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Full Online Book HomeNonfictionsThe Altar Fire - Part 6
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The Altar Fire - Part 6 Post by :rainydays Category :Nonfictions Author :Arthur C. Benson Date :May 2012 Read :1603

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The Altar Fire - Part 6

March 8, 1889.

I went to see Darell, my old schoolfellow, a few days ago; he wrote to say that he would much like to see me, but that he was ill and unable to leave home--could I possibly come to see him?

I have never seen very much of him since I left Cambridge; but there I was a good deal in his company--and we have kept up our friendship ever since, in the quiet way in which Englishmen do keep up their friendships, meeting perhaps two or three times in the year, exchanging letters occasionally. He was not a very intimate friend--indeed, he was not a man who formed intimacies; but he was a congenial companion enough. He was a frankly ambitious man. He went to the bar, where he has done well; he married a wife with some money; and I think his ultimate ambition has been to enter Parliament. He told me, when I last saw him, that he had now, he thought, made enough money for this, and that he would probably stand at the next election. I have always liked his wife, who is a sensible, good-natured woman, with social ambitions. They live in a good house in London, in a wealthy sort of way. I arrived to luncheon, and sate a little while with Mrs. Darell in the drawing-room. I became aware, while I sate with her, that there was a sense of anxiety in the air somehow, though she spoke cheerfully enough of her husband, saying that he had overworked himself, and had to lie up for a little. When he came into the room I understood. It was not that he was physically much altered--he is a strongly-built fellow, with a sanguine complexion and thick curly hair, now somewhat grizzled; but I knew at the first sight of him that matters were serious. He was quiet and even cheerful in manner, but he had a look on his face that I had never seen before, the look of a man whose view of life has been suddenly altered, and who is preparing himself for the last long journey. I knew instinctively that he believed himself a doomed man. He said very little about himself, and I did not ask him much; he talked about my books, and a good deal about old friends; but all with a sense, I thought, of detachment, as though he were viewing everything over a sort of intangible fence. After luncheon, we adjourned to his study and smoked. He then said a few words about his illness, and added that it had altered his plans. "I am told," he said, "that I must take a good long holiday--rather a difficult job for a man who cares a great deal about his work and very little about anything else;" he added a few medical details, from which I gathered the nature of his illness. Then he went on to talk of casual matters; it seemed to interest him to discuss what had been happening to our school and college friends; but I knew, without being told, that he wished me to understand that he did not expect to resume his place in the world--and indeed I divined, by some dim communication of the spirit, that he thought my visit was probably a farewell. But he talked with unabated courage and interest, smiling where he would in old days have laughed, and speaking of our friends with more tenderness than was his wont. Only once did he half betray what was in his mind: "It is rather strange," he said, "to be pushed aside like this, and to have to reconsider one's theories. I did not expect to have to pull up--the path lay plain before me--and now it seems to me as if there were a good many things I had lost sight of. Well, one must take things as they come, and I don't think that if I had it all to do again I should do otherwise." He changed the subject rather hurriedly, and began to talk about my work. "You are quite a great man now," he said with a smile; "I hear your books talked about wherever I go--I used to wonder if you would have had the patience to do anything--you were hampered by having no need to earn your living; but you have come out on the top." I told him something about my own late experiences and my difficulty in writing. He listened with undisguised interest. "What do you make of it?" he said. "Well," I said; "you will think I am talking transcendentally, but I have felt often of late as if there were two strains in our life, two kinds of experience; at one time we have to do our work with all our might, to get absorbed in it, to do what little we can to enrich the world; and then at another time it is all knocked out of our hands, and we have to sit and meditate--to realise that we are here on sufferance, that what we can do matters very little to any one--the same sort of feeling that I once had when old Hoskyns, in whose class I was, threw an essay, over which I had taken a lot of trouble, into his waste-paper basket before my eyes without even looking it over. I see now that I had got all the good I could out of the essay by writing it, and that the credit of it mattered very little; but then I simply thought he was a very disagreeable and idle old fellow."

"Yes," he said, smiling, "there is something in that; but one wants the marks as well--I have always liked to be marked for my work. I am glad you told me that story, old man."

