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It might have gone badly with Felix Bauer at this crisis in his life if an event had not occurred which compelled him to come to Walter's a.s.sistance. This event was as unexpected to Walter as anything could be.
And the suddenness of it smote both the friends for a time into a condition of mutual dependence.
The President of Burrton followed the custom in other schools of inviting some well known speaker to have charge of the chapel services for special lectures or religious addresses. When the announcement was made that Dr. Powers, the eminent scholar and theologian, would preach at Burrton on a special date, Walter and Bauer both planned to go, and when the time came they found themselves in the audience with one of the largest crowds that had ever gathered at Burrton Chapel service.
The address was on the subject of "Modern Belief." As the speaker went on, Walter, who had at first not paid close attention, began to fasten his whole hearted and minded interest on the statements that were being made. As the talk went on, Walter felt as if all the ground of his religious faith was slipping out from under him. The speaker gradually unfolded a universe of religious thought from which all the miracles were excluded. There was no reason, he said, for believing in the superhuman or the wonderful. Everything in the Bible could be explained on natural grounds and what could not be explained was either a mistake or a misapprehension on the part of the writers. G.o.d was defined as a power and all personality taken from him. Christ was only a superior man who said many things not agreeing with the facts of modern psychology.
Much of his forecast of the future had been discredited. There was no such thing as a resurrection and a future existence was very problematical.
When the address was over, Walter sat like one dazed and did not rise to go out. Bauer whispered to him:
"Are you sick?"
"No," said Walter with an effort. He rose and went up to his room and Bauer, who did not know what was the matter, went in with him, as the two friends invariably spent their Sunday evenings together.
But on this occasion Walter almost stunned Bauer with a request made in a low voice.
"I want to be alone, Bauer, if you don't mind."
Bauer rose at once.
"I am on hand to serve you, Walter. Don't forget?"
"No," Walter said abruptly.
Bauer went out, and Walter went into his bedroom and got down on his knees.
That same evening at Milton, Mrs. Douglas had just gone up to her room, and as her custom had been for years, she had kneeled to pray for her children and especially for her absent boy.
Over both mother and son the darkness brooded. Only the stars shone through it.
WALTER DOUGLAS was not what would be called ordinarily a religious young man. That is, he was not pious, in the sense that he was a lover of prayer meetings and church gatherings. He was a member of the Congregational church at Milton and had joined it from the Sunday School when he was twelve years old, growing up in the church like any average boy whose father and mother were members. He had a tremendous respect for his father's and mother's religious life and example and would probably have been willing to die for their faith if not for his own.
For the rest, he had grown up in the home atmosphere, which from his childhood had been deeply reverent towards the Bible and the superhuman element.
The effect on his mind, now, of the address he had just heard, was very much the same as if someone far above him in education and age had attacked his father and mother, bringing forward a great array of argument and proof to show that they were unworthy of his love and confidence. Walter's mind could not have been more disturbed by such an attempt than it actually was by what had been said that evening, undermining his lifelong confidence in Christ as a divine being, and the superhuman and miraculous as part of his own life.
He was stunned by it and at first his only desire was to be alone. As the night wore on, this desire gave way to a longing for counsel from someone who could answer his questions and relieve his mind of the terrible uncertainty which had invaded it. And it was at least a strange comment on the teaching force in the Burrton school that Walter at this crisis could not think of anyone to whom he cared to go with a religious doubt. There were plenty of men at Burrton occupying responsible places as professors or instructors who knew plenty of mathematics and physics and electricity and engineering and science. But not one that Walter could think of who knew or cared about a student's moral or religious character. The president was a keen, wide-awake, sharp man of affairs, but as Walter thought of him he shrank from the idea of going to him with a real heart trouble or with a genuine mental difficulty. He would as soon have thought of telling his personal griefs or sorrows into a phonograph. And yet President Davis of Burrton was a church member, a highly educated gentleman, a great money getter from rich men, and had the reputation in the educational world of being a success as such school presidents go. He could extract half a million for Burrton from some great pirate of industry, but he did not know how to extract a poisonous doubt from a tortured mind like Walter's, or, better yet, instill the balm of healing faith into a spirit that had for the time being lost its G.o.d and its heaven. Great thing, our boasted education is, isn't it! How many of our cultured, highly developed university men are all head and no heart! And yet in the history of this old world who would dare say that in the long run it does not need more heart than head, or at least an equal division of each, for its comfort, its happiness and its real progress?
