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Chapter 35: living by the church

The clown in “Twelfth night” tells Viola that he lives by the church, and adds by way of explanation that he lives at his house, and his house doth stand by the church. The present writer has a similar juxtaposition, and finds it in many ways advantageous. My roses and lilies in the garden-bed are safer than if they stood next to the police-office; and when on one occasion two boys in the street had insulted some ladies, I collared one of them — the other running away — and took him before my reverend neighbor with much more confidence of results than if it had been his Honor the Mayor. The result duly followed, and was quite beyond my expectation; for the next day the boy who had run away, and whom I could not possibly have identified, came to see me unescorted, and, confessing that he and he alone was the culprit, [231] asked for forgiveness. The Municipal Court could hardly have adjusted the matter so neatly and so promptly.

There constantly passes before me in full view a panorama of the daily life of the Roman Catholic parish-priesthood — the visits of high and low, particularly low — the arrival of hired carriages with weddings and baptismal parties — and the too profuse carriages for funerals. Then often at midnight I hear the stable doors roll back and the horse's hoofs soon after crunch upon the gravel, as the faithful priests drive away on some errand of mercy; and sometimes by day, as I am cutting the grass on the lawn, a man will come straggling past and volunteer the information that his wife has persuaded him to go and take the pledge before the praste, God bless him. Pledges thus taken, I am told, are almost sure to be kept, because they are given only for short periods, and perhaps renewed from time to time; the pledged man reporting at brief intervals and being kept under constant supervision. The regular church work I cannot watch, for the building lies on the other side of the house, accessible by a covered passage; but I know that good Father--, the predecessor of the present incumbent, [232] once said to me wearily that he knew confession to be a divinely ordained ordinance, for no mere man would have put upon his fellow-men anything so hard. Knowing all this, it did not trouble me at all, but was only gratifying, when I used to hear often, on Sunday noon, the click of the billiard-balls through Father--'s open window after his two wearisome masses; nor do I believe that he heard that click recurring, as a record against him, before the Recording Angel, in that heaven where he now deservedly dwells. I have not heard it on earth since he went; but it is delightful to see his successors refreshing themselves some Saturday, after a hard week's work, with a game of hand-ball in the high brick court which they have built for that purpose behind the stable. His Reverence, the senior priest, can outplay either of his young assistants, to say nothing of their stout hired man, who occasionally takes a hand with them; and when the game is over, and the small boys of the parish take their turn in the court, it is pleasant to see his Reverence linger and advise them where to stand and how to await the ball. It is always agreeable to see dignity so intrenched and sure in its position that it can be familiar [233] without fear. I can remember when in youth I lost my place as teacher at a boarding-school, mainly because I had given lessons in sparring to some of the older boys.

It is impossible to think of my neighbors except as men who would do for me any act of kindness, and whom I respect with my whole heart. No doubt they wish their Church to inherit the earth, and in their secret souls expect it: what branch of the reverend clergy does not? Nor have I been able to induce them to cast me out into outer darkness, as one of the wicked, though I have several times called their attention to that extreme necessity. On the contrary, their theory of salvation appears very elastic; they seem to regard all well-meaning persons as constructively or potentially within the pale of redemption; and my dear lamented neighbor — he of the billiard-balls — was wont to assure me that he did not worry himself about me at all. And yet it sometimes comes across the mind, after a chat with one of them, how our whole mental attitudes are so utterly remote, the one from the other, that it almost seems a wonder that we should meet on the same planet, to say nothing of the same street. What two beings can be further apart, one [234] asks, than a human soul which glories in being absolutely subject to an external authority, and one which cannot see either the need or the possibility of such an appeal? It is not possible to have an authority outside of one's own private judgment, for what can select or accept that authority save that private judgment? How can your mental faculties possibly set up for you a tribunal which shall override themselves? They can no more do it than a stream can rise higher than its source; no more than you can build your house downward from the chimney-top; no more than you can raise yourself from the ground by tugging at your own garments. So long as you are resting on your own faculties, you must rest on them, and to imagine that you can substitute something — as an infallible church or even an infallible book does not really help you in the least, because the same reason and conscience which put it there can at any moment take it away or disregard it. Disguise it as you please, you are trusting your own powers at last, because you have nothing else to trust to; just as, no matter how thoroughly you have put yourself into a physician's hands, it is only a temporary arrangement, and nothing can take from you [235] the right or the power to disregard his prescriptions and substitute those of some other physician, or even your own.

Many of the current objections to the Roman Catholic Church seem to me trivial or untenable. It is not easy to show that it does not produce as good saints or poets or scientists as any other body of men, or that it produces more criminals when we compare, class for class, the same social grade. Of course poverty is responsible for a great many sins, and for a still larger proportion of convictions in court, were it only for the want of bondsmen or paid counsel. Therefore the church which has most of the poor will naturally have the most criminals. I used to think, as many do, that the Roman Catholic Church, with all its merits, produced people less truth-telling than were elsewhere found; but was rather taken aback by the remark of a young Irish girl, one of two sisters whom I had seen go through college with the greatest credit and teach Greek to their priests afterwards. I had said something on the subject to her, she being a thoroughly candid and ingenuous soul. “Do you really mean,” she said, “that you put a little less faith in people's word for their being Catholics?” “Yes,” [236] I said, “I fear I do.” “It is very strange,” she thoughtfully replied; “that is just the way my sister and I feel about Protestants.” It reminded me of De Goncourt's saying, “After all, every political discussion comes back to this: I am better than you” (Je suis meilleur que vous). It is much the same with the comparison of religions.

For myself, I never should be led to become a Roman Catholic, as many are led, by the dignity and beauty of the ritual; because even that is tame and dull compared with the impressiveness of the Greek Church, even as one sees it in Paris, with its stately, melodious, black-bearded priests, its pewless churches, and the utter reverence of its kneeling congregations. There are, however, many points of view in which the Roman Catholic Church is very attractive. But every church claiming infallibility, whether for a pope or for a book, is hampered by this fatal logical defect — this “vicious circle,” as the logicians say — that it has to employ reason and conscience to set up the very authority which is to override reason and conscience. We all depend upon our private judgment at last, because we have nothing else to depend upon. To claim anything else is to practise an unconscious juggling [237] with our own minds. I invariably find that the ablest of the younger converts from the Roman Catholic Church--who are numerous, as are the converts in the other direction — give this as the essential ground of their change. And I also find that the very able Roman Catholic newspaper which I read every week, while prompt to answer — and usually with success-all the superficial arguments against the church, keeps absolutely silent as to this vital and final obstacle.

[238] [239]

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