Page images

presentative, and himself entertains all the world at a series of sumptuous breakfasts. It is not our purpose to dwell here on the good he does, or the good he may have done—works of which the Moderatorship is the recognition and recompense. But when he goes back to his rural parish, or to his charge in the country town, he may feel that it has been his privilege to have lived indeed, and to know that when he is gathered to his fathers, he will die in the fulness of fame. Nor have we any idea of dragging in that “disruption " movement, to which we have already repeatedly adverted, at the fag-end of an article. Those characteristics of clerical life which we have rapidly reviewed apply with trifling distinctions to the members of the rival churches. But it would be unjust to write of the Scotch ministers and their people without paying à passing tribute to the earnestness of those who originated the new communion which laymen have munificently endowed. All we have said of the natural ambition of young ministers to settle down into wellfeathered nests, of the parsimony of heritors in auginenting their incomes or contributing to the rebuilding or repair of their manses, is, as we are assured, absolutely true. Yet here, at the close of “the ten years' conflict," we had some hundreds of gentlemen agreeing for conscience' sake to give up the worldly advantages they had struggled for; to go forth penniless from their comfortable homes, trusting their future and that of their families to Providence; consenting to resign the social position in the ancient establishment, which to many of them had been as the breath of their nostrils. Judging by the previous experiences of not a few, their faith in lay liberality must have been but slender. Yet they "went out" on sheer speculation, having deliberately counted the cost; for none of them could have foreseen, except some of the most popular preachers in the cities, how liberally what they had lost would be made up to them.


The Fear of Death.

[ocr errors]

WE add a strange bitterness to the last parting, inasmuch as upon so many of the subjects relating to it we doom ourselves to a sort antici pated loneliness. Few of us have the courage to speak quietly and freely of our own prospects of mortality with those nearest and dearest to us. Tenderness and custom combine to seal our lips; and there grows up a habit of reserve which we scarcely wish to break through. Yet the veil of habitual silence which we throw over death, as concerning ourselves, adds to that sense of mystery and chillness which it were surely wiser as far as may be to dispel than to increase. Each of us must die alone; but we need not encounter the fear of death alone.

How far is it true to say that the fear of death is a natural and universal instinct ? or rather to what extent does the instinctive fear of it prevail among ourselves? The very reserve of which I have spoken makes it impossible to answer with any confidence. If such reserve may be taken as an indication of shrinking from a painful subject, this shrinking would appear to be much less strong among the poor than the rich. Their outspokenness with respect to their own approaching death, or that of parents or children whom they may be nursing with the utmost tenderness, is very startling to unaccustomed ears, and might almost suggest indifference, had we not ample reason to know that it is compatible not only with tender affection but with deep and lasting SOITOW for the very loss of which by anticipation they spoke so unhesitatingls. No doubt all habits of reserve imply more or less of the power of selfcontrol, which is so largely dependent upon education ; but there would seem to be also a real difference of feeling between rich and poor about death. Perbaps their habitual plainness of speech about it may contribute towards lessening the fear of it among them. But there is an obvious and deeply pathetic explanation of their calmness in the prospect of it for themselves or for those dearest to them. The hardness and bareness of life lessens its hold upon them; sometimes even makes them feel it not an inheritance to be coveted for their children. The dull resignation with which they often say the little ones are "better off" when they die, tells a grievous story of the struggle for mere existence ; while the simplicity of their faith in the unseen is equally striking in its cheerful beauty. Both habits of mind tend to diminish the fear of death itself, as well as the unwillingness to speak of it which belongs to more complicated states of feeling and more luxurious habits of life.

It is of course impossible fully to distinguish between the fear of death, and the fear of that which may come after death ; and this is not

Even if we may

the place for fully considering the grounds of the latter fear. But our feeling about the great change is assuredly composed of many elements, and the nature of our expectation of another life is by no means the only thing which makes death more or less welcome. We do not probably at all fully realise how wide is the range of possible feeling about this life, making our anticipations of its ending as many-tinted almost as those with which we contemplate the hereafter. We tacitly agree in common conversation to avoid the subject as it concerns ourselves and our interlocutors, and in speaking of others we make it a point of good manners to refer to it as matter of regret; while religious books and sermons always assume that the King of Terrors can be encountered with calmness only by the aid of that faith which they preach. But is it really the case that apart from the terrors of religion and the courtesies of feeling, the end of life would always be unwelcome in its approach to ourselves and to others ? Is there inherent in all of us a universal craving to prolong the term of this sublunary existence, and to prevent the loosening of any of its ties?

We may be pretty sure that there is some foundation in reason for any strongly prevalent manipulation of feeling. It is easy to see how this particular practice has grown up; but it does seem to have passed the limit of sincerity, and therefore of wholesomeness. not speak freely, it must be well to think truly in a matter of such deep and frequent concern ; and it can surely be no true part of religion to deepen the natural opposition of feeling to the lot which is appointed to all.

