Lord of the World

by Robert Hugh Benson

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Book III - The Victory - Chapter I


The little room where the new Pope sat reading was a model of simplicity. Its walls were whitewashed, its roof unpolished rafters, and its floor beaten mud. A square table stood in the centre, with a chair beside it; a cold brazier laid for lighting, stood in the wide hearth; a bookshelf against the wall held a dozen volumes. There were three doors, one leading to the private oratory, one to the ante-room, and the third to the little paved court. The south windows were shuttered, but through the ill-fitting hinges streamed knife-blades of fiery light from the hot Eastern day outside.

It was the time of the mid-day siesta, and except for the brisk scything of the cicade from the hill-slope behind the house, all was in deep silence.

* * * * *

The Pope, who had dined an hour before, had hardly shifted His attitude in all that time, so intent was He upon His reading. For the while, all was put away, His own memory of those last three months, the bitter anxiety, the intolerable load of responsibility. The book He held was a cheap reprint of the famous biography of Julian Felsenburgh, issued a month before, and He was now drawing to an end.

It was a terse, well-written book, composed by an unknown hand, and some even suspected it to be the disguised work of Felsenburgh himself. More, however, considered that it was written at least with Felsenburgh's consent by one of that small body of intimates whom he had admitted to his society—that body which under him now conducted the affairs of West and East. From certain indications in the book it had been argued that its actual writer was a Westerner.

The main body of the work dealt with his life, or rather with those two or three years known to the world, from his rapid rise in American politics and his mediation in the East down to the event of five months ago, when in swift succession he had been hailed Messiah in Damascus, had been formally adored in London, and finally elected by an extraordinary majority to the Tribuniciate of the two Americas.

The Pope had read rapidly through these objective facts, for He knew them well enough already, and was now studying with close attention the summary of his character, or rather, as the author rather sententiously explained, the summary of his self-manifestation to the world. He read the description of his two main characteristics, his grasp upon words and facts; "words, the daughters of earth, were wedded in this man to facts, the sons of heaven, and Superman was their offspring." His minor characteristics, too, were noticed, his appetite for literature, his astonishing memory, his linguistic powers. He possessed, it appeared, both the telescopic and the microscopic eye—he discerned world-wide tendencies and movements on the one hand; he had a passionate capacity for detail on the other. Various anecdotes illustrated these remarks, and a number of terse aphorisms of his were recorded. "No man forgives," he said; "he only understands." "It needs supreme faith to renounce a transcendent God." "A man who believes in himself is almost capable of believing in his neighbour." Here was a sentence that to the Pope's mind was significant of that sublime egotism that is alone capable of confronting the Christian spirit: and again, "To forgive a wrong is to condone a crime," and "The strong man is accessible to no one, but all are accessible to him."

There was a certain pompousness in this array of remarks, but it lay, as the Pope saw very well, not in the speaker but in the scribe. To him who had seen the speaker it was plain how they had been uttered—with no pontifical solemnity, but whirled out in a fiery stream of eloquence, or spoken with that strangely moving simplicity that had constituted his first assault on London. It was possible to hate Felsenburgh, and to fear him; but never to be amused at him.

But plainly the supreme pleasure of the writer was to trace the analogy between his hero and nature. In both there was the same apparent contradictoriness—the combination of utter tenderness and utter ruthlessness. "The power that heals wounds also inflicts them: that clothes the dungheap with sweet growths and grasses, breaks, too, into fire and earthquake; that causes the partridge to die for her young, also makes the shrike with his living larder." So, too, with Felsenburgh; He who had wept over the Fall of Rome, a month later had spoken of extermination as an instrument that even now might be judicially used in the service of humanity. Only it must be used with deliberation, not with passion.

The utterance had aroused extraordinary interest, since it seemed so paradoxical from one who preached peace and toleration; and argument had broken out all over the world. But beyond enforcing the dispersal of the Irish Catholics, and the execution of a few individuals, so far that utterance had not been acted upon. Yet the world seemed as a whole to have accepted it, and even now to be waiting for its fulfilment.

As the biographer pointed out, the world enclosed in physical nature should welcome one who followed its precepts, one who was indeed the first to introduce deliberately and confessedly into human affairs such laws as those of the Survival of the Fittest and the immorality of forgiveness. If there was mystery in the one, there was mystery in the other, and both must be accepted if man was to develop.

