Chapter 1 – 7: The Sabbath of the Great Silence or… my father’s faith and my mother’s suffering (also circa 1607 or a little time before, Samlesbury)

 

Please feel free to share.

The link back to the homepage is

https://certainmeasureofperfection.wordpress.com/

The link to buy the book is

https://www.amazon.com/dp/B018CI6WFS/

p10302741

One might have thought that after the experiences of the eclipse, my father’s life would simply have gone back to how it had been before. All logic and everything bound to the Rational would lead to just this conclusion. He was still far from old, even though he was a fair few years older than my mother. Everything from that event had been simply from Nature after all – but, unfortunately, it did not seem so to him and, even now, there are still those who would deny that at all costs. It seems to me, given enough time, science[1] and religion may yet come back together at the point at which they parted company for I am convinced that that is what has happened. Nevertheless, I still cannot fathom exactly what might have gone through his mind at that point. However, in at least some respects, he must have been correct as his life did not go back to normal; there was a very noticeable (if slow) change in him. Initially, of course, I was too young to notice myself but others around me noticed and (far later, of course) told me[2]. However, since those changes were gradual, I had the opportunity to idealise the man I knew as a small child, creating a mere superficial apparition of him that could never be surpassed and which was destined to be met with disappointment as I grew through every year. It was only a shadow of the man but it was an absolutely perfect shadow for all that. And the chasm between that perfect shadow and the man himself became ever enlarged month by month.

 

Eventually, even someone in my youthful and innocent state could not fail to notice the changes in him. On the physical side, every pain that he had experienced every once in a while beforehand – and, by that, I really do mean the most minor of twinges – now seemed elevated so that he felt it continuously. So, much of the while I knew him he was really a man in pain. Of course, one could argue that these were changes that would have taken place anyway. However, I do not believe that to have been the case myself. Many of the changes which took place in him were, at the root, changes in his mindset rather than actually in his body for he also became morose, sombre and short-tempered. Yes, some of that might have been caused by the pains of which he now complained throughout his physical being – the stiffness in his legs, the constant lethargy, the acute headaches, the fearsome spikes of shooting pains in his hands as he attempted to grip things. But I believe that, at root, very gradually – bit by bit, he simply gave up; he lost all interest in life itself. This change of mentality took its toll everywhere but perhaps most of all it took its toll on my mother. For example, whereas before, he set nothing in greater store than teaching his family on a Sunday, now it seemed that he could not summon the energy and he drifted towards total indifference. No – rather he would not summon it.

 

What might have been the true instigator of such changes in him remains a mystery to me. For all I know the very last of a whole series of things might have been Welsh’s departure from Blackburn for he thought less of his replacement[3]. But his changed attitude became increasingly obvious in those Sabbath readings – even, in due course, to me. As the months and then the years went on, it was not even clear that he started out with any intention, any appetite, for completion. I suspect that he did not. We would gather around the family table as appointed; my mother making all the usual fuss as ever, her neat hair tightly covered, her prim nose and the frozen scars of her long-gone illness the only barely discernible features of her face, her garments so clean and neat that not one particle of dust would show on her deepest of Sabbath blacks. He would saunter in now, the Geneva clutched casually under his left arm, almost in mocking mimicry of some godly minister (but wholly unintentionally, I am sure) and take his natural place at the head of the table, surrounded by the dark wooden panelling on the walls that encased him, although now he seemed to sit less at ease there. Sometimes there would now be a pause. That would have been fine in itself – he had always had a tendency to do that whilst his jaw fell agog – but it was more often now a directionless pause wherein he tried to muster the patience within himself to begin. Instead of the carefully chosen passage or one that we had heard recently at the church, now he would suddenly flick the Bible open almost randomly, scanning a few italic lines[4] and side margin annotations. Then he would burst out reading various verses as they appealed to him, sometimes starting mid-sentence, more often ending so. Other times he would start something, tire of it within seconds and then skip over half a dozen verses or so thereby losing entirely both flow and meaning to the hearer’s ear, before deciding to continue with it. My mother, on these ever more frequent occasions, was the model godly wife. I could see her grimacing beneath the mask sometimes but she never allowed that invisible mask to fall from her loving but oh so scarred face. Indeed, that was the only mask she was ever permitted to wear. And when my younger sisters fidgeted or scuffled to the background chant of my father’s reading, she simply glared at them. It was always enough from her – she rarely had to speak in order to silence children although she was a kind woman at heart to them as well. His voice was still forceful and authoritative though.

