This letter, which Symonds wrote to his sister on New Year’s Eve, 1882, is worth quoting in full. Charlotte Symonds was far more religious than her brother, and his letters to her often make use of a religious language that he doesn’t use with any of his other correspondents. I like that he takes this language—which he is certainly using not for himself, but to try to help out a sister mourning the recent death of her husband—and does something beautiful with it all the same:
Am Hof Davos Platz Dec. 31 1882
My dearest Charlotte
On this last day of the year, which has been so bitterly full of sorrow to you, and to myself has brought many sad things, I write to wish you the greater happiness which will assuredly come with time. I am not an orthodox Christian, as the word is understood. That is, I cannot cling to the historical interpretation of the Christian dogmas. But I try to cling to their spirit. And when St. Paul says that our life must be built upon faith hope & love, I cordially accept that definition. We must have faith that the world is ordered by a beneficent intelligence, a Father. We must have hope that we shall comprehend its scheme & our own trials better. We must have love for all that is so beautiful & vigorous in the world without & the human lives around us.
This creed appears to me the creed on which the earlier Church based its regeneration of society. A passionate belief in Christ was the coping-stone of their endeavour. We have lost something, possibly, of that passion. But we have lost nothing of the truth wh it contained & consecrated. The conditions of our existence are less dreadful. There is no tyrannous Roman Empire, no universal penetrating corruption of society. We understand the physical world better, & read the history of man upon this planet more precisely. And yet abide these three; by which yet let us live; & hoping believing loving wait the revelation of God’s greatness.
I am not sure; but I rather think that what I have here sketched would be in accord with what Tom [her late husband, TH Green] much more deeply felt & thought.
It has come to me from life. It came to him from life & from reflection upon life & from a far nobler experience of life than mine—less mixed with sordid passions.
But let us all arrive at it upon the paths appointed for us severally.
The end of the doctrine, the practical application of the creed, is that we should live triumphantly in faith, hope, love.
What remains of years to us upon this earth is numbered and is short. What awaits us beyond is unknown, unguessed; possibly, nay probably, stupendous. Let us in the intermediate space of time do our duty, and resign ourselves, in no sour spirit of dejection, but in joyful, God-embracing spirit of expectancy, to what the coming days shall bring us.
You say the prosperous people are rather trying. I think they are. I am not prosperous. I feel what you feel; but I try to bless God for their prosperity. It is part of the beauty of the world. We may stand aside and rejoice with them in their happiness. If they ever need our consolation, we can give it.
The great thing for us is to remember that the human soul contains God on this planet. It becomes a duty for us to preserve the soul, which is God’s temple and God’s revelation to the world, inviolate. Later or sooner, all of us shall surely meet in God. Of this I am persuaded. This faith gives me hope for myself and love for the most prosperous, the most abject and abandoned of my fellow-men.
If you ever want a change, a rest, come to us. I see that you have been half moved to come. I am not sure that you would find a bed of roses here. There are many thorns in our lot; not the least those thorns which our own indomitable passions thrust forth. I am irritable from ill-health and constant aspiration—kicking against the pricks of physical debility. You would find here no stagnant calm, rather the surf and surge of life in its intensity of suffering and action. I have ever doubted whether our home, with its dramatic vitality, isolated, uncircumscribed by rules and precedents, would not be more painful than restful to you. And yet I think it might be good. I think you might do good here.
God bless you. God grant us all, not peace, but activity in fuller certitude of His presence.
And as for me, my task is twofold. I must first live in hope and charity/love and faith-in-humanity with no such certainty, with no such belief in an afterlife or an eternal reward. And I must then understand another time, another way of thinking, when men like Symonds or Green looked out the window of the Upper Reading Room at the Radcliffe Camera, as I do now, and professed a faith in God that was inviolable.