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´╗┐Title: A Christmas Sermon
Author: Stevenson, Robert Louis, 1850-1894
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.

*** Start of this LibraryBlog Digital Book "A Christmas Sermon" ***




New York



By the time this paper appears, I shall have been talking for twelve
months;[1] and it is thought I should take my leave in a formal and
seasonable manner. Valedictory eloquence is rare, and death-bed sayings
have not often hit the mark of the occasion. Charles Second, wit and
sceptic, a man whose life had been one long lesson in human incredulity,
an easy-going comrade, a manoeuvring king--remembered and embodied all
his wit and scepticism along with more than his usual good humour in the
famous "I am afraid, gentlemen, I am an unconscionable time a-dying."

[Footnote 1: i.e. In the pages of _Scribner's Magazine_ (1888).]


An unconscionable time a-dying--there is the picture ("I am afraid,
gentlemen,") of your life and of mine. The sands run out, and the hours
are "numbered and imputed," and the days go by; and when the last of
these finds us, we have been a long time dying, and what else? The very
length is something, if we reach that hour of separation undishonoured;
and to have lived at all is doubtless (in the soldierly expression) to
have served. There is a tale in Tacitus of how the veterans mutinied in
the German wilderness; of how they mobbed Germanicus, clamouring to go
home; and of how, seizing their general's hand, these old, war-worn
exiles passed his finger along their toothless gums. _Sunt lacrymae
rerum_: this was the most eloquent of the songs of Simeon. And when a
man has lived to a fair age, he bears his marks of service. He may have
never been remarked upon the breach at the head of the army; at least he
shall have lost his teeth on the camp bread.

The idealism of serious people in this age of ours is of a noble
character. It never seems to them that they have served enough; they
have a fine impatience of their virtues. It were perhaps more modest to
be singly thankful that we are no worse. It is not only our enemies,
those desperate characters--it is we ourselves who know not what we
do;--thence springs the glimmering hope that perhaps we do better than
we think: that to scramble through this random business with hands
reasonably clean, to have played the part of a man or woman with some
reasonable fulness, to have often resisted the diabolic, and at the end
to be still resisting it, is for the poor human soldier to have done
right well. To ask to see some fruit of our endeavour is but a
transcendental way of serving for reward; and what we take to be
contempt of self is only greed of hire.

And again if we require so much of ourselves, shall we not require much
of others? If we do not genially judge our own deficiencies, is it not
to be feared we shall be even stern to the trespasses of others? And he
who (looking back upon his own life) can see no more than that he has
been unconscionably long a-dying, will he not be tempted to think his
neighbour unconscionably long of getting hanged? It is probable that
nearly all who think of conduct at all, think of it too much; it is
certain we all think too much of sin. We are not damned for doing wrong,
but for not doing right; Christ would never hear of negative morality;
_thou shalt_ was ever his word, with which he superseded _thou shalt
not_. To make our idea of morality centre on forbidden acts is to defile
the imagination and to introduce into our judgments of our fellow-men a
secret element of gusto. If a thing is wrong for us, we should not dwell
upon the thought of it; or we shall soon dwell upon it with inverted
pleasure. If we cannot drive it from our minds--one thing of two: either
our creed is in the wrong and we must more indulgently remodel it; or
else, if our morality be in the right, we are criminal lunatics and
should place our persons in restraint. A mark of such unwholesomely
divided minds is the passion for interference with others: the Fox
without the Tail was of this breed, but had (if his biographer is to be
trusted) a certain antique civility now out of date. A man may have a
flaw, a weakness, that unfits him for the duties of life, that spoils
his temper, that threatens his integrity, or that betrays him into
cruelty. It has to be conquered; but it must never be suffered to
engross his thoughts. The true duties lie all upon the farther side,
and must be attended to with a whole mind so soon as this preliminary
clearing of the decks has been effected. In order that he may be kind
and honest, it may be needful he should become a total abstainer; let
him become so then, and the next day let him forget the circumstance.
Trying to be kind and honest will require all his thoughts; a mortified
appetite is never a wise companion; in so far as he has had to mortify
an appetite, he will still be the worse man; and of such an one a great
deal of cheerfulness will be required in judging life, and a great deal
of humility in judging others.

It may be argued again that dissatisfaction with our life's endeavour
springs in some degree from dulness. We require higher tasks, because
we do not recognise the height of those we have. Trying to be kind and
honest seems an affair too simple and too inconsequential for gentlemen
of our heroic mould; we had rather set ourselves to something bold,
arduous, and conclusive; we had rather found a schism or suppress a
heresy, cut off a hand or mortify an appetite. But the task before us,
which is to co-endure with our existence, is rather one of microscopic
fineness, and the heroism required is that of patience. There is no
cutting of the Gordian knots of life; each must be smilingly unravelled.