One of the great distinctions which the voluntary assumption of mourning tends to obliterate is that between timely and untimely deaths. There is no doubt a sense in which to the eye of faith no death can be untimely, but this is as distinctly a matter of faith as the blessedness of pain. Faith may discern a rightness in the cutting short of the young life, as in all forms of suffering and affliction ; but though faith may be able to surmount all obstacles, neither faith nor reason can profit by our ignoring the natural inequalities of the ground. Some deaths are not in

any true sense aflictions; and to say so need imply no disrespect, nay it may convey the very highest testimony, to the departed. We speak of survivors as mourners, till we forget that there are survivors who, in place of mourning, may for very love be filled with a solemn joy in the completed course to which added length of days could scarcely have added either beauty or dignity. When we allow ourselves to think of the reality rather than of the mere conventional description of the event, it seems wonderful that we should have only one word with which to speak of the completion and of the destruction of a human lifetime; only one word for the event which closes the long day's toil, and for that which crashes like a thunderbolt into the opening blossom of family life ; for that which makes and that which ends widowhood; for the final fulfilment or reversal of all our temporal hopes; for bereaveVOL. XXXVIII.-NO. 227.


ment and for reunion. It is true that in one sense it is “

one event" which befalls in all these cases, but the feelings belonging to it have as wide a range of colour as the sunset clouds. Need we wrap them all in the same thick veil of gloomy language and ceremonial ?

At any rate, the feelings with which we contemplate the termination of our own earthly life must vary indefinitely in different individuals, and in the same individual at different times; and it would be a matter of deep interest to compare our respective experience if we could bring ourselves to do so.

It is sometimes said that no one can tell what his own feeling about death would be, until he has been brought face to face with it. This is no doubt true; but it is also true that the feelings with which we regard it from a distance vary as much as those with which we should meet its near approach, and that the former are more important to our welfare than the latter. To be “through fear of death all their lifetime subject to bondage," is a heavy burden, and I believe not an uncommon one. Generalising from the scanty materials gleaned by one ordinary observer, I believe that the purely instinctive fear is strongest in people of a very high degree of vitality; it is the shadow cast by intense love of life, and seems to depend in a great measure upon a certain kind of physical vigour. This may be one explanation of the strange and beautiful way in which the fear of death so often disappears as the event itself approaches; the weakened frame does not shrink from the final touch of that decay which has already insensibly loosened its hold upon

life. Professional observers speak of cases in which the fear of dying is active to the last, as being extremely rare; it should probably be considered as a physical indication of vitality. For the same reason, perhaps, the fear of death is often comparatively slight in early youth, before the constitution has reached its full vigour, and before the habit of living has been very firmly established. At the same time, the very energy and buoy ancy of a perfectly vigorous physical organisation help to dispel or to neutralise painful impressions; so that although the idea of death may be more naturally abhorrent to the strong than to the weak, they may be less habitually oppressed by the thoughts of it.

There also seems to be a deep, though obscure, connection between the wish and the power to live. Physicians and nurses have strange stories to tell of cases in which a strong motive for living has seemed sufficient to recall patients from the very grasp of death. Sometimes the mere assurance, given with a confident manner but a doubting heart, that recovery is possible, seems to give strength to rally and may turn the scale in favour of life. For this reason, amongst others, medical men are generally extremely unwilling to tell patients that there is no hope. There are cases on record in which such an announcement, though voluntarily elicited and met with perfect apparent calmness, has seemed to sap the strength in a moment and cause a sudden and rapid sinking. It is perhaps some physical instinct of self-preservation, rather than any Want of courage, which makes some sick people so carefully shun all opportunities for any such communication. The curious physical results of mental expectation make it often most inexpedient for the sick to know all that is known to others about their state; and perhaps only those who have lived long in sick rooms can fully appreciate the blessing to the watchers of having to do with a patient who neither anxiously questions nor fears to hear or to speak the plain truth, making it clear that to him the question of life or death is not one of overmastering importance. To be able, while the bodily life is trembling in the balance, to look beyond it in undisturbed serenity, is not only to be in the condition most favourable to health and happiness, it is to radiate strength and courage to all around. And some such influence, though in a more diffused and less perceptible form, is exercised during health by those who do not shrink from the prospect of death.

Perfect serenity in regard to death is not to be attained by any effort of the will, nor by any mere process of reasoning; it is rather the result of a happy combination of bodily and mental conditions. The chief of these conditions, the assured hope of a future beyond the grave in comparison of which the brightest earthly visions fade like a candle before the dawn, is not given to all; and in these days especially, it is for many overshadowed, if not altogether blotted out, by doubts and questionings which can no longer be hidden from the multitude. Even to those who most earnestly cling to the hope of immortality, it would seem that our troublous inheritance of sympathy must cast many a distressing side-light upon prospects in which of old the faithful were able to take undisturbed delight. However this may be, the mere prospect of prolonged existence beyond the grave, apart from other reasons for joyful confidence, must be taken rather as enlarging the scope of our hopes and of our fears than as necessarily altering the balance between them. Habitual hopefulness may colour the prospect beyond the grave with the same glowing tints which it throws over this world, so that in some cases the same cause which makes life delightful makes death not unwelcome. Such a state of mind, though rare, is not unknown. But perhaps a perfect balance of feeling is more readily to be found at a lower level of expectation.

It may be one of the natural compensations for a comparatively low degree of vitality that, in thinking of death, the idea of rest predominates over that of loss, so that there is no alloy of pain in the reflection that none of the troubles of this life can be more than passing clouds; that for each one of us “the Shadow sits and waits ;” that the burden of life, however heavy, must drop off at last; and that none can say how near to anyone may be the final relief from all its evils. Weariness of mere existence is a heavy, and probably a very common, secret burden; one which makes the thought of annihilation more attractive to some of us than any celestial visions. Those who suffer from it would not welcome the brightest prospects of heaven, unless they could hope first for a “long and dreamless sleep” in which to wash off the travel-stains of the past.

« ՆախորդըՇարունակել »