The Grey Brethren (Prose)

A poem by Michael Fairless

The Grey Brethren

Some of the happiest remembrances of my childhood are of days spent in a little Quaker colony on a high hill.

The walk was in itself a preparation, for the hill was long and steep and at the mercy of the north-east wind; but at the top, sheltered by a copse and a few tall trees, stood a small house, reached by a flagged pathway skirting one side of a bright trim garden.

I, with my seven summers of lonely, delicate childhood, felt, when I gently closed the gate behind me, that I shut myself into Peace. The house was always somewhat dark, and there were no domestic sounds. The two old ladies, sisters, both born in the last century, sat in the cool, dim parlour, netting or sewing. Rebecca was small, with a nut-cracker nose and chin; Mary, tall and dignified, needed no velvet under the net cap. I can feel now the touch of the cool dove-coloured silk against my cheek, as I sat on the floor, watching the nimble fingers with the shuttle, and listened as Mary read aloud a letter received that morning, describing a meeting of the faithful and the 'moving of the Spirit' among them. I had a mental picture of the 'Holy Heavenly Dove,' with its wings of silvery grey, hovering over my dear old ladies; and I doubt not my vision was a true one.

Once as I watched Benjamin, the old gardener--a most 'stiff-backed Friend' despite his stoop and his seventy years--putting scarlet geraniums and yellow fever-few in the centre bed, I asked, awe- struck, whether such glowing colours were approved; and Rebecca smiled and said--"Child, dost thee not think the Lord may have His glories?" and I looked from the living robe of scarlet and gold to the dove-coloured gown, and said: "Would it be pride in thee to wear His glories?" and Mary answered for her--"The change is not yet; better beseems us the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit.

The 'change from glory to glory' has come to them both long since, but it seems to me as if their robes must still be Quaker-grey.

Upstairs was the invalid daughter and niece. For years she had been compelled to lie on her face; and in that position she had done wonderful drawings of the High Priest, the Ark of the Covenant, and other Levitical figures. She had a cageful of tame canary-birds which answered to their names and fed from her plate at meal-times. Of these I remember only Roger, a gorgeous fellow with a beautiful voice and strong will of his own, who would occasionally defy his mistress from the secure fastness of a high picture-frame, but always surrendered at last, and came to listen to his lecture with drooping wings.

A city of Peace, this little house, for the same severely-gentle decorum reigned in the kitchen as elsewhere: and now, where is such a haunt to be found?

In the earlier part of this century the Friends bore a most important witness. They were a standing rebuke to rough manners, rude speech, and to the too often mere outward show of religion. No one could fail to be impressed by the atmosphere of peace suggested by their bearing and presence; and the gentle, sheltered, contemplative lives lived by most of them undoubtedly made them unusually responsive to spiritual influence. Now, the young birds have left the parent nest and the sober plumage and soft speech; they are as other men; and in a few short years the word Quaker will sound as strange in our ears as the older appellation Shaker does now.

This year I read for the first time the Journal of George Fox. It is hard to link the rude, turbulent son of Amos with the denizens in my city of Peace; but he had his work to do and did it, letting breezy truths into the stuffy 'steeple-houses' of the 'lumps of clay.'

"Come out from among them and be ye separate; touch not the accursed thing!" he thundered; and out they came, obedient to his stentorian mandate; but alack, how many treasures in earthen vessels did they overlook in their terror of the curse! The good people made such haste to flee the city, that they imagined themselves as having already, in the spirit, reached the land that is very far off; and so they cast from them the outward and visible signs which are vehicles, in this material world, of inward graces. Measureless are the uncovenanted blessings of God; and to these the Friends have ever borne a witness of power; but now the Calvinist intruder no longer divides the sheep from the goats in our churches; now the doctrine of universal brotherhood and the respect due to all men are taught much more effectively than when George Fox refused to doff his hat to the Justice; the quaint old speech has lost its significance, the dress would imply all the vainglory that the wearer desires to avoid; the young Quakers of this generation are no longer 'disciplined' in matters of the common social life; yet still they remain separate.

We of the outward and visible covenant need them, with their inherited mysticism, ordered contemplation, and spiritual vision; we need them for ourselves. The mother they have left yearns for them, and with all her faults--faults the greater for their absence--and with the blinded eyes of their recognition, she is their mother still. "What advantage then hath the Jew?" asked St Paul, and answered in the same breath--"Much every way, chiefly because that unto them were committed the oracles of God." What advantage then has the Churchman? is the oft repeated question today; and the answer is still the answer of St Paul.

The Incarnation is the sum of all the Sacraments, the crown of the material revelation of God to man, the greatest of outward and visible signs, "that which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and our hands have handled of the word of life." A strange beginning truly, to usher in a purely spiritual dispensation; but beautifully fulfilled in the taking up of the earthly into the heavenly--Bread and Wine, the natural fruits of the earth, sanctified by man's toil, a sufficiency for his needs; and instinct with Divine life through the operation of the Holy Ghost.

"In the sweat of thy face thou shalt eat bread."

"Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood ye have no life in you"

"And the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations."

From Genesis to the Revelation of the Divine reaches the rainbow of the Sacramental system--outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace:-

The sacrament of purging, purifying labour, to balance and control the knowledge of good and evil:-

The sacrament of life, divine life, with the outward body of humiliation, bread and wine, fruit of the accursed ground, but useless without man's labour; and St Paul, caught up into the third heaven, and St John, with his wide-eyed vision of the Lamb, must eat this bread and drink this cup if they would live:-

The sacrament of healing, the restoring of the Image of God in fallen man.

The Church is one society, nay, the world is one society, for man without his fellow-men is not; and into the society, both of the Church and the world, are inextricably woven the most social sacraments.

Herein is great purpose, we say, bending the knee; and with deep consciousness of sins and shortcomings we stretch out longing welcoming hands to our grey brethren with their inheritance of faithfulness and steadfastness under persecution, and their many gifts and graces; and we cry, in the words of the Song of Songs which is Solomon's: "O my dove, that art in the clefts of the rock, in the secret places of the stairs, let me see thy countenance, let me hear thy voice; for sweet is thy voice, and thy countenance is comely." "Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away. For lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone."

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