A Look Back
Our Mysterious Calling
Samuel H. Miller portrait, 1968. Harvard University portrait collection, gift of Mrs. Samuel H. Miller to the Divinity School, 1968.
By Samuel H. Miller
The witness alike of Jesus, or the prophets, or the saints is that once God’s call comes, then we are plunged headlong into the sufferings of mankind. For the first time we are on the inside of this world’s pain, no longer separated from any man’s anguish or sin. This is Dostoevski’s plea in the monk Zossina’s great testimony in Brothers Karamazov:
“If the evil doing of men moves you to indignation and overwhelming distress, even to a desire for vengeance on the evil-doers, shun above all things that feeling. Go at once and seek suffering for yourself, as though you were yourself guilty of that wrong. Accept that suffering and bear it and your heart will find comfort, and you will understand that you too are guilty, for you might have been a light to the evil-doers, even as the one man sinless, and you were not a light to them.”
Among our modern authors this call to share in the suffering of men is illuminated and profoundly stressed by André Malraux and Albert Camus, neither of them Christian in the normal sense of that term. Malraux boldly speaks of it as the “joy of fraternal pain” and believes no man becomes himself until he shares the deepest level of unity with his death-threatened and bludgeoned fellow men. Camus’ voice, now silenced, was never more impassioned than when he asked men to rise to a new level of compassion. . . .
No, the truth of it is that in God’s call we are called back, so to speak, called back from our pretentions, our poses, our holy false faces, back and down and into the very conditions we sought to escape, that we might be tremblingly alive to where honest people live, and where if God has any concern at all for them, he will be found.
This last phrase brings me to the second marked point of clarity in the call . . . namely, they are all called to “salvage the remains of sanctity” in men’s blundering hearts. None of us lives long without bringing down about our heads a great clutter of rubbish. We lose ourselves in it. We sometimes try to shape it up as if it would carry the weight of truth or beauty and withstand the storms of tragic reality. . . . It is our calling to rightly divide the Word—in the human heart—from the words which are there in great clamoring throngs—and that is not an easy thing.
Indeed, it is a rather sad fact that in our day there is much disillusionment about sanctity. The term has been corrupted by the church itself. It has become formalized, falsified, encrusted with jewels and crawling with spurious pictures. Protestantism is not without her share of responsibility in neutralizing the life of the world. For many, the holy seems a bit like superstition. . . .
Yet, if we cannot find sanctity, we should be honest and give over the game to those who say God is dead, for sanctity is the moment of His presence; we should give up worship, which seeks to remember and to reenact the primordial events of sanctity through which God manifested his place in the world; we should give up any moral seriousness, for without sanctity morality becomes a convenient pattern of mores and nothing more.
It is . . . precisely this sense of sanctity, which breaks through the prose of Hemingway, or the squalor of Graham Greene’s stories, or the tortured complexities of decadence in Faulkner’s novels. . . . This is our call, to find in man’s much beleaguered heart, fraught with every shame and embarrassment, living on the brink of endless decisions in which heaven and hell are always bidding for his soul, here amid the ruins of his dreams and the cheap rubbish he is forever gathering to his heart, we must find the scraps and vestiges of the divine presence, hidden, obscured, and often lost.
And this leads me now to the third unmistakable mark of the calling. . . . Louis Lavelle . . . says of the saint that “through his presence alone he succeeds in giving to the things or persons he meets on the way the interior quality they lacked.” The severest desolation is the emptying out of life, the sickening sense of the abyss, the awful taste of nothingness. And in this wild and furious world of machines and techniques, of manipulation and screaming salesmen, men and women are externalized, whirled about until there is no inner life left in them. They become masks, routines, functions, reputations, successes, without any specific gravity. . . .
Our calling is to . . . assist our fellow men by sustaining the inwardness of the spirit. In short, our job is to rehabilitate people inwardly, to engage in such a relationship that they may become themselves as persons, to encourage by our anticipation and imagination the exercise of their souls. . . .
However mysterious your call may be, remember that it is imbedded deeply in the very mystery by which you are a human being. There is no way for you to detour or avoid the inevitability of doing something with things as they are; only one thing you cannot do—you cannot leave them as they are.
Samuel Howard Miller pastored the Old Cambridge Baptist Church for twenty-five years before serving as Dean of HDS from 1959 to 1968.