I have met a Christian, and now I must tell you about him; for you are always the touchstone.
He was no typical Christian, nor yet one of outstanding saintliness. He was his unique self, but also a Christian, and to me, arresting.
Sitting in the cathedral, I thought how strange that stone should live and praise, while in ourselves faith lies dead. The columns stand so confidently, joined in their upstretched hands like dancers waiting for the music. They have waited for centuries.
Today, more formidable columns, sudden, fungoid, springing from land and sea, threaten all of us.
In the cathedral choir, masons were repairing war damage. I heard metal strike the stone. The windows were pallid, for the warm glass had all been treasured away. Near me in the knave, two spinsters with guidebooks devoured information. A youth in shorts, a peroxide girl, a bunch of trippers, stared vacantly; sheep lost in a desert. Yet a cathedral is a sheepfold. Or so it was intended.
Presently vergers were shepherding out the sight-seers; for a service was due, and a mild bell tolling. I retreated. But as I was nearing the door, the Christian touched me, and said, "You looked unhappy. Perhaps I might help." My resentment was quietened by his face, where peace was imposed on some still restless grief; a face carved heavily, the eyes, dark holes, dark gleaming wells; the nose a buttress; the mouth, mettlesome but curbed.
I said, "If I was unhappy, it was for the world, not for myself." He answered, "The world is indeed unbearable; unless we are given strength. Darkness is everywhere; but there is a light to lighten it." Brutally I said (for you were not with me to temper me), "You want to add me to your converts, but my scalp is not for your belt." His hand reached toward me but withdrew. He turned to leave me. Ashamed, I said, "Oh, forgive me! Please come with me and tell me about your light."
But even as I spoke, there flashed on me a memory. I was a freshman returning to Oxford by train, reading in my corner. A godly woman opposite me laid a hand on my knee. "Are you saved?" she said. Startled and crimson, I answered, "No! At least I don't think so. But I don't think I want to be. Thank you all the same." With knit brows, I stared at my book, incapable of reading.
And now, half a lifetime later, here was I asking this other Christian to tell me about his light. We emerged from the cathedral into the sunshine and the town's roar. Beyond the lawns of the close, how the shops, banks, hotels impended! As though a lava flood had been by miracle congealed to save God's house,
We paced, and neither spoke.
Presently, he said, sighing, "I was obtuse. Why am I still so often insensitive? I was spiritually arrogant." Again he fell silent, so I said, "That is the danger of the light; a little of it goes to the head, and makes one spiritually arrogant." "Yes," he answered, "but it was not for myself I was proud; it was for the light. In myself, I am only a little lens to catch a sunbeam and focus it." Smiling, I interrupted, "What is spiritual arrogance ever but pride of the lens in its office?" At once he answered, "And intellectual arrogance is pride of the knife in its blind dissecting ."
Again we walked silently. Then he said, "Watching you in the cathedral, I saw in your face what I had recently laid bare in my own heart, the unacknowledged, the quite unconscious, hunger for salvation. And at once I knew that I must speak to you. To have kept silent would have been a betrayal of the very thing that had recently given me-blessedness."
The word jarred on me. I found myself saying inwardly, and how foolishly, "Oh God, please save me from being saved!" But immediately I was drawn toward the Christian, for he said, "Why, why can't I say these things without spoiling them, without making them sound pompous?"
He told me that by profession he was an engineer; that he had spent the years of the war far away in the East without his "dear wife"; that he had returned to find her a stranger, loving another, yet still dutiful to him, and anxiously willing to be at one with him again. So he set about to rewin her, and she to rediscover him. But it was useless. Rooted together, they had grown apart. Her torn tendrils, though reaching for him, bled for the other. So in the end, to free her, he had left her. For he loved her, so he told himself, far more than he craved her.
But when he had wrenched himself from her, his bared roots dried, his leaves withered.
