Lord of the World

by Robert Hugh Benson

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Book III - Chapter VI


The Syrian awoke from a dream that a myriad faces were looking into his own, eager, attentive and horrible, in his corner of the roof-top, and sat up sweating and gasping aloud for breath. For an instant he thought that he was really dying, and that the spiritual world was about him. Then, as he struggled, sense came back, and he stood up, drawing long breaths of the stifling night air.

Above him the sky was as the pit, black and empty; there was not a glimmer of light, though the moon was surely up. He had seen her four hours before, a red sickle, swing slowly out from Thabor. Across the plain, as he looked from the parapet, there was nothing. For a few yards there lay across the broken ground a single crooked lance of light from a half-closed shutter; and beneath that, nothing. To the north again, nothing; to the west a glimmer, pale as a moth's wing, from the house-roofs of Nazareth; to the east, nothing. He might be on a tower-top in space, except for that line of light and that grey glimmer that evaded the eye.

On the roof, however, it was possible to make out at least outlines, for the dormer trap had been left open at the head of the stairs, and from somewhere within the depths of the house there stole up a faint refracted light.

There was a white bundle in that corner; that would be the pillow of the Benedictine abbot. He had seen him lay himself down there some time—was it four hours or four centuries ago? There was a grey shape stretched along that pale wall—the Friar, he thought; there were other irregular outlines breaking the face of the parapet, here and there along the sides.

Very softly, for he knew the caprices of sleep, he stepped across the paved roof to the opposite parapet and looked over, for there yet hung about him a desire for reassurance that he was still in company with flesh and blood. Yes, indeed he was still on earth; for there was a real and distinct light burning among the tumbled rocks, and beside it, delicate as a miniature, the head and shoulders of a man, writing. And in the circle of light were other figures, pale, broken patches on which men lay; a pole or two, erected with the thought of a tent to follow; a little pile of luggage with a rug across it; and beyond the circle other outlines and shapes faded away into the stupendous blackness.

Then the writing man moved his head, and a monstrous shadow fled across the ground; a yelp as of a strangling dog broke out suddenly close behind him, and, as he turned, a moaning figure sat up on the roof, sobbing itself awake. Another moved at the sound, and then as, sighing, the former relapsed heavily against the wall, once more the priest went back to his place, still doubtful as to the reality of all that he saw, and the breathless silence came down again as a pall.

* * * * *

He woke again from dreamless sleep, and there was a change. From his corner, as he raised his heavy eyes, there met them what seemed an unbearable brightness; then, as he looked, it resolved itself into a candle-flame, and beyond it a white sleeve, and higher yet a white face and throat. He understood, and rose reeling; it was the messenger come to fetch him as had been arranged.

As he passed across the space, once he looked round him, and it seemed that the dawn must have come, for that appalling sky overhead was visible at last. An enormous vault, smoke-coloured and opaque, seemed to curve away to the ghostly horizons on either side where the far-away hills raised sharp shapes as if cut in paper. Carmel was before him; at least he thought it was that—a bull head and shoulders thrusting itself forward and ending in an abrupt descent, and beyond that again the glimmering sky. There were no clouds, no outlines to break the huge, smooth, dusky dome beneath the centre of which this house-roof seemed poised. Across the parapet, as he glanced to the right before descending the steps, stretched Esdraelon, sad-coloured and sombre, into the metallic distance. It was all as unreal as some fantastic picture by one who had never looked upon clear sunlight. The silence was complete and profound.

Straight down through the wheeling shadows he went, following the white-hooded head and figure down the stairs, along the tiny passage, stumbling once against the feet of one who slept with limbs tossed loose like a tired dog; the feet drew back mechanically, and a little moan broke from the shadows. Then he went on, passing the servant who stood aside, and entered.

There were half-a-dozen men gathered here, silent, white figures standing apart one from the other, who genuflected as the Pope came in simultaneously through the opposite door, and again stood white-faced and attentive. He ran his eyes over them as he stopped, waiting behind his master's chair—there were two he knew, remembering them from last night—dark-faced Cardinal Ruspoli, and the lean Australian Archbishop, besides Cardinal Corkran, who stood by his chair at the Pope's own table, with papers laid ready.

Silvester sat down, and with a little gesture caused the others to sit too. Then He began at once in that quiet tired voice that his servant knew so well.

