The Rector, From Life
ENTERING from the screened porch, the rector stands in the doorway, home from a morning’s hunting. He is all tawny brown, eyes and tousled hair, worn khaki and zippered jacket. The pointed brown cap suggests Peter Pan, or Puck. From the kitchen his wife skims like a bird to meet him, as he stacks his gun and drops the hunting sack. Beyond their heads, both curly russet, the long gray beards of Spanish moss flutter and sway from the oak boughs. There’s the flashing of poinsettia from across the street, and from the oleander tree in front of the rectory there is the gleam of high fairy pink blossoms. Gyp, the canary, bursts into a trill of welcome. The rector has not found any quail, but out from the hunting sack there rolls on the floor a stream of golden oranges, plucked from the plenty along the way. The rector is twenty-nine. His wife is twenty-six.
‘Empty,’ he pleads with her; ‘I’m empty all the way down! ’
‘But if you eat now,’ she protests, ‘you’ll spoil your lunch!’
The rector becomes ponderous and judicial: ‘In the six months since I married you, you have constantly told me that eating beforehand would spoil my breakfast, or my lunch, or my dinner. Now has anything ever spoiled them?’
She snatches his cap off, takes a bird peck at his forehead, and flies back to the oil stove. Slim and straight as she is, with her clear face all alive beneath the ruddy coronet braids, I feel as I watch her as if I were looking at a picture stepped down from its wall; but for herself, what with cooking, scouring, sewing, teaching the infant class, visiting, singing in the choir, she is far too busy to remember her beauty. Her name, Elaine, fits her, for she is like the Lily Maid if the Lily Maid had been happy. When she comes back with cloth and napkins, the two of them have to chase each other three times around the table before she can set it.
It is a few months now since I came to their little Florida parish, and the two of them led me, room by room, object by object, through the rectory, sunshine-colored within and without — the rectory that Joel has remade for his bride. It took all summer, for he worked single-handed, there being scant money and no offer of assistance. Shining-eyed, he tells me that it was a fascinating problem to puzzle out how to do some parts of the work — a bit of roofing, for example — with only one-man power. The house had been old and dingy for many a year before they came into it, but the two of them managed new light and painting and partitions. It is only a little bungalow, but on entering you have an instant sense of space and sunshine.
The rector is a connoisseur in wood. He runs his hand over a table surface as a blind man might touch some loved face. In the varied preparation that for many young men to-day precedes their years in the theological seminary, Joel Harding managed somehow to pack two summers in a window-sash factory. It gave him, he says, exactness — much the same delighted exactness that I knew him to employ in polishing a sonnet in his student years, when first I met him. In those days I used sometimes to wonder just how Heaven was going to make a poet into a parson, but now I know! Now I know just why the rector so loves his attic carpenter shop. He loves fishing, too, loves solitary dawns on some little lake, for the same reason, I believe, that he loves a saw and plane.
The rectory walls are frankly Woolworth, and proud of it. There are few treats that delight these two more than a visit to a ‘dime store.’ What the rector can find there astounds me, to his great joy. Only a few pictures to touch the cool expanse of the creamy walls he himself tinted, but these few have a soft color that only he could have discovered on the piled counter. One of Joel’s assets is his sure eye for beauty wherever it may be found. I exclaim over the book ends, unbelieving his grin which asserts that these seated mastiffs cost but ten cents apiece. The search for beauty, dirt-cheap, to make a home, can evidently provide great zest.
Sometimes, watching young appetites and cheekbones a shade too clearly outlined, I might wish there was a little more money for beefsteak that does not require spiked pounding to make it possible, or, having been a wage-earning woman myself, I wonder whether the Lily Maid ever recalls the good salary she was earning before she married. But I am rebuked for these thoughts when I gaze into the strange earnestness behind their laughing eyes. Out of my intimate knowledge of present-day seminaries I know the number of young men eager to give themselves for merest subsistence, but being refused for lack of money to pay laborers in the vineyard. Only once have I heard the rector express a desire for money. As I jogged along at his side in the parochial Ford, he told me how he wanted books, especially those that might help his work. He still tried, he said, to keep a dollar a month for books on his budget, but he could never quite manage it.
