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Full Online Book HomeNonfictionsThe Altar Fire - Part 13
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The Altar Fire - Part 13 Post by :rainydays Category :Nonfictions Author :Arthur C. Benson Date :May 2012 Read :1092

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The Altar Fire - Part 13

April 3, 1891.

A truth which has come home to me of late with a growing intensity is that we are sent into the world for the sake of experience, not necessarily for the sake of immediate happiness. I feel that the mistake we most of us make is in reaching out after a sense of satisfaction; and even if we learn to do without that, we find it very difficult to do without the sense of conscious growth. I say again that what we need and profit by is experience, and sometimes that comes by suffering, helpless, dreary, apparently meaningless suffering. Yet when pain subsides, do we ever, does any one ever wish the suffering had not befallen us? I think not. We feel better, stronger, more pure, more serene for it. Sometimes we get experience by living what seems to be an uncongenial life. One cannot solve the problem of happiness by simply trying to turn out of one's life whatever is uncongenial. Life cannot be made into an Earthly Paradise, and it injures one's soul even to try. What we can turn out of our lives are the unfruitful, wasteful, conventional things; and one can follow what seems the true life, though one may mistake even that sometimes. One of the commonest mistakes nowadays is that so many people are haunted with a vague sense that they ought to DO GOOD, as they say. The best that most people can do is to perform their work and their obvious duties well and conscientiously.

If we realise that experience is what we need, and not necessarily happiness or contentment, the whole value of life is altered. We see then that we can get as much or even more out of the futile hour when we are held back from our chosen delightful work, even out of the dreary or terrified hour, when the sense of some irrevocable neglect, some base surrender that has marred our life, sinks burning into the soul, as a hot ember sinks smoking into a carpet. Those are the hours of life when we move and climb; not the hours when we work, and eat, and laugh, and chat, and dine out with a sense of well-merited content.

The value of life is not to be measured by length of days or success or tranquillity, but by the quality of our experience, and the degree in which we have profited by it. In the light of such a truth as this, art seems to fade away as just a pleasant amusement contrived by leisurely men for leisurely men.

Then, further, one grows to feel that such easy happiness as comes to us may be little more than the sweetening of the bitter medicine, just enough to give us courage and heart to live on; that applies, of course, only to the commoner sorts of happiness, when one is busy and merry and self-satisfied. Some sorts of happiness, such as the best kind of affection, are parts of the larger experience.

Then, if we take hold of such experience in the right way, welcoming it as far as possible, not resisting it or trying to beguile it or forget it, we can get to the end of our probation quicker; if, that is, we let the truth burn into us, instead of timidly shrinking away from it.

This seems to me the essence of true religion; the people who cling very close to particular creeds and particular beliefs seem to me to lose robustness; it is like trying to go to heaven in a bath-chair! It retards rather than hastens the apprehension of the truth. Here lies, to my mind, the unreality of mystical books of devotion and piety, where one is instructed to practise a servile sort of abasement, and to beg forgiveness for all one's noblest efforts and aspirations. Neither can I believe that the mystical absorption, inculcated by such books, in the human personality, the human sufferings of Christ, is wholesome, or natural, or even Christian. I cannot imagine that Christ Himself ever recommended such a frame of mind for an instant. What we want is a much simpler sort of Christianity. If a man had gone to Christ and expressed a desire to follow Him, Christ, I believe, would have wanted to know whether he loved others, whether he hated sin, whether he trusted God. He would not have asked him to recite the articles of his belief, and still less have suggested a mystical and emotional sort of passion for His own Person. As least I cannot believe it, and I see nothing in the Gospels which would lead me to believe it.

In any case this belief in our experience being sent us for our far-off ultimate benefit has helped me greatly of late, and will, I am sure, help me still more. I do not practise it as I should, but I believe with all my heart that the truth lies there.

After all, the truth IS there; it matters little that we should know it; it is just so and not otherwise, and what we believe or do not believe about it, will not alter it; and that is a comfort too.

April 24, 1891.

After I had gone upstairs to bed last night, I found I had left a book downstairs which I was reading, and I went down again to recover it. I could not find any matches, and had some difficulty in getting hold of the book; it is humiliating to think how much one depends on sight.