"Eminences-we are all here, I think. We need lose no more time, then…. Cardinal Corkran has something to communicate—-" He turned a little. "Father, sit down, if you please. This will occupy a little while." The priest went across to the stone window-seat, whence he could watch the Pope's face in the light of the two candles that now stood on the table between him and the Cardinal-Secretary. Then the Cardinal began, glancing up from his papers.

"Holiness. I had better begin a little way back. Their Eminences have not heard the details properly….

"I received at Damascus, on last Friday week, inquiries from various prelates in different parts of the world, as to the actual measure concerning the new policy of persecution. At first I could tell them nothing positively, for it was not until after twenty o'clock that Cardinal Ruspoli, in Turin, informed me of the facts. Cardinal Malpas confirmed them a few minutes later, and the Cardinal Archbishop of Pekin at twenty-three. Before mid-day on Saturday I received final confirmation from my messengers in London.

"I was at first surprised that Cardinal Dolgorovski did not communicate it; for almost simultaneously with the Turin message I received one from a priest of the Order of Christ Crucified in Moscow, to which, of course, I paid no attention. (It is our rule, Eminences, to treat unauthorised communications in that way.) His Holiness, however, bade me make inquiries, and I learned from Father Petrovoski and others that the Government placards published the news at twenty o'clock—by our time. It was curious, therefore, that the Cardinal had not seen it; if he had seen it, it was, of course, his duty to acquaint me immediately.

"Since that time, however, the following facts have come out. It is established beyond a doubt that Cardinal Dolgorovski received a visitor in the course of the evening. His own chaplain, who, your Eminences are perhaps aware, has been very active in Russia on behalf of the Church, informs me of this privately. Yet the Cardinal asserts, in explanation of his silence, that he was alone during those hours, and had given orders that no one was to be admitted to his presence without urgent cause. This, of course, confirmed His Holiness's opinion, but I received orders from Him to act as if nothing had happened, and to command the Cardinal's presence here with the rest of the Sacred College. To this I received an intimation that he would be present. Yesterday, however, a little before mid-day, I received a further message that his Eminency had met with a slight accident, but that he yet hoped to present himself in time for the deliberations. Since then no further news has arrived."

There was a dead silence.

Then the Pope turned to the Syrian priest.

"Father," he said, "it was you who received his Eminency's messages. Have you anything to add to this?" "No, Holiness."

He turned again.

"My son," he said, "report to Us publicly what you have already reported to Us in private."

A small, bright-eyed man moved out of the shadows.

"Holiness, it was I who conveyed the message to Cardinal Dolgorovski. He refused at first to receive me. When I reached his presence and communicated the command he was silent; then he smiled; then he told me to carry back the message that he would obey."

Again the Pope was silent.

Then suddenly the tall Australian stood up.

"Holiness," he said, "I was once intimate with that man. It was partly through my means that he sought reception into the Catholic Church. This was not less than fourteen years ago, when the fortunes of the Church seemed about to prosper…. Our friendly relations ceased two years ago, and I may say that, from what I know of him, I find no difficulty in believing—-"

As his voice shook with passion and he faltered, Silvester raised his hand.

"We desire no recriminations. Even the evidence is now useless, for what was to be done has been done. For ourselves, we have no doubt as to its nature…. It was to this man that Christ gave the morsel through our hands, saying Quod faces, fac cities. Cum ergo accepisset Me buccellam, exivit continuo. Erat autem nox."

Again fell the silence, and in the pause sounded a long half-vocal sigh from without the door. It came and went as a sleeper turned, for the passage was crowded with exhausted men—as a soul might sigh that passed from light to darkness.

Then Silvester spoke again. And as He spoke He began, as if mechanically, to tear up a long paper, written with lists of names, that lay before Him.

"Eminences, it is three hours after dawn. In two hours more We shall say mass in your presence, and give Holy Communion. During those two hours We commission you to communicate this news to all who are assembled here; and further, We bestow on each and all of you jurisdiction apart from all previous rules of time and place; we give a Plenary Indulgence to all who confess and communicate this day. Father—" he turned to the Syrian—"Father, you will now expose the Blessed Sacrament in the chapel, after which you will proceed to the village and inform the inhabitants that if they wish to save their lives they had best be gone immediately—immediately, you understand."

The Syrian started from his daze.

