Canon Prichard adds an English note to our pulpit symphony, not alone because of his British background and training, but also by virtue of his delicate clarity of insight and understanding, and the finished form in which it clothes itself. There is a quality in his sermon—more easily felt than defined—which is not often enough manifest in our American preaching; and it is for that reason all the more welcome.
Born in Bristol in 1882, Canon Prichard was educated at Clifton College and at Trinity College, Oxford, where he won honors in the Classics, as well as in Philosophy and History—graduating in 1907. In America he continued his studies in Greek at Johns Hopkins University, then engaged in teaching for two years, and after a few months at the General Theological Seminary, New York, he was ordained Deacon in 1912; advancing to the priesthood in 1913. Since 1914 he has been Rector of St. Mark’s Church, Mt. Kisco, N. Y., serving the while as Acting Dean of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine 1924-25, during the illness of Dean Robbins.
Besides various miscellaneous articles and reviews, Canon Prichard has written two little books; The Sower, a modern application of the parable, and Three Essays in Restatement—to which ought to be added a sympathetic discussion of Spiritualism, and a number of Missionary booklets.
If there had been a law given which could have given life, verily, righteousness should have been by the law. Galatians 3:21.
Among all the books upon my shelves, many of which I value very highly, there is none, I think, that gives me greater pleasure and satisfaction than a slim volume of verse presented to me by the great English poet, John Masefeld, when I visited him at his home near Oxford last summer. It is called The Daffodil Fields; and there are two lines in it which stand out with ever-increasing significance the more I think about them:
Life is the daily thing man never heeds.
It is ablaze with sign and countersign.
Life is the daily thing man never heeds: and the reason why he does not heed it is because he is so close to it that he misses its vast and magnificent potentialities. Just as a master loses his heroic qualities in the eyes of the valet who knows him too well, so life loses its mystery and meaning to the drudge who is occupied in the business of living. And yet if we could but look at it from the outside, how subtle and delicate and altogether enthralling a drama it is! Why should man ever be bored or defeated? And, if he is bored and defeated, why should he look for the fault in circumstance, accident, Providence—anywhere except within? If we peer so intimately in the face of life that we cannot see its majestic sweep; if our attention is so absorbed in the texture that we fail to take note of the tapestried picture; whose is the loss—and whose is the blame? Surely it cannot be counted against Him whose gift it is. Rather we were endowed by the Almighty with vision that we might trace its glory to the end of the evening sky, and then go on to the spiritual infinities promised of God. That may be for some, you say. But not for many. Life is the daily thing most men never heed.
It is ablaze with sign and countersign. The greatness of a man’s place in the honor of the world has been largely due to how lofty and universal an interpretation he has given to his generation of the signs and countersigns of life. Among the ranks of those interpreters have been executives and statesmen and philosophers and prophets—all intent upon reading for their fellow men the meaning of life. And some of the sublimest poetry in the world has sprung from the effort of genius to fit to that interpretation measured words. Browning, for instance, to whom the riddle was a recurring theme, finds life to consist not in accomplishment so much as in aspiration. It is the visions of life that have danced before a man’s eyes more than the deeds of life that have occupied a man’s hands that make up its real value.
Not on the vulgar mass
Called “work” must sentence pass,
Things done, that took the eye and had the price;
O’er which, from level stand,
The low world laid its hand,
Found straight way to its mind, could value in a trice:
but, since the real life of man is hidden, we must find it elsewhere, in
Thoughts hardly to be packed
Into a narrow act,
Fancies that broke through language and escaped;
All I could never be,
All men ignored in me,
This, I was worth to God, whose wheel the pitcher shaped.
It is good to know that, where I tried and failed, some broken fragments still of value may remain. And at the opposite extreme we have Walt Whitman, the prophet of accomplishment and mastery, urging us on to the doing that will satisfy every craving and instinct, each ambition and desire. He reads the signs into a different meaning, and sets before us a harvest of consummation—the fruits of which are sometimes inexpedient, but always free.
