Joyous Gard by Arthur Christopher Benson


I used as a child to pore over the Apocalypse, which I thought by far the most beautiful and absorbing of all the books of the Bible; it seemed full of rich and dim pictures, things which I could not interpret and did not wish to interpret, the shining of clear gem-like walls, lonely riders, amazing monsters, sealed books, all of which took perfectly definite shape in the childish imagination. The consequence is that I can no more criticise it than I could criticise old tapestries or pictures familiar from infancy. They are there, just so, and any difference of form is inconceivable.

In one point, however, the strange visions have come to hold for me an increased grandeur; I used to think of much of it as a sort of dramatic performance, self-consciously enacted for the benefit of the spectator; but now I think of it as an awful and spontaneous energy of spiritual life going on, of which the prophet was enabled to catch a glimpse. Those ‘voices crying day and night’ ‘the new song that was sung before the throne,’ the cry of “Come and see-these were but part of a vast and urgent business, which theprophet was allowed to overhear. It is not a silent place, that highest heaven, of indolence and placid peace, but a scene of fierce activity and the clamour of mighty voices.

And it is the same too of another strange scene-the Transfiguration; not an impressive spectacle arranged for the apostles, but a peep into the awful background behind life. Let me use a simple parable: imagine a man who had a friend whom he greatly admired and loved, and suppose him to be talking with his friend, who suddenly excuses himself on the plea of an engagement and goes out; and the other follows him, out of curiosity, and sees him meet another man and talk intently with him, not deferentially or humbly, but as a man talks with an equal. And then drawing nearer he might suddenly see that the man his friend has gone out to meet, and with whom he is talking so intently, is some high minister of State, or even the King himself!

That is a simple comparison, to make clear what the apostles might have felt. They had gone into the mountain expecting to hear their Master speak quietly to them or betake himself to silent prayer; and then they find him robed in light and holding converse with the spirits of the air, telling his plans, so to speak, to two great prophets of the ancient world.

If this had been but a pageant enacted for their benefit to dazzle and bewilder them, it would have been a poor and self-conscious affair; but it becomes a scene of portentous mystery, if one thinks of them as being permitted to have a glimpse of the high, urgent, and terrifying things that were going on all the time in the unseen background of the Saviour’s mind. The essence of the greatness of the scene is that it was overheard. And thus I think that wonder and beauty, those two mighty forces, take on a very different value for us when we can come to realise that they are small hints given us, tiny glimpses conceded to us, of some very great and mysterious thing that is pressingly and speedily proceeding, every day and every hour, in the vast background of life; and we ought to realise that it is not only human life as we see it which is the active, busy, forceful thing; that the world with all its noisy cities, its movements and its bustle, is not a burning point hung in darkness and silence, but that it is just a little fretful affair with infinitely larger, louder, fiercer, stronger powers, working, moving, pressing onwards, thundering in the background; and that the huge forces, laws, activities, behind the world, are not perceived by us any more than we perceive the vast motion of great winds, except in so far as we see the face of the waters rippled by them, or the trees bowed all one way in their passage.

It is very easy to be so taken up with the little absorbing businesses, the froth and ripple of life, that we forget what great and secret influences they must be that cause them; we must not forget that we are only like children playing in the nursery of a palace, while in the Council-room beneath us a debate may be going on which is to affect the lives and happiness of thousands of households.

And therefore the more that we make up our little beliefs and ideas, as a man folds up a little packet of food which he is to eat on a journey, and think in so doing that we have got a satisfactory explanation of all our aims and problems, the more utterly we are failing to take in the significance of what is happening. We must never allow ourselves to make up our minds, and to get our theories comfortably settled, because then experience is at an end for us, and we shall see no more than we expect to see. We ought rather to be amazed and astonished, day by day, at all the wonderful and beautiful things we encounter, the marvellous hints of loveliness which we see in faces, woods, hills, gardens, all showing some tremendous force at work, often thwarted, often spoiled, but still working, with an infinity of tender patience, to make the world exquisite and fine. There are ugly, coarse, disgusting things at work too-we cannot help seeing that; but even many of them seem to be destroying, in corruption and evil odour, something that ought not to be there, and striving to be clean and pure again.

I often wonder whose was the mind that conceived the visions of the Apocalypse; if we can trust tradition, it was a confined and exiled Christian in a lonely island, whose spirit reached out beyond the little crags and the beating seas of his prison, and in the seeming silent heaven detected the gathering of monsters, the war of relentless forces-and beyond it all the radiant energies of saints, glad to be together and unanimous, in a place where light and beauty at last could reign triumphant.

I know no literature more ineffably dreary than the parcelling out of these wild and glorious visions, the attaching of them to this and that petty human fulfilment. That is not the secret of the Apocalypse! It is rather as a painter may draw a picture of two lovers sitting together at evening in a latticed chamber, holding each other’s hands, gazing in each other’s eyes. He is not thinking of particular persons in an actual house; it is rather a hint of love making itself manifest, recognising itself to be met with an answering rapture. And what I think that the prophet meant was rather to show that we must not be deceived by cares and anxieties and daily business; but that behind the little simmering of the world was a tumult of vast forces, voices crying and answering, thunder, fire, infinite music. It is all a command to recognise unseen greatness, to take every least experience we can, and crush from it all its savour; not to be afraid of the great emotions of the world, love and sorrow and loss; but only to be afraid of what is petty and sordid and mean. And then perhaps, as in that other vision, we may ascend once into a mountain, and there in weariness and drowsiness, dumbly bewildered by the night and the cold and the discomforts of the unkindly air, life may be for a moment transfigured into a radiant figure, still familiar though so glorified; and we may see it for once touch hands and exchange words with old and wise spirits; and all this not only to excite us and bewilder us, but so that by the drawing of the veil aside, we may see for a moment that there is some high and splendid secret, some celestial business proceeding with solemn patience and strange momentousness, a rite which if we cannot share, we may at least know is there, and waiting for us, the moment that we are strong enough to take our part!

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