Project Canterbury

The Velvet Cushion

By John Cunningham

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

Chapter XIII.

The old gentleman perceived the un-perused pages of his manuscript so rapidly diminish, that he was a little perplexed for some days between the desire of reading more, and the apprehension of having no more to read. His determination, however, to husband his little remaining stock soon gave way, and he began to read the history of another of his predecessors.

'I have already, Sir, stated to you some reasons why I relate to you the history of no more of your brother incumbents upon the vicarage. Some it would give me pain to relate. Of some I can find nothing to say. Among others, however, who, either did wrong, or did nothing, there were many individuals (and I say it to the honour of a church which both you and I love) worthy of [158/159] the first and best days of religion. And of one of these, whom I shall call Berkely, I proceed to give you some account.'

"I am glad," said the Vicar, "that our friend has taken off his condemning cap. I believe the characters of ministers to have been much calumniated. And, at all events, he is no friend to religion, who delights to depreciate those who minister at her altars. It is not easy to aim a blow at the false prophet of the Lord, without wounding those whose garb he wears. It is not easy to touch a decayed stone in the altar without impairing the sanctity, or risquing the permanence, of the whole. I do not mean, however, that our gowns should shelter us from scrutiny; but it should be cautiously begun, and kindly conducted. I have, moreover, this objection to sitting too often in judgment upon the more faulty of our fellow-creatures, that we gain nothing, but, on the contrary, lose [159/160] much, by learning there are others worse than ourselves. Surround a person half blind only with men totally blind, and he begins to value himself upon his powers of vision. I love, my dear, to rise above the degraded part of our species--to look through the long perspective of ages--to call up the mighty dead--to encompass myself with the vast cloud of witnesses who have triumphed in the contest with the powers of darkness. They both encourage me to contend, and compel me to be humble, whilst inferior men--But let us turn to the bright example which the memoir promises us." He did, and read the following history.

'Berkely was the son of parents, who, though both religious, differed widely in the complexion of their character. His father was a man of high and elastic spirits--attracted by large objects, and pursuing them with ardour, courage, and self-devotion. He looked over the [160/161] world with a cheerful and thankful eye saw good in every thing, and wondered that the servants of so good and merciful a God should ever find cause for sorrow or complaint. His defect was, perhaps, that he was less wise in council, than prompt in action--that he did not sufficiently calculate remote consequences -and sometimes produced good ends by imprudent means. The mother of Berkely, on the contrary, was a person of low, reflective, nervous temperament,--easily depressed--discerning evils at an incredible distance, and peopling earth, sea, skies, with visionary alarms. Had not the star of religion shone in upon the dark chambers of her mind, her gloom might have ended in despair. I describe the parents the more minutely, because I think that Berkely inherited some of the qualities of each--or rather their compound character. In him, that life and joy and energy which surrounded the father as a sort of perpetual atmosphere, [161/162] only gleamed occasionally when called out by certain great objects--by the society of those he loved, by the splendid scenery of nature, or by the grand themes of religion. Then, indeed, so much more of intellect mingled with his sensations, that his joy took a nobler flight, and soared into regions denied to a less vigorous mind. At other times, the spirit of his mother seemed to descend upon him; and a state of depression followed; of depression, however, which, by exhibiting him, as it were, amidst the fires of affliction, served to display some of the most touching as well as majestic features of his character. It indicated, however, some hidden disease; and perhaps predicted the somewhat premature death that removed him from his friends. From both his parents he inherited the most exalted piety. Not, indeed, that religion descends in the blood, for the most pious parents often leave no representatives of their virtues; nor did [162/163] he receive it as a sort of heir-loom and family portion; for few minds were of a more deliberative and scrupulous cast. But, seeing it from his infancy, under his paternal roof, surrounded with generous and lofty qualities, his earliest prejudices were on the side of religion, his earliest studies were in pursuit of it, and his earliest decisions in its favour. But, Sir, as many of my former communications may have appeared somewhat querulous,--as I am anxious to redeem my character before we part (the Vicar here pressed the finger and thumb together which held the remaining pages of the memoir, and was shocked to feel how few they were)--as both you and I love praise, I trust, better than blame,--as, moreover, I wish to bear my testimony to the best man, except one, that ever possessed the living; I am resolved to shew you him in various and distinct views, so that the whole man may pass before you.'

