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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Child Of The Dawn - Chapter 19
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The Child Of The Dawn - Chapter 19 Post by :Prd2BHawn Category :Long Stories Author :Arthur C. Benson Date :May 2012 Read :1909

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The Child Of The Dawn - Chapter 19


It was at this time, I think, that a great change came over my thoughts, or rather that I realised that a great change had gradually taken place. Till now, I had been dominated and haunted by memories of my latest life upon earth; but at intervals there had visited me a sense of older and purer recollections. I cannot describe exactly how it came about--and, indeed, the memory of what my heavenly progress had hitherto been, as opposed to my earthly experience, was never very clear to me; but I became aware that my life in heaven--I will call it heaven for want of a better name--was my real continuous life, my home-life, so to speak, while my earthly lives had been, to pursue the metaphor, like terms which a boy spends at school, in which he is aware that he not only learns definite and tangible things, but that his character is hardened and consolidated by coming into contact with the rougher facts of life--duty, responsibility, friendships, angers, treacheries, temptations, routine. The boy returns with gladness to the serener and sweeter atmosphere of home; and just in the same way I felt I had returned to the larger and purer life of heaven. But, as I say, the recollection of my earlier life in heaven, my occupations and experience, was never clear to me, but rather as a luminous and haunting mist. I questioned Amroth about this once, and he said that this was the universal experience, and that the earthly lives one lived were like deep trenches cut across a path, and seemed to interrupt the heavenly sequence; but that as the spirit grew more pure and wise, the consciousness of the heavenly life became more distinct and secure. But he added, what I did not quite understand, that there was little need of memory in the life of heaven, and that it was to a great extent the inheritance of the body. Memory, he said, was to a great extent an interruption to life; the thought of past failures and mistakes, and especially of unkindnesses and misunderstandings, tended to obscure and complicate one's relations with other souls; but that in heaven, where activity and energy were untiring and unceasing, one lived far more in the emotion and work of the moment, and less in retrospect and prospect. What mattered was actual experience and the effect of experience; memory itself was but an artistic method of dealing with the past, and corresponded to fanciful and delightful anticipations of the future. "The truth is," he said, "that the indulgence of memory is to a great extent a mere sentimental weakness; to live much in recollection is a sign of exhausted and depleted vitality. The further you are removed from your last earthly life, the less tempted you will be to recall it. The highest spirits of all here," he said, "have no temptation ever to revert to retrospect, because the pure energies of the moment are all-sustaining and all-sufficing."

The only trace I ever noticed of any memory of my past life in heaven was that things sometimes seemed surprisingly familiar to me, and that I had the sense of a serene permanence, which possessed and encompassed me. Indeed I came to believe that the strange feeling of permanence which haunts one upon earth, when one is happy and content, even though one knows that everything is changing and shifting around one, and that all is precarious and uncertain, is in itself a memory of the serene and untroubled continuance of heaven, and a desire to taste it and realise it.

Be this as it may, from the time of my finding my settled task and ordered place in the heavenly community the memories of my old life upon earth began to fade from my thoughts. I could, indeed, always recall them by an effort, but there seemed less and less inclination to do so the more I became absorbed in my heavenly activities.

One thing I noticed in these days; it surprised me very greatly, till I reflected that my surprise was but the consequence of the strange and mournful blindness with regard to spiritual things in which we live under the dark skies of earth. We have there a false idea that somehow or other death takes all the individuality out of a man, obliterating all the whims, prejudices, the thorny and unreasonable dislikes and fancies, oddities, tempers, roughnesses, and subtlenesses from a temperament. Of course there are a good many of these things which disappear together with the body, such as the glooms, suspicions, and cloudy irritabilities, which are caused by fatigue and malaise, and by ill-health generally. But a man's whims and fancies and dislikes do not by any means disappear on earth when he is in good health; on the contrary, they are often apt to be accentuated and emphasised when he is free from pain and care and anxiety, and riding blithely over the waves of life. Indeed there are men whom I have known who are never kind or sympathetic till they are in some wearing trouble of their own; when they are prosperous and cheerful, they are frankly intolerable, because their mirth turns to derision and insolence.

