GOD'S LAMP EVER EXTI GUISHED. BY FRA CIS ST. JOH THACKERAY, M.A., F.S.A.
" The lamp of God was not yet gone out." I Samuel, iii. 3 (R. V.). VERY beautiful is the sight of unsullied youth ministering in holy places, separate from contact with the outer world, wholly devoted to religious service. Even in the cult of a heathen god, when we meet with anything resembling such a dedication of the freshest period of life, we cannot help being arrested by its charm. The young Ion 2 in Greek Tragedy has a strange fascination for us, as he tends the altar of Apollo at Delphi, as he scares away the birds that swoop down from the cliffs of Parnassus ; as he sings his joyous morning hymn, boasting that his ministrations are rendered to no mortal, but to the immortals, and praying that such happy toil as his may never cease, but with his life. How much more lovely is the vision of the son of many prayers, the child-priest, Samuel, girded with his linen ephod, consecrated from the first to the true God in the tabernacle at Shiloh ! The historian seems gladly to pause in his narrative of those dark days that were calling down swift destruction upon priest and people, in order to linger awhile over the picture of the blameless lad of twelve years old, tending the Sanctuary by day, lying down within its precincts by night, and opening its doors at sunrise. Other pictures of childhood and youth spent in special service to God we have brought before us in Scripture. We have one of Josiah, who in the eighth year of his reign (i.e., when
he was but sixteen years old) took the first steps in that reform which he afterwards carried out so fully. Of him the record is that " while he was yet young, he began to seek after the God of David his fatlier" We have another in Timothy, of whose early days St. Paul gives us a glimpse : " From a child thou hast known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation, through faith which is in Christ Jesus." But far, far beyond all, we have Him before whom all images of early
192 God's Lamp [xiv innocence and guilelessness grow faint and pale the Holy Child, who, when he was twelve years old was found in His Father's house, bent on doing His Father's business, sitting in the Temple, in the midst of the astonished doctors of the law, both hearing and asking them questions. Well might such an ideal of unearthly devotedness inspire (as in most of the instances mentioned, it has inspired) the pencil of artists ! The scene in the sanctuary at Shiloh the deep silence of the early morning the young child hearing a voice and mistaking it at first in a childish manner ; the contrast between him and the aged Eli, feeble and infirm of will, having to hear his doom from the lips of his own pupil who was to succeed him as Judge there is no need to dwell on it. It is a scene which once read fixes itself indelibly upon the memory. Let us return to the text : " The lamp of God was not yet gone out" as we read it in the
Revised Version, for " ere the lamp of God went out" There were times many times in the history of Israel when that lamp was all but extinguished. There was the period when the hideous worship of the Phoenicians had been imported by Ahab to rival the worship of Jehovah, the moment when it seemed even to Elijah that all was lost ; yet
xiv] ever Extinguished. 193 even then amidst the growing apostasy, the Lord had kept to Himself those 7,000 who were secretly faithful, and had not bowed the knee to Baal. There was the time of deepest degradation into which the nation sunk when transplanted to Babylon, but even then the voice of the prophets of the Captivity was heard, and Judah was to rise from her ashes, and a new era was to dawn. And so it has been again and again ; there have been periods of gloom when it might seem that the lamp was to go out ; but at such critical moments the sacred fire has ever been burning, there have been " the few names even in Sardis which have not denied their garments," the ten righteous men the custodians of the dying flame the regenerators and survivors of Christ's Church. In the final horrors of the Siege of Rome by Alaric, the lamp of God was not extinguished. It burnt on with undying light, and some striking examples of Christian goodness and mercy relieved the general gloom. The belief in the divinity of Rome, so long and so passionately clung to by the heathen, could not survive the fall of her temples and idols ;
but was it not just then, when the discredited city seemed crumbling into ruin, that St. Augustine put forth his great work, " The City of God " ? appealing in it to conscience, O
194 God's Lamp [xiv appealing to past history, and justifying the ways of Providence to man ? And the more that research is carried into any parts of what we call the Dark Ages, not yet fully explored, probably the more will the words of our text be illustrated. At the close of the sixth century, Ireland was the centre of light and learning, and from Ireland there radiated beams of missionary enterprise to the north and to the east : we see Columba bearing the lamp to lona, and a little later on Columban penetrating the wild forests of the Vosges. The worst miseries, perhaps, that Europe ever has known, were witnessed during the eighth, ninth, and tenth centuries. Yet even in those desert tracts here and there an oasis appears. Karl, the great Charles 1 stands out, as has been finely said, " like a beacon upon a waste, or a rock in the broad ocean." Stained as he was with some vices, he must still be regarded as wonderfully enlightened when contrasted with the barbarian world around him. And then look at our noble-hearted Alfred ! What historical character so nearly approaches perfection ? Weak in body, and " at the head of a weak and degenerate society whose hour of dissolution had wellnigh struck," 2 how gal1 Hallam, " Middle Ages," ch. i., pt. i. 8 Merivale, "The Romans under the Empire," ch.
