The Recreations of A Country Parson
by A. K. H. Boyd
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It seems to me a very comforting thought, in looking on to Future Years, if you are able to think that you are in a profession or a calling from which you will never retire. For the prospect of a total change in your mode of life, and the entire cessation of the occupation which, for many years employed the greater part of your waking thoughts, and all this amid the failing powers and nagging hopes of declining, years, is both a sad and a perplexing prospect to a thoughtful person. For such a person cannot regard this great change simply in the light of a rest from toil and worry; he will know quite well what a blankness, and listlessness, and loss of interest in life, will come of feeling all at once that you have nothing at all to do. And so it is a great blessing, if your vocation be one which is a dignified and befitting one for an old man to be engaged in, one that beseems his gravity and his long experience, one that beseems even his slow movements and his white hairs. It is a pleasant thing to see an old man a judge; his years become the judgment-seat. But then the old man can hold such an office only while he retains strength of body and mind efficiently to perform its duties; and he must do all his work for himself: and accordingly a day must come when the venerable Chancellor resigns the Great Seal; when the aged Justice or Baron must give up his place; and when these honoured Judges, though still retaining considerable vigour, but vigour less than enough for their hard work, are compelled to feel that their occupation is gone. And accordingly I hold that what is the best of all professions, for many reasons, is especially so for this, that you need never retire from it. In the Church you need not do all your duty yourself. You may get assistance to supplement your own lessening strength. The energetic young curate or curates may do that part of the parish work which exceeds the power of the ageing incumbent, while the entire parochial machinery has still the advantage of being directed by his wisdom and experience, and while the old man is still permitted to do what he can with such strength as is spared to him, and to feel that he is useful in the noblest cause yet. And even to extremest age and frailty,—to age and frailty which would long since have incapacitated the judge for the Bench—the parish clergyman may take some share in the much-loved duty in which he has laboured so long. He may still, though briefly, and only now and then, address his flock from the pulpit, in words which his very feebleness will make far more touchingly effective than the most vigorous eloquence and the richest and fullest tones of his young coadjutors. There never will be, within the sacred walls, a silence and reverence more profound than when the withered kindly face looks as of old upon the congregation, to whose fathers its owner first ministered, and which has grown up mainly under his instruction,—and when the voice that falls familiarly on so many ears tells again, quietly and earnestly, the old story which we all need so much to hear. And he may still look in at the parish school, and watch the growth of a generation that is to do the work of life when he is in his grave; and kindly smooth the children's heads; and tell them how One, once a little child, and never more than a young man, brought salvation alike to young and old. He may still sit by the bedside of the sick and dying, and speak to such with the sympathy and the solemnity of one who does not forget that the last great realities are drawing near to both. But there are vocations which are all very well for young or middle-aged people, but which do not quite suit the old. Such is that of the barrister. Wrangling and hair-splitting, browbeating and bewildering witnesses, making coarse jokes to excite the laughter of common jurymen, and addressing such with clap-trap bellowings, are not the work for grey-headed men. If such remain at the bar, rather let them have the more refined work of the Equity Courts, where you address judges, and not juries; and where you spare clap-trap and misrepresentation, if for no better reason, because, you know that these will not stand you in the slightest stead. The work which best befits the aged, the work for which no mortal can ever become too venerable and dignified or too weak and frail, is the work of Christian usefulness and philanthropy. And it is a beautiful sight to see, as I trust we all have seen, that work persevered in with the closing energies of life. It is a noble test of the soundness of the principle that prompted to its first undertaking. It is a hopeful and cheering sight to younger men, looking out with something of fear to the temptations and trials of the years before them. Oh! if the grey-haired clergyman, with less now, indeed, of physical strength and mere physical warmth, yet preaches, with the added weight and solemnity of his long experience, the same blessed doctrines now, after forty years, that he preached in his early prime; if the philanthropist of half a century since is the philanthropist still,—still kind, hopeful, and unwearied, though with the snows of age upon his head, and the hand that never told its fellow of what it did now trembling as it does the deed of mercy; then I think that even the most doubtful will believe that the principle and the religion of such men were a glorious reality! The sternest of all touchstones of the genuineness of our better feelings is the fashion in which they stand the wear of years.

But my shortening space warns me to stop; and I must cease, for the present, from these thoughts of Future Years,—cease, I mean, from writing about that mysterious tract before us: who can cease from thinking of it? You remember how the writer of that little poem which has been quoted asks Time to touch gently him and his. Of course he spoke as a poet, stating the case fancifully,—but not forgetting, that, when we come to sober sense, we must prefer our requests to an Ear more ready to hear us and a Hand more ready to help. It is not to Time that I shall apply to lead me through life into immortality! And I cannot think of years to come without going back to a greater poet, whom we need not esteem the less because his inspiration was loftier than that of the Muses, who has summed up so grandly in one comprehensive sentence all the possibilities which could befall him in the days and ages before him. "Thou shalt guide me with Thy counsel, and afterward receive me to glory!" Let us humbly trust that in that sketch, round and complete, of all that can ever come to us, my readers and I may be able to read the history of our Future Years!