 

–           ‘But the foundation of God remaineth sure, and hath this seal, The Lord knoweth who are his; and, Let every one that calleth on the Name of Christ, depart from iniquity. Notwithstanding in a great house are not only vessels of gold and of silver, but also of wood and of earth, and some for honour, and some unto dishonour.…’[5]

 

Once when he had read such verses his hand would always have gripped its own fingers tightly – so tightly that his veins would have wrapped themselves around his knuckles and stood out like little hillocks shaken by some great, great quaking sent by the Lord. As a young boy I recall watching his hands so, almost in a manly admiration. But, by that time, as often as not, his mind would change half way through the verse and one would witness his grip weaken, allowing his hand to fall flat on the uneven wooden surface of the table, blackened with wear and time and use, the crumbling of previous generations. I do not think that any of us attached great meaning or significance to it – certainly I did not. But we all noted it, I am sure of that. Being that bit older, Alexander probably made something more of it. Indeed, I watched my elder brother’s eyes flick from one face to another when it happened. He took on that look as some sort of birthright, some duty ascribed solely to the eldest male in the household besides my father. The latter would continue scanning the page and then, at length, he would draw breath heavily as though having emerged from beneath the water line in a river, look at each of us in turn; first Alexander, then me, then Elizabeth and finally, little Margaret, scan the blackening walls of the room with their wood rot holes in melancholy manner, sometimes even rise, pace over to the casement and gaze beyond for a few seconds before returning to his place. If we were lucky then he might at that point mutter a few more words but then he would turn to his wife and push the Good Books to her[6].

 

–           You read it! You always had a better voice for these things than me.

 

It was not true as such. But, fortunately for her, there was truth in it: my mother’s reading was excellent both in terms of her abilities and in terms of her enunciation which was very clear. Indeed, she had set herself apart from most women in this respect. She had always been a good reader and he had made it his priority to encourage her further. Now, compared to my father’s deteriorating and often more or less unintelligible mumblings, she seemed an even finer one. What she lacked though, that he always had before his staggering transformation to despondency, was any genuine fear of what she read. I do not mean that she did not fear the Lord for she absolutely did! By the way, I do not use the word ‘despond’ lightly for I am sure that my father’s certainty of his salvation, although still always expounded upon his lips, now disintegrated at great speed within his mind.

 

My mother would just read. There was a concentration in it which drowned out and nullified all further considerations, including that of the meaning of words, the spirits trapped behind the frames of the letters…

 

–           ‘This know also, that in the last days shall come perilous times. For men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, cursed speakers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, without natural affection, truce breakers, false accusers, intemperate, fierce, despisers of them which are good…[7]

 

…Having a shew of godliness, but have denied the power thereof; turn away therefore from such. For of this sort are they which creep into houses, and lead captive simple women laden with sins, and led with diverse lusts…[8] [My mother did not even flinch at the words – indeed I am not certain that she was even registering them.] …Yea, and all that will live godly in Christ Jesus, shall suffer persecution.’[9]

 

In the olden days, when he had read and when he had encountered something that he found terrifying, he would express the wrath of the Lord both by lowering his voice a couple of tones and by speaking more rapidly, with greater fire. It gave us all a sense of urgency when otherwise our (then) youthful attentions might have drifted. They were not permitted to. In the case of my mother reading it was only our sense of embarrassment for her that kept us from dozing and drifting. Her voice was clear, certainly, but she spoke slowly without great vigour and her voice could only be described as monotonous. She was simply reading to keep my father content. The words came out but meant little to her or rather, she simply paid them only scraps of her attention whilst her mind was actually occupied with other considerations.

 

That was not how it should have been – not on the Sabbath. She could probably have swapped a page for one of her mother’s recipes; I am not certain that any of us would have noticed except perhaps my grumpy father. For he was still listening really. Actually, perhaps contrary to expectations, he was now hanging upon every word – an irony given that he clearly no longer had any enthusiasm for reading himself[10]. When he heard something that he did not like, something that he thought might well indicate that he might be condemned, he would cling to it. You see, by then he clung onto objects that would sink in the flood rather than those that held out some hope for floating upon the inevitable deluge. If it really meant something to him, he would stop my mother’s reading mid-verse and get her to go back over a verse or two. It often threw her when he insisted on this. Sometimes he even requested it several times whilst he evaluated the full weight of it. But I do not know whether he was really evaluating or just finding some great irony or dry humour… or perhaps even lies … which only he could see and did not wish to share. My heart ached for her on those occasions as sometimes she must have been near breaking point. But she was like a rock – or perhaps she simply knew that there were no alternatives. Whatever, she always did absolutely as she was told. That was probably for the best now as the kinder, more caring side of him seemed to have dissipated – one might even go as far as to say, died – by that stage. Occasionally, Alexander would glance around at me, careful that he was not being watched in doing so, hoping for some kind of acknowledgement. But I always kept my distance, strange child that I was. I rarely did acknowledge him.

