THE THREE TABERNACLES
And Peter answered and said to Jesus, Master, it is good for us to be here: and let us make three tabernacles, one for thee, and one for Moses, and one for Elias. Mark 9:5.
Caught up in glory and in rapture, the Apostle seems to have forgotten the world from which he had ascended, and to which he still belonged, and to have craved permanent shelter and extatic communion within the mystic splendors that brightened the Mount of Transfiguration. But it was true, not only as to the confusion of his faculties, but the purport of his desire, that "he knew not what he said." For even "while he yet spake," the cloud overshadowed them, the heavenly forms vanished, they found themselves with Jesus alone, and an awful Voice summoned them from contemplation to duty,—from vision to work.
Peter knew not what he said. He would have converted the means into an end. He and his fellow-disciples had been called to follow Christ not that they might see visions, but had been permitted to see visions that they might follow Christ. Just previous to that celestial interview, Jesus had announced to them his own painful doom, and had swept away their conceit of Messianic glories involved with earthly pomp and dominion, by his declaration of the self-denial, the shame, and the suffering, which lay in the path of those who really espoused his cause and entered into his kingdom. They needed such a revelation as this, then, upon the Mount of Transfiguration, to support them under the stroke which had shaken their earthly delusion, and let in glimpses of the sadder truth. It was well that they should behold the leaders of the old dispensation confirming and ministering to the greatness of the new, and the religion which was to go down into the dark places of the earth made manifest in its authority and its source from Heaven. It was well that they should see their Master glorified, that they might be strengthened to see him crucified. It was well that Moses and Elias stood at the font, when they were about to be baptized into their apostleship of suffering, and labor, and helping finish the work which these glorious elders helped begin. But that great work still lay before them, and to rest here would be to stop upon the threshold;—to have kept the vision would have thwarted the purpose. Upon a far higher summit, and at a far distant time—with fields of toil and tracts of blood between—would that which was meant as an inspiration for their souls become fixed for their sight, and tabernacles that should never perish enclose a glory that should never pass away.
You may have anticipated the lessons for ourselves which I propose to draw from this unconsidered request of Peter. At least, you will readily perceive that it does contain suggestions applicable to our daily life. For I proceed, at once, to ask you if it is not a fact that often we would like to remain where, and to have what, is not best for us? Do not illustrations of this simple thought occur easily to your minds? Does not man often desire, as it were, to build his tabernacles here or there, when due consideration, and after-experience will convince him that it was not the place to abide; that it was better that the good be craved, or the class of relations to which he clung, should not be permanent? In order to give effect to this train of reflection, let me direct you to some specific instances in which this desire is manifested.
Perhaps I may say, without any over-refinement upon my topic, that there are three things in life to which the desires of men especially cling,—three tabernacles which upon the slope of this world they would like to build. I speak now, it is to be remembered, of desires of impulse, not of deliberation,—of desires often felt, if not expressed. And I say, in the first place, that there are certain conditions in life itself that it sometimes appears desirable to retain. Sometimes, from the heart of a man, there breaks forth a sigh for perpetual youth. In the perplexities of mature years,—in the experience of selfishness, and hollowness, and bitter disappointment; in the surfeit of pleasure; in utter weariness of the world,—he exclaims, "O! give me back that sweet morning of my days, when all my feelings were fresh, and the heart was wet with a perpetual dew. Give me the untried strength; the undeceived trust; the credulous imagination, that bathed all things in molten glory, and filled the unknown world with infinite possibilities." Sad with skepticism, and tired with speculation, he cries out for that faith that needed no other confirmation than the tones of a mother's voice, and found God everywhere in the soft pressure of her love; and when his steps begin to hesitate, and he finds himself among the long shadows, and the frailty and fear of the body overcome the prophecies of the soul, and no religious assurance lights and lifts up his mind, how he wishes for some fountain of restoration that shall bring back his bloom and his strength, and make him always young! "Why have such experiences as decline, and decay, and death?" he asks. "Is it not good for us to be ever young? Why should not the body be a tabernacle of constant youth, and life be always thus fresh, and buoyant, and innocent, and confiding? Or, if we must, at last, die, why all this sad experience,—this incoming of weakness,—this slipping away of life and power?"
