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Vice and Advice


I walked on, musing with myself
On life and art, and whether, after all,
A larger metaphysics might not help
Our physics—a completer poetry
Adjust our daily life and vulgar wants
More fully than the special outside plans
Preferred by modern thinkers, as they thought
The bread of man indeed made all his life.
—From "Aurora Leigh" by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Some wit says that the worst vice in the world is advice; and it may be added, with equal truth, that no one is so unwise as he who gives advice—save the one who takes it. Of course both these assertions are a little extreme, and should be taken with more than the traditional grain of salt. There is such a thing as a very fine and true appreciation of that kind of wisdom which may be imparted by counsel, and of the value of that influence which makes itself felt through sympathetic companionship. Still, in a general sense, the formal asking for and receiving advice is something worse than worthless, inciting unfounded ideas of capability for counsel on the part of one who, in a misguided moment, shall give it, and enervating and unnerving the one who receives and appropriates it.

Doubtless the clergy, of all classes of men, suffer most from this burden flung upon them by the ignorant and the thoughtless. The very nature of their calling attracts it, and makes it difficult, indeed, to evade the claims which yet they cannot meet, and which they should never be asked to meet. There is something that touches the fancy, if not the conscience, in the picture not infrequently held up of the clergyman who is not only the preacher, but the minister as well; who shares all his people's private joys and griefs, and is their guide and counselor, etc. It is a picture that the sentimental novelists are fond of depicting, and it is not without its human charm and something of its divine significance. The value of personal influence, through sympathetic personal intercourse, can never by any possibility be overrated. It was what Jesus gave to His disciples, and as far as possible to the populace; and His example remains for all ages the ideal one.

Still, even ideals themselves are somewhat relative to time and circumstances. The good priest, who shares the simple joys and sorrows of the peasantry, and whose relation is more that of the father to his family than of the clergyman to his parish, undoubtedly meets a real need of the primitive and simple life to which he ministers. As that life advances in intelligence it gains in individual self-reliance. It gains the power of decision, the ability to make its own choice and selection. The higher service of the priest is, then, to educate the conscience, to stimulate and refine the moral sense, and to make his teachings tend to the one supreme result—the culture of spirituality. "When the life of the spirit is once grasped by the intelligence and entered upon by the response of the soul to the Divine Spirit, then is the individual started on that upward way where he perceives, with constantly increasing clearness, the relation of his soul to the Divine—where he can seek the leading and recognize the guidance.

There do not want, however, in every city, in every parish, the type of people who desire to 'pour out their soul,' as they will express it, to something or somebody, and their minister is the natural victim of this yearning. However useless and even harmful he may know this to be, it is difficult to refuse, by virtue of his holy office. And there is always the possibility of there being one real need amid all the tide of mere emotional and sentimental outpouring, and he would rather give unnecessary efforts to a thousand than deprive one of essential aid.

Still, it is a man's duty to himself—and not less that of the clergyman than other men—not to be submerged in a tide of helpless appeals from people who would do far better to help themselves. As Sir Hugo said to Daniel Deronda: 'Be courteous, be obliging, but don't give yourself over to be melted down for the benefit of the tallow trade.' A parish should realize how the power of their minister to break for them the true bread of life, to communicate to them the spiritual energy .which is the motor, so to speak, by which each may successfully conduct life for himself—they should realize how his power to give them this all-essential aid depends on a certain freedom and detachment from material details. It is his office to give them the principles of navigating the sea of life; but it is not his office to hold the rudder and steer each man's ship for him. That one must do for himself.

The faculty of self-reliance is one that should be considered in educational culture. To rely on oneself is not, necessarily, to be conceited or audacious. It may consist with a very adequate appreciation of the greater wisdom of other people, but also with a delicate reverence for that greater wisdom—with that reverence which would forbid intrusion or insistence. On general principles, those persons who desire to have their lives molded and their souls fed, and to be propelled generally by somebody else, had much better learn that invaluable lesson of the culture of self-reliance. Each must live his life for himself; he must realize that that life lies between his own soul and God. Seek wisdom, seek understanding; but seek it at the Infinite Source. 'Trust thyself/ well said Emerson. 'Every heart vibrates to that iron string.'

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Lilian Whiting

  • Born on October 3rd, 1859 in Niagara Falls, New York and died in 1942
  • Author and journalist
  • Edited The Boston Traveler and The Boston Budget

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