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At Large by Arthur Christopher Benson

Part 4 out of 5

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We found ourselves deposited, by a brisk train--the very stoker
seemed to be engaged in the joyful conspiracy--at the little town
of St. Ives. I should like to expatiate upon the charms of St.
Ives, its clear, broad, rush-fringed river, its quaint brick
houses, with their little wharf-gardens, where the trailing
nasturtium mirrors itself in the slow flood, its embayed bridge,
with the ancient chapel buttressed over the stream--but I must hold
my hand; I must not linger over the beauties of the City of
Destruction, which I have every reason to believe was a very
picturesque place, when our hearts were set on pilgrimage. Suffice
it to say that we walked along a pretty riverside causeway, under
enlacing limes, past the fine church, under the hanging woods of
Houghton Hill--and here we found a mill, a big, timbered place,
with a tiled roof, odd galleries and projecting pent-houses, all
pleasantly dusted with flour, where a great wheel turned dripping
in a fern-clad cavern of its own, with the scent of the weedy
river-water blown back from the plunging leat. Oh, the joyful place
of streams! River and leat and back-water here ran clear among
willow-clad islands, all fringed deep with meadow-sweet and comfrey
and butterbur and melilot. The sun shone overhead among big, white,
racing clouds; the fish poised in mysterious pools among trailing
water-weeds; and there was soon no room in my heart for anything
but the joy of earth and the beauty of it. What did the weary days
before and behind matter? What did casuistry and determinism and
fate and the purpose of life concern us then, my friend and me? As
little as they concerned the gnats that danced so busily in the
golden light, at the corner where the alder dipped her red rootlets
to drink the brimming stream.

There we chartered a boat, and all that hot forenoon rowed lazily
on, the oars grunting and dripping, the rudder clicking softly
through avenues of reeds and water-plants, from reach to reach,
from pool to pool. Here we had a glimpse of the wide-watered valley
rich in grass, here of silent woods, up-piled in the distance,
over which quivered the hot summer air. Here a herd of cattle stood
knee-deep in the shallow water, lazily twitching their tails and
snuffing at the stream. The birds were silent now in the glowing
noon; only the reeds shivered and bowed. There, beside a lock with
its big, battered timbers, the water poured green and translucent
through a half-shut sluice. Now and then the springs of thought
brimmed over in a few quiet words, that came and passed like a
breaking bubble--but for the most part we were silent, content to
converse with nod or smile. And so we came at last to our goal; a
house embowered in leaves, a churchyard beside the water, and a
church that seemed to have almost crept to the brink to see itself
mirrored in the stream. The place mortals call Hemingford Grey, but
it had a new name for me that day which I cannot even spell--for
the perennial difficulty that survives a hundred disenchantments,
is to feel that a romantic hamlet seen thus on a day of pilgrimage,
with its clustering roofs and chimneys, its waterside lawns, is a
real place at all. I suppose that people there live dull and simple
lives enough, buy and sell, gossip and back-bite, wed and die; but
for the pilgrim it seems an enchanted place, where there can be no
care or sorrow, nothing hard, or unlovely, or unclean, but a sort
of fairy-land, where men seem to be living the true and beautiful
life of the soul, of which we are always in search, but which seems
to be so strangely hidden away. It must have been for me and my
friend that the wise and kindly artist who lives there in a
paradise of flowers had filled his trellises with climbing roses,
and bidden the tall larkspurs raise their azure spires in the air.
How else had he brought it all to such perfection for that golden
hour? Perhaps he did not even guess that he had done it all for my
sake, which made it so much more gracious a gift. And then we
learned too from a little red-bound volume which I had thought
before was a guide-book, but which turned out to-day to be a volume
of the Book of Life, that the whole place was alive with the
calling of old voices. At the little church there across the
meadows the portly, tender-hearted, generous Charles James Fox had
wedded his bride. Here, in the pool below, Cowper's dog had dragged
out for him the yellow water-lily that he could not reach; and in
the church itself was a little slab where two tiny maidens sleep,
the sisters of the famous Miss Gunnings, who set all hearts ablaze
by their beauty, who married dukes and earls, and had spent their
sweet youth in a little ruined manor-house hard by. I wonder
whether after all the two little girls, who died in the time of
roses, had not the better part; and whether the great Duchess, who
showed herself so haughty to poor Boswell, when he led his great
dancing Bear through the grim North, did not think sometimes in her
state of the childish sisters with whom she had played, before they
came to be laid in the cool chancel beside the slow stream.

And then we sate down for a little on the churchyard wall, and
watched the water-grasses trail and the fish poise. In that sweet
corner of the churchyard, at a certain season of the year, grow
white violets; they had dropped their blooms long ago; but they
were just as much alive as when they were speaking aloud to the
world with scent and colour; I can never think of flowers and trees
as not in a sense conscious; I believe all life to be conscious of
itself, and I am sure that the flowering time is the happy time for
flowers as much as it is for artists.

Close to us here was a wall, with a big, solid Georgian house
peeping over, blinking with its open windows and sun-blinds on to a
smooth, shaded lawn, full of green glooms and leafy shelters. Why
did it all give one such a sense of happiness and peace, even
though one had no share in it, even though one knew that one would
be treated as a rude and illegal intruder if one stepped across and
used it as one's own?

This is a difficult thing to analyse. It all lies in the
imagination; one thinks of a long perspective of sunny afternoons,
of leisurely people sitting out in chairs under the big sycamore,
reading perhaps, or talking quietly, or closing the book to think,
the memory re-telling some old and pretty tale; and then perhaps
some graceful girl comes out of the house with a world of hopes and
innocent desires in her wide-open eyes; or a tall and limber boy
saunters out bare-headed and flannelled, conscious of life and
health, and steps down to the punt that lies swinging at its chain--
one hears it rattle as it is untied and flung into the prow; and
then the dripping pole is plunged and raised, and the punt goes
gliding away, through zones of glimmering light and shadow, to the
bathing-pool. All that comes into one's mind; one takes life, and
subtracts from it all care and anxiety, all the shadow of failure
and suffering, sees it as it might be, and finds it good. That is
the first element of the charm. And then there comes into the
picture a further and more reflective charm, that which Tennyson
called the passion of the past; the thought that all this beautiful
life is slipping away, even as it forms itself, that one cannot
stay it for an instant, but that the shadow creeps across the dial,
and the church-clock tells the hours of the waning day. It is a
mistake to think that such a sense comes of age and experience; it
is rather the other way, for never is the regretful sense of the
fleeting quality of things realised with greater poignancy than
when one is young. When one grows older one begins to expect a good
deal of dissatisfaction and anxiety to be mingled with it all, one
finds the old Horatian maxim becoming true:

"Vitae summa brevis nos spem vitat inchoare longam,"

and one learns to be grateful for the sunny hour; but when one is
young, one feels so capable of enjoying it all, so impatient of
shadow and rain, that one cannot bear that the sweet wine of life
should be diluted.

That is, I believe, the analysis of the charm of such a scene; the
possibility of joy, and permanence, tinged with the pathos that it
has no continuance, but rises and falls and fades like a ripple in
the stream.

The disillusionment of experience is a very different thing from
the pathos of youth; for in youth the very sense of pathos is in
itself an added luxury of joy, giving it a delicate beauty which,
if it were not so evanescent, it could not possess.

But then comes the real trouble, the heavy anxiety, the illness,
the loss; and those things, which looked so romantic in the pages
of poets and the scenes of story-writers, turn out not to be
romantic at all, but frankly and plainly disagreeable and
intolerable things. The boy who swept down the shining reaches with
long, deft strokes becomes a man--money runs short, his children
give him anxiety, his wife becomes ailing and fretful, he has a
serious illness; and when after a day of pain he limps out in the
afternoon to the shadow of the old plane-tree, he must be a very
wise and tranquil and patient man, if he can still feel to the full
the sweet influences of the place, and be still absorbed and
comforted by them.

And here lies the weakness of the epicurean and artistic attitude,
that it assorts so ill with the harder and grimmer facts of life.
Life has a habit of twitching away the artistic chair with all its
cushions from under one, with a rude suddenness, so that one has,
if one is wise, to learn a mental agility and to avoid the
temptation of drowsing in the land where it is always afternoon.
The real attitude is to be able to play a robust and manful part in
the world, and yet to be able to banish the thought of the bank-
book and the ledger from the mind, and to submit oneself to the
sweet influences of summer and sun.

"He who of such delights can judge, and spare
To interpose them oft is not unwise."

So sang the old Puritan poet; and there is a large wisdom in the
word OFT which I have abundantly envied, being myself an anxious-
minded man!

The solution is BALANCE--not to think that the repose of art is
all, and yet on the other hand not to believe that life is always
jogging and hustling one. The way in which one can test one's
progress is by considering whether activities and tiresome
engagements are beginning to fret one unduly, for if so one is
becoming a hedonist; and on the other hand by being careful to
observe whether one becomes incapable of taking a holiday; if one
becomes bored and restless and hipped in a cessation of activities,
then one is suffering from the disease of Martha in the Gospel
story; and of the two sisters we may remember that Martha was the
one who incurred a public rebuke.

What one has to try to perceive is that life is designed not wholly
for discomfort, or wholly for ease, but that we are here as
learners, one and all. Sometimes the lesson comes whispering
through the leaves of the plane-tree, with the scent of violets in
the air; sometimes it comes in the words and glances of a happy
circle full of eager talk, sometimes through the pages of a wise
book, and sometimes in grim hours, when one tosses sleepless on
one's bed under the pressure of an intolerable thought--but in each
and every case we do best when we receive the lesson as willingly
and large-heartedly as we can.

Perhaps, in some of my writings, those who have read them have
thought that I have unduly emphasised the brighter, sweeter, more
tranquil side of life. I have done so deliberately, because I
believe that we should follow innocent joy as far as we can. But it
is not because I am unaware of the other side. I do not think that
any of the windings of the dark wood of which Dante speaks are
unknown to me, and there are few tracts of dreariness that I have
not trodden reluctantly. I have had physical health and much
seeming prosperity; but to be acutely sensitive to the pleasures of
happiness and peace is generally to be morbidly sensitive to the
burden of cares. Unhappiness is a subjective thing. As Mrs.
Gummidge so truly said, when she was reminded that other people had
their troubles, "I feel them more." And if I have upheld the duty
of seeking peace, it has been like a preacher who preaches most
urgently against his own bosom-sins. But I am sure of this, that
however impatiently one mourns one's fault and desires to be
different, the secret of growth lies in that very sorrow, perhaps
in the seeming impotence of that sorrow. What one must desire is to
learn the truth, however much one may shudder at it; and the longer
that one persists in one's illusions, the longer is one's learning-
time. Is it not a bitter comfort to know that the truth is there,
and that what we believe or do not believe about it makes no
difference at all? Yes, I think it is a comfort; at all events upon
that foundation alone is it possible to rest.

How far one drifts in thought away from the sweet scene which grows
sweeter every hour. The heat of the day is over now; the breeze
curls on the stream, the shadow of the tower falls far across the
water. My companion rises and smiles, thinking me lost in indolent
content; he hardly guesses how far I have been voyaging

"On strange seas of thought alone."

Does he guess that as I look back over my life, pain has so far
preponderated over happiness that I would not, if I could, live it
again, and that I would not in truth, if I could choose, have lived
it at all? And yet, even so, I recognise that I am glad not to have
the choice, for it would be made in an indolent and timid spirit,
and I do indeed believe that the end is not yet, and that the hour
will assuredly come when I shall rejoice to have lived, and see the
meaning even of my fears.

And then we retrace our way, and like the Lady of Shalott step down
into the boat, to glide along the darkling water-way in the
westering light. Why cannot I speak to my friend of such dark
things as these? It would be better perhaps if I could, and yet no
hand can help us to bear our own burden.