It is that—freedom—that marks the life of men out as something different from any other life. To man alone has been given the power really to be free. He alone of all created things can rise above law—not all law, because his body is subject still to gravitation and decay and the confines of space and time, but potentially he is free because his spirit can be cabined by nothing. We live in a dead universe—stones, meteors, plants, animals, stars and elements—all dead, because all are under law. They exist, some of them, but they cannot live because they cannot break away and be free. We can, to a large degree, study the laws of their bondage, as we can read the sentence imposed upon a prisoner in his cell. If you would learn the laws that govern the stars, the astronomer will tell you; or the laws of inorganic things, the chemist has his formulae. If you would be told the laws that rule over the growth of vegetable and plant, the botanist will heed your question; and should you be interested in the laws that control what we call life, the biologist will supply the information—but he cannot tell you what life is. He does not know. Life only comes when freedom enters in—when a baby begins to cry for the moon, or a hero goes out on a forlorn hope, or a mystic finds the end of a spiritual rainbow—everything superbly Quixotic and insanely chivalrous—every illogical faith and irrational impulse—the glory of colors we cannot see and the melody of chords we cannot hear—those things are the beginning of living. They are the product of that divine discontent which brings salvation. Did not Jesus Himself say that He brought, not peace, but a sword? Was that not because He was so vitally aware that peace too often means stagnation, and stagnation means the end? “Human life is the restless striving of a spiritual energy, doing the good only to see the better; and seeing the better only to attempt it; for he who ceases to become better ceases to be good. So build we up the being that we are.”
“If there had been a law given which could have given life, verily, righteousness should have been by the law.” We know that such a law could never be—and yet we look around us and see the mark of law on every side—overwhelmingly potent, not indeed to make life or righteousness, but to bring stultification and death. Our living as we know it is a meekly ordered thing, constrained by convention, fettered by fashion, weak and meaningless, legislated out of import. In Church and state, in society and business, we are circumscribed by dictates, often inarticulate, seldom written—the cold menace of public opinion, the idols of the clan or the profession or the denomination, the wan ghosts of shriveled traditions, the dead fetishes of forgotten civilizations. How many things we would, but dare not do! How many things—forbidden things—it were better if we did! How little is even the spirit free for the unbounded service of Him whose service is perfect freedom!
But, you say, we must have law, or living would be chaos. This, you cry, is no place or time to preach a gospel of individualism, to voice a challenge of anarchy. No—it is never the place or time to do those things. We must have law, but it must be law, universal and infinite, that stretches out the horizon of life to its fullest sweep; not law, cramping and belittling, that contracts what is already too small. And the only law there could ever be to do so great a thing as that would be God’s law. And God’s law is not a law but an impulse. It comes from within, not from without. It is a part of man, not a part of that which surrounds man, save insofar as that which is divine in man is a part of the all-embracing divinity which overshadows man. There is no need for the man in whose heart and soul there is honor for the law of God to maintain obedience to fashion and convention; for the law of God assumes all that is good in the customs of men, and indefinitely extends its application. That is why Jesus was the great revolutionist of history. What was unprofitable in human law—“woe unto you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy and faith: woe unto you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye make clean the outside of the cup and the platter, but within they are full of extortion and excess”—what was unprofitable in human law He discounted with the boldness that crucified Him: what was valuable and in agreement with His Father’s will He retained and gloriously enlarged. “Think not that I am come to destroy but to fulfill.”
It is a vital matter—this working of the law of God. It is a vital matter because, if it were rightly understood, the emphasis of many lives would be changed for the better. It will help us, perhaps, to take specific instances. There was Peter. Peter was poor, ignorant, uncouth. He spent his time mending his nets and fishing. It was the law of necessity. He had to ply his trade because he had to provide bread and butter for himself and his family. It was an iron need. And Jesus came. “Throw away your lines and nets, Peter: I will make you a fisher of men.” Immediately the bonds of his necessity were loosed. He was liberated to seek the wealth of gold in the hearts of his fellow men. He was free to go out on the great adventure. It did not matter now to Peter whether he went hungry or not. He and his would not starve—for the laborers were worthy of their hire. The earning of his daily bread was no longer his first and constant care. There were other joyous things to do—a different bread to win. Again, Peter saw his Master in danger. That Master had been insulted already, perhaps He would be outraged and slain. Peter seized his sword, and struck off the offender’s ear. It was the law of vengeance—that echo of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” sounding through the laws of Peter’s tradition. And Jesus turned—“put up your sword, Peter; God says that vengeance and repayment belong to Him.” Instantly a new understanding flooded over him. The insult, the outrage, was taken out of the sphere of human discipline and became part of God’s schooling for the world. No longer was it required of man to bear the burden of retaliation. God held the balance, and His mercy and justice could be trusted to give the proper weight. It was the same evening that Pater stood warming himself; and a little servant maid upbraided him for consorting with Jesus, the criminal. And Peter, stammering with fear, protested “I know not the man.” It was the law of self-preservation—the instinctive desire to save his own skin. “And immediately the cock crew. And Jesus turned and looked at Peter.” No words were needed. The shame smote Peter to the heart. “Here am I,” the Master seemed to say, “laying down My life in love for you and all the world because love is the law of God: and here are you, loving Me so little that you are afraid of the pin prick of a servant woman’s tongue.” No wonder, when he saw the dazzling brightness of that new love of God, and the dark places of his own being, he went outside and wept bitterly.
