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Absence of Moral Contamination

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”—ST MATTHEW 5:8.


Last Sunday we considered this Beatitude in its larger and wider sense as setting forth the Divine elevation of aim on its positive side. To-day let us pass on to a point of view more limited, but deserving of especial consideration, viz., that the purity of heart, which leads to the Vision of God, does involve the absence of moral contamination—a resolute refusal to sully one’s whiteness. Even considered in this restricted sense, purity of heart is a positive moral quality; it will never be established except by earnest inward self-regulation. No assertion of a negative principle, “touch not, taste not, handle not,” will create it. No outward proscriptions will secure it. For the foundation of purity is not social proscription, but an inward determination of the heart.


It is true that society enters its protest against the most flagrant violations of the law of purity because they tend to disturb social order, and to introduce confusion into common life. But even this service it renders in a half-hearted and unjust way. *“It shews” (it has been well said) “how little account it really takes of inward purity by the uneven measure of justice which it deals out to the two sexes, by the inexorable punishment which it deals out to the one, coupled with the almost complete immunity which it offers to the other.” It shews, too, the relatively low rank which it assigns to purity of heart and of life, by the adulation it pays to those who are in the front rank of politics or in literature, but who are known, not by mere slanderous gossip, but known (without the possibility of denial on their own part) to be profligates in life. There have been flagrant cases of it in our own time. Success in a profession, a winning manner, a brilliant address, great possessions, or high rank, have been conspicuously honoured and courted where private profligacy has been only too notorious. Society cannot protect purity of heart, because it has no means to test it. For purity of conduct it indeed professes a formal respect in the one sex, but it rates it considerably below other and more solid advantages in the other. What society says in this matter is, “Don’t be found out—especially if you are a woman,” which is very different from saying, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”


This much we are bound to say plainly, but having said so much it seems right also to say that no outward proscriptions would secure this inward grace. Men and women must find its exceeding beauty for themselves, or learn by a bitter experience its great necessity.


It is not possible to say anything except in a general way on such a question. There is a deep wisdom in our English reserve on these matters, a wisdom that is fully justified every day. It may be, and, in fact is, often carried too far, when it is allowed to make the natural seem to be the shameful, and to encourage an ignorance of physiological questions which is often the parent of great misery. But granting this, delicate handling is a first necessity. Only the pure in heart can touch these questions and leave no defilement behind them. We shall never effect reforms here by denunciation or by discussions in newspapers; by sensational speeches, or by realistic stories. All this, which professes to cure, really spreads the evil; it is foolish, it is dangerous beyond words. The wisdom of ages is summed up in the sentence, “It is a shameful thing even to speak of those things that are done of them in secret.” And against the garish and demonstrably hypocritical ways of the present day a protest is needed. You will never pull men and women out of that particular hell by denouncing it; you must get hold of them and help them out. To help the struggling against moral contamination is Divine work; but merely to denounce an evil, which is hateful to its own victims in all their better moments, seems to have in it something of cruelty. The policy of public exposure only saturates the air with infection. “If Christ came to London” He would certainly not act on that plan. It is the pure in heart who free others from contamination by moral inspiration. There are writers at the present day who are full of denunciation, yet who seem to gloat over the sins they denounce; who pile up sensational stories which only tend to pollution. They are not morally inspiring. For the innocent and guilty alike, for those who have kept their robes white and for those who have trailed them in the dust, the one safety is the recognition of the Divine within them—within the body as well as within the soul—the one necessity is the sense of the God within you. “Know ye not that your bodies are the temple of the Holy Ghost.” Turn your back resolutely on persons, places, books, plays, or aught else that suggests evil. Some things we can fight better by standing up to them; but where the highest feelings of our nature are so close to the lowest, where the deepest sympathy often means the utmost danger, there is no safety but in a determined system of avoidance. And this it is which makes the modern tendency to philosophise about these things, and to represent them in dramatic situations, in plays and novels, so deeply dangerous. To expose ourselves to such influences is to rub the bloom off our highest feelings. You can never regain the instinctive repulsion against evil, which you sacrifice to mere curiosity by reading a bad book, or by going to an immoral play. You will only satisfy a longing which may often leave a pain and an ache behind it.


Besides that, there seems to me only one other useful thing to say, and that is one which touches the philosophy of the question. We have to get out of that unhappy dualism which treats the body as a clog, and seems to make escape from bodily conditions the aim and object of existence. The division between body and soul is precisely the division which we cannot make. There is what Bishop Westcott has called “a great mystical solidarity” as regards spirit and matter in man. If any man attempts to say where the bodily function ends and the spiritual commences, or where the spiritual ends and the bodily commences, he will find himself in a hopeless tangle. Many a man can feel how bodily elation seems to raise him spiritually on the top of a mountain; and conversely, almost every man who ever tries to hold communion with God knows how a bad headache depresses all spiritual feeling. The body is not mere matter as opposed to the spirit; it is not a clog, but a means of self-expression which sometimes seems to hinder, but at other times to intensify the most spiritual feelings. To regard the body as the tempter and the soul as the tempted, in the matter before us, is to be guilty of a most unreasonable assumption. A disembodied spirit, if we could imagine such, might have just as much of the inward twist here, as in the case of envy or malice; for though sin takes advantage of bodily desire, it does not originate it. The true idea of sin is obscured directly we cease to recognize that the will is the mainspring, and that no emotions or sensations are bad or wicked until they have been accepted by the will; that, as the only satisfactory explanation of the universe is that the Will is its center and its mainspring, and that that Will is a Will to love, so the only satisfactory explanation of man’s dual nature (which it seems so impossible to resolve into two unities) is afforded by the dominating will which, however conditioned and limited as regards other things, does say the word, and that the only word which really settles the question.


