Let us think seriously this afternoon of one word; the word which is the key-note of this psalm. A very short word; for in our language there is but one letter in it. A very common word; for we are using it all day long when we are awake, and even at night in our dreams; and yet a very wonderful word, for though we know well whom it means, yet what it means we do not know, and cannot understand, no, nor can the wisest philosopher who ever lived; and a most important word too; for we cannot get rid of it, we cannot help thinking of it, cannot help saying it all our life long from childhood to the grave. After death, too, we shall probably be saying that word to ourselves, each of us, for ever and ever. If the whole universe, sun, moon, and stars, and all that we ever thought of, or can think of, were destroyed and became nothing, that word would probably be left; and we should be left alone with it; and on what we meant by that little word would depend our everlasting happiness or misery. And what is this wonderful little word? What but the word I? Each one of us says I--I think, I know, I feel, I ought, I ought not, I did that, and cannot undo it: and why? Because we are not things, nor mere animals, but persons, living souls, though our bodies are like the bodies of animals, only more perfect, that they may be fit dwelling-places for more perfect souls. The animals, as far as we know, do not think of themselves each as I. Little children do not at first. They call themselves by names by which they hear others call them: not in the first but in the third person. After a while there grows up in them the wonderful thought that they are persons, different from any other person round them, and they begin to say--I want this, I like that. I trust that I shall not seem to you as one who dreams when I say that I believe that is a revelation from God to each child, and just what makes the difference between him and an animal; that God teaches each child to say I; to know that it is not a mere thing, but a person, a living soul, with a will of its own, and a duty of its own; responsible for itself; which ought to do some things, and ought not to do other things. And what a solemn and awful revelation that is, we shall see more clearly, the more we think of it.
It may be a very dreadful and tormenting thought. It does not torment the mere savage, who has no sense of right and wrong; who follows his own appetites and passions, and has never learnt to say, "I ought," and "I ought not." But it does torment the heathen when they begin to be civilized, and to think; it has tormented them in all ages. It tormented the old Greeks and Romans; it torments some Eastern peoples still--that terrible thought--I am I myself, and cannot be any one else. I am answerable for all that I ever did, or shall do; and no one can be answerable for me. All the bad deeds I ever did, the bad thoughts I ever thought, are mine, parts of me, and will be for ever. I can no more escape from them than I can spring off my own shadow. But men have been always trying to escape; to escape from the burden of their own self, and the dread of an evil conscience; and have invented religion after religion, often fantastic enough, often pathetic enough likewise, in hopes of hiding from themselves the secret thought--I am I, and must be myself for ever. But I am not what I ought to be, and therefore I may be wrong, and miserable for ever. And how many people, in this Christian land, are saying at this very moment to themselves, "Oh that I could get rid of this I myself in me, which is so discontented and unhappy! Oh that I had no conscience! Oh that I could forget myself!" And they try to forget themselves by dissipation, by gaming, by drinking, by taking narcotic drugs, even sometimes by suicide, as a last desperate attempt to escape from themselves, they know not and care not whither. It is all in vain. There is no escape from self. As the pious poet whose bust stands beneath yonder tower has said:
Each in his separate sphere of joy and woe Our hermit spirits dwell, and range apart.
I must be I, thou must be thou, he must be he, she must be she, and no one else, throughout our mortal lives, and, for aught we can tell, for ever; alone, each of us, with our own souls, our own thoughts, our own actions, our own hopes, our own fears, our own deservings. Stay alone:--with all these? Yes, and alone with one more. Each of us is alone with God. Face to face with God, seen by Him through and through, and directly answerable to Him at every moment of our lives, for every deed, and word, and thought. And is that not a more terrible thought than any? Ah! my friends, it may be. But it may be also the most comforting of all thoughts, the only really comforting thought, if we will but look at the question as the Psalmist looks at it, and cry with him to God, "I am Thine, oh save the me whom Thou hast made."
