Wagner -- I am a Voice


Charles Wagner, French Protestant pastor and moral essayist, was born in 1851 in Alsace. He is at present rector of the Reformed Church in Fontenay-Lous-Bois, in the Department of Seine. He received a comprehensive education at the universities of Paris, Strasburg and Goettingen, and after undertaking many cures in the provinces he went to Paris in 1882, where he occupied himself in a crusade against the degrading tendency of life, art and literature in certain of their Parisian phases. He has been a founder of several popular universities under the auspices of the Society for the Promotion of Morality. He has published many books, and "La Vie Simple" ("The Simple Life") was crowned by the French Academy and has been translated into many European languages, as well as into Japanese. Wagner has been styled the French Tolstoy, but he is less visionary and much more popular and practical in his views than the Russian mystic. The author of "The Simple Life" was greeted with many expressions of warm appreciation on his visit to the United States a few years ago. He was a guest at the Presidential mansion by invitation of President Roosevelt, who has highly commended "The Simple Life."


Born in 1851


[Footnote 1: From "The Gospel of Life," by Charles Wagner, by permission of the McClure Company, publishers. Copyright, 1905, by McClure, Phillips & Co.]

I am the voice[2] of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord. -- John i., 23.

[Footnote 2: In the French version of the Scriptures it is "a voice," and it is necessary to retain this reading in order to render precisely Pastor Wagner's thought. -- Translator.]

Nothing is rarer than a personality. So many causes, both interior and exterior, hinder the normal development of human beings, so many hostile forces crush them, so many illusions lead them astray, that there is required a concurrence of extraordinary circumstances to render possible the existence of an independent character. But when, God alone knows at the cost of what efforts and of what happy accidents, a vigorous and original personality has been able to unfold, nothing is rarer than not to see it degenerate into a mere personage. History teaches us that men exceptional in will and energy almost always become obstructive and mischievous. They commence by serving a cause and end by taking possession of it so completely that, from being its servants, they become its masters. Instead of being men of a cause, they make the cause that of a man, and they degrade the most sacred realities to the paltry level of their ambitious egoism.

Thus, when we meet with strong natures, endowed with the secret of leadership and command, yet able to resist the subtle temptation to which so many of the finer spirits have succumbed, it behooves us to bow and to salute in them a greatness before which all that it is customary to call by that name fades into nothingness.

If ever soul encompassed this greatness, it was that of John the Baptist. John is little known. Of him there remain only a few traits of physiognomy and a few snatches of discourse. But these snatches are full of character, these traits possess a sculptural relief; just as with broken trunks of columns, with fragments of stones, all that is left of temples that were once the marvels of ancient art, they enable us to conceive of the grandeur of the whole edifice to which they once belonged. John was at once strong and humble, energetic and self-detached. Never has an individuality so well-tempered been less personal. Identifying himself completely with his role as precursor, he found perfect happiness in effacing himself in the glory of Christ, just as the dawn disappears in the splendors of the morning.

History is full of precursors who impede and withstand those whom they had first announced. When the time comes to retire and to give way to those for whom they have prepared the way, they do not have the courage to sacrifice themselves. They go on forever, and often become the worst enemies of the cause they have defended. John knew nothing of these failings which are the perpetual scandal in the development of the kingdom of God. Not only did he say, speaking of Jesus: "He must increase, but I must decrease," but he made all his acts conform to these words.

"This my joy is therefore fulfilled," he said, as he dwelt upon the first advances of the gospel, and he exprest thus a sweetness of sacrifice forever unknown to personal souls that remain vulgar in spite of their genius.

Finally, John described himself metaphorically in that inimitable prophetic speech which explains in full the idea that he formed for himself of his ministry. Under the sway of a morbid curiosity, the crowd, more perplexed by the appearance of the worker than attentive to the work, prest him with questions. Who then art thou, mysterious preacher? Art thou one of the old prophets of Israel, escaped from his rocky tomb? Or art thou perchance He whom we await? No, answered John, I am neither one of the prophets nor the Messiah himself, I am no one: I am a voice!