But the dusk comes slowly on, merging reed and pasture and gliding
stream in one indistinguishable shade; the trees stand out black
against the sunset, thickening to an emerald green. A star comes
out over the dark hill, the lights begin to peep out in the windows
of the clustering town as we draw nearer. As we glide beneath the
dark houses, with their gables and chimneys dark against the
glowing sky, how everything that is dull and trivial and homely is
blotted out by the twilight, leaving nothing but a sense of
romantic beauty of mysterious peace! The little town becomes an
enchanted city full of heroic folk; the figure that leans silently
over the bridge to see us pass, to what high-hearted business is he
vowed, burgher or angel? A spell is woven of shadow and falling
light, and of chimes floating over meadow and stream. Yet this
sense of something remotely and unutterably beautiful, this
transfiguration of life, is as real and vital an experience as the
daily, dreary toil, and to be welcomed as such. Nay, more! it is
better, because it gives one a deepened sense of value, of
significance, of eternal greatness, to which we must cling as
firmly as we may, because it is there that the final secret lies;
not in the poor struggles, the anxious delays, which are but the
incidents of the voyage, and not the serene life of haven and home.

XV

SYMBOLS

The present time is an era when intellectual persons are ashamed of
being credulous. It is the perfectly natural and desirable result
of the working of the scientific spirit. Everything is relentlessly
investigated, the enormous structure of natural law is being
discovered to underlie all the most surprising, delicate, and
apparently fortuitous processes, and no one can venture to forecast
where the systematisation will end. The result is a great inrush of
bracing and invigorating candour. It is not that our liberty of
reflection and action is increased. It is rather increasingly
limited. But at least we are growing to discern where our
boundaries are, and it is deeply refreshing to find that the
boundaries erected by humanity are much closer and more cramping
than the boundaries determined by God. We are no longer bound by
human authority, by subjective theories, by petty tradition. We are
no longer required to tremble before thaumaturgy and conjuring and
occultism. It is true that science has hitherto confined itself
mainly to the investigation of concrete phenomena; but the same
process is sure to be applied to metaphysics, to sociology, to
psychology; and the day will assuredly come when the human race
will analyse the laws which govern progress, which regulate the
exact development of religion and morality.

The demolition of credulity is, as I have said, a wholly desirable
and beneficial thing. Most intelligent people have found some
happiness in learning that the dealings of God--that is, the
creative and originative power behind the universe--are at all
events not whimsical, however unintelligible they may be. No one at
all events is now required to reconcile with his religious faith a
detailed belief in the Mosaic cosmogony, or to accept the fact that
a Hebrew prophet was enabled to summon bears from a wood to tear to
pieces some unhappy boys who found food for mirth in his personal
appearance. That is a pure gain. But side by side with this
entirely wholesome process, there are a good many people who have
thrown overboard, together with their credulity, a quality of a far
higher and nobler kind, which may be called faith. Men who have
seen many mysteries explained, and many dark riddles solved in
nature, have fallen into what is called materialism, from the
mistaken idea that the explanation of material phenomena will hold
good for the discernment of abstract phenomena. Yet any one who
approaches the results of scientific investigation in a
philosophical and a poetical spirit, sees clearly enough that
nothing has been attempted but analysis, and that the mystery which
surrounds us is only thrust a little further off, while the
darkness is as impenetrable and profound as ever. All that we have
learnt is how natural law works; we have not come near to learning
why it works as it does. All we have really acquired is a knowledge
that the audacious and unsatisfactory theories, such, for instance,
as the old-fashioned scheme of redemption, by which men have
attempted with a pathetic hopefulness to justify the ways of God to
man, are, and are bound to be, despairingly incomplete. The danger
of the scientific spirit is not that it is too agnostic, but that
it is not agnostic enough: it professes to account for everything
when it only has a very few of the data in its grasp. The
materialistic philosophy tends to be a tyranny which menaces
liberty of thought. Every one has a right to deduce what theory he
can from his own experience. The one thing that we have no sort of
right to do is to enforce that theory upon people whose experience
does not confirm it. We may invite them to act upon our
assumptions, but we must not blame them if they end by considering
them to be baseless. I was talking the other day to an ardent Roman
Catholic, who described by a parable the light in which he viewed
the authority of the Church. He said that it was as if he were
half-way up a hill, prevented from looking over into a hidden
valley by the slope of the ground. On the hill-top, he said, might
be supposed to stand people in whose good faith and accuracy of
vision he had complete confidence. If they described to him what
they saw in the valley beyond, he would not dream of mistrusting
them. But the analogy breaks down at every point, because the
essence of it is that every one who reached the hill-top would
inevitably see the same scene. Yet in the case of religion, the
hill-top is crowded by people, whose good faith is equally
incontestable, but whose descriptions of what lies beyond are at
hopeless variance. Moreover all alike confess that the impressions
they derive are outside the possibility of scientific or
intellectual tests, and that it is all a matter of inference
depending upon a subjective consent in the mind of the discerner to
accept what is incapable of proof. The strength of the scientific
position is that the scientific observer is in the presence of
phenomena confirmed by innumerable investigations, and that, up to
a certain point, the operation of a law has been ascertained, which
no reasonable man has any excuse for doubting. Whenever that law
conflicts with religious assumptions, which in any case cannot be
proved to be more than subjective assumptions, the unverifiable
theory must go down before the verifiable. Religion may assume, for
instance, that life is an educative process; but that theory cannot
be considered proved in the presence of the fact that many human
beings close their eyes upon the world before they are capable of
exercising any moral or intellectual choice whatever.

It may prove, upon investigation, that all religious theories and
all creeds are nothing more than the desperate and pathetic
attempts of humanity, conscious of an instinctive horror of
suffering, and of an inalienable sense of their right to happiness,
to provide a solution for the appalling fact that many human beings
seem created only to suffer and to be unhappy. The mystery is a
very dark one; and philosophy is still not within reach of
explaining how it is that a sense of justice should be implanted in
man by the Power that appears so often to violate that conception
of justice.

The fact is that the progress of science has created an immense
demand for the quality of faith and hopefulness, by revealing so
much that is pessimistic in the operation of natural law. If we are
to live with any measure of contentment or tranquillity, we must
acquire a confidence that God has not, as science tends to
indicate, made all men for nought. We must, if we can, acquire some
sort of hope that it is not in mere wantonness and indifference
that He confronts us with the necessity for bearing the things that
He has made us most to dread. It may be easy enough for robust,
vigorous, contented persons to believe that God means us well; but
the only solution that is worth anything is a solution that shall
give us courage, patience, and even joy, at times when everything
about us seems to speak of cruelty and terror and injustice. One of
the things that has ministered comfort in large measure to souls so
afflicted is the power of tracing a certain beauty and graciousness
in the phenomena that surround us. Who is there who in moments of
bewildered sorrow has not read a hint of some vast lovingness,
moving dimly in the background of things, in the touch of familiar
hands or in the glances of dear eyes? Surely, they have said to
themselves, if love is the deepest, strongest, and most lasting
force in the world, the same quality must be hidden deepest in the
Heart of God. This is the unique strength of the Christian
revelation, the thought of the Fatherhood of God, and His tender
care for all that he has made. Again, who is there who in
depression and anxiety has not had his load somewhat lightened by
the sight of the fresh green of spring foliage against a blue sky,
by the colour and scent of flowers, by the sweet melody of musical
chords? The aching spirit has said, "They are there--beauty, and
peace, and joy--if I could but find the way to them." Who has not
had his fear of death alleviated by the happy end of some beloved
life, when the dear one has made, as it were, solemn haste to be
gone, falling gently into slumber? Who is there, who, speeding
homewards in the sunset, has seen the dusky orange veil of flying
light drawn softly westward over misty fields, where the old house
stands up darkling among the glimmering pastures, and has not felt
the presence of some sweet secret waiting for him beyond the gates
of life and death? All these things are symbols, because the
emotions they arouse are veritably there, as indisputable a
phenomenon as any fact which science has analysed. The miserable
mistake that many intellectual people make is to disregard what
they would call vague emotions in the presence of scientific truth.
Yet such emotions have a far more intimate concern for us than the
dim sociology of bees, or the concentric forces of the stars. Our
emotions are far more true and vivid experiences for us than
indisputable laws of nature which never cut the line of our life at
all. We may wish, perhaps, that the laws of such emotions were
analysed and systematised too, for it is a very timid and faltering
spirit that thinks that definiteness is the same as profanation. We
may depend upon it that the deeper we can probe into such secrets,
the richer will our conceptions of life and God become.

The mistake that is so often made by religious organisations, which
depend so largely upon symbolism, is the terrible limiting of this
symbolism to traditional ceremonies and venerable ritual. It has
been said that religion is the only form of poetry accessible to
the poor; and it is true in the sense that anything which hallows
and quickens the most normal and simple experiences of lives
divorced from intellectual and artistic influences is a very real
and true kind of symbolism. It may be well to give people such
symbolism as they can understand, and the best symbols of all are
those that deal with the commonest emotions. But it is a lean
wisdom that emphasises a limited range of emotions at the expense
of a larger range; and the spirit which limits the sacred
influences of religion to particular buildings and particular rites
is very far removed from the spirit of Him who said that neither at
Gerizim nor in Jerusalem was the Father to be worshipped, but in
spirit and in truth. At the same time the natural impatience of one
who discerns a symbolism all about him, in tree and flower, in
sunshine and rain, and who hates to see the range restricted, is a
feeling that a wise and tolerant man ought to resist. It is ill to
break the pitcher because the well is at hand! One does not make a
narrow soul broader by breaking down its boundaries, but by
revealing the beauty of the further horizon. Even the false feeling
of compassion must be resisted. A child is more encouraged by
listening patiently to its tale of tiny exploits, than by casting
ridicule upon them.

But on the other hand it is a wholly false timidity for one who has
been brought up to love and reverence the narrower range of
symbols, to choke and stifle the desires that stir in his heart for
the wider range, out of deference to authority and custom. One must
not discard a cramping garment until one has a freer one to take
its place; but to continue in the confining robe with the larger
lying ready to one's hand, from a sense of false pathos and
unreasonable loyalty, is a piece of foolishness.

There are, I believe, hundreds of men and women now alive, who have
outgrown their traditional faith, through no fault of their own;
but who out of terror at the vague menaces of interested and
Pharisaical persons do not dare to break away. One must of course
weigh carefully whether one values comfort or liberty most. But
what I would say is that it is of the essence of a faith to be
elastic, to be capable of development, to be able to embrace the
forward movement of thought. Now so far am I from wishing to
suggest that we have outgrown Christianity, that I would assert
that we have not yet mastered its simplest principles. I believe
with all my soul that it is still able to embrace the most daring
scientific speculations, for the simple reason that it is hardly
concerned with them at all. Where religious faith conflicts with
science is in the tenacity with which it holds to the literal truth
of the miraculous occurrences related in the Scriptures. Some of
these present no difficulty, some appear to be scientifically
incredible. Yet these latter seem to me to be but the perfectly
natural contemporary setting of the faith, and not to be of the
essence of Christianity at all. Miracles, whether they are true or
not, are at all events unverifiable, and no creed that claims to
depend upon the acceptance of unverifiable events can have any
vitality. But the personality, the force, the perception of Christ
Himself emerges with absolute distinctness from the surrounding
details. We may not be in a position to check exactly what He said
and what He did not say, but just as no reasonable man can hold
that He was merely an imaginative conception invented by people who
obviously did not understand Him, so the general drift of His
teaching is absolutely clear and convincing.

