"A GOOD OLD AGE"
CONSIDERING how infrequent and obscure are the allusions in the Old Testament to a future life, we are refreshed by finding here, in the very first book of the Bible, a distinct mention of it,--"Thou shalt go to thy fathers." The words cannot have reference to a burial place, for Abraham, the man to whom they were spoken, was not destined to be buried in the land where the tombs of his ancestors stood, nor was there, at the time of his death, any thought of burying him there. The Chaldean homestead was far away to the East. He and his had forsaken it with no thought of return. Pilgrim and immigrant he knew it to be his lot that he should be buried in the new land whither he had come, and therefore in no sense could his descent into the literal grave be called a going to his fathers. No, it is plain [3/4] that here is one of those early flashes of light which have been fitly called "foregleams of immortality." There would seem to have been, in those far days, no clear vision of a life to come, and yet, nevertheless, a strong protest would, from time to time, insist upon making itself heard against the notion that death could possibly be the real end of man, the final destination of the soul. Somewhere "the fathers" were, and somehow a way of joining them, of coming once more into their society and fellowship, there must be. And so, even in the childhood of the world, in the morning twilight of history, those early seekers after God laid their dead to rest not wholly without hope. The strong affirmation "Because I live ye shall live also" had not broken upon the air; but whisperings there were, within the hearts of the more thoughtful few, which spoke encouragingly of the dead, prophesied of eternal years, and predicted the "land very far off." The book of life was still a sealed book, for He who had been appointed from the beginning to loose the seals thereof was not yet come. All the same, even from the characters baked into the very clay of which the seals were made, devout eyes [4/5] seem to have been able to decipher a vague yet precious Gospel of the Resurrection.
But it is upon the closing, rather than upon the opening, words of this text of ours that I desire to dwell to-day. Let us look carefully into that phrase "a good old age" and see what we can make of it. I fancy we shall find more meaning latent there than appears upon the surface. The words are often on men's lips in the way of cheer or of congratulation or of eulogy, but seldom, I think, in any sense other than a surface one. By "a good old age" people commonly mean what might be equally well expressed by the words "a goodly old age," an age, that is to say, which has been prolonged beyond the ordinary span, the usual expectation. Perhaps some suggestion of happiness also enters into the phrase, some intimation that things are prosperous with the man, that there is less of trouble and discomfort and more of enjoyment in his lot than might fairly have been anticipated. But beyond these two thoughts, length of days and temporal well-being, the popular interpretation of "a good old age" seldom runs.
And yet the words ought to mean more [5/6] than this, they do mean more than this, and I shall be disappointed if we cannot make out a better case for the goodness possible to old age, than either almanac or inventory, taken by itself, would warrant. One credential of a really good old age is cheerfulness. A certain mock-cheerfulness which old people, both men and women, some times put on, is easily seen through and deceives no one. Forced gaiety of that type does not deserve so good a name as cheerful ness. It is an imitation gladness no thicker than a coat of paint. But a cheerfulness evidently inwrought into the very fibre of character is another matter. It has nothing of the varnish quality about it. No surface in jury affects it. Every morning finds it fresh, and every evening reports it constant. A cheerfulness of this sort, and I admit that it is rare, makes old age wonderfully attractive. The young feel the power of it simply as ob servers and recognize its placid charm. They say to themselves, "If old age can keep up its spirits so well as this, then growing old cannot be the dreadful thing we have imagined it." Even young people are not uniformly cheerful. Their spirits fail them now and [6/7] then. The cheerfulness of old age is therefore, when witnessed, all the more marvelous in their eyes if believed to be genuine. There must be some hidden fountain, they argue, some deep-set well of life from which this outflow comes. Simple "good nature" scarcely accounts for it.