 

–           Read it again! [My father would command harshly. Sometimes he spoke to her as one might to a ewe.]

 

And she would… [for what else could she really do?]

–           ‘For the time will come when they will not suffer wholesome doctrine; but having their ears itching, shall after their own lusts get them a heap of teachers and shall turn their ears from the truth, and shall be given unto fables…’[11]

 

On this particular occasion he turned to me with wild, searching eyes, fearsome eyes in fact, even from the perspective of his son. But it was a different wildness to the one he had once possessed.

–           Do you hear that, Matthew? Just before Judgement Day arrives they [genuinely raising his voice with some fire, almost reminiscent of previous times] shall turn their ears from the truth, and shall be given unto fables.

Why did he always choose to address such questions to me rather than to studious Alexander?

–           I hear it well enough, Father.

He repeated the words one further time in case there was still one amongst us who had missed them or not given them time enough in his or her thoughts. Even my mother weighed the verses. I actually felt less obligation to do so; the previous reading seemed to have been directed at me and that almost exempted me. For whatever reason, the earlier words, ‘get them a heap of teachers’ were still whirling in the centre of my unfocused thoughts.

 

But then he demolished the entirety, vindictively almost.

–           What rubbish! Nothing but dung the lot of it! I have had a vision of what Judgement Day is to be like. And, I’m telling you this – it is Hell for all of us. Not just us, everyone! The lot! ‘Turn their eyes from the truth’ – there is not one man who has yet seen it! There is probably no Heaven and it wouldn’t surprise me if there were no God either. Nobody is Elect; nobody is to be saved…!

 

He thumped his fist down on the table, catching a splinter of wood in the process which drew a little blood immediately. Not that he noticed! And with that he got up and left the room, leaving us in a very new, empty and unknown silence – distinct from all previous silences I had come to know. It was a silence that emerges only from unanticipated and unmitigated blasphemy: No Elect! No God! No Salvation!

 

On most days when he simply became bored, got up and left us to it, my mother would pause, smile reassuringly to us – especially to me and to my youngest little sister, Margaret (far less commonly to Alexander), lower her head so that all I could see was her dark brown hair visible from beneath her bonnet (hiding the pox scars as best as possible without going so far as to behave in a manner in which her husband would have disapproved) and then the drone of the Biblical reading with neither hesitation nor destination, without purpose, would recommence. It would continue until she arrived at a point which her scant attention deemed to represent a satisfactory and logical termination. Sometimes she would judge this bearably well but other times (and far too often in fact) she would break at the most inappropriate of points for those of us who were still making a cursory attempt to listen and to learn. That always revealed how uninvolved with it she had actually become; the words simply unravelling as they slipped and spilled from her lips.

 

That day she did not continue, however. I, for one, was glad that he had not committed a greater sin for I thought at one point that he might well have been capable of it, so disenchanted with the Good Books did he seem. But he had not touched the Bible; he had left it with her. Perhaps, for all his foolishness in those latter days, he did not disrespect his wife so much even though he had arrived at a point in his life in which he could disrespect the Father so. It was a decently enough bound volume, too. There were probably very few finer that between there and Blackburn, not least because so many along that road did not read it!

 

She was silent. We were silent also. Looking back on it, perhaps it was the start of a new form of worship for me that day but it could not have been considered so at the time. The man of the household was, by default, absolutely at the helm of his ship in theological affairs and whilst nobody considered it appropriate to take his place controlling the steering, we were directionless, rudderless, anchorless all at one and the same time. Alexander must have been bordering upon the threshold of taking over himself but he was still too easily shocked into a dumb stupor. I did not know – and still do not know to this very day – whether my mother’s beliefs also began to fall apart at this point. She showed nothing, of course. But that did not actually mean much in itself and her dark hair faded to grey in a matter of weeks – I am sure of that. It was like the wilting and falling of leaves but at the end of a season which could never return. Even with it covered by far the greater part of the time, it was obvious. I had half expected that she would take comfort in the Lord but there seemed to me to be little sign of that either. Whenever she even approached the Good Books from that point onwards, she let out a sigh which must have completely replenished the air she held within her lungs as though recognising that every word of it from that point onwards would be forever an effort, a struggle to sound convincing, to resemble anything but empty words from which faith – the only faith that might save us – had already fled, exited via a door which her husband, the man of such one-time godly values, had opened and left wide ajar and subject to endless drafts.