A whimsical idea struck me. Imagine a creature, highly intellectual, but without the power of sight, brought up in darkness, receiving impressions solely by hearing and touch. Suppose him introduced into a room such as mine, and endeavouring to form an impression of the kind of creature who inhabited it. Chairs, tables, even a musical instrument he could interpret; but what would he make of a writing-table and its apparatus? How would he guess at the use of a picture? Strangest of all, what would he think of books? He would find in my room hundreds of curious oblong objects, opening with a sort of hinge, and containing a series of laminae of paper, which he would discern by his delicacy of touch to be oddly and obscurely dinted. Yet he would probably never be able to frame a guess that such objects could be used for the communication of intellectual ideas. What would he suppose them to be?

The thought expanded before me. What if we ourselves, in this world of ours, which seems to us so complete, may really be creatures lacking some further sense, which would make all our difficulties plain? We knock up against all sorts of unintelligible and inexplicable things, injustice, disease, pain, evil, of which we cannot divine the meaning or the use. Yet they are undoubtedly there! Perhaps it is only that we cannot discern the simplicity and the completeness of the heavenly house of which they are the furniture. Fanciful, of course; but I am inclined to think not wholly fanciful.

May 10, 1891.

The question is this: Is there a kind of peace, of tranquillity, attainable in this world, which is proof against all calamities, sufferings, sorrows, losses, doubts? Is it attainable for one like myself, who is sensitive, apprehensive, highly strung, at once confident and timid, alive to impressions, liable to swift changes of mood? Or is it a mere matter of mental, moral, and physical health, depending on some balance of qualities, which may or may not belong to a man, a balance which hundreds cannot attain to?

By this peace, I do not mean a chilly indifference, or a stoical fortitude. I do not mean the religious peace, such as I see in some people, which consists in holding as a certainty a scheme of things which I believe to be either untrue or uncertain--and about which, at all events, no certainty is logically and rationally possible.

The peace I mean is a frame of mind which a man would have, who loved passionately, who suffered acutely, who desired intensely, who feared greatly; and yet for whom, behind love and pain, desire and fear, there existed a sort of inner citadel, in which his soul was entrenched and impregnable.

Such a security could not be a wholly rational thing, because reason cannot solve the enigmas with which we are confronted; but it must not be an irrational intuition either, because then it would be unattainable by a man of high intellectual gifts; and the peace that I speak of ought to be consistent with any and every constitution--physical, moral, mental. It must be consistent with physical weakness, with liability to strong temptations, with an incisive and penetrating intellectual quality; its essence would be a sort of vital faith, a unity of the individual heart with the heart of the world. It would rise like a rock above the sea, like a lighthouse, where a guarded flame would burn high and steady, however loudly the surges thundered below upon the reefs, however fiercely the spray was dashed against the glasses of the casements.

If it is attainable, then it is worth while to do and to suffer anything to attain it; if it is not attainable, then the best thing is simply to be as insensible as possible, not to love, not to admire, not to desire; for all these emotions are channels along which the bitter streams of suffering can flow.

Prudence bids one close these channels; meanwhile a fainter and remoter voice, with sweet and thrilling accents, seems to cry to one not to be afraid, urges one to fling open every avenue by which impassioned experiences, uplifting thoughts, noble hopes, unselfish desires, may flow into the soul.

This peace I have seen, or dream that I have seen, in the faces and voices of certain gracious spirits whom I have known. It seemed to consist in an unbounded natural gratitude, a sweet simplicity, a childlike affectionateness, that recognised in suffering the joy of which it was the shadow, and in desperate catastrophes the hope that lay behind them.

Such a peace must not be a surrender of anything, a feeble acquiescence; it must be a strong and eager energy, a thirst for experience, a large tolerance, a desire to be convinced, a resolute patience.

It is this and no less that I ask of God.

June 6, 1891.

