[The outline of this early composition (1857) was a real dream.]
I stood in the nave of a strangely magnificent cathedral. Such a cathedral it was as seemed to be the very embodiment of the highest ideal of beauty and grandeur. Around me were fluted columns of snowy marble, enriched with carvings of foliage, such as the artist might have seen in a vision of Eden, meeting above in pointed arches, whose upward curve seemed to beckon heavenwards and to speak of celestial aspirings; the floor was marble too, and as unsullied in its whiteness as the dewy petal of a lily, ere the dusty breath of day has passed upon it, and telling me of purity and innocence; then the vaulted roof, the union of those arching columns, with its dim twilight of undefined yet beautiful interlacings, spoke of holy mysteries. There were long shadowy aisles stretching far away, and their whispering echoes suggested sacred solitude and retirement. There were marble steps leading up to a screen of such cunning work that the very stone seemed to breathe forth beauty, and, if possible, to shadow forth the loveliness of religion. And beyond this were glimpses of such a choir, so wonderful in its transcendent beauty, as seemed scarcely fitted for mortal worshippers to kneel within. All this was seen, as it were, through the veil of a softened, shadowy radiance, poured through windows whose Gothic tracery enclosed, not stained glass, but a mosaic of the most gorgeous gems, casting the glow of their rich deep colouring on portions of the fair whiteness of pillar and arch and pavement, bathing all in a light, splendid even in the solemnity of its dimness. Scarcely had admiration and wonder time to unfold, when the tones of cathedral music swelled through the marvellous temple. Soft and sweet as a symphony of angel harps, the sound seemed to enwreathe itself around the marble shafts, and to melt into the dark vaultings of the lofty roof, as though there were some strange affinity between them; and then, at every pause, it hovered away far down the lessening aisles, till the whole building was like one great living instrument. Then voices came floating down that glorious nave: sweet and melodious, shall I call them? words do not express what those voices were; and the anthem which they chanted was such as Handel might dream, perhaps, but never wrote.
Do you not know what it is to see something very beautiful, and yet feel unsatisfied? to hear the sweetest sounds, and yet feel they might be sweeter? to enjoy the greatest apparent delight, and yet feel that it is not the perfection of happiness? I cannot think that the human spirit is ever positively and absolutely satisfied; it is too great, too vast, (though we scarcely know it,) to be filled with anything on earth; its real ideal is never found; it is ever striving and yearning after something greater, higher, lovelier; and its Maker is its only satisfaction,
But I was satisfied. It was the perfection of beauty, the perfection of enjoyment; my longings realized, and more still. All this seemed to carry my heart upwards, I felt filled with joyful devotion, and adoration was the keynote of the silent anthem of my spirit. Then the thought came across me: "Can it be that such a temple is unfavourable to true devotion? can it be that a spirit could remain earthbound here, and not soar far, far upwards, in the holiest, happiest, adoration?"
Suddenly I heard a voice, clear, calm, and very grave, though I saw not the speaker. It spoke to me: "Your Saviour is here, you have long sought Him, He is about to manifest Himself to you. See! He is standing there in His own glorious Person!" In an instant all else had lost its interest. Oh! it was so strange, that sudden revulsion of feeling. Fancied devotion gave way to the reality of the intensest earnestness; the temple in all its fascinating grandeur was nothing, absolutely nothing; His Presence there was the only thing I longed for. I gazed intently where the voice indicated; I saw One standing alone, and knew and felt that it was Himself. But the many-lined shadow of one of the gem-filled windows fell upon His Form, and I could not discern its outline, much less His countenance.
"Listen!" said the voice again; "He is speaking to you. Are not His words sweet and gracious?" But a fresh burst of music pealed from the organ, the voices of the invisible choristers rose higher and louder, and the tide of melody carried away the sound of that heavenly Voice, whose words would have been more than life to me. Oh, how each note grated upon me! How I hated the music, which drowned the gentle tones of that Voice!
I determined to approach, and at least be gladdened by His look, though His words might not reach my ear. I hastened on, but the marble steps grew in height under my feet, and I could not ascend them as quickly as I thought to do, each one seemed a mountain. But He was turning to look on me, and something seemed to tell me certainly that He was going to rejoice me with one of His own sweet smiles, another instant, and His eye would have met mine, when one of the fluted pillars suddenly rose in front of me, the blessed moment was gone, and He passed away down one of the dim shadowy aisles.
In desperation I rushed on, as if every hope, every desire, of a lifetime were concentrated in that one passing instant; I gained the entrance of the aisle, when the exquisite screen, which a moment before had so charmed me, stretched itself in defiance across it, barring the only way by which I could reach the departing Saviour.
He was gone! and all seemed changed to darkness and discord. In the very agonies of regret and despair I sank on the pavement, and awoke.
The moral, so to speak, of this dream will be apparent to every one. What is earthly beauty to a soul longing for its Saviour, and thirsting for His grace? What are externals compared to internals? But I would not be misunderstood, there is no reason why the other extreme should be advocated. I am, and always have been, a warm admirer of those time-honoured ornaments of our land, the crown jewels, as it were, of our outward and visible Church, our English cathedrals. He who giveth us all things richly to enjoy must have awakened, or rather created, those thoughts of beauty which expressed themselves in these glorious temples, notwithstanding the tainted atmosphere of superstition which then darkened our land; and if their original purpose, the setting forth of Jehovah's praise and glory, is sometimes far from being attained, the fault is not in the temples, but in any who do not within them worship God in spirit and truth. It is not the grace and grandeur of their architecture which frustrate their noble object, but the earthliness of men's hearts, which rises not above pillar and roof and spire, but lies like the cold pavement itself, resting in things seen and temporal. If it be true that "unto the pure all things are pure," just as true is it that, to the unrenewed mind and unwatchful heart, the holiest things may and do become snares and stumbling blocks; satisfied with the beauty of earthly sanctuaries, and the solemnity of mere earthly forms, they yearn not for the "beauty of the Lord our God," who "dwelleth not in temples made with hands." But the soul of one who knows Him who is "altogether lovely," and longs for the day when he shall "see the King in His beauty," while rejoicing in, and loving, our old cathedrals in their ancient hoariness, will yet esteem them as nothing in comparison with the higher things on which his heart is set. And it will probably be found that, after all, he who thus gives such things their right and subordinate place has the purest enjoyment in, and the truest appreciation of, those ancient fanes which have stood for centuries, the silent witnesses of the beauty of religion.
May each one who reads this dream find, and know, and rejoice in that Saviour, whose whisper of pardoning love is sweeter than earth's sweetest music, whose smile of acceptance is lovelier than earth's loveliest scene! May he himself become a "temple of the Holy Ghost," bright with the beauty of holiness, and shining in the light of the countenance of our God!—Memorials of F. R. H., (London: James Nisbet, 1880), 315 - 318