What I would have those do who can profess themselves sincerely
convinced Christians, in spite of the uncertainty of many of the
recorded details, is to adopt a simple compromise; to claim their
part in the inheritance of Christ, and the symbols of His
mysteries, but not to feel themselves bound by any ecclesiastical
tradition. No one can forbid, by peevish regulations, direct access
to the spirit of Christ and to the love of God. Christ's teaching
was a purely individualistic teaching, based upon conduct and
emotion, and half the difficulties of the position lie in His
sanction and guidance having been claimed for what is only a human
attempt to organise a society with a due deference for the secular
spirit, its aims and ambitions. The sincere Christian should, I
believe, gratefully receive the simple and sweet symbols of unity
and forgiveness; but he should make his own a far higher and wider
range of symbols, the symbols of natural beauty and art and
literature--all the passionate dreams of peace and emotion that
have thrilled the yearning hearts of men. Wherever those emotions
have led men along selfish, cruel, sensual paths, they must be
distrusted, just as we must distrust the religious emotions which
have sanctioned such divergences from the spirit of Christ. We must
believe that the essence of religion is to make us alive to the
love of God, in whatever writing of light and air, of form and
fragrance it is revealed; and we must further believe that religion
is meant to guide and quicken the tender, compassionate, brotherly
emotions, by which we lean to each other in this world where so
much is dark. But to denounce the narrower forms of religion, or to
abstain from them, is utterly alien to the spirit of Christ. He
obeyed and reverenced the law, though He knew that the expanding
spirit of His own teaching would break it in pieces. Of course,
since liberty is the spirit of the Gospel, a liberty conditioned by
the sense of equality, there may be occasions when a man is bound
to resist what appears to him to be a moral or an intellectual
tyranny. But short of that, the only thing of which one must beware
is a conscious insincerity; and the limits of that a man must
determine for himself. There are occasions when consideration for
the feelings of others seems to conflict with one's own sense of
sincerity; but I think that one is seldom wrong in preferring
consideration for others to the personal indulgence of one's own
apparent sincerity.

Peace and gentleness always prevail in the end over vehemence and
violence, and a peaceful revolution brings about happier results
for a country, as we have good reason to know, than a revolution of
force. Even now the narrower religious systems prevail more in
virtue of the gentleness and goodwill and persuasion of their
ministers than through the spiritual terrors that they wield--the
thunders are divorced from the lightning.

Thus may the victories of faith be won, not by noise and strife,
but by the silent motion of a resistless tide. Even now it creeps
softly over the sand and brims the stagnant pools with the
freshening and invigorating brine.

But in the worship of the symbol there is one deep danger; and that
is that if one rests upon it, if one makes one's home in the palace
of beauty or philosophy or religion, one has failed in the quest.
It is the pursuit not of the unattained but of the unattainable to
which we are vowed. Nothing but the unattainable can draw us
onward. It is rest that is forbidden. We are pilgrims yet; and if,
intoxicated and bemused by beauty or emotion or religion, we make
our dwelling there, it is as though we slept in the enchanted
ground. Enough is given us, and no more, to keep us moving
forwards. To be satisfied is to slumber. The melancholy that
follows hard in the footsteps of art, the sadness haunting the
bravest music, the aching, troubled longing that creeps into the
mind at the sight of the fairest scene, is but the warning presence
of the guide that travels with us and fears that we may linger. Who
has not seen across a rising ground the gables of the old house,
the church tower, dark among the bare boughs of the rookery in a
smiling sunset, and half lost himself at the thought of the
impossibly beautiful life that might be lived there? To-day, just
when the western sun began to tinge the floating clouds with purple
and gold, I saw by the roadside an old labourer, fork on back,
plodding heavily across a ploughland all stippled with lines of
growing wheat. Hard by a windmill whirled its clattering arms. How
I longed for something that would render permanent the scene,
sight, and sound alike. It told me somehow that the end was not
yet. What did it stand for? I hardly know; for life, slow and
haggard with toil, hard-won sustenance, all overhung with the
crimson glories of waning light, the wet road itself catching the
golden hues of heaven. A little later, passing by the great pauper
asylum that stands up so naked among the bare fields, I looked over
a hedge, and there, behind the engine-house with its heaps of
scoriae and rubbish, lay a little trim ugly burial-ground, with a
dismal mortuary, upon which some pathetic and tawdry taste had been
spent. There in rows lay the mouldering bones of the failures of
life and old sin; not even a headstone over each with a word of
hope, nothing but a number on a tin tablet. Nothing more incredibly
sordid could be devised. One thought of the sad rite, the
melancholy priest, the handful of relatives glad at heart that the
poor broken life was over and the wretched associations at an end.
Yet even that sight too warned one not to linger, and that the end
was not yet. Presently, in the gathering twilight, I was making my
way through the streets of the city. The dusk had obliterated all
that was mean and dreary. Nothing but the irregular housefronts
stood up against the still sky, the lighted windows giving the
sense of home and ease. A quiet bell rang for vespers in a church
tower, and as I passed I heard an organ roll within. It all seemed
a sweetly framed message to the soul, a symbol of joy and peace.

But then I reflected that the danger was of selecting, out of the
symbols that crowded around one on every side, merely those that
ministered to one's own satisfaction and contentment. The sad
horror of that other place, the little bare place of desolate
graves--that must be a symbol as well, that must stand as a witness
of some part of the awful mind of God, of the strange flaw or rent
that seems to run through His world. It may be more comfortable,
more luxurious to detach the symbol that testifies to the
satisfaction of our needs; but not thus do we draw near to truth
and God. And then I thought that perhaps it was best, when we are
secure and careless and joyful, to look at times steadily into the
dark abyss of the world, not in the spirit of morbidity, not with
the sense of the macabre--the skeleton behind the rich robe, death
at the monarch's shoulder; but to remind ourselves, faithfully and
wisely, that for us too the shadow waits; and then that in our
moments of dreariness and heaviness we should do well to seek for
symbols of our peace, not thrusting them peevishly aside as only
serving to remind us of what we have lost and forfeited, but
dwelling on them patiently and hopefully, with a tender onlooking
to the gracious horizon with all its golden lights and purple
shadows. And thus not in a mercantile mood trafficking for our
delight in the mysteries of life--for not by prudence can we draw
near to God--but in a childlike mood, valuing the kindly word, the
smile that lights up the narrow room and enriches the austere fare,
and paying no heed at all to the jealousies and the covetous
ingathering that turns the temple of the Father into a house of
merchandise.

For here, deepest of all, lies the worth of the symbol; that this
life of ours is not a little fretful space of days, rounded with a
sleep, but an integral part of an inconceivably vast design,
flooding through and behind the star-strewn heavens; that there is
no sequence of events as we conceive, that acts are not done or
words said, once and for all, and then laid away in the darkness;
but that it is all an ever-living thing, in which the things that
we call old are as much present in the mind of God as the things
that shall be millions of centuries hence. There is no uncertainty
with Him, no doubt as to what shall be hereafter; and if we once
come near to that truth, we can draw from it, in our darkest hours,
a refreshment that cannot fail; for the saddest thought in the mind
of man is the thought that these things could have been, could be
other than they are; and if we once can bring home to ourselves the
knowledge that God is unchanged and unchangeable, our faithless
doubts, our melancholy regrets melt in the light of truth, as the
hoar-frost fades upon the grass in the rising sun, when every
globed dewdrop flashes like a jewel in the radiance of the fiery
dawn.

XVI

OPTIMISM

We Anglo-Saxons are mostly optimists at heart; we love to have
things comfortable, and to pretend that they are comfortable when
they obviously are not. The brisk Anglo-Saxon, if he cannot reach
the grapes, does not say that the grapes are sour, but protests
that he does not really care about grapes. A story is told of a
great English proconsul who desired to get a loan from the Treasury
of the Government over which he practically, though not nominally,
presided. He went to the Financial Secretary and said: "Look here,
T----, you must get me a loan for a business I have very much at
heart." The secretary whistled, and then said: "Well, I will try;
but it is not the least use." "Oh, you will manage it somehow,"
said the proconsul, "and I may tell you confidentially it is
absolutely essential." The following morning the secretary came to
report: "I told you it was no use, sir, and it wasn't; the Board
would not hear of it." "Damnation!" said the proconsul, and went on
writing. A week after he met the secretary, who felt a little shy.
"By the way, T----," said the great man, "I have been thinking over
that matter of the loan, and it was a mercy you were not
successful; it would have been a hopeless precedent, and we are
much better without it."

That is the true Anglo-Saxon spirit of optimism. The most truly
British person I know is a man who will move heaven and earth to
secure a post or to compass an end; but when he fails, as he does
not often fail, he says genially that he is more thankful than he
can say; it would have been ruin to him if he had been successful.
The same quality runs through our philosophy and our religion. Who
but an Anglo-Saxon would have invented the robust theory, to
account for the fact that prayers are often not granted, that
prayers are always directly answered whether you attain your desire
or not? The Greeks prayed that the gods would grant them what was
good even if they did not desire it, and withhold what was evil
even if they did desire it. The shrewd Roman said: "The gods will
give us what is most appropriate; man is dearer to them than to
himself." But the faithful Anglo-Saxon maintains that his prayer is
none the less answered even if it be denied, and that it is made up
to him in some roundabout way. It is inconceivable to the Anglo-
Saxon that there may be a strain of sadness and melancholy in the
very mind of God; he cannot understand that there can be any beauty
in sorrow. To the Celt, sorrow itself is dear and beautiful, and
the mournful wailing of winds, the tears of the lowering cloud,
afford him sweet and even luxurious sensations. The memory of grief
is one of the good things that remains to him, as life draws to its
close; for love is to him the sister of grief rather than the
mother of joy. But this is to the Anglo-Saxon mind a morbid thing.
The hours in which sorrow has overclouded him are wasted, desolated
hours, to be forgotten and obliterated as soon as possible. There
is nothing sacred about them; they are sad and stony tracts over
which he has made haste to cross, and the only use of them is to
heighten the sense of security and joy. And thus the sort of
sayings that satisfy and sustain the Anglo-Saxon mind are such
irrepressible outbursts of poets as "God's in His heaven; all's
right with the world"--the latter part of which is flagrantly
contradicted by experience; and, as for the former part, if it be
true, it lends no comfort to the man who tries to find his God in
the world. Again, when Browning says that the world "means
intensely and means good," he is but pouring oil upon the darting
flame of optimism, because there are many people to whom the world
has no particular meaning, and few who can re-echo the statement
that it means good. That some rich surprise, in spite of palpable
and hourly experience to the contrary, may possibly await us, is
the most that some of us dare to hope.

My own experience, the older I grow, and the more I see of life, is
that I feel it to be a much more bewildering and even terrifying
thing than I used to think it. To use a metaphor, instead of its
being a patient educational process, which I would give all that I
possessed to be able sincerely to believe it to be, it seems to me
arranged far more upon the principle of a game of cricket--which I
have always held to be, in theory, the most unjust and fortuitous
of games. You step to the wicket, you have only a single chance;
the boldest and most patient man may make one mistake at the
outset, and his innings is over; the timid tremulous player may by
undeserved good luck contrive to keep his wicket up, till his heart
has got into the right place, and his eye has wriggled straight,
and he is set.

That is the first horrible fact about life--that carelessness is
often not penalised at all, whereas sometimes it is instantly and
fiercely penalised. One boy at school may break every law, human
and divine, and go out into the world unblemished. Another timid
and good-natured child may make a false step, and be sent off into
life with a permanent cloud over him. School life often emphasises
the injustice of the world instead of trying to counteract it.
Schoolmasters tend to hustle the weak rather than to curb the
strong.