I had a beautiful walk to-day. I went a short way by train, and descending at a wayside station, found a little field-path, that led me past an old, high-gabled, mullioned farmhouse, with all the pleasant litter of country life about it. Then I passed along some low-lying meadows, deep in grass, where the birds sang sweetly, muffled in leaves. The fields there were all full of orchids, purple as wine, and the gold of buttercups floated on the top of the rich meadow-grass. Then I passed into a wood, and for a long time I walked in the green glooms of copses, in a forest stillness, only the tall trees rustling softly overhead, with doves cooing deep in the wood. Only once I passed a house, a little cottage of grey stone, in a clearing, with an air of settled peace about it, that reminded me of an old sweet book that I used to read as a child, Phantastes, full of the mysterious romance of deep forests and haunted glades. I was overshadowed that afternoon with a sense of the ineffectiveness, the loneliness of my life, walking in a vain shadow; but it melted out of my mind in the delicate beauty of the woodland, with its wild fragrances and cool airs, as when one chafes one's frozen hands before a leaping flame. They told me, those whispering groves, of the patient and tender love of the Father, and I drew very near His inmost heart in that gentle hour. The secret was to bear, to endure, not stoically nor stolidly, but with a quiet inclination of the will to sorrow and pain, that were not so bitter after all, when one abode faithfully in them. I became aware, as I walked, that my heart was with the future after all. The beautiful dead past, I could be grateful for it, and not desire that it were mine again. I felt as a man might feel who is making his way across a wide moor. "Surely," he says to himself, "the way lies here; this ridge, that dingle mark the track; it lies there by the rushy pool, and shows greener among the heather." So he says, persuading himself in vain that he has found the way; but at last the track, plain and unmistakable, lies before him, and he loses no more time in imaginings, but goes straight forward. It was my sorrow, after all, that had shown me that I was in the true path. I had tried, in the old days, to fancy that I was homeward bound; sometimes it was in the love of my dear ones, sometimes in the joy of art, sometimes in my chosen work; and yet I knew in my heart all the time that I was but a leisurely wanderer; but now at last the destined road was clear; I was no longer astray; I was no longer inventing duties and acts for myself, but I had in very truth a note of the way. It was not the path I should have chosen in my blindness and easiness. But there could no longer be any doubt about it. How the false ambitions, the comfortable schemes, the trivial hopes melted away for me in that serene certainty! What I had pursued before was the phantom of delight; and though I still desired delight, with all the passion of my poor frail nature, yet I saw that not thus could the real joy of God be won. It was no longer a question of hope and disappointment, of sin and punishment. It was something truer and stronger than that. The sin and the suffering alike had been the Will of God for me. I had never desired evil, though I had often fallen into it; but there was never a moment when, if I could, I would not have been pure and unselfish and strong. That was a blessed hour for me, when, in place of the old luxurious delight, there came, flooding my heart, an intense and passionate desire that I might accept with a loving confidence whatever God might send; my wearied body, my tired, anxious mind, were but a slender veil, rent and ruinous, that hung between God and my soul, through which I could discern the glory of His love.

June 20, 1891.

It was on a warm, bright summer afternoon that I woke to the sense both of what I had lost and what I had gained. I had wandered out into the country, for in those days I had a great desire to be alone. I stood long beside a stile in the pastures, a little village below me, and the gables and chimneys of an old farmhouse stood up over wide fields of young waving wheat. A cuckoo fluted in an elm close by, and at the sound there darted into my mind the memory, seen in an airy perspective, of innumerable happy and careless days, spent in years long past, with eager and light-hearted companions, in whose smiling eyes and caressing motions was reflected one's own secret happiness. How full the world seemed of sweet surprises then! To sit in an evening hour in some quiet, scented garden in the gathering dusk, with the sense of a delicious mystery flashing from the light movements, the pensive eyes, the curve of arm or cheek of one's companion, how beautiful that was! And yet how simple and natural it seemed. That was all over and gone, and a gulf seemed fixed between those days and these. And then there came first that sad and sweet regret, "the passion of the past," as Tennyson called it, that suddenly brimmed the eyes at the thought of the vanished days; and there followed an intense desire to live in it once again, to have made more of it, a rebellious longing to abandon oneself with a careless disregard to the old rapture.