Beside the rectory stands the tiny yellow-painted frame Church of the Holy Spirit. There’s a faded signboard that gives this name and that of the former rector, who died of old age. Though Joel has been here for two years, no one has ever thought of substituting his name upon the signboard. The last person to think of such a change would be Joel himself. I doubt if the sleepy little town, with its street after street of water oaks with their sweeping gray moss, guesses what a fountain of new life is springing now within that small bare interior. On Sunday mornings a scant two-dozen worshipers fill the rear seats. From the gray old inn across the street a few of us, some of whom have traveled far and listened to many preachers, come to hear always something that startles us to new vision and perspective. Some of us are white-haired and lean on canes, but as we leave the church, passing that warm handshake and the bending curly head bright in the Florida sunshine, we find ourselves grouped beyond the rector’s hearing, to stare into each other’s eyes and ask breathless, ‘But how does he know? How does he know?’ For he has just preached about Nicodemus, understanding him — and us. His text rings in our ears, ‘Can a man be born when he is old?’ The mystery we have just witnessed is that the rector, not yet thirty, has told us, patient step by step, precisely how one can be born again, when one is old!
Looking back, I see my Florida winter punctuated by Joel’s sermons, curiously fresh and different every Sunday, so that they leave me still pondering each new vista. I remember his words on Holy Innocents’ Day, his distinction between Jesus’ attitude toward children and Herod’s, the profound and enduring difference between Herod and all people like him, who would destroy a child because he might interfere with their power, and Jesus, the reverently receptive toward a child, the man who taught ‘A little child shall lead them.’ And I remember the sermon on church unity, when he stood there confident that within fifty years all our ‘unhappy divisions’ would be done away, and there would be no more churches, but one Church. It was in small towns that such union would begin, he said, little towns like this one, where people were neighbors. Indeed the movement is well begun here, where no one of the four young ministers, all close comrades in aim, is more than thirty-five.
There has been only one sermon on a different note, just one out of all the buoyant ones, the only indication I have ever had, either in private or from the pulpit, that the rector knows the difficulties with which he deals. Steadily I have heard all the low grumbling that every little town enjoys uttering about its minister, even while demanding his help in every difficulty. I was born and reared in a village rectory, and so I understand the heavyburdened idealism of a country minister. But from Joel himself there is never a whisper of complaint. He will not permit one word of condemnation of anyone in his presence; without rebuke he always makes his own quick change of subject . But one Sunday he spoke out, and as I listened to his appeal I wondered how anyone could resist it. He told how hard it was when people refused shared effort because they so hated their fellow parishioners. Only that once have I heard the rector voice his own sensitiveness; ‘for a rector,’ Joel said, facing his little congregation clear-eyed and unafraid as he spoke, ‘is always studying the hearts of his people, and trying to reach them in that part of their hearts which is nearest to the heart of God.’
Drives I have had with the two of them that are long to be prized. Once the afternoon was already dimming when Joel appeared at the door of the inn to take me on an excursion he knew I should enjoy. A huge ice-cream freezer was to be returned to its owner somewhere out in the country. The previous week there had been a parish supper, urgently desired by the rector, but, from an easygoing inertia, undesired by the congregation, so that the work of it piled on Joel. The Ford had fetched the freezer, and must now take it back. Would I go along? I consented, if I might sit on the back seat, with the freezer. I only won when I pleaded, ‘But I want to look at Elaine!’ Then Joel gave in, agreeing, ‘I like to look at her myself!’
Out of sight and sound of the parish, the two promptly forget me there behind them. I can watch the sunset light the bronze of Elaine’s head, or a cloud bank outline her clear profile turned to Joel.