[164] "Who can the 'one' be," said the Vicar.

"There can be no doubt on that point," rejoined his lady. But he unfortunately left her no time to tell us the secret, and read on.

'In order, Sir, to shew you, as it were, the key-stone of the opinions and character of Berkely, I must state to you one circumstance. From a child he had been remarkable for the most ardent attachment to his father. That name comprehended in it all that was in his eyes venerable and delightful. Hence, filial affection had become with/him, not merely a feeling, but a principle. He hoped much of every man who ardently loved a good parent. He feared every thing in one who did not. Often have I seen the tear start from his eye as he read the history of Joseph; and the blood mantle in his cheek as he read that of Absalom. And such was the power of this master feeling, that it gave a peculiar character even to his religion. [164/165] For, of all the men I ever saw, he most delighted to represent God under the image of a father. It was to him the most honourable and interesting of all titles, and he transferred it to the Being whom he best loved. You will soon perceive how much this peculiar feeling shaped and coloured all his opinions and practice.'

The old Vicar could scarcely find words to express his delight at this statement, so completely did the views of his devout predecessor harmonize with his own.

"Happy," said he," the father of such a child."

"Happy," she replied, "the child of such a father."

"Happy, indeed," added the Vicar; "for here one virtue led to another--the love of a father to the love of God. But let us proceed."

'This peculiar feeling, as I said, Sir, gave a peculiar complexion to all his [165/166] religious opinions. Thus it inclined him, I think, though he very rarely spoke upon the subject, to that system of religion which represents God as equally disposed to save all his creatures. The Father of the world was not likely, he thought, to have set aside or past over, any part of his earthly family. In like manner, it led him to dwell, with peculiar emphasis, upon the features of mercy in the character of God. In the conduct of a father, the quality of love would be sure to predominate; and Berkely ever seemed to be searching out, even in the darkest of the divine dispensations, some ray of compassion which bespoke a parental hand. 'Even (he would say) amidst the monuments of wrath which sadden the face of the universe, I discern, both in man and in the world he inhabits, many splendid relics or a nobler creation. It is, indeed, a world of nuns, but of ruins diversified and ennobled by many a lofty pillar, designating [166/167] the majesty of the original edifice. Look even at the most signal examples of divine vengeance, and love will always be seen sheathing or tempering the sword of justice. When, for instance, the fountains of the great deep were broken up, and a flood swept the face of a guilty world, even then, the ark surmounted the waters, and restored the only pious family to an unoccupied globe. Did the waves of the Red sea close in upon the hosts, and engulph the chariots of guilty Egypt? Behold a whole people, with their flocks and herds, preserved upon the banks of that very sea, as if to shew, that in judgment God remembers mercy.' Did the vault of heaven blaze with unusual fires, and empty its burning deluge on the profligate cities of the plain? There, also, the solitary servant of God is seen walking unhurt upon the fiery soil, and amidst the atmosphere of death. Even when the earth shook--when the face [167/168] of heaven was darkened--when the veil of the temple was rent, and the groans of nature proclaimed the just anger of God,--a voice of mercy was heard amidst the clamours and agonies of the universe--'to-day shalt thou be with me in Paradise;' and the Son of God ascended to his father, not dragging at his chariot wheel thousands of his persecutors, but bearing in his arms one poor criminal rescued from the cross.' But, Sir, I must not indulge myself in recording the sayings of this good man. His language was like that of one who had been placed in the clefts of the rocks, while the divine glory passed by; who had seen, indeed, the majesty of God; but had heard him proclaim'd as a God of 'long-suffering' and of 'tender mercy.' It is enough to say that he pleaded for God in the face of a negligent world, as a son would plead for the honours and rights of a revered parent. And many were the hearts which, though unsubdued [168/169] by terrors, melted under the ray of his tenderness and woe.

