Augusta Davies Webster
A Preacher - Poem by Augusta Davies Webster
"Lest that by any means
When I have preached to others I myself
Should be a castaway." If some one now
Would take that text and preach to us that preach, --
Some one who could forget his truths were old
And what were in a thousand bawling mouths
While they filled his -- some one who could so throw
His life into the old dull skeletons
Of points and morals, inferences, proofs,
Hopes, doubts, persuasions, all for time untold
Worn out of the flesh, that one could lose from mind
How well one knew his lesson, how oneself
Could with another, may be choicer, style
Enforce it, treat it from another view
And with another logic -- some one warm
With the rare heart that trusts itself and knows
Because it loves -- yes such a one perchance,
With such a theme, might waken me as I
Have wakened others, I who am no more
Than steward of an eloquence God gives
For others' use not mine. But no one bears
Apostleship for us. We teach and teach
Until, like drumming pedagogues, we lose
The thought that what we teach has higher ends
Than being taught and learned. And if a man
Out of ourselves should cry aloud, "I sin,
And ye are sinning, all of us who talk
Our Sunday half-hour on the love of God,
Trying to move our peoples, then go home
To sleep upon it and, when fresh again,
To plan another sermon, nothing moved,
Serving our God like clock-work sentinels,
We who have souls ourselves," why I like the rest
Should turn in anger: "Hush this charlatan
Who, in his blatant arrogance, assumes
Over us who know our duties."
Yet that text
Which galls me, what a sermon might be made
Upon its theme! How even I myself
Could stir some of our priesthood! Ah! but then
Who would stir me?
I know not how it is;
I take the faith in earnest, I believe,
Even at happy times I think I love,
I try to pattern me upon the type
My Master left us, am no hypocrite
Playing my soul against good men's applause,
Nor monger of the Gospel for a cure,
But serve a Master whom I chose because
It seemed to me I loved him, whom till now
My longing is to love; and yet I feel
A falseness somewhere clogging me. I seem
Divided from myself; I can speak words
Of burning faith and fire myself with them;
I can, while upturned faces gaze on me
As if I were their Gospel manifest,
Break into unplanned turns as natural
As the blind man's cry for healing, pass beyond
My bounded manhood in the earnestness
Of a messenger from God. And then I come
And in my study's quiet find again
The callous actor who, because long since
He had some feelings in him like the talk
The book puts in his mouth, still warms his pit
And even, in his lucky moods, himself
With the passion of his part, but lays aside
His heroism with his satin suit
And thinks "the part is good and well conceived
And very natural -- no flaw to find" --
And then forgets it.
Yes I preach to others
And am -- I know not what -- a castaway?
No, but a man who feels his heart asleep,
As he might feel his hand or foot. The limb
Will not awake without a little shock,
A little pain perhaps, a nip or blow,
And that one gives and feels the waking pricks.
But for one's heart I know not. I can give
No shock to make mine prick. I seem to be
Just such a man as those who claim the power
Or have it, (say, to serve the thought), of willing
That such a one should break an iron bar,
And such a one resist the strength of ten,
And the thing is done, yet cannot will themselves
One least small breath of power beyond the wont.
To-night now I might triumph. Not a breath
But shivered when I pictured the dead soul
Awaking when the body dies to know
Itself has lived too late, and drew in long
With yearning when I shewed how perfect love
Might make Earth's self be but an earlier Heaven.
And I may say and not be over-bold,
Judging from former fruits, "Some one to-night
Has come more near to God, some one has felt
What it may mean to love Him, some one learned
A new great horror against death and sin,
Some one at least -- it may be many." Yet --
And yet -- Why I the preacher look for God,
Saying "I know thee Lord, what I should see
If I could see thee as some can on earth,
But I do not see thee," and "I know thee Lord,
What loving thee is like, as if I loved,
But I cannot love thee." And even with the thought
The answer grows "Thine is the greater sin,"
And I stand self-convicted yet not shamed,
But quiet, reasoning why it should be thus,
And almost wishing I could suddenly
Fall in some awful sin, that so might come
A living sense of God, if but by fear,
And a repentance sharp as is the need.
But now, the sin being indifference,
Repentance too is tepid.
There are some,
Good men and honest though not overwise
Nor studious of the subtler depths of minds
Below the surface strata, who would teach,
In such a case, to scare oneself awake
(As girls do, telling ghost-tales in the dark),
With scriptural terrors, all the judgments spoken
Against the tyrant empires, all the wrath
On them who slew the prophets and forsook
Their God for Baal, and the awful threat
For him whose dark dread sin is pardonless,
So that in terror one might cling to God --
As the poor wretch, who, angry with his life,
Has dashed into a dank and hungry pool,
Learns in the death-gasp to love life again
And clings unreasoning to the saving hand.