There are those, and those who deserve a respectful hearing, who will differ from all that I have been saying, and indeed from the beliefs of 999 out of 1000 of the human race in every age. They will say--This fancy that you are an I, a self, individual and indivisible, is but a fancy; one of the many idols which man creates for himself, by bestowing reality and personality on mere abstractions like this I and self. Each man is not one indivisible, much less indestructible, thing or being. He is really many things. He is the net result of all the organic cells of his body, and of all the forces which act through them within, and of all the circumstances which influence them from without, ay, and of all the forces and circumstances which have influenced his ancestors ever since man appeared on the earth. But because he remembers many states of consciousness, many moments in which he was aware of sensations within him, and of circumstances without him, therefore he strings all these together, and talks of them as one thing which he calls I; and speaks of them as his remembrances of himself, when really the many things are but links of a chain which is perpetually growing at one end and dropping off at the other. To say, therefore, that he is the same person as he was when a child, or as he would be when an old man,--is, when we know that every atom of his physical frame has changed again and again during the course of years, a popular delusion, or at least a misnomer used for convenience' sake; as when we say that the sun rises and sets, when we know that the earth moves, and not the sun. A man, therefore, according to this school, is really no more a person, one and indivisible, than is the coral with its million polypes, the tree with its million buds, or even the thunderstorm with its million vesicles of attracting and repelling vapour.
Now that a truth underlies such a theory as this, I am the last to deny. How much of the character of each man is inherited, how much of it depends on his actual bodily organization; how much of it, alas! on the circumstances of his youth; how much of it changes with the mere physical change from youth to old age--who does not know all this, who has ever needed to fight for himself the battle of life? Only, I say, this is but half the truth; and these philosophers cannot state their half-truth, without employing the very words which they repudiate; without using the very personal pronouns, the I and me, the thou and thee, the he and him, to which they deny any real existence. Beside, I ask--Is the experience and the conclusion of the vast majority of all mankind to go for nothing? For if there be one point on which human beings have been, and are still, agreed, it is this--that each of them is, to his joy or his sorrow, an I; a separate person. And, I should have said, this conviction becomes stronger and stronger in each of them, the more human they become, civilized, and worthy of the respect and affection of their fellow-men.
For what rises in them, or seems to rise, more and more painfully and fiercely? What but that protest, that battle, between the everlasting I within them, and their own passions, and motives, and circumstances; which St Paul of old called the battle between the spirit on one side, and the flesh and the world on the other. The nobler, surely, and healthier, even for a moment, the manhood of any man is, the more intense is that inward struggle, which man alone of all the animals endures. Is it in moments of brave endeavour, whether to improve our own character, or to benefit our fellow-men: or is it in moments of depression, disappointment, bodily sickness, that we are tempted to say?--I will fight no more. I cannot mend myself, or the world. I am what nature has made me; and what I am, I must remain. I, and all I know, and all I love, are things, not persons; parts of nature, even as the birds upon the bough, only more miserable, because tormented by a hope which never will be fulfilled; an empty pageant of mere phenomena, blown onward toward decay, like dying autumn leaves, before the "everlasting storm which no one guides." Is this the inward voice of health and strength? or rather, for evil or for good, that voice which bids the man, the woman, in the mysterious might of the free I within, trample on their own passions, defy their own circumstances, even to the death; fall back, in utter need, on the absolute instinct of self; and even though all seem lost, say with Medea in the tragedy--
Che resta? Io!
Medea?--Some one will ask, and have a right to ask--Is that the model which you set before us? The imperious sorceress, who from the first has known no law but self, her own passions, her own intellect; who, at last, maddened by a grievous wrong, asserts that self by the murder of her own babes? You might as well set before us as a model Milton's Satan.
Just so. Remember first, nevertheless, the old maxim, that the best, when corrupted, is the worst; that the higher the nature, when used aright in its right place, the baser it becomes when used wrongly, in its wrong place. When Satan fell from his right place, said the old Jews, he became, remember, not a mere brute: but worse, a fiend. There is a deep and true philosophy in that. As long as he was what he was meant to be--the servant of God--he was an archangel and more; the fairest of all the sons of the morning. When he rebelled; when in pride and self-will he tore himself--his person--away from that God in whom he lived and moved and had his being: the personality remained; he could still, like Medea, fall back, even when he knew that he had rebelled against his Creator, on his indomitable self, and reign a self-sufficing king, even in the depths of hell.
But the very strength and richness of that personality made him, like Medea, only the more capable of evil. He stood, that is, his moral health endured, only by loyalty to God. When he lost that, he fell; to moral disease: disease the vaster, the vaster were his own capacities.