To be honest, to be kind--to earn a little and to spend a little less,
to make upon the whole a family happier for his presence, to renounce
when that shall be necessary and not be embittered, to keep a few
friends but these without capitulation--above all, on the same grim
condition, to keep friends with himself--here is a task for all that a
man has of fortitude and delicacy. He has an ambitious soul who would
ask more; he has a hopeful spirit who should look in such an enterprise
to be successful. There is indeed one element in human destiny that not
blindness itself can controvert: whatever else we are intended to do, we
are not intended to succeed; failure is the fate allotted. It is so in
every art and study; it is so above all in the continent art of living
well. Here is a pleasant thought for the year's end or for the end of
life: Only self-deception will be satisfied, and there need be no
despair for the despairer.


But Christmas is not only the mile-mark of another year, moving us to
thoughts of self-examination: it is a season, from all its associations,
whether domestic or religious, suggesting thoughts of joy. A man
dissatisfied with his endeavours is a man tempted to sadness. And in the
midst of the winter, when his life runs lowest and he is reminded of the
empty chairs of his beloved, it is well he should be condemned to this
fashion of the smiling face. Noble disappointment, noble self-denial are
not to be admired, not even to be pardoned, if they bring bitterness.
It is one thing to enter the kingdom of heaven maim; another to maim
yourself and stay without. And the kingdom of heaven is of the
childlike, of those who are easy to please, who love and who give
pleasure. Mighty men of their hands, the smiters and the builders and
the judges, have lived long and done sternly and yet preserved this
lovely character; and among our carpet interests and twopenny concerns,
the shame were indelible if _we_ should lose it. Gentleness and
cheerfulness, these come before all morality; they are the perfect
duties. And it is the trouble with moral men that they have neither one
nor other. It was the moral man, the Pharisee, whom Christ could not
away with. If your morals make you dreary, depend upon it they are
wrong. I do not say "give them up," for they may be all you have; but
conceal them like a vice, lest they should spoil the lives of better
and simpler people.

A strange temptation attends upon man: to keep his eye on pleasures,
even when he will not share in them; to aim all his morals against
them. This very year a lady (singular iconoclast!) proclaimed a crusade
against dolls; and the racy sermon against lust is a feature of the age.
I venture to call such moralists insincere. At any excess or perversion
of a natural appetite, their lyre sounds of itself with relishing
denunciations; but for all displays of the truly diabolic--envy, malice,
the mean lie, the mean silence, the calumnious truth, the backbiter, the
petty tyrant, the peevish poisoner of family life--their standard is
quite different. These are wrong, they will admit, yet somehow not so
wrong; there is no zeal in their assault on them, no secret element of
gusto warms up the sermon; it is for things not wrong in themselves that
they reserve the choicest of their indignation. A man may naturally
disclaim all moral kinship with the Reverend Mr. Zola or the hobgoblin
old lady of the dolls; for these are gross and naked instances. And
yet in each of us some similar element resides. The sight of a pleasure
in which we cannot or else will not share moves us to a particular
impatience. It may be because we are envious, or because we are
sad, or because we dislike noise and romping--being so refined, or
because--being so philosophic--we have an overweighing sense of life's
gravity: at least, as we go on in years, we are all tempted to frown
upon our neighbour's pleasures. People are nowadays so fond of
resisting temptations; here is one to be resisted. They are fond of
self-denial; here is a propensity that cannot be too peremptorily
denied. There is an idea abroad among moral people that they should
make their neighbours good. One person I have to make good: myself. But
my duty to my neighbour is much more nearly expressed by saying that
I have to make him happy--if I may.


Happiness and goodness, according to canting moralists, stand in the
relation of effect and cause. There was never anything less proved or
less probable: our happiness is never in our own hands; we inherit our
constitution; we stand buffet among friends and enemies; we may be so
built as to feel a sneer or an aspersion with unusual keenness, and so
circumstanced as to be unusually exposed to them; we may have nerves
very sensitive to pain, and be afflicted with a disease very painful.
Virtue will not help us, and it is not meant to help us. It is not even
its own reward, except for the self-centred and--I had almost said--the
unamiable. No man can pacify his conscience; if quiet be what he want,
he shall do better to let that organ perish from disuse. And to avoid
the penalties of the law, and the minor _capitis diminutio_ of social
ostracism, is an affair of wisdom--of cunning, if you will--and not of

In his own life, then, a man is not to expect happiness, only to profit
by it gladly when it shall arise; he is on duty here; he knows not how
or why, and does not need to know; he knows not for what hire, and must
not ask. Somehow or other, though he does not know what goodness is, he
must try to be good; somehow or other, though he cannot tell what will
do it, he must try to give happiness to others. And no doubt there comes
in here a frequent clash of duties. How far is he to make his neighbour
happy? How far must he respect that smiling face, so easy to cloud, so
hard to brighten again? And how far, on the other side, is he bound to
be his brother's keeper and the prophet of his own morality? How far
must he resent evil?