We went on to talk of other things, and when I rose to go, he thanked me rather effusively for my kindness in coming to see him. He told me that he was shortly going abroad, and that if I could find time to write he would be grateful for a letter; "and when I am on my legs again," he said with a smile, "we will have another meeting."

That was all that passed between us of actual speech. Yet how much more seems to have been implied than was said. I knew, as well as if he had told me in so many words, that he did not expect to see me again; that he was in the valley of the shadow, and wanted help and comfort. Yet he could not have described to me what was in his mind, and he would have resented it, I think, if I had betrayed any consciousness of my knowledge; and yet he knew that I knew, I am sure of that.

The interview affected me deeply and poignantly. The man's patience and courage are very great; but he has lived, frankly and laboriously, for perfectly definite things. He never had the least sense of what is technically called religion; he was strong and temperate by nature, with a fine sense of honour; loving work and the rewards of work, despising sentiment and emotion--indeed his respect for me, of which I was fully conscious, is the respect he feels for a sentimental man who has made sentiment pay. It is very hard to see what part the prospect of suffering and death is meant to play in the life of such a man. It must be, surely, that he has something even more real than what he has held to be realities to learn from the sudden snapping off of life and activity. I find myself filled with an immense pity for him; and yet if my faith were a little stronger and purer, I should congratulate rather than commiserate him. And yet the thought of him in his bewilderment helps me too, for I see my own life as in a mirror. I have received a message of truth, the message that the accomplishment of our plans and cherished designs is not the best thing that can befall us. How easy to see that in the case of another, how hard to see it in our own case! But it has helped me too to throw myself outside the morbid perplexities in which I am involved; to hold out open hands to the gift of God, even though He seems to give me a stone for bread, a stinging serpent for wholesome provender. It has taught me to pray--not only for myself, but for all the poor souls who are in the grip of a sorrow that they cannot understand or bear.

March 14, 1889.

The question that haunts me, the problem I cannot disentangle, is what is or what ought our purpose to be? What is our duty in life? Ought we to discern a duty which lies apart from our own desires and inclinations? The moralist says that it ought to be to help other people; but surely that is because the people, whom by some instinct we deem the highest, have had the irresistible desire to help others? How many people has one ever known who have taken up philanthropy merely from a sense of rectitude? The people who have done most to help the world along have been the people who have had an overwhelming natural tenderness, an overflowing love for helpless, weak, and unhappy people. That is a thing which cannot be simulated. One knows quite well, to put the matter simply, the extent of one's own limitations. There are courses of action which seem natural and easy; others which seem hard, but just possible; others again which are frankly impossible. However noble a life, for instance, I thought the life of a missionary or of a doctor to be, I could not under any circumstances adopt the role of either. There are certain things which I might force myself to do which I do not do, and which I practically know I shall not do. And the number of people is very small who, when circumstances suggest one course, resolutely carry out another. The artistic life is a very hard one to analyse, because at the outset it seems so frankly selfish a life. One does what one most desires to do, one develops one's own nature, its faculties and powers. If one is successful, the most one can claim is that one has perhaps added a little to the sum of happiness, of innocent enjoyment, that one has perhaps increased or fed in a few people the perception of beauty. Of course the difficulty is increased by the conventional belief that any career is justified by success in that career. And as long as a man attains a certain measure of renown we do not question very much the nature of his aims.

Then, again, if we put that all aside, and look upon life as a thing that is given us to teach us something, it is easy to think that it does not matter very much what we do; we take the line of least resistance, and think that we shall learn our lesson somehow.

It is difficult to believe that our one object ought to be to thwart all our own desires and impulses, to abstain from doing what we desire to do, and to force ourselves continually to do what we have no impulse to do. That is a philosophical and stoical business, and would end at best in a patient and courteous dreariness of spirit.

Neither does it seem a right solution to say: "I will parcel out my energies--so much will I give to myself, so much to others." It ought to be a larger, more generous business than that; yet the people who give themselves most freely away too often end by having very little to give; instead of having a store of ripe and wise reflection, they have generally little more than an official smile, a kindly tolerance, a voluble stream of commonplaces.

