Project Canterbury

The Velvet Cushion

By John Cunningham

London: Printed for T. Cadell and W. Davies, 1814.

Chapter III.

The old gentleman then having put both body and mind into the attitude of attention, and heard with laudable patience and forbearance a caution from his careful lady against hurting himself by reading too loud, read on as follows:

'As I said, Sir, I was now the cushion of a Catholic church, and I assure you that I soon felt all the benefit of my recent consecration and peculiar destiny. A good Catholic treats even his cushion with reverence. Indeed, I had some reason to suspect, that an old woman of the congregation considered me either as the relic of a Saint, or as the Saint himself suffering under some especial penance. For certain it is she often approached me with crosses and genuflections.--But, Sir, Popery possessed some more substantial and general claims upon [16/17] my regard than those founded upon the honours it conferred on myself. When I looked around on the edifice into which I was introduced, I was at once awed and delighted. The vast Gothic arches, the solemn light, the general air of majesty--all inspired the most lofty ideas of the Being to whom the temple was dedicated. And here, Sir, as I am likely to say a few hard things of Popery presently, I wish, by way of set off, to remind you good Protestants, that you owe to Popery almost every thing that deserves to be called by the name of a Church. Popery is the religion of Cathedrals--Protestantism of houses--Dissenterism of barns. I have heard you, Sir, who ought, I am sure, to read nothing in vain, read very emphatically a brief for the repair of a Church originally built by Papists--which even, with the odd sixpence slipped in by yourself for the reputation of the parish, did not collect above nine-pence. 1 have sometimes thought that, if [17/18] Protestantism had been the first faith of the country, and the present niggardly spirit as to public edifices had prevailed, you must all have been field preachers for want of a Church to preach in. But to return, Sir. I soon discovered that, after admiring the magnificence of Popery, my topics of admiration were soon exhausted. I no sooner heard parts of the Bible than I began to compare them with what I saw and heard around me. And I need not tell you, Sir, that the Bible and Popery do not very strictly harmonize. I saw an endless round of childish ceremonies--water said to cleanse from sin--unction that at once prepared the sinner for heaven--relics of the cross, which, put together, were twice as big as the cross itself could have been--figures of saints to which prayers were offered, said to have fallen from heaven, but carved, as I heard the clerk say, about fifty years since, out of the remnants of an old pew--images said to open [18/19] their eyes, to cure diseases, to send victory, and so on--all of which I, who was in the secret, knew to have been created by a neighbouring joiner. But all this, though bad enough, was not the worst. I saw the Priest hold up a piece of bread which, he affirmed to be Christ, and all the people fell down and worshipped it. As to much that I heard, I have thought it an implicit duty to forget it as soon as possible. Exceptions indeed there were. But, in general, I heard little but certain maxims and histories, of no authority or use, which they called traditions. Sometimes these were exchanged for fabulous histories of the very Saints I have mentioned as manufactured by a neighbouring joiner. Sometimes also I heard of the duty of penance, of worshipping the Virgin, of burning and pinching men into orthodoxy, of confession to the Priest. As to this last duty, I observed, that one half of it was most rigidly performed, namely, that in which the [19/20] confessionist was to give an account of his own excellencies. I heard much also of absolution; and especially remember the man who bought at a high price from the Pope's nuncio absolution for three months in advance, from whatever sin he might commit; and, in virtue of his license, before the expiration of the patent, robbed this very nuncio of all he had pilfered by the sale of this and many ether absolutions I heard occasionally also from a neighbouring court, what was still more terrible--the crackling of faggots, and the groans of heretical victims. But, Sir, as I do not love finding fault, I will here stop, confessing however, that I sincerely partook in the joy expressed by the old Clerk, who, though he called himself for convenience a Papist, during this bloody reign, nevertheless was too conscious of his heresy not daily to expect suspension by one of his own ropes--when told, by the verger, that the Queen was dead. I love [20/21] Royalty, and do not mean to judge her as an individual. The religion of her Royal Father was certainly not such as to recommend his mode of faith to her. Persecution also was the fashion of the day. Moreover, she was a woman of weak understanding in the hands of crafty Priests. In short, I heartily hope that her Majesty had some better excuses to offer than you zealous Protestants have discovered. But, as I said, I rejoiced she was gone, and unfeignedly hoped Popery would be buried in the grave with her.'