And then we pass into the larger world, and what do we see? A sad
confusion everywhere. We see an innocent and beautiful girl struck
down by a long and painful disease--a punishment perhaps
appropriate to some robust and hoary sinner, who has gathered
forbidden fruit with both his hands, and the juices of which go
down to the skirts of his clothing; or a brave and virtuous man,
with a wife and children dependent on him, needed if ever man was,
kind, beneficent, strong, is struck down out of life in a moment.
On the other hand, we see a mean and cautious sinner, with no touch
of unselfishness and affection, guarded and secured in material
contentment. Let any one run over in his mind the memories of his
own circle, fill up the gaps, and ask himself bravely and frankly
whether he can trace a wise and honest and beneficent design all
through. He may try to console himself by saying that the disasters
of good people, after all, are the exceptions, and that, as a rule,
courage and purity of heart are rewarded, while cowardice and
filthiness are punished. But what room is there for exceptions in a
world governed by God Whom we must believe to be all-powerful, all-
just, and all-loving? It is the wilful sin of man, says the
moralist, that has brought these hard things upon him. But that is
no answer, for the dark shadow lies as sombrely over irresponsible
nature, which groans over undeserved suffering. And then, to make
the shadow darker still, we have all the same love of life, the
same inalienable sense of our right to happiness, the same
inheritance of love. If we could but see that in the end pain and
loss would be blest, there is nothing that we would not gladly
bear. Yet that sight, too, is denied us.

And yet we live and laugh and hope, and forget. We take our fill of
tranquil days and pleasant companies, though for some of us the
thought that it is all passing, passing, even while we lean towards
it smiling, touches the very sunlight with pain. "How morbid, how
self-tormenting!" says the prudent friend, if such thoughts escape
us. "Why not enjoy the delight and bear the pain? That is life; we
cannot alter it." But not on such terms, can I, for one, live. To
know, to have some assurance--that is the one and only thing that
matters at all. For if I once believed that God were careless, or
indifferent, or impotent, I would fly from life as an accursed
thing; whereas I would give all the peace, and joy, and
contentment, that may yet await me upon earth, and take up
cheerfully the heaviest burden that could be devised of darkness
and pain, if I could be sure of an after-life that will give us all
the unclouded serenity, and strength, and love, for which we crave
every moment. Sometimes, in a time of strength and calm weather,
when the sun is bright and the friend I love is with me, and the
scent of the hyacinths blows from the wood, I have no doubt of the
love and tenderness of God; and, again, when I wake in the dreadful
dawn to the sharp horror of the thought that one I love is
suffering and crying out in pain and drifting on to death, the
beauty of the world, the familiar scene, is full of a hateful and
atrocious insolence of grace and sweetness; and then I feel that we
are all perhaps in the grip of some relentless and inscrutable law
that has no care for our happiness or peace at all, and works
blindly and furiously in the darkness, bespattering some with woe
and others with joy. Those are the blackest and most horrible
moments of life; and yet even so we live on.

As I write at my ease I see the velvety grass green on the rich
pasture; the tall spires of the chestnut perch, and poise, and sway
in the sun; a thrush sings hidden in the orchard; it is all
caressingly, enchantingly beautiful, and I am well content to be
alive. Looking backwards, I discern that I have had my share, and
more than my share, of good things. But they are over; they are
mine no longer. And even as I think the thought, the old church
clock across the fields tells out another hour that is fallen
softly into the glimmering past. If I could discern any strength or
patience won from hours of pain and sorrow it would be easier; but
the memory of pain makes me dread pain the more, the thought of
past sorrow makes future sorrow still more black. I would rather
have strength than tranquillity, when all is done; but life has
rather taught me my weakness, and struck the garland out of my
reluctant hand.

To-day I have been riding quietly among fields deep with buttercups
and fringed by clear, slow streams. The trees are in full spring
leaf, only the oaks and walnuts a little belated, unfurling their
rusty-red fronds. A waft of rich scent comes from a hawthorn hedge
where a hidden cuckoo flutes, or just where the lane turns by the
old water-mill, which throbs and grumbles with the moving gear, a
great lilac-bush leans out of a garden and fills the air with
perfume. Yet, as I go, I am filled with a heavy anxiety, which
plays with my sick heart as a cat plays with a mouse, letting it
run a little in the sun, and then pouncing upon it in terror and
dismay. The beautiful sounds and sights round me--the sight of the
quiet, leisurely people I meet--ought, one would think, to soothe
and calm the unquiet heart. But they do not; they rather seem to
mock and flout me with a savage insolence of careless welfare. My
thoughts go back, I do not know why, to an old house where I spent
many happy days, now in the hands of strangers. I remember sitting,
one of a silent and happy party, on a terrace in the dusk of a warm
summer night, and how one of those present called to the owls that
were hooting in the hanging wood above the house, so that they drew
near in answer to the call, flying noiselessly, and suddenly
uttering their plaintive notes from the heart of the great chestnut
on the lawn. Below I can see the dewy glimmering fields, the lights
of the little port, the pale sea-line. It seems now all impossibly
beautiful and tranquil; but I know that even then it was often
marred by disappointments, and troubles, and fears. Little
anxieties that have all melted softly into the past, that were
easily enough borne, when it came to the point, yet, looming up as
they did in the future, filled the days with the shadow of fear.
That is the phantom that one ought to lay, if it can be laid. And
is there hidden somewhere any well of healing, any pure source of
strength and refreshment, from which we can drink and be calm and
brave? That is a question which each has to answer tor himself. For
myself, I can only say that strength is sometimes given, sometimes
denied. How foolish to be anxious! Yes, but how inevitable! If the
beauty and the joy of the world gave one assurance in dark hours
that all was certainly well, the pilgrimage would be an easy one.
But can one be optimistic by resolving to be? One can of course
control oneself, one can let no murmur of pain escape one, one can
even enunciate deep and courageous maxims, because one would not
trouble the peace of others, waiting patiently till the golden mood
returns. But what if the desolate conviction forces itself upon the
mind that sorrow is the truer thing? What if one tests one's own
experience, and sees that, under the pressure of sorrow, one after
another of the world's lights are extinguished, health, and peace,
and beauty, and delight, till one asks oneself whether sorrow is
not perhaps the truest and most actual thing of all? That is the
ghastliest of moments, when everything drops from us but fear and
horror, when we think that we have indeed found truth at last, and
that the answer to Pilate's bitter question is that pain is the
nearest thing to truth because it is the strongest. If I felt that,
says the reluctant heart, I should abandon myself to despair. No,
says sterner reason, you would bear it because you cannot escape
from it. Into whatever depths of despair you fell, you would still
be upheld by the law that bids you be.

Where, then, is the hope to be found? It is here. One is tempted to
think of God through human analogies and symbols. We think of Him
as of a potter moulding the clay to his will; as of a statesman
that sways a state; as of an artist that traces a fair design. But
all similitudes and comparisons break down, for no man can create
anything; he can but modify matter to his ends, and when he fails,
it is because of some natural law that cuts across his design and
thwarts him relentlessly. But the essence of God's omnipotence is
that both law and matter are His and originate from Him; so that,
if a single fibre of what we know to be evil can be found in the
world, either God is responsible for that, or He is dealing with
something He did not originate and cannot overcome. Nothing can
extricate us from this dilemma, except the belief that what we
think evil is not really evil at all, but hidden good; and thus we
have firm ground under our feet at last, and can begin to climb out
of the abyss. And then we feel in our own hearts how indomitable is
our sense of our right to happiness, how unconquerable our hope;
how swiftly we forget unhappiness; how firmly we remember joy; and
then we see that the one absolutely permanent and vital power in
the world is the power of love, which wins victories over every
evil we can name; and if it is so plain that love is the one
essential and triumphant force in the world, it must be the very
heartbeat of God; till we feel that when soon or late the day comes
for us, when our swimming eyes discern ever more faintly the
awestruck pitying faces round us, and the senses give up their
powers one by one, and the tides of death creep on us, and the
daylight dies--that even so we shall find that love awaiting us in
the region to which the noblest and bravest and purest, as well as
the vilest and most timid and most soiled have gone.

This, then, is the only optimism that is worth the name; not the
feeble optimism that brushes away the darker side of life
impatiently and fretfully, but the optimism that dares to look
boldly into the fiercest miseries of the human spirit, and to come
back, as Perseus came, pale and smoke-stained, from the dim
underworld, and say that there is yet hope brightening on the verge
of the gloom.

What one desires, then, is an optimism which arises from taking a
wide view of things as they are, and taking the worst side into
account, not an optimism which is only made possible by wearing
blinkers. I was reading a day or two ago a suggestive and brilliant
book by one of our most prolific critics, Mr. Chesterton, on the
subject of Dickens. Mr. Chesterton is of opinion that our modern
tendency to pessimism results from our inveterate realism.
Contrasting modern fictions with the old heroic stories, he says
that we take some indecisive clerk for the subject of a story, and
call the weak-kneed cad "the hero." He seems to think that we ought
to take a larger and more robust view of human possibilities, and
keep our eyes steadily fixed upon more vigorous and generous
characters. But the result of this is the ugly and unphilosophical
kind of optimism after all, that calls upon God to despise the work
of His own hands, that turns upon all that is feeble and unsightly
and vulgar with anger and disdain, like the man in the parable who
took advantage of his being forgiven a great debt to exact a tiny
one. The tragedy is that the knock-kneed clerk is all in all to
himself. In clear-sighted and imaginative moments, he may realise
in a sudden flash of horrible insight that he is so far from being
what he would desire to be, so unheroic, so loosely strung, so
deplorable--and yet that he can do so little to bridge the gap. The
only method of manufacturing heroes is to encourage people to
believe in themselves and their possibilities, to assure them that
they are indeed dear to God; not to reveal relentlessly to them
their essential lowness and shabbiness. It is not the clerk's fault
that his mind is sordid and weak, and that his knees knock
together; and no optimism is worth the name that has not a glorious
message for the vilest. Or, again, it is possible to arrive at a
working optimism by taking a very dismal view of everything. There
is a story of an old Calvinist minister whose daughter lay dying,
far away, of a painful disease, who wrote her a letter of
consolation, closing with the words, "Remember, dear daughter, that
all short of Hell is mercy." Of course if one can take so richly
decisive a view of the Creator's purpose for His creatures, and
look upon Hell as the normal destination from which a few, by the
overpowering condescension of God, are saved and separated, one
might find matter of joy in discovering one soul in a thousand who
was judged worthy of salvation. But this again is a clouded view,
because it takes no account of the profound and universal
preference for happiness in the human heart, and erects the
horrible ideal of a Creator who deliberately condemns the vast mass
of His creatures to a fate which He has no less deliberately
created them to abhor and dread.

Our main temptation after all lies in the fact that we are so
impatient of any delay or any uneasiness. We are like the child
who, when first confronted with suffering, cannot bear to believe
in its existence, and who, if it is prolonged, cannot believe in
the existence of anything else. What we have rather to do is to
face the problem strongly and courageously, to take into account
the worst and feeblest possibilities of our nature, and yet not to
overlook the fact that the worst and lowest specimen of humanity
has a dim inkling of something higher and happier, to which he
would attain if he knew how.

I had a little object-lesson a few days ago in the subject. It was
a Bank Holiday, and I walked pensively about the outskirts of a big
town. The streets were crowded with people of all sorts and sizes.
I confess that a profound melancholy was induced in me by the
spectacle of the young of both sexes. They were enjoying
themselves, it is true, with all their might; and I could not help
wondering why, as a rule, they should enjoy themselves so
offensively. The girls walked about, tittering and ogling, the
young men were noisy, selfish, ill-mannered, enjoying nothing so
much as the discomfiture of any passer-by. They pushed each other
into ditches, they tripped up a friend who passed on a bicycle, and
all roared in concert at the rueful way in which he surveyed a
muddy coat and torn trousers. There seemed to be not the slightest
idea among them of contributing to each other's pleasure. The point
was to be amused at the expense of another, and to be securely
obstreperous.

But among these there were lovers walking, faint and pale with
mutual admiration; a young couple led along a hideous over-dressed
child, and had no eyes for anything except its clumsy movements and
fatuous questions. Or an elderly couple strolled along, pleased and
contented, with a married son and daughter. The cure of the vile
mirth of youth seemed after all to be love and the anxious care of
other lives.