Then on that mood, rising like a star into the blue spaces of the evening, came the thought that the old days were not dead after all. That they were assuredly there, just as the future was there, a true part of oneself, ineffaceable, eternal. And hard on the heels of that came another and a deeper intuition still, that not in such delights did the secret really rest; what then was the secret? It was surely this: that one must advance, led onward like a tottering child by the strong arm of God. That the new knowledge of suffering and sorrow was as beautiful as the old, and more so, and that instead of repining over the vanished joys, one might continue to rejoice in them and even rejoice in having lost them, for I seemed to perceive that one's aim was not, after all, to be lively, and joyful, and strong, but to be wiser, and larger-minded, and more hopeful, even at the expense of delight. And then I saw that I would not really for any price part with the sad wisdom that I had reluctantly learnt, but that though the burden galled my shoulder, it held within it precious things which I could not throw away. And I had, too, the glad sense that even if in a childish petulance I would have laid my burden down and run off among the flowers, God was stronger than I, and would not suffer me to lose what I had gained. I might, I assuredly should, wish to be more free, more light of heart. But I seemed to myself like a woman that had borne a child in suffering, and that no matter how restless and vexatious a care that child might prove to be, under no conceivable circumstances could she wish that she were barren and without the experience of love. I felt indeed that I had fulfilled a part of my destiny, and that I might be glad that the suffering was behind me, even though it separated me from the careless days.

I hope that in after days I may sometimes make a pilgrimage to the place where that wonderful truth thus dawned upon me. I have made a tabernacle there in my spirit, like the saints who saw the Lord transfigured before their eyes; and to me it had been indeed a transfiguration, in which Love and sorrow and hope had been touched with an unearthly light of God.

June 24, 1891.

Yesterday I was walking in a field-path through the meadows; it was just that time in early summer when the grass is rising, when flowers appear in little groups and bevies. There was a patch of speedwell, like a handful of sapphires cast down. Why does one's heart go out to certain flowers, flowers which seem to have some message for us if we could but read it? A little way from the path I saw a group of absolutely unknown flower-buds; they were big, pale things, looking more like pods than flowers, growing on tall stems. I hate crushing down meadow-grass, but I could not resist my impulse of curiosity. I walked up to them, and just as I was going to bend down and look at them, lo and behold, all my flowers opened before my eyes as by a concerted signal, spread wings of the richest blue, and fluttered away before my eyes. They were nothing more than a company of butterflies who, tired of play, had fallen asleep together with closed wings on the high grass-stems.

There they had sate, like folded promises, hiding their azure sheen. Perhaps even now my hopes sit motionless and lifeless, in russet robes. Perhaps as I draw dully near, they may spring suddenly to life, and dance away in the sunshine, like fragments of the crystalline sky.

July 8, 1891.

I was in town last week for a few days on some necessary business, staying with old friends. Two or three people came in to dine one night, and afterwards, I hardly know how, I found myself talking with a curious openness to one of the guests, a woman whom I only slightly knew. She is a very able and cultivated woman indeed, and it was a surprise to her friends when she lately became a Christian Scientist. When I have met her before, I have thought her a curiously guarded personality, appearing to live a secret and absorbing life of her own, impenetrable, and holding up a shield of conventionality against the world. To-night she laid down her shield, and I saw the beating of a very pure and loving heart. The text of her talk was that we should never allow ourselves to believe in our limitations, because they did not really exist. I found her, to my surprise, intensely emotional, with a passionate disbelief in and yet pity for all sorrow and suffering. She appealed to me to take up Christian Science--"not to read or talk about it," she said; "that is no use: it is a life, not a theory; just accept it, and live by it, and you will find it true."

But there is one part of me that rebels against the whole idea of Christian Science--my reason. I found, or thought I found, this woman to be wise both in head and heart, but not wise in mind. It seems to me that pain and sorrow and suffering are phenomena, just as real as other phenomena; and that one does no good by denying them, but only by accepting them, and living in them and through them. One might as truly, it seems, take upon oneself to deny that there was any such colour as red in the world, and tell people that whenever they saw or discerned any tinge of red, it was a delusion; one can only use one's faculty of perception; and if sorrow and suffering are a delusion, how do I know that love and joy are not delusions too? They must stand and fall together. The reason why I believe that joy and love will in the end triumph, is because I have, because we all have, an instinctive desire for them, and a no less instinctive fear and dread of pain and sorrow. We may, indeed I believe with all my heart that we shall, emerge from them, but they are no less assuredly there. We triumph over them, when we learn to live bravely and courageously in them, when we do not seek to evade them or to hasten incredulously away from them. We fail, if we spend our time in repining, in regretting, in wishing the sweet and tranquil hours of untroubled joy back. We are not strong enough to desire the cup of suffering, even though we may know that we must drink it before we can discern the truth. But we may rejoice with a deep-seated joy, in the dark hours, that the Hand of God is heavy upon us. When our vital energies flag, when what we thought were our effective powers languish and grow faint, then we may be glad because the Father is showing us His Will; and then our sorrow is a fruitful sorrow, and labours, as the swelling seed labours in the sombre earth to thrust her slender hands up to the sun and air. . . .

