The Law of Renunciation
First Published 1915
The joy of life! Is it not everywhere? In plant and animal and man, do we not see an instinct for happiness which impels all creation to rise from good to better, from better to best? Since God said, “Let there be light!” are not all men seeking to step out of darkness into light – blindly, dimly feeling that happiness must be their goal? Yet how few find happiness in life! It is easy to sing:—
in his heaven,
All’s right with the world!
But to sing so for long, one must be blind to the facts. Life is a tragedy to many, and far more truly is it described by Tennyson:—
first, this Earth, a stage so gloom’d with woe
You all but sicken at the shifting scenes,
And yet be patient. Our Playwright may show
In some fifth Act what this wild Drama means.
all feel that happiness must be the goal of life, and humanity never errs in
its deepest feelings. But then why should not the attainment of happiness be
easier than it is ?
MAN AN EVOLVING SOUL
There is a philosophy of life which holds that man is an immortal soul, living not one life on earth but many, growing through the experiences which he gains in them manifold capacities and virtues. This philosophy further postulates that all men are the children of One father, who has created a universe, in order that working therein His children may know something of Him, and come to Him in joy. According to this theory, the purpose of life is not to achieve a stable condition of happiness for any individual, but rather to train him to work in a Plan of an Ideal Future, and find in that work an ever-changing and ever-growing contentment.
From the standpoint of the Theosophist, all men are indeed working for a foreordained ideal future ; but they work at different stages, according to their differing capacities. A recognition of these stages, and the laws of life appropriate to each, makes life less the riddle that it is. There are three broad stages on the Path of Bliss which leads to the Highest Good, and they are happiness, renunciation, and transfiguration.
THE STAGE OF HAPPINESS
God calls upon all His children at this stage to co-operate with Him, by offering them happiness as the aim of life. He has implanted in them a craving for happiness, and He provides work for them which shall make them happy. Love of wife and child and friend, fame and the gratitude of men, success and ease — these are His rewards for them that serve Him. Many are the pleasant paths in life for the young souls at this stage, to reap happinesses as they prove those pleasures.
hills and valleys, dale and field,
And all the craggy mountains yield.
Useful up to a point as men are in the Great Work at this stage, yet so long as a man deliberately seeks happiness, his capabilities as a worker are soon exhausted. For soon he “settles down in life” ; the precious gift of wonder slowly fades away, and his happiness ceases to be dynamic. Self-centred, he calls on the universe to give. But the Path to Bliss is by work, and if he is to go ever on, he must fit himself for a larger work than has so far fallen to his share. He must enter on the next stage, but for that he must change utterly. Hither-to he has measured men and things by the standard of his little self; henceforth the Great Self must be his measure. He must break the sway of himself, and realize that evermore what is important in life is not he, nor his happiness, but a Work. Before this realization can begin, there must be a conversion.
In many ways are men converted from the interests of the little self to the work of the Great Self. Some, loving Truth in religious garb, open their hearts to a Personality who dazzles their imagination. Thenceforth they must serve Him, and be like Him, and gone forever is the standpoint of the little self. Some study science and philosophy, and discover a magnificent plan of evolution, with the inevitable result that they know that the individual is but a unit in a great Whole, and not the centre of the cosmos. If they set to study rightly, they see, too, that there is a Will at work, and that, cost what it may, they must co-operate with that Will. A few there are to whom comes some mysterious experience from the hidden side of things, and life speaks to them a transforming message. Out of the invisible comes a “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou Me?” and a persecutor of Christians is changed into an Apostle of Christ. Manifold are the ways of conversion, the same in all lands and in all faiths. One factor is common : the old personality is disintegrated, and a new one is reintegrated in the service of a Work.
When, through conversion, the new personality is ready for a larger work, the tools which he uses must be made pure. They are his thoughts and feelings, and slowly a process of purification is begun. Disappointment and pain and grief are his lot – the sad harvest of a sowing of selfishness in the unseen past of many lives, for we reap as we have sown. When the worker is ready, swift is Nature’s response to free him from the burden of his past, in order that he may be fit to achieve the great work which she has prepared for him.
THE MEANING OF PAIN
With some, sorrow hardens the character, but with those who are ready to enter on the second stage, it ever purifies. Does not the very texture and the flesh of a sufferer, who has in patience and resignation borne his pain, seem luminous and pure, as though through every cell there gleamed the light of a hidden fire? How much more so is it with mental suffering? Are we not irresistibly drawn to reverence one who has suffered much and nobly, and sometimes to love, too?
saw my lady weep,
And Sorrow proud to be advanced so
In those fair eyes where all perfection keep.