And the secret of this, it seemed, lay in His personality. To see Him was to believe in Him, or rather to accept Him as inevitably true. "We do not explain nature or escape from it by sentimental regrets: the bare cries like a child, the wounded stag weeps great tears, the robin kills his parents; life exists only on condition of death; and these things happen however we may weave theories that explain nothing. Life must be accepted on those terms; we cannot be wrong if we follow nature; rather to accept them is to find peace—our great mother only reveals her secrets to those who take her as she is." So, too, with Felsenburgh. "It is not for us to discriminate: His personality is of a kind that does not admit it. He is complete and sufficing for those who trust Him and are willing to suffer; an hostile and hateful enigma to those who are not. We must prepare ourselves for the logical outcome of this doctrine. Sentimentality must not be permitted to dominate reason."

Finally, then, the writer showed how to this Man belonged properly all those titles hitherto lavished upon imagined Supreme Beings. It was in preparation for Him that these types came into the realms of thought and influenced men's lives.

He was the Creator, for it was reserved for Him to bring into being the perfect life of union to which all the world had hitherto groaned in vain; it was in His own image and likeness that He had made man.

Yet He was the Redeemer too, for that likeness had in one sense always underlain the tumult of mistake and conflict. He had brought man out of darkness and the shadow of death, guiding their feet into the way of peace. He was the Saviour for the same reason—the Son of Man, for He alone was perfectly human; He was the Absolute, for He was the content of Ideals; the Eternal, for He had lain always in nature's potentiality and secured by His being the continuity of that order; the Infinite, for all finite things fell short of Him who was more than their sum.

He was Alpha, then, and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last. He was Dominus et Deus noster (as Domitian had been, the Pope reflected). He was as simple and as complex as life itself—simple in its essence, complex in its activities.

And last of all, the supreme proof of His mission lay in the immortal nature of His message. There was no more to be added to what He had brought to light—for in Him all diverging lines at last found their origin and their end. As to whether or no He would prove to be personally immortal was an wholly irrelevant thought; it would be indeed fitting if through His means the vital principle should disclose its last secret; but no more than fitting. Already His spirit was in the world; the individual was no more separate from his fellows; death no more than a wrinkle that came and went across the inviolable sea. For man had learned at last that the race was all and self was nothing; the cell had discovered the unity of the body; even, the greatest thinkers declared, the consciousness of the individual had yielded the title of Personality to the corporate mass of man—and the restlessness of the unit had sunk into the peace of a common Humanity, for nothing but this could explain the cessation of party strife and national competition—and this, above all, had been the work of Felsenburgh.

"Behold I am with you always," quoted the writer in a passionate peroration, "even now in the consummation of the world; and, the Comforter is come unto you. I am the Door—the Way, the Truth and the Life—the Bread of Life and the Water of Life. My name is Wonderful, the Prince of Peace, the Father Everlasting. It is I who am the Desire of all nations, the fairest among the children of men—and of my Kingdom there shall be no end."

The Pope laid down the book, and leaned back, closing his eyes.


And as for Himself, what had He to say to all this? A Transcendent God Who hid Himself, a Divine Saviour Who delayed to come, a Comforter heard no longer in wind nor seen in fire!

There, in the next room, was a little wooden altar, and above it an iron box, and within that box a silver cup, and within that cup—Something. Outside the house, a hundred yards away, lay the domes and plaster roofs of a little village called Nazareth; Carmel was on the right, a mile or two away, Thabor on the left, the plain of Esdraelon in front; and behind, Cana and Galilee, and the quiet lake, and Hermon. And far away to the south lay Jerusalem….

It was to this tiny strip of holy land that the Pope had come—the land where a Faith had sprouted two thousand years ago, and where, unless God spoke in fire from heaven, it would presently be cut down as a cumberer of the ground. It was here on this material earth that One had walked Whom all men had thought to have been He Who would redeem Israel—in this village that He had fetched water and made boxes and chairs, on that long lake that His Feet had walked, on that high hill that He had flamed in glory, on that smooth, low mountain to the north that He had declared that the meek were blessed and should inherit the earth, that peacemakers were the children of God, that they who hungered and thirsted should be satisfied.

And now it was come to this. Christianity had smouldered away from Europe like a sunset on darkening peaks; Eternal Rome was a heap of ruins; in East and West alike a man had been set upon the throne of God, had been acclaimed as divine. The world had leaped forward; social science was supreme; men had learned consistency; they had learned, too, the social lessons of Christianity apart from a Divine Teacher, or, rather, they said, in spite of Him. There were left, perhaps, three millions, perhaps five, at the utmost ten millions—it was impossible to know—throughout the entire inhabited globe who still worshipped Jesus Christ as God. And the Vicar of Christ sat in a whitewashed room in Nazareth, dressed as simply as His master, waiting for the end.