But this is a feeling which no wise or good man ever cherishes long, for he knows that the richest experiences, and the best achievements of life, come after the period of youth; spring out of this very sadness, and suffering, and rough struggle in the world, which an unthinking sentimentality deplores. Ah, my friends, in spite of our trials, our weariness, our sad knowledge of men and things; in spite of the declining years among which so many of us are standing, and the tokens of decay that are coming upon us; nay, in spite even of our very sins; who would go back to the hours of his youthful experience, and have the shadow stand still at that point upon the dial of his life? Who, for the sake of its innocence and its freshness, would empty the treasury of his broader knowledge, and surrender the strength that he has gathered in effort and endurance? Who, for its careless joy, would exchange the heart-warm friendships that have been annealed in the vicissitudes of years,—the love that sheds a richer light upon our path, as its vista lengthens, or has drawn our thoughts into the glory that is beyond the veil? Nay, even if his being, has been most frivolous and aimless, or vile,—in the penitent throb with which this is felt to be so, there is a. spring of active power which exists not in the dreams of the youth; and the sense of guilt and of misery is the stirring, of a life infinitely deeper than that early flow of vitality and—consciousness which sparkles as it runs. Build a tabernacle for perpetual youth, and say, "It is good to be here?" It cannot be so; and it is well that it cannot. Our post is not the Mount of Vision, but the Field of Labor; and we can find no rest in Eden until we have passed through, Gethsemane.
Equally vain is the desire for some condition in life which shall be free from care, and want, and the burden of toil. I suppose most people do, at times, wish for such a lot, and secretly or openly repine at the terms upon which they are compelled to live. The deepest fancy in the heart of the most busy men is repose—retirement-command of time and means, untrammeled by any imperative claim. And yet who is there that, thrown into such a position, would find it for his real welfare, and would be truly happy? Perhaps the most restless being in the world is the man who need do nothing, but keep still. The old soldier fights all his battles over again, and the retired merchant spreads the sails of his thought upon new ventures, or comes uneasily down to snuff the air of traffic, and feel the jar of wheels. I suppose there is nobody whose condition is so deplorable, so ghastly, as his whose lot many may be disposed to envy,—a man at the top of this world's ease, crammed to repletion with what is called "enjoyment;" ministered to by every luxury,—the entire surface of his life so smooth with completeness that there is not a jut to hang, a hope on,—so obsequiously gratified in every specific want that he feels miserable from the very lack of wanting. As in such a case there, can be no religious life—which never permits us to rest in a feeling of completeness; which seldom abides with fulness(sic) of possession, and never stops with self, but always inspires to some great work of love and sacrifice—as in such a case there can be no religious life, he fully realizes the poet's description of the splendor and the wretchedness of him who
" * * built his soul a costly pleasure-house
and who said
" * * O soul, make merry and carouse
* * * * * * *
Singing and murmuring in her feastful mirth,
"Communing with herself:, 'All these are mine,
* * * * * So three years
The truth is, there is no one place, however we may envy it, which would be indisputably good for us to occupy; much less for us to remain in. The zest of life, like the pleasure which we receive from a work of art, or from nature, comes from undulations—from inequalities; not from any monotony, even though it be the monotony of seeming perfection. The beauty of the landscape depends upon contrasts, and would be lost in one common surface of splendor. The grandeur of the waves is in the deep hollows, as well as the culminating crests; and the bars of the sunset glow on the background of the twilight. The very condition of a great thing is that it must be comparatively a rare thing. We speak of summer glories, and yet who would wish it to be always summer?—who does not see how admirably the varied seasons are fitted to our appetite for change? It may seem as if it would be pleasant to have it always sunshine; and yet when fruit and plant are dying from lack of moisture, and the earth sleeps exhausted in the torrid air, who ever saw a summer morning more beautiful than that when the clouds muster their legions to the sound of the thunder, and pour upon us the blessing of the rain? We repine at toil, and yet how gladly do we turn in from the lapse of recreation to the harness of effort! We sigh for the freedom and glory of the country; but, in due time, just as fresh and beautiful seem to us the brick walls and the busy streets where our lot is cast, and our interests run. There is no condition in life of which we can say exclusively "It is good for us to be here." Our course is appointed through vicissitude,—our discipline is in alternations; and we can build no abiding tabernacles along the way.
