One of the most devastating experiences in human life is disillusionment. Of course there are some illusions the disillusionment of which is healthy. It takes two things to bowl over a tree - a heavy wind outside and decay inside. Much of the moral wreckage is caused by inner cynicism - a disgust with life's futility, an inability to see sense in it. A person in that mood is an easy mark for the next high wind.
Every new theory as it arises believes in the flush of youth that it has the long sought goal; it sees no limits to its applicability, and believes that at last it is the fortunate theory to achieve the 'right' answer. This was true of electron theory—perhaps some readers will remember a book called The Electrical Theory of the Universe by de Tunzelman. It is true of general relativity theory with its belief that we can formulate a mathematical scheme that will extrapolate to all past and future time and the unfathomed depths of space. It has been true of wave mechanics, with its first enthusiastic claim a brief ten years ago that no problem had successfully resisted its attack provided the attack was properly made, and now the disillusionment of age when confronted by the problems of the proton and the neutron. When will we learn that logic, mathematics, physical theory, are all only inventions for formulating in compact and manageable form what we already know, like all inventions do not achieve complete success in accomplishing what they were designed to do, much less complete success in fields beyond the scope of the original design, and that our only justification for hoping to penetrate at all into the unknown with these inventions is our past experience that sometimes we have been fortunate enough to be able to push on a short distance by acquired momentum.
Ours is but a borrowed existence, freely given us by God, and He keeps us in existence because indeed He wills it so. Ours is but a goodness in which there is so much infirmity and even degradation; there is so much error in our knowledge. This thought, while serving to make us humble, brings home to us by contrast the infinite majesty of God. And then if it is a question of others and no longer of ourselves, if we have suffered disillusionment about our neighbor whom we had believed to be better and wiser, let us remember that he too has suffered disillusionment about us; let us remember that he too is perhaps better than we are, and that whatever is our own as coming from ourselves-our deficiencies and failings—is inferior to everything our neighbor has from God.
This is the foundation of humility in our relations with others. Lastly, we must admit that the disillusionments we ourselves experience, or which others experience through us, in view of the radical imperfection of the creature, are permitted that we may aspire more ardently to a knowledge and love of Him who is the truth and the life, whom we shall some day see as He sees Himself. We shall then understand the meaning of those words of St.Catherine of Siena: “The living, practical knowledge of our own wretchedness and the knowledge of God’s majesty are inseparable in their increase. They are like the lowest and highest points on a circle that is ever expanding.
The true alternative to the outworn magic of primitive peoples is not the modern magic of persons disciplined in the applied sciences or the “new thought.” It is no solution of the ultimate moral and intellectual problem to trade self-will from the left hand of primitive magic to the right hand of applied science. What matters is a changed disposition and reference in this whole final commerce of man with his universe. Call it pure religion or pure science, the name does not matter. The one thing needful is that temper and disposition towards the will of God which we find in Jesus, Bernard, Pascal and Lister alike.
The men who returned from the third attempt to climb Mount Everest, made in the summer of 1924, have told us that from now on the character of the endeavor is clearly defined in advance. One of them has recently said that the higher altitudes, from 22,000 to 28,000 feet, reached by the last party, were attained not by sportsmen and scientists breaking the mountain to their intention, but by men who had come to feel towards the mountain an almost mystical relationship. He said that the mountain itself, with its tremendous appeal, must take men to the top, and that only a spirit, which for the want of any other accurate word must be called religion, would ever carry men the last exacting two thousand feet.
What he seems to mean is that, in the presence of that imperious and majestic reality, the cheap coercive attempt to conquer the world must always break down, and that only something like the spirit of worship can draw and lift men at the last. The climbing of Mount Everest has ceased to be purely a geographical, political, and physiological problem. It has passed, as every great human endeavor must finally pass, into the realm of religion. And only the man whose peace is found in the imperious will of that terrific reality will ever stand upon its summit.
After he had dragged the blankets out of the empty tent at Camp VI, high up on the shoulder of Everest, and had laid them in a “T” on the snow to tell the watchers below that there was no trace of Mallory and Irvine, Odell closed the flap of the tent and began the third retreat to India. “I glanced up,” he says, “at the mighty summit above me, which ever and anon deigned to reveal its cloud-wreathed features. It seemed to look down with cold indifference on me, mere puny man, and to howl derision in wind gusts at my petition to yield up its secret—the mystery of my friends. What right had we to venture thus far into the holy presence of the Supreme Goddess, or much more to sling at her our blasphemous challenges. If it were indeed the sacred ground of Chomo Lungma—the Goddess Mother of the Mountain Snows—had we violated it, was I now violating it? Had we approached her with due reverence and singleness of heart and purpose?”
That, in modern parable, is the crux of the temptation in the wilderness. Magic in us dies and religion is born with that question which, if rightly answered, prefaces the true reference of the soul to God. What right have I to make trial of my God? Have I violated his holy being with my self-will? Have I approached him with due reverence and singleness of mind and heart?