On we go through wood roads ever more deep and strange and shadowy. They are not the wood roads of the North, but the eerie, semitropical reaches of Florida, that Florida which, outside the tourist centres, so swiftly reverts to the jungle. We pass through tracts of cypress, myriad straight slim trunks with frowzy gray heads, and their feet in water, or miles of scrub pine with never a house, but here and there a tall palm lifting out of space. Sometimes our road is a stretching gray tunnel with a circle of sunset at the end. We grow silent, all three. Then we make a turn through higher, deeper woods, and suddenly we stop. ‘Here is the place,’ says Joel.
Sunset is just over. We are on the edge of a lake, too wide to see across. Its silver fills all the space before us. The sky above is all silver, too. There is no darkness, but only light withdrawn. Silence, no longer sinister like that of the woods, but gentle gray peace. We are quite still. Something moves from the sedge, floating up.
‘A white heron,’ says Joel.
A moment later he speaks again. ‘Listen, do you hear that low roar out there toward the left? I think that is a young alligator.’
It is dark when we climb back into the Ford and turn homeward. The road and the outlying woods are black now, and secret. I am glad of our rushing lights and Joel’s sure hand on the wheel. About us seems only wide desolation, not another car anywhere, no sign of life. Then suddenly, only a little darker than the darkness behind them, two figures, man and woman, are standing there, waiting by the roadside. Yet Joel goes flying by. We are two minutes past them when he draws up short and turns to Elaine and me.
‘I wanted to pick them up, but I did not think I ought to until I asked you if you are willing.’
‘Turn back, of course!’ we cried together.
The two strangers out of the night climbed in. Elaine swung back to sit with me and the woman. The man took his seat by Joel. They both apologized for their heavy bag.
‘I’m the minister at the Episcopal church,’ Joel explained to the newcomer.
‘I know,’ was the answer. Names followed, including that of the packing house where the man was trudging to work. Oranges made plenty of conversation in the front seat, but the woman with us was very quiet. As we entered the warm-lit town and set them dowm at their destination, she raised her face to us, saying only, ‘We shall never forget this.’
The last Christmas season I shall long remember. Days beforehand, Joel and Elaine had hauled home a tree to stand by the living-room window, hung with gay lights of Joel’s stringing. The two of them had shaped the tiny crèche, sole ornament on the bare cream-white mantel the rector’s hands had built last summer. This was their first married Christmas. It was a busy one. But all the days in the rectory, at all seasons, are a little breathless. Always the rector seems able to give leisured attention to any need, but it takes a good deal of flying about for a wife to keep up with him and fit the necessary homemaking into the chinks in their time. Day and night the rectory is open to all. Recently I dropped in one afternoon at three o’clock to find Elaine flushed and panting. She apologized, explaining, ‘You are the twenty-first person who has been here to-day. I’m glad, of course, but Joe is two hours late to lunch, and he needs it.’
For some reason I am reminded of a chapter and verse: ‘For there were many coming and going, and they had no leisure so much as to eat.’
During the week before Christmas their midnights were the only time the pair had for their holiday preparations. Elaine was crocheting an elaborate fichu for her mother, and Joel was making a fireside bench for his, not to mention the gifts they were getting ready for the many relatives and in-laws and outstanding friends — gifts requiring invention and careful fingers, since even dimes were scanty. But the gay packages tied and ready under the tree steadily mounted. Stealthily I added one, but was detected. They both beamed while Elaine said, ‘Santa Claus has something for you there, too!’
For a fortnight Christmas Eve stood out in expectation. First there would be the pageant at the High School at twilight, then Joel and Elaine would go forth at nine with the Girl Scouts in the truck to sing carols. At eleven-thirty would come the Christmas Communion service. The pageant was of the rector’s own composing. I had no more than arrived in October when he brought it over for me to read, hastily typed sheets fastened together with one of Elaine’s hair clips, but poetry on every page — a series of Biblical scenes, all easily acted, set in carol music readily sung off stage. Joel and his wife would lead that music, of course, for on every occasion in this little place — school entertainment, club, choir, merrymaking or funeral — always the two are asked to sing, Joel’s tenor twining upward with Elaine’s contralto, like a thread of gold through all a small town’s gray commonplace.
