The Gates Ajar

by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps

Previous Chapter Next Chapter

Chapter VI

May 9.

As I was looking over the green book last night, Aunt Winifred came up behind me and softly laid a bunch of violets down between the leaves.

By an odd contrast, the contented, passionless things fell against those two verses that were copied from the German, and completely covered them from sight. I lifted the flowers, and held up the page for her to see.

As she read, her face altered strangely; her eyes dilated, her lip quivered, a flush shot over her checks and dyed her forehead up to the waves of her hair. I turned away quickly, feeling that I had committed a rudeness in watching her, and detecting in her, however involuntarily, some far, inner sympathy, or shadow of a long-past sympathy, with the desperate words.

“Mary,” she said, laying down the book, “I believe Satan wrote that.”

She laughed a little then, nervously, and paled back into her quiet, peaceful self.

“I mean that he inspired it. They are wicked words. You must not read them over. You will outgrow them sometime with a beautiful growth of trust and love. Let them alone till that time comes. See, I will blot them out of sight for you with colors as blue as heaven,—the real heaven, where God will be loved the most.”

She shook apart the thick, sweet nosegay, and, taking a half-dozen of the little blossoms, pinned them, dripping with fragrant dew, upon the lines. There I shall let them stay, and, since she wishes it, I shall not lift them to see the reckless words till I can do it safely.

This afternoon Aunt Winifred has been telling me about herself. Somewhat more, or of a different kind, I should imagine, from what she has told most people. She seems to love me a little, not in a proper kind of way, because I happen to be her niece, but for my own sake. It surprises me to find how pleased I am that she should.

That Kansas life must have been very hard to her, in contrast as it was with the smooth elegance of her girlhood; she was very young, too, when she undertook it. I said something of the sort to her.

“They have been the hardest and the easiest, the saddest and the happiest, years of all my life,” she answered.

I pondered the words in my heart, while I listened to her story. She gave me vivid pictures of the long, bright bridal journey, overshadowed with a very mundane weariness of jolting coaches and railway accidents before its close; of the little neglected hamlet which waited for them, twenty miles from a post-office and thirty from a school-house; of the parsonage, a log-hut among log-huts, distinguished and adorned by a little lath and plastering, glass windows, and a doorstep;—they drew in sight of it at the close of a tired day, with a red sunset lying low on the flats.

Uncle Forceythe wanted mission-work, and mission-work he found here with—I should say with a vengeance, if the expression were exactly suited to an elegantly constructed and reflective journal.

“My heart sank for a moment, I confess,” she said, “but it never would do, you know, to let him suspect that, so I smiled away as well as I knew how, shook hands with one or two women in red calico who had been ‘slicking up inside,’ they said; went in by the fire,—it was really a pleasant fire,—and, as soon as they had left us alone, I climbed into John’s lap, and, with both arms around his neck, told him that I knew we should be very happy. And I said—”

“Said what?”

She blushed a little, like a girl.

“I believe I said I should be happy in Patagonia,—with him. I made him laugh at last, and say that my face and words were like a beautiful prophecy. And, Mary, if they were, it was beautifully fulfilled. In the roughest times,—times of ragged clothes and empty flour-barrels, of weakness and sickness and quack doctors, of cold and discouragement, of prairie fires and guerillas,—from trouble to trouble, from year’s end to year’s end, we were happy together, we two. As long as we could have each other, and as long as we could be about our Master’s business, we felt as if we did not dare to ask for anything more, lest it should seem that we were ungrateful for such wealth of mercy.”

It would take too long to write out here the half that she told me, though I wish I could,{61} for it interested me more than any story that I have ever read.

After years of Christ-like toiling to help those rough old farmers and wicked bushwhackers to Heaven, the call to Lawrence came, and it seemed to Uncle Forceythe that he had better go. It was a pleasant, influential parish, and there, though not less hard at work, they found fewer rubs and more comforts; there Faith came, and there were their pleasant days, till the war.—I held my breath to hear her tell about Quantrell’s raid. There, too, Uncle wasted through that death-in-life, consumption; there he “fell on sleep,” she said, and there she buried him.

