The Way of All Flesh, by Samuel Butler

Chapter 56

BY-AND-BY a subtle, indefinable malaise began to take possession of him. I once saw a very young foal trying to eat some most objectionable refuse, and unable to make up its mind whether it was good or no. Clearly it wanted to be told. If its mother had seen what it was doing she would have set it right in a moment, and as soon as ever it had been told that what it was eating was filth, the foal would have recognised it and never have wanted to be told again; but the foal could not settle the matter for itself, or make up its mind whether it liked what it was trying to eat or no, without assistance from without. I suppose it would have come to do so by-and-by but it was wasting time and trouble, which a single look from its mother would have saved, just as wort will in time ferment of itself, but will ferment much more quickly if a little yeast be added to it. In the matter of knowing what gives us pleasure we are all like wort, and if unaided from without can only ferment slowly and toilsomely.

My unhappy hero about this time was very much like the foal, or rather he felt much what the foal would have felt if its mother and all the other grown-up horses in the field had vowed that what it was eating was the most excellent and nutritious food to be found anywhere. He was so anxious to do what was right, and so ready to believe that everyone knew better than himself, that he never ventured to admit to himself that he might be all the while on a hopelessly wrong track. It did not occur to him that there might be a blunder anywhere, much less did it occur to him to try and find out where the blunder was. Nevertheless he became daily more full of malaise, and daily, only he knew it not, more ripe for an explosion should a spark fall upon him.

One thing, however, did begin to loom out of the general vagueness, and to this he instinctively turned as trying to seize it — I mean, the fact that he was saving very few souls, whereas there were thousands and thousands being lost hourly all around him which a little energy such as Mr. Hawke’s might save. Day after day went by, and what was he doing? Standing on professional etiquette, and praying that his shares might go up and down as he wanted them, so that they might give him money enough to enable him to regenerate the universe. But in the meantime the people were dying. How many souls would not be doomed to endless ages of the most frightful torments that the mind could think of, before he could bring his spiritual pathology engine to bear upon them? Why might he not stand and preach as he saw the Dissenters doing sometimes in Lincoln’s Inn Fields and other thoroughfares? He could say all that Mr. Hawke had said. Mr. Hawke was a very poor creature in Ernest’s eyes now, for he was a Low Churchman, but we should not be above learning from anyone, and surely he could affect his hearers as powerfully as Mr. Hawke had affected him if he only had the courage to set to work. The people whom he saw preaching in the squares sometimes drew large audiences. He could at any rate preach better than they.

Ernest broached this to Pryer, who treated it as something too outrageous to be even thought of. Nothing, he said, could more tend to lower the dignity of the clergy and bring the Church into contempt. His manner was brusque, and even rude.

Ernest ventured a little mild dissent; he admitted it was not usual, but something at any rate must be done, and that quickly. This was how Wesley and Whitefield had begun that great movement which had kindled religious life in the minds of hundreds of thousands. This was no time to be standing on dignity. It was just because Wesley and Whitefield had done what the Church would not that they had won men to follow them whom the Church had now lost.

Pryer eyed Ernest searchingly, and after a pause said, “I don’t know what to make of you, Pontifex; you are at once so very right and so very wrong. I agree with you heartily that something should be done, but it must not be done in a way which experience has shown leads to nothing but fanaticism and dissent. Do you approve of these Wesleyans? Do you hold your ordination vows so cheaply as to think that it does not matter whether the services of the Church are performed in her churches and with all due ceremony or not? If you do — then, frankly, you had no business to be ordained; if you do not, then remember that one of the first duties of a young deacon is obedience to authority. Neither the Catholic Church, nor yet the Church of England allows her clergy to preach in the streets of cities where there is no lack of churches.”

Ernest felt the force of this, and Pryer saw that he wavered.

“We are living,” he continued more genially, “in an age of transition, and in a country which, though it has gained much by the Reformation, does not perceive how much it has also lost. You cannot and must not hawk Christ about in the streets as though you were in a heathen country whose inhabitants had never heard of him. The people here in London have had ample warning. Every church they pass is a protest to them against their lives, and a call to them to repent. Every church-bell they hear is a witness against them, every one of those whom they meet on Sundays going to or coming from church is a warning voice from God. If these countless influences produce no effect upon them, neither will the few transient words which they would hear from you. You are like Dives, and think that if one rose from the dead they would hear him. Perhaps they might; but then you cannot pretend that you have risen from the dead.”

Though the last few words were spoken laughingly, there was a sub-sneer about them which made Ernest wince; but he was quite subdued, and so the conversation ended. It left Ernest, however, not for the first time, consciously dissatisfied with Pryer, and inclined to set his friend’s opinion on one side — not openly, but quietly, and without telling Pryer anything about it.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31