244: The Vapor

“What is your life? It is even as a vapor that appears for a little while–and then vanishes away.” (James 4:14)

Ruskin was steeped in the Bible and its teachings from the first moment his ears could register sound. His devoted mother read to him every day from the great book and, when he was old enough, made him read to her, They would begin at their appointed hour, starting with the first verse of Genesis and, over the months that followed, progress all the way to the last verse of Revelation. After which, they would begin over again. The upshot was that Ruskin became steeped in the Bible’s words, rhythms, and lessons. Although he was, much to his mother’s consternation, to reject his strict Evangelical upbringing in the1850s–based in large measure on his adult determination that every word in the Bible could not be literally true (as she believed), he never lost his love for and enduring respect for the great compendium. Throughout his life, he would continue to read his Bible each day, would acquire and assiduously study every translation and version available and peruse nearly every commentary. Although his ever-inquisitive mind led him to read all the great classics of literature – some many times over–he remained, to the end of his days convinced that the Bible was the greatest moral guide to life human beings possessed. As anyone familiar with his works becomes almost immediately aware, throughout his thousands of pages, passage after passage is informed or framed by his understanding and love of the Bible.

Such is the case with today’s passage. It comes from one of the most important lectures he ever gave: “Of Queens’ Gardens,” in 1864. As I mentioned in our previous post, the early 1860s were a time of particular stress, his writings on political economy had been rejected resoundingly a second time by the English-reading public and he, now in middle age, did not know which path he should take in the days and years that stretched before him. And so, always honest, he decided to share his ruminations about the fragility and transience of life with those who had come to hear him that night. Characteristically, the passage includes a number of references to various chapters in the Bible [and here, I suppose I should mention, hardly in passing, that his references to the sacred text are liberally included in his works not only because of his deep understanding of the value of the lessons their source imparted, but as a gentle means of reminding his listeners, virtually all of whom would claim that they were practicing, believing, Christians (he was not always convinced), that the Bible and its guidance awaited them anytime they deigned to pick it up,] Before you read what’s below, take a moment to reread the Bible passage at the top of this page.

I suppose few people reach the middle period of their life or later without having, at some moment of change or disappointment, felt the truth of these bitter words–of having been startled by the fading of the sunshine from the cloud of their life into the sudden agony and realization that the fabric of it was as fragile as a dream and the endurance of it as transient as the dew.

But it is not always the case that, even at such times of melancholy surprise, we can enter enter any true perception that this human life shares in the nature of it not only the evanescence and mystery of the cloud– that its avenues are wreathed in darkness and its forms and courses are no less fantastic and obscure–so that, not only in the vanity which we cannot grasp, but in the shadow which we cannot pierce, it is true of this cloudy life of ours that, “man walks in a vain shadow and disquiets himself in vain. “(Psalm 48: 6)

And least of all–whatever may have been the eagerness of our passions or the height of our pride–are we able to understand, in its depth, the third and most solemn character in which our life is like those clouds of heaven; that to it belongs not only their transience, not only their mystery, but also their power; that in the cloud of the human soul there is a fire stronger than the lightning, and a grace more precious than the rain; and that, through the good and evil of it, it shall one day be said alike that the place knows them no more, there is an infinite separation between those whose brief presence has been a blessing like the mist of Eden that went up from the earth to water the garden, and those whose place knew them only a drifting and changeable shade, of whom the heavenly sentence is that they are “wells without water, clouds that are carried with the tempest, to whom the mist of darkness is reserved forever.” (2 Peter 17:22)

Until next time!!

Be well–and warm–out there! (Everything depends on that!)



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2 Responses to 244: The Vapor

  1. Jonathan Chiswell Jones says:

    A wonderful moment this morning Jim. I took your advice to look up the passage from James, reached for the Cambridge Annotated Study Bible, too rarely taken down I must confess, and it opened at James 4:14!

    Few of us can have reached an age beyond our biblical span without a keen awareness that soon we shall no longer live here, and in time,  our works will vanish too.  
    This central mystery is one which the spiritual life elucidates, but we must travel light on such a journey and all our self justifications are simply another burden we need to leave behind.  
    Thank you always for the Ruskin passages- Jonathan 


  2. Thank you again, Jim, for this.

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