Walter, going over the list of possible men who might help him now, thought of the pastor of the Congregational church in Burrton. This man was a strong, earnest pastor, a tireless worker and an interesting preacher. But here again Walter had no one to blame but himself that he did not feel well enough acquainted with this man to go to him with his personal religious questions. He had been to the church several times and he always liked the Rev. James Harris, but like so many students who are attendants and workers in their own churches, Walter on coming to Burrton had found it easy to lapse into lazy Sunday morning habits.
After he had a late breakfast and read the Sunday morning _Daily Megaphone_, it was generally too late to go to the Sunday School and it was easier on stormy Sundays to curl up on a lounge and read a novel, or on pleasant Sundays to stroll out to the lake two miles away and get an appet.i.te for a big dinner. Then an afternoon of sleep or visiting or walking out used up the rest of the day for him. One of the topics he had avoided with his mother on his recent visit home had been his Sunday program, and he recalled even now the earnest wish she had expressed that he would get to work in the Sunday School when he went back to Burrton. No, he had been so indifferent to all church matters while a student that he could not bring himself to go to the minister, he was too much a stranger to him, and this was a matter that seemed to call for a friend.
"Oh, I wish mother was here!" he exclaimed out loud.
And then because he felt so hungry for comfort and so eager to relieve his mind of its burden, he went over to his writing desk, and wrote a long letter to his mother.
When he finished, it was after one o'clock and he went to bed and slept as if exhausted, but to his dismay when he awoke, his depression and fear were there to greet him and he found himself waiting for his mother's answer almost as if her letter were a reprieve from a sentence of death.
A part of this letter will reveal Walter's excited and even chaotic feeling.
"The bottom seems to be dropped right out of everything, mother. Of what use is it to try to do right when there isn't any likelihood of a future and no personal G.o.d and no Redeemer, and no standard for conduct? The doctor said we could not depend upon Christ's own statements about his own resurrection. How then can we trust Him for any statement He made about Himself? The fellows here in Burrton who have money to spend and do about as they please, the fast set that drinks and carouses and gambles and gives the chorus girls wine suppers seems to be pretty happy. They don't worry over the matter of sin or moral responsibility or going to church or getting serious over the condition of the heathen or the wrongs of the world, or the 'high calling' you are so fond of calling my attention to. And why should I be any different from them?
Mother, does it pay to be religious? It seems to me religious people are always sober, dull people, always talking reform and disagreeable things and never having much fun. But I want you to help me, mother, no one else can, if you can't. I don't seem to be able to pray any. Why should I pray, if there isn't any super-human, nothing but a force somewhere? I am just groping in the dark and it's awful dark. And I don't know a soul here to help me any. Bauer--well--I never said a word to him on religious matters. I don't know whether he is a Catholic or what he is.
And I don't know any minister in Burrton well enough to go to him. And the teachers here don't care about the students' religious life, or if they do I never saw any signs of it, at least not enough to show where to go now.
"Mother, I can't tell you how I feel over all this. But I'm just about down and out. If what Dr. Powers said is true, it seems to me we are living in an awful world. It isn't the world you and father believe in or you taught me to believe in, and I can't understand it. Oh, mother, help me, won't you, if you can! WALTER."
Now his letter reached Mrs. Douglas on the anniversary of her marriage.
She was planning as she always did to make the day bright for Paul, had invited her brothers, Walter and Louis, and was going to make it a great family gathering.
The boy's letter smote her heart as nothing in all his experience had ever troubled her. She managed to get through the evening without betraying her feeling, but when her brothers had gone home, and Helen and Louis had retired, she showed the letter to Paul.
He read it and then looked up at Esther.
"You are the one to help him through this," he said. "You are the only person who can do it right now. But you are tired with all the events of the day. Hadn't you better wait until to-morrow?"