Her face was full of woe: But such a woe (believe me) wins more hearts
Than Mirth can do with her enticing parts,
Sorrow was there made fair,
Passion wise ; tears a delightful thing;
Silence beyond all speech a wisdom rare.
She made her sighs to sing,
And all things with so sweet a sadness move
As made a heart at once both grieve and love.
THE STAGE OF RENUNCIATION
Life seems full of evil days to those who come to the end of the first stage, but its lesson is clear. That lesson is, “Thou must go without, go without!” That is the everlasting song, which every hour, all our life through, hoarsely sings to us. Truly does Carlyle voice the wisdom of the ages when he says, “The Fraction of Life can be increased in value not so much by increasing your numerator as by lessening your denominator. Nay, unless my algebra deceive me, unit divided by a zero will give infinity. Make thy claim of wages a zero then ; thou hast the world under thy feet.”
THE LAW OF RENUNCIATION
All great workers know that the Law of renunciation is true, and that “it is only with renunciation that life, properly speaking can be said to begin”. There are no great souls who are completely happy, can ever be! Once more let the great apostle of Work speak to us: “the happy man was never yet created; the virtuous man, tho’ clothed in rags and sinking under pain, is the jewel of the Earth, however I may doubt it, or deny it in bitterness of heart. O never let me forget it! Teach me, tell me, when the Fiend of Suffering and the base Spirit of the World are ready to prevail against me, and drive me from this last stronghold.”
Take whom you will who has done a great work, and he knows that renunciation is the law. In bitterness of heart Ruskin cries out : “I have had my heart broken ages ago, when I was a boy, then mended, cracked, beaten in, kicked about old corridors, and finally, I think, flattened fairly out”. But he persevered in his work all the same. There is no greater name in the world of art than Michael Angelo, “this masterful and stern, life-wearied and labor-hardened man”, whose history “is one of indomitable will and almost superhuman energy, yet of will that had hardly ever had its way, and of energy continually at war with circumstance”. It is the same with all who have been great.
THE MEANING OF LIFE
But through renunciation the soul on the threshold of greatness discover’s life's meaning. If religious, he will state it, “Thy will be done” ; if scientific or artistic he will say, “Not I, but a Work”. He is now as Faust who sought happiness in knowledge, and failed ; sought it in the love of Marguerite, and reaped a tragedy ; and only as he planned to reclaim waste lands for men, and lost himself in the dream of that work, found that long-sought-for happy moment when he could say, “Ah, tarry a while, thou art so fair!”
So, renouncing live the souls of the second stage, lovers of a Work. Sad at heart they are; but if they are loyal to their work, then comes to them in fleeting moments more than happiness ; it is the joy of creation. Such wonders they now body forth that to themselves their masterpieces are enigmas. In fitful gleams they see a Light, and know that now and then it shines through them to the world. Perfect masters of technique they are now, in religion, in art, in science, in every department of life. But alas! Just as they have discovered what it is to live, what it is to create, they are old, and life comes to a close, before it seems hardly begun. Shall the path of renunciation bring nothing but despair?
was never yet so deep.
In sinking as in seeming;
Despair is hope just dropp’d asleep
For better chance of dreaming.
THE STAGE OF TRANSFIGURATION
“Hope just dropp’d asleep for better chance of dreaming” – that, truly, is death. The great worker leaves life but to return again, with every dream old and new nearer realization. He returns, with the inborn mastery of technique of the genius, to achieve now where once he only dreamed. The joy of creation is now his sure and priceless possession, that wondrous joy which only those who know can offer all gifts of heart and mind, and stand apart from them, while a Greater than they creates through them. “Seeking nothing, he gains al ; foregoing self, the universe grows I”. Now has he found that life which he lost in the stage of renunciation ; henceforth, in all places and at all times is he become “a pillar in the temple of my God, and he shall no more go out”.
THE PATH OF BLISS
So life gives of its best to all — happiness to some, renunciation to others, and, to a few, transfiguration. What if now most of us, who love Truth, must “do without”? Let us but dedicate heart and mind to a Work, and we shall find that renunciation leads to transfiguration. There is but one road to God , for all to tread. It is the Path of Bliss. It has steps — happiness, renunciation, and transfiguration. Whoso will offer up all that he is to a Work, though he “lose his life” thereby, yet shall he find it soon, and “come again rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him.”
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