In his great tale The Christ of Flanders Balzac describes the passage of a ship from the island of Cadzant to Ostend on the Flanders coast. Just before the ship cast off, a bareheaded stranger of plain attire boarded the vessel. The rich and fashionable passengers in the rear of the ship hastened to sit down so as to prevent the stranger from taking a seat in their midst. But the poor who sat in the bow of the boat moved along and made room for him.
The vessel had not gone far when the sea and the sky took on an ominous look and gave forth warning sounds and groans and murmurs, as of an anger that would not be appeased. In a moment a hurricane broke over them. Suddenly the clouds parted for a little above the vessel, and in that transient light all the passengers looked with amazement at the aspect of the late comer. His golden hair, parted in the middle on his tranquil, serene forehead, fell in many curls on his shoulders, and outlined against the gray sky was a face sublime in its gentleness and radiant with divine love.
Meanwhile all the passengers were in fear for their lives as the ship plunged in the storm. The young mother cried out, "Oh, my poor child, my child, who will save my child?"
"You yourself," replied the stranger. And when the mother heard his sweet voice, she had hope in her heart. The rich merchant, falling on his knees cried out, "Holy Virgin of Perpetual Succor, who art at Antwerp, I promise you twenty pounds of wax and a statue if you will get me out of this."
But the stranger spoke, "The Virgin is in heaven."
The handsome young cavalier put his arm around the proud damsel and assured her that he could swim, and that he would save her. Her mother was on her knees asking for absolution from the bishop, who was blessing the waves and ordering them to be calm—but he was thinking only of his concubine at Ostend. The ragged old prostitute cried out, "Oh, if I could only hear the voice of a priest saying to me, 'Your sins are forgiven you,' I could believe him."
The stranger turned toward her and said, "Have faith, and you will be saved."
When the ship, almost in view of Ostend, driven back by the convulsion of the storm, began to sink, the stranger stood up and walked with firm steps on the waves, saying as he did so, "Those that have faith shall be saved. Let them follow me." At once the young mother took up her child in her arms and walked with him on the sea. Then followed the soldier, and the old prostitute, and the two peasants. And last of all came one of the sailors, Thomas, whose faith wavered, and who sank several times into the sea; but after three failures he walked with the rest of them. The merchant went down with his gold. The man of science, who had mocked, was swallowed up by the sea. The damsel and her lover, the bishop and the old lady, went to the bottom, heavy with their sins. But those who had faith followed the stranger and trod with firm, dry feet on the raging waters. At length they reached the shore, where the stranger led them to a fisherman's cabin, where a light flickered in the window. When they had all come in and were gathered about the fire, then the Saviour disappeared.
True and beautiful commentary on Christ and Peter walking on the sea: "Those that have faith, let them follow me!" Can you walk on the sea? Anyone can walk on the land; but can you walk on the sea? What is your sea? Is it a sea of sickness? Is it a sea of loneliness? Is it a sea of disappointment? Is it a sea of pain? Is it a sea of sorrow? Is it a sea of temptation? You can walk on it if you will. Will you make Peter's prayer tonight, "Bid me come unto thee on the water" (Matt. 14:28)? And when you make that prayer, Jesus answers, "Come!"
In Tennyson's Idylls of the King a city is described as built to music, and therefore never built at all, and therefore built forever. So it is with the pillars of the city of our faith. They are there—although we cannot touch them with our hands. Ours is a city built to music, and therefore never built at all, and therefore built forever.
After Sir Walter Raleigh was beheaded in the tower they found in his Bible these true and striking lines, written the night before his death:
Even such is time, that takes in trust
Our youth, our joys, our all we have,
And pays us but with age and dust;
Who in the dark and silent grave,
When we have wandered all our ways,
Shuts up the story of our days.
But from this earth, this grave, this dust,
My God shall raise me up, I trust!
All the things of this world he had lost, but he had kept his faith; and faith spoke to him of a hope and life beyond the grave.
In the summer of 216 B.C. the army of Hannibal destroyed a great Roman army under the consul Terentius Varro. This came at the end of eighteen months of terrible battles with the conqueror from Carthage. In these battles the Roman armies had lost sixty thousand men. Yet the great disaster did not shake Rome. The Senate voted the defeated general, Varro, their thanks—"because he had not despaired of the commonwealth." When Hannibal encamped not more than three miles from the wall of Rome, the ground on which his army was encamped was put up for sale at Rome and brought its full market value. It was a magnificent tribute to Rome's confidence in herself and her future. In the Civil War, Lincoln never despaired of the Republic.
In his famous caricature of popular and easy religion, The Celestial Railroad, Nathaniel Hawthorne tells of the new and easy way by which one can travel today from the City of Destruction to the City of Life. On this journey the engineer of the train was Christian's old enemy, Apollyon. The Hill Difficulty had been pierced with a tunnel, and the Valley of the Shadow of Death had been illuminated with inflammable gas. Pilgrims were popular now at Vanity Fair, and Flimsy Faith ran the Castle of Giant Despair as a house of entertainment. When the train, with a loud blast of the engine, finally reached the river, Pilgrim hurried aboard the ferryboat, only to see that his traveling companion and guide, Mr. Smooth-It-Away, was not going on board. Pilgrim cried out to him an asked if he was not going over to the Celestial City. "Oh, no," he answered "I have come thus far only for the sake of your pleasant company. Good-by; we shall meet again." Pilgrim then rushed to the side of the boat, intending to fling himself on shore; but the wheels, as they began their revolution, threw over him a dash of spray so cold—so deadly cold, with the chill that will never leave those waters until death be drowned in his own river—that with a shiver and heartquake Pilgrim awoke.
The final test of a religion of faith or plan of life is, Can it get you over these rivers: the river of temptation, the river of trial and affliction, the river of sin an guilt, and that last river which we must all cross, the river of death? The ferry boat is still running. Despite the scoffings of the world, despite the proclamation that the ferryboat is now out of date, and fit only for the museum, it is still running. It is carrying across these dark and dangerous rivers thousands upon thousands in safety and in peace, and landing them safe at last upon Canaan's shore.