"Holiness," he stammered, stretching out a hand, "the lists, the lists!"

(He had seen what these were.)

But Silvester only smiled as He tossed the fragments on to the table. Then He stood up. "You need not trouble, my son…. We shall not need these any more….

"One last word, Eminences…. If there is one heart here that doubts or is afraid, I have a word to say."

He paused, with an extraordinarily simple deliberateness, ran the eyes round the tense faces turned to Him.

"I have had a Vision of God," He said softly. "I walk no more by faith, but by sight."


An hour later the priest toiled back in the hot twilight up the path from the village, followed by half-a-dozen silent men, twenty yards behind, whose curiosity exceeded their credulousness. He had left a few more standing bewildered at the doors of the little mud-houses; and had seen perhaps a hundred families, weighted with domestic articles, pour like a stream down the rocky path that led to Khaifa. He had been cursed by some, even threatened; stared upon by others; mocked by a few. The fanatical said that the Christians had brought God's wrath upon the place, and the darkness upon the sky: the sun was dying, for these hounds were too evil for him to look upon and live. Others again seemed to see nothing remarkable in the state of the weather….

There was no change in that sky from its state an hour before, except that perhaps it had lightened a little as the sun climbed higher behind that impenetrable dusky shroud. Hills, grass, men's faces—all bore to the priest's eyes the look of unreality; they were as things seen in a dream by eyes that roll with sleep through lids weighted with lead. Even to other physical senses that unreality was present; and once more he remembered his dream, thankful that that horror at least was absent. But silence seemed other than a negation of sound, it was a thing in itself, an affirmation, unruffled by the sound of footsteps, the thin barking of dogs, the murmur of voices. It appeared as if the stillness of eternity had descended and embraced the world's activities, and as if that world, in a desperate attempt to assert its own reality, was braced in a set, motionless, noiseless, breathless effort to hold itself in being. What Silvester had said just now was beginning to be true of this man also. The touch of the powdery soil and the warm pebbles beneath the priest's bare feet seemed something apart from the consciousness that usually regards the things of sense as more real and more intimate than the things of spirit. Matter still had a reality, still occupied space, but it was of a subjective nature, the result of internal rather than external powers. He appeared to himself already to be scarcely more than a soul, intent and steady, united by a thread only to the body and the world with which he was yet in relations. He knew that the appalling heat was there; once even, before his eyes a patch of beaten ground cracked and lisped as water that touches hot iron, as he trod upon it. He could feel the heat upon his forehead and hands, his whole body was swathed and soaked in it; yet he regarded it as from an outside standpoint, as a man with neuritis perceives that the pain is no longer in his hand but in the pillow which supports it. So, too, with what his eyes looked upon and his ears heard; so, too, with that faint bitter taste that lay upon his lips and nostrils. There was no longer in him fear or even hope—he regarded himself, the world, and even the enshrouding and awful Presence of spirit as facts with which he had but little to do. He was scarcely even interested; still less was he distressed. There was Thabor before him—at least what once had been Thabor, now it was no more than a huge and dusky dome-shape which impressed itself upon his retina and informed his passive brain of its existence and outline, though that existence seemed no better than that of a dissolving phantom.

It seemed then almost natural—or at least as natural as all else—as he came in through the passage and opened the chapel-door, to see that the floor was crowded with prostrate motionless figures. There they lay, all alike in the white burnous which he had given out last night; and, with forehead on arms, as during the singing of the Litany of the Saints at an ordination, lay the figure he knew best and loved more than all the world, the shoulders and white hair at a slight elevation upon the single altar step. Above the plain altar itself burned the six tall candles; and in the midst, on the mean little throne, stood the white-metal monstrance, with its White Centre….

Then he, too, dropped, and lay as he was….

* * * * *

He did not know how long it was before the circling observant consciousness, the flow of slow images, the vibration of particular thoughts, ceased and stilled as a pool rocks quietly to peace after the dropped stone has long lain still. But it came at last—that superb tranquillity, possible only when the senses are physically awake, with which God, perhaps once in a lifetime, rewards the aspiring trustful soul—that point of complete rest in the heart of the Fount of all existence with which one day He will reward eternally the spirits of His children. There was no thought in him of articulating this experience, of analysing its elements, or fingering this or that strain of ecstatic joy. The time for self-regarding was passed. It was enough that the experience was there, although he was not even self-reflective enough to tell himself so. He had passed from that circle whence the soul looks within, from that circle, too, whence it looks upon objective glory, to that very centre where it reposes—and the first sign to him that time had passed was the murmur of words, heard distinctly and understood, although with that apartness with which a drowsy man perceives a message from without—heard as through a veil through which nothing but thinnest essence could transpire.