The contempt for the body—the punishing of the body as though it were the cause of the sins of what we may truly call ‘the predominant partner,’ is one of our worst inheritances from the exaggerations of the early Christian ascetics. It would be difficult to say in this connection how malign an influence in this whole matter is caused by the survival in our thought and speech of much of the dishonour cast by them on the body. That “subduing of the flesh to the spirit” which the Church exhorts us to in the Collect, is not merely bodily abstinence (for the body is not the flesh—the flesh in the New Testament is the carnal principle, i.e., the lower nature both in body and soul), but self-regulation, and it affects the thoughts and occupations as much as the food. Its aim is not to punish the body but to assert for the higher nature, both in soul and body, its pre-eminence. I do not think we often realise how inferior to the best Pagan idea about the body the ascetic teaching of the third and fourth centuries really was. “Forbidding to marry and commanding to abstain from meats,” is the prophetic description of that period by St Paul. The ascetics of that time degraded the whole idea of marriage; they invested it with a taint which is not on it, they distorted the Christian conception of that holy bond. The natural is never unlawful; it is the foundation of the spiritual, the only foundation on which it will grow; and the abnegation of the natural only proved to be the commencement of every disaster. Even those who themselves forbore to torture their own bodies paid an excessive, almost idolatrous worship to those who did so, and thus created a false system.


In truth the theology of asceticism is the strangest of all outcomes of the New Testament. A system of self-torture, a hideous maceration of the body, a sordid and filthy condition of both skin and clothes,—all were extolled as in themselves deserving of merit. St Jerome relates with a thrill of admiration how he had seen a monk who never cut his hair, except on Easter Sunday, or washed himself or changed his linen till it fell to pieces, who starved himself till his eyes grew dim and his skin like a pumice stone, and whose merits, as shown by these austerities, “Homer himself would be unable to recount.” The same writer, in his zeal to denounce the married state, assures us that when the clean and unclean beasts went into the ark, the clean went in by sevens and the unclean by pairs, the odd numbers typifying the celibate and the even the married condition. Even of the unclean animals but one pair was admitted lest they should perpetrate the enormity of a second marriage!


This was language, extravagant and absurd, which entered into the life blood of the Christian Church, and created a false sentiment on the subject of the human body and its natural functions. I might quote much more to the same purpose, but it is sufficient to say that no description of a saint would then have been accepted as adequate, if it did not state that he treated his body as a thing to be degraded and tortured. Nor was cleanliness held in any esteem. Of St James, who was reverenced as an ideal saint, a true type of human nobility, it was recounted among other qualifications that he never anointed himself with oil and never entered a bath. And this idea lasted for centuries; indeed it may even now be said to prevail in theory, if modified in practice, in a large portion of the Church. Its falseness is demonstrable by its results. The inner life did not find peace through tears and sobs and frantic struggling with imaginary demons and paroxysms of despair; while the dread of a spiritual enemy was certainly a stronger feature than the trust in a heavenly Father. The result of all this perversion is with us still, so that we cannot understand things as they are, unless we study the conditions out of which they came. There have been times in the history of the Christian religion when the care of the body assumed a leading place, and there too the consequences have been terrible. But they have left no prevailing trace of their tendency on Christian theology and the ordinary Christian point of view. The judgment on those times must be that they were worse times in themselves than those of an undue asceticism, but that they were not so bad in their general effect on the thought of the Church. Men revolted from the sensualism of the Renaissance; but to this day the dark shadow—impalpable yet real—the dark shadow, which is the result of the glorification of asceticism, rests on ordinary Christian feeling; the body is accounted especially responsible for degrading sin, it is blamed for the failure of the will; and we shall never get right until we see that there is this mystical solidarity of body and soul—that the body is not the flesh of the New Testament, not the carnal principle which St Paul battles down, any more than the spirit which he exalts is the soul—but that each has its own higher and lower element; and that to be pure is not merely to have bodily self-control but to resist the allurements of sensualism within—that the battle now has to be fought within the will. It follows that neglect of the body is not a means of ensuring purity of soul; while all experience proves that the cultivation of the powers of the body, by exercise and attention to the laws of health, are the best outward means of preserving inward spotlessness. We often notice an unfortunate tendency to undue suspiciousness in those who have much to say on this question, but it is well to note that strength of language does not always mean absence of inward weakness.


And one other observation. Specialization generally means danger. After all, we have to grow in all virtue, and there are moral qualities which are always apt to be neglected, if we direct our attention exclusively to the cultivation of a single virtue, however important. Courage, generosity, goodness, openness are virtues; and they are not found often in natures which are merely distorted from their original tendencies; nor are they likely to spring easily in a soil where an overstrained attention is paid to one kind of sin.


But while that is true, it is impossible to rate too highly, or to press too earnestly the duty of keeping ourselves pure in heart by the consecration of the will to Christ—a consecration which sets the will on its rightful throne and makes it reign supreme over the lower soul as well as over the lower desires of the body. The body then becomes the fit and appropriate minister of the higher nature; the soul on its intellectual and emotional side acknowledges the supremacy of will, and thus, and only thus, by the grace of God there is preserved within us that moral spotlessness, to which is ensured both now and hereafter the Vision of God Himself.



* Lightfoot, supra, p. 42.


Eyton, R. (1896). The Benediction on the Pure in Heart (II). In The Beatitudes (Second Edition, pp. 134–144). Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co. Ltd. (Public Domain)

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