And then, too, it is hard to see, to speak candidly, what God is doing in the matter. One sees useful careers cut ruthlessly short, generous qualities nullified by bad health or minute faults, promise unfulfilled, men and women bound in narrow, petty, uncongenial spheres, the whole matter in a sad disorder. One sees one man's influence spoilt by over-confidence, by too strong a sense of his own significance, and another man made ineffective by diffidence and self-distrust. The best things of life, the most gracious opportunities, such as love and marriage, cannot be entered upon from a sense of duty, but only from an overpowering and instinctive impulse.

Is it not possible to arrive at some tranquil harmony of life, some self-evolution, which should at the same time be ardent and generous? In my own sad unrest of spirit, I seem to be alike incapable of working for the sake of others and working to please myself. Perhaps that is but the symptom of a moral disease, a malady of the soul. Yet if that is so, and if one once feels that disease and, suffering is not a part of the great and gracious purpose of God--if it is but a failure in His design--the struggle is hopeless. One sees all around one men and women troubled by no misgivings, with no certain aim, just doing whatever the tide of life impels them to do. My neighbour here is a man who for years has gone up to town every day to his office. He is perfectly contented, absolutely happy. He has made more money than he will ever need or spend, and he will leave his children a considerable fortune. He is kind, respectable, upright; he is considered a thoroughly enviable man, and indeed, if prosperity and contentment are the sign and seal of God's approbation, such a man is the highest work of God, and has every reason to be an optimist. He would think my questionings morbid and my desires moonshine. He is not necessarily right any more than I; but his theory of life works out a good deal better for him than mine for me.

Well, we drift, we drift! Sometimes the sun shines bright on the wave, and the wheeling birds dip and hover, and our heart is full of song. But sometimes we plunge on rising billows, with the wind wailing, and the rain pricking the surface with needle-points; we are weary and uncomforted; and we do not know why we suffer, or why we are glad. Sometimes I have a far-off hope that I shall know, that I shall understand and be satisfied; but sometimes, alas, I fear that my soul will flare out upon the darkness, and know no more either of weal or woe.

March 20, 1889.

I am reading a great deal now; but I find that I turn naturally to books of a sad intimite--books in which are revealed the sorrowful cares and troubles of sensitive people. Partly, I suppose, it is to get the sense of comfort which comes from feeling that others have suffered too; but partly to find, if I can, some medicine for my soul, in learning how others struggled out of the mire. Thus I have been reading Froude's Carlyle and Mrs. Carlyle's Letters over again, and they have moved me strangely and deeply. Perhaps it is mostly that I have felt, in these dark months, drawn to the society of two brave people--she was brave in her silences, he in the way in which he stuck doggedly to his work--who each suffered so horribly, so imaginatively, so inexplicably, and, alas, it would seem, so unnecessarily! Of course Carlyle indulged his moods, while Mrs. Carlyle fought against hers; moreover, he had the instinct for translating thoughts, instantaneously and volubly, into vehement picturesque speech. How he could bite in a picture, an ugly, ill-tempered one enough very often, as when he called Coleridge a "weltering" man! Many of his sketches are mere Gillray caricatures of people, seen through bile unutterable, exasperated by nervous irritability. And Mrs. Carlyle had a mordant wit enough. But still both of them had au fond a deep need of love, and a power of lavishing love. It comes out in the old man's whimsical notes and prefaces; and indeed it is true to say that if a person once actually penetrated into Carlyle's inner circle, he found himself loved hungrily and devotedly, and never forgotten or cast out. And as to Mrs. Carlyle, I suppose it was impossible to be near her and not to love her! This comes out in glimpses in her sad pathological letters. There is a scene she describes, how she returned home after some long and serious bout of illness, when her cook and housemaid rushed into the street, kissed her, and wept on her neck; while two of her men friends, Mr. Cooke and Lord Houghton, who called in the course of the evening, to her surprise and obvious pleasure, did the very same. The result on myself, after reading the books, is to feel myself one of the circle, to want to do something for them, to wring the necks of the cocks who disturbed Carlyle's sleep; and sometimes, alas, to rap the old man's fingers for his blind inconsiderateness and selfishness. I came the other day upon a passage in a former book of my own, where I said something sneering and derisive about the pair, and I felt deep shame and contrition for having written it--and, more than that, I felt a sort of disgust for the fact that I have spent so much time in writing fiction. Books like the Life of Carlyle and Mrs. Carlyle's Letters take the wind out of one's imaginative faculties altogether, because one is confronted with the real stuff of life in them. Life, that hard, stubborn, inconclusive, inconsistent, terrible thing! It is, of course, that very hardness and inconclusiveness that makes one turn to fiction. In fiction, one can round off the corners, repair mistakes, comfort, idealise, smooth things down, make error and weakness bear good fruit, choose, develop as one pleases. Not so with life, where things go from bad to worse, misunderstandings grow and multiply, suffering does not purge, sorrow does not uplift. That is the worst of fiction, that it deludes one into thinking that one can deal gently with life, finish off the picture, arrange things on one's own little principles; and then, as in my own case, life brings one up against some monstrous, grievous, intolerable fact, that one can neither look round or over, and the scales fall from one's eyes. With what courage, tranquillity or joy is one to meet a thoroughly disagreeable situation? The more one leans on the hope that it may amend, the weaker one grows; the thing to realise is that it is bad, that it is inevitable, that it has arrived, and to let the terror and misery do their worst, soak into the soul and not run off it. Only then can one hope to be different; only so can one climb the weary ladder of patience and faith.