And thus indeed a gentle optimism did emerge, after all, from the
tangle. I felt that it was strange that there should be so much to
breed dissatisfaction. I struck out of the town, and soon was
passing a mill in broad water-meadows, overhung by great elms; the
grass was golden with buttercups, the foliage was rich upon the
trees. The water bubbled pleasantly in the great pool, and an old
house thrust a pretty gable out over lilacs clubbed with purple
bloom. The beauty of the place was put to my lips, like a cup of
the waters of comfort. The sadness was the drift of human life out
of sweet places such as this, into the town that overflowed the
meadows with its avenues of mean houses, where the railway station,
with its rows of stained trucks, its cindery floor, its smoking
engines, buzzed and roared with life.

But the pessimism of one who sees the simple life fading out, the
ancient quietude invaded, the country caught in the feelers of the
town, is not a real pessimism at all, or rather it is a pessimism
which results from a deficiency of imagination, and is only a
matter of personal taste, perhaps of personal belatedness. Twelve
generations of my own family lived and died as Yorkshire yeomen-
farmers, and my own preference is probably a matter of instinctive
inheritance. The point is not what a few philosophers happen to
like, but what humanity likes, and what it is happiest in liking. I
should have but small confidence in the Power that rules the world,
if I did not believe that the vast social development of Europe,
its civilisation, its network of communications, its bustle, its
tenser living, its love of social excitement was not all part of a
great design. I do not believe that humanity is perversely astray,
hurrying to destruction. I believe rather that it is working out
the possibilities that lie within it; and if human beings had been
framed to live quiet pastoral lives, they would be living them
still. The one question for the would-be optimist is whether
humanity is growing nobler, wiser, more unselfish; and of that I
have no doubt whatever. The sense of equality, of the rights of the
weak, compassion, brotherliness, benevolence, are living ideas,
throbbing with life; the growth of the power of democracy, much as
it may tend to inconvenience one personally, is an entirely hopeful
and desirable thing; and if a man is disposed to pessimism, he
ought to ask himself seriously to what extent his pessimism is
conditioned by his own individual prospect of happiness. It is
quite possible to conceive of a man without any hope of personal
immortality, or the continuance of individual identity, whose
future might be clouded, say, by his being the victim of a painful
and incurable disease, and who yet might be a thoroughgoing
optimist with regard to the future of humanity. Nothing in the
world could be so indicative of the rise in the moral and emotional
temperature of the world as the fact that men are increasingly
disposed to sacrifice their own ambitions and their own comfort for
the sake of others, and are willing to suffer, if the happiness of
the race may be increased; and much of the pessimism that prevails
is the pessimism of egotists and individualists, who feel no
interest in the rising tide, because it does not promise to
themselves any increase in personal satisfaction. No man can
possibly hold the continuance of personal identity to be an
indisputable fact, because there is no sort of direct evidence on
the subject; and indeed all the evidence that exists is rather
against the belief than for it. The belief is in reality based upon
nothing but instinct and desire, and the impossibility of
conceiving of life as existing apart from one's own perception. But
even if a man cannot hold that it is in any sense a certainty, he
may cherish a hope that it is true, and he may be generously and
sincerely grateful for having been allowed to taste, through the
medium of personal consciousness, the marvellous experience of the
beauty and interest of life, its emotions, its relationships, its
infinite yearnings, even though the curtain may descend upon his
own consciousness of it, and he himself may become as though he had
never been, his vitality blended afresh in the vitality of the
world, just as the body of his life, so near to him, so seemingly
his own, will undoubtedly be fused and blent afresh in the sum of
matter. A man, even though racked with pain and tortured with
anxiety, may deliberately and resolutely throw himself into
sympathy with the mighty will of God, and cherish this noble and
awe-inspiring thought--the thought of the onward march of humanity;
righting wrongs, amending errors, fighting patiently against pain
and evil, until perhaps, far-off and incredibly remote, our
successors and descendants, linked indeed with us in body and soul
alike, may enjoy that peace and tranquillity, that harmony of soul,
which we ourselves can only momentarily and transitorily obtain.

XVII

JOY

Dr. Arnold somewhere says that the schoolmaster's experience of
being continually in the presence of the hard mechanical high
spirits of boyhood is an essentially depressing thing. It seemed to
him depressing, just because that happiness was so purely
incidental to youth and health, and did not proceed from any sense
of principle, any reserve of emotion, any self-restraint, any
activity of sympathy. I confess that in my own experience as a
schoolmaster the particular phenomenon was sometimes a depressing
thing and sometimes a relief. It was depressing when one was
overshadowed by a fretful anxiety or a real sorrow, because no
appeal to it seemed possible: it had a heartless quality. But again
it was a relief when it distracted one from the pressure of a
troubled thought, as when, in the Idylls of the King, the sorrowful
queen was comforted by the little maiden "who pleased her with a
babbling heedlessness, which often lured her from herself."

One felt that one had no right to let the sense of anxiety
overshadow the natural cheerfulness of boyhood, and then one made
the effort to detach oneself from one's preoccupations, with the
result that they presently weighed less heavily upon the heart.

The blessing would be if one could find in experience a quality of
joy which should be independent of natural high spirits altogether,
a cheerful tranquillity of outlook, which should become almost
instinctive through practice, a mood which one could at all events
evoke in such a way as to serve as a shield and screen to one's own
private troubles, or which at least would prevent one from allowing
the shadow of our discontent from falling over others. But it must
be to a certain extent temperamental. Just as high animal spirits
in some people are irrepressible, and bubble up even under the
menace of irreparable calamity, so gloom of spirit is a very
contagious thing, very difficult to dissimulate. Perhaps the best
practical thing for a naturally melancholy person to try and do, is
to treat his own low spirits, as Charles Lamb did, ironically and
humorously; and if he must spin conversation incessantly, as Dr.
Johnson said, out of his own bowels, to make sure that it is the
best thread possible, and of a gossamer quality.

The temperamental fact upon which the possibility of such a
philosophical cheerfulness is based is after all an ultimate
hopefulness. Some people have a remarkable staying power, a power
of looking through and over present troubles, and consoling
themselves with pleasant visions of futurity. This is commoner with
women than with men, because women derive a greater happiness from
the happiness of those about them than men do. A woman as a rule
would prefer that the people who surround her should be cheerful,
even if she were not cheerful herself; whereas a man is often not
ill-pleased that his moods should be felt by his circle, and
regards it as rather an insult that other people should be joyful
when he is ill-at-ease. Some people, too, have a stronger dramatic
sense than others, and take an artistic pleasure in playing a part.
I knew a man who was a great invalid and a frequent sufferer, who
took a great pleasure in appearing in public functions. He would
drag himself from his bed to make a public appearance of any kind.
I think that he consoled himself by believing that he did so from a
strong and sustaining sense of duty; but I believe that the
pleasure of the thing was really at the root of his effort, as it
is at the root of most of the duties we faithfully perform. I do
not mean that he had a strong natural vanity, though his enemies
accused him of it. But publicity was naturally congenial to him,
and the only sign, as a rule, that he was suffering, when he made
such an appearance, was a greater deliberation of movement, and a
ghastly fixity of smile. As to the latter phenomenon, a man with
the dramatic sense strongly developed, will no doubt take a
positive pleasure in trying to obliterate from his face and manner
all traces of his private discomfort. Such stoicism is a fine
quality in its way, but the quality that I am in search of is an
even finer one than that. My friend's efforts were ultimately based
on a sort of egotism, a profound conviction that a public part
suited him, and that he performed it well. What one rather desires
to attain is a more sympathetic quality, an interest in other
people so vital and inspiring that one's own personal sufferings
are light in the scale when weighed against the enjoyment of
others. It is not impossible to develop this in the face of
considerable bodily suffering. One of the most inveterately
cheerful people I have ever known was a man who suffered from a
painful and irritating complaint, but whose geniality and good-will
were so strong that they not only overpowered his malaise, but
actually afforded him considerable relief. Some people who suffer
can only suffer in solitude. They have to devote the whole of their
nervous energies to the task of endurance; but others find society
an agreeable distraction, and fly to it as an escape from
discomfort. I suppose that every one has experienced at times that
extraordinary rebellion, so to speak, of cheerfulness against an
attack of physical pain. There have been days when I have suffered
from some small but acutely disagreeable ailment, and yet found my
cheerfulness not only not dimmed but apparently enhanced by the
physical suffering. Of course there are maladies even of a serious
kind of which one of the symptoms is a great mental depression, but
there are other maladies which seem actually to produce an
instinctive hopefulness.

But the question is whether it is possible, by sustained effort, to
behave independently of one's mood, and what motive is strong
enough to make one detach oneself resolutely from discomforts and
woes. Good manners provide perhaps the most practical assistance.
The people who are brought up with a tradition of highbred
courtesy, and who learn almost instinctively to repress their own
individuality, can generally triumph over their moods. Perhaps in
their expansive moments they lose a little spontaneity in the
process; they are cheerful rather than buoyant, gentle rather than
pungent. But the result is that when the mood shifts into
depression, they are still imperturbably courteous and considerate.
A near relation of a great public man, who suffered greatly from
mental depression, has told me that some of the most painful
minutes he has ever been witness of were, when the great man, after
behaving on some occasion of social festivity with an admirable and
sustained gaiety, fell for a moment into irreclaimable and hopeless
gloom and fatigue, and then again, by a resolute effort, became
strenuously considerate and patient in the privacy of the family
circle.

Some people achieve the same mastery over mood by an intensity of
religious conviction. But the worst of that particular triumph is
that an attitude of chastened religious patience is, not unusually,
a rather depressing thing. It is so restrained, so pious, that it
tends to deprive life of natural and unaffected joy. If it is
patient and submissive in affliction, it is also tame and mild in
cheerful surroundings. It issues too frequently in a kind of holy
tolerance of youthful ebullience and vivid emotions. It results in
the kind of character that is known as saintly, and is generally
accompanied by a strong deficiency in the matter of humour. Life is
regarded as too serious a business to be played with, and the
delight in trifles, which is one of the surest signs of healthy
energy, becomes ashamed and abashed in its presence. The atmosphere
that it creates is oppressive, remote, ungenial. "I declare that
Uncle John is intolerable, except when there is a death in the
family--and then he is insupportable," said a youthful nephew of a
virtuous clergyman of this type in my presence the other day,
adding, after reflection, "He seems to think that to die is the
only really satisfactory thing that any one ever does." That is the
worst of carrying out the precept, "Set your affections on things
above, not on things of the earth," too literally. It is not so
good a precept, after all, as "If a man love not his brother, whom
he hath seen, how shall he love God, Whom he hath not seen?" It is
somehow an incomplete philosophy to despise the only definite
existence we are certain of possessing. One desires a richer thing
than that, a philosophy that ends in temperance, rather than in a
harsh asceticism.

