and the power to live the Christian life is, in the grace of God, through the fire that God the Holy Ghost kindles in the heart.
Spring may come, but on granite will grow no green thing;
It was barren in winter, ’tis barren in spring;
And granite man’s heart is, till grace intervene,
And, crushing it, clothe the long barren with green.
When the fresh breath of Jesus shall touch the heart’s core.
It will live, it will breathe, it will blossom once more.1 [Note: Jalaluddin Rumi, in Field’s Book of Eastern Wisdom, 57.]
3. The fire is looked upon as being the type of what old theologians called “effective grace.” What they meant by that was this. Fire typifies grace when it comes to act effectively upon the one who is the subject of that gracious influence. There comes the wonderful influence of the Holy Spirit, and the grace of regeneration—what we call conversion—becomes effective as the one great shaping, living force that acts within the soul of the believer.
Grace does not altogether change nature, but uses it as it finds it. For instance, when a man who is kind and gentle by nature is turned to the faith, like Nicolas Hausmann, grace makes him a tender and gentle preacher; whilst of a man naturally given to anger, like Conrad Cordatus, it makes an earnest, serious preacher; whilst if another has a subtile and powerful understanding, that is used for the benefit of the people.1 [Note: Luther, Watchwords for the Warfare of Life, 254.]
4. Divine grace is well typified by fire. There is nothing which gives such an idea of vital energy as fire. Of all forces, when you think of power, it is the most powerful. And this fire of Divine grace is kindled in the heart, and acts upon every portion of it. It is the Divine life. It comes like light to the intellect, and illuminates it; it comes like heat to the heart and inflames it; it comes like strength to the will and energizes it and gives it strength; it comes with all its soothing influence, also, to the conscience, and purifies it and gives it peace. And so this Divine fire is that in which we live the Christian life. We cannot live it without it. No determination of our natural will will enable us to live without it. And we cannot manufacture it; if we try to do so, if we try to live our lives by offering sacrifice to God, like Nadab and Abihu, with strange fire, it is a powerless, it is an unacceptable thing. Christian life can be lived only in the energy of that Divine fire, that life of God communicated to every portion of the inner spirit, permeating it, influencing it, transfiguring it like a flame.
It is said to be the prerogative of genius to light its own fire. But we have not to originate the flame of spiritual desire in ourselves. Some spark from the heavenly altars has reached each one of us. We describe ourselves at times as seekers after God, but the truth is we seek God because He first seeks us. Our upward yearnings and strivings are the answering movement of our spirits to the touch of His spirit. It is an old tradition that the fire which burned for so many ages upon the altars of Israel without going out was first conveyed from heaven. The Divine aspiration is itself a Divine gift. The need of God and the feeling after Him, which are the root and support of all religious observances, are not instructed into existence; they are not of human invention, but of human nature—that deeper nature which is begotten, not made, born not of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. The appeal of religion and of the literature which interprets religion is to the intuitions of the race. We first feel within us what we discern to be without us. The recognition of God is the soul unfolding to spiritual realities and relations. We call Jesus, Lord—confess Him to be the Master of the Divine life through the awakening in ourselves of a kindred spirit:—
Held our eyes no sunny sheen,
How could sunshine e’er be seen?
Dwelt no power Divine within us,
How could God’s Divineness win us?1 [Note: John Hunter.]
How much more beautiful and suggestive is the thought of that ever-burning fire on the altar of burnt-offering than the so-called miracle of the “Holy Fire,” which is enacted annually in our time at Jerusalem! On the eve of the Greek Easter Day all the lamps in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre are solemnly extinguished. Afterwards, in the course of the night, a bright flame suddenly appears in the Chapel of the Sepulchre, and this, it is said, has been kindled by God Himself. Then the Greek Patriarch lights a candle at the “Holy Fire”; and this candle is passed, amidst intense excitement, over the heads of the crowd of pilgrims, each of whom lights his own taper at the sacred flame, that he may carry it with him to his distant Russian home.2 [Note: C. Jerdan.]