He described himself as one of those lonely souls who, exiled from Europe, had maintained contact with the European spirit by reading. He mentioned Shakespeare, Dickens, Hardy, but few more modern. He claimed, however, also to be "well read in modern thought." He knew his Wells, his Shaw, his Freud, his Russell. Even Karl Marx he had read out there among the temples and the rice fields. These great writers, he said, had opened his eyes to the world. But now, this desolate homecoming was a new and a disintegrating experience. It fitted nowhere. Those modern prophets, he declared, could not help him; since for all their clever analysis they were spiritually imperceiving (so he phrased it). They could not see, and he himself till now had never seen, that if love fails life is worthless; and if love is not God (so he put it) all existence is pointless.
Formerly, though not unaware of evil, he had never looked squarely at it. There had been no need. Yet he had seen men beaten to death, and women mutilated, and he had responded with the required indignation. He knew also that savagery might conquer the whole planet. (Those lethal fungi that had sprouted once might sprout again.) All this he knew, but only as though from a book; or as a bad dream remembered in daytime. For him, evil had remained a thing unreal, in the end to be abolished from the planet. "I had two anchors," he said, "my love, and my faith in man's triumphant future. So long as these held, evil could only sadden, not shatter me."
But now, the anchor of his love had failed, and under the added strain, the other too had parted. "Evil at last," he said, "had its claws in my own heart. And through my own desolation I realized at last the evil of the universe."
He was silent. And I felt a frost creep in on me. For you and I, we too are held by that anchor. And if it should fail? Though our very differences enrich us, toughening our union, how can we know that some secret poison in one or the other cannot ruin us?
When the Christian had finished, I murmured vaguely of sympathy, but he sharply checked me. "Do not pity me," he said. "Rather envy; for it was only through suffering that my tight-shut eyes could be opened for salvation." In his voice I seemed to hear exaltation uneasily triumph over misery. "But God," he said, "had not yet scourged me enough. I was not yet ready to be saved."
He continued his story. He had a sister, a "beloved sister," and to her he had always turned in any distress. He praised her to me as "the soul of good- ness." (Perhaps, like you, she was one of those who live most fully in giving life to others.) In his present misery he ran to her for comfort. But strangely, though she responded with the old young-motherly words of compassion, she remained withdrawn. The hand that she reached out to save him was now intangible, a mere phantom, always duly proffered, never to be grasped. Perplexed and sore, he drifted from her.
Presently this self-pitying brother learned that the sister was ill and in great suffering. Hurrying to her, he found that a secret pain had been too long ignored. And now, too late, the scalpel ferreted again and again through her body. The added torment was useless. Each time he visited her, the bars of her prison had moved in closer on that trapped, that ever outward-living and still life-hungry spirit. "How I dreaded," he said, "those eyes, that probed through mine for comfort!" For he, bitter from his life's failure and the new-felt evil of the universe, could give only phantom comforts, through which "those eyes" easily pierced to the inner desolation.
The frequent tides of her pain, he said, rose daily higher. They lapped her tethered body with corrosive waves, eating away little by little her humanity, till she was a mere wreck of whimpering nerves. His compassion tormented him, so that at last he implored the doctors to hasten her final sleep. But they refused, since the treatment, they affirmed, might still conquer. To the brother it seemed that they cared only for the interest of playing their losing game expertly to the end. This suspected ruthlessness was for him an added horror, a symbol of that coldly evil will which ruled (so he now believed) the whole universe.
All the while that the Christian had been telling me of these bitter experiences, we had been walking together in the sunny close. Small white clouds were cherubs smiling down on us. Children were playing on the grass. In a quiet corner a cat toyed with a half-killed sparrow; until a girl rushed at it, and it fled with its prey.
But now the Christian gripped my arm and halted both of us. He said, "When my marriage broke, I felt merely that all existence was pointless; but now, far worse, I believed that the point, the meaning of it all, was simply evil. Of course there was good, but only to deepen the evil. There was love, to make cruelty more subtle." Still holding my arm, he said with bared teeth, "For consider! Think of all the evil of the world! Two thousand million of us, and all of us foully sick in a sick world." His hand fell from my arm, and again we walked. He spoke of the great host of bedridden sufferers, each in endless captivity; and of those whose prison is penury; and the rest of us, each with some unique private misery, unimaginable to any other. But mostly he dwelt on the starkly evil will that secretly rules so many of us, driving us constantly to hurt what is tender and befoul what is fair. And God's will too now seemed to him evil.