Ixviii., in his comparison of M. Aurelius with Alfred.
xiv] ever Extinguished. 195 lantly he struggled on ! Surely he is the very type of the Happy Warrior, " The generous Spirit, who, when brought Among the tasks of real life, hath wrought Upon the plan that pleased his boyish thought: ' Whose high endeavours are an inward light That makes the path before him always bright." The Lamp of God was not yet gone out in England under such a ruler ; no, nor when those drearier and desperate times ensued, when in the expressive figure of the Church Historian l " Christ seemed to be asleep in the hinder part of the vessel." The benefits conferred upon mediaeval life by the Monasteries cannot be ignored ; the greatest of them were founded before the Conquest, and in them were nurtured some men who in self-denial, in singleness of purpose and courage, have seldom been surpassed. The close of the tenth century was the close of an iron age. " Men's hearts everywhere were failing them for fear and for looking after those things which were coming upon the earth." But no sooner was the dreaded one thousandth year passed, than the skies seemed to become serener, and Hope renewed itself. The Christian world received a new impulse 1 Cardinal Baronius.
196 God's Lamp [xiv and from the religious excitement of that date, and out of its agonies and birth-pangsy arose the dawn of Christian Art in Europe. The lamp of orman architecture was lit, if not to inspire the beauty and devotion of its successor, yet still breathing awe and solemnity in its massive creations. Thus we see that " Sprinkled along the waste of years Full many a soft green isle appears." There was the lamp of missionary zeal in the sixth and seventh, there was the lamp of architecture beginning to illuminate even the last years of the tenth century, and destined to burst forth into a magnificent future. There is a third lamp, which was to shine forth with more and more brilliance after the revival of letters, but which even before that had sent forth no obscure rays I mean the lamp of education. Time forbids my dwelling on it : but here, if anywhere, in this training ground of character, and within the walls of this chapel, with its hallowed associations and far-reaching memories, it could not be passed by in silence. Light out of darkness, hope out of despair, order out of disorder, is not that the teaching of the mediaeval times, and, we may trust, of all history ? It was a time of national discontent, distress, and disorganization when Wiclif died, but he was a morning
xiv] ever Extinguished. 1 97
star, heralding the coming daylight And nine years after Wiclif's death, just five hundred years ago, when William of Wykeham founded Winchester, and about the time whence several Colleges at both Universities date their charters the lamp of God assuredly had not gone out in England. It was a period, too, saddened by defeat abroad, and troubled by factions at home, a period of the utmost depression in literature and learning, when not quite half a century later the good work of Henry VI. was begun, and the first stone was laid of the chapel in which we worship God to-day. And not less from the annals of our church and our nation in their sequel might the truth of our text be illustrated. The religious condition of England during the last century will occur to every one as an instance. " There have been seasons of torpor and depression, but after each such interval Christ's Church has manifested her own recuperative power." Perhaps I may seem already to have dwelt too long upon the past, although in but a fragmentary manner, in this glance across the pages of history, long before Eton was known as a place devoted to learning. But to any thoughtful mind must not the past have a perpetual value? We cannot, if we would, dissociate ourselves from it. And just as with nations their present rests on and is but the
198 God's Lamp [xiv outcome of all their past, so it is with individuals. Our character is continually being constructed upon what is vanishing and out of sight. It is every day being built up upon the
