The Gates Ajar

by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps

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Chapter IX

Aunt Winifred went to the office this morning, and met Dr. Bland, who walked home with her. He always likes to talk with her.

A woman who knows something about fate, free-will, and foreknowledge absolute, who is not ignorant of politics, and talks intelligently of Agassiz’s latest fossil, who can understand a German quotation, and has heard of Strauss and Neander, who can dash her sprightliness ably against his old dry bones of metaphysics and theology, yet never speak an accent above that essentially womanly voice of hers, is, I imagine, a phenomenon in his social experience.

I was sitting at the window when they came up and stopped at the gate. Dr. Bland lifted his hat to me in his grave way, talking the while; somewhat eagerly, too, I could see. Aunt Winifred answered him with a peculiar smile and a few low words that I could not hear.

“But, my dear madam,” he said, “the glory of God, you see, the glory of God is the primary consideration.”

“But the glory of God involves these lesser glories, as a sidereal system, though a splendid whole, exists by the multiplied differing of one star from another star. Ah, Dr. Bland, you make a grand abstraction out of it, but it makes me cold,”—she shivered, half playfully, half involuntarily,—“it makes me cold. I am very much alive and human; and Christ was human God.”

She came in smiling a little sadly, and stood by me, watching the minister walk over the hill.

“How much does that man love his wife and children?” she asked abruptly.

“A good deal. Why?”

“I am afraid that he will lose one of them then, before many more years of his life are past.”

“What! he hasn’t been telling you that they are consumptive or anything of the sort?”

“O dear me, no,” with a merry laugh which died quickly away: “I was only thinking,—there is trouble in store for him; some intense pain,—if he is capable of intense pain,—which shall shake his cold, smooth theorizing to the foundation. He speaks a foreign tongue when he talks of bereavement, of death, of the future life. No argument could convince him of that, though, which is the worst of it.”

“He must think you shockingly heterodox.”

“I don’t doubt it. We had a little talk this morning, and he regarded me with an expression of mingled consternation and perplexity that was curious. He is a very good man. He is not a stupid man. I only wish that he would stop preaching and teaching things that he knows nothing about.

“He is only drifting with the tide, though,” she added, “in his views of this matter. In our recoil from the materialism of the Romish Church, we have, it seems to me, nearly stranded ourselves on the opposite shore. Just as, in a rebound from the spirit which would put our Saviour on a level with Buddha or Mahomet, we have been in danger of forgetting ‘to begin as the Bible begins,’ with his humanity. It is the grandeur of inspiration, that it knows how to balance truth.”

It had been in my mind for several days to ask Aunt Winifred something, and, feeling in the mood, I made her take off her things and devote herself to me. My question concerned what we call the “intermediate state.”

“I have been expecting that,” she said; “what about it?”

“What is it?”

“Life and activity.”

“We do not go to sleep, of course.”

“I believe that notion is about exploded, though clear thinkers like Whately have appeared to advocate it. Where it originated, I do not know, unless from the frequent comparisons in the Scriptures of death with sleep, which refer solely, I am convinced, to the condition of body, and which are voted down by an overwhelming majority of decided statements relative to the consciousness, happiness, and tangibility of the life into which we immediately pass.”

“It is intermediate, in some sense, I suppose.”

“It waits between two other conditions,—yes; I think the drift of what we are taught about it leads to that conclusion. I expect to become at once sinless, but to have a broader Christian character many years hence; to be happy at once, but to be happier by and by; to find in myself wonderful new tastes and capacities, which are to be immeasurably ennobled and enlarged after the Resurrection, whatever that may mean.”

“What does it mean?”

“I know no more than you, but you shall hear what I think, presently. I was going to say that this seems to be plain enough in the Bible. The angels took Lazarus at once to Abraham. Dives seems to have found no interval between death and consciousness of suffering.”

“They always tell you that that is only a parable.”

“But it must mean something. No story in the Bible has been pulled to pieces and twisted about as that has been. We are in danger of pulling and twisting all sense out of it. Then Judas, having hanged his wretched self, went to his own place. Besides, there was Christ’s promise to the thief.”

I told her that I had heard Dr. Bland say that we could not place much dependence on that passage, because “Paradise” did not necessarily mean heaven.