March 28, 1889.

Low-hung ragged grey skies, heaven smeared with watery vapours fleeting, broken and mournful, from the west--these above me, as I stand by the old lichened gate of the high wind-swept field at the top of the wold. In front a stretch of rough common, the dark-brown heather, the young gorse, bluish-green, the rusty red of soaked bracken, the pale ochre-coloured grass, all blent into a rich tint that pleases the eye with its wild freshness. To the left, the wide flat level of the plain, with low hills rising on its verge; to the right, a pale pool of water at the bottom of a secret valley, reflecting the leafless bushes that fringe it, catches the sunset gleam that rises in the west; and then range after range of wolds, with pale-green pastures, dark copses, fawn-coloured ploughland, here and there an emerald patch of young wheat. The air is fresh, soft and fragrant, laden with rain; the earth smells sweet; and the wild woodland scent comes blowing to me out of the heart of the spinney. In front of me glimmer the rough wheel-tracks of a grassy road that leads out on to the heath, and two obscure figures move slowly nearer among the tufted gorse. They seem to me, those two figures, charged with a grave significance, as though they came to bear me tidings, messengers bidden to seek and find me, like the men who visited Abraham at the close of the day.

As I linger, the day grows darker, the colour fading from leaf and blade; bright points of light flash out among the dark ridges from secluded farms, where the evening lamp is lit.

Sometimes on days like this, when the moisture hangs upon the hedges, when the streams talk hoarsely to themselves in grassy channels, when the road is full of pools, one is weary, unstrung and dissatisfied, faint of purpose, tired of labour, desiring neither activity nor rest; the soul sits brooding, like the black crows that I see in the leafless wood beneath me, perched silent and draggled on the tree-tops, just waiting for the sun and the dry keen airs to return; but to-day it is not so; I am full of a quiet hope, an acquiescent tranquillity. My heart talks gently to itself, as to an unseen friend, telling its designs, its wishes, its activities. I think of those I hold dear, all the world over; I am glad that they are alive, and believe that they think of me. All the air seems full of messages, thoughts and confidences and welcomes passing to and fro, binding souls to each other, and all to God. There seems to be nothing that one needs to do to-day except to live one's daily life; to be kind and joyful. To-day the road of pilgrimage lies very straight and clear between its fences, in an open ground, with neither valley nor hill, no by-path, no turning. One can even see the gables and chimneys of some grave house of welcome, "a roof for when the dark hours begin," full of pious company and smiling maidens. And not, it seems, a false security; one is not elated, confident, strong; one knows one's weakness; but I think that the Lord of the land has lately passed by with a smile, and given command that the pilgrims shall have a space of quiet. These birds, these branching trees, have not yet lost the joy of His passing. There, along the grassy tracks, His patient footsteps went, how short a time ago! One does not hope that all the journey will be easy and untroubled; there will be fresh burdens to be borne, dim valleys full of sighs to creep through, dark waters to wade across; these feet will stumble and bleed; these knees will be weary before the end; but to-day there is no doubt about the pilgrimage, no question of the far-off goal. The world is sad, perhaps, but sweet; sad as the homeless clouds that drift endlessly across the sky from marge to marge; sweet as the note of the hidden bird, that rises from moment to moment from the copse beside me, again and yet again, telling of a little heart that is content to wait, and not ill-pleased to be alone with its own soft thoughts.