Summe up at night what thou hast done by day,
And in the morning what thou hast to do;
Dresse and undresse thy soul; mark the decay
And growth of it; if with thy watch that too
Be down, then winde up both: since we shall be
Most surely judg’d, make thy accounts agree.3 [Note: George Herbert, The Church Porch, lxxvi.]
How is the Fire Maintained?
The fire on the altar of Israel, though kindled from heaven had to be kept constantly burning by natural and human means. The priests had to lay wood on the altar every morning, and, like the vestal virgins of Rome, to watch day and night with sleepless care lest the holy flame should die out. It is a parable of which the spiritual experience of mankind writes large the meaning. The religious sentiment, which is an essential element of human nature, needs cultivation as certainly as the power to think, or the love of the beautiful, or our affection for parents and friends.
1. The Removal of the Ashes.—What had the priest to do? First of all he had to go to the altar every day, take away the ashes and carry them to the place where the sin-offering was burnt without the camp. The ashes were that part of the wood that was laid upon the altar to feed the fire, which is of the earth earthy; that which could never mount up towards God, blending with the atmosphere, and become an offering in His presence.
The ashes are our sins; the things that day by day and hour by hour lie upon our consciences; the things that we know are wrong. And whatever we do we must not allow these sins to lie upon our hearts; we must get rid of them regularly, because, if we do not, just as the accumulating ashes would have smothered the fire upon the altar, so the accumulating sin within us will destroy the Divine life. So we have to go into the inner temple of our own being; we have to go to the altar and take away the ashes; find them out by regular self-examination.
Our Christian life cannot go on aright unless, like the priests of old, at fixed and regular times we go to the altar of our heart, and there find out what the ashes are. Then when we have found them out, let us take them in our hands—take them in the hands of a trembling contrition, and be sure we carry them to the right place. We cannot go wrong as to what the right place is, because we have got an interpretation of it given us in the New Testament: “The bodies of those beasts, whose blood is brought into the holy place by the high priest as an offering for sin, are burned without the camp. Wherefore Jesus also, that He might sanctify the people through His own blood, suffered without the gate. Let us therefore go forth unto Him without the camp.” Let us take them to Jesus always; kneel down at His feet; confess our sins to Him definitely. If we confess our sins—not sin—if we confess our sins He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.1 [Note: Canon G. Body.]
Take unto Thyself, O Father,
This folded day of Thine,
This weary day of mine,
Its ragged corners cut me yet,
O, still the jar and fret!
Father, do not forget
That I am tired
With this day of Thine.
Breathe Thy pure breath, watching Father,
On this marred day of Thine,
This erring day of mine!
Wash it white of stain and spot!
O, cleanse its every blot!
Reproachful Eyes! remember not
That I have grieved Thee
On this day of Thine!
2. The Feeding with Fuel.—We have not only to take away the ashes, we have also to lay on wood. We must feed the fire. What is the fuel which God has provided for the fire of the Christian life? We know the answer—the public and private means of grace. A diligent use of the public ordinances of God’s house is necessary to the obtaining of fuel for the spiritual life. Under the Mosaic law the Sabbath was instituted not only as a day of rest from the ordinary work and activities of life, but also as a day of “holy convocation”—a day which furnished an opportunity of assembling for Divine worship. And the Christian Sabbath is in force for the same purpose. “Waiting upon the Lord” in the public worship of the sanctuary, we “renew our strength, we mount up with wings as eagles; we run and are not weary; we walk and are not faint.”