“But it meant living, thinking, enjoying; for ‘To-day thou shalt be with me.’ Paul’s beautiful perplexed revery, however, would be enough if it stood alone; for he did not know whether he would rather stay in this world, or depart and be with Christ, which is far better. With Christ, you see; and His three mysterious days, which typify our intermediate state, were over then, and he had ascended to his Father. Would it be ‘far better’ either to leave this actual tangible life throbbing with hopes and passions, to leave its busy, Christ-like working, its quiet joys, its very sorrows which are near and human, for a nap of several ages, or even for a vague, lazy, half-alive, disembodied existence?”

“Disembodied? I supposed, of course, that it was disembodied.”

“I do not think so. And that brings us to the Resurrection. All the tendency of Revelation is to show that an embodied state is superior to a disembodied one. Yet certainly we who love God are promised that death will lead us into a condition which shall have the advantage of this: for the good apostle to die ‘was gain.’ I don’t believe, for instance, that Adam and Eve have been wandering about in a misty condition all these thousands of years. I suspect that we have some sort of body immediately after passing out of this, but that there is to come a mysterious change, equivalent, perhaps, to a re-embodiment, when our capacities for action will be greatly improved, and that in some manner this new form will be connected with this ‘garment by the soul laid by.’”

“Deacon Quirk expects to rise in his own entire, original body, after it has lain in the First Church cemetery a proper number of years, under a black slate headstone, adorned by a willow, and such a ‘cherubim’ as that poor boy shot,—by the way, if I’ve laughed at that story once, I have fifty times.”

“Perhaps Deacon Quirk would admire a work of art that I found stowed away on the top of your Uncle Calvin’s bookcases. It was an old woodcut—nobody knows how old—of an interesting skeleton rising from his grave, and, in a sprightly and modest manner, drawing on his skin, while Gabriel, with apoplectic cheeks, feet uppermost in the air, was blowing a good-sized tin trumpet in his ear!

“No; some of the popular notions of resurrection are simple physiological impossibilities, from causes ‘too tedious to specify.’ Imagine, for instance, the resurrection of two Hottentots, one of whom has happened to make a dinner of the other some fine day. A little complication there! Or picture the touching scene, when that devoted husband, King Mausolas, whose widow had him burned and ate the ashes, should feel moved to institute a search for his body! It is no wonder that the infidel argument has the best of it, when we attempt to enforce a natural impossibility. It is worth while to remember that Paul expressly stated that we shall not rise in our entire earthly bodies. The simile which he used is the seed sown, dying in, and mingling with, the ground. How many of its original particles are found in the full-grown corn?”

“Yet you believe that something belonging to this body is preserved for the completion of another?”

“Certainly. I accept God’s statement about it, which is as plain as words can make a statement. I do not know, and I do not care to know, how it is to be effected. God will not be at a loss for a way, any more than he is at a loss for a way to make his fields blossom every spring. For aught we know, some invisible compound of an annihilated body may hover, by a divine decree, around the site of death till it is wanted,—sufficient to preserve identity as strictly as a body can ever be said to preserve it; and stranger things have happened. You remember the old Mohammedan belief in the one little bone which is imperishable. Prof. Bush’s idea of our triune existence is suggestive, for a notion. He believed, you know, that it takes a material body, a spiritual body, and a soul, to make a man. The spiritual body is enclosed within the material, the soul within the spiritual. Death is simply the slipping off of the outer body, as a husk slips off from its kernel. The deathless frame stands ready then for the soul’s untrammelled occupation. But it is a waste of time to speculate over such useless fancies, while so many remain that will vitally affect our happiness.”

It is singular; but I never gave a serious thought—and I have done some thinking about other matters—to my heavenly body, till that moment, while I sat listening to her. In fact, till Roy went, the Future was a miserable, mysterious blank, to be drawn on and on in eternal and joyless monotony, and to which, at times, annihilation seemed preferable. I remember, when I was a child, asking father once, if I were so good that I had to go to heaven, whether, after a hundred years, God would not let me “die out.” More or less of the disposition of that same desperate little sinner I suspect has always clung to me. So I asked Aunt Winifred, in some perplexity, what she supposed our bodies would be like.

“It must be nearly all ‘suppose,’” she said, “for we are nowhere definitely told. But this is certain. They will be as real as these.”

“But these you can see, you can touch.”