But one of the reasons why the heavenly life is apt to appear in prospect so wearisome a thing is, because we are brought up to feel that the whole character is flattened out and charged with a serene kind of priggishness, which takes all the salt out of life. The word "saintly," so terribly misapplied on earth, grows to mean, to many of us, an irritating sort of kindness, which treats the interests and animated elements of life with a painful condescension, and a sympathy of which the basis is duty rather than love. The true sanctification, which I came to perceive something of later, is the result of a process of endless patience and infinite delay, and the attainment of it implies a humility, seven times refined in the fires of self-contempt, in which there remains no smallest touch of superiority or aloofness. How utterly depressing is the feigned interest of the imperfect human saint in matters of mundane concern! How it takes at once both the joy out of holiness and the spirit out of human effort! It is as dreary as the professional sympathy of the secluded student for the news of athletic contests, as the tolerance of the shrewd man of science for the feminine logic of religious sentiment!

But I found to my great content that whatever change had passed over the spirits of my companions, they had at least lost no fibre of their individuality. The change that had passed over them was like the change that passes over a young man, who has lived at the University among dilettante literary designs and mild sociological theorising, when he finds himself plunged into the urgent practical activities of the world. Our happiness was the happiness which comes of intense toil, with no fatigue to dog it, and from a consciousness of the vital issues which we were pursuing. But my companions had still intellectual faults and preferences, self-confidence, critical intolerance, boisterousness, wilfulness. Stranger still, I found coldness, anger, jealousy, still at work. Of course in the latter case reconciliation was easier, both in the light of common enthusiasm and, still more, because mental communication was so much swifter and easier than it had been on earth. There was no need of those protracted talks, those tiresome explanations which clever people, who really love and esteem each other, fall into on earth--the statements which affirm nothing, the explanations which elucidate nothing, because of the intricacies of human speech and the fact that people use the same words with such different implications and meanings. All those became unnecessary, because one could pierce instantaneously into the very essence of the soul, and manifest, without the need of expression, the regard and affection which lay beneath the cross-currents of emotion. But love and affection waxed and waned in heaven as on earth; it was weakened and it was transferred. Few souls are so serene on earth as to see with perfect equanimity a friend, whom one loves and trusts, becoming absorbed in some new and exciting emotion, which may not perhaps obliterate the original regard, but which must withdraw from it for a time the energy which fed the flame of the intermitted relation.

It was very strange to me to realise the fact that friendships and intimacies were formed as on earth, and that they lost their freshness, either from some lack of real congeniality or from some divergence of development. Sometimes, I may add, our teachers were consulted by the aggrieved, sometimes they even intervened unasked.

I will freely confess that this all immensely heightened the interests to me of our common life. One could see two spirits drawn together by some secret tie of emotion, and one could see some further influence strike across and suspend it. One case of this I will mention, which is typical of many. There came among us an extremely lively and rather whimsical spirit, more like a boy than a man. I wondered at first why he was chosen for this work, because he seemed both fitful and even capricious; but I gradually realised in him an extraordinary fineness of perception, and a swiftness of intuition almost unrivalled. He had a power of weighing almost by instinct the constituent elements of character, which seemed to me something like the power of tonality in a musician, the gift of recognising, by pure faculty, what any notes may be, however confusedly jangled on an instrument. It was wonderful to me how often his instantaneous judgments proved more sagacious than our carefully formed conclusions.