Then I saw in my Dream, that the Interpreter took Christian by the hand, and led him into a place where was a Fire burning against a Wall, and one standing by it always, casting much Water upon it to quench it: yet did the Fire burn higher and hotter. Then said Christian, What means this? The Interpreter answered, This fire is the work of Grace that is wrought in the heart; he that casts Water upon it, to extinguish and put it out, is the Devil: but in that thou seest the fire notwithstanding burn higher and hotter, thou shalt also see the reason of that: So he had him about to the back side of the Wall, where he saw a Man with a Vessel of Oil in his hand, of the which he did also continually cast (but secretly,) into the Fire. Then said Christian, What means this? The Interpreter answered, This is Christ, who continually with the oil of his Grace, maintains the work already begun in the heart; by the means of which, notwithstanding what the Devil can do, the souls of his People prove gracious still. And in that thou sawest that the Man stood behind the Wall to maintain the Fire; this is to teach thee, that it is hard for the tempted to see how this work of Grace is maintained in the soul.1 [Note: Pilgrim’s Progress, Clar. Press ed., 32.]
More particularly, the fuel is—
(1) Prayer.—Prayer lies at the very foundation of all Christian vitality. To be a praying man or woman is to be spiritually living; to be not praying is to be spiritually dead. Prayer is the Christian’s vital breath; and as, if I would live I must breathe, so, if I would be a Christian I must pray; or if I cease to pray, my spiritual life perishes. It lies beneath everything. Without prayer the study of God’s Word is no good: without prayer worship in the sanctuary is no good; without prayer work as a teacher or district visitor is no good—not spiritually; without prayer self-communing is no good.
“It has been the greatest error of my life,” said a great man in his old age, “not learning to avail myself as I should have done of the help of prayer.” And what moral loss and failure proceed from this neglect! It is an ethical as well as a religious mistake. Superficial are we in all our observation and experience of life if we fail to see the moral uplift of religious worship; how goodness and integrity are hallowed and protected by intense religious feeling—regarded and cherished as part of the service we owe to God; and how faith, instead of being a substitute for right living, is in truth its supreme aid and inspiration, moving one to greater effort and attainment, and preserving and nourishing in the soul those finer virtues and graces which are the flower and crown of human character.2 [Note: John Hunter.]
O only Source of all our light and life,
Whom as our truth, our strength, we see and feel,
But whom the hours of mortal moral strife
Alone aright reveal!
Mine inmost soul, before Thee inly brought,
Thy presence owns ineffable, divine;
Chastised each rebel self-encentered thought,
My will adoreth Thine.
With eye down-dropt, if then this earthly mind
Speechless remain, or speechless e’en depart;
Nor seek to see—for what of earthly kind
Can see Thee as Thou art?—
If sure-assured ’tis but profanely bold
In thought’s abstractest forms to seem to see,
It dare not dare the dread communion hold
In ways unworthy Thee.
O not unowned, Thou shalt unnamed forgive,
In worldly walks the prayerless heart prepare;
And if in work its life it seem to live,
Shalt make that work be prayer.
Nor times shall lack, when while the work it plies,
Unsummoned powers the blinding film shall part,
And scarce by happy tears made dim, the eyes
In recognition start.
As wills Thy will, or give or e’en forbear
The beatific supersensual sight,
So, with Thy blessing blest, that humbler prayer
Approach Thee morn and night.1 [Note: Clough.]
Many in these days who eulogize the devotion of Jesus to the service of mankind forget that from the beginning to the close of His earthly ministry He drew strength for that service from communion with God. “I live by the Father,” He once said, and in these words we have the secret of His life and work, of His unwearying self-devotion to the cause of man and God.2 [Note: John Hunter.]
Forasmuch as they who love, and lean in love upon His breast,
Reap the richer bliss of being, drink the dews of a deeper rest,
Rise renewed in soul and sinew, greeting life with a keener zest,
I will seek Him.