The difficulty is that we have little guidance; Christ's sayings on the
point being hard to reconcile with each other, and (the most of them)
hard to accept. But the truth of his teaching would seem to be this: in
our own person and fortune, we should be ready to accept and to pardon
all; it is _our_ cheek we are to turn, _r_ coat that we are to give
away to the man who has taken _our_ cloak. But when another's face is
buffeted, perhaps a little of the lion will become us best. That we are
to suffer others to be injured, and stand by, is not conceivable and
surely not desirable. Revenge, says Bacon, is a kind of wild justice;
its judgments at least are delivered by an insane judge; and in our
own quarrel we can see nothing truly and do nothing wisely. But in the
quarrel of our neighbour, let us be more bold. One person's happiness
is as sacred as another's; when we cannot defend both, let us defend
one with a stout heart. It is only in so far as we are doing this, that
we have any right to interfere: the defence of B is our only ground of
action against A. A has as good a right to go to the devil, as we to go
to glory; and neither knows what he does.

The truth is that all these interventions and denunciations and militant
mongerings of moral half-truths, though they be sometimes needful,
though they are often enjoyable, do yet belong to an inferior grade of
duties. Ill-temper and envy and revenge find here an arsenal of pious
disguises; this is the playground of inverted lusts. With a little more
patience and a little less temper, a gentler and wiser method might be
found in almost every case; and the knot that we cut by some fine
heady quarrel-scene in private life, or, in public affairs, by some
denunciatory act against what we are pleased to call our neighbour's
vices, might yet have been unwoven by the hand of sympathy.


To look back upon the past year, and see how little we have striven
and to what small purpose: and how often we have been cowardly and
hung back, or temerarious and rushed unwisely in; and how every day
and all day long we have transgressed the law of kindness;--it may
seem a paradox, but in the bitterness of these discoveries, a certain
consolation resides. Life is not designed to minister to a man's vanity.
He goes upon his long business most of the time with a hanging head, and
all the time like a blind child. Full of rewards and pleasures as it
is--so that to see the day break or the moon rise, or to meet a friend,
or to hear the dinner-call when he is hungry, fills him with surprising
joys--this world is yet for him no abiding city. Friendships fall
through, health fails, weariness assails him; year after year, he must
thumb the hardly varying record of his own weakness and folly. It is a
friendly process of detachment. When the time comes that he should go,
there need be few illusions left about himself. _Here lies one who meant
well, tried a little, failed much_:--surely that may be his epitaph, of
which he need not be ashamed. Nor will he complain at the summons which
calls a defeated soldier from the field: defeated, ay, if he were Paul
or Marcus Aurelius!--but if there is still one inch of fight in his old
spirit, undishonoured. The faith which sustained him in his life-long
blindness and life-long disappointment will scarce even be required in
this last formality of laying down his arms. Give him a march with his
old bones; there, out of the glorious sun-coloured earth, out of the day
and the dust and the ecstasy--there goes another Faithful Failure!

From a recent book of verse, where there is more than one such beautiful
and manly poem, I take this memorial piece: it says better than I can,
what I love to think; let it be our parting word.

    "A late lark twitters from the quiet skies;
    And from the west,
    Where the sun, his day's work ended,
    Lingers as in content,
    There falls on the old, gray city
    An influence luminous and serene,
    A shining peace.

    "The smoke ascends
    In a rosy-and-golden haze. The spires
    Shine, and are changed. In the valley
    Shadows rise. The lark sings on. The sun,
    Closing his benediction,
    Sinks, and the darkening air
    Thrills with a sense of the triumphing night--
    Night, with her train of stars
    And her great gift of sleep.

    "So be my passing!
    My task accomplished and the long day done,
    My wages taken, and in my heart
    Some late lark singing,
    Let me be gathered to the quiet west,
    The sundown splendid and serene,


[Footnote 2: From _A Book of Verses_ by William Ernest Henley. D. Nutt,

*** End of this LibraryBlog Digital Book "A Christmas Sermon" ***

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