She gave me no further description of his death than those words, and she spoke them with her far-away, tearless eyes looking off through the window, and after she had spoken she was still for a time.

The heart knoweth its own bitterness; that grew distinct to me, as I sat, shut out by her silence. Yet there was nothing bitter about her face.

“Faith was six months old when he went,” she said presently. “We had never named her: Baby was name enough at first for such a wee thing; then she was the only one, and had come so late, that it seemed to mean more to us than to most to have a baby all to ourselves, and we liked the sound of the word. When it became quite certain that John must go, we used to talk it over, and he said that he would like to name her, but what, he did not tell me.

“At last, one night, after he had lain for a while thinking with closed eyes, he bade me bring the child to him. The sun was setting, I remember, and the moon was rising. He had had a hard day; the life was all scorched out of the air. I moved the bed up by the window, that he might have the breath of the rising wind. Baby was wide awake, cooing softly to herself in the cradle, her bits of damp curls clinging to her head, and her pink feet in her hands. I took her up and brought her just as she was, and knelt down by the bed. The street was still. We could hear the frogs chanting a mile away. He lifted her little hands upon his own, and said—no matter about the words—but he told me that as he left the child, so he left the name, in my sacred charge,—that he had chosen it for me,—that, when he was out of sight, it might help me to have it often on my lips.

“So there in the sunset and the moonrise, we two alone together, he baptized her, and we gave our little girl to God.”

When she had said this, she rose and went over to the window, and stood with her face from me. By and by, “It was the fourteenth,” she said, as if musing to herself,—“the fourteenth of June.”

I remember now that Uncle Forceythe died on the fourteenth of June. It may have been that the words of that baptismal blessing were the last that they heard, either child or mother.

May 10. It has been a pleasant day; the air shines like transparent gold; the wind sweeps like somebody’s strong arms over the flowers, and gathers up a crowd of perfumes that wander up and down about one. The church bells have rung out like silver all day. Those bells—especially the Second Advent at the further end of the village—are positively ghastly when it rains.

Aunt Winifred was dressed bright and early for church. I, in morning dress and slippers, sighed and demurred.

“Auntie, do you expect to hear anything new?”

“Judging from your diagnosis of Dr. Bland,—no.”

“To be edified, refreshed, strengthened, or instructed?”

“Perhaps not.”

“Bored, then?”

“Not exactly.”

“What do you expect?”

“There are the prayers and singing. Generally one can, if one tries, wring a little devotion from the worst of them. As to a minister, if he is good and commonplace, young and earnest and ignorant, and I, whom he cannot help one step on the way to Heaven, consequently stay at home, Deacon Quirk, whom he might carry a mile or two, by and by stays at home also. If there is to be a ‘building fitly joined together,’ each stone must do its part of the upholding. I feel better to go half a day always. I never compel Faith to go, but I never have a chance, for she teases not to be left at home.”

“I think it’s splendid to go to church most the time,” put in Faith, who was squatted on the carpet, counting sugared caraway seeds,—“all but the sermon. That isn’t splendid. I don’t like the gre-at big prayers ’n’ things, I like caramary seeds, though; mother always gives ’em to me in meeting ’cause I’m a good girl. Don’t you wish you were a good girl, Cousin Mary, so’s you could have some? Besides, I’ve got on my best hat and my button-boots. Besides, there used to be a real funny little boy up in meeting at home, and he gave me a little tin dorg once over the top the pew. Only mother made me give it back. O, you ought to seen the man that preached down at Uncle Calvin’s! I tell you he was a bully old minister,—he banged the Bible like everything!”

“There’s a devotional spirit for you!” I said to her mother.

“Well,” she answered, laughing, “it is better than that she should be left to play dolls and eat preserves, and be punished for disobedience. Sunday would invariably become a guilty sort of holiday at that rate. Now, caraways or ‘bully old ministers’ notwithstanding, she carries to bed with her a dim notion that this has been holy time and pleasant time. Besides, the associations of a church-going childhood, if I can manage them genially, will be a help to her when she is older. Come, Faith! go and pull off Cousin Mary’s slippers, and bring down her boots, and then she’ll have to go to church. No, I didn’t say that you might tickle her feet!”

