WINDOWS IN SERMONS QUAINT Thomas Fuller says “reasons are the pillars of the fabric of a sermon;’ but similitudes are the windows which give the best light.” The comparison is very happy and suggestive, and therefore we will build up a little temple of discourse under its direction. The chief reason for the construction of windows in a house is, as Fuller says, to let in light; and parables, similes, and metaphors are to be used with that purpose. Hence we use them to illustrate our subject, or, in other words, to “brighten it with light,” for that is Dr. Johnson’s literal rendering of the word illustrate. Often when didactic speech fails to enlighten our hearers, we may make them see our meaning by opening a window and letting in the pleasant light; of analogy. To every preacher of righteousness as well as to Noah there comes the direction, “A window shalt thou make in the ark.” You may go round about with laborious definitions and explanations and yet leave your hearers in the dark, but a thoroughly suitable metaphor will wonderfully clear the sense. Even the close cell of the convict has its little grated opening, why should our people be altogether immured in solid walls of dullness? There should, if possible, be one good metaphor even in the shortest address, even as Ezekiel, in his vision of the temple, saw that even to the little chambers there were windows suitable to their size. We have no ambition to be obscure, and yet certain preachers are dangerously near it. Lycophron declared that he would hang himself if he found a person who could understand his poem entitled “The Prophecy of Cassandra”; happily, no one arose to drive the poet to such a misuse of good timber: we think we could find brethren in the ministry who might with almost equal impunity run the same risk in connection with their sermons.
Windows greatly add to the pleasure and agreeableness of a habitation, and so do illustrations make a sermon pleasurable and interesting. A windowless chamber attracts no one. Our congregations hear us with pleasure when we give them a fair measure of imagery: when an anecdote is being told they rest, take breath, and give play to their imaginations, and thus prepare themselves for the sterner work which lies before them in listening to our profounder expositions. Even the little children open their eyes and ears, and a smile brightens up their faces; for they, too, rejoice in the light which streams in through our windows. We dare say they often wish that our sermons were nothing else but illustrations, even as the boy desired to have a cake made all of plums, but that must not be, for reasons good and numerous. There is a happy medium, and we must keep to it by making our discourse pleasant hearing but not a mere pastime.
Every architect will tell you that he looks upon his windows as an opportunity for introducing ornament into his design. A pile may be massive, but it cannot be pleasing if it is not in due degree broken up with windows and other details. The palace of the popes at Avignon is an immense structure, and might have been made an imposing edifice, but its windows are so very few that it resembles a colossal prison, and suggests nothing of what a palace should be. Sermons need to be broken up, varied, decorated, and enlivened; and nothing can do this so well as the introduction of types, emblems, and instances. Of course ornament is not the main point to be considered, but still many little excellences go to make up perfection, and this is one of the many, and therefore it should not, be overlooked. When wisdom built her house she hewed out her seven pillars for glory and for beauty as well as for the support of the structure; and shall we think that the meanest, hovel is good enough for “the beauty of holiness”: Truth is a king’s daughter, and her raiment should be of wrought gold; her house is a palace, and it should be adorned with “windows of agate and gates of carbuncle.” Illustrations tend to enliven and quicken the attention of an audience.
Windows, when they will open, which, alas, is not often the case in our places of worship, are a great blessing, by refreshing and reviving the audience with a little pure air, and enlivening the poor mortals who have been rendered, sleepy by the stagnant atmosphere of the meeting-house. A window should, according to its name be a wind door, and admit the wind to refresh the audience; even so an original figure, a noble. image, a quaint comparison, a rich allegory, should open upon the hearers a stream of happy thought, which will pass over them like a life-giving breeze, arousing them from their apathy, and quickening their faculties to receive the truth.