Another credential of a good old age, an old age called good because of its goodness, is courtesy. Courtesy is sometimes spoken of as if it were a requirement of the world's code of honor rather than an offshoot of religion. And yet, like most of the excellencies to which men of the world lay claim, courtesy is found, upon enquiry, to have been borrowed from God's treasure-house of virtues. The root of true courtesy is respect for the rights of others. It is a quality which takes its name from courts, but which derives its origin from self-discipline. No man is really courteous who has not in him a dash, at least, of unselfishness. Courtesy is willing compliance with Paul's edict, "Render unto all their dues," and it links itself closely to that other saying of his, "Honor all men." Courtesy is a living up to the golden rule in that border land where morals and manners touch. But [7/8] just here, it must be admitted, lies one of the temptations of old age. "Is it worth while?" the old man asks himself, "is it worth while to take the trouble which courtesy requires? Let the whole thing go. If people's feelings are hurt, no matter. It was well enough in early life and in middle life to be careful about nice points of speech and manner, but the time for that sort of scrupulosity is past, and for the rest of my days I will indulge myself in such tempers as solicit me." And so courtesy is too often dropped out of the statute-book of old age, and a selfish disregard of the feelings of others is allowed to come in and usurp its place. In contrast with all this what a fine figure is " Paul the aged " the typical old man of the New Testament. Take his speeches as they are recorded in the later chapters of the Book of Acts, and especially his address to the elders of the Church, summoned to Miletus to listen to his parting words. What an exquisite courtesy marks every portion of these memorable utterances except, indeed, when, now and then, some sudden wave of righteous indignation sweeps the speaker off his feet, and he is forced into invective almost against his will. Think of those words of [8/9] his which are coupled in the briefest of all his letters with the epithet which I just now quoted: "Wherefore," he writes, "though I have all boldness in Christ to enjoin thee that which is befitting, yet for love's sake I rather beseech, being such a one as Paul the aged." There speaks the true courtesy of old age. He might be dictatorial, he might, if he chose, command, he might insist; but no, he will do none of these, "for love's sake" he will "beseech." Is there any one so hardened by the formalism, so chilled and frozen by the conventionalities of an artificial social life, that he fails to appreciate the courtesy of this method of speech? I cannot think it.
Still another distinguishing characteristic of a good old age is fortitude. This commonly ranks as a Stoic virtue, but the Stoics betrayed themselves when they sanctioned suicide as the brave man's last resort. For what kind of a courage is that which can be brave enough to die, but confesses itself, under some circumstances, not brave enough to live? He is the brave man who bears up against his sea of troubles and he the coward who consents to let the troubles swamp him. As old age draws on, with its prospect of isolation by [9/10] bereavement, its prospect of increasing bodily infirmity, its prospect of waning mental powers, its prospect of declining influence, the man is brave indeed who puts on a bold front, and in the face of it all moves forward smiling towards the end. This is more than physical courage, because it includes physical courage, as the greater includes the less. It is physical courage plus. It is all that the Stoic taught, and it is more. I have quoted St. Paul for courtesy. Let me quote him again for fortitude. " And now behold I go, bound in the spirit, unto Jerusalem, not knowing the things which shall befall me there, save that the Holy Ghost witnesseth in every city, saying that bonds and afflictions abide me. But none of these things move me, neither count I my life dear unto myself, so that I might finish my course with joy."
A fourth characteristic of a good old age is a mind awake to the demands of the times in which one lives. To be in sympathy with progress, and always ready to promote it by word and deed, this, too, is a credit to the man of many years, and helps to make old age golden. We know very well that for an old man to be and to do these things calls for [10/11] effort. A love of ease is incident to the de cline of life, and to let affairs go on as they have always gone on without much effort to change them or even willingness to see them changed is only natural. Moreover, it is a habit of mind which grows upon those whom much observation of shipwreck, commercial, social, political and ecclesiastical has made cautious. Yes, ultra-conservatism, it must be confessed, is the besetting sin of old age, as old age ordinarily shows itself.
"They shall be afraid of that which is high, and fears shall be in the way, . . . and the grasshopper shall be a burden, and desire shall fail." In such discouraging words does the most famous of the preachers picture the languor and the timidity of old age, and who will question the accuracy of the likeness, as old men go? For old age to be something other than this gives it a fair right, in any given in stance, to be reckoned "good." Yes, O man, whoever thou art, destined to stay long upon this earth, be assured that if cheerful, courageous, courteous and hopeful, it shall be thine to be buried in an old age rightfully named "good."