I felt that I ought to have been overwhelmed by all this sum of horror that he had correctly enumerated. But strangely I was divided between pity and aloofness. Out of the corner of my eye, I placidly, frivolously, watched the life of the close: a youth with an unlit cigarette considering whom he should ask for a light; a mother trying to wipe the nose of an unruly child; an old man on a seat enjoying the legs of the passing girls.
The Christian said, "Coming away from my sister’s death I walked the streets with nerves raw to all their horror. A dog crushed on the tarmac, an ignored beggar, a woman with a face of painted lead and eyes where (the harsh phrase jarred) "a festering soul was already stinking." These sights, he said, undermined his foundations. No future millennium could make such things never to have been. Eternity itself must stink with that soul's corruption. But he reminded himself that corruption was actually no worse and no better than saintliness.
One day, as the embittered engineer was passing the cathedral, he conceived a resentful whim. He would insult the Power that masqueraded as Love. He strode in. The place was quiet. Sitting in the nave, he lounged and maintained a careful sneer, planning some bold free outrage. But the place was quiet and the few people ignored him. Presently he was absently studying the structure of column and vaulting; till defiance left him. Strange, he thought, how those old builders transformed efficient engineering with limited materials into high art! Soon he was marvelling, as I had marvelled, that stone should live and praise while in our hearts faith lies dead.
He considered those builders and their faith; and the long succession of robed ecclesiastics, vessels of an aged, a mellow and a potent wine. He considered the hosts of believers who had formerly thronged where now he sat alone; the ploughmen and house- wives, the burghers and gentry. All were believers, however erring their conduct. All were participators in the communal delusion (as it then seemed to him) of love's divinity. In those past days, he supposed, the clouded minds of men were still warmly though vaguely irradiated by the already remote event that had blazed on the Cross. Sitting in that silent place, he tried, not out of reverence but through sheer curiosity and self-pitying resentment, to hear and if possible feel the far-off chanting of those worshippers. With quickened imagination he probed back still farther through the centuries to scrutinize objectively the reputed event itself. That individual, Jesus, if indeed he existed and was not merely a myth, must have been a man of singular sensitivity and intelligence; for he, before all others, clearly conceived (so we are told) that love is for all of us the way of life. And from this perception the remarkable Jew passed on to the conviction that love must be God. Living in an age before reason could expose the fallacy (for so it still seemed to this destined Christian), Christ easily persuaded himself that in the high experience of life he had indeed come face to face with God. And this exquisite delusion so kindled him that he was able to live his whole life as a shining, a dazzling example and symbol of love. And so, in the strength of his delusion, he became the star of a new faith.
So it seemed to this engineer, brooding in the bombed cathedral. But he reminded himself that the crucified prophet, in his last moments, had cried that his God had forsaken him. Those eyes, appealing to heaven, saw only the void.
Once more the Christian seized my arm and brought us face to face. He said, "But now, in that dark night of my despair, light began to dawn on me. I began to see that Christ alone gave meaning to this bleak, meaningless world."
He released my arm, and once more we paced the close. I noticed (but he paid no attention) that the sky was now all sombre, and on the flagstones of our pathway a few large drops had fallen. Nursemaids were already encasing their struggling or patient charges in mackintoshes. A small boy, uncooperative, put out his tongue at heaven, in defiance or merely to catch raindrops.
Self-concerned, the Christian recounted the stages of his conversion. At last he was impelled to consider more and more earnestly the actual character of that remote and singular individual. But he could form no clear picture, so ignorant was he. He conceived only a passionately generous young man, intelligent, yet also in a way simple and even naive, preaching the life of love to a world incapable of it; till the world destroyed him. Yes, but that singular individual had indeed given men a vision of what they might be, if by miracle they could be raised a little beyond their brutishness. In his own person he had indeed shown them the life of love; shown them the divine spirit, the one thing worshipful.
I had been nodding approval. For how well we know, you and I, that in some deep way love is indeed divine; and that one and all we are vessels for that spirit.
But he went farther. Seizing my arm again, he said, "At this point the miracle happened. Without any aid from my intelligence or even my imagination, that unique person, Jesus, became an objective presence in my mind; and I saw that, though human, he was indeed God, the very God who is Love."
