In the nave of the Abbey Kirk at Haddington one can see a grave with this inscription over it: "In her bright existence she had more sorrows than are common but also a soft invincibility, a capacity of discernment, and a noble loyalty of heart which are rare. For forty years she was the true and loving helpmate of her husband, and by act and word unweariedly forwarded him as none else could in all of worthy that he did or attempted. She died at London, 21st April, 1866, suddenly snatched from him, and the light of his life as if gone out."
It is the inscription upon the grave of Jane Carlyle. In truth she was the light of Carlyle's life; but, if someone is to judge by the pathetic entries in his diary, he never realized that fact until she was snatched from him and the light of his life was as if gone out. In all literature there is nothing more moving than these words of Carlyle taken from his diary after a visit to the grave of his wife: "Cherish what is dearest while you have it near you, and wait not till it is far away. Blind and deaf that we are; oh, think, if thou yet love anybody living, wait not till death sweep down the paltry little dust clouds and dissonances of the moment, and all be at last so mournfully clear and beautiful when it is too late.
There is a very old and very impressive story of a youth greatly beloved who died. In the next life he besought the gods to let him return to this world for just one day, a day that was one of the least notable, one of the most ordinary, days of his past life. The gods granted his request; and he appeared again, just as he had been at the age of fifteen, in his old home. As he entered the living room his mother passed him, engaged upon some household task. Then he stepped out into the yard; and his father, busy with some work and carrying tools in his hand, gave him an indifferent glance and passed on. Then the youth awoke to the fact that we are all dead, that we are only really alive when we are conscious of the treasure we have in our friends and loved ones. A piercing parable of truth! And if that is so, that we are only really alive when we are conscious of our treasures, then how often we are dead!
Acts of kindness, words of appreciation, ministries of affection, have their Now, their Today; and to say, "When I have a more convenient season" to these great opportunities is to bid them depart from you.
I did not know how short your day would be!
I had you safe, and words could wait awhile—
And yet . . . your eyes begged tenderness of me,
Behind their smile.
And now for you, so dark, so long, is night!
I speak, but on my knees, unheard, alone—
What words were these to make a short day bright—
"If I had known! Ah, love—If I had known!"
On the walls of the Sistine Chapel in Rome, together with the prophets and the apostles, you can see the sibyls which Michelangelo painted there to show the preparation for the coming of Christ in the pagan world.
The sibyls, like the prophets in the Old Testament, were supposed in the pagan world to have the power of predicting the future. One of the sibyls offered her nine books for sale to the proud Tarquin, legendary founder of Rome, when he consulted her. Tarquin refused the offer. Whereupon, the sibyl burned three of the books and offered him the six that remained. Again Tarquin refused. The sibyl then destroyed three more books and offered Tarquin the remaining three.
Alarmed that the three had been offered him at the same price as the six and the nine, Tarquin consulted the augurs. At their advice he purchased the remaining books, which were put in a chest of stone and kept underground in the capital, forever guarded. These books became the guide of Rome. But priceless information had been lost with the books which had been rejected and destroyed.
There is profound spiritual truth in that legend of Tarquin and the sibyl. Not a legendary sibyl but the Holy Spirit of God offers us in our time those things which belong to our peace. Every rejection shortens the day of opportunity, and with every refusal man's heart becomes less responsive.
In the story of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves someone can read about how a man who had the mystic words "Open sesame" got into the cavern filled with treasure, and then went from one door to another and from one chamber to another. So the open door that Christ sets before us leads to other doors and to higher chambers of usefulness.
When we obey God and open the door that he sets before us, then he will open another door unto us.
Hartley Coleridge was the gifted son of the great poet. He had an unfortunate career at Oxford, where he lost his fellowship. Once on a visit to his home at Grassmere he chanced to pick up a schoolbook that had been given him long before. He glanced through it, and then wrote on the fly leaf: "Only seventeen years have passed over me since this book was given to me. Then all looked forward with hope and joy to what I was to become. Now every mother prays that her lamb, every father hopes that his boy, will never be what I have become."
In one of the galleries of the Louvre there hangs a double painting which appeals to far more eyes and hearts than many a far-famed Ascension or Transfiguration. In the first painting is an outraged father with uplifted hand, ordering the wicked son from the paternal door. In the background cower the weeping mother and the sisters and brothers. The second scene shows the same cottage and the same humble room and the same father and mother and brothers and sisters. But the father lies still upon the bed, the aloofness of death upon his face. At the side of the bed, with her face buried in her hands, kneels the mother with her children. The cottage door has just been flung open, and the returning prodigal stands with his foot on the sill and his hand on the door, as if he has been smitten into stone. He has come too late. Both father and son have waited too long. Now the father cannot speak the words of forgiveness and the son can find no place for repentance, though he seeks it carefully and with tears.
"Arise, let us be going!" (Matt. 26:46.) The three disciples had failed miserably in the task assigned to them: when they might have watched with Christ they had slept, and that hour was gone forever. But then Christ spoke, not of the past, but of the present and the future. There was still a duty which could be done, still an opportunity to serve him; poorly as they had prepared themselves for it, there was yet a chance for them to do something for Christ.
The words of Jesus, "Sleep on" (Matt. 26:45), are words of condemnation. They speak of the irrevocable past! But his words, "Arise, let us be going" are words of invitation and of opportunity. God in his grace and mercy, although he shuts doors in the past, opens new doors for us in the future. Had he said only "Sleep on," hopeless would be our condition. But he said also "Arise." What if God let us depart from him and never called us back to him again? What if he let us sin, but did not call us to repentance ? What if he said "Sleep on" concerning the duties, the responsibilities of the past, and opened no door of hope with his great "Arise"? But in his love and mercy, God gives us another chance.