We two sate long in a corner of the quiet lamp-lit room, talking like old friends--once or twice our conversation was suspended by music, which fell like dew upon my parched heart; and though I could not accept my fellow-pilgrim's thought, I could see in the glance of her eyes, full of pity and wonder, that we were indeed faring along the same strange road to the paradise of God. It did me good, that talk; it helped me with a sense of sweet and tender fellowship; and I had no doubt that God was teaching my friend in His own fatherly way, even as He was teaching me, and all of us.

July 19, 1891.

In one of the great windows of King's College Chapel, Cambridge, there is a panel the beauty of which used to strike me even as a boy. I used to wonder what further thing it meant.

It was, I believe--I may be wholly wrong--a picture of Reuben, looking in an agony of unavailing sorrow into the pit from which his brothers had drawn the boy they hated to sell him to the Midianites. I cannot recollect the details plainly, and little remains but a memory of dim-lit azure and glowing scarlet. Even though the pit was quaintly depicted as a draw-well, with a solid stone coping, the pretty absurdity of the thought only made one love the fancy better. But the figure of Reuben!--even through an obscuring mist of crossing leads and window-bars and weather stains, there was a poignant agony wrought into the pose of the figure, with its clasped hands and strained gaze.

I used to wonder, I say, what further thing it meant. For the deep spell of art is that it holds an intenser, a wider significance beneath its symbols than the mere figure, the mere action it displays.

What was the remorse of Reuben? It was that through his weakness, his complaisance, he had missed his chance of protecting what was secretly dear to him. He loved the boy, I think, or at all events he loved his father, and would not willingly have hurt the old man. And now, even in his moment of yielding, of temporising, the worst had happened, the child was gone, delivered over to what baseness of usage he could not bear to think. He himself had been a traitor to love and justice and light; and yet, in the fruitful designs of God, that very traitorous deed was to blossom into the hope and glory of the race; the deed itself was to be tenderly forgiven, and it was to open up, in the fulness of days, a prospect of greatness and prosperity to the tribe, to fling the seed of that mighty family in soil where it was to be infinitely enriched; it was to open the door at last to a whole troop of great influences, marvellous events, large manifestations of God.

Even so, in a parable, the figure came insistently before me all day, shining and fading upon the dark background of the mind.

It was at the loss of my own soul that I had connived; not at its death indeed--I had not plotted for that--but I had betrayed myself, I saw, year by year. I had despised the dreams and visions of the frail and ingenuous spirit; and when it had come out trustfully to me in the wilderness, I had let it fall into the hands of the Midianites, the purloining band that trafficked in all things, great and small, from the beast of the desert to the bodies and souls of men.

My soul had thus lain expiring before my eyes, and now God had taken it away from my faithless hands; I saw at last that to save the soul one must assuredly lose it; that if it was to grow strong and joyful and wise, it must be sold into servitude and dark afflictions. I saw that when I was too weak to save it, God had rent it from me, but that from the darkness of the pit it should fare forth upon a mighty voyage, and be made pure and faithful in a region undreamed of.

To Reuben was left nothing but shame and sorrow of heart and deceit to hide his sin; unlike him, to me was given to see, beyond the desert and the dwindling line of camels, the groves and palaces of the land of wisdom, whither my sad soul was bound, lonely and dismayed. My heart went out to the day of reconciliation, when I should be forgiven with tears of joy for my own faltering treachery, when my soul should be even grateful for my weakness, because from that very faithlessness, and from no other, should the new life be born.