But, I observe, in the second place, that there are those who may discard the notion of retaining any particular condition of life and yet they would preserve unbroken some of its relations. They may not keep the freshness of youth, or prevent the intrusion of trouble, or shut out the claims of responsibility, or the demands for effort;—they may not achieve anything of this kind; and they do not wish to achieve it; but they would build a tabernacle to LOVE, and keep the objects of dear affection safe within its enclosure. "Joy, sorrow, poverty, riches, youth, decay, let these come as they must," say they, "in the flow of Providence; but let the heart's sanctuaries remain unbroken, and let us in all this chance find the presence and the ministration of those we love." And, common as the sight is, we must always contemplate with a fresh sadness this sundering of family bonds; this cancelling(sic) of the dear realities of home; this stealing in of the inevitable gloom; this vacating of the chair, the table, and the bed; this vanishing of the familiar face into darkness; this passage from communion to memory; this diminishing of love's orb into narrower phases,—into a crescent,—into a shadow. Surely, however broad the view we take of the universe, a real woe, a veritable experience of suffering, amidst this boundless benificence, reaching as deep as the heart's core, is this old and common sorrow;—the sorrow of woman for her babes, and of man for his helpmate, and of age for its prop, and of the son for the mother that bore him, and of the heart for the hearts that once beat in sympathy, and of the eyes that hide vacancies with tears. When these old stakes are wrenched from their sockets, and these intimate cords are snapped, one begins to feel his own tent shake and flap in the wind that comes from eternity, and to realize that there is no abiding tabernacle here.
But ought we really to wish that these relations might remain unbroken, and to murmur because it is not so? We shall be able to answer this question in the negative, I think,—however hard it may be to do so,—when we consider, in the first place, that this breaking up and separation are inevitable. For we may be assured that whatever in the system of things is inevitable is beneficent. The dissolution of these bonds comes by the same law as that which ordains them; and we may be sure that the one—though it plays out of sight, and is swallowed up in mystery—is as wise and tender in its purpose as the other. It is very consoling to recognize the Hand that gave in the Hand that takes a friend, and to know that he is borne away in the bosom of Infinite Gentleness, as he was brought here. It is the privilege of angels, and of a faith that brings us near the angels, to always behold the face of our Father in Heaven; and so we shall not desire the abrogation of this law of dissolution and separation. We shall strengthen ourselves to contemplate the fact that the countenances we love must change, and the ties that are closest to our hearts will break; and we shall feel that it ought to be, because it must be,—because it is an inevitability in that grand and bounteous scheme in which stars rise and set, and life and death play into each other.
But, even within the circle of our own knowledge, there is that which may reconcile us to these separations, and prevent the vain wish of building perpetual tabernacles for our human love. For who is prepared, at any time, to say that it was not better for the dear friend, and better for ourselves, that he should go, rather than stay;—better for the infant to die with flowers upon its breast, than to live and have thorns in its heart;—better to kiss the innocent lips that are still and cold, than to see the living lips that are scorched with guilty passion;—better to take our last look of a face while it is pleasant to remember—serene with thought, and faith, and many charities—than to see it toss in prolonged agony, and grow hideous with the wreck of intellect? And, as spiritual beings, placed here not to be gratified, but to be trained, surely we know that often it is the drawing up of these earthly ties that draws up our souls; that a great bereavement breaks the crust of our mere animal consciousness, and inaugurates a spiritual faith; and we are baptized into eternal life through the cloud and the shadow of death.