It is told of Wilberforce that when an over-zealous friend asked him about the state of his soul, he replied: “I have been so busy thinking about poor slaves that I have forgotten that I had a soul.” He, perhaps, could afford to take for a time that attitude, for he had stored up in himself the results of years of severe spiritual discipline and culture. But his words, or words like them, are often used by persons to justify philanthropic activities which leave little or no leisure in their crowded days for the quiet thought which their needy souls require, and their work also, in order to make it nobly fruitful. The work cannot be better than the workman, and what we accomplish depends ultimately upon what we are. To give we must have; to do we must be.
If we with earnest effort could succeed
To make our life one long connected prayer,
As lives of some perhaps have been and are:
If never leaving Thee, we had no need
Our wandering spirits back again to lead
Into Thy presence, but continued there.
Like angels standing on the highest stair
Of the sapphire throne,—this were to pray indeed.
But if distractions manifold prevail,
And if in this we must confess we fail,
Grant us to keep at least a prompt desire,
Continual readiness for prayer and praise,
An altar heaped and waiting to take fire
With the least spark, and leap into a blaze.1 [Note: R. C. Trench.]
(2) Study of the Word.—Lay on, secondly, the fuel of the Word. If you want to see what kind of wood that is, study Psalms 119. It is the Word of God intelligently read and above all meditated upon: “While I was musing, the fire kindled, and at the last I spoke with my tongue.” And for this reason, because the Word of God unveils to us Him who is the incarnate Word, foreshadowed in the law, foretold in the prophets, recorded in the Gospels, explained in the Epistles. And as we are brought into contact with our Lord there, as with the study of the Word we grow in the knowledge of Him, the altogether lovely One, the object of supreme desire, and while our whole nature feels the touch of the fire that comes through the Word, our mind basks in the light, our heart rejoices in beauty, our conscience is gladdened with peace, and our own will within us consciously thrills beneath the touch of that most blessed Word.
The truth revealed in the Scriptures, indeed, is the instrumentality which the Holy Spirit employs for communication of the life of God to the soul. “Of his own will begat he us by the word of truth.” And by the same instrumentality is this life sustained. The prayer of our Lord for His disciples was, “Sanctify them through thy truth; thy word is truth.” Hence, the apostolic exhortation, “As newborn babes, desire the sincere milk of the word, that ye may grow thereby.”
But it is most important to observe the order here. The order is first prayer, and then the reading of the Word. A gentleman was asked by an artist friend of some note to come to his home, and see a painting just finished. He went at the time appointed, was shown by the attendant into a room which was quite dark, and left there. He was much surprised, but quietly waited developments. After perhaps fifteen minutes his friend came into the room with a cordial greeting, and took him up to the studio to see the painting, which was greatly admired. Before he left, the artist said laughingly, “I suppose you thought it queer to be left in that dark room so long.” “Yes,” the visitor said, “I did.” “Well,” his friend replied, “I knew that if you came into my studio with the glare of the street in your eyes you could not appreciate the fine colouring of the picture. So I left you in the dark room till the glare had worn out of your eyes.”1 [Note: S. D. Gordon, Quiet Talks on Prayer, 161.]
(3) The Use of the Holy Eucharist.—There is nothing which feeds the Divine fire within us like receiving with penitent heart and lively faith that gift which seems to be the very anticipation of heaven itself, that gift of our Lord as the bread of life in the Sacrament of the Eucharist.
At the Lord’s Table waiting, robed and stoled,
Till all had knelt around, I saw a sign!
In the full chalice sudden splendours shine,
Azure and crimson, emerald and gold.
I stoop’d to see the wonder, when, behold!
Within the cup a Countenance Divine
Look’d upwards at me through the trembling wine,
Suffused with tenderest love and grief untold.
The comfort of that sacramental token
From Memory’s page Time never can erase;
The glass of that rich window may be broken,
But not the mirror’d image of His grace,
Through which my dying Lord to me has spoken,
At His own Holy Table, face to face!1 [Note: Frederick Tennyson.]