I am a voice! This is not a formula that sums up the vocation of the prophets solely, or of all those who, in the pulpit or in the tribune, by the pen or by the public discourse, exert an influence upon their contemporaries. These words are addrest to every one. They define for every man, the humble yet great duty of truth that he is called to fulfil in his sphere and according to the measure of his ability. At the epoch in which we live, such a device is so applicable to the time being, so pressing, so needful for us to hear, that it is wise to engrave it in the very foreground of our consciousness.

To become a voice we must begin by keeping still. We must listen. The whole world is a tongue of which the spirit is the meaning. God engraved its fiery capitals in the immensity of the heavens, and traced its delicate smaller letters on the flower, on the grass, on the human soul, as rich, as incommensurable as the abysses of space. Whosoever you are, brother, before letting yourself utter one word, lend your ear to that voice that seeks you, I might almost add, that implores you. Listen! -- Listen to the confused murmur that arises from the human depths, and that, comprising in it all tears, all torments, as well as all joys, becomes the sigh of creation.

Listen in your heart to remorse, the sad and poignant echo that sin, traversing life, leaves everywhere upon its passage. Shut your ear to no sound, however unobtrusive, however sad, it may be. There are voices that issue from the tombs, others that call to you from out the abyss of past ages; repel them not, listen! One and all, they have something to say to you.

But do not be content with listening to man. Pierce nature, and, in visible creation as in the invisible sanctuary of souls, watch attentively for the revelation of Him whose eternal thought every living thing, humble or sublime, translates after its own fashion. He speaks to you in the dark nights and in the bright light of dawn, in the infinite radiance of the worlds beyond all reckoning, and in the humble stalk that awaits, in the valley bottom, its ray of light and its drop of dew. Listen! -- If there is anguish in the voice of poor humanity, there are in great nature profound words of soothing, of hope. Look at the flower in the fields, listen to the birds in the skies! After the distrest voices that perturb you, you shall know the voices that relieve and console. There shall befall you that which befell the nun whose memory is preserved for us in the old legends. Listening to the forest voices she had gone, following them always, as far as the thick solitudes where nothing any longer comes to trouble the collected soul. There, in the shade of a tree where she had seated herself, she heard a song till then unknown to her ears. It was the song of the mystic bird. This song said, in marvelous modulations, all that man thinks and feels, all that he suffers, all that he seeks, all that falls short of fulfilment for him. It summed up in harmonies the destinies of living beings and the immense pity that is at the root of things. Softly, on light, strong wings, it lifted the soul to the heights where it looks upon reality. And the nun, her hands clasped, listened, listened without end, forgetting earth, sky, time, forgetting herself. She listened for centuries without ever growing tired, finding in the song that charmed her a sweetness forever new. Dear and truthful image of what the soul experiences when, mute, as respectful as a child and as ready of belief, it listens in the universal silence to the voices that translate for it the things that are eternal!

All those who have become voices have traveled this way. At Patmos or in the desert, on Horeb or on Sinai, they have trembled with fright or started with joy. But everything has its time. There comes a day when all voices, soft or terrible, that man has heard, grow still, to let henceforth only one be heard, which cries to him: "Go! go now and be a witness of the things you have heard! Go! I send you forth as lambs among wolves! Go! I send you toward men whose brow is harsh, whose heart is wicked, but fear nothing, I shall embolden your face, I shall give you a heart of brass and a forehead of diamond."

When that moment has come, one must, in order to remain faithful to his mission, remember that after all he is only a voice. Truth does not belong to us, it is we who belong to truth! Wo to him who possesses it and treats it as something that belongs to himself. Happy is he who is possest by it! No preference, no kinship, no sympathy counts here. Alas! it is not thus that men understand it. It is for this reason that they degrade truth and that it becomes without power in their hands. Instead of winging its way heavenward in vigorous flight, it crawls along the earth, like an eagle whose wings have been broken. Nothing is sadder than to see how those who ought to lend their voice to truth, turn it to their own uses and play with it. The voice, human speech, that sacred organ, whose whole worth lies in sincerity, has in all ages been the victim of odious profanations. But in this age it is more than ever attainted. The evil from which it suffers is defilement.