The handling of life that seems the most desirable is the method
which the Platonic Socrates employed. Perhaps he was an ideal
figure; but yet there are few figures more real. There we have an
elderly man of incomparable ugliness, who is yet delightfully and
perennially youthful, bubbling over with interest, affection,
courtesy, humour, admiration. With what a delicious mixture of
irony and tenderness he treats the young men who surround him! When
some lively sparks made up their minds to do what we now call "rag"
him, dressed themselves up as Furies, and ran out upon him as he
turned a dark corner on his way home, Socrates was not in the least
degree disturbed, but discoursed with them readily on many matters
and particularly on temperance; when at the banquet the topers
disappear, one by one, under the table, Socrates, who, besides
taking his due share of the wine, had filled and drunk the contents
of the wine-cooler, is found cheerfully sitting, crowned with
roses, among the expiring lamps, in the grey of the morning,
discussing the higher mathematics. He is never sick or sorry; he is
poor and has a scolding wife; he fasts or eats as circumstances
dictate; he never does anything in particular, but he has always
infinite leisure to have his talk out. Is he drawn for military
service? he goes off, with an entire indifference to the hardships
of the campaign. When the force is routed, he stalks deliberately
off the field, looking round him like a great bird, with the kind
of air that makes pursuers let people alone, as Alcibiades said.
And when the final catastrophe draws near, he defends himself under
a capital charge with infinite good-humour; he has cared nothing
for slander and misrepresentation all his life, and why should he
begin now? In the last inspired scene, he is the only man of the
group who keeps his courteous tranquillity to the end; he had been
sent into the world, he had lived his life, why should he fear to
be dismissed? It matters little, in the presence of this august
imagination, if the real Socrates was a rude and prosy person, who
came by his death simply because the lively Athenians could
tolerate anything but a bore!

The Socratic attitude is better than the high-bred attitude; it is
better than the stoical attitude; it is even better than the pious
attitude, because it depends upon living life to the uttermost,
rather than upon detaching oneself from what one considers rather a
poor business. The attitude of Socrates is based upon courage,
generosity, simplicity. He knows that it is with fear that we
weight our melancholy sensibilities, that it is with meanness and
coldness that we poison life, that it is with complicated
conventional duties that we fetter our weakness. Socrates has no
personal ambitions, and thus he is rid of all envy and
uncharitableness; he sees the world as it is, a very bright and
brave place, teeming with interesting ideas and undetermined
problems. Where Christianity has advanced upon this--for it has
advanced splendidly and securely--is in interpreting life less
intellectually. The intellectual side of life is what Socrates
adores; the Christian faith is applicable to a far wider circle of
homely lives. Yet Christianity too, in spite of ecclesiasticism,
teems with ideas. Its essence is an unprejudiced freedom of soul.
Its problems are problems of character which the simplest child can
appreciate. But Christianity, too, is built upon a basis of joy.
"Freely ye have received, freely give," is its essential maxim.

The secret then is to enjoy; but the enjoyment must not be that of
the spoiler who carries away all that he can, and buries it in his
tent; but the joy of relationship, the joy of conspiring together
to be happy, the joy of consoling and sympathising and sharing,
because we have received so much. Of course there remain the
limitations of temperament, the difficulty of preventing our own
acrid humours from overflowing into other lives; but this cannot be
overcome by repression; it can only be overcome by tenderness.
There are very few people who have not the elements of this in
their character. I can count upon my fingers the malevolent men I
know, who prefer making others uncomfortable to trying to make them
glad; and all these men have been bullied in their youth, and are
unconsciously protecting themselves against bullying still. We grow
selfish, no doubt, for want of practice; ill-health makes villains
of some of us. But we can learn, if we desire it, to keep our
gruffness for our own consumption, and a very few experiments will
soon convince us that there are few pleasures in the world so
reasonable and so cheap, as the pleasure of giving pleasure.

But, after all, the resolute cheerfulness that can be to a certain
extent captured and secured by an effort of the will, though it is
perhaps a more useful quality than natural joy, and no doubt ranks
together in the moral scale, is not to be compared with a certain
unreasoning, incommunicable rapture which sometimes, without
conscious effort or desire, descends upon the spirit, like sunshine
after rain. Let me quote a recent experience of my own which may
illustrate it.

A few days ago, I had a busy tiresome morning hammering into shape
a stupid prosaic passage, of no suggestiveness; a mere statement,
the only beauty of which could be that it should be absolutely
lucid; and this beauty it resolutely refused to assume. Then the
agent called to see me, and we talked business of a dull kind. Then
I walked a little way among fields; and when I was in a pleasant
flat piece of ground, full of thickets, where the stream makes a
bold loop among willows and alders, the sun set behind a great
bastion of clouds that looked like a huge fortification. It had
been one of those days of cloudless skies, all flooded with the
pale cold honey-coloured light of the winter sun, until a sense
almost of spring came into the air; and in a sheltered place I
found a little golden hawk-weed in full flower.

It had not been a satisfactory day at all to me. The statement that
I had toiled so hard all the morning to make clear was not
particularly worth making; it could effect but little at best, and
I had worked at it in a British doggedness of spirit, regardless of
its value and only because I was determined not to be beaten by it.

But for all that I came home in a rare and delightful frame of
mind, as if I had heard a brief and delicate passage of music, a
conspiracy of sweet sounds and rich tones; or as if I had passed
through a sweet scent, such as blows from a clover-field in summer.
There was no definite thought to disentangle: it was rather as if I
had had a glimpse of the land which lies east of the sun and west
of the moon, had seen the towers of a castle rise over a wood of
oaks; met a company of serious people in comely apparel riding
blithely on the turf of a forest road, who had waved me a greeting,
and left me wondering out of what rich kind of scene they had
stepped to bless me. It left me feeling as though there were some
beautiful life, very near me, all around me, behind the mirror,
outside of the door, beyond the garden-hedges, if I could but learn
the spell which would open it to me; left me pleasantly and happily
athirst for a life of gracious influences and of an unknown and
perfect peace; such as creeps over the mind for the moment at the
sight of a deep woodland at sunset, when the forest is veiled in
the softest of blue mist; or at the sound of some creeping sea,
beating softly all night on a level sand; or at the prospect of a
winter sun going down into smoky orange vapours over a wide expanse
of pastoral country; or at the soft close of some solemn music--
when peace seems not only desirable beyond all things but
attainable too.

How can one account for this sudden and joyful visitation? I am
going to try and set down what I believe to be the explanation, if
I can reduce to words a thought which is perfectly clear to me,
however transcendental it may seem.

Well, at such a moment as this, one feels just as one may feel when
from the streets of a dark and crowded city, with the cold shadow
of a cloud passing over it, one sees the green head of a mountain
over the housetops, all alone with the wind and the sun, with its
crag-bastions, its terraces and winding turf ways.

The peace that thus blesses one is not, I think, a merely
subjective mood, an imagined thing. It is, I believe, a real and
actual thing which is there. One's consciousness does not create
its impressions, one does not make for oneself the moral and
artistic ideas that visit one; one perceives them. Education is not
a process of invention--it is a process of discovery; a process of
learning the names given to things that are all present in one's
own mind. One knows things long before one knows the names for
them, by instinct and by intuition; and one's own mind is simply a
part of a large and immortal life, which for a time is fenced by a
little barrier of identity, just as a tiny pool of sea-water on a
sea-beach is for a few hours separated from the great tide to which
it belongs. All our regrets, remorses, anxieties, troubles arise
from our not realising that we are but a part of this greater and
wider life, from our delusion that we are alone and apart instead
of, as is the case, one with the great ocean of life and joy.

Sometimes, I know not why and how, we are for a moment or two in
touch with the larger life--to some it comes in religion, to some
in love, to some in art. Perhaps a wave of the onward sweeping tide
beats for an instant into the little pool we call our own, stirring
the fringing weed, bubbling sharply and freshly upon the sleeping
sand,

The sad mistake we make is, when such a moment comes, to feel as
though it were only the stirring of our own feeble imagination.
What we ought rather to do is by every effort we can make to
welcome and comprehend this dawning of the larger life upon us; not
to sink back peevishly into our own limits and timidly to deplore
them, but resolutely to open the door again and again--for the door
can be opened--to the light of the great sun that lies so broadly
about us. Every now and then we have some startling experience
which reveals to us our essential union with other individuals. We
have many of us had experiences which seem to indicate that there
is at times a direct communication with other minds, independent of
speech or writing; and even if we have not had such experiences, it
has been scientifically demonstrated that such things can occur.
Telepathy, as it is clumsily called, which is nothing more than
this direct communication of mind, is a thing which has been
demonstrated in a way which no reasonable person can reject. We may
call it abnormal if we like, and it is true that we do not as yet
know under what conditions it exists; but it is as much there as
electrical communication, and just as the electrician does not
create the viewless ripples which his delicate instruments can
catch and record, but merely makes it a matter of mechanics to
detect them, so the ripple of human intercommunication is
undoubtedly there; and when we have discovered what its laws are,
we shall probably find that it underlies many things, such as
enthusiasms, movements, the spirit of a community, patriotism,
martial ardour, which now appear to us to be isolated and
mysterious phenomena.

But there is a larger thing than even that behind. In humanity we
have merely a certain portion of this large life, which may spread
for all we know beyond the visible universe, globed and bounded,
like the spray of a fountain, into little separate individualities.
Some of the urgent inexplicable emotions which visit us from time
to time, immense, far-reaching, mysterious, are, I believe with all
my heart, the pulsations of this vast life outside us, stirring for
an instant the silence of our sleeping spirit. It is possible, I
cannot help feeling, that those people live the best of all
possible lives who devote themselves to receiving these pulsations.
It may well be that in following anxiously the movement of the
world, in giving ourselves to politics or business, or technical
religion, or material cares, we are but delaying the day of our
freedom by throwing ourselves intently into our limitations, and
forgetting the wider life. It may be that the life which Christ
seems to have suggested as the type of Christian life--the life of
constant prayer, simple and kindly relations, indifference to
worldly conditions, absence of ambitions, fearlessness, sincerity--
may be the life in which we can best draw near to the larger
spirit--for Christ spoke as one who knew some prodigious secret, as
one in whose soul the larger life leapt and plunged like fresh sea-
billows; who was incapable of sin and even of temptation, because
His soul had free and open contact with the all-pervading spirit,
and to whom the human limitations were no barrier at all.

We do not know as yet the mechanical means, so to speak, by which
the connection can be established, the door set wide. But we can at
least open our soul to every breathing of divine influences; and
when the great wind rises and thunders in our spirits, we can see
that no claim of business, or weakness, or comfort, or convention
shall hinder us from admitting it.

And thus when one of these sweet, high, uplifting thoughts draws
near and visits us, we can but say, as the child Samuel said in the
dim-lit temple, "Speak, Lord, for Thy servant heareth." The music
comes upon the air, in faint and tremulous gusts; it dies away
across the garden, over the far hill-side, into the cloudless sky;
but we have heard; we are not the same; we are transfigured.

Why then, lastly, it may be asked, do these experiences befall us
so faintly, so secretly, so seldom; if it is the true life that
beats so urgently into our souls, why are we often so careful and
disquieted, why do we fare such long spaces without the heavenly
vision, why do we see, or seem to see, so many of our fellows to
whom such things come rarely or not at all? I cannot answer that;
yet I feel that the life is there; and I can but fall back upon the
gentle words of the old saint, who wrote: "I know not how it is,
but the more the realities of heaven are clothed with obscurity,
the more they delight and attract; and nothing so much heightens
longing as such tender refusal."