* * * * *

He had done what He could. There had been a week five months ago when it had been doubtful whether anything at all could be done. There were left three Cardinals alive, Himself, Steinmann, and the Patriarch of Jerusalem; the rest lay mangled somewhere in the ruins of Rome. There was no precedent to follow; so the two Europeans had made their way out to the East, and to the one town in it where quiet still reigned. With the disappearance of Greek Christianity there had also vanished the last remnants of internecine war in Christendom; and by a kind of tacit consent of the world, Christians were allowed a moderate liberty in Palestine. Russia, which now held the country as a dependency, had sufficient sentiment left to leave it alone; it was true that the holy places had been desecrated, and remained now only as spots of antiquarian interest; the altars were gone but the sites were yet marked, and, although mass could no longer be said there, it was understood that private oratories were not forbidden.

It was in this state that the two European Cardinals had found the Holy City; it was not thought wise to wear insignia of any description in public; and it was practically certain even now that the civilised world was unaware of their existence; for within three days of their arrival the old Patriarch had died, yet not before Percy Franklin, surely under the strangest circumstances since those of the first century, had been elected to the Supreme Pontificate. It had all been done in a few minutes by the dying man's bedside. The two old men had insisted. The German had even recurred once more to the strange resemblance between Percy and Julian Felsenburgh, and had murmured his old half-heard remarks about the antithesis, and the Finger of God; and Percy, marvelling at his superstition, had accepted, and the election was recorded. He had taken the name of Silvester, the last saint in the year, and was the third of that title. He had then retired to Nazareth with his chaplain; Steinmann had gone back to Germany, and been hanged in a riot within a fortnight of his arrival.

The next matter was the creation of new cardinals, and to twenty persons, with infinite precautions, briefs had been conveyed. Of these, nine had declined; three more had been approached, of whom only one had accepted. There were therefore at this moment twelve persons in the world who constituted the Sacred College—two Englishmen, of whom Corkran was one; two Americans, a Frenchman, a German, an Italian, a Spaniard, a Pole, a Chinaman, a Greek, and a Russian. To these were entrusted vast districts over which their control was supreme, subject only to the Holy Father Himself.

As regarded the Pope's own life very little need be said. It resembled, He thought, in its outward circumstances that of such a man as Leo the Great, without His worldly importance or pomp. Theoretically, the Christian world was under His dominion; practically, Christian affairs were administered by local authorities. It was impossible for a hundred reasons for Him to do what He wished with regard to the exchange of communications. An elaborate cypher had been designed, and a private telegraphic station organised on His roof communicating with another in Damascus where Cardinal Corkran had fixed his residence; and from that centre messages occasionally were despatched to ecclesiastical authorities elsewhere; but, for the most part, there was little to be done. The Pope, however, had the satisfaction of knowing that, with incredible difficulty, a little progress had been made towards the reorganisation of the hierarchy in all countries. Bishops were being consecrated freely; there were not less than two thousand of them all told, and of priests an unknown number. The Order of Christ Crucified was doing excellent work, and the tales of not less than four hundred martyrdoms had reached Nazareth during the last two months, accomplished mostly at the hands of the mobs.

In other respects, also, as well as in the primary object of the Order's existence (namely, the affording of an opportunity to all who loved God to dedicate themselves to Him more perfectly), the new Religious were doing good work. The more perilous tasks—the work of communication between prelates, missions to persons of suspected integrity—all the business, in fact, which was carried on now at the vital risk of the agent were entrusted solely to members of the Order. Stringent instructions had been issued from Nazareth that no bishop was to expose himself unnecessarily; each was to regard himself as the heart of his diocese to be protected at all costs save that of Christian honour, and in consequence each had surrounded himself with a group of the new Religious—men and women—who with extraordinary and generous obedience undertook such dangerous tasks as they were capable of performing. It was plain enough by now that had it not been for the Order, the Church would have been little better than paralysed under these new conditions.

Extraordinary facilities were being issued in all directions. Every priest who belonged to the Order received universal jurisdiction subject to the bishop, if any, of the diocese in which he might be; mass might be said on any day of the year of the Five Wounds, or the Resurrection, or Our Lady; and all had the privilege of the portable altar, now permitted to be wood. Further ritual requirements were relaxed; mass might be said with any decent vessels of any material capable of destruction, such as glass or china; bread of any description might be used; and no vestments were obligatory except the thin thread that now represented the stole; lights were non-essential; none need wear the clerical habit; and rosary, even without beads, was always permissible instead of the Office.