At certain epochs a word was as good as a man. It was an act total, supreme, guaranteed by the whole of life. There was no need to sign, to stamp, to legalize. Speech was held between friends and enemies alike, more sacred than any sanctuary, and man maintained it, with the obscure but just sentiment that it is at the base of society, and that if words lose their value, there is no longer any society possible. Later the written word was considered sacred. And coming nearer to our own day, we have been able to see the masses, guided ever by that quite legitimate sentiment of the holiness of speech, regard everything printed as gospel truth. Those times are no more. We have lied too much, by the living word, the pen, and the press. We have said and printed too much that is light, false, wittingly disfigured. Armed with an instrumentality that multiplies thought and spreads it broadcast to the four corners of the earth with a rapidity unknown to our fathers, we have made use of it, for the most part, to extend slander more widely and to cause a greater amount of doubtful intelligence to swarm upon the earth. So well have we spun speech out in all our mouths, so thoroughly have we deprived it of its proper nature and caused it to become sophisticated, that it is no longer of the least value. The confidence of the masses in authority, which is one of the slowest and most difficult conquests of humanity, we have lost like a thing of no worth. They no longer say to any one who now lifts up his voice: Who are you? But: What end have you in view? What party do you serve? By what interest are you led? By whom have you been bought? That there may be a sacred truth, loved, respected, adored; a truth that is worth more than life, to which one may give himself wholly and with happiness -- this idea diverts the cynics and makes those whom the cruel experiences of life have rendered distrustful, shake their heads. If ever an epoch has needed to rehabilitate human speech, it is our own. What good are we if it is good for nothing, since it is at the root of all our institutions?

Who will give it back its potency? -- They who will know how to resign themselves to being but a voice!

Permit me to bring home to you, by means of a very modest example, what man may gain in force by being but a voice. Look at that clock. When the hour has come, it marks it. Whether it be the hour of birth or of death, the hour of joy or of sorrow, the hour of longed-for meetings, or of heart-breaking farewells, the clock strikes that hour. It is only a mechanism, but it is scrupulously exact, it measures that time which descends to us drop by drop from the bosom of eternity, and when the hammer falls on the brazen bell, the entire universe confirms what it announces. The suns and the worlds mark at this very moment, in the immortal light, the same point of time that is indicated below on earth, some starless night, by the humblest village clock. We must imitate the clock. In full consciousness, through absolute submission, man should make himself the humble instrument of truth, and go through supreme servitude to supreme power. When he does not do this, he is only an imperfect timepiece. But when, bound by his word, chained to the truth that he serves, he has become its slave, and when, without hate, without preference, without human fear, without other desire than that of being faithful, he proclaims what is just, true, right, good, the rocks are less firm on their base than this man: for he is a voice!

A voice is, if you like, a slight thing. Stilled as soon as it awakened, it is heard only by a few and for a little while. It is said that singers are greatly to be pitied, since posterity can not hear them. Nothing of them remains. And yet how many marvelous forces underlie this apparent fragility! The thunder has its roar, the breeze has its tenderness, but their power is transitory; they are sounds and not voices. A voice is a living sound, it is the vibrant echo of a soul. It is doubtless that most fragile thing, a breath, but joined to that which is most durable, spirit. And it is for this reason that, if the instant when it is born sees it die, centuries of centuries can not destroy its effect. The truth which is in it confers immortality upon it, and when this voice escapes from a human breast, he who speaks, sings or weeps, feels indeed that eternity has concluded an alliance with him. Peeling his fragile testimony confirmed by all that endures and can not die, he says with Christ: "Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away!"

The holy labors entrusted to the voice can never be counted. Because of the very fact that it lives and that it contains a soul, it is the great awakener, the incomparable evoker. When, obscure still and unknown, a thought distracts us and slumbers at the bottom of our being, a voice is all that is needed to make it emerge into the light. With maternal tenderness, the voice borrows all the energies of incubation, to infuse with warmth, to fortify, the nascent germs of spiritual life. In it lives and breaks forth what, in the evolving soul, tends feebly and furtively toward the flowering. In short, the voice, speech, the tongue, condenses in a single focus incalculable quantities of rays.