3. These means must not only be used but they must be used habitually, that the fire may not go out. To produce any activity that is meant to be a continuous element in life there must be unremitting attention to the conditions of its development and use. The masters of music are always in training; they not only give years of laborious study to the discipline and education of their musical power and taste, but after all their preparatory studies they do not neglect the daily practice. But with regard to the devout spirit and life we are slow, almost reluctant, to learn that we must make much of method and habit, and that without persistent fidelity there can be no attainment. We know and are persuaded that to attain any other kind of excellence, to excel as students of physical science, as painters, singers, pianists, violinists, we must give time and thought to it, resolute purpose and steady practice; but somehow we imagine that excellence in a life infinitely higher than the scientific or artistic life does not require any such earnest and ceaseless endeavour; that the finest powers and affections of our human being—the capacity of religious inspiration, the power to draw near unto God and to enter into the communion, of His Spirit: that these powers, compared with which genius in music or painting or science is but a small thing, may be preserved and nourished into strength and beauty without the systematic care and culture which other and lower faculties and tastes and any mechanical or professional success require and demand.
I shut myself up and practised twelve hours and more a day, until one day my left hand was swollen to about twice its usual size, causing me considerable anxiety. For some months I hardly ever left my rooms, and only when I received invitations to houses where I knew I should meet, and perhaps hear, Chopin.2 [Note: Life and Letters of Sir Charles Hallé, 32.]
We often hear men speak about the spirit of prayer as being enough. Yes! it is enough; but how are we to have and to keep the spirit of prayer save as we have and keep the spirit of knowledge, the spirit of art, the spirit of love, or the spirit of anything else, save by fulfilling the conditions of having and keeping it? In pleading for devotional observances and habits, I am pleading the cause of the spirit. The men who may be said to pray without ceasing, who live almost unconsciously in an atmosphere spiritual and vital, and to whom God is the Great Companion of their days, are not the men who slight the habits of prayer; and they—the men who have mastered the art of living with God—are the only persons who can speak with any real authority on this subject. One of them says: “Evening, morning, and at noon will I cry unto thee.” Jesus Christ was full of the spirit of prayer, His heart was a shrine of unceasing worship, and His life was a constant walk with God; yet even He felt the need of method and habit, and obeyed the law which moves the devout soul to seek occasions of formal and concrete expression of its spiritual passion. He who lived in unbroken communion of spirit with His Father would yet spend whole nights in prayer, and make it His custom to go into the synagogue every Sabbath day.1 [Note: John Hunter.]
Without uncharitableness, it may be said that much of our scepticism and unbelief is simply the scepticism of neglected souls and the unbelief of world-worn hearts. It is often remarked that, in our distracted and overcrowded life, it requires much effort to keep our friendships with one another. But think you it requires less effort to keep up our sense of intimacy with God, to know Him with that knowledge which is Eternal Life, to gain insight into His ways, to love Him, and to enjoy what the Benediction calls “the communion of the Holy Spirit”? Many of us, alas! do not take time to believe in God. By our unresting action in earthly affairs, by our neglect of meditation and prayer, we build up around ourselves the very conditions of unbelief, and thus the sense of God fades out of our hearts, and all vital recognition of God disappears from our lives. We cease to tend and feed the altar-fires, and in some hour of critical trial we wake up to the fact that the very capacity for receiving religious inspiration and religious comfort has almost perished, and we are ready to take up the moan of the dying Paracelsus in Robert Browning’s poem—
Love, hope, fear, faith—these make humanity;
These are its sign and note and character,
And these I have lost! gone, shut from me for ever.
Hunter (J.), De Profundis Clamavi, 196.
Jerdan (C.), Gospel Milk and Honey, 360.
Spurgeon (C. H.), Morning by Morning, 197.
Welldon (J. E. C.), The Fire upon the Altar, 1.
Williams (J. P.), The Duty of Exercise, 122.
Christian World Pulpit, xix. 344 (Spensley); lxi. 248 (Glover); lxx. 168 (Hunter); lxxv. 200 (Body).