But the danger is more deep-seated than the case even of Peter might suggest. The laws that enveloped him were at least natural laws—rigorous upon him because he shared the substance of humanity. The revelation of God’s law is more important still when we think of those limitations that men like ourselves, without even the excuse of nature’s interference, have imposed. Society demands the social lie, the libelous suggestion, the false silence: the voice of Jesus bids us speak the truth. Business demands an exact recompense for measured labor, the denial of sentiment, the crown of success for the strongest. Jesus tells us to go two thankless miles where one would do, and makes a child our guide to the Kingdom of Heaven. Governments proceed by diplomacies that are often dishonest, and go to war under the spur of specious patriotism. Jesus would have us provide things honorable in the sight of all men and guard against those who come as wolves in the guise of sheep. Even churches at times deny their aid to those by chance uninitiated, and hide the presence of God by ceremonial decree and petty discipline. Jesus asks us merely to love Him. The knowledge of that love alone is sufficient for the sorrowful, sinful soul. Man is not made for the Sabbath, but the Sabbath for man.
It was always so with Jesus. He was, above all others, the man who was able to pass beyond. His friends saw in Him the love that could pass beyond the little local love of family and neighborhood, and hold in its embrace the hearts of all mankind. John saw in Him the eternal preëxisting Word of God that could pass beyond the aloofness of divinity into the texture of man’s being. His disciples saw in Him the risen power of God which could pass beyond the confines of space and time to be effectual in dimensions they could not understand. And so, amid the scruples of daily life, He showed them how they might pass beyond the conventions that human deceit and prudery have set, into the fuller life of love and service, the compelling laws of which were the only laws to claim the tribute of His obedience. And to that end He sat and reasoned with the woman of Samaria; He ate and drank, in the sight of His enemies, with publicans and sinners; He did His healing work upon the Sabbath day; and preached the Gospel of the direct salvation of God for the individual soul, unhampered by Church or Creed save the simple Creed that belief in Him was belief in God the Father, and knowledge of Him was the door to eternal life. If, as some said, He was a law unto Himself, it was because He was the Son of God.
For you and me to follow Him is a difficult matter—for we are not equally the sons of God. And yet, knowing His example and with His guidance, we need not despair. It all depends on what we consider our human earthly life to be—whether a wearying succession of more or less isolated events, each complete and lawbound, or a great free experiment in continuity. As a matter of fact life does not consist in its happenings, but in our attitude towards them. And our attitude depends on our personality, the constant thread that holds those happenings all altogether. I have never been in an aeroplane, but they tell me that one of the most striking sensations that the novice experiences is the sense of the earth’s flatness. The mountains that seem so high when we stand at their foot, the valleys that are so deep as we gaze from the edge of the precipice—those inequalities melt away as we rise above them, and there is left nothing but the even tranquillity of a plain. It is so with the changing vicissitudes of life—mountain and valley, rock and quicksand—success, disappointment, poverty, and sin. If we can rise far enough above them with Jesus as friend and pilot, they stretch out unbroken in the serenity of the peace that passes all understanding. “Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid: ye believe in God, believe also in Me.”
“If there had been a law given which could have given life, verily, righteousness should have been by the law.” I desperately want to live—and I know that only the good in me is everlasting. Therefore I would be righteous. Let me comb the laws of men—and pluck from them all that has the seed of everlasting life. Let me treasure that and foster that as being seed that grows into the tree of heaven. But when the wishes or the words or the dictates or the fashions or the conventions or the opinions or the laws of men restrict for an instant the free exercise of the law of God—which is love—let me cast them from me as one would cast a cloak that muffles and hampers; and spring forward to do battle for the eternal principles of life. I may make mistakes—but at least I am adventuring for my faith: and God will be good to one whose only desire it was to be free that he might render more tremendous service.