The vital difference

Daily Reading for November 7 • The Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Often, indeed, a particular conversion takes a long time and is effected through a gradual process; yet even then its completion takes place at a moment, and though the transition effected in that moment may be very small, yet it is in its essential nature abrupt. Most of us have watched the sun setting behind a sharp horizon. Its disc slowly disappears; at last there is only a speck of light; then suddenly it is gone. Its going is a gradual process; but between the last moment when it is visible and the first when it is entirely hidden there is abrupt transition for the eyes that are watching it. . . .

So it is with the setting of the self as it passes over the horizon of its own contemplation. Whether it be in relation to Truth, or Beauty, or Holiness—or that entire dedication of life which alone deserves the Christian name of Love—the self may gradually forgo its grip upon its own activities or it may relax it suddenly; but the vital difference comes when the grip is gone and the object of contemplation or aspiration has free play with it. For that moment there may be a long preparation, or it may come as a lightning-flash. Regarded from one standpoint it is, like the sunset, a continuous process; regarded from another, the process is crowned by a moment which is not itself process at all; that moment is decisive for the quality of life so far as the type of conversion involved affects it. In religion the quality thus induced is called saintliness. And it is most important to notice that this, like the parallel devotion to Truth or Beauty, may be departmental. A man may have been lifted clean out of himself in some functions or activities, and brought into fellowship with the Holy and Eternal, and yet remain in many respects unconverted and self-centred. Such are fanatics—men who are capable of combining with true spiritual exaltation the utterly self-centred passions of cruelty and malignity, or who are ready to speak falsely on behalf of truth. . . . There have been cruel saints, and contemptuous saints, and unscrupulous saints; such saintliness is very incomplete, but may not the less be genuine in itself. And there have been saints who in the unconverted functions of their nature care so much for their own saintliness that for it they are ready to cause great pain to others. It is evidence how mortally deep is our self-centredness that even our deliverance from it in respect of many sides of life may become itself an occasion of self-esteem. This is that demon of spiritual pride, which most of us are not nearly good enough even to encounter. . . .

The true aim of the soul is not its own salvation; to make that the chief aim is to ensure its perdition; for it is to fix the soul on itself as centre. The true aim of the soul is to glorify God; in pursuing that aim it will attain to salvation unawares. No one who is convinced of his own salvation is as yet even safe, let alone “saved.” Salvation is the state of him who has ceased to be interested whether he is saved or not, provided that what takes the place of that supreme self-interest is not a lower form of self-interest but the glory of God.

From “Divine Grace and Human Freedom” by William Temple, in Nature, God, and Man (Edinburgh: R & R Clark, 1934).

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