by RICHARDSON WRIGHT
MOST of us, in the course of life, acquire at least one pet parson. Some like them for their pulpit oratory, some for their man-of-the-world-liness (a type I carefully avoid), some for social graciousness to the right people, some for their ability to raise money. As the years pass, I find myself asking one invariable and definitely hard-boiled question when I meet a parson: To what extent is he a man really “set apart”?
Out of a heterogeneous assortment of parsons of all faiths and statures who have crossed my path, one particularly never failed to measure up to this standard. My contacts with him over thirty years — contacts of a few hours or a few days — had not amounted to more than ten; yet, except for his obviously growing older, he never seemed to change.
He had been in poor parishes and rich, he had served as dean of a Western cathedral and chaplain to an Eastern prison. During the influenza epidemic following the last war, he had asked his vestry— it was a fashionable church — for leave of absence. They later found him happily scrubbing floors and emptying bedpans in the wards of a city hospital. No matter what the circumstance, his set-apartness never varied.
It was marked by three qualities. He had a persistent, childlike merriment. He knew the world and men and women, and to them he took the gentle and swift approach of a skilled surgeon. Most of all, not by anything he said but simply by what he was, he made me feel that I, a worldly person and stout sinner to boot, could also attain moments of being set apart.
We hadn’t met for almost five years; then I chanced to see him on a Boston street one winter day. He was much older — not the brisk step of years ago. He looked none too well and, as I later learned, he was almost desperately poor. We went off to lunch in one of those tearooms hidden away in the rabbit warrens of Beacon Hill.
“How about making us a visit in the country?”
I asked when he finished dessert. “You’ve never seen our place, and it really is exciting at times. Daffodils come along in May, lilacs a little later, then roses in June — ”
“What’s exciting in August?” he broke in.
“Hollyhocks, phlox, of course, and plenty of vegetables. We start canning in August.”
“Good! I’ll make it August.”
As his arrival neared, a peculiar tension spread over the house. Parsons had come for meals or just dropped in to call, but none to stay three weeks. We discussed whether we should ask him to say grace or should I make a fist at it. Perhaps we should keep away some of our lurid friends. Yes, he would rather have the Flower Room, the one with the rose and lily wallpaper. I put in a whole evening selecting books for the shelt beside his bed. She rather demurred at some of them.
“But, my dear, you don’t know Padre,” I explained. “He has a sense of humor — a Walter de la Mare-ish sense of humor. And it’s always got him into trouble in every parish he’s ever had. The pious old ladies had a notion that to be holy you have to be glum.”
“Is he holy?” She asked, stopping her work of putting up the freshly laundered curtains.
“Good heavens, no! He’s just a saint.”
It was a tired old man who stepped off the train late that August evening, but the twinkle was in his eye. We saw him up to his room. “I’ve put cigarettes in that pewter box,” She said. “ Perhaps you smoke.”
“Like a chimney,” he answered.
We got around the grace problem by standing silently before meals. And such merry meals they were! He drew on a fathomless repertoire of stories and anecdotes and he knew all the old songs. We often sang between courses — much to the distress of the waitress but, as I learned the next day, not to the distress of the cook.
I met her in her daily perambulation through the garden, basket on arm, looking for salad greens.
“Bukra,” she remarked, — being an ancient Jamaican, she was accustomed to addressing the head of the house in her native vernacular, — “Bukra, somethin’ beppen’ to this house.” I looked up. “When this parson come, holiness entered the walls.”
“Yes, he is a dear old saint,” I agreed.
“But we ought to do somethin’ about it. There’s no use havin’ a parson in the house unless he does some prayin’.”
“Perhaps he does pray for us. Naturally he does. I —”
“I mean prayin’ with us.”
“Well, I’ll have to look into that,” I answered, and turned toward the house.
The two of them, She and Padre, were on the shady side porch, working away at the bushel of snap beans between them. “The cook says we ought to have family prayers,” I began.
“So you ought,” he answered, as he dumped an apronful of snapped beans into the pot.
“Maybe we can start tonight?”
“Maybe you can start tonight. You’re the head of the house, my boy, and the head of the house is the priest of the household. It’s your job to say family prayers.”
“But won’t you start us off?” I begged.
He nodded. And that’s how we began family devotions before the ending of the day.
FOR the first two or three nights after Padre had gone, it was a pretty stiff, self-conscious job I made of those family prayers. Supper dishes washed up, the girls wrould appear in the living-room doorway. We shut off Gabriel Heatter’s portentous comments (the Voice of Gloom, we call him) and the family would settle against chairs and couches. Somehow, I felt, you shouldn’t dive headlong into prayers, so first we had a moment’s silence. It is amazing how, in so short a space, you can travel from here to There. My voice, remembering Gabriel Hcatter, I tried not to make portentous. I’d forget important matters, too. Occasionally She would remind me, “We haven’t said the Lord’s Prayer.”
After that first week it began to grow less stiff. Not just one person but the whole family was doing the praying. We got down to cases and events that touched our lives. Instead of merely remembering the men and women in the armed forces en masse, we named names — Gordon and Thomas, John and Bobbie, Kenneth and Jim. As more and more nephews and cousins and neighbors’ sons have joined up, this prayer has become a recital of the whole tribe.