April 4, 1889.

Down in the valley which runs below the house is a mill. I passed it to-day at dusk, and I thought I had never seen so characteristically English a scene. The wheel was silent, and the big boarded walls, dusted with flour, loomed up solemnly in the evening light. The full leat dashed merrily through the sluice, making holiday, like a child released from school. Behind was the stack-yard, for it is a farm as well as a mill; and in the byre I heard the grunting of comfortable pigs, and the soft pulling of the hay from the big racks by the bullocks. The fowls were going to roost, fluttering up every now and then into the big elder-bushes; while high above, in the apple-trees, I saw great turkeys settled precariously for the night. The orchard was silent, except for the murmur of the stream that bounds it. In the mill-house itself lights gleamed in the windows, and I saw a pleasant family-party gathered at their evening meal. The whole scene with its background of sloping meadows and budding woods so tranquil and contented--a scene which William Morris would have loved--for there is a pleasant grace of antiquity about the old house, a sense of homely and solid life, and of all the family associations that have gone to the making of it, generation after generation leaving its mark in the little alterations and additions that have met a need, or even satisfied a pleasant fancy.

The miller is an elderly man now, fond of work, prosperous, good-humoured. His son lives with him, and the house is full of grandchildren. I do not say that it puzzles me to divine what is the miller's view of life, because I think I know it. It is to make money honestly, to bring up his grandchildren virtuously and comfortably, to enjoy his daily work and his evening leisure. He is never idle, never preoccupied. He enjoys getting the mill started, seeing the flour stream into the sacks, he enjoys going to market, he enjoys going prosperously to church on Sundays, he enjoys his paper and his pipe. He has no exalted ideas, and he could not put a single emotion into words, but he is thoroughly honest, upright, manly, kind, sensible. A perfect life in many ways; and yet it is inconceivable to me that a man should live thus, without an aim, without a hope, without an object. He would think my own life even more inconceivable--that a man could deliberately sit down day after day to construct a story about imaginary people; and such respect as he feels for me, is mainly due to the fact that my writings bring me in a larger income than he could ever make from his mill. But of course he is a man who is normally healthy, and such men as he are the props of rural life. He is a good master, he sees that his men do their work, and are well housed. He is not generous exactly, but he is neighbourly. The question is whether such as he is the proper type of humanity. He represents the simple virtues at their high-water mark. He is entirely contented, and his desires are perfectly proportioned to their surroundings. He seems indeed to be exactly what the human creature ought to be. And yet his very virtues, his sense of justice and honesty, his sensible kindliness, are the outcome of civilisation, and bear the stamp, in reality, of the dreams of saints and sages and idealists--the men who felt that things could be better, and who were made miserable by the imperfections of the world. I cannot help wondering, in a whimsical moment, what would have been the miller's thoughts of Christ, if he had been confronted with Him in the flesh. He would have thought of Him rather contemptuously, I think, as a bewildering, unpractical, emotional man. The miller would not have felt the appeal of unselfishness and unworldliness, because his ideal of life is tranquil prosperity. He would have merely wondered why people could not hold their tongues and mind their business: and yet he is a model citizen, and would be deeply annoyed if he were told he were not a sincere Christian. He accepts doctrinal statements as he would accept mathematical formulae, and he takes exactly as much of the Christian doctrine as suits him. Now when I compare myself with the miller, I feel that, as far as human usefulness goes, I am far lower in the scale. I am, when all is said and done, a drone in the hive, eating the honey I did not make. I do not take my share in the necessary labour of the world, I do not regulate a little community of labourers with uprightness and kindness, as he does. But still I suppose that my more sensitive organisation has a meaning in the scale of things. I cannot have been made and developed as I am, outside of the purpose of God. And yet my work in the world is not that of the passionate idealist, that kindles men with the hope of bettering and amending the world. What is it that my work does? It fills a vacant hour for leisurely people, it gives agreeable distraction, it furnishes some pleasant dreams. The most that I can say is that I have a wife whom I desire to make happy, and children whom I desire to bring up innocently, purely, vigorously.

