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ANNALS OF AN ENGLISH ABBEY.
HUMAN HISTORY, say the philosophers, is the evolution of events which lie already in their causes, as the properties of geometrical figures lie in the scientific definition of those figures. The qualities which Euclid proves to belong to the circle, exist in the circle eternally. There is no before and no after, and the sense of sequence is only in the successive steps by which proposition after proposition is made known to the limited understanding of man. In like manner the unnumbered multitude of living things, the animated throng of beings which fill the air, and crowd the water and the earth, lie potentially in the elemental germs out of which they seem to be developed ; and the life of the individual man, the long sequel of the acts and fortunes of his race, and all that he has done and is to do, till the type is exhausted and gives place to other combinations, is governed by laws as inherent and as necessary as those through which the mathematician develops his inferences from the equation of an ellipse.
Were the equation of man constructed out of clements as few and simple, we should know all that has been, and all that is to be, without moving from our library chairs; but with the knowledge we should lose the uncertainty which gives life its purpose and its interest. The pleasure of existence depends upon its anxieties, and if we are
indeed but the automata spiritualia which Leibnitz defines us to be, then, of all the gifts which God has bestowed upon us, the choicest is the trick which He has played upon our understandings—which makes the certain appear as uncertain, which cheats us with the belief that the future is in our hands, to mould either for good or ill. Of the dynamic forces of humanity the most powerful is for ever concealed from us. The acorn has produced the oak, and the oak the acorn, from the time when oaks first began to be, and one oak, for practical purposes, is identical with another. Man produces man; but each individual brings into the world a character and capabilities differing from those of his fellows, and incalculable till they have had room to display themselves. An idea generated in a single mind penetrates the circle of mankind, and shapes them afresh after its likeness. We talk of a science of history—we dream that we can trace laws of causation which governed the actions of our fathers, and from which we can forecast the tendencies of generations to come. The spontaneous force in the soul of a single man of genius will defeat our subtlest calculations : - and of all forecasts of the future, there is but one on which we can repose with confidence, that nothing is certain but the unforeseen.
So long as the rules of our spiritual navigation were supposed to be definitely known; so long as conscience was believed to be the voice of God in us, and there were celestial constellations to which we could appeal to correct its variations, it mattered little whether we comprehended to what port we were bound. Our course had been laid down for us by the Master Navigator of the Universe, and we could sail on without misgivings over the ocean of untried possibilities. From a combination of many causes we are passing now into a sea where our charts fail us, and the stars have ceased to shine. The tongue of the
prudent speaks stammeringly. The fool clamours that he is as wise as the sage, and the sage shrinks from saying that it is not so. Authority is mute. One man, we are told, is as good as another : each by Divine charter may think as he pleases, and carve his actions after his own liking. Institutions crumble; creeds resolve themselves into words; forms of government disintegrate, and there is no longer any word of command. In place of the pilots who stood once at the helm, gave their orders and compelled obedience, we have crews now, all equal, who decide by the majority of votes. We have entered on an age of universal democracy, political and spiritual, such as the world has never seen before; and civilised mankind are broken into two hundred million units, each thinking and doing what is good in his own eyes.
Experience of the past forbids the belief that anarchy will continue for ever. Man is a gregarious animal, and, as the earth fills up, the flocks must be packed more densely. Fresh combinations are inevitable--and conbinations cohere only when formed on definite principles to which individual inclinations must bend. Strong minds have a natural tendency to direct weak minds. Majorities vote wrongly. The wrong course runs the ship upon the rocks; and the fool, when his folly issues in practical disaster, understands in some degree that he is a fool. The universal sand-heap will and must once more organise itself; though in what shape politically, or round what kind of spiritual conviction, it were waste of labour to conjecture. Meanwhile the results of life as they appear in advanced countries like England and America were never less interesting. Each Englishman, each American, left to his own guidance and compelled by the restlessness of his nature to aspire to something, turns to the one direction plainly open to him, and sets himself with might and main to make money. Money is power; money commands a certain kind of enjoyment; the excessive want of it is palpable disenjoyment. We desire to succeed; to make ourselves considerable among our fellows; and money
is the best standard of measurement readily appreciable. But when we have got it we are still unsatisfied. The pleasures which money will buy are soon exhausted. The chief delight has been in the getting; the thing got becomes a weariness: and we must either throw our inclinations into chains and determine to desire nothing but what the dollar will purchase for us, or else to escape vacuity we fling ourselves into dilettante sciences, study the anatomy of shells and beetles, or find a spurious interest in the fictitious world of novel-writers, which reality denies us in our own.
On these terms the better sort of men and women find existence grow tedious. So long as they are obliged to work they are in contact with facts, and retain their moral health.
When money is provided in sufficient quantities, and work has become unnecessary, they cast about for occupation. The new order of things has none to give them of a noble kind, and in despair they fling themselves into the past. They see in the old world what the modern world fails to provide. The Catholic Church, which their fathers broke with, tells them that the disease from which they suffer is the natural fruit of apostasy. The Catholic Church alone can fill the void in their hearts. The noble employment for which they pine the Church holds out with ever-open hands-employment in which the companies of the saints earned the aureoles around their brows—and many and many a high-souled man and
woman among us is taking the Church at its word, and trying the experiment. The Reformers led them out into the wilderness, but in that wilderness was no Sinai with the revelation of a new law only a sandy desert strewed with nuggets of gold. There was no Jordan, with a promised land beyond it-only a deluding mirage with gold-dust for water.
Thus, among other strange phenomena of this waning century, we see once more rising among us, as if by enchantment, the religious orders of the Middle Ages; Benedictines, Carmelites, Dominicans : houses of monks and nuns, to which American and English ladies and gentlemen are once more gathering as of old, flying no longer from a world of violence or profligacy, but from a world of emptiness and spiritual death.
In Spain and Italy, where the continuity of Catholicism has been unbroken, and the conventual life has been too long familiar to seek to disguise its true features, it is regarded with the same hatred with which it was abhorred by our fathers; it denotes nothing but sensuality, ignorance and sin. The Italian Government is rooting out the whole system as ruthlessly as Henry VIII. Royalists and Republicans may make their alternate revolutions in the Spanish peninsula.; the provinces submit indifferently, knowing that to them it matters little whether they be ruled by king or president; but suggest a restoration of the cowled fraternities, and the paving-stones of Valladolid and Burgos would rise up in mutiny. In England, where the past is obscured by sentimental passion; in America, where there is no past, or where the lessons of the old world are supposed to have no application; in France, where the entire nation is swimming in a sea of anarchy, and the vessel of the State is shattered and the drowning wretches cling to each floating plank which the waves drift within their reach, conventual institutions are springing up as mushrooms after an autumn rain. As mushrooms is it to be ? growing as fast, and as soon to perish ? Or are we really witnessing the revival of an order of things which, after a violent overthrow, is recommencing a second period of enduring energy and power ?
Time will answer. It depends on whether the Catholic