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At Large
by Arthur Christopher Benson
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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striven to drape our leanness torn from us; but we must gaze as steadily as we can, and pray that the vision be not withdrawn till it has wrought its perfect work within us; and then, with energies renewed, we may set out again on pilgrimage, happy in this, that we no longer mistake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 in us such lively satisfaction. If it is our duty to acquire knowledge and to impart it, we must acquire it; but it is the faithfulness with which we toil, not the accumulations we gain that are blessed to us—"knowledge comes but wisdom lingers," says the poet—and it is the heavenly wisdom of which we ought to be in search; for what remains to us of our equipment, when we part from the world and migrate elsewhere, is not the actual stuff that we have collected, whether it be knowledge or money, but the patience, the diligence, the care which we have exercised in gaining these things, the character, as affected by the work we have done; but our mistake is to feel that we are idle and futile, unless we have tangible results to show; when perhaps the hours in which we sat idle, out of misery or mere feebleness, are the most fruitful hours of all for the growth of the soul.

The great savant dies. What is lost? Not a single fact or a single truth, but only his apprehension, his collection of certain truths; not a single law of nature perishes or is altered thereby. We measure worth by prominence and fame; but the destiny of the simplest and vilest of the human race is as august, as momentous as the destiny of the mightiest king or conqueror; it is not our admiration of each other that weighs with God, but our nearness to, our dependence on Him. Yet, even so, we must not deceive ourselves in the matter. We must be sure that it is the peace of God that we indeed desire, and not merely a refined kind of leisure; that we are in search of simplicity, and not merely afraid of work. We must not glorify a mild spectatorial pleasure by the name of philosophy, or excuse our indolence under the name of contemplation. We must abstain deliberately, not tamely hang back; we must desire the Kingdom of Heaven for itself, and not for the sake of the things that are added if we seek it. If the Scribes and Pharisees have their reward for ambition and self-seeking, the craven soul has its reward too, and that reward is a sick emptiness of spirit. And then if we have erred thus, if we have striven to pretend to ourselves that we were careless of the prize, when in reality we only feared the battle, what can we do? How can we repair our mistake? There is but one way; we can own the pitiful fault, and not attempt to glorify it; we can face the experience, take our petty and shameful wages and cast ourselves afresh, in our humiliation and weakness, upon God, rejoicing that we can at least feel the shame, and enduring the chastisement with patient hopefulness; for that very suffering is a sign that God has not left us to ourselves, but is giving us perforce the purification which we could not take to ourselves.

And even thus, life is not all an agony, a battle, an endurance; there are sweet hours of refreshment and tranquillity between the twilight and the dawn; hours when we can rest a little in the shadow, and see the brimming stream of life flowing quietly but surely to its appointed end. I watched to-day an old shepherd, on a wide field, moving his wattled hurdles, one by one, in the slow, golden afternoon; and a whole burden of anxious thoughts fell off me for a while, leaving me full of a quiet hope for an end which was not yet, but that certainly awaited me; of a day when I too might perhaps move as unreflectingly, as calmly, in harmony with the everlasting Will, as the old man moved about his familiar task. Why that harmony should be so blurred and broken, why we should leave undone the things that we desire to do, and do the things that we do not desire, that is still a deep and sad mystery; yet even in the hour of our utmost wilfulness, we can never wander beyond the range of the Will that has made us, and bidden us to be what we are. And thus as I sit in this low-lit hour, there steals upon the heart the message of hope and healing; the scent of the great syringa bush leaning out into the twilight, the sound of the fitful breeze laying here and there a caressing hand upon the leaves, the soft radiance of the evening star hung in the green spaces of the western sky, each and all blending into incommunicable dreams.

THE END

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