by Hilaire Belloc
There was a priest once who preached a sermon to the text of “Abba, Father.” On that text one might preach anything, but the matter that he chose was “Rest.” He was not yet in middle age, and those who heard him were not yet even young. They could not understand at all the moment of his ardent speech, and even the older men, seeing him to be but in the central part of life, wondered that he should speak so. His eyes were illuminated by the vision of something distant; his heart was not ill at ease, but, as it were, fixedly expectant, and he preached from his little pulpit in that little chapel of the Downs, with rising and deeper powers of the voice, so that he shook the air; yet all this energy was but the praise or the demand for the surcease of energy, and all this sound was but the demand for silence.
It is a thing, I say, incomprehensible to the young, but gradually comprehended as the years go droning by, that in all things (and in proportion to the intensity of the life of each) there comes this appetite for dissolution and for repose: I do not mean that repose beyond which further effort is demanded, but something final and supreme.
This priest, a year or so after he had appealed with his sermon before that little country audience in the emptiness of the Downs, died. He had that which he desired, Rest. But what is it? What is the nature of this thing?
Note you how great soldiers, when their long campaigns are done, are indifferent to further wars, and look largely upon the nature of fighting men, their objects, their failures, their victories, their rallying, their momentary cheers. Not that they grow indifferent to that great trade which is the chief business of a State, the defence or the extension of the common weal; but that after so much expense of all the senses our God gave them, a sort of charity and justice fills their minds. I have often remarked how men who had most lost and won, even in arms, would turn the leisured part of their lives to the study of the details of struggle, and seemed equally content to be describing the noble fortunes of an army, whether it were upon the crest of advancing victory, or in the agony of a surrender. This was because the writers had found Rest. And throughout the history of Letters—of Civilisation, and of contemporary friends, one may say that in proportion to the largeness of their action is this largeness and security of vision at the end.
Now, note another thing: that, when we speak of an end, by that very word we mean two things. For first we mean the cessation of Form, and perhaps of Idea; but also we mean a goal, or object, to which the Form and the Idea perpetually tended, without which they would have had neither meaning nor existence, and in which they were at last fulfilled. Aristotle could give no summing up but this to all his philosophy, that there was a nature, not only of all, but of each, and that the end determined what that nature might be; which is also what we Christians mean when we say that God made the world; and great Rabelais, when his great books were ending, could but conclude that all things tended to their end. Tennyson also, before he died, having written for so many years a poetry which one must be excused in believing considerable, felt, as how many have felt it, the thrumming of the ebb tide when the sea calls back the feudal allegiance of the rivers. I know it upon Arun bar. The Flood, when the sea heaves up and pours itself into the inland channels, bears itself creatively, and is like the manhood of a man—first tentative, then gathering itself for action, then sweeping suddenly at the charge. It carries with it the wind from the open horizon, it determines suddenly, it spurs, and sweeps, and is victorious; the current races; the harbour is immediately full.
But the ebb tide is of another kind. With a long, slow power, whose motive is at once downward steadily towards its authority and its obedience and desire, it pushes as with shoulders, home; and for many hours the stream goes darkly, swiftly, and steadily. It is intent, direct, and level. It is a thing for evenings, and it is under an evening when there is little wind, that you may best observe the symbol thus presented by material things. For everything in nature has in it something sacramental, teaching the soul of man; and nothing more possesses that high quality than the motion of a river when it meets the sea. The water at last hangs dully, the work is done; and those who have permitted the lesson to instruct their minds are aware of consummation.
Men living in cities have often wondered how it was that the men in the open who knew horses and the earth or ships and the salt water risk so much—and for what reward? It is an error in the very question they ask, rather than in the logical puzzle they approach, which falsifies their wonder. There is no reward. To die in battle, to break one’s neck at a hedge, to sink or to be swamped are not rewards. But action demands an end; there is a fruit to things; and everything we do (here at least, and within the bonds of time) may not exceed the little limits of a nature which it neither made nor acquired for itself, but was granted.
Some say that old men fear death. It is the theme of the debased and the vulgar. It is not true. Those who have imperfectly served are ready enough; those who have served more perfectly are glad—as though there stood before them a natural transition and a condition of their being.
So it says in a book “all good endings are but shining transitions.” And, again, there is a sonnet which says:
We will not whisper: we have found the place
Of silence and the ancient halls of sleep,
And that which breathes alone throughout the deep
The end and the beginning; and the face
Between the level brows of whose blind eyes
Lie plenary contentment, full surcease
Of violence, and the ultimate great peace
Wherein we lose our human lullabies.
Look up and tell the immeasurable height
Between the vault of the world and your dear head;
That’s Death, my little sister, and the Night
That was our Mother beckons us to bed:
Where large oblivion in her house is laid
For us tired children now our games are played.
Indeed, one might quote the poets (who are the teachers of mankind) indefinitely in this regard. They are all agreed. What did Sleep and Death to the body of Sarpedon? They took it home. And every one who dies in all the Epics is better for the dying. Some complain of it afterwards I will admit; but they are hard to please. Roland took it as the end of battle; and there was a Scandinavian fellow caught on the north-east coast, I think, who in dying thanked God for all the joy he had had in his life—as you may have heard before. And St. Anthony of Assisi (not of Padua) said, “Welcome, little sister Death!” as was his way. And one who stands right up above most men who write or speak said it was the only port after the tide-streams and bar-handling of this journey.
So it is; let us be off to the hills. The silence and the immensity that inhabit them are the simulacra of such things.
End of On Rest by Hilaire Belloc