Lothair, by Benjamin Disraeli

Chapter 77

There are few things finer than the morning view of Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives. The fresh and golden light falls on a walled city with turrets and towers and frequent gates: the houses of freestone, with terraced or oval roofs, sparkle in the sun, while the cupolaed pile of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the vast monasteries, and the broad steep of Sion crowned with the tower of David, vary the monotony of the general masses of building. But the glory of the scene is the Mosque of Omar as it rises on its broad platform of marble from the deep ravine of Kedron, with its magnificent dome high in the air, its arches and gardened courts, and its ornaments glittering amid the cedar, the cypress, and the palm.

Reclining on Olivet, Lothair, alone and in charmed abstraction, gazed on the wondrous scene. Since his arrival at Jerusalem he lived much apart, nor had he found difficulty in effecting this isolation. Mr. Phoebus had already established a studio on a considerable scale, and was engaged in making sketches of pilgrims and monks, tall donkeys of Bethlehem with starry fronts, in which he much delighted, and grave Jellaheen sheiks, who were hanging about the convents in the hopes of obtaining a convoy to the Dead Sea. As for St. Aldegonde and Bertram, they passed their lives at the Russian consulate, or with its most charming inhabitants. This morning, with the consul and his wife and the matchless sisters, as St. Aldegonde always termed them, they had gone on an excursion to the Convent of the Nativity. Dinner usually reassembled all the party, and then the Divan followed.

“I say, Bertram,” said St. Aldegonde, “what a lucky thing we paired and went to Nubia! I rejoice in the Divan, and yet, somehow, I cannot bear leaving those women. If the matchless sisters would only smoke, by Jove they would be perfect!”

“I should not like Euphrosyne to smoke,” said Bertram.

A person approached Lothair by the pathway from Bethany. It was the Syrian gentleman whom he had met at the consulate. As he was passing Lothair, he saluted him with the grace which had been before remarked, and Lothair, who was by nature courteous, and even inclined a little to ceremony in his manners, especially with those with whom he was not intimate, immediately rose, as he would not receive such a deputation in a reclining posture.

“Let me not disturb you,” said the stranger, “or, if we must be on equal terms, let me also be seated, for this is a view that never palls.”

“It is perhaps familiar to you,” said Lothair, “but with me, only a pilgrim, its effect is fascinating, almost overwhelming.”

“The view of Jerusalem never becomes familiar,” said the Syrian, “for its associations are so transcendent, so various, so inexhaustible, that the mind can never anticipate its course of thought and feeling, when one sits, as we do now, on this immortal mount.”

“I presume you live here?” said Lothair.

“Not exactly,” said his companion. “I have recently built a house without the walls, and I have planted my hill with fruit-trees, and made vineyards and olive-grounds, but I have done this as much — perhaps more — to set an example, which, I am glad, to say, has been followed, as for my own convenience or pleasure. My home is in the north of Palestine, on the other side of, Jordan, beyond the Sea of Galilee. My family has dwelt there from time immemorial; but they always loved this city, and have a legend that they dwelt occasionally within its walls, even in the days when Titus from that hill looked down upon the temple.”

“I have often wished to visit the Sea of Galilee,” said Lothair.

“Well, you have now an opportunity,” said the Syrian; “the north of Palestine, though it has no topical splendor, has much variety and a peculiar natural charm. The burst and brightness of spring have not yet quite vanished: you would find our plains radiant with wild-flowers, and our hills green with young crops; and, though we cannot rival Lebanon, we have forest glades among our famous hills that, when once seen, are remembered.”

“But there is something to me more interesting than the splendor of tropical scenery,” said Lothair, “even if Galilee could offer it. I wish to visit the cradle of my faith.”

“And you would do wisely,” said the Syrian, “for there is no doubt the spiritual nature of man is developed in this land.”

“And yet there are persons at the present day who doubt — even deny — the spiritual nature of man,” said Lothair. “I do not, I could not — there are reasons why I could not.”

“There are some things I know, and some things I believe,” said the Syrian. “I know that I have a soul, and I believe that it is immortal.”

“It is science that, by demonstrating the insignificance of this globe in the vast scale of creation, has led to this infidelity,” said Lothair.

“Science may prove the insignificance of this globe in the scale of creation,” said the stranger, “but it cannot prove the insignificance of man. What is the earth compared with the sun? a molehill by a mountain; yet the inhabitants of this earth can discover the elements of which the great orb consists, and will probably ere long ascertain all the conditions of its being. Nay, the human mind can penetrate far beyond the sun. There is no relation, therefore, between the faculties of man and the scale in creation of the planet which he inhabits.”

“I was glad to hear you assert the other night the spiritual nature of man in opposition to Mr. Phoebus.”