'This same fact, to which I have referred, perhaps also, in some measure, assisted to guide his judgment in matters of controversy. His impression was, that, as the child had no right to hope he should comprehend all that was intelligible to the matured wisdom of a parent, far less should man presume to dive into the mysteries of God. This at once taught him to prefer carrying the balance, rather than the sword, amidst contending parties in religion. In his days, for instance, as it was much the fashion to dispute upon the inexhaustible topics of Calvinism and Arminianism, it was desired and expected of all to enlist themselves on one side or the other. And, as his father inclined to the former hypothesis, he was naturally expected to break his lance in favour of the divine decrees. But the young divine soon manifested a disposition, rather to [169/170] silence, than to controversy upon this disputed point. This encouraged the opposite party to range him under their banner. But, here again, his bias was rather to temper the warmth of others, than to display his own. It was not that he failed to comprehend the nature of the controversy--or that he viewed any topic of religion with indifference--or that he did not discover in the sacred volume passages favourable to each system. But he soon discovered that this controversy had fruitlessly occupied the attention, and harassed the spirits, of good men, in almost every age, and under every system of religion; and that it was not likely to be decided till 'men shall know even as they are known.' He thought the more ardent champions, on either side, generally wrong--inasmuch as both inclined to substitute their own system for the simple creed of scripture, and to twist its straight letter into all the windings of human [170/171] philosophy. He therefore took part entirely with neither--but taught modesty and charity to both.

But I pass on, from his opinions, to his character as the pastor of a parish. I have said that, in forming his conception of God, he had reasoned upwards from man to God--from the image of an earthly father to the character of the great and good Being who presides over the world. On the contrary, in moulding his own character, he had reasoned downwards from God to man; and his desire was to be in his parish according to his mean ability, that which the God, of whom he was the representative, was in all the world.

'In the pulpit, accordingly, he was remarkable for speaking, not in the language of the contending parties, but in that of God. I have heard him say that 'in reviewing his own ministry, almost the only fact on which his eye rested with satisfaction, was the not [171/172] being able to charge himself with having voluntarily employed a single text for a purpose not designed by its great author.'

'But, not only did he largely use the language of the Bible--he felt it his duty, as far as possible, to imitate the style of reasoning employed in it, and especially in the minority of Christ. Like him, he endeavoured to seize upon passive events or objects to illustrate his meaning--like him, to vary his subject with his audience--like him, to be simple, grave, spiritual, touching, tender. He used to say, 'I think the language of Christ is often much mistaken. Some conceive themselves his imitators, when they confine themselves to the practical parts of religion; forgetting that every fundamental doctrine of religion is strongly urged by Christ, and that its mere sublime and mysterious points,--the union of God with man, the influence of the Spirit, the precise nature of the final [172/173] judgment and happiness of man, are treated by him with a boldness and fullness, which would amount to impiety in any other teacher.' Others again conceive that they imitate him in acts of rashness and enthusiasm--forgetting that he rigidly conformed to existing rites--that he continued to worship even in those corrupt Jewish synagogues he was about to abolish--that he did not even enter upon his ministry till he was thirty years of age. Now, both these errors Berkely avoided. He taught the truth--but taught it calmly. He touched the harp of the prophet, but not with that unholy vehemence which snaps its cords.

In general, his manner in the pulpit was rather mild and paternal, than energetic. But there were times, and those not a few, when a new spirit seemed to animate him. His favourite theme was the happiness of the saints in glory; and he really spoke of heaven as though he had been there. I have now his figure [173/174] before me, as he rose up to address his congregation the first time after the death of his father.--No event had touched him at a more vital point. But, although as he mounted the pulpit, a sort: of cheerless cloud hung upon his brows in a short time, a ray from heaven seemed to disperse it. He was not afraid to touch the chord which might be expected to awaken all the anguish of his soul--Others wept--but he was calm'. He spoke of death, but it was of the death of the righteous, and of the blessedness which follows it. Such was the impression of the scene, that as his hearers watched his glowing eye, his grey hair, his peaceful smile, his uplifted hand, his lighted countenance--and saw him, as it were, launch into other worlds, and bring back their spoils to enrich himself in this--withdrawing the veil from the sanctuary--speaking of things to come as presents they looked at him almost as they would [174/175] at St. John rising from the dead, to add another scene to his celestial visions.'