Well I know some -- for the most part with thin minds
Of the effervescent kind, easy to froth,
Though easier to let stagnate -- who thus wrought
Convulsive pious moods upon themselves
And, thinking all tears sorrow and all texts
Repentance, are in peace upon the trust
That a grand necessary stage is past,
And do love God as I desire to love.
And now they'll look on their hysteric time
And wonder at it, seeing it not real
And yet not feigned. They'll say "A special time
Of God's direct own working -- you may see
It was not natural."
And there I stand
In face with it, and know it. Not for me;
Because I know it, cannot trust in it;
It is not natural. It does not root
Silently in the dark as God's seeds root,
Then day by day move upward in the light.
It does not wake a tremulous glimmering dawn,
Then swell to perfect day as God's light does.
It does not give to life a lowly child
To grow by days and morrows to man's strength,
As do God's natural birthdays. God who sets
Some little seed of good in everything
May bring his good from this, but not for one
Who calmly says "I know -- this is a dream,
A mere mirage sprung up of heat and mist;
It cannot slake my thirst: but I will try
To fool my fancy to it, and will rush
To cool my burning throat, as if there welled
Clear waters in the visionary lake,
That so perchance Heaven pitying me may send
Its own fresh showers upon me." I perchance
Might, with occasion, spite of steady will
And steady nerve, bring on the ecstasy:
But what avails without the simple faith?
I should not cheat myself, and who cheats God?
And wherefore should I count love more than truth,
And buy the loving him with such a price,
Even if 'twere possible to school myself
To an unbased belief and love him more
Only through a delusion?
Not so, Lord.
Let me not buy my peace, nay not my soul,
At price of one least word of thy strong truth
Which is Thyself. The perfect love must be
When one shall know thee. Better one should lose
The present peace of loving, nay of trusting,
Better to doubt and be perplexed in soul
Because thy truth seems many and not one,
Than cease to seek thee, even through reverence,
In the fulness and minuteness of thy truth.
If it be sin, forgive me: I am bold,
My God, but I would rather touch the ark
To find if thou be there than -- thinking hushed
"'Tis better to believe, I will believe,
Though, were't not for belief, 'Tis far from proved" --
Shout with the people "Lo our God is there,"
And stun my doubts by iterating faith.
And yet, I know not why it is, this knack
Of sermon-making seems to carry me
Athwart the truth at times before I know --
In little things at least; thank God the greater
Have not yet grown by the familiar use
Such puppets of a phrase as to slip by
Without clear recognition. Take to-night --
I preached a careful sermon, gravely planned,
All of it written. Not a line was meant
To fit the mood of any differing
From my own judgment: not the less I find --
(I thought of it coming home while my good Jane
Talked of the Shetland pony I must get
For the boys to learn to ride:) yes here it is,
And here again on this page -- blame by rote,
Where by my private judgment I blame not.
"We think our own thoughts on this day," I said,
"Harmless it may be, kindly even, still
Not Heaven's thoughts -- not Sunday thoughts I'll say."
Well now do I, now that I think of it,
Advise a separation of our thoughts
By Sundays and by week-days, Heaven's and ours?
By no means, for I think the bar is bad.
I'll teach my children "Keep all thinkings pure,
And think them when you like, if but the time
Is free to any thinking. Think of God
So often that in anything you do
It cannot seem you have forgotten Him,
Just as you would not have forgotten us,
Your mother and myself, although your thoughts
Were not distinctly on us, while you played;
And, if you do this, in the Sunday's rest
You will most naturally think of Him;
Just as your thoughts, though in a different way,
(God being the great mystery He is
And so far from us and so strangely near),
Would on your mother's birthday-holiday
Come often back to her." But I'd not urge
A treadmill Sunday labour for their mind,
Constant on one forced round: nor should I blame
Their constant chatter upon daily themes.
I did not blame Jane for her project told,
Though she had heard my sermon, and no doubt
Ought, as I told my flock, to dwell on that.
Then here again "the pleasures of the world
That tempt the younger members of my flock."
Now I think really that they've not enough
Of these same pleasures. Grey and joyless lives
A many of them have, whom I would see
Sharing the natural gaieties of youth.
I wish they'd more temptations of the kind.
Now Donne and Allan preach such things as these
Meaning them and believing. As for me,
What did I mean? Neither to feign nor teach
A Pharisaic service. 'Twas just this,
That there are lessons and rebukes long made
So much a thing of course that, unobserving,
One sets them down as one puts dots to i's,
Crosses to t's.
A simple carelessness;
No more than that. There's the excuse -- and I,
Who know that every carelessness is falsehood
Against my trust, what guide or check have I
Being, what I have called myself, an actor
Able to be awhile the man he plays
But in himself a heartless common hack?
I felt no falseness as I spoke the trash,
I was thrilled to see it moved the listeners,
Grew warmer to my task! 'Twas written well,
Habit had made the thoughts come fluently
As if they had been real --
Yes, Jane, yes,
I hear you -- Prayers and supper waiting me --
I'll come --
Dear Jane, who thinks me half a saint.
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