Religion And Love by George William Russell

Story type: Essay

I have often wondered whether there is not something wrong in our religious systems in that the same ritual, the same doctrines, the same aspirations are held to be sufficient both for men and women. The tendency everywhere is to obliterate distinctions, and if a woman be herself she is looked upon unkindly. She rarely understands our metaphysics, and she gazes on the expounder of the mystery of the Logos with enigmatic eyes which reveal the enchantment of another divinity. The ancients were wiser than we in this, for they had Aphrodite and Hera and many another form of the Mighty Mother who bestowed on women their peculiar graces and powers. Surely no girl in ancient Greece ever sent up to all-pervading Zeus a prayer that her natural longings might be fulfilled; but we may be sure that to Aphrodite came many such prayers. The deities we worship today are too austere for women to approach with their peculiar desires, and indeed in Ireland the largest number of our people do not see any necessity for love-making at all, or what connection spiritual powers have with the affections. A girl, without repining, will follow her four-legged dowry to the house of a man she may never have spoken twenty words to before her marriage. We praise our women for their virtue, but the general acceptance of the marriage as arranged shows so unemotional, so undesirable a temperament, that it is not to be wondered at. One wonders was there temptation.

What the loss to the race may be it is impossible to say, but it is true that beautiful civilizations are built up by the desire of man to give his beloved all her desires. Where there is no beloved, but only a housekeeper, there are no beautiful fancies to create the beautiful arts, no spiritual protest against the mean dwelling, no hunger build the world anew for her sake. Aphrodite is outcast and with her many of the other immortals have also departed. The home life in Ireland is probably more squalid than with any other people equally prosperous in Europe. The children begotten without love fill more and more the teeming asylums. We are without art; literature is despised; we have few of those industries which spring up in other countries in response to the desire of woman to make gracious influences pervade the home of her partner, a desire to which man readily yields, and toils to satisfy if he loves truly. The desire for beauty has come almost to be regarded as dangerous, if not sinful; and the woman who is still the natural child of the Great Mother and priestess of the mysteries, if she betray the desire to exercise her divinely-given powers, if there be enchantment in her eyes and her laugh, and if she bewilder too many men, is in our latest code of morals distinctly an evil influence. The spirit, melted and tortured with love, which does not achieve its earthly desire, is held to have wasted its strength, and the judgment which declares the life to be wrecked is equally severe on that which caused this wild conflagration in the heart. But the end of life is not comfort but divine being. We do not regard the life which closed in the martyr’s fire as ended ignobly. The spiritual philosophy which separates human emotions and ideas, and declares some to be secular and others spiritual, is to blame. There is no meditation which if prolonged will not bring us to the same world where religion would carry us, and if a flower in the wall will lead us to all knowledge, so the understanding of the peculiar nature of one half of humanity will bring us far on our journey to the sacred deep. I believe it was this wise understanding which in the ancient world declared the embodied spirit in man to be influenced more by the Divine Mind and in woman by the Mighty Mother, by which nature in its spiritual aspect was understood. In this philosophy, Boundless Being, when manifested, revealed itself in two forms of life, spirit and substance; and the endless evolution of its divided rays had as its root impulse the desire to return to that boundless being. By many ways blindly or half consciously the individual life strives to regain its old fullness. The spirit seeks union with nature to pass from the life of vision into Pure being; and nature, conscious that its grosser forms are impermanent, is for ever dissolving and leading its votary to a more distant shrine. “Nature is timid like a woman,” declares an Indian scripture. “She reveals herself shyly and withdraws again.” All this metaphysic will not appear out of place if we regard women as influenced beyond herself and her conscious life for spiritual ends. I do not enter a defense of the loveless coquette, but the woman who has a natural delight in awakening love in men is priestess of a divinity than which there is none mightier among the rulers of the heavens. Through her eyes, her laugh, in all her motions, there is expressed more than she is conscious of herself. The Mighty Mother through the woman is kindling a symbol of herself in the spirit, and through that symbol she breathes her secret life into the heart, so that it is fed from within and is drawn to herself. We remember that with Dante, the image of a woman became at last the purified vesture of his spirit through which the mysteries were revealed. We are for ever making our souls with effort and pain, and shaping them into images which reveal or are voiceless according to their degree; and the man whose spirit has been obsessed by a beauty so long brooded upon that he has almost become that which he contemplated, owes much to the woman who may never be his; and if he or the world understood aright, he has no cause of complaint. It is the essentially irreligious spirit of Ireland which has come to regard love as an unnecessary emotion and the mingling of the sexes as dangerous. For it is a curious thing that while we commonly regard ourselves as the most religious people in Europe, the reverse is probably true. The country which has never produced spiritual thinkers or religious teachers of whom men have heard if we except Berkeley and perhaps the remote Johannes Scotus Erigena, cannot pride itself on its spiritual achievement; and it might seem even more paradoxical, but I think it would be almost equally true, to say that the first spiritual note in our literature was struck when a poet generally regarded as pagan wrote it as the aim of his art to reveal–

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In all poor foolish things that live a day
Eternal beauty wandering on her way.