“What would be the use of having a body that you can’t see and touch? A body is a body, not a spirit. Why should you not, having seen Roy’s old smile and heard his own voice, clasp his hand again, and feel his kiss on your happy lips?

“It is really amusing,” she continued, “to sum up the notions that good people—excellent people—even thinking people—have of the heavenly body. Vague visions of floating about in the clouds, of balancing—with a white robe on, perhaps—in stiff rows about a throne, like the angels in the old pictures, converging to an apex, or ranged in semi-circles like so many marbles. Murillo has one charming exception. I always take a secret delight in that little cherub of his, kicking the clouds, in the right-hand upper corner of the Immaculate Conception; he seems to be having a good time of it, in genuine baby-fashion. The truth is, that the ordinary idea, if sifted accurately, reduces our eternal personality to—gas.

“Isaac Taylor holds, that, as far as the abstract idea of spirit is concerned, it may just as reasonably be granite as ether.

“Mrs. Charles says a pretty thing about this. She thinks these ‘super-spiritualized angels’ very ‘unsatisfactory’ beings, and that ‘the heart returns with loving obstinacy to the young men in long white garments’ who sat waiting in the sepulchre.

“Here again I cling to my conjecture about the word ‘angel’; for then we should learn emphatically something about our future selves.

“‘As the angels in heaven,’ or ‘equal unto the angels,’ we are told in another place,—that may mean simply what it says. At least, if we are to resemble them in the particular respect of which the words were spoken,—and that one of the most important which could well be selected,—it is not unreasonable to infer that we shall resemble them in others. ‘In the Resurrection,’ by the way, means, in that connection and in many others, simply future state of existence, without any reference to the time at which the great bodily change is to come.

“‘But this is a digression,’ as the novelists say. I was going to say, that it bewilders me to conjecture where students of the Bible have discovered the usual foggy nonsense about the corporeity of heaven.

“If there is anything laid down in plain statement, devoid of metaphor or parable, simple and unequivocal, it is the definite contradiction of all that. Paul, in his preface to that sublime apostrophe to death, repeats and reiterates it, lest we should make a mistake in his meaning.

“‘There are celestial bodies.’ ‘It is raised a spiritual body.’ ‘There is a spiritual body.’ ‘It is raised in incorruption.’ ‘It is raised in glory.’ ‘It is raised in power.’ Moses, too, when he came to the transfigured mount in glory, had as real a body as when he went into the lonely mount to die.”

“But they will be different from these?”

“The glory of the terrestrial is one, the glory of the celestial another. Take away sin and sickness and misery, and that of itself would make difference enough.”

“You do not suppose that we shall look as we look now?”

“I certainly do. At least, I think it more than possible that the ‘human form divine,’ or something like it, is to be retained. Not only from the fact that risen Elijah bore it; and Moses, who, if he had not passed through his resurrection, does not seem to have looked different from the other,—I have to use those two poor prophets on all occasions, but, as we are told of them neither by parable nor picture, they are important,—and that angels never appeared in any other, but because, in sinless Eden, God chose it for Adam and Eve. What came in unmarred beauty direct from His hand cannot be unworthy of His other Paradise ‘beyond the stars.’ It would chime in pleasantly, too, with the idea of Redemption, that our very bodies, free from all the distortion of guilt, shall return to something akin to the pure ideal in which He moulded them. Then there is another reason, and stronger.”

“What is that?”

“The human form has been borne and dignified forever by Christ. And, further than that, He ascended to His Father in it, and lives there in it as human God to-day.”

I had never thought of that, and said so.

“Yes, with the very feet which trod the dusty road to Emmaus; the very wounded hands which Thomas touched, believing; the very lips which ate of the broiled fish and honeycomb; the very voice which murmured ‘Mary!’ in the garden, and which told her that He ascended unto His Father and her Father, to His God and her God, He ‘was parted from them,’ and was ‘received up into heaven.’ His death and resurrection stand forever the great prototype of ours. Otherwise, what is the meaning of such statements as these: ‘When He shall appear, we shall be like Him’; ‘The first man (Adam) is of the earth; the second man is the Lord. As we have borne the image of the earthy, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly’? And what of this, when we are told that our ‘vile bodies,’ being changed, shall be fashioned ‘like unto His glorious body’?”