Feeling the least bit sorry that I had set the example of a stay-at-home Christian before the child, I went directly up stairs to make ready, and we started after all in good season.

Dr. Bland was in the pulpit. I observed that he looked—as indeed did the congregation bodily—with some curiosity into our slip, where it has been a rare occurrence of late to find me, and where the light, falling through the little stained glass oriel, touched Aunt Winifred’s thoughtful smile. I wondered whether Dr. Bland thought it was wicked for people to smile in church. No, of course he has too much sense. I wonder what it is about Dr. Bland that always suggests such questions.

It has been very warm all day,—that aggravating, unseasonable heat, which is apt to come in spasms in the early part of May, and which, in thick spring alpaca and heavy sack, one finds intolerable. The thermometer stood at 75° on the church porch; every window was shut, and everybody’s fan was fluttering Now, with this sight before him, what should our observant minister do, but give out as his first hymn: “Thine earthly Sabbaths.” “Thine earthly Sabbaths” would be a beautiful hymn, if it were not for those lines about the weather:—

“No midnight shade, no clouded sun,
But sacred, high, eternal noon”!

There was a great hot sunbeam striking directly on my black bonnet. My fan was broken. I gasped for air. The choir went over and over and over the words, spinning them into one of those indescribable tunes, in which everybody seems to be trying to get through first. I don’t know what they called them,—they always remind me of a game of “Tag.”

I looked at Aunt Winifred. She took it more coolly than I, but an amused little smile played over her face. She told me after church that she had repeatedly heard that hymn given out at noon of an intense July day. Her husband, she said, used to save it for the winter, or for cloudy afternoons. “Using means of grace,” he called that.

However, Dr. Bland did better the second time, Aunt Winifred joined in the singing, and I enjoyed it, so I will not blame the poor man. I suppose he was so far lifted above this earth, that he would not have known whether he was preaching in Greenland’s icy mountains, or on India’s coral strand.

When he announced his text, “For our conversation is in Heaven,” Aunt Winifred and I exchanged glances of content. We had been talking about heaven on the way to church; at least, till Faith, not finding herself entertained, interrupted us by some severe speculations as to whether Maltese kitties were mulattoes, and “why the bell-ringer didn’t jump off the steeple some night, and see if he couldn’t fly right up, the way Elijah did.”

I listened to Dr. Bland as I have not listened for a long time. The subject was of all subjects nearest my heart. He is a scholarly man, in his way. He ought to know, I thought, more about it than Aunt Winifred. Perhaps he could help me.

His sermon, as nearly as I can recall it, was substantially this.

“The future life presented a vast theme to our speculation. Theories ‘too numerous to mention,’ had been held concerning it. Pagans had believed in a coming state of rewards and punishments. What natural theology had dimly foreshadowed, Revelation had brought in, like a full-orbed day, with healing on its wings.” I am not positive about the metaphors.

“As it was fitting that we should at times turn our thoughts upon the threatenings of Scripture, it was eminently suitable also that we should consider its promises.

“He proposed in this discourse to consider the promise of heaven, the reward offered by Christ to his good and faithful servants.

“In the first place: What is heaven?”

I am not quite clear in my mind what it was, though I tried my best to find out. As nearly as I can recollect, however,—

“Heaven is an eternal state.

“Heaven is a state of holiness.

“Heaven is a state of happiness.”

Having heard these observations before, I will not enlarge as he did upon them, but leave that for the “vivid imagination” of the green book.

“In the second place: What will be the employments of heaven?

“We shall study the character of God.

“An infinite mind must of necessity be eternally an object of study to a finite mind. The finite mind must of necessity find in such study supreme delight. All lesser joys and interests will pale. He felt at moments, in reflecting on this theme, that that good brother who, on being asked if he expected to see the dead wife of his youth in heaven, replied, ‘I expect to be so overwhelmed by the glory of the presence of God, that it may be thousands of years before I shall think of my wife,’—he felt that perhaps this brother was near the truth.”

Poor Mrs. Bland looked exceedingly uncomfortable.

“We shall also glorify God.”