The heavens do not declare the glory of God any more than do shining eyes, nor the firmament show His handiwork more than the woven wind of hair, for these were wrought with no lesser love than set the young stars swimming in seas of joyous and primeval air. If we drink in the beauty of the night or the mountains, it is deemed to be praise of the Maker, but if we show an equal adoration of the beauty of man or woman, it is dangerous, it is almost wicked. Of course it is dangerous; and without danger there is no passage to eternal things. There is the valley of the shadow beside the pathway of light, and it always will be there, and the heavens will never be entered by those who shrink from it. Spirituality is the power of apprehending formless spiritual essences, of seeing the eternal in the transitory, and in the things which are seen the unseen things of which they are the shadow. I call Mr. Yeats’ poetry spiritual when it declares, as in the lines I quoted, that there is no beauty so trivial that it is not the shadow of the Eternal Beauty. A country is religious where it is common belief that all things are instinct with divinity, and where the love between man and woman is seen as a symbol, the highest we have, of the union of spirit and nature, and their final blending in the boundless being. For this reason the lightest desires even, the lightest graces of women have a philosophical value for what suggestions they bring us of the divinity behind them.

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As men and women feel themselves more and more to be sharers of universal aims, they will contemplate in each other and in themselves that aspect of the boundless being under whose influence they are cast, and will appeal to it for understanding and power. Time, which is for ever bringing back the old and renewing it, may yet bring back to us some counterpart of Aphrodite or Hera as they were understood by the most profound thinkers of the ancient world; and women may again have her temples and her mysteries, and renew again her radiant life at its fountain, and feel that in seeking for beauty she is growing more into her own ancestral being, and that in its shining forth she is giving to man, as he may give to her, something of that completeness of spirit of which it is written, “neither is the man without the woman nor the woman without the man in the Highest.”

It may seem strange that what is so clear should require statement, but it is only with a kind of despair the man or woman of religious mind can contemplate the materialism of our thought about life. It is not our natural heritage from the past, for the bardic poetry shows that a heaven lay about us in the mystical childhood of our race, and a supernatural original was often divined for the great hero, or the beautiful woman. All this perception has withered away, for religion has become observance of rule and adherence to doctrine. The first steps to the goal have been made sufficient in themselves; but religion is useless unless it has a transforming power, unless it is able “to turn fishermen into divines,” and make the blind see and the deaf hear. They are no true teachers who cannot rise beyond the world of sense and darkness and awaken the links within us from earth to heaven, who cannot see within the heart what are its needs, and who have not the power to open the poor blind eyes and touch the ears that have heard no sound of the heavenly harmonies. Our clergymen do their best to deliver us from what they think is evil, but do not lead us into the Kingdom. They forget that the faculties cannot be spiritualized by restraint but in use, and that the greatest evil of all is not to be able to see the divine everywhere, in life and love no less than in the solemn architecture of the spheres. In the free play of the beautiful and natural human relations lie the greatest possibilities of spiritual development, for heaven is not prayer nor praise but the fullness of life, which is only divined through the richness and variety of life on earth. There is a certain infinitude in the emotions of love, tenderness, pity, joy, and all that is begotten in love, and this limitless character of the emotions has never received the philosophical consideration which is due to it, for even laughter may be considered solemnly, and gaiety and joy in us are the shadowy echoes of that joy spoken of the radiant Morning Stars, and there is not an emotion in man or woman which has not, however perverted and muddied in its coming, in some way flowed from the first fountain. We are no more divided from supernature than we are from our own bodies, and where the life of man or woman is naturally most intense it most naturally overflows and mingles with the subtler and more lovely world within. If religion has no word to say upon this it is incomplete, and we wander in the narrow circle of prayers and praise, wondering all the while what is it we are praising God for, because we feel so melancholy and lifeless. Dante had a place in his Inferno for the joyless souls, and if his conception be true the population of that circle will be largely modern Irish. A reaction against this conventional restraint is setting in, and the needs of life will perhaps in the future no longer be violated as they are today; and since it is the pent-up flood of the joy which ought to be in life which is causing this reaction, and since there is a divine root in it, it is difficult to say where it might not carry us; I hope into some renewal of ancient conceptions of the fundamental purpose of womanhood and its relations to Divine Nature, and that from the temples where woman may be instructed she will come forth, with strength in her to resist all pleading until the lover worship in her a divine womanhood, and that through their love the divided portions of the immortal nature may come together and be one as before the beginning of worlds.

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