Those who are accustomed to the soporific sermonizings of dignified divines would marvel greatly if they could see the enthusiasm and lively delight with which congregations listen to speech through which there blows a breeze of happy, natural illustration. Arid as a desert are many volumes of discourses which are to be met with upon the booksellers’ dustcovered shelves, but if in the course of a thousand paragraphs they contain a single simile, it; is the oasis of the Sahara, and serves to keep the reader’s soul alive. In fashioning a discourse think little of the bookworm, which will be sure of its portion of meat, however dry your doctrine, but have pity upon those living souls immediately around you, who must find life in and by your sermon, or they will never find it at all. If some of your hearers sleep, they will of necessity wake up in hell.
While we thus commend illustrations for necessary uses, it must be remembered that they are, not the strength of a sermon any more than a window is the strength of a house; and for this reason, among others, they should not be too numerous. Too many openings for light may seriously detract from the stability of a building. A glass house is not the most comfortable of abodes? and, besides suffering from other inconveniences, it is very tempting to stone-throwers. When a critical adversary attacks our metaphors he makes short work of them. To friendly minds images are arguments, but to opponents they are opportunities for attack; the enemy climbs up by the window. Comparisons are swords with two edges which cut, both ways; and frequently what seems a sharp and telling illustration may be wittily turned against you, so as to cause a laugh at your expense: therefore do not rely upon your metaphors and parables.
Nor is this the only reason for practicing moderation in illustration. A volume is all the better for engravings, but a scrap-book which is all woodcuts is usually intended for the use of little children. Our house should be built with the substantial masonry of doctrine upon the deep foundation of inspired truth; its pillars should be of marble, and every stone should be carefully laid in its place; and then the windows should be ranged in due order, three rows,” if we will, “light against light,” like the house of the forest of Lebanon. But the house is not to be built for the sake of the windows, nor the sermon arranged with the view of getting in a favorite apologue: for the window is not the object for which the house is built, but merely a convenience subordinate to the entire design. Our building is intended to last, and is meant for every-day use, and hence it must not be all crystal and color. We miss our way altogether, as gospel ministers, if we aim at flash and display.
It is impossible to lay down a rule as to how much adornment shall be found in each discourse; every man must judge for himself on that matter.
True taste in dress could not be readily defined, yet every one knows what it is: and there is a literary and spiritual taste which should be displayed in the measuring out of tropes and figures in every public speech. “Ne quid nimis” is a good caution. Do not be too eager to garnish and adorn. Some men seem never to have enough of metaphors, each one of their sentences must be a flower. They compass sea and land to find a fresh piece of colored glass for their windows, and they break down the walls of their discourses to let in superfluous ornaments, till their productions rather resemble a fantastic grotto than a house to dwell in. Our law, I believe, in the days of the taxing, allowed eight windows free from duty, and we might also exempt a “few, that is, eight,” metaphors from criticism, but more than that ought to be taxed heavily.
It is a suggestive fact that the tendency to abound in metaphor and illustration becomes weaker as men grow older and wiser. Perhaps this may, in a measure, be ascribed to the decay of their imagination; but it also occurs at the same time as the ripening of their understanding. Some speakers may use fewer figures of necessity, because they do not come to them as aforetime, but this is not always the case. I know that men with great facility in imagery find it less needful to employ that faculty now than in their earlier days, for they have the ear of the people, and they are solemnly in earnest to fill that ear with instruction as condensed as they can make it. When you begin with a people who have not heard the gospel, and whose attention you have to win, you can hardly go too far in the use of figure and metaphor. Our Lord Jesus Christ used very much of it; indeed, “without a parable spake he not unto them,” because they were not; educated up to the point at which they could profitably hear pure didactic truth: but when the Holy Ghost had been given the parables became few, and the saints were plainly taught of God. When Paul was sent to speak or write to the churches in his epistles he employed very few parables, because he addressed those who were more advanced, and more willing to learn. As the Christian mind advanced, the style of teaching became less figurative, and more plainly doctrinal. This should teach us wisdom, and suggest that we are to be bound by no hard and fast rules, but should use more or less of any mode of teaching, according to our own condition and that of our people.
