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Sunday at Home

From Twice Told Tales


Every Sabbath morning in the summer time I thrust back the curtain, to
watch the sunrise stealing down a steeple, which stands opposite my
chamber-window. First, the weathercock begins to flash; then, a fainter
lustre gives the spire an airy aspect; next it encroaches on the tower,
and causes the index of the dial to glisten like gold, as it points to
the gilded figure of the hour. Now, the loftiest window gleams, and now
the lower. The carved framework of the portal is marked strongly out.
At length, the morning glory, in its descent from heaven, comes down the
stone steps, one by one; and there stands the steeple, glowing with fresh
radiance, while the shades of twilight still hide themselves among the
nooks of the adjacent buildings. Methinks, though the same sun brightens
it every fair morning, yet the steeple has a peculiar robe of brightness
for the Sabbath.

By dwelling near a church, a person soon contracts an attachment for the
edifice. We naturally personify it, and conceive its massive walls and
its dim emptiness to be instinct with a calm, and meditative, and
somewhat melancholy spirit. But the steeple stands foremost, in our
thoughts, as well as locally. It impresses us as a giant, with a mind
comprehensive and discriminating enough to care for the great and small
concerns of all the town. Hourly, while it speaks a moral to the few
that think, it reminds thousands of busy individuals of their separate
and most secret affairs. It is the steeple, too, that flings abroad the
hurried and irregular accents of general alarm; neither have gladness and
festivity found a better utterance, than by its tongue; and when the dead
are slowly passing to their home, the steeple has a melancholy voice to
bid them welcome. Yet, in spite of this connection with human interests,
what a moral loneliness, on week-days, broods round about its stately
height! It has no kindred with the houses above which it towers; it
looks down into the narrow thoroughfare, the lonelier, because the crowd
are elbowing their passage at its base. A glance at the body of the
church deepens this impression. Within, by the light of distant windows,
amid refracted shadows, we discern the vacant pews and empty galleries,
the silent organ, the voiceless pulpit, and the clock, which tells to
solitude how time is passing. Time,--where man lives not,--what is it
but eternity? And in the church, we might suppose, are garnered up,
throughout the week, all thoughts and feelings that have reference to
eternity, until the holy day comes round again, to let them forth. Might
not, then, its more appropriate site be in the outskirts of the town,
with space for old trees to wave around it, and throw their solemn
shadows over a quiet green? We will say more of this, hereafter.

But, on the Sabbath, I watch the earliest sunshine, and fancy that a
holier brightness marks the day, when there shall be no buzz of voices on
the exchange, nor traffic in the shops, nor crowd, nor business, anywhere
but at church. Many have fancied so. For my own part, whether I see it
scattered down among tangled woods, or beaming broad across the fields,
or hemmed in between brick buildings, or tracing out the figure of the
casement on my chamber-floor, still I recognize the Sabbath sunshine.
And ever let me recognize it! Some illusions, and this among them, are
the shadows of great truths. Doubts may flit around me, or seem to close
their evil wings, and settle down; but so long as I imagine that the
earth is hallowed, and the light of heaven retains its sanctity, on the
Sabbath,--while that blessed sunshine lives within me,--never can my
soul have lost the instinct of its faith. If it have gone astray, it
will return again.

I love to spend such pleasant Sabbaths, from morning till night, behind
the curtain of my open window. Are they spent amiss? Every spot, so
near the church as to be visited by the circling shadow of the steeple,
should be deemed consecrated ground, to-day. With stronger truth be it
said, that a devout heart may consecrate a den of thieves, as an evil one
may convert a temple to the same. My heart, perhaps, has not such holy,
nor, I would fain trust, such impious potency. It must suffice, that,
though my form be absent, my inner man goes constantly to church, while
many, whose bodily presence fills the accustomed seats, have left their
souls at home. But I am there, even before my friend, the sexton. At
length, he comes,--a man of kindly, but sombre aspect, in dark gray
clothes, and hair of the same mixture,--he comes and applies his key to
the wide portal. Now my thoughts may go in among the dusty pews, or
ascend tile pulpit without sacrilege, but soon come forth again to enjoy
the music of the bell. How glad, yet solemn too! All the steeples in
town are talking together, aloft in the sunny air, and rejoicing among
themselves, while their spires point heavenward. Meantime, here are the
children assembling to the Sabbath school, which is kept somewhere within
the church. Often, while looking at the arched portal, I have been
gladdened by the sight of a score of these little girls and boys, in
pink, blue, yellow, and crimson frocks, bursting suddenly forth into the
sunshine, like a swarm of gay butterflies that had been shut up in the
solemn gloom. Or I might compare them to cherubs, haunting that holy
place.