Spiritus Domini replevit orbem terrarum…. The Spirit of the Lord hath fulfilled all things, alleluia: and that which contains all things hath knowledge of the voice, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

Exsurgat Deus (and the voice rose ever so slightly). "Let God arise and let His enemies be scattered; and let them who hate Him flee before His face."

Gloria Patri….

Then he raised his heavy head; and a phantom figure stood there in red vestments, seeming to float rather than to stand, with thin hands outstretched, and white cap on white hair seen in the gleam of the steady candle-flames; another, also in white, kneeled on the step….

Kyrie eleison … Gloria in excelsis Deo … those things passed like a shadow-show, with movements and rustlings, but he perceived rather the light which cast them. He heard Deus qui in hodierna die … but his passive mind gave no pulse of reflex action, no stir of understanding until these words. Cum complerentur dies Pentecostes….

"When the day of Pentecost was fully come, all the disciples were with one accord in the same place; and there came from heaven suddenly a sound, as of a mighty wind approaching, and it filled the house where they were sitting…."

Then he remembered and understood…. It was Pentecost then! And with memory a shred of reflection came back. Where then was the wind, and the flame, and the earthquake, and the secret voice? Yet the world was silent, rigid in its last effort at self-assertion: there was no tremor to show that God remembered; no actual point of light, yet, breaking the appalling vault of gloom that lay over sea and land to reveal that He burned there in eternity, transcendent and dominant; not even a voice; and at that he understood yet more. He perceived that that world, whose monstrous parody his sleep had presented to him in the night, was other than that he had feared it to be; it was sweet, not terrible; friendly, not hostile; clear, not stifling; and home, not exile. There were presences here, but not those gluttonous, lustful things that had looked on him last night…. He dropped his head again upon his hands, at once ashamed and content; and again he sank down to depths of glimmering inner peace….

* * * * *

Not again, for a while, did he perceive what he did or thought, or what passed there, five yards away on the low step. Once only a ripple passed across that sea of glass, a ripple of fire and sound like a rising star that flicks a line of light across a sleeping lake, like a thin thread of vibration streaming from a quivering string across the stillness of a deep night—and be perceived for an instant as in a formless mirror that a lower nature was struck into existence and into union with the Divine nature at the same moment…. And then no more again but the great encompassing hush, the sense of the innermost heart of reality, till he found himself kneeling at the rail, and knew that That which alone truly existed on earth approached him with the swiftness of thought and the ardour of Divine Love….

Then, as the mass ended, and he raised his passive happy soul to receive the last gift of God, there was a cry, a sudden clamour in the passage, and a man stood in the doorway, gabbling Arabic.


Yet even at that sound and sight his soul scarcely tightened the languid threads that united it through every fibre of his body with the world of sense. He saw and heard the tumult in the passage, frantic eyes and mouths crying aloud, and, in strange contrast, the pale ecstatic faces of those princes who turned and looked; even within the tranquil presence-chamber of the spirit where two beings, Incarnate God and all but Discarnate Man, were locked in embrace, a certain mental process went on. Yet all was still as apart from him as a lighted stage and its drama from a self-contained spectator. In the material world, now as attenuated as a mirage, events were at hand; but to his soul, balanced now on reality and awake to facts, these things were but a spectacle….

He turned to the altar again, and there, as he had known it would be, in the midst of clear light, all was at peace: the celebrant, seen as through molten glass, adored as He murmured the mystery of the Word-made-Flesh, and once more passing to the centre, sank upon His knees.

Again the priest understood; for thought was no longer the process of a mind, rather it was the glance of a spirit. He knew all now; and, by an inevitable impulse, his throat began to sing aloud words that, as he sang, opened for the first time as flowers telling their secret to the sun.

O Salutaris Hostia Qui coeli pandis ostium. . . .

They were all singing now; even the Mohammedan catechumen who had burst in a moment ago sang with the rest, his lean head thrust out and his arms tight across his breast; the tiny chapel rang with the forty voices, and the vast world thrilled to hear it….