'Above all, it was his anxious endeavour to display the character of Christ in his own daily intercourse with his parish. 'The life of Christ,' he was wont to say, 'was the life of God upon earth; and therefore the fit model for him who desired to be the representative of God to his parish.' 'Human laws (I have heard him observe) differ from the divine government in three points--they do not pardon the penitent--nor reward the good--nor assist men to discharge the duties, the neglect of which they punish.' 'Now, (he added), in all these points, every man, and especially a minister, should endeavour to supply, to those under his care, the deficiencies of the laws.' Such therefore, was his rule, and most simply and earnestly did he strive to adhere to it. Such was his tenderness to the penitent, for instance, that he stood condemned [175/176] with some of the sterner spirits in his parish for credulity. But he remembered who it was that saw the prodigal even when afar off, and made haste to meet him, and fell on his neck and kissed him. I have more than once seen him, when some poor offender asked, doubtingly, 'whether it was possible he could ever be forgiven,' point with an eye full of tears, to a fine picture of Mary anointing the feet of Jesus, which hung in his study. In like manner, it was his constant endeavour, as far as he was able, to reward those who deserved it. Many a child carried in its little box some cherished memorial of the kind old Vicar; and many a bible, even to this day, sheds a ray of comfort and splendour from the shelves of a cottage on which his approving hand originally placed it. As to the remaining duty of assisting his people, in the discharge of their duties, for this, he rose early, and late took rest. He built that [176/177] little school, and which you, Sir, so often visit--ho enlarged that altar for his increasing flock of communicants, where you so often shed tears of sacred joy, as you dispense the bread of life to hungry souls.'

'I had thoughts, Sir, of shewing you this reverend man in the circle of his family. But the fact is, that his parish was only his larger family, and his family his smaller parish. Those who had seen him in the one, could determine what his conduct would be in the other. It was the same flower transplanted to a somewhat different soil. Not, indeed, that he was among those who thought that the domestic should be sacrificed to the public duties of a clergyman. On the contrary, he felt that his first duties were at home; that this was the little garden which his God expected him, first, to rescue, and fence in from the waste. 'That love,' he said, 'which pretends, equally to embrace all mankind, with no peculiar [177/178] affection for our own family, is a circumference without a center--or no love at all.' But from the general harmony of his conduct, abroad and at home, it would, as I said, be mere repetition to describe his conduct in his own house. Here, therefore, Sir, I stop, only stating to you one circumstance, that his monument is that white old stone on the right side of the altar. A hundred times have I seen the poor and the miserable steal up to that spot, merely to lay their hand upon the stone, as though they fancied virtue would come out of it, or as though it could be to them what the man it covered, had formerly been--a sort of guardian angel--a comforter--a friend. And such is the forbearance and compassion with which the heavenly 'Comforter' views such acts of affectionate and chastised superstition, that I scarcely ever saw one of these pilgrims who did not retire with a happier countenance than he went. Others, I have seen, both [178/179] in prosperous and adverse circumstances, approach the stone merely to inscribe some memorial upon it--some testimony, prompted by a full heart, to him who had taught them to bear the one with patience, and to enjoy the other with moderation. These inscriptions possibly even now remain; and, perhaps, you may feel disposed to decypher them.'

Here the manuscript, as the vicar thought, and perhaps, as the reader may think, abruptly terminated. On the whole, however, it could not perhaps have terminated at a better place; partly because his eyes refused any longer to do their office, and partly because he had now a new object in the examination of this hallowed grave,

"My love," said he, "the sun will soon set, let us make haste and feast ourselves on this sacred spot. I have often observed the stone, but I little thought it was the casket of such a precious gem. There is no name inscribed [179/180] upon it, but I have no doubt it is written elsewhere."