In this manner priests were rendered capable of giving the sacraments and offering the holy sacrifice at the least possible risk to themselves; and these relaxations had already proved of enormous benefit in the European prisons, where by this time many thousands of Catholics were undergoing the penalty of refusing public worship.

* * * * *

The Pope's private life was as simple as His room. He had one Syrian priest for His chaplain, and two Syrian servants. He said His mass each morning, Himself wearing vestments and His white habit beneath, and heard a mass after. He then took His coffee, after changing into the tunic and burnous of the country, and spent the morning over business. He dined at noon, slept, and rode out, for the country by reason of its indeterminate position was still in the simplicity of a hundred years ago. He returned at dusk, supped, and worked again till late into the night.

That was all. His chaplain sent what messages were necessary to Damascus; His servants, themselves ignorant of His dignity, dealt with the secular world so far as was required, and the utmost that seemed to be known to His few neighbours was that there lived in the late Sheikh's little house on the hill an eccentric European with a telegraph office. His servants, themselves devout Catholics, knew Him for a bishop, but no more than that. They were told only that there was yet a Pope alive, and with that and the sacraments were content.

To sum up, therefore—the Catholic world knew that their Pope lived under the name of Silvester; and thirteen persons of the entire human race knew that Franklin had been His name, and that the throne of Peter rested for the time in Nazareth.

It was, as a Frenchman had said, just a hundred years ago. Catholicism survived; but no more.


And as for His inner life, what can be said of that? He lay now back in his wooden chair, thinking with closed eyes.

He could not have described it consistently even to Himself, for indeed He scarcely knew it: He acted rather than indulged in reflex thought. But the centre of His position was simple faith. The Catholic Religion, He knew well enough, gave the only adequate explanation of the universe; it did not unlock all mysteries, but it unlocked more than any other key known to man; He knew, too, perfectly well, that it was the only system of thought that satisfied man as a whole, and accounted for him in his essential nature. Further, He saw well enough that the failure of Christianity to unite all men one to another rested not upon its feebleness but its strength; its lines met in eternity, not in time. Besides, He happened to believe it.

But to this foreground there were other moods whose shifting was out of his control. In his exalt moods, which came upon Him like a breeze from Paradise, the background was bright with hope and drama—He saw Himself and His companions as Peter and the Apostles must have regarded themselves, as they proclaimed through the world, in temples, slums, market-places and private houses, the faith that was to shake and transform the world. They had handled the Lord of Life, seen the empty sepulchre, grasped the pierced hands of Him Who was their brother and their God. It was radiantly true, though not a man believed it; the huge superincumbent weight of incredulity could not disturb a fact that was as the sun in heaven. Moreover, the very desperateness of the cause was their inspiration. There was no temptation to lean upon the arm of flesh, for there was none that fought for them but God. Their nakedness was their armour, their slow tongues their persuasiveness, their weakness demanded God's strength, and found it. Yet there was this difference, and it was a significant one. For Peter the spiritual world had an interpretation and a guarantee in the outward events he had witnessed. He had handled the Risen Christ, the external corroborated the internal. But for Silvester it was not so. For Him it was necessary so to grasp spiritual truths in the supernatural sphere that the external events of the Incarnation were proved by rather than proved the certitude of His spiritual apprehension. Certainly, historically speaking, Christianity was true—proved by its records—yet to see that needed illumination. He apprehended the power of the Resurrection, therefore Christ was risen.

Therefore in heavier moods it was different with him. There were periods, lasting sometimes for days together, clouding Him when He awoke, stifling Him as He tried to sleep, dulling the very savour of the Sacrament and the thrill of the Precious Blood; times in which the darkness was so intolerable that even the solid objects of faith attenuated themselves to shadow, when half His nature was blind not only to Christ, but to God Himself, and the reality of His own existence—when His own awful dignity seemed as the insignia of a fool. And was it conceivable, His earthly mind demanded, that He and His college of twelve and His few thousands should be right, and the entire consensus of the civilised world wrong? It was not that the world had not heard the message of the Gospel; it had heard little else for two thousand years, and now pronounced it false—false in its external credentials, and false therefore in its spiritual claims. It was a lost cause for which He suffered; He was not the last of an august line, He was the smoking wick of a candle of folly; He was the reductio ad absurdam of a ludicrous syllogism based on impossible premises. He was not worth killing, He and His company of the insane—they were no more than the crowned dunces of the world's school. Sanity sat on the solid benches of materialism. And this heaviness waxed so dark sometimes that He almost persuaded Himself that His faith was gone; the clamours of mind so loud that the whisper of the heart was unheard, the desires for earthly peace so fierce that supernatural ambitions were silenced—so dense was the gloom, that, hoping against hope, believing against knowledge, and loving against truth, He cried as One other had cried on another day like this—Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani! … But that, at least, He never failed to cry.