This boy became extraordinarily attractive to an older woman who was one of our number, who was solitary and abstracted, and of an intense seriousness of devotion to her work. It was evident both that she felt his charm intensely and that her disposition was wholly alien to the disposition of the boy himself. In fact, she simply bored him. He took all that he did lightly, and achieved by an intense momentary concentration what she could only achieve by slow reflection. This devotion had in it something that was strangely pathetic, because it took the form in her of making her wish to conciliate the boy's admiration, by treating thoughts and ideas with a lightness and a humour to which she could by no means attain, and which made things worse rather than better, because she could read so easily, in the thoughts of others, the impression that she was attempting a handling of topics which she could not in the least accomplish. But advice was useless. There it was, the old, fierce, constraining attraction of love, as it had been of old, making havoc of comfortable arrangements, attempting the impossible; and yet one knew that she would gain by the process, that she was opening a door in her heart that had hitherto been closed, and learning a largeness of view and sympathy in the process. Her fault had ever been, no doubt, to estimate slow and accurate methods too highly, and to believe that all was insecure and untrustworthy that was not painfully accumulated. Now she saw that genius could accomplish without effort or trouble what no amount of homely energy could effect, and a new horizon was unveiled to her. But on the boy it did not seem to have the right result. He might have learned to extend his sympathy to a nature so dumb and plodding; and this coldness of his called down a rebuke of what seemed almost undue sternness from one of our teachers. It was not given in my presence, but the boy, bewildered by the severity which he did not anticipate, coupled indeed with a hint that he must be prepared, if he could not exhibit a more elastic sympathy, to have his course suspended in favour of some more simple discipline, told me the whole matter. "What am I to do?" he said. "I cannot care for Barbara; her whole nature upsets me and revolts me. I know she is very good and all that, but I simply am not myself when she is by; it is like taking a run with a tortoise!"

"Well," I said, "no one expects you to give up all your time to taking tortoises for runs; but I suppose that tortoises have their rights, and must not be jerked along on their backs, like a sledge."

"Oh," said he, "you are all against me, I know; and I am not sure that this place is not rather too solemn for me. What is the good of being wiser than the aged, if one has more commandments to keep?"

Things, however, settled down in time. Barbara, I think, must have been taken to task as well, because she gave up her attempts at wit; and the end of it was that a quiet friendship sprang up between the incongruous pair, like that between a wayward young brother and a plain, kindly, and elderly sister, of a very fine and chivalrous kind.

It must not be thought that we spent our time wholly in these emotional relations. It was a place of hard and urgent work; but I came to realise that, just as on earth, institutions like schools and colleges, where a great variety of natures are gathered in close and daily contact, are shot through and through with strange currents of emotion, which some people pay no attention to, and others dismiss as mere sentimentality, so it was also bound to be beyond, with this difference, that whereas on earth we are shy and awkward with our friendships, and all sorts of physical complications intervene, in the other world they assume their frank importance. I saw that much of what is called the serious business of life is simply and solely necessitated by bodily needs, and is really entirely temporary and trivial, while the real life of the soul, which underlies it all, stifled and subdued, pent-up uneasily and cramped unkindly like a bright spring of water under the superincumbent earth, finds its way at last to the light. On earth we awkwardly divide this impulse; we speak of the relation of the soul to others and of the relation of the soul to God as two separate things. We pass over the words of Christ in the Gospel, which directly contradict this, and which make the one absolutely dependent on, and conditional on, the other. We speak of human affection as a thing which may come in between the soul and God, while it is in reality the swiftest access thither. We speak as though ambition were itself made more noble, if it sternly abjures all multiplication of human tenderness. We speak of a life which sacrifices material success to emotion as a failure and an irresponsible affair. The truth is the precise opposite. All the ambitions which have their end in personal prestige are wholly barren; the ambitions which aim at social amelioration have a certain nobility about them, though they substitute a tortuous by-path for a direct highway. And the plain truth is that all social amelioration would grow up as naturally and as fragrantly as a flower, if we could but refine and strengthen and awaken our slumbering emotions, and let them grow out freely to gladden the little circle of earth in which we live and move.

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