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The Altar Fire   By: (1862-1925)

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THE ALTAR FIRE

By

ARTHUR CHRISTOPHER BENSON

Cecidit autem ignis Domini, et voravit holocaustum

1907

PREFACE

It will perhaps be said, and truly felt, that the following is a morbid book. No doubt the subject is a morbid one, because the book deliberately gives a picture of a diseased spirit. But a pathological treatise, dealing with cancer or paralysis, is not necessarily morbid, though it may be studied in a morbid mood. We have learnt of late years, to our gain and profit, to think and speak of bodily ailments as natural phenomena, not to slur over them and hide them away in attics and bedrooms. We no longer think of insanity as demoniacal possession, and we no longer immure people with diseased brains in the secluded apartments of lovely houses. But we still tend to think of the sufferings of the heart and soul as if they were unreal, imaginary, hypochondriacal things, which could be cured by a little resolution and by intercourse with cheerful society; and by this foolish and secretive reticence we lose both sympathy and help. Mrs. Proctor, the friend of Carlyle and Lamb, a brilliant and somewhat stoical lady, is recorded to have said to a youthful relative of a sickly habit, with stern emphasis, "Never tell people how you are! They don't want to know." Up to a certain point this is shrewd and wholesome advice. One does undoubtedly keep some kinds of suffering in check by resolutely minimising them. But there is a significance in suffering too. It is not all a clumsy error, a well meaning blunder. It is a deliberate part of the constitution of the world.

Why should we wish to conceal the fact that we have suffered, that we suffer, that we are likely to suffer to the end? There are abundance of people in like case; the very confession of the fact may help others to endure, because one of the darkest miseries of suffering is the horrible sense of isolation that it brings. And if this book casts the least ray upon the sad problem a ray of the light that I have learned to recognise is truly there I shall be more than content. There is no morbidity in suffering, or in confessing that one suffers. Morbidity only begins when one acquiesces in suffering as being incurable and inevitable; and the motive of this book is to show that it is at once curative and curable, a very tender part of a wholly loving and Fatherly design.

A. C. B.

Magdalene College, Cambridge,

July 14, 1907.

INTRODUCTION

I had intended to allow the records that follow the records of a pilgrimage sorely beset and hampered by sorrow and distress to speak for themselves. Let me only say that one who makes public a record so intimate and outspoken incurs, as a rule, a certain responsibility. He has to consider in the first place, or at least he cannot help instinctively considering, what the wishes of the writer would have been on the subject. I do not mean that one who has to decide such a point is bound to be entirely guided by that. He must weigh the possible value of the record to other spirits against what he thinks that the writer himself would have personally desired. A far more important consideration is what living people who play a part in such records feel about their publication. But I cannot help thinking that our whole standard in such matters is a very false and conventional one. Supposing, for instance, that a very sacred and intimate record, say, two hundred years old, were to be found among some family papers, it is inconceivable that any one would object to its publication on the ground that the writer of it, or the people mentioned in it, would not have wished it to see the light. We show how weak our faith really is in the continuance of personal identity after death, by allowing the lapse of time to affect the question at all; just as we should consider it a horrible profanation to exhume and exhibit the body of a man who had been buried a few years ago, while we approve of the action of archaeologists who explore Egyptian sepulchres, subscribe to their operations, and should consider a man a mere sentimentalist who suggested that the mummies exhibited in museums ought to be sent back for interment in their original tombs... Continue reading book >>




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