But, once more, I remark, that there are those who may say, "We do not ask for any permanence in the conditions of life; we do not ask that even its dearest relationships should be retained; but give, O! give us ever those highest brightest moods of faith and of truth, which constitute the glory of religion, and lift us above the conflict and the sin of the world!" No truly religious mind can fail to perceive the gravitation of its thoughts and desires, and the contrast between its usual level and its best moments of contemplation and prayer. And it. may indeed seem well to desire the prolongation of these experiences; to desire to live ever in that unworldly radiance, close to the canopy of God,—in company with the great and the holy,—in company with the apostles and with Jesus,—on some Mount of Transfiguration, in garments whiter than snow, and with faces bright as the sun; and the hard, bad, trying world far distant and far below. Does not the man of spiritual sensitiveness envy those sainted ones who have grown apart, in pure clusters, away above the sinful world, blossoming and breathing fragrance on the very slopes of heaven?
And yet, is this the complete ideal of life? and is this the way in which we are to accomplish its true end? I think we may safely say that even the brightest realizations of religion should be comparatively rare, otherwise we forget the work and lose the discipline of our mortal lot. The great saints—the men whose names stand highest in the calendar of the church universal—are not the ascetics, not the contemplators, not the men who walked apart in cloisters; but those who came down from the Mount of Communion and Glory, to take a part in the world; who have carried its burdens in their souls, and its scars upon their breasts; who have wrought for its deepest interests, and died for its highest good; whose garments have swept its common ways, and whose voices have thrilled in its low places of suffering and of need;—men who have leaned lovingly against the world, until the motion of their great hearts jars in its pulses forever; men who have gone up from dust, and blood, and crackling fire; men with faces of serene endurance and lofty denial, yet of broad, genial, human sympathies;—these are the men who wear starry crowns, and walk in white robes, yonder.
We need our visions for inspiration, but we must work in comparative shadow; otherwise, the very highest revelations would become monotonous, and we should long for still higher. And yet, are there not some whose desire is for constant revelation? Who would see supernatural sights, and hear supernatural sounds, and know all the realities towards which they are drifting, as well as those in which they must work? They would make this world a mount of perpetual vision; overlooking the fact that it has its own purposes, to be wrought out by its own light, and within its own limits. For my part, I must confess that I do not share in this desire to know all about the next world, and to see beforehand everything that is going to be. I have no solicitude about the mere scenery and modes of the future state. But this desire to be in the midst of perpetual revelations argues that there is not enough to fill our minds and excite our wonder here; when all things around us are pregnant with suggestion, and invite us, and offer unfathomed depths for our curious seeking. There is so much here, too, for our love and our discipline; so much for us to do, that we hardly need more revelations just now;—they might overwhelm and disturb us in the pursuit of these appointed ends. Moreover, the gratification of this desire would foreclose that glorious anticipation, that trembling expectancy, which is so fraught with inspiration and delight,—the joy of the unknown, the bliss of the thought that there is a great deal yet to be revealed.
We do need some revelation; just such as has been given;—a glimpse of the immortal splendors; an articulate Voice from heaven—a view of the glorified Jesus; a revelation in a point of time, just as that on the mount was in point of space. We need some; but not too much,—not all revelation; not revelation as a customary fact. If so, I repeat, we should neglect this ordained field of thought and action. We should live in a sphere of supernaturalism,—in an atmosphere of wonder,—amid a planetary roll of miracles; still unsatisfied; still needing the suggestion of higher points to break the stupendous monotony.
And I insist that work, not vision, is to be the ordinary method of our being here, against the position of those who shut themselves in to a contemplative and extatic piety. They would escape from the age, and its anxieties; they would recall past conditions; they would get into the shadow of cloisters, and build cathedrals for an exclusive sanctity. And, indeed, we would do well to consider those tendencies of our time which lead us away from the inner life of faith and prayer. But this we should cherish, not by withdrawing all sanctity from life, but by pouring sanctity into life. We should not quit the world, to build tabernacles in the Mount of Transfiguration, but come from out the celestial brightness, to shed light into the world,—to make the whole earth a cathedral; to overarch it with Christian ideals, to transfigure its gross and guilty features, and fill it with redeeming truth and love.
