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A Boy And A Preacher Post by :eagltrax Category :Essays Author :David Grayson Date :October 2011 Read :1944

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A Boy And A Preacher

This morning I went to church with Harriet. I usually have some excuse for not going, but this morning I had them out one by one and they were altogether so shabby that I decided not to use them. So I put on my stiff shirt and Harriet came out in her best black cape with the silk fringes. She looked so immaculate, so ruddy, so cheerfully sober (for Sunday) that I was reconciled to the idea of driving her up to the church. And I am glad I went, for the experience I had.

It was an ideal summer Sunday: sunshiny, clear and still. I believe if I had been some Rip Van Winkle waking after twenty years' sleep I should have known it for Sunday. Away off over the hill somewhere we could hear a lazy farm boy singing at the top of his voice: the higher cadences of his song reached us pleasantly through the still air. The hens sitting near the lane fence, fluffing the dust over their backs, were holding a small and talkative service of their own. As we turned into the main road we saw the Patterson children on their way to church, all the little girls in Sunday ribbons, and all the little boys very uncomfortable in knit stockings.

"It seems a pity to go to church on a day like this," I said to Harriet.

"A pity!" she exclaimed. "Could anything be more appropriate?"

Harriet is good because she can't help it. Poor woman!--but I haven't any pity for her.

It sometimes seems to me the more worshipful I feel the less I want to go to church. I don't know why it is, but these forms, simple though they are, trouble me. The moment an emotion, especially a religious emotion, becomes an institution, it somehow loses life. True emotion is rare and costly and that which is awakened from without never rises to the height of that which springs spontaneously from within.

Back of the church stands a long low shed where we tied our horse. A number of other buggies were already there, several women were standing in groups, preening their feathers, a neighbour of ours who has a tremendous bass voice was talking to a friend:

"Yas, oats is showing up well, but wheat is backward."

His voice, which he was evidently trying to subdue for Sunday, boomed through the still air. So we walked among the trees to the door of the church. A smiling elder, in an unaccustomed long coat, bowed and greeted us. As we went in there was an odour of cushions and our footsteps on the wooden floor echoed in the warm emptiness of the church. The Scotch preacher was finding his place in the big Bible; he stood solid and shaggy behind the yellow oak pulpit, a peculiar professional look on his face. In the pulpit the Scotch preacher is too much minister, too little man. He is best down among us with his hand in ours. He is a sort of human solvent. Is there a twisted and hardened heart in the community he beams upon it from his cheerful eye, he speaks out of his great charity, he gives the friendly pressure of his large hand, and that hardened heart dissolves and its frozen hopelessness loses itself in tears. So he goes through life, seeming always to understand. He is not surprised by wickedness nor discouraged by weakness: he is so sure of a greater Strength!

But I must come to my experience, which I am almost tempted to call a resurrection--the resurrection of a boy, long since gone away, and of a tall lank preacher who, in his humility, looked upon himself as a failure. I hardly know how it all came back to me; possibly it was the scent-laden breeze that came in from the woods and through the half-open church window, perhaps it was a line in one of the old songs, perhaps it was the droning voice of the Scotch preacher--somehow, and suddenly, I was a boy again.

----To this day I think of death as a valley: a dark shadowy valley: the Valley of the Shadow of Death. So persistent are the impressions of boyhood! As I sat in the church I could see, as distinctly as though I were there, the church of my boyhood and the tall dyspeptic preacher looming above the pulpit, the peculiar way the light came through the coarse colour of the windows, the barrenness and stiffness of the great empty room, the raw girders overhead, the prim choir. There was something in that preacher, gaunt, worn, sodden though he appeared: a spark somewhere, a little flame, mostly smothered by the gray dreariness of his surroundings, and yet blazing up at times to some warmth.

As I remember it, our church was a church of failures. They sent us the old gray preachers worn out in other fields. Such a succession of them I remember, each with some peculiarity, some pathos. They were of the old sort, indoctrinated Presbyterians, and they harrowed well our barren field with the tooth of their hard creed. Some thundered the Law, some pleaded Love; but of all of them I remember best the one who thought himself the greatest failure. I think he had tried a hundred churches--a hard life, poorly paid, unappreciated--in a new country. He had once had a family, but one by one they had died. No two were buried in the same cemetery; and finally, before he came to our village, his wife, too, had gone. And he was old, and out of health, and discouraged: seeking some final warmth from his own cold doctrine. How I see him, a trifle bent, in his long worn coat, walking in the country roads: not knowing of a boy who loved him!

He told my father once: I recall his exact, words:

"My days have been long, and I have failed. It was not given me to reach men's hearts."

Oh, gray preacher, may I now make amends? Will you forgive me? I was a boy and did not know; a boy whose emotions were hidden under mountains of reserve: who could have stood up to be shot more easily than he could have said: "I love you!"

Of that preacher's sermons I remember not one word, though I must have heard scores of them--only that they were interminably long and dull and that my legs grew weary of sitting and that I was often hungry. It was no doubt the dreadful old doctrine that he preached, thundering the horrors of disobedience, urging an impossible love through fear and a vain belief without reason. All that touched me not at all, save with a sort of wonder at the working of his great Adam's apple and the strange rollings of his cavernous eyes. This he looked upon as the work of God; thus for years he had sought, with self-confessed failure, to touch the souls of his people. How we travel in darkness and the work we do in all seriousness counts for naught, and the thing we toss off in play-time, unconsciously, God uses!