She gladly obeyed, and they reached the altar just as the sun was beginning to sink in the west.

"Both," said the vicar, pointing to the descending orb --"both set, and both shall rise, in another hemisphere, and with renewed splendour."

By a sort of simultaneous impulse, natural enough to two hearts so entirely in unison, they each laid their hands upon the tomb. It was not that they wanted comfort, but they longed to touch the only relic of the venerable man,--and, in the best manner they could, to join hands with one to whom in spirit they were so entirely united. They soon began to search for the promised inscription, nor did they search in vain. In one place they found, half blotted as it were with tears--'My father, my father, the chariot of Israel and the horsemen thereof.' In another--'he was a good man.' In a [180/181] third--'the memory of the just is blessed.' In a fourth--'alas! my brother.'

Now, whether this last inscription, which is the lamentation of the 'old prophet' over 'the man of God,' suggested the idea to the vicar, or not, it is difficult to say; but he had no sooner read this, than, taking his wife tenderly by the hand--"My dear," said he, "till now, I have felt a complete indifference, so that I lay in the midst of my dear parishioners, in what precise spot this poor heap of dust and ashes should be deposited. But I feel this indifference no longer,--and, if you think me deserving the honour, I would say to you, in the words of one who like myself had deep cause, as he stood over the grave of a good man, to feel his own guilt and infirmities--'when I am dead, then bury me in the sepulchre where the man of God is buried--lay my bones beside his bones.'"

[182] As the old lady never allowed herself to think that he who was a part of her life could be taken away, and life itself be continued; and as she had always contemplated his death as the hour of his release and triumph, she cared little where the grave should be, so that she might descend to it together with him.

"How it brightens," she said, as they returned home; the prospect of future happiness to hope that we shall see in heaven, not only the good we have known, but those of other ages whom we have not known."'

"Yes," he answered, "and see them, not clothed with infirmities, but as the disciples saw Moses and Elias, on the Mount, invested in all the splendour of heaven. Nor shall we merely see them, but perhaps be placed under their tuition and guidance. They will have been daily purging off their impurities in the fountain of life, and imbibing new light in the blaze of the eternal throne. And, [182/183] perhaps, to them it will be given, to educate those for the higher region of glory, who have recently escaped from the body. They will have 'seen God as he is' for so many ages--will have witnessed the trial and judgment of so many generations--will have enjoyed so long the perpetual sunshine of the divine presence, that they must have much to impart to those newly rescued from the chambers of darkness and of death. Our teachers here, my love, may possibly be our instructors there. And the venerable man, over whose grave you have just shed such pious tears, may be commissioned, not merely to wipe away your tears, but to teach you the song of angels, and lead you to God and to the Lamb."

In this spirit, and with these visions of glory, the aged couple reached their quiet home; and, as they stood over the lake to catch the last ray of evening, I could not help thinking its smooth and [183/184] still illuminated surface an apt image of themselves. They had peace in their bosoms, and heaven reflected in their face. I will not say that they felt no regret at having finished the favourite manuscript. But those who enjoyed such hopes as theirs could not long want anything else to comfort them. And in these hopes they lived and died. The desire of the Vicar was fulfilled--his bones were laid by those of his predecessor--and, after a few weeks, her's were mingled with his. Of none could it be more truly said--'they were lovely and pleasant in their lives, and in their deaths they were not divided.'

In conclusion, I would only beg that if any of the readers of this little history should journey amidst the majestic scenery which surrounds the spot on which they dwelt, and should hear a single bell echo among the rocks, or die upon the lake beneath, he would turn aside to view the simple graves I have described. [184/185] In the bleak and barren mountains, or the rocky denies around them, they may see indeed many an august monument of the power of God. But, in the tombs of these holy men, they will discover monuments of his mercy--enduring testimonies that he is good, and that his people are happy. And if their feelings are such as mine, they will kneel at that altar--they will pledge themselves to the service of so compassionate a God--they will say, 'let me die the death of the righteous, and let my latter end be like his.'


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