 

That following Sabbath there was not even any pretence that my father was minister to his own home. My mother did take the steer but she read with even less enthusiasm than ever; even some of her clarity of speech disappeared as she buried her head down further in the Book to hide her welling tears. They were never shed – I should make that clear. Or at least they were not shed before us. The only things she managed to incorporate from her husband’s reading style were those deep sighs that had punctuated so many of his meetings in those most recent of months. Nevertheless, she fulfilled her duty and he did thank her for it. But his own interpretation of the importance of the Sabbath seemed to break new grounds so that he would set forth with the intention of long walks as we assembled. That was his aim at any rate: to seek solace in the natural world, away from us, away from news of Bourne in Manchester[12], away from stinking humanity, that corrupt corporeal cavern that was everywhere, rotted to nothing, not only without redemption but without even any hope of it in his new Godless world where Salvation by Christ’s grace was mere dung and fable! His mind was to set a good pace and just keep going until he had lost all contact with the base World.

 

That was his intent. The reality was nearly always very different. In fact he would rarely get very far because the pains that he tried to forget soon caught up with him and brought his agility to a standstill …and then limping home, awaiting comforts prepared by his wife. I feared most that perhaps he might be reported for it and fall into some sort of trouble, perhaps saying something foolhardy to add to his problems. I did not think he was completely beyond that! She must have feared that too, especially given some of the neighbouring attitudes. But perhaps our less godly neighbours even saw his sacrilege as some sort of improvement in him! Other times he would venture no more than a few feet from the window, when his pains prevented him from going any further and that was more and more often for he began to deteriorate more rapidly. The whole of Samlesbury could see it, I was sure. His presence outside the casement when my mother was reading to us was actually even more distracting. When he caught her quick gaze he looked guilty for his actions, glared at one of us – just briefly – and then flicked his stare more permanently to the ground.

 

However, that was just our problem: living under that type of Protestantism, we were all looking at nothing better than the ground for we were all going to it! It was not so very different beyond its surface claims to his newly-discovered faith in nothing. In those days though I knew no other interpretation and I would have had to keep it well away from anyone else had I found one. However, there were other things that I was already keeping largely to myself before that Sabbath of the great silence. Things which had had a very different impact upon me. Matters which I have not shared with you so far …but which I must now.

————————————————————————

[1] Science: In reality the seventeenth century understanding of the word was rather different from that of today. Over the course of the century it went from implying ‘experimental study’ to ‘the study of non-arts subjects’. It is difficult to assess today just how much of the shift in meaning took place over the Commonwealth and Protectorate period. Matthew’s understanding of the word might possibly be retrospective.

[2] Matthew may well be referring to his future tutor here.

[3] Welsh was deprived of his living at Blackburn in 1606 over the surplice issue. He seems to have been there since 1576. He was replaced by John Morris – vicar there for twenty two years until his death in May 1628. See W. H. Burnett – ‘Blackburn parish church: an historical sketch’ (1906).

[4] Italic lines: By convention, the Geneva tended to be printed in italic font – unlike other versions around at the time.

[5] Geneva Bible II Timothy 2: 19-20, a favourite amongst the godly on the matter of election. Ironically, it would be cited amongst those at the Halifax Exercise in 1619 or else shortly afterward – by which time Matthew’s life would have changed beyond recognition.

[6] Good Books: The Bible. Note the plural and the fact that the name, the Bible, is merely a variant of the koīne Greek word for book in the plural, τὰ βιβλία.

[7] Geneva Bible II Timothy 3: 1-3

[8] II Timothy 3: 5-6

[9] II Timothy 3: 12. Note the awkward grammatical form here. The King James Authorised Version (KJV) – not published until 1611 and often still no more popular with the Puritan wing! – has the following:

‘Having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away.’

[10] Enthusiasm: the word first appeared in English usage in 1603 and actually implied religious fervour – from the Greek en-theos, ‘god within’. Therefore it actually implied possession by a deity or by the Deity.

[11] II Timothy 4: 3-4

[12] Away from Bourne in Manchester: in 1608, the Puritan-leaning William Bourne was overlooked as the replacement to Dr Dee as Warden of Manchester Collegiate Church – in spite of having been the obvious choice. Indeed, it would even appear to be the case that he was initially promised the appointment. It is an event which Matthew will mention again in due course – but not for years.

Advertisements