One tow-headed boy sitting there in a front row dreaming dreams, if the sermons touched him not, was yet thrilled to the depths of his being by that tall preacher. Somewhere, I said, he had a spark within him. I think he never knew it: or if he knew it, he regarded it as a wayward impulse that might lead him from his God. It was a spark of poetry: strange flower in such a husk. In times of emotion it bloomed, but in daily life it emitted no fragrance. I have wondered what might have been if some one--some understanding woman--had recognised his gift, or if he himself as a boy had once dared to cut free! We do not know: we do not know the tragedy of our nearest friend!

By some instinct the preacher chose his readings mostly from the Old Testament--those splendid, marching passages, full of oriental imagery. As he read there would creep into his voice a certain resonance that lifted him and his calling suddenly above his gray surroundings.

How vividly I recall his reading of the twenty-third Psalm--a particular reading. I suppose I had heard the passage many times before, but upon this certain morning----

Shall I ever forget? The windows were open, for it was May, and a boy could look out on the hillside and see with longing eyes the inviting grass and trees. A soft wind blew in across the church; it was full of the very essence of spring. I smell it yet. On the pulpit stood a bunch of crocuses crowded into a vase: some Mary's offering. An old man named Johnson who sat near us was already beginning to breathe heavily, preparatory to sinking into his regular Sunday snore. Then those words from the preacher, bringing me suddenly--how shall I express it?--out of some formless void, to intense consciousness--a miracle of creation:

"Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me."

Well, I saw the way to the place of death that morning; far more vividly I saw it than any natural scene I know: and myself walking therein. I shall know it again when I come to pass that way; the tall, dark, rocky cliffs, the shadowy path within, the overhanging dark branches, even the whitened dead bones by the way--and as one of the vivid phantasms of boyhood--cloaked figures I saw, lurking mysteriously in deep recesses, fearsome for their very silence. And yet I with magic rod and staff walking within--boldly, fearing no evil, full of faith, hope, courage, love, invoking images of terror but for the joy of braving them. Ah, tow-headed boy, shall I tread as lightly that dread pathway when I come to it? Shall I, like you, fear no evil!

So that great morning went away. I heard nothing of singing or sermon and came not to myself until my mother, touching my arm, asked me if I had been asleep! And I smiled and thought how little grown people knew--and I looked up at the sad sick face of the old preacher with a new interest and friendliness. I felt, somehow, that he too was a familiar of my secret valley. I should have liked to ask him, but I did not dare. So I followed my mother when she went to speak to him, and when he did not see, I touched his coat.

After that how I watched when he came to the reading. And one great Sunday, he chose a chapter from Ecclesiastes, the one that begins sonorously:

"Remember now thy creator in the days of thy youth."

Surely that gaunt preacher had the true fire in his gray soul. How his voice dwelt and quivered and softened upon the words!


"While the sun, or the light, or the moon, or the
stars, be not darkened, nor the clouds return after
the rain----"
Thus he brought in the universe to that
small church and filled the heart of a boy.

"In the days when the keepers of the house shall
tremble, and the strong men shall bow themselves,
and the grinders cease because they are few, and those
that look out of the windows be darkened."

"And the doors shall be shut in the streets, when
the sound of the grinding is low, and he shall rise up
at the voice of the bird and all the daughters of music
shall be brought low."


Do not think that I understood the meaning of those passages: I am not vain enough to think I know even now--but the sound of them, the roll of them, the beautiful words, and above all, the pictures!

Those Daughters of Music, how I lived for days imagining them! They were of the trees and the hills, and they were very beautiful but elusive; one saw them as he heard singing afar off, sweet strains fading often into silences. Daughters of Music! Daughters of Music! And why should they be brought low?

Doors shut in the street--how I saw them--a long, long street, silent, full of sunshine, and the doors shut, and no sound anywhere but the low sound of the grinding: and the mill with the wheels drowsily turning and no one there at all save one boy with fluttering heart, tiptoeing in the sunlit doorway.

And the voice of the bird. Not the song but the voice. Yes, a bird had a voice. I had known it always, and yet somehow I had not dared to say it. I felt that they would look at me with that questioning, incredulous look which I dreaded beyond belief. They might laugh! But here it was in the Book--the voice of a bird. How my appreciation of that Book increased and what a new confidence it gave me in my own images! I went about for days, listening, listening, listening--and interpreting.

So the words of the preacher and the fire in them:


"And when they shall be afraid of that which is
high and fears shall be in the way----"


I knew the fear of that which is high: I had dreamed of it commonly. And I knew also the Fear that stood in the way: him I had seen in a myriad of forms, looming black by darkness in every lane I trod; and yet with what defiance I met and slew him!

And then, more thrilling than all else, the words of the preacher:


"Or ever the silver cord be loosed, or the golden
bowl be broken, or the pitcher be broken at the fountain,
or the wheel broken at the cistern."


Such pictures: that silver cord, that golden bowl! And why and wherefore?

A thousand ways I turned them in my mind--and always with the sound of the preacher's voice in my ears--the resonance of the words conveying an indescribable fire of inspiration. Vaguely and yet with certainty I knew the preacher spoke out of some unfathomable emotion which I did not understand--which I did not care to understand. Since then I have thought what those words must have meant to him!

Ah, that tall lank preacher, who thought himself a failure: how long I shall remember him and the words he read and the mournful yet resonant cadences of his voice--and the barren church, and the stony religion! Heaven he gave me, unknowing, while he preached an ineffectual hell.

As we rode home Harriet looked into my face.

"You have enjoyed the service," she said softly.

"Yes," I said.

"It was a good sermon," she said.

"Was it?" I replied.


(The end)
David Grayson's essay: Boy And A Preacher

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