Must one's hopes and beliefs be thus tentative and provisional? Must one walk through life, never fathoming the secret? I have myself abundance of material comfort, health, leisure. I know that for one like myself, there are hundreds less fortunate. Yet happiness in this world depends very little upon circumstances; it depends far more upon a certain mixture of selfishness, tranquillity, temperance, bodily vigour, and unimaginativeness. To be happy, one must be good-humouredly indifferent to the sufferings of others, and indisposed to forecast the possibilities of disaster. The sadness which must shadow the path of such as myself, is the sadness which comes of the power to see clearly the imperfections of the world, coupled with the inability to see through it, to discern the purpose of it all. One comforts oneself by the dim hope that the desire will be satisfied and the dream fulfilled; but has one any certainty of that? The temptation is to acquiesce in a sort of gentle cynicism, to take what one can get, to avoid as far as possible all deep attachments, all profound hopes, to steel oneself in indifference. That is what such men as my miller do instinctively; meanwhile one tries to believe that the melancholy that comes to such as Hamlet, the sadness of finding the world unintelligible, and painful, and full of shadows, is a noble melancholy, a superior sort of madness. Yet one is not content to bear, to suffer, to wait; one clutches desperately at light and warmth and joy, and alas, in joy and sorrow alike, one is ever and insupportably alone.

April 9, 1889.

I have been reading Rousseau lately, and find him a very incomprehensible figure. The Confessions, it must be said, is a dingy and sordid book. I cannot quite penetrate the motive which induced him to write them. It cannot have been pure vanity, because he does not spare himself; he might have made himself out a far more romantic and attractive character, if he had suppressed the shadows and heightened the lights. I am inclined to think that it was partly vanity and partly honesty. Vanity was the motive force, and honesty the accompanying mood. I do not suppose there is any document so transparently true in existence, and we ought to be thankful for that. It is customary to say that Rousseau had the soul of a lackey, by which I suppose is meant that he had a gross and vulgar nature, a thievish taste for low pleasures, and an ill-bred absence of consideration for others. He had all these qualities certainly, but he had a great deal more. He was upright and disinterested. He had a noble disregard of material advantages; he had an enthusiasm for virtue, a passionate love of humanity, a deep faith in God. He was not an intellectual man nor a philosopher; and yet what a ridiculous criticism is that which is generally made upon him, that his reasoning is bad, his knowledge scanty, and that people had better read Hobbes! The very reason which made Rousseau so tremendous an influence was that his point of view was poetical rather than philosophical; he was not too far removed from the souls to which he prophesied. What they needed was inspiration, emotion, and sentimental dogma; these he could give, and so he saved Europe from the philosophers and the cynics. Of course it is a deplorable life, tormented by strong animal passion, ill-health, insanity; but one tends to forget the prevalent coarseness of social tone at that date, not because Rousseau made any secret of it, but because none of his contemporaries dared to be so frank. If Rousseau had struck out a dozen episodes from the Confessions the result would have been a highly poetical, reflective, charming book. I can easily conceive that it might have a very bad effect upon an ingenuous mind, because it might be argued from what he says that moral lapses do not very much matter, and that emotional experience is worth the price of some animalism. Still more perniciously it might induce one to believe that a man may have a deep sense of religion side by side with an unbridled sensuality, and that one whose life is morally infamous may yet be able to quicken the moral temperature of great nations.