And so it is with you, and me, and every soul of man. Only by loyalty to God can this undying I, this self, this person, which each of us has--or rather which each of us is--be anything but a torment and a curse; the more terrible to us, and those around us, the stronger and the richer are the nature and faculties through which it works.
Wouldest thou not be a curse unto thy self? Then cry with him who wrote the 119th Psalm--I am Thine. Oh save the me, whom Thou, O God, hast made.
For he who wrote that psalm had an intense conviction of his own personality. I, and me, are words for ever in his mouth: but not in self- satisfied conceit; nor in self-tormenting superstition, crying perpetually, Shall I be saved? shall I be lost? No. Faith in God delivers him from either of these follies. He is forced to think of self. Sad, persecuted, seemingly friendless, he is alone with self: yet not alone. For at every moment he is referring himself to his true place in the universe; to God; God's law, God's help. The burden of self--of mingled responsibility and weakness--is to him past bearing. It would be utterly past bearing, if he could not cast it down, at least at moments, at the foot of the throne of God, and cry, I am Thine. Oh save me.
And if any should ask--as has been asked ere now--But is there not in this tone of mind something undignified, something even abject? thus to cry for help, instead of helping oneself? thus to depend on another being, instead of bearing stoically with manly independence? I answer--The Psalmist does bear stoically, just because he cries for help. For the old Stoics cried for help; the earlier and truer-hearted of them, at least. Some here, surely, have read Epictetus, the heathen whose thought most exactly coincides with that of the Psalmist. If so, do they not see what enabled him, the slave of Nero's minion, to assert himself, and his own unconquerable personality; to defy circumstance; and to preserve his own calm, his own honour, his own purity, amid a degradation which might well have driven a good man to suicide? And was it not this--The intensity of his faith in God? In God the helper, God the guide?
If any man here have learnt, to his own loss, to undervalue the experience of prophets, psalmists, apostles: then let him turn to Epictetus the heathen; and learn from that heroic slave, that the true dignity of man lies in true faith in God.
Nay more. It is a serious question, whether ungodliness--by which I mean, as the Psalmist means, the assertion of self, independent of God--whether ungodliness, I say, is ever dignified; whether, as has been often said, Milton's still dignified Satan is not an impossible character; whether Goethe's utterly undignified Mephistopheles is not the true ideal of an utterly evil spirit. Ungodliness, as we see it manifested in human beings, may be repulsive, as in the mere ruffian, whose mouth is filled with cursing, and his feet swift to shed blood. It may, again, be pitiable, as in those human butterflies, who live only to enjoy, or to minister to, what they call luxury and fashion. And it may be again--when it calmly and deliberately asserts itself to be a philosophy, and an explanation of man and of the universe, and gives itself magisterial airs, however courteously and kindly--it may be then, I dare to think, a little ludicrous.
But as for its dignity, I leave to you to say which of the two beings is the more dignified, which the more abject--a little organism of flesh and blood, at most not more than six feet high, liable to be destroyed by a tile off the roof, or a blast of foul gas, or a hundred other accidents; standing self-poised and self-complacent in the centre of such an universe as this, and asserting that it acknowledges no superior, and needs no guide--or the same being, awakened to the mystery of his own actual weakness, his possible strength; his own actual ignorance, his possible wisdom; his own actual sinfulness, his possible holiness: and then; by a humility which is the highest daring; by a self-distrust which is the truest self-assertion, vindicating the divine element within, by taking personal and voluntary service under no less a personage than Him who made him; and crying directly to the Creator of sun and stars and all the universe--I am Thine. Oh save the me which Thou hast made?
Make up your own minds, make up your minds, which of the two figures is the more abject, which the more dignified. For me, I have had too good cause, long since, to make up mine.
And if you wish to judge further for yourselves, whether the teaching of the Psalmist is more likely to produce an abject or a dignified character, I advise you to ponder carefully a certain singular--I had almost said unique--educational document, written by men who had thoroughly imbibed the teaching of this psalm; a document which, the oftener I peruse it, arouses in me more and more admiration; not only for its theology, but for its knowledge of human nature; and not only for what it does, but for what it does not, say. I mean the Catechism of the Church of England.
You will remark at first sight, that it does not affect to teach the child; with one remarkable exception to be hereafter noticed. It does not tell the child--You should do this, you should not do that.