One thing alone gave Him power to go on, so far at least as His consciousness was concerned, and that was His meditation. He had travelled far in the mystical life since His agonies of effort. Now He used no deliberate descents into the spiritual world: He threw, as it were, His hands over His head, and dropped into spacelessness. Consciousness would draw Him up, as a cork, to the surface, but He would do no more than repeat His action, until by that cessation of activity, which is the supreme energy, He floated in the twilight realm of transcendence; and there God would deal with Him—now by an articulate sentence, now by a sword of pain, now by an air like the vivifying breath of the sea. Sometimes after Communion He would treat Him so, sometimes as He fell asleep, sometimes in the whirl of work. Yet His consciousness did not seem to retain for long such experiences; five minutes later, it might be, He would be wrestling once more with the all but sensible phantoms of the mind and the heart.

There He lay, then, in the chair, revolving the intolerable blasphemies that He had read. His white hair was thin upon His browned temples, His hands were as the hands of a spirit, and His young face lined and patched with sorrow. His bare feet protruded from beneath His stained tunic, and His old brown burnous lay on the floor beside Him….

It was an hour before He moved, and the sun had already lost half its fierceness, when the steps of the horses sounded in the paved court outside. Then He sat up, slipped His feet into their shoes, and lifted the burnous from the floor, as the door opened and the lean sun-burned priest came through.

"The horses, Holiness," said the man.

* * * * *

The Pope spoke not one word that afternoon, until the two came towards sunset up the bridle-path that leads between Thabor and Nazareth. They had taken their usual round through Cana, mounting a hillock from which the long mirror of Gennesareth could be seen, and passing on, always bearing to the right, under the shadow of Thabor until once more Esdraelon spread itself beneath like a grey-green carpet, a vast circle, twenty miles across, sprinkled sparsely with groups of huts, white walls and roofs, with Nain visible on the other side, Carmel heaving its long form far off on the right, and Nazareth nestling a mile or two away on the plateau on which they had halted.

It was a sight of extraordinary peace, and seemed an extract from some old picture-book designed centuries ago. Here was no crowd of roofs, no pressure of hot humanity, no terrible evidences of civilisation and manufactory and strenuous, fruitless effort. A few tired Jews had come back to this quiet little land, as old people may return to their native place, with no hope of renewing their youth, or refinding their ideals, but with a kind of sentimentality that prevails so often over more logical motives, and a few more barrack-like houses had been added here and there to the obscure villages in sight. But it was very much as it had been a hundred years ago.

The plain was half shadowed by Carmel, and half in dusty golden light. Overhead the clear Eastern sky was flushed with rose, as it had flushed for Abraham, Jacob, and the Son of David. There was no little cloud here, as a man's hand, over the sea, charged with both promise and terror; no sound of chariot-wheels from earth or heaven, no vision of heavenly horses such as a young man had seen thirty centuries ago in this very sky. Here was the old earth and the old heaven, unchanged and unchangeable; the patient, returning spring had starred the thin soil with flowers of Bethlehem, and those glorious lilies to which Solomon's scarlet garments might not be compared. There was no whisper from the Throne as when Gabriel had once stooped through this very air to hail Her who was blessed among women, no breath of promise or hope beyond that which God sends through every movement of His created robe of life.

As the two halted, and the horses looked out with steady, inquisitive eyes at the immensity of light and air beneath them, a soft hooting cry broke out, and a shepherd passed below along the hillside a hundred yards away, trailing his long shadow behind him, and to the mellow tinkle of bells his flock came after, a troop of obedient sheep and wilful goats, cropping and following and cropping again as they went on to the fold, called by name in that sad minor voice of him who knew each, and led instead of driving. The soft clanking grew fainter, the shadow of the shepherd shot once to their very feet, as he topped the rise, and vanished again as he stepped down once more; and the call grew fainter yet, and ceased.

* * * * *

The Pope lifted His hand to His eyes for an instant, then smoothed it down His face.

He nodded across to a dim patch of white walls glimmering through the violet haze of the falling twilight.

"That place, father," He said, "what is its name?"

The Syrian priest looked across, back once more at the Pope, and across again.

"That among the palms, Holiness?"


"That is Megiddo," he said. "Some call it Armageddon."

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