sinking, subsiding, yet still sustaining reefs of our past. I forego to pause upon the long roll of Eton's illustrious sons. To dwell upon such a record is sometimes to run the risk of ministering to complacent pride rather than to rouse to an imitation of their virtues. And I will only say of these latter days of our school's history, that the lamp of God has assuredly not gone out in them with the rise and extension of such good work in East London as they have witnessed. In the few words that remain, I would desire to deepen in you the sense of the immense value of the lamp burning in each one of you, which is nothing less than God's Holy Spirit ; how very serious must the danger be of putting out that light, given you to be your guide through life's journey ; how necessary to guard against letting it gradually get low, against the relaxing of vigilance ; dropping morning or evening prayer for one day, and the next day finding it hard to take it up again ; the coming to Holy Communion hurriedly or carelessly, or not coming at all ; the trusting to any false lights, like those lit
xiv] ever Extinguished. 199 by the cruel wrecker to lure the ship upon the rocks, instead of to the sure Word of God, which is " a lantern to your feet, and a light unto your paths." It is thus that the lamp begins to fail and flicker, till at last it goes out. Hand on the torch to others ! ot only
have light in yourselves, but be centres of light, radiating it to others ! Hand it on, and take care that you hand it on not less bright than you received it ! Let your ideal of Eton be a noble, a worthy one ! Whatever it may be given you to accomplish, let there be ever associated with its name a sense of great things, of things greater than yourself. A gracious, abiding, life-long influence ! not merely the honour of your house, or the memory of your own intimate friends, good and precious as these are, but superadded to these, the love and reverence due to the common home, the generous mother of us all. The last decade of the nineteenth century is passing away. The twentieth is approaching. It may seem a bold thing to say, but can we doubt that what its colour and tone will be in England depends in no slight degree on what those who are being brought up here, and in other public schools, shall become? We who are older may not hope to behold the
200 God's Lamp [xiv working out of the momentous changes whose foreshadowing we already discern, and some of which we can hardly watch without awe. But you, by being true to your Christian belief, by your influence, by the part you take in the warfare of good against evil, you will have it in your power to mould the coming age. One cannot over-estimate the possibilities that hinge upon your boyhood. ever to suffer the lamp of God to go out
in the shrine of your hearts and your consciences, never to forfeit your inheritance, or any of the vantage ground on which you stand, by indifference to or neglect or misuse of blessings won long ago for you laboriously by others, upon whose labours you have entered, but to be " a link among the days, to knit the generations each to each," let this be your aim and your resolve ! It is one thing to rest idly upon the achievements of our fathers ; it is another to see in them the strongest call to fresh energy. It should be our aim " never to be forgetful of a truth once obtained from them, but never to sink into inertness in consequence of its attainment ; " l or we may express the same duty thus : " ot to break with the past, but to put off the accretions of age." Does not that give us the proper mean between an unnecessary 1 Mazzini.
xiv] ever Extinguished. 201 idolatry of antiquity and a cutting ourselves adrift from it altogether ? To break with the past ! Some there may be who are ready enough to do so not afraid to slight all its monitory lessons as there are some who with a light heart would make a tabula rasa, and treat as open questions everything hitherto regarded as most sacred. But which of us here would be among them ? We cannot do so with the history of our school, or our nation, or our Christian religion. We cannot do so with our own individual lives. o ! However much a man may chafe against
the fetters of what he has been and what he has done, however much he may try to laugh at old warnings of experience, however fondly he may fancy that he can start afresh any morning on a career of independence, still the solemn and sobering truth remains that " God requiretJi " 1 of each one of us of you and of me He requireth " for judgment that which is past" 1 Eccles. iii. 15.
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