I moved impatiently, and the grip on my arm tightened. He continued speaking, and I listening. I began to feel that his conviction had hypnotic power. Once more, half in fantasy, half in earnestness, I prayed inwardly, "Oh God, save me from this salvation!" What was it that was happening to me?
"Do not," the Christian said, "tell me that this overwhelming vision of mine was the outcome in my mind merely of long-forgotten Christian teaching administered to me in childhood; or that it sprang from my own unconscious, figuring out for my guidance an ideal of life." He paused, searching my eyes; then continued, "I have myself considered that hypothesis, but it is not true to my actual experience. What could childhood, or my childish unconscious, give me like this shattering and remaking and entirely adult perception of the divine person?"
He released me, and again we walked. He did not notice that the rain was now tapping on our heads and shoulders, and rustling in the trees; so I steered him to shelter in the arched doorway. There we stood, between two small stone angels that prayed with joined hands and up-gazing eyes. From within, the chanting wanly sounded.
His talk had not ceased. It seemed to him, he said, that the actual life of that perfect human being unfolded before him in detail. With strange vivid- ness, as though he had seen what he described, this transmuted engineer, this newborn Christian, told me how the actual life of Christ had confronted him. He believed (remember) or at least he thought he believed, that he had actually experienced the presence of the divine lover. No wonder his words had power; and even while I rebelled, I, too, almost believed that the man Jesus must indeed have been more than man.
The engineer said that he had watched all the phases of Christ's life. First the warm-hearted and resolute child, genial with playmates; but when they tormented a crippled sparrow, and would not listen to his pleading, he would furiously rout them. Then the boy on the Temple steps, confounding with sheer sincerity of feeling and fresh intelligence all the subtleties of the elders. The young man, gay companion and unfailing friend, who lived each moment fully yet without enslavement to it; for an inner voice constantly judged it, an inner light ruthlessly illuminated it; the voice and the light of his own waking divinity. Then the young man, already old in wisdom, freed of all self-concern, self-disciplined through and through to the spirit, scornfully rejecting Satan's lure of power, intent wholly on doing what God willed of him. Then the perfected man, discovering God within himself, waking fully to his own Godhead, and his self-chosen mission. Then his few years of lucid conduct and teaching, his friendliness for all outcast persons, his fierce challenge to all heartlessness. And then his death, agonized less by bodily pain than by pity for man's blind self-wounding harshness.
While the Christian was watching Christ's life unfold (like an opening flower, he said) the adult spirit of that perfect man was constantly and overwhelmingly present to him; inwardly yet objectively, as the beloved may be present to the lover in absence.
The Christian's account of his master's life had deeply moved me. Looking back, I cannot understand why I should have been so stirred; but it did at the time seem to me that a lovely and overmastering presence confronted me through the window of the Christian's words. While an inner voice quietly warned me, another voice called me. I felt myself tottering on the brink of the Christian salvation. Yet I knew quite clearly that if I took that plunge I should be damned; and worse, I should have been false to the light.
As the Christian spoke, I had been absently looking at the features of the stone angel beside me. A forgotten artist had carved them with restraint and power. Whether Christ were God or not God, the spirit that Christ preached was excellently signified in the stone. Presently a little spider strayed across the statue's brow, traversed its eye, wandered down its nose, and from the tip launched itself into space, swaying and gyrating on its thread. It landed at last on the joined hands. Strangely this outrage did not sully the angel's glory; heightened it rather, stressing that this fair messenger was not, after all an actual, a living yet supernatural being, but inanimate stone and a symbol. A symbol of the spirit. Well, and Jesus? Surely his true glory also was not that he was a supernatural being, descended out of heaven, but that he was a human individual (actual or fictitious) whose life, through its unique perfection, had become a symbol reigning in the hearts of men, and strengthening them with the vision of love's divinity.