Here the venerable reader laid down the manuscript; and she, whose oracle he was, laid down her work to listen to his observations upon it. He took off his spectacles, that, not looking outwards, he might, as it were, see inwards the better, took snuff twice, placed his right hand upon the Bible which lay on his table, as if afraid, in his argument, of letting it go--and thus began.

[22] "I think, my dear," he said, "it is difficult to speak too ill of Popery as a religion."

"I should think it is, my love," she answered.

"It was at once," he added, "superstitious, formal, cold, and cruel. Above all, it did not teach men to fix their hopes and affections upon that Saviour who has been, my love, all our hope for near fifty years." The mention of these fifty years insured her consent to any proposition of the speaker.

"And, then," said he, "the errors of the Church were perpetuated by their own practices. This blessed book," and he raised his hand, and reverently brought it down again upon the sacred volume as he spoke, "this blessed book, which would have corrected the evil, was kept out of sight. They were sick, and would not let the physician prescribe for them."

"That my dear," said the old lady, [22/23] whose thoughts were instantly turned by 'the word 'physician' to a little argument between them the day before, on the subject of a complaint of his own, "that, my dear, is the fault of some better men than themselves."

"Now," added he, pretending not to notice her remark, "a consequence of this was, that the disease continually gained ground." She, still applying the remark nearer home, fetched a deep sigh. "Hence," he added "an evil once introduced into the system was never got rid of. Still, while I condemn the religion, I cannot but love many of the professors of it. There are no authors I read with greater delight; as you know, than Pascal and Fenelon. The one is all reason, and the other all love."

"How happened it, my dear," she asked, "that such men as these never discovered the defects of their religion?"

"They never suffered themselves," he [23/24] answered, "to look after their defects. Their unbounded reverence for the Priest did not permit them to use their own judgment in opposition to his." Her own unbounded reverence for one particular Priest made this answer peculiarly intelligible and satisfactory to her. He added, "I feel disposed to condemn the temper of the present age as it respects Popery in two points. In one party, there is too little dislike of the religion. In the other, too little charity for some of those who hold it. I acknowledge, for instance, that Popery has some things in it not likely to inspire loyalty for a Protestant sovereign, or patriotism to a heretic country. But still I believe there are many Papists both loyal and patriotic. Their very refusal to take our oaths proves that they respect an oath. Their refusal to part with any tittle of their own faith for a desirable end, promises, I think, that they will not maintain that faith by wrong means."

[25] "Would you, then," she asked, "have voted for Catholic emancipation?"

"The country," he answered, "has nothing either to hope or fear from my vote. And in this instance, as in all others, I rejoice that she has wiser counsellors. But this I will say to you," and smiling, as if at an old friend, "to my cushion here, who has listened to all my poor sayings, with extraordinary patience, for above half a century,--that, whilst I like the concessions, I tremble at the ground on which the Catholics ask them. They claim them as a right; and I could grant them only as a favour. Admit them to be a right, and the Catholics have the same right to ask for a Popish King and Church. Consider them as a favour, and then we may stop at the point of danger. And sure I am, my love, I should not be anxious to discover that point too soon. Governments may easily be too sharp-sighted upon such points. I desire to see the [25/26] edifice of our constitution last as long as the rocks by which we are surrounded; and, for this purpose, I would inscribe on its walls the sacred name of that 'Charity' which 'never faileth.'"

"But, my dear, do you not think the character of Popery improved?"

"Not so much as I had hoped. There is, however, one circumstance which promises a great improvement in our own country--I mean the universal diffusion of the Bible. It is like letting in light upon the owls and bats. Popery has, perhaps, too much affinity with the corruption of our nature to die a natural death, but, I begin to hope, it may be suffocated by the Bible."

"Suppose, my love," said the old lady, who loved a practical conclusion to all arguments, "we now read our own chapter and go to bed."--They did read their chapter, and rose from it, as I have heard them say, they always did, loving God and one another even better than they did before.

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