And thus with a peaceful hope that lay beyond shame and sorrow alike, as the shining plain lies out beyond the broken crags of the weary mountain, I gave myself utterly into the Hands of the Father of All. He was close beside me that day, upholding, comforting, enriching me. Not hidden in clouds from which the wrathful trumpet pealed, but walking with a tender joy, in a fragrance of love, in the garden, at the cool of the day.

August 18, 1891.

Mr. ---- is dead. He died yesterday, holding my hand. The end was quite sudden, though not unexpected. He had been much weaker of late, and he knew he could only live a short time. I have been much with him these last few days. He could not talk much, but there was a peaceful glory on his face which made me think of the Pilgrims in the Pilgrim's Progress whose call was so joyful. I never suspected how little desire he had to live; but when he knew that his days were numbered, he allowed something of his delight to escape him, as a prisoner might who has borne his imprisonment bravely and sees his release draw nigh. He suffered a good deal, but each pang was to him only like the smiting off of chains. "I have had a very happy life," he said to me once with a smile. "Looking back, it seems as though my later happiness had soaked backwards through the whole fabric, so that my joy in age has linked itself as by a golden bridge to the old childish raptures." Then he looked curiously at me, with a half-smile, and added, "But happy as I have been, I find it in my heart to envy you. You hardly know how much you are to be envied. You have no more partings to fear; your beautiful past is all folded up, to be creased and tarnished no more. You have had the love of wife and child--the one thing that I have missed. You have had fame too; and you have drunk far deeper of the cup of suffering than I. I look upon you," he said laughingly, "as an old home-keeping captain, who has never done anything but garrison duty, might look upon a young general who has carried through a great campaign and is covered with signs of honour."

A little while after he roused himself from a slumber to say, "You will be surprised to find yourself named in my will; please don't have any scruples about accepting the inheritance. I want my niece, of course, to reign in my stead; but if you outlive her, all is to go to you. I want you to live on in this place, to stand by her in her loneliness, as a brother by a sister. I want you to help and work for my dear people here, to be tender and careful for them. There are many things that a man can do which a woman cannot; and your difficulty will be to find a hem for your life. Remember that there is no one who is injured by this--my niece is my only living relation; so accept this as your post in life; it will not be a hard one. It is strange," he added, "that one should cling to such trifles; but I should like you to take my name, if you will; and you must find some one to succeed you; I wish it could have been your own boy, whom I have learnt to love."

Miss ---- came in shortly after, and Mr. ---- said to her, "Yes, I have told him, and he consents. You do consent, do you not?" I said, "Yes, dear friend, of course I consent; and consent gratefully, for you have given me a work in the world." And then I took Miss ----'s hand across the bed and kissed it; the old man laid his hands upon our heads very tenderly and said, "Brother and sister to the end."

I thought he was tired then, and made as if to leave him, but he said, "Do not go, my son." He lay smiling to himself, as if well pleased. Then a sudden change came over his face, and I saw that he was going; we knelt beside him, and his last words were words of blessing.

October 12, 1891.

This book has been my companion through some very strange, sad, terrible, and joyful hours; my faithful companion, my silent friend, my true confessor. I have felt the need of utterance, the imperative instinct--the most primitive, the most childish of instincts--to tell my pains and hopes and dreams. I could not utter them, at the time, to another. I could not let the voice of my groaning reach the ears of any human being. Perhaps it would have been better for us both, if I could have said it all to my dearest Maud. But a sort of courtesy forbade my redoubling my monotonous lamentations; her burden was heavy enough without that. I can hardly dignify it with the name of manliness or chivalry, because my frame of mind during those first months, when I lost the power of writing, was purely despicable; and then, too, I did not want sympathy; I wanted help; and help no one but God could give me; half my time was spent in a kind of dumb prayer to Him, that He would give me some sort of strength, some touch of courage; for a helpless cowardice was the note of my frame of mind. Well, He has sent me strength--I recognise that now--not by lightening the load, but by making it insupportably heavy and yet showing me that I had the strength to carry it; I am still in the dark as to why I deserved so sore a punishment, and I cannot yet see that the loneliness to which He has condemned me is the help that is proportioned to my need. But I walk no longer in a vain shadow. I have known affliction by the rod of His wrath. But the darkness in which I walk is not the darkness of thickening gloom, but the darkness of the breaking day.