"No," Esther said positively. "He is waiting. When a soul is drifting down like his, it is a case of rescue."
"Dear," said Paul, quietly, "I don't have any fears for him. He has too good a mother to make a wreck of his religion."
"He is my son," said Esther proudly. "I would not be worthy of the name mother if I did not have confidence in the eternal things of redemption.
I will write him tonight. But you must add to my letter, Paul. He needs us both."
"I will," said Paul, gravely. He was more disturbed over the letter from Walter than he cared to acknowledge to Esther, but he managed to conceal his feelings for her sake. Esther went up to her little corner room, where she had a sewing table and a writing desk. When she had shut herself in there she spread Walter's letter out before the Lord.
That meant that her simple mother faith said to G.o.d, "Oh, my Father, I need wisdom now to write this letter. My boy, my first born son is in need of Thee. But he has turned to his mother for help. Show me how to say the right thing. For I can not do it without thy help."
And then without any hesitation or fear of the final result, Esther wrote to Walter. It was a sacred letter, but a part of it belongs to this narrative.
"You must not forget, boy," Esther went on after cheerfully reminding him that he was not the only person in the world to have such an experience; "you must not forget that religion is a universal thing, and that it is a cry of the heart for G.o.d. It is not a matter to figure out like mathematics, but it is an answer to the real longing of the soul for a divine life in the world.
"You must not forget, either, that your faith does not depend on what someone else says, but upon the actual needs of your own life. You know that you need G.o.d. You know that you are wretched now because you are afraid G.o.d has been taken away. Isn't that a sign to you that your simple faith as you have been taught it here at home is a real and necessary thing? What Dr. Powers said (and you must remember you may not have understood his full meaning), what he said has not changed the everlasting facts of sin and moral responsibility and the facts of the plain right and wrong of the world. And when it comes to the resurrection and a future life--all we can do is to take Christ's word for it. He knows more about it than Dr. Powers knows. Your mother is no theologian and no great scholar, but when it comes to taking Dr.
Powers's word as against Jesus's own statements about himself, I don't hesitate, and you ought not to. Jesus is the way and the truth and the life. Just trust him. It is what thousands of souls bigger than yours have done and they have found the light as you will. We are praying for you, father and I. Father can give you better reasons than I can, perhaps, because he knows more, but listen to me, boy, to your mother, whose heart goes out to you at this time. You don't have to answer all the hard questions of religion all at once. Some of them can bide for an answer. But, oh, plant your feet down on the rock, Christ Jesus! Abide with him and your soul will not be lost. He will not let you go wrong.
He came to give you abundant life. The love of G.o.d is greater than all other things. Trust simply and don't be afraid. Get to work in the Sunday school and church. Doubt can not live in the atmosphere of doing G.o.d's will every moment. Perhaps one reason you have been so overthrown is because you have neglected your church and religious duties since you left home. Pray; trust; act; live for others; listen for G.o.d's voice; be true to the high calling. It is the only real and living way for you.
And the prayers of your mother go out to G.o.d for you now and always.
Walter, you are G.o.d's child before you are mine. Go to him at once and ask his help as you have asked mine. May He bless you as I can not.
Lovingly and prayerfully,
Mrs. Douglas was so eager to get her letter off that she did not wait for Paul's added word. But two days later Paul wrote quite at length, in much the same fashion, taking up one or two points Esther had not touched.
"You say in your letter to your mother that you feel the bottom has dropped out of everything. Why? Because a stranger to you who has some reputation as a public speaker has made some statements which destroy your faith in religion.
"Do you think that is a very sensible thing for you to do--to let a man you have never seen before come along and in one address take from you the faith of years? Would you let a man you didn't know destroy your faith in your mother so quickly? Would you simply take his word for it, because he said so?
"You must remember, Walter, that some of the finest theologians and scholars in the world believe in and teach the miracles and a personal G.o.d and a personal divine Christ and a personal resurrection. I don't mean old fashioned scholars, but men who are up to date, who rank with the best in the thinking world. If Dr. Powers does not believe in the resurrection there are other men, better scholars than he is, who do.
You have no right to let one man's statements be final for you.