XVIII

THE LOVE OF GOD

How strange it is that what is often the latest reward of the
toiler after holiness, the extreme solace of the outwearied saint,
should be too often made the first irksome article of a childish
creed! To tell a child that it is a duty to love God better than
father or mother, sisters and brothers, better than play, or
stories, or food, or toys, what a monstrous thing is that! It is
one of the things that make religion into a dreary and darkling
shadow, that haunts the path of the innocent. The child's love is
all for tangible, audible, and visible things. Love for him means
kind words and smiling looks, ready comfort and lavished kisses;
the child does not even love things for being beautiful, but for
being what they ARE--curious, characteristic, interesting. He loves
the odd frowsy smell of the shut-up attic, the bright ugly
ornaments of the chimney-piece, the dirt of the street. He has no
sense of critical taste. Besides, words mean so little to him, or
even bear quaint, fantastic associations, which no one can divine,
and which he himself is unable to express; he has no notion of an
abstract, essential, spiritual thing, apart from what is actual to
his senses. And then into this little concrete mind, so full of
small definite images, so faltering and frail, is thrust this vast,
remote notion--that he is bound to love something hidden and
terrible, something that looks at him from the blank sky when he is
alone among the garden beds, something which haunts empty rooms and
the dark brake of the woodland. Moreover, a child, with its
preternatural sensitiveness to pain, its bewildered terror of
punishment, learns, side by side with this, that the God Whom he is
to love thus tenderly is the God Who lays about Him so fiercely in
the Old Testament, slaying the innocent with the guilty, merciless,
harsh, inflicting the irreparable stroke of death, where a man
would be concerned with desiring amendment more than vengeance. The
simple questions with which the man Friday poses Robinson Crusoe,
and to which he receives so ponderous an answer, are the questions
which naturally arise in the mind of any thoughtful child. Why, if
God be so kind and loving, does He not make an end of evil at once?
Yet, because such questions are unanswerable by the wisest, the
child is, for the convenience of his education, made to feel that
he is wicked if he questions what he is taught. How many children
will persevere in the innocent scepticism which is so natural and
so desirable, under a sense of disapproval? One of my own earliest
experiences in the ugly path of religious gloom was that I
recognised quite clearly to myself that I did not love God at all.
I did not know Him, I had no reason to think Him kind; He was angry
with me, I gathered, if I was ill-tempered or untruthful. I was
well enough aware by childish instinct that my mother did not cease
to love me when I was naughty, but I could not tell about God. And
yet I knew that, with His terrible power of knowing everything, He
was well aware that I did not love Him. It was best to forget about
Him as much as possible, for it spoiled one's pleasure to think
about it. All the little amusements and idle businesses that were
so dear to me, He probably disapproved of them all, and was only
satisfied when I was safe at my lessons or immured in church.
Sunday was the sort of day He liked, and how I detested it!--the
toys put away, little ugly books about the Holy Land to read, an
air of deep dreariness about it all. Thus does religion become a
weariness from the outset.

How slowly, and after what strange experience, by what infinite
delay of deduction, does the love of God dawn upon the soul! Even
then how faint and subtle an essence it is! In deep anxiety, under
unbearable strain, in the grip of a dilemma of which either issue
seems intolerable, in weariness of life, in hours of flagging
vitality, the mighty tide begins to flow strongly and tranquilly
into the soul. One did not make oneself; one did not make one's
sorrows, even when they arose from one's own weakness and
perversity. There was a meaning, a significance about it all; one
was indeed on pilgrimage; and then comes the running to the
Father's knee, and the casting oneself in utter broken weakness
upon the one Heart that understands perfectly and utterly, and
which does, which must, desire the best and truest. "Give me
courage, hope, confidence," says the desolate soul.

"I can endure Thy bitterest decrees,
If CERTAIN of Thy Love."

How would one amend all this if one had the power? Alas! it could
only be by silencing all stupid and clumsy people, all rigid
parents, all diplomatic priests, all the horrible natures who lick
their lips with a fierce zest over the pains that befall the men
with whom they do not agree. I would teach a child, in defiance
even of reason, that God is the one Power that loves and
understands him through thick and thin; that He punishes with
anguish and sorrow; that He exults in forgiveness and mercy; that
He rejoices in innocent happiness; that He loves courage, and
brightness, and kindness, and cheerful self-sacrifice; that things
mean, and vile, and impure, and cruel, are things that He does not
love to punish, but sad and soiling stains that He beholds with
shame and tears. This, it seems to me, is the Gospel teaching about
God, impossible only because of the hardness of our hearts. But if
it were possible, a child might grow to feel about sin, not that it
was a horrible and unpardonable failure, a thing to afflict oneself
drearily about, but that it was rather a thing which, when once
spurned, however humiliating, could minister to progress, in a way
in which untroubled happiness could not operate--to be forgotten,
perhaps, but certainly to be forgiven; a privilege rather than a
hindrance, a gate rather than a barrier; a shadow upon the path,
out of which one would pass, with such speed as one might, into the
blitheness of the free air and the warm sun. I remember a terrible
lecture which I heard as a little bewildered boy at school, anxious
to do right, terrified of oppression, and coldness, and evil alike;
given by a worthy Evangelical clergyman, with large spectacles, and
a hollow voice, and a great relish for spiritual terrors. The
subject was "the exceeding sinfulness of sin," a proposition which
I now see to be as true as if one lectured on the exceeding
carnality of flesh. But the lecture spoke of the horrible and
filthy corruption of the human heart, its determined delight in
wallowing in evil, its desperate wickedness. I believed it, dully
and hopelessly, as a boy believes what is told him by a voluble
elderly person of obvious respectability. But what a detestable
theory of life, what an ugly picture of Divine incompetence!

Of course there are abundance of facts in the world which look like
anything but love;--the ruthless and merciless punishment of
carelessness and ignorance, the dark laws of heredity, the
wastefulness and cruelty of disease, the dismal acquiescence of
stupid, healthy, virtuous persons, without sympathy or imagination,
in the hardships which they were strong enough to bear unscathed.
One of the prime terrors of religion is the thought of the heavy-
handed, unintelligent, tiresome men who would make it a monopoly if
they could, and bear it triumphantly away from the hands of modest,
humble, quiet, and tender-hearted people, chiding them as nebulous
optimists.

Who are the people in this short life of ours whom one remembers
with deep and abiding gratitude? Not those who have rebuked, and
punished, and satirised, and humiliated us, striking down the
stricken, and flattening the prostrate--but the people who have
been patient with us, and kind, who have believed in us, and
comforted us, and welcomed us, and forgiven us everything; who have
given us largely of their love, who have lent without requiring
payment, who have given us emotional rather than prudential
reasons, who have cared for us, not as a duty but by some divine
instinct, who have made endless excuses for us, believing that the
true self was there and would emerge, who have pardoned our
misdeeds and forgotten our meannesses.

This is what I would believe of God--that He is not our censorious
and severe critic, but our champion and lover, not loving us in
spite of what we are, but because of what we are; Who in the days
of our strength rejoices in our joy, and does not wish to
overshadow it, like the conscientious human mentor, with
considerations that we must yet be withered like grass; and Who,
when the youthful ebullience dies away, and the spring grows weak,
and we wonder why the zest has died out of simple pleasures, out of
agreeable noise and stir, is still with us, reminding us that the
wisdom we are painfully and surely gaining is a deeper and more
lasting quality than even the hot impulses of youth.

Once in my life have I conceived what might have been, if I had had
the skill to paint it, an immortal picture. It was thus. I was
attending a Christmas morning service in a big parish church. I was
in a pew facing east; close to me, in a transept, in a pew facing
sideways, there sat a little old woman, who had hurried in just
before the service began. She was a widow, living, I afterwards
learnt, in an almshouse hard by. She was old and feeble, very poor,
and her life had been a series of calamities, relieved upon a
background of the hardest and humblest drudgery. She had lost her
husband years ago by a painful and terrible illness. She had lost
her children one by one; she was alone in the world, save for a few
distant and indifferent relatives. To get into the almshouse had
been for her a stroke of incredible and inconceivable good fortune.
She had a single room, with a tiny kitchen off it. She had very
little to say for herself; she could hardly read. No one took any
particular interest in her; but she was a kindly, gallant,
unselfish old soul, always ready to bear a hand, full of gratitude
for the kindnesses she had received--and God alone knows how few
they had been.

She had a small, ugly, homely face, withered and gnarled hands; and
she was dressed that day in a little old bonnet of unheard-of age,
and in dingy, frowsy black clothes, shiny and creased, that came
out of their box perhaps half-a-dozen times a year.

But this morning she was in a festal mood. She had tidied up her
little room; she was going to have a bit of meat for dinner, given
her by a neighbour. She had been sent a Christmas card that
morning, and had pored over it with delight. She liked the stir and
company of the church, and the cheerful air of the holly-berries.
She held her book up before her, though I do not suppose she was
even at the right page. She kept up a little faint cracked singing
in her thin old voice; but when they came to the hymn "Hark, the
herald angels sing," which she had always known from childhood, she
lifted up her head and sang more courageously:

"Join the triumph of the skies!
With the angelic host proclaim,
Christ is born in Bethlehem!"

It was then that I had my vision. I do not know why, but at the
sight of the wrinkled face and the sound of the plaintive uplifted
voice, singing such words, a sudden mist of tears came over my
eyes. Then I saw that close behind the old dame there stood a very
young and beautiful man. I could see the fresh curling hair thrown
back from the clear brow. He was clothed in a dim robe, of an
opalescent hue and misty texture, and his hands were clasped
together. It seemed that he sang too; but his eyes were bent upon
the old woman with a look, half of tender amusement, and half of
unutterable lovingness. The angelic host! This was one of that
bright company indeed, going about the Father's business, bringing
a joyful peace into the hearts of those among whom he moved. And of
all the worshippers in that crowded church he had singled out the
humblest and simplest for his friend and sister. I saw no more that
day, for the lines of that presence faded out upon the air in the
gleams of the frosty sunshine that came and went among the pillars.
But if I could have painted the scene, the pure, untroubled face so
close to the old worn features, the robes of light side by side
with the dingy human vesture, it would be a picture that no living
eye that had rested on it should forget.

Alas, that one cannot live in moments of inspiration like these! As
life goes on, and as we begin perhaps to grow a little nearer to
God by faith, we are confronted in our own lives, or in the life of
one very near us, by some intolerable and shameful catastrophe. A
careless sin makes havoc of a life, and shadows a home with shame;
or some generous or unselfish nature, useful, beneficent, urgently
needed, is struck down with a painful and hopeless malady. This
too, we say to ourselves, must come from God; He might have
prevented it if He had so willed. What are we to make of it? How
are we to translate into terms of love what seems like an act of
tyrannous indifference, or deliberate cruelty? Then, I think, it is
well to remind ourselves that we can never know exactly the
conditions of any other human soul. How little we know of our own!
How little we could explain our case to another, even if we were
utterly sincere! The weaknesses of our nature are often, very
tenderly I would believe, hidden from us; we think ourselves
sensitive and weak, when in reality we are armed with a stubborn
breastplate of complacency and pride; or we think ourselves strong,
only because the blows of circumstance have been spared us. The
more one knows of the most afflicted lives, the more often the
conviction flashes across us that the affliction is not a wanton
outrage, but a delicately adjusted treatment. I remember once that
a friend of mine had sent him a rare plant, which was set in a big
flower-pot, close to a fountain-basin. It never throve; it lived
indeed, putting out in the spring a delicate stunted foliage,
though my friend, who was a careful gardener, could never divine
what ailed it. He was away for a few weeks, and the day after he
was gone, the flower-pot was broken by a careless garden-boy, who
wheeled a barrow roughly past it; the plant, earth and all, fell
into the water; the boy removed the broken pieces of the pot, and
seeing that the plant had sunk to the bottom of the little pool,
never troubled his head to fish it out. When my friend returned, he
noticed one day in the fountain a new and luxuriant growth of some
unknown plant. He made careful inquiries and found out what had
happened. It then came out that the plant was in reality a water-
plant, and that it had pined away in the stifling air for want of
nourishment, perhaps dimly longing for the fresh bed of the pool.

Even so has it been, times without number, with some starving and
thirsty soul, that has gone on feebly trying to live a maimed life,
shut up in itself, ailing, feeble. There has descended upon it what
looks at first sight like a calamity, some affliction unaccountable
and irreparable; and then it proves that this was the one thing
needed; that sorrow has brought out some latent unselfishness, or
suffering energised some unused faculty of strength and patience.

But even if it is not so, if we cannot trace in our own lives or
the lives of others the beneficent influence of suffering, we can
always take refuge in one thought. We can see that the one mighty
and transforming power on earth is the power of love; we see people
make sacrifices, not momentary sacrifices, but lifelong patient
renunciations, for the sake of one whom they love; we see a great
and passionate affection touch into being a whole range of
unsuspected powers; we see men and women utterly unconscious of
pain and weariness, utterly unaware that they are acting without a
thought of self, if they can but soothe the pain of one dear to
them, or win a smile from beloved lips; it is not that the
selfishness, the indolence, is not there, but it is all borne away
upon a mighty stream, as the river-wrack spins upon the rising
flood.