The Christmas pageant is one of the rector’s unobtrusive enterprises toward church unity. He draws from all the churches for the characters, and gives the play in the High School auditorium. For days he was busy in every free hour hanging the stage with dull blue gauze to give the desired dreamy effect his fancy required for each tableau. ’I like best the Virgin’s soliloquy,’ I had said to him when first I had read his pageant, and I liked it even more as I heard the blue-mantled schoolgirl upon the stage speak the lines describing the Annunciation.
With unsung music that comes drifting
From beyond the stars on high,
Drifting to earth to tell
Of some strong presence drawing nigh,
That mortals scarce can hear,
And yet I feel them near.
What are those thoughts that make your eyes so bright?
Wait with me a little while
Here in the stillness of the night
And I will tell you of the things I hear.
For there are voices in the light
Of these soft stars.
I almost fear
To know the things that they would tell,
Their voices thrill
And hold me here.
While this was the scene I myself preferred out of the seven, the last scene was the rector’s favorite. In it he pictures the children of long-ago Bethlehem coming with lighted candles to welcome the stranger baby in their own inn stable. As they piped, —
Stood a lowly cattle shed,’
the children began to come down from the stage into the audience, lighting from their own candles those we had received on entrance. Then, with the school children leading, we all went out into the dark radiating streets. It is that part of his pageant that the rector himself likes best — the community procession, bearing the tiny Christmas lights, slowly spreading in thinning numbers through the streets, each going now to his own home Christmas.
Joel and Elaine had no pause on that evening, but some of us managed a thrifty hour of sleep before the bell pealed at eleven. The little church was bright, but simply trimmed, a spray of long-leaf pine with a bit of gleaming silver about each light along the walls, and in front a great blaze of poinsettia at either side of the white-spread altar with its shining tapers. They had been working at the music for weeks. Only half a dozen in the crosswise pews in front, only a reed organ; but the rector is choirmaster, and his wife the soloist, and both, together with the organist, are trained musicians. For all of them the Christmas Eve Communion service is the high peak of their year. It was unquestioned that it was to God Himself they sang, and unquestioned that they were joining herald angels, still unquenchably joyous on this latter-day midnight that in some ways seems blacker than that midnight of long ago.
Of that service I shall always remember best the rector’s young figure in its flowing white as he kneels on the chancel steps near to his people, and together we raise our faces toward the white altar. Just at midnight the bell peals outside. As if speaking to a friend near to him as his own hand, Joel prays: ‘O Christ of God, as once in Bethlehem, be born again at this moment, in each heart present here.’
If that moment is to me the richest of last Christmas, perhaps there was for the rector himself another hour of even deeper mystery, when he shared even more closely the spirit of One who came to reveal the beauty caged within the commonplace. It is Elaine who later tells me about this other hour of the rector’s Christmas.
When I go over to the rectory at nine on Christmas morning, I find a pleasant air of relaxation from festival duties, and find also a cup of Elaine’s steaming coffee and an end of her foamy omelet. Elaine’s tall young brother is here, too, and his little bride. All four have just taken down their stockings from the mantelpiece. Elaine brings my Christmas parcel from the tree and lays it in my lap. About to set out to give the Christmas Communion to the shut-ins of his parish, the rector lingers to watch me untie the strings. Elaine has embroidered a laundry bag for me, while Joel’s gift stands revealed as book ends, from Woolworth’s, a pair of seated mastiffs.
‘I remembered how you liked ours,’ he says.
Elaine waits until we are alone to tell me about what happened when Joe arose that morning to a Christmas hour perhaps strangely holy, for I fancy Joel Harding never does anything unaccompanied.