Out of this last point comes the further remark, that illustrations are best when they are natural, and grow out of the subject. They should be like those well-arranged windows which are evidently part of the plan of a structure, and not inserted as an after thought, or for mere adornment. The cathedral of Milan inspires my mind with extreme admiration; it always appears to me as if it must have grown out of the earth like a colossal tree, or rather like a forest of marble. From its base to its loftiest pinnacle every detail is a natural outgrowth, a portion of a well-developed whole, essential to the main idea: indeed, part and parcel of it. Such should a sermon be; its exordium, divisions, arguments, appeals, and metaphors should all spring out of itself; nothing should be out of living relation to the rest. It should seem as if nothing could be added without being an excrescence, and nothing taken away without inflicting damage. There should be flowers in a sermon, but they should be the flowers of the soil; not dainty exotics, evidently imported with much care from a distant land, but the natural upspringing of a life natural to the holy ground on which the preacher stands.
The figures of speech should be congruous with the matter of the discourse: a rose upon an oak would be out of place, and a lily springing flora a poplar would be unnatural; everything should be of a piece, and have a natural relationship to the rest.
Elaboration into minute points is not commendable. God’s altar of old was to be made of earth, or of unhewn stone, “for,” said the word, “If thou, lift up thy tool upon it, thou hast polluted it.” Exodus 20:25.
A labored, artificial style, and especially a style full of ornament, upon which the graver’s tool has left abundant marks, is more consistent with human pleadings in courts of law, or in the forum or in the senate, than with prophetic utterances delivered in the name of God and for the promotion of his glory. Our Lord’s parables were as simple as tales for children, and as naturally beautiful as the lilies which sprang up in the valleys where he taught the people. He borrowed no legend from the Talmud, nor fairy tale from Persia, neither fetched he his emblems from beyond the sea, but he dwelt among his own people, and talked of common things in homely style, as never man spake before, and yet as any observant man should speak. His parables were like himself and his surroundings; and were never strained, fantastic, pedantic, or artificial. Let us imitate him, for we shall never find a model more complete, or more suitable for the present age.
Opening our eyes, we shall discover abundant imagery all around. As it is written, “The word is nigh thee,” so also is the analogy of that worn near at hand: — “All things around me whate’er they be That I meet is the chance may come, Have a voice and a speech in them all — Birds that hover, and bees that hum, The beast of the field or the stall; The trees, leaves rushes, and grasses; The rivulet running away; The bird of the air as it passes:
Or the mountains that motionless stay; And yet those immovable masses Keep changing, as dreams do, all day.
There will be little need to borrow from the recondite mysteries of human art, nor to go deep into the secrets of science, for in nature golden illustrations lie upon the surface, and the purest is that which is uppermost and most readily discerned. Of natural history in all its branches we may well say, “the gold of that land is good”; the illustrations famished by every-day phenomena seen by the ploughman and the wagoner are the very best which earth can yield. An illustration is not like a prophet, for it has most honor in its own country; and those who have oftenest seen the object are those who are most gratified by the figure drawn from it.
It is scarcely necessary to add that illustrations must never be low or mean.
They may not be high-flown, but they should always be in good taste. They may be homely, and yet chastely beautiful; but rough and coarse they never should be. A house is dishonored by having dirty windows, with panes cobwebbed and begrimed, and here and there patched with brown paper, or stuffed up with rags: such windows are the insignia of a hovel rather than a house. About our illustrations there must never be even the slightest trace of taint; nor the suspicion of anything that would shock the most delicate modesty. We like not that window out of which Jezebel is looking.
Like the bells upon the horses, our lightest expressions must be holiness unto the Lord. Of that which suggests the groveling and the base we may say with the apostle, “Let it not be once named among you, as becometh saints.” That which is vulgar and questionable our pure minds should earnestly avoid. We will gather our flowers always and only from Emmannel’s land, and Jesus himself shall be their savor and sweetness; so that when he lingers at the lattice to hear us speak of himself lie may say, “Thy lips, O my spouse, drop as the honeycomb: honey and milk are under thy tongue.” C. H. S.