About a quarter of an hour before the second ringing of the bell,
individuals of the congregation begin to appear. The earliest is
invariably an old woman in black, whose bent frame and rounded shoulders
are evidently laden with some heavy affliction, which she is eager to
rest upon the altar. Would that the Sabbath came twice as often, for the
sake of that sorrowful old soul! There is an elderly man, also, who
arrives in good season, and leans against the corner of the tower, just
within the line of its shadow, looking downward with a darksome brow. I
sometimes fancy that the old woman is the happier of the two. After
these, others drop in singly, and by twos and threes, either disappearing
through the doorway or taking their stand in its vicinity. At last, and
always with an unexpected sensation, the bell turns in the steeple
overhead, and throws out an irregular clangor, jarring the tower to its
foundation. As if there were magic in the sound, the sidewalks of the
street, both up and down along, are immediately thronged with two long
lines of people, all converging hitherward, and streaming into the
church. Perhaps the, far-off roar of a coach draws nearer,--a deeper
thunder by its contrast with the surrounding stillness,--until it sets
down the wealthy worshippers at the portal, among their humblest
brethren. Beyond that entrance, in theory at least, there are no
distinctions of earthly rank; nor indeed, by the goodly apparel which
is flaunting in the sun, would there seem to be such, on the hither side.
Those pretty girls! Why will they disturb my pious meditations! Of all
days in the week, they should strive to look least fascinating on the
Sabbath, instead of heightening their mortal loveliness, as if to rival
the blessed angels, and keep our thoughts from heaven. Were I the
minister himself, I must needs look. One girl is white muslin from the
waist upwards, and black silk downwards to her slippers; a second blushes
from topknot to shoe-tie, one universal scarlet; another shines of a
pervading yellow, as if she had made a garment of the sunshine. The
greater part, however, have adopted a milder cheerfulness of hue. Their
veils, especially when the wind raises them, give a lightness to the
general effect, and make them appear like airy phantoms, as they flit up
the steps, and vanish into the sombre doorway. Nearly all--though it is
very strange that I should know it--wear white stockings, white as snow,
and neat slippers, laced crosswise with black ribbon, pretty high above
the ankles. A white stocking is infinitely more effective than a black
one.

Here comes the clergyman, slow and solemn, in severe simplicity,
needing no black silk gown to denote his office. His aspect claims
my reverence, but cannot win my love. Were I to picture Saint Peter,
keeping fast the gate of heaven, and frowning, more stern than pitiful,
on the wretched applicants, that face should be my study. By middle age,
or sooner, the creed has generally wrought upon the heart, or been
a-tempered by it. As the minister passes into the church, the bell holds
its iron tongue, and all the low murmur of the congregation dies away.
The gray sexton looks up and down the street, and then at my window-
curtain, where, through the small peephole, I half fancy that he has
caught my eye. Now, every loiterer has gone in, and the street lies
asleep in the quiet sun, while a feeling of loneliness comes over me, and
brings also an uneasy sense of neglected privileges and duties. O, I
ought to have gone to church! The hustle of the rising congregation
reaches my ears. They are standing up to pray. Could I bring my heart
into unison with those who are praying in yonder church, and lift it
heavenward, with a fervor of supplication, but no distinct request, would
not that be the safest kind of prayer? "Lord, look down upon me in
mercy!" With that sentiment gushing from my soul, might I not leave all
the rest to Him?