You may wonder, dear friends, at my having [11/12] felt moved to discourse in this sombre vein on the first Sunday of the year. Rather it would seem as if such thoughts should have found utterance, if at all, as the old year was going out, spent and decrepit. But both the subject and my mode of treating it have been forced upon me by events. I have not chosen it so much as it has chosen me. Presumably it is known to all here present that with the coming in of this new year, there entered into the new life which is eternal William Colford Schermerhorn, Senior Warden of Grace Church. Other offices than this he held, but this he was to us, our Warden. For more than twenty years it had been my privilege to know him, and for the greater part of those twenty years my still higher privilege to call him friend. If then I am in error in holding, as I do, that his last years were noticeably adorned by the qualities which I have been naming the glory of old age, I have only myself to blame, for my opportunities of observation have been frequent and large. It will be to many a surprise to learn that our late Warden did not become a communicant of the Church till he was past sixty. The confidences that reign between a pastor and [12/13] the members of his flock are too sacred to be exploited in public, even for the purposes of eulogy, but so much I may say, that the impression made upon me by the simplicity and directness of this man's mode of speaking his mind upon the subject of openly confessing Christ is one that will never be effaced. Al ways warmly attached to Grace Church by heredity, as one might say, he became more and more interested in its welfare as years went on and life drew nearer to its close. While it might not be safe to assert in the case of so reticent a man as William Schermerhorn that all of the forward movements, which have marked our parochial life during his tenure of office as Vestryman and Warden, had his entire sympathy, it is safe to say, since there are many who can bear witness to the truth of the assertion, that no one of those advances ever en countered his opposition. The moment any given course was decided upon, any project agreed to, he was prompt to further it by every means in his power. He gave us generously of his wealth and he gave us freely of his counsel, and in both of these two ways of helping us he seemed to keep ever in mind the apostolic precept, "he that giveth let him do [13/14] it with simplicity." It was as repugnant to his feelings to force his advice, as it would have been to advertise his benefactions. By what he did for Grace Church, and by what he made possible here, our late Warden has earned the gratitude of thousands--"earned" it, I say, though they, the thousands, may never know to whom the thanks are due. I like to couple him in my thoughts with that other Warden of Grace Church, likeminded with himself, who departed this life seven years ago almost to a day. [The late George Bliss, Esq.] Generously and sympathetically they worked together until the one was called away. And now the other follows. There is nothing for it but to close ranks and to move on. Repining will not help us, neither will retreat. "Forward" is the word.
"One army of the living God
To His command we bow,
Part of the host have crossed the flood
And part are crossing now."
WILLIAM COLFORD SCHERMERHORN, the late Warden of Grace Church, sustained towards the members of the Vestry a relation so intimate that, in making a record of his death, we who for years were his associates, feel that we are doing what friendship suggests and not merely what official propriety demands; for during his tenure of office, first as Vestryman and afterwards as Warden, Mr. Schermerhorn was as successful in winning affection as he was prompt in challenging respect.
His devotion to the interests of Grace Church was untiring. No one of us knew so accurately as he the past history of the Parish, nor had anyone so clear an insight into its present-day conditions. His sense of personal responsibility for the right conduct of parochial affairs was singularly keen. Duties which most other men would have been content to devolve upon subordinates, he insisted upon discharging in person. His love for his parish church may be said to have come to him by inheritance. No family name has been more closely interwoven with our parochial annals than his. On the marble tablet which commemorates the erection of our present house of worship the name appears twice, Peter Schermerhorn and Abraham Schermerhorn having been, at the time, the one a Warden and the other a Vestryman. Peter Schermerhorn is again commemorated, together with [15/16] Sarah his wife, in the noble window which lights the north transept of the church, while in the window opposite, a like honor is done to Peter Augustus Schermerhorn and Adeline Emily his wife. Under the north transept window, a doorway of carved stone recalls the names of John Jones Schermerhorn and Edmund H. Schermerhorn, brothers of the late Warden, the latter of whom, as a young man, was closely identified with the musical interests of the Parish in the days when the "Grace Church Collection" was a recognized classic with organists and choirmasters. The knowledge that all this was back of him gave to William Schermerhorn that sense of being in one's rightful place which insures poise and safeguards dignity. "A gentleman of the old school," it seemed natural to call him, for such he ever showed himself to be. Refinement was easily legible in his features, and the whole outward man carried with it the unmistakable note of distinction. His departure out of this life was such as he himself would have wished it to be, neither sudden nor protracted. He has gone into a world of light, and his record is with the Most High.