If then this marvellous, this amazing power of love can cause men
to make, with joy and gladness, sacrifices of which in their
loveless days they would have deemed themselves and confessed
themselves wholly incapable, can we not feel with confidence that
the power, which lies thus deepest in the heart of the world, lies
also deepest in the heart of God, of Whom the world is but a faint
reflection? It cannot be otherwise. We may sadly ponder, indeed,
why the love that has been, or that might have been, the strength
of weary lives should be withdrawn or sternly withheld, but we need
not be afraid, if we have one generous impulse for another, if we
ever put aside a delight that may please or attract us, for the
sake of one who expects or would value any smallest service--and
there are few who cannot feel this--we need not then, I say, doubt
that the love which we desire, and which we have somehow missed or
lost, is there waiting for us, ours all the time, if we but knew
it.

And even if we miss the sweet influence of love in our lives, is
there any one who has not, in solitude and dreariness, looked back
upon the time when he was surrounded by love and opportunities of
love, in childhood or in youth, with a bitter regret that he did
not make more of it when it was so near to him, that he was so
blind and selfish, that he was not a little more tender, a little
more kind? I will speak frankly for myself and say that the
memories which hurt me most, when I stumble upon them, are those of
the small occasions when I showed myself perverse and hard; when
eyes, long since closed, looked at me with a pathetic expectancy;
when I warded off the loving impulse by some jealous sense of my
own rights, some peevish anger at a fancied injustice; when I
stifled the smile and withheld the hand, and turned away in
silence, glad, in that poisonous moment, to feel that I could at
all events inflict that pain in base requital. One may know that it
is all forgiven, one may be sure that the misunderstanding has
faded in the light of the other dawn, but still the cold base
shadow, the thought of one's perverse cruelty, strikes a gloom upon
the mind.

But with God, when one once begins to draw near to Him, one need
have no such poignant regrets or overshadowing memories; one may
say to Him in one's heart, as simply as a child, that He knows what
one has been and is, what one might have been and what one desires
to be; and one may cast oneself at His feet in the overwhelming
hope that He will make of oneself what He would have one to be.

In the parable of the Prodigal Son, it is not the poor wretch
himself, whose miserable motive for returning is plainly indicated--
that instead of pining in cold and hunger he may be warmed and
clothed--who is the hero of the story; still less is it the hard
and virtuous elder son. The hero of the tale is the patient,
tolerant, loving father, who had acted, as a censorious critic
might say, foolishly and culpably, in supplying the dissolute boy
with resources, and taking him back without a word of just
reproach. A sad lack of moral discipline, no doubt! If he had kept
the boy in fear and godliness, if he had tied him down to honest
work, the disaster need never have happened. Yet the old man, who
went so often at sundown, we may think, to the crest of the hill,
from which he could see the long road winding over the plain to the
far-off city, the road by which he had seen his son depart, light-
heartedly and full of fierce joyful impulses, and along which he
was to see the dejected figure, so familiar, so sadly marred,
stumbling home--he is the master-spirit of the sweet and comforting
scene. His heart is full of utter gladness, for the lost is found.
He smiles upon the servants; he bids the household rejoice; he can
hardly, in his simple joy of heart, believe that the froward elder
brother is vexed and displeased; and his words of entreaty that the
brother, too, will enter into the spirit of the hour, are some of
the most pathetic and beautiful ever framed in human speech: "Son,
thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine; it was meet
that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was
dead, and is alive again, and was lost, and is found."

And this is, after all, the way in which God deals with us. He
gives us our portion to spend as we choose; He holds nothing back;
and when we have wasted it and brought misery upon ourselves, and
return to Him, even for the worst of reasons, He has not a word of
rebuke or caution; He is simply and utterly filled with joy and
love. There are a thousand texts that would discourage us, would
bid us believe that God deals hardly with us, but it is men that
deal hardly with us, it is we that deal hardly with ourselves. This
story, which is surely the most beautiful story in the world, gives
us the deliberate thought of the Saviour, the essence of His
teaching; and we may fling aside the bitter warnings of jealous
minds, and cast ourselves upon the supreme hope that, if only we
will return, we are dealt with even more joyfully than if we had
never wandered at all.

And then perhaps at last, when we have peeped again and again,
through loss and suffering, at the dark background of life; when we
have seen the dreariest corner of the lonely road, where the path
grows steep and miry, and the light is veiled by scudding cloud and
dripping rain, there begins to dawn upon us the sense of a
beautiful and holy patience, the thought that these grey ashes of
life, in which the glowing cinders sink, which once were bright
with leaping flame, are not the end--that the flame and glow are
there, although momently dispersed. They have done their work; one
is warmed and enlivened; one can sit still, feeding one's fancy on
the lapsing embers, just as one saw pictures in the fire as an
eager child long ago. That high-hearted excitement and that
curiosity have faded. Life is very different from what we expected,
more wholesome, more marvellous, more brief, more inconclusive; but
there is an intenser, if quieter and more patient, curiosity to
wait and see what God is doing for us; and the orange stain and
green glow of the sunset, though colder and less jocund, is yet a
far more mysterious, tender, and beautiful thing than the steady
glow of the noonday sun, when the shining flies darted hither and
thither, and the roses sent out their rich fragrance. There is
fragrance still, the fragrance of the evening flowers, where the
western windows look across the misty fields to the thickening
shadows of the tall trees. But there is something that speaks in
the gathering gloom, in the darkening sky with its flush of crimson
fire, that did not speak in the sun-warmed garden and the dancing
leaves; and what speaks is the mysterious love of God, a thing
sweeter and more remote than the urgent bliss of the fiery noon,
full of delicate mysteries and appealing echoes. We have learnt
that the darkness is no darkness with Him; and the soul which beat
her wings so passionately in the brighter light of the hot morning,
now at last begins to dream of whither she is bound, and the dear
shade where she will fold her weary wing.

How often has the soul in her dreariness cried out, "One effort
more!" But that is done with for ever. She is patient now; she
believes at last; she labours no longer at the oar, but she is
borne upon the moving tide; she is on her way to the deep Heart of
God.

EPILOGUE

I have wandered far enough in my thought, it would seem, from the
lonely grange in its wide pastures, and the calm expanse of fen;
and I should wish once more to bring my reader back home with me to
the sheltered garden, and the orchard knee-deep in grass, and the
embowering elms; for there is one word more to be said, and that
may be best said at home; though our experience is not limited by
time or place. It was on the lonely ridge, strewn with boulders and
swept by night-winds, when the darkness closed in drearily about
him, that Jacob, a homeless exile, in the hour of his utmost
desolation, saw the ladder whose golden head was set at the very
foot of God, thronged with bright messengers of strength and hope.
And again it was in the familiar homestead, with every corner rich
in gentle memories, that the spirit of terror turned the bitter
stream of anguish, as from the vent of some thunderous cloud, upon
the sad head of Job. We may turn a corner in life, and be
confronted perhaps with an uncertain shape of grief and despair,
whom we would fain banish from our shuddering sight, perhaps with
some solemn form of heavenly radiance, whom we may feel reluctant
in our unworthiness to entertain. But in either case, such times as
those, when we wrestle all night with the angel, not knowing if he
wishes us well or ill, ignorant of his name and his mien alike, are
better than hours spent in indolent contentment, in the realisation
of our placid and petty designs. For, after all, it is the quality
rather than the quantity of our experience that matters; it is easy
enough to recognise that, when we are working light-heartedly and
eagerly at some brave design, and seeing the seed we plant
springing up all about us in fertile rows in the garden of God. But
what of those days when our lot seems only to endure, when we can
neither scheme nor execute, when the old volubility and vitality
desert us, and our one care is just to make our dreary presence as
little of a burden and a shadow as possible to those whom we love?
We must then remind ourselves, not once or twice, that nothing can
separate us from the Father of all, even though our own wilfulness
and perversity may have drawn about us a cloud of sorrow. We are
perhaps most in God's mind when we seem most withdrawn from Him. He
is nearer us when we seek for Him and cannot find Him, than when we
forget Him in laughter and self-pleasing. And we must remember too
that it is neither faithful nor fruitful to abide wilfully in
sadness, to clasp our cares close, to luxuriate in them. There is a
beautiful story of Mrs. Charles Kingsley, who long survived her
husband. Never perhaps had two souls been united by so close a bond
of chivalry and devotion. "Whenever I find myself thinking too much
about Charles," she said in the days of her grief, "I find and read
the most sensational novel I can. People may think it heartless,
but hearts were given us to love with, not to break." And we must
deal with our sorrows as we deal with any other gift of God,
courageously and temperately, not faint-heartedly or wilfully; not
otherwise can they be blest to us. We must not pettishly reject
consolation and distraction. Pain is a great angel, but we must
wrestle with him, until he bless us! and the blessings he can bring
us are first a wholesome shame at our old selfish ingratitude in
the untroubled days, when we took care and pleasure greedily; and
next, if we meet him faithfully, he can make our heart go out to
all our brothers and sisters who suffer in this brief and troubled
life of ours. For we are here to learn something, if we can but
spell it out; and thus it is morbid to indulge regrets and remorse
too much over our failures and mistakes; for it is through them
that we learn. We must be as brave as we can, and dare to grudge no
pang that brings us nearer to the reality of things.

Reality! that is the secret; for we who live in dreams, who pursue
beauty, who are haunted as by a passion for that sweet quality that
thrills alike in the wayside flower and the orange pomp of the
setting sun, that throbs in written word and uttered melody, that
calls to us suddenly and secretly in the glance of an eye and the
gesture of a hand,--we, I say, who discern these gracious motions,
tend to live in them too luxuriously, to idealise life, to make out
of our daily pilgrimage, our goings and comings, a golden
untroubled picture; it need not be a false or a base effort to
escape from what is sordid or distasteful; but for all that we run
a sore risk in yielding too placidly to our visions; and as with
the Lady of Shalott, it may be well for us if our woven web be rent
aside, and our magic mirror broken; nay, even if death comes to us
at the close of the mournful song. Thus then we draw near and look
reluctant and dismayed into the bare truth of things. We see, it
may be, our poor pretences tossed aside, and the embroidered robe
in which we have striven to drape our leanness torn from us; but we
must gaze as steadily as we can, and pray that the vision be not
withdrawn till it has wrought its perfect work within us; and then,
with energies renewed, we may set out again on pilgrimage, happy in
this, that we no longer mistake the arbour of refreshment for the
goal of our journey, or the quiet house of welcome, that receives
us in the hour of weariness, for the heavenly city, with all its
bright mansions and radiant palaces.

It is experience that matters, as I have said; not what we do, but
how we do it. The material things that we collect about us in our
passage through life, that we cling to so pathetically, and into
which something of our very selves seems to pass, these things are
little else than snares and hindrances to our progress--like the
clay that sticks to the feet of the traveller, like the burden of
useless things that he carries painfully with him, things which he
cannot bring himself to throw away because they might possibly turn
out to be useful, and which meanwhile clank and clatter fruitlessly
about the laden beast, and weigh him down. What we have rather to
do is to disengage ourselves from these things: from the money
which we do not need, but which may help us some day; from the
luxuries we do not enjoy; from the furniture we trail about with us
from home to home. All those things get a hold of us and tie us to
earth, even when the associations with them are dear and tender
enough. The mistake we make is not in loving them--they are or can
be signs to us of the love and care of God--but we must refrain
from loving the possession of them.

Take, for instance, one of the least mundane of things, the
knowledge we painfully acquire, and the possession of which breeds

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