I asked her if she inferred from that, that we should have just such bodies as the freedom from pain and sin would make of these.

“Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom,” she said. “There is no escaping that, even if I had the smallest desire to escape it, which I have not. Whatever is essentially earthly and temporary in the arrangements of this world will be out of place and unnecessary there. Earthly and temporary, flesh and blood certainly are.”

“Christ said, ‘A spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have.’”

“A spirit hath not; and who ever said that it did? His body had something that appeared like them, certainly. That passage, by the way, has led some ingenious writer on the Chemistry of Heaven to infer that our bodies there will be like these, minus blood! I don’t propose to spend my time over such investigations. Summing up the meaning of the story of those last days before the Ascension, and granting the shade of mystery which hangs over them, I gather this,—that the spiritual body is real, is tangible, is visible, is human, but that ‘we shall be changed.’ Some indefinable but thorough change had come over Him. He could withdraw Himself from the recognition of Mary, and from the disciples, whose ‘eyes were holden,’ as it pleased Him. He came and went through barred and bolted doors. He appeared suddenly in a certain place, without sound of footstep or flutter of garment to announce His approach. He vanished, and was not, like a cloud. New and wonderful powers had been given to Him, of which, probably, His little bewildered group of friends saw but a few illustrations.”

“And He was yet man?”

“He was Jesus of Nazareth until the sorrowful drama of human life that He had taken upon Himself was thoroughly finished, from manger to sepulchre, and from sepulchre to the right hand of His Father.”

“I like to wonder,” she said, presently, “what we are going to look like and be like. Ourselves, in the first place. ‘It is I Myself,’ Christ said. Then to be perfectly well, never a sense of pain or weakness,—imagine how much solid comfort, if one had no other, in being forever rid of all the ills that flesh is heir to! Beautiful, too, I suppose we shall be, every one. Have you never had that come over you, with a thrill of compassionate thankfulness, when you have seen a poor girl shrinking, as only girls can shrink, under the life-long affliction of a marred face or form? The loss or presence of beauty is not as slight a deprivation or blessing as the moralists would make it out. Your grandmother, who was the most beautiful woman I ever saw, the belle of the county all her young days, and the model for artists’ fancy sketching even in her old ones, as modest as a violet and as honest as the sunshine, used to have the prettiest little way when we girls were in our teens, and she thought that we must be lectured a bit on youthful vanity, of adding, in her quiet voice, smoothing down her black silk apron as she spoke, ‘But still it is a thing to be thankful for, my dear, to have a comely countenance.’

“But to return to the track and our future bodies. We shall find them vastly convenient, undoubtedly, with powers of which there is no dreaming. Perhaps they will be so one with the soul that to will will be to do,—hindrance out of the question. I, for instance, sitting here by you, and thinking that I should like to be in Kansas, would be there. There is an interesting bit of a hint in Daniel about Gabriel, who, ‘being caused to fly swiftly, touched him about the time of the evening oblation.’”

“But do you not make a very material kind of heaven out of such suppositions?”

“It depends upon what you mean by ‘material.’ The term does not, to my thinking, imply{125} degradation, except so far as it is associated with sin. Dr. Chalmers has the right of it, when he talks about ‘spiritual materialism.’ He says in his sermon on the New Heavens and Earth,—which, by the way, you should read, and from which I wish a few more of our preachers would learn something,—that we ‘forget that on the birth of materialism, when it stood out in the freshness of those glories which the great Architect of Nature had impressed upon it, that then the “morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy.”’ I do not believe in a gross heaven, but I believe in a reasonable one.”

4th. We have been devoting ourselves to feminine vanities all day out in the orchard. Aunt Winifred has been making her summer bonnet, and I some linen collars. I saw, though she said nothing, that she thought the crêpe a little gloomy, and I am going to wear these in the mornings to please her.

She has an accumulation of work on hand, and in the afternoon I offered to tuck a little dress for Faith,—the prettiest pink barège affair pale as a blush rose, and about as delicate. Faith, who had been making mud-pies in the swamp, and was spattered with black peat from curls to stockings, looked on approvingly, and wanted it to wear on a flag-root expedition to-morrow. It seemed to do me good to do something for somebody after all this lonely and—I suspect—selfish idleness.

6th. I read a little of Dr. Chalmers to-day, and went laughing to Aunt Winifred with the first sentence.

