The Priest's Sermon
It being the first day of the week, the morning air was filled
with chimes from many steeples.
"Divine service always comforted in life," thought Ayrault,
"perchance it may do so now, when I have reached the state for
which it tried to prepare me."
Accordingly, he moved on with the throng, and soon was ascending
the heights of Morningside Park, after which, he entered the
athedral. The priest whose voice had so often thrilled him
stood at his post in his surplice, and the choir had finished the
processional hymn. During the responses in the litany, and
between the commandments, while the congregation and the choir
sang, he heard their natural voices as of old ascending to the
vaulted roof and arrested there. He now also heard their
spiritual voices resulting from the earnestness of their prayers.
These were rung through the vaster vault of space, arousing a
spiritual echo beyond the constellations and the nebulae. The
service, which was that of the Protestant Episcopal Church,
touched him as deeply as usual, after which the rector ascended
the steps to the pulpit.
"The text, this morning," he began, "is from the eighth chapter
of St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans, at the eighteenth verse:
'For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not
worthy to be compared to the glory that shall be revealed in us.'
Let us suppose that you or I, brethren, should become a free and
disembodied spirit. A minute vein in the brain bursts, or a clot
forms in the heart. It may be a mere trifle, some unexpected
thing, yet the career in the flesh is ended, the eternal life of
the liberated spirit begun. The soul slips from earth's grasp,
as air from our fingers, and finds itself in the frigid,
boundless void of space. Yet, through some longing this soul
might rejoin us, and, though invisible, might hear the
church-bells ring, and long to recall some one of the many bright
Sunday mornings spent here on earth. Has a direful misfortune
befallen this brother, or has a slave been set free? Let us
suppose for a moment that the first has occurred. 'Vanity of
vanities,' said the old preacher. 'Calamity of calamities,' says
the new. That soul's probationary period is ended; his record,
on which he must go, is forever made. He has been in the flesh,
let us say, one, two, three or four score years; before him are
the countless aeons of eternity. He may have had a reasonably
satisfactory life, from his point of view, and been fairly
successful in stilling conscience. That still, small voice
doubtless spoke pretty sharply at first, but after a while it
rarely troubled him, and in the end it spoke not at all. He may,
in a way, have enjoyed life and the beauties of nature. He has
seen the fresh leaves come and go, but he forgot the moral, that
be himself was but a leaf, and that, as they all dropped to earth
to make more soil, his ashes must also return to the ground. But
his soul, friends and brethren, what becomes of that? Ah! it is
the study of this question that moistens our eyes with tears. No
evil man is really happy here, and what must be his suffering in
the cold, cold land of spirits? No slumber or forgetfulness can
ease his lot in hades, and after his condemnation at the last
judgment he must forever face the unsoftened realities of
eternity. No evil thing or thought can find lodgment in heaven.
If it could, heaven would not be a happy place; neither can any
man improve in the abyss of hell. As the horizon gradually
darkens, and this soul recedes from God, the time spent in the
flesh must come to seem the most infinitesimal moment, more
evanescent than the tick of a clock. It seems dreadful that for
such short misdoings a soul should suffer so long, but no man can
be saved in spite of himself. He had the opportunities--and the
knowledge of this must give a soul the most acute pang.
"In Revelation, xx, 6, we find these words, 'Blessed and holy is
he that hath part in the first resurrection: on such the second
death hath no power.' I have often asked myself, May not this
mean that those with a bad record in the general resurrection
after a time cease to exist, since all suffer one death at the
close of their period here?
"This is somewhat suggested by Proverbs, xii, 28,. 'In the way
of righteousness is life, and in the pathway thereof there is no
death.' This might limit the everlasting damnation, so often
repeated elsewhere, to the lives of the condemned, since to them,
in a sense, it would be everlasting.
"Let us now turn to the bright picture--the soul that has
weathered the storms of life and has reached the haven of rest.
The struggles, temptations, and trials overcome, have done their
work of refining with a rapidity that could not have been
equalled in any other way, and though, perhaps, very imperfect
still, the journey is ever on. The reward is tenfold, yet in
proportion to what this soul has done, for we know that the
servant who best used his ten talents was made ruler over ten
cities, while he that increased his five talents by five received
five; and the Saviour in whom he trusted, by whose aid he made
his fight, stands ready to receive him, saying, 'Enter thou into
the joy of thy Lord.'
"As the dark, earthly background recedes, the clouds break and
the glorious light appears, the contrast heightening the
ever-unfolding and increasing delights, which are as great as the
recipients have power to enjoy, since these righteous souls
receive their rewards in proportion to the weight of the crosses
that they have borne in the right spirit. These souls are a joy
to their Creator, and are the heirs of Him in heaven. The
ceaseless, sleepless activity that must obtain in both paradise
and hades, and that must make the hearts of the godless grow
faint at the contemplation, is also a boundless promise to those
who have Him who is all in all.
"Where is now thy Saviour? where is now thy God? the unjust man
has asked in his heart when he saw his just neighbour struggling
and unsuccessful. Both the righteous and the unrighteous man are
dead. The one has found his Saviour, the other is yearly losing
God. What is the suffering of the present momentary time, eased
as it is by God's mercy and presence, compared with the glories
that await us? What would it be if our lives here were filled
with nothing else, as ye know that your labour is not vain in the
Lord? Time and eternity--the finite and the infinite. Death
was, indeed, a deliverer, and the sunset of the body is the
sunrise of the soul."
The priest held himself erect as a soldier while delivering this
sermon, making the great cathedral ring with his earnest and
solemn voice, while Ayrault, as a spirit, saw how absolutely he
meant and believed every word that he said.
Nearly all the members of the congregation were moved--some more,
some less than they appeared. After the benediction they rapidly
dispersed, carrying in their hearts the germs he had sown; but
whether these would bear fruit or wither, time alone could show.
Ayrault had noticed Sylvia's father and mother in church, but
Sylvia herself was not there, and he was distressed to think she
might be ill.
"Why," pondered Ayrault, "am I so unhappy? I was baptized,
confirmed, and have taken the sacrament. I have always had an
unshaken faith, and, though often unsuccessful, have striven to
obey my conscience. The spirits also on Saturn kept saying I
should be happy. Now, did this mean it was incumbent upon me to
rejoice, because of some blessing I already had, and did not
appreciate, or did their prescience show them some prospective
happiness I was to enjoy? The visions also of Violet, the angel,
and the lily, which I believed, and still believe, were no mere
empty fancies, should have given me the most unspeakable joy. It
may be a mistake to apply earthly logic to heavenly things, but
the fundamental laws of science cannot change.
"Why am I so unhappy?" he continued, returning to his original
question. "The visions gave promise of special grace, perhaps
some special favour. True, my prayer to see Sylvia was heard,
but, considering the sacrifice, this has been no blessing. The
request cannot have been wrong in itself, and as for the manner,
there was no arrogance in my heart. I asked as a mortal, as a
man of but finite understanding, for what concerned me most.
Why, oh why, so wretched?"