He enlarged upon this division, but I have forgotten exactly how. There was something about adoration, and the harpers harping with their harps, and the sea of glass, and crying, Worthy the Lamb! and a great deal more that bewildered and disheartened me so that I could scarcely listen to it. I do not doubt that we shall glorify God primarily and happily, but can we not do it in some other way than by harping and praying?

“We shall moreover love each other with a universal and unselfish love.”

“That we shall recognize our friends in heaven, he was inclined to think, after mature deliberation, was probable. But there would be no special selfish affections there. In this world we have enmities and favoritisms. In the world of bliss our hearts would glow with holy love alike to all other holy hearts.”

I wonder if he really thought that would make “a world of bliss.” Aunt Winifred slipped her hand into mine under her cloak. Ah, Dr. Bland, if you had known how that little soft touch was preaching against you!

“In the words of an eminent divine, who has long since entered into the joys of which he spoke: ‘Thus, whenever the mind roves through the immense region of heaven, it will find, among all its innumerable millions, not an enemy, not a stranger, not an indifferent heart, not a reserved bosom. Disguise here, and even concealment, will be unknown. The soul will have no interests to conceal, no thoughts to disguise. A window will be opened in every breast, and show to every eye the rich and beautiful furniture within!’

“Thirdly: How shall we fit for heaven?”

He mentioned several ways, among which,—

“We should subdue our earthly affections to God.

“We must not love the creature as the Creator. My son, give me thy heart. When he removes our friends from the scenes of time (with a glance in my direction), we should resign ourselves to his will, remembering that the Lord gave and the Lord hath taken away in mercy; that He is all in all; that He will never leave us nor forsake us; that He can never change or die.”

As if that made any difference with the fact, that his best treasures change or die!

“In conclusion,—

“We infer from our text that our hearts should not be set upon earthly happiness. (Enlarged.)

“That the subject of heaven should be often in our thoughts and on our lips.” (Enlarged.)

Of course I have not done justice to the filling up of the sermon; to the illustrations, metaphors, proof-texts, learning, and eloquence,—for, though Dr. Bland cannot seem to think outside of the old grooves, a little eloquence really flashes through the tameness of his style sometimes, and when he was talking about the harpers, etc., some of his words were well chosen. “To be drowned in light,” I have somewhere read, “may be very beautiful; it is still to be drowned.” But I have given the skeleton of the discourse, and I have given the sum of the impressions that it left on me, an attentive hearer. It is fortunate that I did not hear it while I was alone; it would have made me desperate. Going hungry, hopeless, blinded, I came back empty, uncomforted, groping. I wanted something actual, something pleasant, about this place into which Roy has gone. He gave me glittering generalities, cold commonplace, vagueness, unreality, a God and a future at which I sat and shivered.

Dr. Bland is a good man. He had, I know, written that sermon with prayer. I only wish that he could be made to see how it glides over and sails splendidly away from wants like mine.

But thanks be to God who has provided a voice to answer me out of the deeps.

Auntie and I walked home without any remarks (we overheard Deacon Quirk observe to a neighbor: “That’s what I call a good gospel sermon, now!”), sent Faith away to Phœbe, sat down in the parlor, and looked at each other.

“Well?” said I.

“I know it,” said she.

Upon which we both began to laugh.

“But did he say the dreadful truth?”

“Not as I find it in my Bible.”

“That it is probable, only probable that we shall recognize—”

“My child, do not be troubled about that. It is not probable, it is sure. If I could find no proof for it, I should none the less believe it, as long as I believe in God. He gave you Roy, and the capacity to love him. He has taught you to sanctify that love through love to Him. Would it be like Him to create such beautiful and unselfish loves,—most like the love of heaven of any type we know,—just for our threescore years and ten of earth? Would it be like Him to suffer two souls to grow together here, so that the separation of a day is pain, and then wrench them apart for all eternity? It would be what Madame de Gasparin calls, ‘fearful irony on the part of God.’”

“But there are lost loves. There are lost souls.”

“‘How often would I have gathered you, and ye would not!’ That is not his work. He would have saved both soul and love. They had their own way. We were speaking of His redeemed. The object of having this world at all, you know, is to fit us for another. Of what use will it have been, if on passing out of it we must throw by forever its gifts, its lessons, its memories? God links things together better than that. Be sure, as you are sure of Him, that we shall be ourselves in heaven. Would you be yourself not to recognize Roy?—consequently, not to love Roy, for to love and to be separated is misery, and heaven is joy.”