Surely, the lesson of the incident connected with the text is clear, so far as the apostles were concerned, who beheld that dazzling, brightness, and that heavenly companionship, apart on the mount. They were not permitted to remain apart; but were dismissed to their appointed work. Peter went to denial and repentance,—to toil and martyrdom; James to utter his practical truth; John to send the fervor of his spirit among the splendors of the Apocalypse, and, in its calmer flow through his Gospel, to give us the clearest mirror of the Saviour's face.
Nay, even for the Redeemer that was not to be an abiding vision; and he illustrates the purport of life as he descends from his transfiguration to toil, and goes forward to exchange that robe of heavenly, brightness for the crown of thorns.
What if Jesus had remained there, upon that Mount of Vision, and himself stood before us as only a transfigured form of glory? Where then would be the peculiarity of his work, and its effect upon the world?
On the wall of the Vatican, untarnished by the passage of three hundred years, hangs the masterpiece of Raphael,—his picture of the Transfiguration. In the centre, with the glistening raiment and the altered countenance, stands Jesus, the Redeemer. On the right hand and on the left are his glorified visitants; while, underneath the bright cloud, lie the forms of Peter, and James, and John, gazing at the transfigured Jesus, shading their faces as they look. Something of the rapture and the awe that attracted the apostles to that shining spot seems to have seized the soul of the great artist, and filled him with his greatest inspiration. But he saw what the apostles, at that moment, did not see, and, in another portion of his picture, has represented the scene at the foot of the hill,—the group that awaited the descent of Jesus.. The poor possessed boy, writhing, and foaming, and gnashing his teeth,—his eyes, as some say, in their wild rolling agony, already catching a glimpse of the glorified Christ above; the baffled disciples, the caviling scribes, the impotent physicians, the grief-worn father, seeking in vain for help. Suppose Jesus had stayed upon the mount, what would have become of that group of want, and helplessness, and agony? Suppose Christ had remained in the brightness of that vision forever,—himself only a vision of glory, and not an example of toil, and sorrow, and suffering, and death,—alas! For the great world at large, waiting at the foot of the hill—the groups of humanity in all ages;—the sin-possessed sufferers—the caviling skeptics; the philosophers, with their books and instruments; the bereaved and frantic mourners in their need!
So, my hearers, wrapped in the higher moods of the soul, and wishing to abide among upper glories, we may not see the work that waits for us along our daily path; without doing which all our visions are vain. We must have the visions. We need them in our estimate of the world around us,—of the aspects and destinies of humanity. There are times when justice is balked, and truth covered up, and freedom trampled down;—when we may well be tempted to ask, "What is the use of trying to work?"—when we may well inquire whether what-we are doing is work at all. And in such a case, or in any other, one is lifted up, and inspired, and enabled to do and to endure all things, when in steady vision he beholds the everliving God,—when all around the injustice, and conflict, and suffering of the world, he detects the Divine Presence, like a bright cloud overshadowing. O! then doubt melts away, and wrong dwindles, and the jubilee of victorious falsehood is but a peal of drunken laughter, and the spittings of guilt and contempt no more than flakes of foam flung against a hero's breast-plate. Then one sees, as it were, with the vision of God, who looked down upon the old cycles, when a sweltering waste covered the face of the globe, and huge, reptile natures held it in dominion;—who beholds the pulpy worm, down in the sea, building the pillars of continents;—so one sees the principalities of evil sliding from their thrones, and the deposits of humble faithfulness rising from the deep of ages. Our sympathy, our benevolent effort in the work of God and humanity, how much do they need not only the vision of intellectual foresight, but of the faith which, on bended knees, sees further than the telescope!
And alas! for him who, in his personal need and effort, has no margin of holier inspiration—no rim of divine splendor—-around his daily life! Without the vision of life's great realities we cannot see what our work is, or know how to do it.
But such visions must be necessarily rare and transient, or we shall miss their genuine efficacy. We must work in comparative shadow, without the immediate sight of these realities; and only in the place of our rest,—rest for higher efforts and a new career,—only there may we have their constant companionship, and build their perpetual tabernacles.