While I was musing about Christ as symbol, the Christian, with downcast eyes, was telling me how, in the light of that bright presence, and of the virtue of the God-man's conduct here on earth, he came to realize with increasing shame and horror the true condition of his own soul, and the ugliness of his own conduct. "My sister," he said, "whom I thought I loved so deeply, I never loved at all. Indeed, how could I love her, never having really known her, save as a comfort for myself? And when at last she failed me, I was resentful. My wife, too, I never loved. Even when I surrendered her, loving her (so I told myself) more than I craved her, the truth was simply that, with her heart elsewhere, she was useless to me; and so, striking a generous pose, I left her. It was the same with all my self-righteous indignation at the barbarities of war. This too was a mere gesture, its nerve not love but a vulgar tangle of mere squeamishness and pride."
With a rueful smile he looked at me and said, "Pathetic! That we should so deceive ourselves!"
Continuing his story, he reminded me that he had entered the cathedral to commit some outrage; but now, he said, he had sat for a long time paralysed with self-loathing because of his new perception of the spirit which his whole life had violated.
Presently (he said) he found himself kneeling with his face bowed in his hands and tears breaking from his closed eyes. His lips formed the silent words, "Oh God, unmake me, destroy me! I have ruined the soul that you created."
At last, he said, the miracle was completed. Christ took full possession of him. His old self-absorbed self fainted into nothingness (or so he believed) and in its place awoke a new self, wholly directed to God. He knew, of course, that he would sin a thousand times daily, through inveterate frailty; but he knew that he was saved.
Yet in a way, he said, he cared little that he was a saved soul, for he was wholly intent upon the loveliness of the spirit that possessed him. He had in a manner outgrown even the desire for salvation. "Strange," he said, "that, although the unregenerate self violently craves immortality, yet when it is killed and reborn, and assured of fulfillment in eternity, it counts this a negligible fact. Its whole beatitude is that now, without any thought of self, it sees God and adores him, and wills only to perform God's will of it." I quickly interposed, "Then why, if you no longer craved eternal life, must you still believe that we do in fact live on eternally as individuals?" He paused, smiling. "That was a shrewd question," he said. There was silence before he answered, "I can say only that I see our immortality, I see our eternal reality. Also, if God should neglect to save his creatures, he would be less than the divine lover, and so not worshipful."
Ignoring my wry face, he pursued his story of his conversion in the cathedral. For a while he had continued kneeling in inarticulate worship, but presently he allowed his gaze and his thoughts to range happily over the cool stonework and the listless, vaguely groping sightseers. It became clear to him that, since Christ had saved him, he must in gratitude fit himself to be a servant of Christ. He must equip himself to the utmost of his power with the traditional wisdom of Christ's Church. So he diffidently approached a priest and begged for guidance. For many weeks he read the scriptures and the records of the saints; and every day he came into the cathedral to pray alone or to take part in the services.
"And now," he said, "I began to discover meaning in all the well-worn doctrines of the Church that formerly had seemed so silly or incredible. For instance, the doctrine of the Trinity began to be intelligible to me. How clear it is that, while God must be thought of as indivisibly one, he must also be three-fold! He must, of course, be the omnipotent Creator; but also he must be the divine Lover, distinct from omnipotence so as to suffer the whole depth of pain and misery; but also he must be the Holy Spirit, emanating from the Creator, inspiring the Lover, and beckoning all of us."
Triumphantly the Christian's eyes sought mine, demanding assent. When my brows puckered, he smiled, as though to a dull child whom one must not discourage. Then, reverting to a simpler matter, more suited to my halting intelligence, he said, "And think again of immortality! When at last my heart was opened to receive the full light and warmth of Christ's divinity, it became clear to me that, though indeed the evil in us must be utterly destroyed, the essential and particular spirit that each of us is must be secured of eternal life through Christ's love. I saw that my sister, generous soul, must (since God is love) find bliss in eternity, and with her, all of us must be destined for salvation; save perhaps some few who irrevocably damn themselves through impenetrable hardness of heart. But for my part I have faith that even these are won by the Love that is all-powerful."
"But how can you know," I protested, "how can you possibly know that Love is God, is an almighty being who rules the universe?" He replied fervently, "I tell you, my heart sees unmistakably that it is so."
