There are few things more commonly disregarded by us in our early years than the brevity of our life through all its successive stages, and the fleeting nature of its opportunities.
In childhood we are almost entirely unconscious of both these characteristics of life. Indeed, it would hardly be natural if it were otherwise. That reflective habit which dwells upon them is the result of our experience, and comes later. It is enough for a child if he follows pure and safe instincts, and lives without reflection a healthy, unperverted life, under wise guidance and good teaching. Growing in this way, free from corrupting influences or the contagion of bad example, and poisoned by no bad atmosphere, he develops naturally towards a manhood which is rooted in healthy tastes, affections unspoilt, and in good habits. Thus you see what the very young have a right to claim at the hands of all their elders -- that they should be careful not to mislead them, and should see that they live in pure air, and feed their growing instincts and activities in wholesome pastures.
During the stage of earliest growth it would be a sign of unhealthy precocity if a child were much occupied with the continuity of things, or the close union of to-day with to-morrow, or of all our thoughts, acts, pleasures, and tastes, with the bent of character which is being silently but surely formed in us; and it would be equally unnatural if his thoughts were to dwell much on the essential shortness of our life, and the flight of opportunity which does not come back to us.
It is part of the happiness, or, I fear, it must be said sometimes, part of the pain of early life, that the time before it seems so long. The day is long with its crowded novelty or intense enjoyment, or possibly with its dreary and intolerable task-work; to-morrow, with all its anticipations of things desired or to be endured, seems long; and the vista of years, as they stretch through boyhood and youth, manhood and age, seems to lose itself in the far distance of its length. So, viewed from its beginnings, life is long.
But with the approach of manhood all this begins to change. As we grow out of childhood our self-conscious and reflective life grows; and thus there rises in us the feeling of moral responsibility never to be shaken off again. Not, however, that we should leave all our childhood behind us. It hardly needs to be said that there are some characteristics of our earliest years which every man should pray that he may retain to the end. Unless he retains them his life becomes a deteriorating life.
And first among these is the reverential or filial habit. This deserves our careful attention, because we sometimes see an affectation of silly and spurious manliness, which thinks it a fine thing to cast it off. This reverential or filial feeling, which is natural to the unspoilt and truthful nature of the child, is preserved in every unspoilt manhood; only with a difference.
It is raised from the unreflective, instinctive trust in a father's guidance or a mother's love to that higher feeling which tells us that, as is the child in a well and wisely ordered home, so is each of us in that great household of our heavenly Father. This spirit of true piety, which uplifts, refines, strengthens, and gives courage to manhood, as nothing else can do, is the natural outcome and successor of a child's trustfulness, as we rise through it to the feeling that we are encompassed by a Divine consciousness, and that our life moves in a holy presence. Or again, we pray that we may not lose that simplicity and freshness of nature which is at once a special charm of childhood, and, wherever it is preserved, the chief blessing of a man's later years.
These qualities and characteristics of our infancy -- trust, filial reverence, freshness, simplicity -- are not qualities to be left behind, but the natural forecast of that religious spirit which is the highest growth of maturity, and our own safeguard against the hardening and debasing influences of the world and the flesh. And this was the Saviour's meaning when He said, "Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child shall in nowise enter therein." And if there is one thing more than another that constitutes the special curse of any depraved influence acting on young lives, it is that it robs the later life of these childlike qualities which are the gifts of God to bless us in youth and age.
But assuming that we bear all this in mind, and hold fast to these fundamental gifts, and so escape those lower and baser forms of life which we meet all about in the world, spoiling the manhood and embittering the age of so many men, we cannot forget the essential difference between mature years and the years of early growth.
As we grow towards manhood our life necessarily loses its childlike and unreflecting spontaneity in the ferment of thought, desire, and passion, and in the light of experience; and therefore it becomes a matter of no slight importance to estimate the value of that which we hold in our hands to-day, the nature of the web which our conduct is weaving, and the fateful character of any mistake in the purposes, notions, ambitions, or tastes that are, as a matter of fact, fixing the drift and direction of our life. But to do this amidst all the daily temptations of life is not always an easy matter; and it is certain that we shall not do it if we do not fully recognise, while our life is still young and unhampered, the importance of these two very obvious reflections, which, in fact, resolve themselves into one, that our time is essentially short, and that our opportunities are very fugitive.
In one sense, no doubt, there is a long stretch of time before most of you. As yet hope has more to say to you than memory. Some of you will look back on these early days from the distant years of another century. Your life's journey may extend far away over the unexplored future, and may in some cases be a very long one; but, although this is possible, we are not allowed to forget that it is always precarious -- unexpected graves are constantly reminding us how short may be the time of any one of us -- how the night cometh.
But it is not merely of the literal shortness of our time, or the possible nearness of death, that our Lord's words should set us thinking, when He warns us that the night cometh, and we must work while it is day.
If we measure our life by the things we should accomplish in it, by the character it should attain to, by the purposes that should be bearing fruit in it, and not by mere lapse of time, we soon come to feel how very short it is, and the sense of present duty grows imperative. It is thus that the thoughtful man looks at his life; and he feels that there is no such thing as length of days which he can without blame live carelessly, because in these careless days critical opportunities will have slipped away irrecoverably; he will have drifted in his carelessness past some turning-point which he will not see again, and have missed the so-called chances that come no more.
But even this is only a part of the considerations that make our present life so precious; for this is only the outer aspect of it. What makes our time so critically short, whether we consider its intellectual or its moral and spiritual uses, is that our nature is so very sensitive, so easily marred by misuse, and spoilt irretrievably. The real brevity of the time at your disposal, whether for the training of your mind, or for your growth into the character of good men, consists in this, that deterioration is standing always at the back of any neglect or waste. Deterioration is the inseparable shadow of every form of ignoble life.
"Our acts our angels are, for good or ill,
Leave your faculties unused and they become blunted and dulled; leave your higher tastes uncultivated and they die; let your affections feed on anything unworthy and they become debased.
To those who do this it may happen that whilst, so far as years go, they are still in all the freshness of youth, they are already dying that death to all higher capacity which is worse than any decay of our physical organism. Such an early death of higher tastes and faculties, and of hope for the future, is sometimes effected even before schooldays are over. And the mere possibility of such a fate overhanging any of us should stir us like a trumpet-call to take care that we do not surrender our life to any mean influence, and that we are very zealous for all that concerns the safety of the young.
"I send out my child," I can imagine the parent of any one of you having said, "to be trained for manhood; I send him to his school that his intellect may be cultivated, his moral purpose made strong, and that all good and pure tastes may be fostered in him; but it is dreadful to think that instead of this he may, by his life and companionship there, be hardened and debased, or even brutalised; he may become dead to the higher life even before he becomes a man." Seeing, then, that there is this possibility of death even in the midst of life -- a possibility, we would fain hope, seldom realised in this school, but still a possibility -- shall we not be very careful, men and boys alike, so to do our part in this society, so to shelter the young and strengthen the weak, and to keep the atmosphere of our life a pure atmosphere, that every sensitive soul which comes amongst us may grow up here through a healthy and wholesome boyhood, and go out to the duties and the calling of his life, strong, unselfish, public-spirited, pure-hearted, and courageous -- a Christian gentleman.