Some of the critics of Rousseau speak as though a man whose moral code was so loose, and whose practice was so libidinous, ought almost to have held his tongue on matters of high moral import. But this is a very false line of argument. A man may see a truth clearly, even if he cannot practise it; and an affirmation of a passionate belief in virtue is emphasised and accentuated when it comes from the lips of one who might be tempted rather to excuse his faults by preaching the irresistible character of evil.

To any one who reads wisely, and not in a censorious and Pharisaical spirit, this sordid record, which is yet interspersed with things so fragrant and beautiful, may have a sobering and uplifting effect. One sees a man hampered by ill-health, by a temperament childishly greedy of momentary pleasure, by irritability, suspicion, vanity and luxuriousness, again and again expressing a deep belief in unselfish emotion, a passionate desire to help struggling humanity onward, a child-like confidence in the goodness and tenderness of the Father of all. Disgust and admiration struggle strangely together. One cannot sympathise and yet one dare not condemn. One feels a horrible suspicion that there are dark and slimy corners, vile secrets, ugly memories, in the minds of hundreds of seemingly respectable people; the book brings one face to face with the mystery of evil; and yet through the gloom there steals a silvery radiance, a far-off hope, an infinite compassion for all weakness and imperfection. One can hardly love Rousseau, though one does not wonder that there were many found to do so; and instead of judging him, one cries out with horror at the slime of the pit where he lay bound.

April 14, 1889.

A delusion of which we must beware is the delusion that we can have a precise and accurate knowledge of spiritual things. This is a delusion into which the exponents of settled religions are apt to fall. The Roman Catholic, with his belief in the infallible Church, as the interpreter of God's spirit, which is nothing more than a belief in the inspiration of the majority, or even a belief in the inspiration of a bureaucracy, is the prey of this delusion. The Protestant, too, with his legal creed, built up of texts and precedents, in which the argumentative dicta of Apostles and Evangelists are as weighty and important as the words of the Saviour Himself, falls under this delusion. I read the other day a passage from a printed sermon of an orthodox type, an acrid outcry against Liberalism in religion, which may illustrate what I mean.

"To St. Paul and St. John," said the preacher, "the natural or carnal man is hopelessly remote from God; the same Lord who came to make possible for man this intimate communion with God is careful to make it clear that this communion is only possible to redeemed, regenerate man; prior to new birth into the Kingdom of God, far from being a son of God, man is, according to the Lord Himself, a child of the devil, however potentially capable of being translated from death into life."

Such teaching is so horrible and abominable that it is hard to find words to express one's sense of its shamefulness. To attribute it to the Christ, who came to seek and save what is lost, is an act of traitorous wickedness. If Christ had made it His business to thunder into the ears of the outcasts, whom He preferred to the Scribes and Pharisees, this appalling message, where would His teaching be? What message of hope would it hold for the soul? Such a view of Christianity as this insults alike the soul and the mind and the heart; it deliberately insults God; the message of Christ to the vilest human spirit is that it is indeed, in spite of all its corruption, its falls, its shame, in very truth God's own child; it calls upon the sinner to recognise it, it takes for granted that he feels it. The people whom Christ denounced with indignation so fiery, so blasting, that it even seems inconsistent with His perfect gentleness, were the people who thus professed to know and interpret the mind of God, who bade the sinner believe that He was a merciless judge, extreme to mark what is done amiss, when the one secret was that He was the tenderest and most loving of Fathers. But according to this preacher's terrible doctrine God pours into the world a stream of millions of human beings, all children of the devil, with instincts of a corrupt kind, hampered by dreadful inheritances, doomed, from their helpless and reluctant birth, to be sinful here and lost hereafter, and then prescribes to them a hard and difficult path, beset by clamorous guides, pointing in a hundred different directions, bidding them find the intricate way to His Heart, or perish. The truth is the precise opposite. The divine voice says to every man: "Hampered and sore hindered as you are, you are yet My dearly beloved son and child; only turn to Me, only open your heart to Me, only struggle, however faintly, to be what you can desire to be, and I will guide and lead you to Myself; all that is needed is that your heart should be on My side in the battle. Even your sins matter little, provided that you can say sincerely, 'If it were mine to choose and ordain, I would never willingly do evil again.' I know, better even than you yourself know, your difficulties, your temptations, your weaknesses; the sorrow they bring upon you is no dreary and vindictive punishment, it is the loving correction of My hand, and will bring you into peace yet, if only you will trust Me, and not despair."