Still singing, the priest saw the veil laid as by a phantom upon the Pontiff's shoulders; there was a movement, a surge of figures—shadows only in the midst of substance,

… Uni Trinoque Domino ….

—and the Pope stood erect, Himself a pallor in the heart of light, with spectral folds of silk dripping from His shoulders, His hands swathed in them, and His down-bent head hidden by the silver-rayed monstrance and That which it bore….

… Qui vitam sine termino Nobis donet in patria ….

… They were moving now, and the world of life swung with them; of so much was he aware. He was out in the passage, among the white, frenzied faces that with bared teeth stared up at that sight, silenced at last by the thunder of Pange Lingua, and the radiance of those who passed out to eternal life…. At the corner he turned for an instant to see the six pale flames move along a dozen yards behind, as spear-heads about a King, and in the midst the silver rays and the White Heart of God…. Then he was out, and the battle lay in array….

That sky on which he had looked an hour ago had passed from darkness charged with light to light overlaid with darkness—from glimmering night to Wrathful Day—and that light was red….

From behind Thabor on the left to Carmel on the far right, above the hills twenty miles away rested an enormous vault of colour; here were no gradations from zenith to horizon; all was the one deep smoulder of crimson as of the glow of iron. It was such a colour as men have seen at sunsets after rain, while the clouds, more translucent each instant, transmit the glory they cannot contain. Here, too, was the sun, pale as the Host, set like a fragile wafer above the Mount of Transfiguration, and there, far down in the west where men had once cried upon Baal in vain, hung the sickle of the white moon. Yet all was no more than stained light that lies broken across carven work of stone….

… In suprema nocte coena,

sang the myriad voices,

Recumbens cum fratribus Observata lege plena Cibis in legalibus Cibum turbae duodenae Se dat suis manibus …. He saw, too, poised as motes in light, that ring of strange fish-creatures, white as milk, except where the angry glory turned their backs to flame, white-winged like floating moths, from the tiny shape far to the south to the monster at hand scarcely five hundred yards away; and even as he looked, singing as he looked, he understood that the circle was nearer, and perceived that these as yet knew nothing….

_Verbum caro, panem verum Verbo carnem efficit ….

They were nearer still, until now even at his feet there slid along the ground the shadow of a monstrous bird, pale and undefined, as between the wan sun and himself moved out the vast shape that a moment ago hung above the Hill…. Then again it backed across and waited …

Et si census deficit Ad formandum cor sincerum Sola fides sufficit ….

He had halted and turned, going in the midst of his fellows, hearing, he thought, the thrill of harping and the throb of heavenly drums; and, across the space, moved now the six flames, steady as if cut of steel in that stupendous poise of heaven and earth; and in their centre the silver-rayed glory and the Whiteness of God made Man….

… Then, with a roar, came the thunder again, pealing in circle beyond circle of those tremendous Presences—Thrones and Powers—who, themselves to the world as substance to shadow, are but shadows again beneath the apex and within the ring of Absolute Deity…. The thunder broke loose, shaking the earth that now cringed on the quivering edge of dissolution….


Ah! yes; it was He for whom God waited now—He who far up beneath that trembling shadow of a dome, itself but the piteous core of unimagined splendour, came in His swift chariot, blind to all save that on which He had fixed His eyes so long, unaware that His world corrupted about Him, His shadow moving like a pale cloud across the ghostly plain where Israel had fought and Sennacherib boasted—that plain lighted now with a yet deeper glow, as heaven, kindling to glory beyond glory of yet fiercer spiritual flame, still restrained the power knit at last to the relief of final revelation, and for the last time the voices sang….


… He was coming now, swifter than ever, the heir of temporal ages and the Exile of eternity, the final piteous Prince of rebels, the creature against God, blinder than the sun which paled and the earth that shook; and, as He came, passing even then through the last material stage to the thinness of a spirit-fabric, the floating circle swirled behind Him, tossing like phantom birds in the wake of a phantom ship…. He was coming, and the earth, rent once again in its allegiance, shrank and reeled in the agony of divided homage….

… He was coming—and already the shadow swept off the plain and vanished, and the pale netted wings were rising to the cheek; and the great bell clanged, and the long sweet chord rang out—not more than whispers heard across the pealing storm of everlasting praise….


and once more


Then this world passed, and the glory of it.


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