“There is a limit to the revelations of the Bible about futurity, and it were a mental or spiritual trespass to go beyond it.”

“Ah! but,” she said, “look a little farther down.”

And I read, “But while we attempt not to be ‘wise above that which is written,’ we should attempt, and that most studiously, to be wise up to that which is written.”

8th. It occurred to me to-day, that it was a noticeable fact, that, among all the visits of angels to this world of which we are told, no one seems to have discovered in any the presence of a dead friend. If redeemed men are subject to the same laws as they, why did such a thing never happen? I asked Aunt Winifred, and she said that the question reminded her of St. Augustine’s lonely cry thirty years after the death of Monica: “Ah, the dead do not come back; for, had it been possible, there has not been a night when I should not have seen my mother!” There seemed to be two reasons, she said, why there should be no exceptions to the law of silence imposed between us and those who have left us; one of which was, that we should be overpowered with familiar curiosity about them, which nobody seems to have dared to express in the presence of angels, and the secrets of their life God has decreed that it is unlawful to utter.

“But Lazarus, and Jairus’s little daughter, and the dead raised at the Crucifixion,—what of them?” I asked.

“I cannot help conjecturing that they were suffered to forget their glimpse of spiritual life,” she said. “Since their resurrection was a miracle, there might be a miracle throughout. At least, their lips must have been sealed, for not a word of their testimony has been saved. When Lazarus dined with Simon, after he had come back to life,—and of that feast we have a minute account in, I believe, every Gospel,—nobody seems to have asked, or he to have answered, any questions about it.

“The other reason is a sorrowfully sufficient one. It is that every lost darling has not gone to heaven. Of all the mercies that our Father has given, this blessed uncertainty, this long unbroken silence, may be the dearest. Bitterly hard for you and me, but what are thousands like you and me weighed against one who stands beside a hopeless grave? Think a minute what mourners there have been, and whom they have mourned! Ponder one such solitary instance as that of Vittoria Colonna, wondering, through her widowed years, if she could ever be ‘good enough’ to join wicked Pescara in another world! This poor earth holds—God only knows how many, God make them very few!—Vittorias. Ah, Mary, what right have we to complain?”

9th. To-night Aunt Winifred had callers,—Mrs. Quirk and (O Homer aristocracy!) the butcher’s wife,—and it fell to my lot to put Faith to bed.

The little maiden seriously demurred. Cousin Mary was very good,—O yes, she was good enough,—but her mamma was a great deal gooder; and why couldn’t little peoples sit up till nine o’clock as well as big peoples, she should like to know!

Finally, she came to the gracious conclusion that perhaps I’d do, made me carry her all the way up stairs, and dropped, like a little lump of lead, half asleep, on my shoulder, before two buttons were unfastened.

Feeling under some sort of theological obligation to hear her say her prayers, I pulled her curls a little till she awoke, and went through with “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pway ve Lord,” triumphantly. I supposed that was the end, but it seems that she has been also taught the Lord’s Prayer, which she gave me promptly to understand.

“O, see here! That isn’t all. I can say Our Father, and you’ve got to help me a lot!”

This very soon became a self-evident proposition; but by our united efforts we managed, after tribulations manifold, to arrive successfully at “For ever ’n’ ever ’n’ ever ’n’ A-men.”

“Dear me,” she said, jumping up with a yawn, “I think that’s a dreadful long-tailed prayer,—don’t you, Cousin Mary?”

“Now I must kiss mamma good night,” she announced, when she was tucked up at last.

“But mamma kissed you good night before you came up.”

“O, so she did. Yes, I ’member. Well, it’s papa I’ve got to kiss. I knew there was somebody.”

I looked at her in perplexity.

“Why, there!” she said, “in the upper drawer,—my pretty little papa in a purple frame. Don’t you know?”

I went to the bureau-drawer, and found in a case of velvet a small ivory painting of her father. This I brought, wondering, and the child took it reverently and kissed the pictured lips.

“Faith,” I said, as I laid it softly back, “do you always do this?”

“Do what? Kiss papa good night? O yes, I’ve done that ever since I was a little girl, you know. I guess I’ve always kissed him pretty much. When I’m a naughty girl he feels real sorry. He’s gone to heaven. I like him. O yes, and then, when I’m through kissing, mamma kisses him too.”

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