And then, too, I suppose that writing down my thoughts from day to day just eased the dumb pain of inaction, as the sick man shifts himself in his bed. Anyhow it is written, and it shall stand as a record.

But now I shall write no more. I shall slip gratefully and securely into the crowd of inarticulate and silent men and women, the vast majority, after all, of humanity. One who like myself has the consciousness of receiving from moment to moment sharp and clear impressions from everything on earth, people, houses, fields, trees, clouds, is beset by a kind of torturing desire to shape it all in words and phrases. Why, I know not! It is the desire, I suppose, to make some record of what seems so clear, so distinct, so beautiful, so interesting. One cannot bear that one impression that seems so vivid and strange should be lost and perish. It is the artistic instinct, no doubt. And then one passes through the streets of a great city, and one becomes aware that of the thousands that pass one by, perhaps only one or two have the same instinct, and even they are bound to silence by circumstance, by lack of opportunity. The rest--life is enough for them; hunger and thirst, love and strife, hope and fear, that is their daily meat. And life, I doubt not, is what we are set to taste. Of all those thousands, some few have the desire, and fewer still the power, to stand apart from the throng. These are not content with the humdrum life of earning a livelihood, of forming ties, of passing the time as pleasantly as they can. They desire rather to be felt, to exercise influence, to mould others to their will, to use them for their convenience. I have had little temptation to do that, but my life has been poisoned at its source, I now discern, by the desire to differentiate myself from others. I could not walk faithfully in the procession; I was as one who likes to sit securely in his window above the street, noting all that he sees, sketching all that strikes his fancy, hugging his pleasure at being apart from and superior to the ordinary run of mortals. Here lay my chiefest fault, that I could not bear a humble hand, but looked upon my wealth, my loving circle, as things that should fence me from the throng. I lived in a paradise of my own devising.

But now I have put that all aside for ever. I will live the life of a learner; I will be docile if I can. I might indeed have been stripped of everything, bidden to join the humblest tribe of workers for daily bread. But God has spared my weakness, and I should be faithless indeed, if, seeing how intently His will has dealt with me, I did not recognise the clear guiding of His hand. He has given me a place and a quiet work to do; these strange bereavements, one after another, have not hardened me. I feel the bonds of love for those whom I have lost drawn closer every hour. They are waiting for me, I am sure of that. It is not reason, it is not faith which prompts me; it is a far deeper and stronger instinct, which I could not doubt if I would. What wonder if I look forward with an eager and an ardent hope to death. I can conceive no more welcome tidings than the tidings that death was at hand. But I do not expect to die. My health of body is almost miraculously preserved. What I dare to hope is that I may learn by slow degrees to set the happiness of others above my own. I will listen for any sound of grief or discontent, and I will try to quiet it. I will spend my time and strength as freely as I can. That is a far-off hope. One cannot in a moment break through the self-consideration of a lifetime. But whereas, before, my dim sense that happiness could not be found by deliberately searching for ease made me half rebellious, half uncomfortable, I know now that it is true, and I will turn my back if I can upon that lonely and unsatisfied quest. I did indeed--I can honestly say that--desire with a passionate intentness the happiness of Maud and the children; but I think I desired it most in order that the sunshine of their happiness should break in warmth and light upon myself. It will be hard enough--I can see that--not to labour still for the sake of the ultimate results upon my own peace of mind. But in my deepest heart I do not desire to do that, and I will not, God helping me.

And so to-day, having read the whole record once again, with blinding tears, tears of love, I think, not tears of self-pity, I will close the book and write no more. But I will not destroy it, because it may help some soul that may come after me, into whose hands it may fall, to struggle on in the middle of sorrow and darkness. To him will I gladly reveal all that God has done for my soul. That poor, pitiful, shrinking soul, with all its faint desires after purity and nobleness and peace, all its self-wrought misery, all its unhappy failures, all its secret faults, its undiscerned weaknesses, I put humbly and confidently in the hands of the God who made me. I cannot amend myself, but I can at least co-operate with His loving Will. I can stumble onwards, with my hand in His, like a timid child with a strong and loving father. I may wish to be lifted in His arms, I may wonder why He does not have more pity on my frailty. But I can believe that He is leading me home, and that His way is the best and nearest.


(THE END)
Arthur C. Benson's Book: Altar Fire

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