The world is full of dreadful things, pains and sorrow and miseries, but the worst of all are the dreary wretchednesses of our own devising. The old detestable doctrine of Hell, the idea that the stubborn and perverse spirit can defy God, and make its black choice, is simply an attempt to glorify the strength of the human spirit and to belittle the Love of God. It denies the truth that God, if He chose, could show the darkest soul the beauty of holiness in so constraining a way that the frail nature must yield to the appeal. To deny this, is to deny the omnipotence of the Creator. No man would deliberately reject peace and joy, if he could see how to find them, in favour of feverish evil and ceaseless suffering. If we believe that God is perfect love, it is inconceivable that He should make a creature capable of defying His utmost tenderness, unless He had said to Himself, "I will make a poor wretch who shall defy Me, and he shall suffer endlessly and mercilessly in consequence." The truth is that God's Omnipotence is limited by His Omnipotence; He could not, for instance, abolish Himself, nor create a power that should be greater than He. But if He indeed can give to evil such vitality that it can defy Him for ever, then He is creating a power that is stronger than Himself.

While the mystery of evil is unexplained, we must all be content to know that we do not know; for the thing is insoluble by human thought. If God be all-pervading, all-in-all, it is impossible to conceive anything coming into being alien to Himself, within Himself. If He created spirits able to choose evil, He must have created the evil for them to choose, for a man could not choose what did not exist; if man can defy God, God must have given him the thought of defiance, for no thought can enter the mind of man not permitted by God.

With this mystery unsolved, we cannot pretend to any knowledge of spiritual things; all that we can do is to recognise that the principle of Love is stronger than the principle of evil, and cling so far as we can cling to the former. But to set ourselves up to guide and direct other men, as the preacher did whose words I have quoted, is to set oneself in the place of God, and is a detestable tyranny. Only by our innate sense of Justice and Love can we apprehend God at all; and thus we are safe in this, that whenever we find any doctrine preached by any human being which insults our sense of justice and love, we may gladly reject it, saying that at least we will not believe that God gives us the power, on the one hand, to recognise our highest and truest instincts, and on the other directs us to outrage them. Such teaching as this we can infallibly recognise as a human perversion and not as a divine message; and we may thankfully and gratefully believe that the obstacles and difficulties, the temptations and troubles, which seem to be strewn so thickly in our path, are to develop rather than to thwart our strivings after good, and assuredly designed to minister to our ultimate happiness, rather than to our ultimate despair.

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The Altar Fire - Part 7 The Altar Fire - Part 7

The Altar Fire - Part 7
April 25, 1889. I found to-day on a shelf a Manual of Preparation for Holy Communion, which was given me when I was confirmed. I stood a long time reading it, and little ghosts seemed to rustle in its pages. How well I remember using it, diligently and carefully, trying to force myself into the attitude of mind that it inculcated, and humbly and sincerely believing myself wicked, reprobate, stony-hearted, because I could not do it successfully. Shall I make a curious confession? From quite early days, the time of first waking in the morning has been apt to be for

The Altar Fire - Part 5 The Altar Fire - Part 5

The Altar Fire - Part 5
February 3, 1889. To amuse oneself--that is the difficulty. Amusements are or ought to be the childish, irrational, savage things which a man goes on doing and practising, in virtue, I suppose, of the noble privilege of reason, far longer than any other animal--only YOUNG animals amuse themselves; a dog perhaps retains the faculty longer than most animals, but he only does it out of sympathy and companionship, to amuse his inscrutable owner, not to amuse himself. Amusements ought to be things which one wants to do, and which one is slightly ashamed of doing--enough ashamed, I mean, to give rather