It is strictly an Educational Catechism. It tries to educe--that is, draw out--what is in the child already; its own native instincts and native conscience. Therefore it makes the child speak for itself. It makes each child feel that he or she is an I; a person, a responsible soul. It begins--What is your name? It makes the child confess that it has a name, as a sign that it is a person, a self, a soul, different from all other persons in earth or heaven; and that its name was given it at baptism, for a sign that God made it a person, and wishes it to know that it is a person, and will teach it how to be a true person, and a good person. It teaches the child to say--I, and me, not in fear and dread, like those heathen of whom I spoke just now, but with manly confidence, and self-respect, and gratitude to God who has made it a person, and an immortal soul.
To say--I am a person; and in order that I might be a right kind of person, and not a wrong kind, I was made a member of Christ, a child of God, and an inheritor of the kingdom of heaven.
To say--I am a person; and that I may be a right kind of person, I must know and believe certain things concerning God Himself, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. I am a person; and that I may be a right kind of person, I must keep certain commandments and do certain duties toward God, and my parents, and my Queen, and my country, and my neighbour, and all toward whom I am responsible for right behaviour.
And then, and only then, after it has made the child say all this for itself and about itself, the Catechism does begin to teach; and in a few very short words, tell the child about that which is not itself--
"My good child, know this, that thou art not able to do these things of thyself, nor to walk in the Commandments of God, and to serve Him, without His special grace; which thou must learn at all times to call for by diligent prayer."
Now consider these words. There is comfort and strength in them; comfort for the child; comfort for you, and me, and every human being who has awakened to the sense of his own personal responsibility, and finds it too often a burden heavier than he--and, alas, often, she--can bear.
The Catechism tells the child that it must not merely know doctrines about God, or do duties to God; but more: that it is alone with God Himself, face to face with God Himself day and night. But that therefore it is to dread God, and look up to God as a taskmaster and tyrant, and try to hide from God's awful eye, and forget God, and forget itself--if it can?--God forbid; God forbid. The Catechism leaves such teaching for those Pharisees who tell little children that unless they are converted, and become as them, they shall in no wise enter into the kingdom of heaven. The Catechism says, My good child--not, My bad child--know this. Know that thou art weak: but know that God is strong; and look up to Him as the Father of all fathers, the Teacher of all teachers, the Helper of all helpers, the Friend of all friends, who has I called thee unto His kingdom of grace, that He might shew thee graciousness; and make thee gracious and graceful in all thy thoughts, and works, and ways: and, therefore, far from trying to hide from Him, call on Him with diligent prayer. For the Father of all fathers is the Father of thy soul, the Son of all sons died for thee upon the Cross, the Holy Spirit of all holy spirits will make thee a holy spirit and person, even as He is a Holy Spirit and Person Himself.
Believing those words, no one will dare to forget to say his prayers. For when he prays, he is indeed a person. He is himself; and not ashamed, however sinful, to be himself; and to tell God about himself. Oh, think of that. You, each of you, have a right, as God's children, to speak to the God who made the universe. Therefore be sure, that when you dislike to say your prayers, it is because you do not like to be what you are, a person; and prefer--ah foolish soul--to be a thing, and an animal.
Believing those words, no man need long to forget himself, to escape from himself. He can lift up himself to God who made him, with reverence, and fear, and yet with gratitude and trust, and say--
I, Lord, am I; and what I am--a very poor, pitiful, sinful person. But Thou, Lord, art Thou; and what Thou art--happily for me, and for the whole universe--Perfect. Thou art what Thou oughtest to be--Goodness itself. And therefore Thou canst, and Thou wilt, make me what I ought to be at last, a good person. To thee, O Lord, I can bring the burden of this undying I, which I carry with me, too often in shame and sadness, and ask Thee to help me to bear it; saying--"Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts. Shut not Thy merciful ears to our prayers: but spare us, O Lord most Holy, O God most Mighty, Thou worthy Judge Eternal, and suffer us not, for any temptation of the world, the flesh or the devil, to fall from Thee." Guide me, teach me, strengthen me, till I become such a person as Thou wouldst have me be; pure and gentle, truthful and high-minded, brave and able, courteous and generous, dutiful and useful, like Thy Son Jesus Christ when He increased not only in stature, but in favour with God and man.