“I understand. But you said you had other proof.”

“So I have; plenty of it. If ‘many shall come from the East and from the West, and shall sit down in the kingdom of God with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,’ will they not be likely to know that they are with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? or will they think it is Shadrach, Meshech, and Abednego?

“What is meant by such expressions as ‘risen together,’ ‘sitting together at the right hand of God,’ ‘sitting together in heavenly places’? If they mean anything, they mean recognitions, friendships, enjoyments.

“Did not Peter and the others know Moses when they saw him?—know Elias when they saw him? Yet these men were dead hundreds of years before the favored fishermen were born.

“How was it with those ‘saints which slept and arose’ when Christ hung dead there in the dark? Were they not seen of many?”

“But that was a miracle.”

“They were risen dead, such as you and I shall be some day. The miracle consisted in their rising then and there. Moreover, did not the beggar recognize Abraham? and—Well, one might go through the Bible finding it full of this promise in hints or assertions, in parables or visions. We are ‘heirs of God,’ ‘joint heirs with Christ’; having suffered with Him, we shall be ‘glorified together.’ Christ himself has said many sure things: ‘I will come and receive you, that where I am, there ye may be.’ ‘I will that they be with me where I am.’ Using, too, the very type of Godhead to signify the eternal nearness and eternal love of just such as you and Roy as John and me, he prays: ‘Holy Father, keep them whom Thou hast given me, that they may be one as we are.’

“There is one place, though, where I find what I like better than all the rest; you remember that old cry wrung from the lips of the stricken king,—‘I shall go to him; but he will not return to me.’”

“I never thought before how simple and direct it is; and that, too, in those old blinded days.”

“The more I study the Bible,” she said, “and I study not entirely in ignorance of the commentators and the mysteries, the more perplexed I am to imagine where the current ideas of our future come from. They certainly are not in this book of gracious promises. That heaven which we heard about to-day was Dr. Bland’s, not God’s. ‘It’s aye a wonderfu’ thing to me,’ as poor Lauderdale said, ‘the way some preachers take it upon themselves to explain matters to the Almighty!’”

“But the harps and choirs, the throne, the white robes, are all in Revelation. Deacon Quirk would put his great brown finger on the verses, and hold you there triumphantly.”

“Can’t people tell picture from substance, a metaphor from its meaning? That book of Revelation is precisely what it professes to be,—a vision; a symbol. A symbol of something, to be sure, and rich with pleasant hopes, but still a symbol. Now, I really believe that a large proportion of Christian church-members, who have studied their Bible, attended Sabbath schools, listened to sermons all their lives, if you could fairly come at their most definite idea of the place where they expect to spend eternity, would own it to be the golden city, with pearl gates, and jewels in the wall. It never occurs to them, that, if one picture is literal, another must be. If we are to walk golden streets, how can we stand on a sea of glass? How can we ‘sit on thrones’? How can untold millions of us ‘lie in Abraham’s bosom’?

“But why have given us empty symbols? Why not a little fact?”

“They are not empty symbols. And why God did not give us actual descriptions of actual heavenly life, I don’t trouble myself to wonder. He certainly had his reasons, and that is enough for me. I find from these symbols, and from his voice in my own heart, many beautiful things,—I will tell you some more of them at another time,—and, for the rest, I am content to wait. He loves me, and he loves mine. As long as we love Him, He will never separate Himself from us, or us from each other. That, at least, is sure.”

“If that is sure, the rest is of less importance;—yes. But Dr. Bland said an awful thing!”

“The quotation from a dead divine?”

“Yes. That there will be no separate interests, no thoughts to conceal.”

“Poor good man! He has found out by this time that he should not have laid down nonsense like that, without qualification or demur, before a Bible-reading hearer. It was simply his opinion, not David’s, or Paul’s, or John’s, or Isaiah’s. He had a perfect right to put it in the form of a conjecture. Nobody would forbid his conjecturing that the inhabitants of heaven are all deaf and dumb, or wear green glasses, or shave their heads, if he chose, provided he stated that it was conjecture, not revelation.”