“Ah! Mr. Phoebus!” said the stranger, with a smile. “He is an old acquaintance of mine. And I must say he is very consistent — except in paying a visit to Jerusalem. That does surprise me. He said to me the other night the same things as he said to me at Rome many years ago. He would revive the worship of Nature. The deities whom he so eloquently describes and so exquisitely delineates are the ideal personifications of the most eminent human qualities, and chiefly the physical. Physical beauty is his standard of excellence, and he has a fanciful theory that moral order would be the consequence of the worship of physical beauty, for without moral order he holds physical beauty cannot be maintained. But the answer to Mr. Phoebus is, that his system has been tried and has failed, and under conditions more favorable than are likely to exist again; the worship of Nature ended in the degradation of the human race.”

“But Mr. Phoebus cannot really believe in Apollo and Venus,” said Lothair. “These are phrases. He is, I suppose, what is called a Pantheist.”

“No doubt the Olympus of Mr. Phoebus is the creation of his easel,” replied the Syrian. “I should not, however, describe him as a Pantheist, whose creed requires more abstraction than Mr. Phoebus, the worshipper of nature, would tolerate. His school never care to pursue any investigation which cannot be followed by the eye — and the worship of the beautiful always ends in an orgy. As for Pantheism, it is Atheism in domino. The belief in a Creator who is unconscious of creating is more monstrous than any dogma of any of the Churches in this city, and we have them all here.”

“But there are people now who tell you that there never was any Creation, and therefore there never could have been a Creator,” said Lothair.

“And which is now advanced with the confidences of novelty,” said the Syrian, “though all of it has been urged, and vainly urged, thousands of years ago. There must be design, or all we see would be without sense, and I do not believe in the unmeaning. As for the natural forces to which all creation is now attributed, we know they are unconscious, while consciousness is as inevitable a portion of our existence as the eye or the hand. The conscious cannot be derived from the unconscious. Man is divine.”

“I wish I could assure myself of the personality of the Creator,” said Lothair. “I cling to that, but they say it is unphilosophical.”

“In what sense?” asked the Syrian. “Is it more unphilosophical to believe in a personal God, omnipotent and omniscient, than in natural forces unconscious and irresistible? Is it unphilosophical to combine power with intelligence? Goethe, a Spinozist who did not believe in Spinoza, said that he could bring his mind to the conception that in the centre of space we might meet with a monad of pure intelligence. What may be the centre of space I leave to the daedal imagination of the author of ‘Faust;’ but a monad of pure intelligence — is that more philosophical than the truth, first revealed to man amid these everlasting hills,” said the Syrian, “that God made man in His own image?”

“I have often found in that assurance a source of sublime consolation,” said Lothair.

“It is the charter of the nobility of man,” said the Syrian, “one of the divine dogmas revealed in this land; not the invention of councils, not one of which was held on this sacred soil, confused assemblies first got together by the Greeks, and then by barbarous nations in barbarous times.”

“Yet the divine land no longer tells us divine things,” said Lothair.

“It may or it may not have fulfilled its destiny,” said the Syrian. “‘In my Father’s house are many mansions,’ and by the various families of nations the designs of the Creator are accomplished. God works by races, and one was appointed in due season and after many developments to reveal and expound in this land the spiritual nature of man. The Aryan and the Semite are of the same blood and origin, but when they quitted their central land they were ordained to follow opposite courses. Each division of the great race has developed one portion of the double nature of humanity, till, after all their wanderings, they met again, and, represented by their two choicest families, the Hellenes and the Hebrews, brought together the treasures of their accumulated wisdom, and secured the civilization of man.”

“Those among whom I have lived of late,” said Lothair, “have taught me to trust much in councils, and to believe that without them there could be no foundation for the Church. I observe you do not speak in that vein, though, like myself, you find solace in those dogmas which recognize the relations between the created and the Creator.”

“There can be no religion without that recognition,” said the Syrian, “and no creed can possibly be devised without such a recognition that would satisfy man. Why we are here, whence we come, whither we go — these are questions which man is organically framed and forced to ask himself, and that would not be the case if they could not be answered. As for churches depending on councils, the first council was held more than three centuries after the Sermon on the Mount. We Syrians had churches in the interval: no one can deny that. I bow before the Divine decree that swept them away from Antioch to Jerusalem, but I am not yet prepared to transfer my spiritual allegiance to Italian popes and Greek patriarchs. We believe that our family were among the first followers of Jesus, and that we then held lands in Bashan which we hold now. We had a gospel once in our district where there was some allusion to this, and being written by neighbors, and probably at the time, I dare say it was accurate, but the Western Churches declared our gospel was not authentic, though why I cannot tell, and they succeeded in extirpating it. It was not an additional reason why we, should enter into their fold. So I am content to dwell in Galilee and trace the footsteps of my Divine Master, musing over His life and pregnant sayings amid the mounts He sanctified and the waters He loved so well.”

The sun was now rising in the heavens, and the hour had arrived when it became expedient to seek the shade. Lothair and the Syrian rose at the same time.

“I shall not easily forget our conversation on the Mount of Olives,” said Lothair, “and I would ask you to add to this kindness by permitting me, before I leave Jerusalem, to pay my respects to you under your roof.”

“Peace be with you!” said the Syrian. “I live without the gate of Damascus, on a hill which you will easily recognize, and my name is PARACLETE.”

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 15:19