‘Joe got up at six,’ Elaine explains, ‘to start the fire in the church for the ten-o’clock service. I was still asleep. When he went into the dining room he found the stovepipe had fallen down in the night, and there was soot over everything, and what do you think — he spread out newspapers and worked and worked until he had cleaned up everything, all by himself! He never called me to help. He did it all so quietly that I never waked! Think of any man’s doing a thing like that!’
Elaine’s face is starry as she concludes, ‘Now do you wonder I’m proud of my husband?’
As my Florida winter recedes, and I pause to ponder its pictures and appraise them, I do not know whether I value more Joel Harding’s sermons, with their vistas to be long afterwards remembered and reviewed, or my drives at his side while he trolls the ‘Volga Boat Song’ and the wind tugs at his bare head. As I look back on my Florida winter, I find myself looking forward, too, into the rector’s future. The words of his New Year’s sermon come to my mind. He spoke about doors, about making the humdrum holy. He told of his own effort and experience in trying to treat each opening door as new and sacred. He confessed that it had been difficult at first; sometimes he had forgotten for a whole day at a time the beauty he was trying to give to doors. Then steadily, with persistence, the effort grew easier, became each day a richer adventure. ‘Sometimes,’ he concluded, while his lifted eyes grew strange before a visioned Presence, ‘sometimes all I say when I open a door is, “ Go before me.” ’
All the riches of that winter expand as I review them. It has been worth much to drive throughout Florida with someone who loves his native state as the rector does. Locality is a deep pull within him. One way to make him really downcast is to suggest that some day he may have a larger field. ‘Oh no,’ he pleads, ‘I love it here! I never want to go anywhere where I can’t know everybody in town!’
The rector’s forbears took up claims in Florida. As we pass a broad expanse of the Indian River he announces, ‘Here my great-uncles were pilots,’ or he stretches his arm toward a thriving town: ‘ My mother was brought here as a baby by oxcart. She remembers how the Indians used to come and help themselves to anything they wanted when my grandfather was away from home.’ Our roads cut through miles of gold-fruited orange groves. There is nothing the rector does not know about oranges. Does he not turn out on a menacing cold night to help tend the fires that may, or may not, save the fruit?
Perfect, the rector? Oh, by no means! While his aging parishioners chiefly harp on the inexcusable youth of ‘the Harding boy,’ they have also this weightier charge, that while everyone who is young in this graying old town hails Joel’s presence, beaming, whenever he appears, still — so runs the murmur — ‘In our day, nobody called out to any rector, “Hello, Joe!”’
Even I am forced to admit that the rector is not a punctual person, though steadily improving under Elaine’s dexterous management. All this minute attention to hours and dates irks him; it is hard for him to come home. And in Florida the out-of-doors is compelling to one who so loves it — you have but to slip out of the rectory back door, and quickly you may have your choice of a dozen lakes, or even all the ocean, for your fishing, and untracked miles of woods for your gunning. For myself, I would let the rector wander far, because both the poet and the pastor in him bring back such treasures from solitude. Yet, so wandering, he has been known completely to forget a dinner engagement, or to leave the children’s mite boxes exposed to a sneak thief in the unlocked church. But these last misdemeanors do not recur now that he is married to Elaine.
And the rector likes to tease, though he is instantly contrite should he go too far. There is plenty of Puck left in a man who only recently set the whole audience laughing when he strolled across the college stage. I remember his impishness as we sat waiting for the bells to chime from the Bok Singing Tower. He was diving into a bag of peanut brittle, with an eye cocked about at me beside him, trying to make me think he would continue to crunch thus in my ear when the bells began. At the first stroke he tucked the bag away, and in an instant had become the musician listening breathless, as rapt and remote from me as the distant belfry.
No syllable of this sketch is my own invention. I have but quoted the actual words of one young minister. Did any of us suppose the spell once laid on young men in Galilee is something past and done with? Look and see who to-day are holding, singlehanded, the lonely outposts that dot our country from end to end! Joel Harding is no sole instance. I know more like him — and still they are pressing on, more and still more, young men with shining eyes who to-day are passing through door after door, saying only, ‘Go before me!’