Searching my unlit face, he added, "You also shall see. Through me, Christ will save you." We both fell silent. Then he continued his gentle attack on my unbelief. "My friend," he said, "you yourself have already seen that without Christ the universe is unintelligible and unendurably horrible. You are now beginning to see that through Christ a meaning springs to the eye. All the evil of the world, which so dismayed you when I first saw you, turns out to be for our own good, to chasten us, to waken us to the spirit; that we may all at last blissfully live the life of the spirit in eternity." Again he watched me in silent expectation.
I did not answer. Avoiding his gaze, I looked across the close. The rain was now hissing on the flagstones, each drop a bullet with splashing impact. A yellow butterfly, shot down by the first volley, feebly struggled on the wet ground, its wings muddy. From within, since the short service was over, the worshippers were issuing one by one; a few dim women, an elderly man, and also, rather self-consciously, a soldier. Each glanced upward, frowning at the deluge. Some put up umbrellas and hurried away; some waited in the porch to shelter. Newcomers to the cathedral stamped their feet and shook the water from their clothing.
I did not answer, because I was desperately perplexed. How intelligible, how humane and friendly, the Christian's account of the ancient faith now seemed to me! I thought of you. How humanly right it seemed that you should be yourself in eternity; purged, no doubt, transfigured; but essentially and recognizably yourself, the unique particular being whose life I share! And how right that I, purged almost beyond recognition, should be with you eternally! The annihilation of our union did indeed seem to make nonsense of the universe.
Yes, and this loving, this spirit that holds us together and raises each of us to a higher level of awareness in relation to the whole universe--could I deny, had I any need to deny, that in some sense it was divine? This spirit, that so quickened us, must surely be the quickening spirit of the whole universe, and the only way of universal fulfilment. And had I not at least seen that this spirit of love, if it is indeed divine, must in some way be personified in a supreme individual, who out of charity needs must bear all the sins of the world, needs must suffer in his own heart all the evil of all the worlds? And had I not, under this Christian's influence, felt at last that Jesus was in fact this perfect embodiment of the divine love?
And so, and so ...But on the very brink of the abyss, vertigo seized me, and a will to surrender to the gulf of this salvation.
The little spider had by now climbed back along his rope and had strung another from the statue's nose to its chin, and from chin to breast, laboriously constructing the framework for its web. The Christian, following the direction of my gaze, saw the silken threads and their minute author. With a careless hand he swept the threads from the statue's face and blew the spider from his fingers.
Suddenly I knew that to demand eternal life for the individual, even for the beloved, even for you, was childish, and a betrayal. Love was indeed the way of life; and maybe in so dark a sense, which is at present inconceivable, it presides in the very heart of the universe; but to pledge oneself to this belief would nevertheless be for me a grave betrayal of spiritual integrity. Calmly, and without dismay, even with unreasoning joy, I reminded myself that you and I, loved and loving, might well in fact be short-lived sparkles, merely, in an age-old pyrotechnic. The vastness of the physical confronted me, the boundless void and the astronomical aeons; before man; before the planets congealed; before the oldest of the stars first spangled the nebulae; before the unnumbered host of the nebulae themselves condensed from the expanding cloud of the young cosmos; back to the initial and inscrutable creative act, the atom bomb from which all sprang.
Hugeness is in itself nothing, but it has significance. For if this little world of ours, this grain, can in its lowly way harbour the spirit, what of the whole? The hugeness of space and time did not dismay me. I accepted it with grave joy, awed less by its threat than by pregnancy.
And so, our little loving is indeed hesitantly significant; if not of the inscrutable heart of all things, at least of the splendour that the cosmos may support in countless worlds, happy and tragic.
And now I saw once more quite clearly that what matters, what finally claims allegiance is not the individual nor even mankind, but something else, which all of us together, on earth and in all worlds, imperfectly manifest. This something, I told myself, this spirit, is indeed the music of the spheres, for which we are all lowly instruments and players. Whether this music is only to be appreciated gropingly by the players themselves, or whether it is for the discerning joy of some cosmical artist, or perhaps in some incomprehensible way for the very music itself, we cannot know. Perhaps it is for nothing. On that high plane thought is impotent.
Then you and I? If the end is sleep, all's well. For we have lived. Or if in death we do indeed wake into some ampler life, to contribute further to the music, then again all's well. If we live on, it is for the music; if we die, equally it is for the music.