Hark! the hymn. This, at least, is a portion of the service which I
can enjoy better than if I sat within the walls, where the full choir
and the massive melody of the organ, would fall with a weight upon me.
At this distance, it thrills through my frame, and plays upon my
heartstrings, with a pleasure both of the sense and spirit. Heaven be
praised, I know nothing of music, as a science; and the most elaborate
harmonies, if they please me, please as simply as a nurse's lullaby.
The strain has ceased, but prolongs itself in my mind, with fanciful
echoes, till I start from my revery, and find that the sermon has
commenced. It is my misfortune seldom to fructify, in a regular way, by
any but printed sermons. The first strong idea, which the preacher
utters, gives birth to a train of thought, and leads me onward, step by
step, quite out of hearing of the good man's voice, unless he be indeed
a son of thunder. At my open window, catching now and then a sentence
of the "parson's saw," I am as well situated as at the foot of the
pulpit stairs. The broken and scattered fragments of this one discourse
will be the texts of many sermons, preached by those colleague
pastors,--colleagues, but often disputants,--my Mind and Heart. The
former pretends to be a scholar, and perplexes me with doctrinal
points; the latter takes me on the score of feeling; and both, like
several other preachers, spend their strength to very little purpose.
I, their sole auditor, cannot always understand them.

Suppose that a few hours have passed, and behold me still behind my
curtain, just before the close of the afternoon service. The hour-hand
on the dial has passed beyond four o'clock. The declining sun is hidden
behind the steeple, and throws its shadow straight across the street, so
that my chamber is darkened, as with a cloud. Around the church-door all
is solitude, and an impenetrable obscurity beyond the threshold. A
commotion is heard. The seats are slammed down, and the pew-doors thrown
back,--a multitude of feet are trampling along the unseen aisles,--and
the congregation bursts suddenly through the portal. Foremost, scampers
a rabble of boys, behind whom moves a dense and dark phalanx of grown
men, and lastly, a crowd of females, with young children, and a few
scattered husbands. This instantaneous outbreak of life into loneliness
is one of the pleasantest scenes of the day. Some of the good people arc
rubbing their eyes, thereby intimating that they have been wrapped, as it
were, in a sort of holy trance, by the fervor of their devotion. There
is a young man, a third-rate coxcomb, whose first care is always to
flourish a white handkerchief, and brush the seat of a tight pair of
black silk pantaloons, which shine as if varnished. They must have been
made of the stuff called "everlasting," or perhaps of the same piece as
Christian's garments in the Pilgrim's Progress, for he put them on two
summers ago, and has not yet worn the gloss off. I have taken a great
liking to those black silk pantaloons. But, now, with nods and greetings
among friends, each matron takes her husband's arm, and paces gravely
homeward, while the girls also flutter away, after arranging sunset walks
with their favored bachelors. The Sabbath eve is the eve of love. At
length, the whole congregation is dispersed. No; here, with faces as
glossy as black satin, come two sable ladies and a sable gentleman, and
close in their rear the minister, who softens his severe visage, and
bestows a kind word on each. Poor souls! To them the most captivating
picture of bliss in heaven is--"There we shall be white!"

All is solitude again. But, hark!--a broken warbling of voices, and now,
attuning its grandeur to their sweetness, a stately peal of the organ.
Who are the choristers? Let me dream that the angels, who came down from
heaven, this blessed morn, to blend themselves with the worship of the
truly good, are playing and singing their farewell to the earth. On the
wings of that rich melody they were borne upward.

This, gentle reader, is merely a flight of poetry. A few of the singing
men and singing women had lingered behind their fellows, and raised their
voices fitfully, and blew a careless note upon the organ. Yet, it lifted
my soul higher than all their former strains. They are gone, the sons and
daughters of music,--and the gray sexton is just closing the portal. For
six days more, there will be no face of man in the pews, and aisles, and
galleries, nor a voice in the pulpit, nor music in the choir. Was it
worth while to rear this massive edifice, to be a desert in the heart of
the town, and populous only for a few hours of each seventh day? O, but
the church is a symbol of religion! May its site, which was consecrated
on the day when the first tree was felled, be kept holy forever, a spot
of solitude and peace, amid the trouble and vanity of our week-day world!
There is a moral, and a religion too, even in the silent walls. And may
the steeple still point heavenward, and be decked with the hallowed
sunshine of the Sabbath morn!

Nathaniel Hawthorne


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