Charles Kingsley, Alton Locke, Tailor and Poet: Ch. 17

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Chapter XVII: Sermons in Stones

The next afternoon was the last but one of my stay at D * * *. We were to dine late, after sunset, and, before dinner, we went into the cathedral. The choir had just finished practising. Certain exceedingly ill-looking men, whose faces bespoke principally sensuality and self-conceit, and whose function was that of praising God, on the sole qualification of good bass and tenor voices, were coming chattering through the choir gates; and behind them a group of small boys were suddenly transforming themselves from angels into sinners, by tearing off their white surplices, and pinching and poking each other noisily as they passed us, with as little reverence as Voltaire himself could have desired.

I had often been in the cathedral before—indeed, we attended the service daily, and I had been appalled, rather than astonished, by what I saw and heard: the unintelligible service—the irreverent gabble of the choristers and readers—the scanty congregation—the meagre portion of the vast building which seemed to be turned to any use: but never more than that evening, did I feel the desolateness, the doleful inutility, of that vast desert nave, with its aisles and transepts—built for some purpose or other now extinct. The whole place seemed to crush and sadden me; and I could not re-echo Lillian's remark:

"How those pillars, rising story above story, and those lines of pointed arches, all lead the eye heavenward! It is a beautiful notion, that about pointed architecture being symbolic of Christianity."

"I ought to be very much ashamed of my stupidity," I answered; "but I cannot feel that, though I believe I ought to do so. That vast groined roof, with its enormous weight of hanging stone, seems to crush one—to bar out the free sky above. Those pointed windows, too—how gloriously the western sun is streaming through them! but their rich hues only dim and deface his light. I can feel what you say, when I look at the cathedral on the outside; there, indeed, every line sweeps the eye upward—carries it from one pinnacle to another, each with less and less standing-ground, till at the summit the building gradually vanishes in a point, and leaves the spirit to wing its way, unsupported and alone, into the ether.

"Perhaps," I added, half bitterly, "these cathedrals may be true symbols of the superstition which created them—on the outside, offering to enfranchise the soul and raise it up to heaven; but when the dupes had entered, giving them only a dark prison, and a crushing bondage, which neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear."

"You may sneer at them, if you will, Mr. Locke," said Eleanor, in her severe, abrupt way. "The working classes would have been badly off without them. They were, in their day, the only democratic institution in the world; and the only socialist one too. The only chance a poor man had of rising by his worth, was by coming to the monastery. And bitterly the working classes felt the want of them, when they fell. Your own Cobbett can tell you that."

"Ah," said Lillian, "how different it must have been four hundred years ago!—how solemn and picturesque those old monks must have looked, gliding about the aisles!—and how magnificent the choir must have been, before all the glass and carving, and that beautiful shrine of St. * * * *, blazing with gold and jewels, were all plundered and defaced by those horrid Puritans!"

"Say, reformer-squires," answered Eleanor; "for it was they who did the thing; only it was found convenient, at the Restoration, to lay on the people of the seventeenth century the iniquities which the country-gentlemen committed in the sixteenth."

"Surely," I added, emboldened by her words, "if the monasteries were what their admirers say, some method of restoring the good of the old system, without its evil, ought to be found; and would be found, if it were not—" I paused, recollecting whose guest I was.

"If it were not, I suppose," said Eleanor, "for those lazy, overfed, bigoted hypocrites, the clergy. That, I presume, is the description of them to which you have been most accustomed. Now, let me ask you one question. Do you mean to condemn, just now, the Church as it was, or the Church as it is, or the Church as it ought to be? Radicals have a habit of confusing those three questions, as they have of confusing other things when it suits them."