The rain had stopped. The trees heavily dripped. Sunshine drew from the moist ground vapours and fragrances. The drowned butterfly lay still. Presently the cat, emerging from some shelter, strode haughtily, with the mouse limp between its teeth.
But now the Christian, who had so patiently waited, was saying, "At last you are seeing (are you not?) that Christ redeems all suffering." I could not answer, except by a gesture of perplexity.
While I was searching for a reply, a starling alighted by the dead butterfly, cocked an eye in our direction, gobbled the prize, stood for a moment quizzically regarding me with its head on one side, squawked insolently and then took wing.
Suddenly I saw the Christian and myself as two large and solemn bipeds making strange noises at each other. The words that I had been using in my own mind echoed in my memory as poor animal calls labouring to signify things utterly beyond their range. How can the primitive grunts of any terrestrial animal ever signify truth about the depths and heights of reality? The little net of human discourse can sample only the ocean's surface, and all its harvest is flotsam. How should it possibly reach down to the beauties and horrors of the deep? Human reason, a fluttering moth, can never soar.
Then what, I asked myself, was the appropriate attitude to the dark-bright, hideous-lovely Whole? Fear? Proud rebellion? Obsequious worship? Rather, I told myself, a difficult blend of acceptance in the heart and cold scrutiny in the mind.
Acceptance, merely? For a moment the presence of the Whole, or of some greater thing beyond the Whole, seemed to bear down upon me in inconceivable majesty. My heart whispered, "Thou! Oh, Thou!"
But immediately another thought, another prayer, was wrung from me. "Oh, let my heart strongly feel that presence, but let my mind be utterly silent before it. For even if I say, 'Thou! Oh, Thou,' I say too much."
Praying in this strange way, I laughed.
Thereupon the Christian, mistaking my long silence and final bark of laughter, slipped his arm in mine and said, "My friend you have won through. Merciful Christ has saved you."
But at his touch I had stiffened, and now his arm retreated. Our eyes met, and for a long moment each searched the other.
I was preparing to do battle against his proselytising, and to conquer his faith. But his eyes checked me. For his Christ had indeed saved him from his self-loving despair; and without his Christ he might be lost. In his present state of partial waking (so I told myself, perhaps complacently) he could not endure the severer vision.
So I said, "You have been very good to me, and very patient. But the upshot is that your way is not mine. You need belief; for me it is unnecessary. Without it I travel lighter, yes and perhaps farther. Strangely, in my unbelief I gain full peace, the peace that passes understanding. And joy too. I have found joy in the sheer given reality, with all its dark-bright beauty. Light has come to you in one way, to me in another. And though you have not won me, I am grateful to you. Let neither of us grudge the other his vision.
He was silent for some time. Then in a low voice he said, "I think you do not fully know what suffering is, and the illumination that it brings. May God take all joy from you, may he torment you as he tormented me, so that at last your eyes may be opened, and the true light may save you."
Smiling, I offered my hand in parting. He gripped it, and we stood in silence. Then, he said, "God works in a mysterious way. If ever you need me I will help you." And I, laughing, replied, "And if someday your faith fails you, remember there is another way, and perhaps I can help." I left him.
Looking back, I saw him standing between the two stone angels, his eyes downcast, under the grooved archway, under the great west front that bombs had marred.
Well, I have told you. And in your presence my mind runs clearer. For now I see that, though on a certain level the truth was mainly on my side, it was marred by an unwitting complacency, an intellectual and perhaps a spiritual arrogance. I did not after all take deeply enough to heart my own mind's inadequacy. Perhaps a more awakened consciousness would have seen in that Christian's faith a deeper truth than in my scepticism. Was he after all right when he said that I needed more of suffering?
Perhaps! But even so, must I not at all costs be true to my own light, never pretending to reach farther than its beam can search? Yes, and I gladly choose the clear cold brightness of my vision, though darkness surrounds it. I prefer it to the Christian's more comfortable glow and warmth. I am loyal to it because it reveals more to me and demands more of me.
Second Encounter: A Scientist
Four Encounters Contents