A navy aviator crashed into a house near-by, destroying both himself and it — he was remembered and thanksgiving said for our escape. The waitress’s daughter was to be married the next day in Jamaica and we asked long love and happiness for her. Next week came a letter saying the wedding had been postponed. I’ve often wondered what becomes of the energy in misfire prayers.
As the family moved closer into the active orbit of these nightly prayers, I began to be subjected to spiritual kibitzing. A voice would say, “The Governor asked us to pray for the persecuted Jews.” That sent me scrabbling through the Prayer Book until I found the prayer for social justice — that we “make no peace with oppression; and that we may reverently use our freedom.” I often have to be reminded of people who are sick and those in mental distress. If it has been an especially beautiful day, we say a thanksgiving for it. When a magazine paid me much more for an article than I had expected, it didn’t seem a bit out of line to repeat the prayer, “For Faithfulness in the Use of This World’s Goods,” even though the tax collector took every penny of it. Once it was the starving Greeks that I had to be nudged about, and once Gandhi. And could we please remember the Red Cross, She being a worker in it.
When the two rapscallions we had taken under our roof had been especially obstreperous, She suggested that we say the one for children — “ Give us light and strength so to train them that they may love whatsoever things are true and pure and lovely and of good report.” It worked, so far as the report cards from school were concerned — they improved. A recent change in domestics having brought us a new cook, we have added her pickaninny to our clients.
Although the beginning and ending of these family prayers follow a pattern, the middle layer is what the day brings up. And that middle layer, I confess without blushing, has got me into two strange habits: I find myself preparing for these evening assemblies, ducking into my study for a few solitary moments before the girls appear; and I collect prayers.
Heaven knows, a lifelong jackdaw habit has caused me to collect and clutter up my home with a vast and unrelated assortment, from stamps to gypsy books, from queer street names to flower prints, from diaries to daffodils. But I never dreamed that I should collect prayers or acquire a collector’s discernment about them. According to my totally untheological and unpastoral lights, here’s what they should and should not be: —
They should have one point and si ick to it. They mustn’t be too long or too flowery. They must be in words we use every day. They must be calculated to meet problems and fit occasions of our daily domestic and office rounds and the abrupt impacts of the outside work! as well. They should proceed both laterally and vertically. They should have a logical sequence of praise and petition and a cadence of words so that, after you have said them a few times, you don’t need to look at the book.
They become part of your vocabulary. When you are remembering those you love, you just know it is “ for this life and the life to come.” When you reach the final night prayer, you can swing along without prompting through the familiar and lovely succession of Cardinal Newman, “until the shadows lengthen and the evening comes, and the busy world is hushed, and the fever of life is over, and our work is done.”
ow what’s all this done to the family — this country7 family living on a Connecticut hillside four miles from the nearest town and pretty well tied down to this spot by gas rationing?
It lias projected us out into the world, farther than we could ever go by car or, for that matter, by plane. We may get all steamed up, being liberals, over the British in India, but somehow we drop into the very middle of the fight by remembering both the British and the Indians. The movies may show us what went on at Guadalcanal, but we have been there even more realistically by naming men we knew to be fighting in those jungles. You can’t come in contact with Reality without catching some of its intense realism.
While it has knit together the family in a very human way, it has not made us any less human. We lose tempers and forget and loaf when we should be working. We dodge responsibilities and neglect to say “ thank you.” We hurt and get hurt. We grumble at little things and miss big ones. We blurt out hasty words and get all roiled up within ourselves. Still, we are closer together.
By no means have family prayers turned us into a tight little circle of meek and simpering individuals. Rather they have made us tough—hardened our spiritual muscles and sharpened our inner eyes. We don’t fall for sentimental religiosity7 so easily as we used to. We’ve stopped considering the practice of devotion as a special kind of jam that you spread on the bread of life when you feel like doing so; it is part of the bread itself. It isn’t the sort of thing that needs to be explained or fussed about. It is as regular as washing our faces and brushing our teeth.
If I am not mistaken, family prayers have taught us to quit thinking so much about ourselves and to think more of other people. We have also relearned some things we were taught as youngsters — that it isn’t the falling down that’s bad, but the refusal to pick yourself up. And if by some mischance you happen to trip, fall in the right direction.
These lateral and vertical extensions of a fairly normal family and its shifting domestics were not wrought by any sudden miracle. They crept up on us as night was added to night.
The day’s work went on and the seasons changed. Autumn drew into winter, and winter wallowed into snow and sleet and ice and temperatures that plummeted far below zero. Living, working, and playing that had gone on all over these seven acres shrunk within the four wralls of the house. We congratulated ourselves on not having converted the furnace to oil, and each night, on the way down to dinner, bolstered our sense of security by admiring the fruit and vegetables put up that autumn.
There was a whole section we called “Padre’s Shelf.” Day after steaming day in August that poor old dear had strung and snapped and peeled and skinned and never once said he hoped he’d never see another bean or beet. Saints have a wray of not complaining. He even promised, when we saw him off on the train, that he would be back again with us next August. “Bigger and better beans!” he called. Later he sent us a bird book for a house present.
I didn’t quite know what to do when that telegram from Boston reached me at my office in New York. Should I call up the house and tell them? Better wait. And I waited through t he ride home from the station and through cocktails and through dinner and up to the time for prayers. Then the girls appeared, the boys put away their games, we turned off Gabriel Heatter and we knelt. “For this, Thy servant — grant him eternal rest, O Lord, and let light perpetual shine upon him.”
That was how they learned Padre would not come again.