“But where does the Bible say that we shall have power to conceal our thoughts?—and I would rather be annihilated than to spend eternity with heart laid bare,—the inner temple thrown open to be trampled on by every passing stranger!”

“The Bible specifies very little about the minor arrangements of eternity in any way. But I doubt if, under any circumstances, it would have occurred to inspired men to inform us that our thoughts shall continue to be our own. The fact is patent on the face of things. The dead minister’s supposition would destroy individuality at one fell swoop. We should be like a man walking down a room lined with mirrors, who sees himself reflected in all sizes, colors, shades, at all angles and in all proportions, according to the capacity of the mirror, till he seems no longer to belong to himself, but to be cut up into ellipses and octagons and prisms. How soon would he grow frantic in such companionship, and beg for a corner where he might hide and hush himself in the dark?

“That we shall in a higher life be able to do what we cannot in this,—judge fairly of each other’s moral worth,—is undoubtedly true. Whatever the Judgment Day may mean, that is the substance of it. But this promiscuous theory of refraction;—never!

“Besides, wherever the Bible touches the subject, it premises our individuality as a matter of course. What would be the use of talking, if everybody knew the thoughts of everybody else?”

“You don’t suppose that people talk in heaven?”

“I don’t suppose anything else. Are we to spend ages of joy, a company of mutes together? Why not talk?”

“I supposed we should sing,—but—”

“Why not talk as well as sing? Does not song involve the faculty of speech?—unless you would like to make canaries of us.”

“Ye-es. Why, yes.”

“There are the visitors at the beautiful Mount of Transfiguration again. Did not they talk with each other and with Christ? Did not John talk with the angel who ‘shewed him those things’?”

“And you mean to say—”

“I mean to say that if there is such a thing as common sense, you will talk with Roy as you talked with him here,—only not as you talked with him here, because there will be no troubles nor sins, no anxieties nor cares, to talk about; no ugly shades of cross words or little quarrels to be made up; no fearful looking-for of separation.”

I laid my head upon her shoulder, and could hardly speak for the comfort that she gave me.

“Yes, I believe we shall talk and laugh and joke and play{82}—”

“Laugh and joke in heaven?”

“Why not?”

“But it seems so—so—why, so wicked and irreverent and all that, you know.”

Just then Faith, who, mounted out on the kitchen table, was preaching at Phœbe in comical mimicry of Dr. Bland’s choicest intonations, laughed out like the splash of a little wave.

The sound came in at the open door, and we stopped to listen till it had rippled away.

“There!” said her mother, “put that child, this very minute, with all her little sins forgiven, into one of our dear Lord’s many mansions, and do you suppose that she would be any the less holy or less reverent for a laugh like that? Is he going to check all the sparkle and blossom of life when he takes us to himself? I don’t believe any such thing. There were both sense and Christianity in what somebody wrote on the death of a humorous poet:—

‘Does nobody laugh there, where he has gone,— This man of the smile and the jest?’

—provided there was any hope that the poor fellow had gone to heaven; if not, it was bad philosophy and worse religion.{83} Did not David dance before the Lord with all his might? A Bible which is full of happy battle-cries: ‘Rejoice in the Lord! make a joyful noise unto him! Give thanks unto the Lord, for his mercy endureth!’—a Bible which exhausts its splendid wealth of rhetoric to make us understand that the coming life is a life of joy, no more threatens to make nuns than mutes of us. I expect that you will hear some of Roy’s very old jokes, see the sparkle in his eye, listen to his laughing voice, lighten up the happy days as gleefully as you may choose; and that—”

Faith appeared upon the scene just then, with the interesting information that she had bitten her tongue; so we talked no more.

How pleasant—how pleasant this is! I never supposed before that God would let any one laugh in heaven.

I wonder if Roy has seen the President. Aunt Winifred says she does not doubt it. She thinks that all the soldiers must have crowded up to meet him, and “O,” she says, “what a sight to see!”


Return to the The Gates Ajar Summary Return to the Elizabeth Stuart Phelps Library

© 2022