And now, friendly reader, who have borne me company so far, your task is ended. You will have no more of the RECREATIONS OF A COUNTRY PARSON. Yet do not be alarmed. I trust you have not seen the writer's last appearance. It is only that the essays which he hopes yet to write, will not be composed in the comparative leisure of a country clergyman's quiet life. And not merely is it still a pleasant change of occupation, to write such chapters as those you have read: but the author cannot forget that to them he is indebted for the acquaintance of some of the most valued friends he has in this world. It was especially delightful to find a little sympathetic public, whose taste these papers suited; and to which they have not been devoid of profit and comfort. Nor was it without a certain subdued exultation that a quiet Scotch minister learned that away across the ocean he had found an audience as large and sympathetic as in his own country; and a kind appreciation by the organs of criticism there, which he could not read without much emotion. Of course, if I had fancied myself a great genius, it would have seemed nothing strange that the thoughts I had written down in my little study in the country manse, should be read by many fellow-creatures four thousand miles off. But then I knew I was not a great genius: and so I felt it at once a great pleasure and a great surprise. My heart smote me when I thought of some flippant words of depreciation which these essays have contained concerning our American brothers. They are the last this hand shall ever write: and I never will forget how simple thoughts, only sincere and not unconsidered, found their way to hearts, kindly Scotch and English yet, though beating on the farther side of the Great Atlantic.

After all, a clergyman's great enjoyment is in his duty: and I think that, unless he be crushed down by a parish of utter misery and destitution, in which all he can do is like a drop in the ocean (as that great and good man Dr. Guthrie tells us he was), the town is to the clergyman better than the country. The crowded city, when all is said, contains the best of the race. Your mind is stirred up there, to do what you could not have done elsewhere. The best of your energy and ability is brought out by the never-ceasing spur.

Yet you will be sensible of various evils in the city clergyman's life. One is the great evil of over-work. You are always on the stretch. You never feel that your work is overtaken. The time never comes, in which you feel that you may sit down and rest: never comes, at least, save in the autumnal holiday. It is expedient that a city clergyman should have his mind well stored before going to his charge: for there he will find a perpetual drain upon his mind, and very little time for refilling it by general reading. To prepare two sermons a week, or even one sermon a week, for an educated congregation (or indeed for any congregation), implies no small sustained effort. It is not so very hard to write one sermon in one week; but is very hard to write thirty sermons in thirty successive weeks. You know how five miles in five hours are nothing: but a thousand miles in a thousand hours are killing. But every one knows that the preparation for the pulpit is the least part of a town clergyman's work. You have many sick to visit regularly: many frail and old people who cannot come to church. You have schools, classes, missions. And there is the constant effort to maintain some acquaintance with the families that attend your church, so that you and they shall not be strangers. I am persuaded that there ought to be at least two clergymen to every extensive parish. For it is not expedient that the clergy should have their minds and bodies ever on the strain, just to get througr the needful work of the day. There is no opportunity, then, for the accumulation of some stock and store of thought and learning. And one important service which the clergy of a country ought to render it, is the maintenance of learning, and general culture. Indeed, a man not fairly versed in literature and science is not capable of preaching as is needful at the present day. And when always overdriven, a man is tempted to lower his standard: and instead of trying to do his work to the very best of his ability, to wish just to get decently through it. Then, as for other men, they have the great happiness of knowing when their work is done. When a lawyer has attended to his cases, he has no more to do that day. So when the doctor has visited his patients. But to clerical work there is no limit. Your work is to do all the good you can. There is the parish: there is the population: and the uneasy conscience is always suggesting thia and that new scheme of benevolent exertion. The only limit to the clergyman's duty is his strength: and very often that limit is outrun. Oh that one could wisely fix what one may safely and rightly do; and then resolutely determine not to attempt any more! But who can do that? If your heart be in your work, you are every now and then knocking yourself up. And you cannot help it. You advise your friends prudently against overwork; and then you go and work till you drop.

And a further evil of the town parish is, that a great part of your work is done by the utmost stretch of body and mind. Much of it is work of that nature, that when you are not actually doing it, you wonder how you can do it at all. When you think of it, it is a very great trial and effort to preach each Sunday to a thousand or fifteen hundred human beings. And by longer experience, and that humbler self-estimate which longer experience brings, the trial is ever becoming greater. It is the utmost strain of human energy, to do that duty fittingly. You know how easily some men go through their work. It is constant and protracted; but not a very great strain at any one time: there is no overwhelming nervous tension. I suppose even the Chief Justice, or the Lord Chancellor, when in the morning he walks into Court and takes his seat on the bench, does so without a trace of nervous tremour. He is thoroughly cool. He has a perfect conviction that he is equal to his work; that he is master of it. But preaching is to many men an unceasing nervous excitement. There is great wear in it. And this is so, I am persuaded, even with the most eminent men. Preaching is a thing by itself. When you properly reflect upon it, it is very solemn, responsible, and awful work. Not long since, I heard the Bishop of Oxford preach to a very great congregation. I was sitting very near him, and watched him with the professional interest. I am much mistaken if that great man was not as nervous as a young parson, preaching for the first time. Pie had a number of little things in the pulpit to look after: his cap, gloves, handkerchief, sermon-case: I remember the nervous way in which he was twitching them about, and arranging them. No doubt that tremour wore off when he began to speak; and he gave a most admirable sermon. Still, the strain had been there, and had been felt. And I do not think that the like can recur week by week, without considerable wear of the principle of life within. Now, in preaching to a little country congregation, there is much less of that wear: to say nothing of the increased physical effort of addressing many hundreds of people, as compared with that of addressing eighty or ninety. It is quite possible that out of the many hundreds, there may not be very many individuals of whom, intellectually, you stand in very overwhelming awe: and the height of a crowd of a thousand people is no more than the height of the tallest man in it. Still, there is always something very imposing and awe-striking in the presence of a multitude of human beings.

And yet, if you have physical strength equal to your work, I do not think that for all the nervous anxiety which attends your charge, or for all its constant pressure, you would ever wish to leave it. There is a happiness in such sacred duty which only those who have experienced it know. And without (so far as you are aware) a shade of self-conceit, but in entire humility and deep thankfulness, you will rejoice that God makes you the means of comfort and advantage to many of your fellow-men. It is a delightful thing to think that you are of use: and, whether in town or country, the diligent clergyman may always hope that he is so, less or more.


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