Only think of the efforts that human thought must have made to reach that clearness that enables it to become speech. Every word that you utter without giving it a thought is a monument toward which centuries and multitudes of minds have wrought. A world is contained in it. Poor words! one man decks himself out in them, another wraps himself up in them, but how few know of the warmth of life and love that has put them into the world that they may be forever the witnesses of the past for posterity! No matter, for when they have been made sufficiently to resound like an inanimate cymbal, there comes an hour when they revive under the breath of a true and living being, and they depart to spread life. Then they fulfil their role as educators. To educate is to explain a being to itself. And this is the benign service that the voice performs. It tells us what we think better than we can ourselves. It unbinds the chains of the captive soul and permits it to take its flight. Happy the child, happy the young man who meets with a voice to decipher him to himself! This is what Christ did in those blest hours when He reunited the children of His people, as a bird reunites its brood under its wings!

What the voice does in detail, it continues to accomplish on the larger scale. At certain moments societies seem a prey to a sort of chaos. A number of contrary forces clash and perturb them, as they perturb and rend individual souls. Men seek, feeling their way, a road that seems to elude them. A crowd of spirits, by the very fact of their contemporaneity, feel themselves distracted and agitated all in the same way. Confusedly and provoked by the same sufferings they elaborate the same ideal and formulate the same desires. But they all wander along twilit paths on the side of the night where the light seems to be breaking through, without, however, being able to pierce the darkness. These are the preliminary agonies of the great historical epochs. Then let a being more powerful, more vital, an elect soul that has passed through this phase and conquered these shadows, become incarnate in a voice! That is enough. The personal word which expresses the soul of that epoch and responds to its needs, is found. It sounds through the world like a new fiat lux! Everywhere, in those who listen to it and feel secret affinities with it in themselves, it constitutes a magnificent revelation of light and life. All these hearts vibrate in unison with one; and, gathering up all these scattered notes into a single harmony, he who expresses the sentiments of all, renders an account of the wonderful power of which he is the instrument. No, it is no longer a man that speaks: what sounds upon his lips, is the whole soul of a people, is a whole epoch, is a new world.

A voice is also that inimitable sigh, that pure sob which tells of grief because it issues from a suffering heart. It is pity and compassion, it is the angel of God arriving among us on the caressing breath, a messenger of mercy, and pouring into the tortured depths of our poor heart its healing dew. It is Jesus saying to Mary, and, in her, to all those whom grief afflicts: "Why weepest thou?" It is David singing: "Why art thou cast down, O my soul?" It is Isaiah crying: "Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people; speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem!"

A voice is, on the solitary path where our will strays, the faithful shepherd calling his sheep; it is every sign, even tho it be made by the hand of a child, which in the days of forgetfulness and unrestraint, suddenly wakes us and warns us that our feet skirt the abysses.

Then, after the work of education, of creation, of pity, comes the work of severity, of punishment, of destruction. The voice has been compared to a sword. Like it, it flames and punishes. A voice is Nathan rising up before the criminal king and calling down upon his head the avenging lightning of this word: "Thou art the man!" The sword attacks, destroys, but it defends, also, and this is its fairest work. Never is the voice more touching than when it is lifted in favor of the weak, and, when, suddenly, in the midst of the iniquities of brute force that it denounces, marks with its stigma, it causes justice to shine forth and the truth to be felt, in the holy soul-traversing thrill, that God Himself is there and that His hour has come!

