Except a man be born again he cannot see the kingdom.
We were talking of lucent intervals, when the primeval sunlight breaks through our clouds: here is the record of one of them. In the new birth, the door to real life, it is not fated that these dearly beloved personal selves of ours shall enter in, after undergoing some betterment and amelioration: as an old bonnet is renewed, a piece of ribbon here, a flower there, a skilful touch over all, and the miracle of regeneration consummated.
With us it is not like this, but quite otherwise. Everything we habitually consider ourselves to be, our whole normal selves, must melt away and dissolve in light, leaving not a wrack behind. Nothing that comes within our ordinary consciousness at all; nothing even of better hours but a few high and shining intuitions is good enough to “inherit the kingdom”; or, to speak sober prose, is large enough to enter into real life. I do not want to flatter us, but it seems to me most of us are finely gifted and endowed for our tragi-comedy of shadows, so much so, that these delicate perfections of ours are quite unsuited for the valor and vigor of real life—therefore they will never get there.
When the new birth is spoken of, we hear much of giving up ourselves and living for others. Here is only half a truth, and that the lesser half. It is not at all as though I should step forth from the throne of my heart, and invite my neighbor to take a seat there, while I meantime admire myself for being good. It is not as though I should open wide the doors of my house, so that they of the high ways and hedges may come in, while I stay outside on the doorstep. That is something like the danger of the mansion swept and garnished. All this is merely imitating effects, without possessing the cause.
When I step down from the throne of my heart, with a comely feeling that I am a not quite adequate occupant, it will not be to give place to my neighbor or any human guest, however pious and worthy, but to make way for a divine and mightier power, of great majesty and mirth; a power whose glowing light has been shining through these clouds of my making for ages past. Myself and my king—that old immortal self whom I have dimly felt, standing behind and above me, masterful and persistent. Whose purposes, which are my real purposes, have shaped all these many-colored incidents of my life; knowing that my fantastic mind would learn the real in no simpler and more direct way. My king, unquestioned, from self-evident majesty, and yet my real self. The self immortal, through whose dwelling already in real life, comes my possibility of new birth and inheritance there; though of this personality of mine I can see very little that is likely to share that inheritance. It must dissolve and melt away, quite completely and without reservation. It cannot “inherit the kingdom.” And after all, once you get used to the thought, there is a great satisfaction in thinking that this discreditable old friend is to stay behind—if complete disappearance can be called staying anywhere. One knows too much about him—has too much evidence as to his character, as the courts phrase it, when unearthing something particularly disagreeable. If this poor relation were to come into the fine company of the real, it would be perpetually necessary to hide his shabbiness behind things, to keep him in dim corners—an unending embarrassment.
So the personality, practically the whole of what we ordinarily suppose ourselves to be, must become permeable to the light, until it melts away in the light altogether. Thus it must give place to the immortal self, but not to any other power at all. It is of no avail to build up an artificial self of private and individual virtues, of self-consciously doing good and being good, to our own great admiration and humility. The real virtues, the valor and excellence of reality, are to be as little our private property as the ocean-depths or the sun-beams are; they are to be virtues, large, cosmic, universal. It is very likely. indeed, that for a personality of private and self-conscious virtue there is least hope of all; and for this reason, perhaps, there is greater joy over one sinner that repents than ninety-nine just persons who need no repentance—or at least who believe they need none, and thus shut themselves out by a hard shell of humble satisfaction from the great, real world of being. One thing, perhaps, is more futile and foolish than this sun-proof canopy of virtue, and that is, the vices which we, the enlightened, are tempted to permit ourselves, in order to keep ourselves quite safe from self-consciousness, from the sense of possessing a private hoard of good works. If even fine virtue, when self-admiring, is foreign to the real, how much more vices, which are not fine at all? These contemptible things are quite invisible to the large, sane, and healthy life of the real, and not less invisible are the contemptible personalities who indulge in them.
Virtuous or vicious, therefore this very dear usurper, this much-admired and greatly-pitied personal self, must consent to become quite diaphanous: first like a net in the sunlight: then gossamer that melts altogether into the glow. That is how the transformation appears to the real self, how it rightly should appear. But it would be comic, were not we ourselves so implicated in it, to watch the startled apprehension of the personal self, the lower man, when it first dawns on his mind that a speedy disappearance is what is most expected of him. We are too much the lower self ourselves to quite enter into the humor of it, except perhaps where other people are concerned.
A word about those good neighbors of ours for whom we are unwilling to prepare the throne of the heart. They deserve, and shall receive, compensation. Indeed their part is taken, very mightily taken, by that very self and king who stands immortal behind us, perpetually reminding us that they are our other selves. Reminding us that we must not, presuming on our present enlightenment and superiority, forget for a moment that these others are our very selves, on pain of the keen mortification of waking up some morning to find that they are ahead of us offering us the good-natured compassion which we would have extended to them. One of the chief works which lie before the real self, now to be installed in lawful sovereignty, is to establish a true relation with these our other selves, instead of the chaos of petulant preferences and detestations which have separated them from us hitherto. They must be received into our hearts; yet after the real self reigns there, not before. And to be truly received, they also must be transformed; till we know them, no longer subject to sorrow, but a serene, august company of immortals.