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The Silent Isle - Chapter 33 Post by :eggibiz Category :Essays Author :Arthur C. Benson Date :May 2012 Read :1023

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The Silent Isle - Chapter 33

CHAPTER XXXIII

My way this afternoon lay through a succession of old hamlets, one closely bordering on another, that lie all along the base of the wold. I have no doubt that the reason for their position is simply that it is just along the base of the hills that the springs break out, and a village near a perennial and pure spring generally represents a very old human settlement indeed. Sometimes the wold drew near the road, sometimes lay more remote; its pale fallows, its faintly-tinted pastures, seemed to lie very quietly to-day under the grey laden sky. Here a chalk-pit showed its miniature precipices; here a leafless covert detached its wiry sprays against the light. The villages were pretty enough, with their quaint, irregular white cottages, comfortably thatched, among the little orchards and gardens; and in every village the ancient, beautiful church, each with a character of its own and a special feature of interest or beauty, lay nestled in trees, or held up its grey tower over ricks and barns. We are apt to forget what beautiful things these churches are, because they are so common, so familiar; if there were but a few of them, we should make careful pilgrimages to see them, but now we hardly turn off the road to visit them.

I often wonder what exactly the feeling and the spirit were that produced them, what the demand precisely was that created the supply. I suppose they were almost always the gift of some wealthy person; of course labour and perhaps materials were cheaper, but there must have been a much larger proportion of people employed in the trade of building than is the case nowadays; probably these churches were slowly and leisurely built, in the absence of modern mechanical facilities. It is difficult to conceive how the thing was carried out at all in places with so few resources--how the stone was conveyed thither over the infamous miry roads, how the carving was done, how the builders were lodged and fed. One would like, too, to know exactly what part the churches played in the social life of the place. Some people would have us believe that the country people of that date had a simple enjoyment of beauty and artistic instincts which caused them to take a pleasure, which they do not now feel, in these beautiful little sanctuaries. I do not know what the evidence is for that. I find it very hard to believe that our agricultural labourers have gone backwards in this respect; I should imagine it was rather the other way. My impression is that education has probably increased the power of perception and appreciation rather than diminished it. It is possible that the absence of excitement, of diffuse reading, of communication in those days may have tended to concentrate the affections and interests of agricultural people more on their immediate surroundings, but I rather doubt it; the problem is, considering the much greater roughness and coarseness of village life in the Middle Ages, how there could have existed a poetical and artistic instinct among villagers, which they have now forfeited.

These churches certainly indicate that a very different view of religion prevailed; they testify to a simpler and stronger sense of religion than now exists, but not, I think, to a truer sense of it. They stand, I do not doubt, for a much more superstitious and barbarous view of the relation of God to men; the people who built them had, I imagine, the idea of conciliating God by the gift of a seemly sanctuary, a hope of improving not only their spiritual prospects in the after-life, but of possibly advancing their material prosperity in this, by thus displaying their piety and zeal in God's service. I cannot believe that the churches were designed with the intention of making the rustic inhabitants of the place holier, more virtuous, more refined--except incidentally; they were built more in obedience to ecclesiastical tradition, in a time when rationalism had not begun to cast doubt on what I may call the Old Testament theory of the relation of God to men--the theory of a wrathful power, vindictive, jealous of recognition, withholding blessings from the impious and heaping them upon the submissive. As to those who worshipped there, I imagine that the awe and reverence they felt was based upon the same sort of view, and connected religious observance with the hope of prosperity and wealth, and the neglect of it with the fear of chastisement. If misfortune fell upon the godly, they regarded it as the chastening of God inflicted upon the sons of His love; if it fell upon the ungodly, it was a punishment for sin; religion was a process by which one might avert the punishment of sin, induce the bestowal of favours, and in any case improve one's future prospects of heaven. No doubt this form of religion produced a simpler kind of faith, and a profounder reverence; but I do not think that they were very beautiful qualities when so produced, because they seem to me very alien from the simplicity of the religion of Christ. The difficulty in which popular religion finds itself, nowadays, is that in a Protestant Church like our own, neither priest nor people believe in the old mechanical theories of religion, and yet the people are not yet capable of being moved by purer conceptions of it. A priest can no longer threaten his congregation sincerely with the penalties of hell for neglecting the observances of the Church; on the other hand, the conception of religion as a refining, solemnising attitude of soul, bringing tranquillity and harmony into life, is too subtle an idea to have a very general hold upon unimaginative persons. Thus the beauty of these exquisite and stately little sanctuaries, enriched by long associations and touched with a delicate grace by the gentle hand of time, has something infinitely pathetic about it. The theory that brought them into existence has lost its hold, while the spirit that could animate them and give them a living message has not yet entered them; the refined grace, the sweet solemnity of these simple buildings, has no voice for the plain, sensible villager; it cannot be interpreted to him. If all the inhabitants of a village were humble, simple, spiritually minded people, ascetic in life, with a strong sense of beauty and quality, then a village church might have a tranquil and inspiring influence. But who that knows anything of village life can anticipate even in the remote future such a type of character prevailing? Meanwhile the beautiful churches, with all the grace of antiquity and subtle beauty, must stand as survivals of a very different condition of life and belief; while we who love them can only hope that a more vital consciousness of religion may come back to the shrines from which somehow the significance seems to have ebbed away. They are now too often mere monuments and memorials of the past. Can one hope that they may become the inspiration and the sanctification of the present?

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