A voice has its echo. When this echo is sympathetic, it is endowed with the sweetest recompense and obliterates the memory of many sorrows. But this echo is often hostile. It arises from wrath and is increased by hatred. Then it is resistance, riot, that rumbles. It is the passions and the scourged vices that twist and bellow like deer under the lash of the trainer. How many times, O, faithful voices, souls of peace and truth, has the spirit that animates you driven you to these fearful encounters -- you who have heard in the silence of your hearts the holy verities and who know their worth, you are obliged to go bearing them in the face of menace, of mockery, of trembling rage where they seem to us like Daniel in the lion's den! A terrible ordeal! but one before which the testifying voices have never recoiled. Luther, who knew the emotions of the great battles of the spirit where one man is alone in the face of a thousand, where tinder the growing clamors and the cries of death ... a voice struggles like a torch in a tempest, has given to the servants of truth a counsel that is the alpha and omega of their austere mission. When they have said all, done all, essayed all, put all their being and all their love into the proclamation of what they have to announce, then, he says, "let them be ready to be hooted at and spat upon!" And not only should they be ready but they should accept this lot with happiness. Christ says to them: "Happy are they that are outraged and persecuted for the sake of justice!"

Alas, the rudest proof for him who speaks the truth is not to arouse indignation. That, at least, is a result, and however sad it may be, it bears witness to him who has spoken. Certain protests, despite their fury, are a sort of involuntary homage. The supreme trial for a voice is indifference. When John called himself a voice in the wilderness, he alluded to that external solitude where his voice was raised. But this solitude, on certain days was full of life and the gospel cites for our benefit certain facts which prove that the words with which it resounded were not lost in the empty spaces. They moved and struck home from the humblest regions of society to the exalted spheres, to the royal throne itself. John garnered love and hate, blessing and curse, the desirable fruits of all energetic action. Since that time and before, more than one voice has been able, applying them to itself, to give to those prophetic words, "voices in the wilderness," another very melancholy significance. The supreme image of despair is a voice that is lost in the silence, as is lost, in the bosom of dead solitudes, the call that no one hears, for succor that will never come.

After having spoken of the different voices, of their power, of their effects, let us bestow a compassionate remembrance upon the lost voices, on those who were or who are still, in the most lamentable sense of that word, voices in the wilderness. -- To be a man, a soul, to have felt the lighting of a holy flame within oneself; to love truth and justice; to feel the pain of contact with a life ruled over by falsehood and violence; at the heart of this poignant contrast between a divine ideal and a heart-rending reality, to receive from his conscience, from God himself, the command to speak; to put his life into this work, to renounce everything to be only a voice ... and after all this to see himself forsaken, neglected, despised! To wear oneself out slowly in a strife obscure and without issue; to perish without having aroused either sympathy or opposition, to disappear into oblivion before disappearing in the tomb ... ah! all the furies, all the bloody reprisals, the dungeons, the gibbets, the massacres, all the martyrdoms by which human wickedness strove to stifle the voice of the just, are less horrible than this extermination by apathy.

And yet, not to press things to this cruel extremity, but remembering the parable of the sower, where so many seeds are lost for the few that take root and flourish, ought we not be willing to be, in the greatest number of cases, voices in the wilderness, only too happy if our thankless labors are recompensed elsewhere by an encouraging echo? Have we not here, on the contrary, the image of human life? we are always aspiring toward an ideal more elevated than that which we realize. We are always precursors, and it becomes us to accept humbly what that destiny holds both of pain and of beauty.

Besides, do we know whether voices that seem to be lost, are so in reality? Are the stones that are hidden in the foundations of a beautiful edifice, and thanks to which the whole fabric is supported, lost because no one sees them? In the same way it must be that many voices are forgotten apparently, until such time as, added together and finding in each other mutual support, they end by emerging into the full light of day.

To wait and to work; to do his duty, and leave the rest to God; to journey through life, gathering truth into his heart, and then into the family, the Church, the city; to be its faithful voice; this is the best use a man can make of his mortal days. And should it be your lot to be voices in the wilderness; among your children deaf to your cries; among your compatriots insensible to your warnings, console yourselves. Greater than you have suffered the same fate. Unite yourself in spirit to their company and be happy to suffer with them. At least as you come to understand more and more from day to day that truth can not perish, and that it is potent even on feeble lips; you will establish in your hearts faith in the world that endures, and you will be less astonished and less disconcerted when you see the face of this world pass away. You will live by the sacred fire cherished in your souls. Let your furrow close, your hope will not perish! Like Moses on Nebo, you will enter into the silence, having filled your dying eyes with the spectacle of the promised land!

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