Tuesday, June 29, 2010

perfectly clear to us...

Looking for something else this morning, I came across this reminiscence of Andrew Preston Peabody and was quite taken with it.  It comes from the book, "Certain American Faces: Sketches From Life", by Lewis Slattery


THERE are faces so familiar to one's memory that it seems impossible to believe that one has never spoken to their owners. When I was an undergraduate at Harvard College I suppose the most revered figure who passed in and out of the college yard was Andrew Preston Peabody. I fancy that the first time we saw him we knew instinctively who he was. The smiling face in which shone rare goodness as well as benevolence, was a stay against freshman pessimism, and I suspect it held many a youth, inclined to be wild, from his sin. He was very old. He had ceased to teach, and a sermon or lecture was an infrequent task. He continued to live in the house near the Library which was one of the perquisites of the Plummer Professor, and so was seldom absent from the college precincts. The merest stroll brought him face to face with the successive generations of students of the University. He was, in a way, to all kinds of men, the embodiment of Harvard College. And yet few of us had ever spoken to him.

Only a year or two before my day, "compulsory chapel" had ceased, and the voluntary system (largely under the inspiration of Phillips Brooks) had begun. All sorts of anecdotes clustered around the head of our ancient hero. It was said that in the old days of compulsory prayers, if the Plummer Professor (who was the Chaplain and who regularly conducted Prayers and preached) was caught preaching beyond a certain fixed time, the Chapel was filled with gentle tappings, which came from hundreds of feet, accidentally touching the wood of the pews in front of them. There was also a rumour that once in a prayer he had said, "Paradoxical as it may seem to thee, O Lord, it is nevertheless perfectly clear to us. . . .

There were lingering tales of the older days of Cambridge. On a very hot day Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes was making his way across the Cambridge Common. With hat in hand he was drying his wet forehead with his handkerchief. And so he met Dr. Peabody, who, in his chronic absent-mindedness, did not recognize his friend; but he saw the hat, and, assuming a beggar, with notions of charity not then outworn, he dropped a few small coins into it, and passed on. At another time, when cows were wont to ramble on Cambridge streets, he one day awoke from his absent-minded dreaming to recognize that he had just passed a lady to whom he had neglected to bow. "I must not be so rude again," he said to himself. In a few minutes some students saw the genial man wave his hat gallantly to a passing cow. Very absurd and trifling tales were these; but they served as pegs on which young men could hang their affection for the venerable saint. I can remember only one time when I heard him preach. The old vigour for which he had been known was gone, but the sweetness was as winning as ever. I cannot remember a word he said that evening in the forlorn old Appleton Chapel, but I can remember the kind eyes looking out through the square gold spectacles. I can even remember that he had added something to his manuscript on a certain page. I felt sure that it was a page preached many times, with many notes, between lines, in margins, and on the back. In any case he was evidently looking for a sentence which viciously eluded his search. Without the least embarrassment he held the leaf up to his dear old eyes, turned the paper first to one side, then to the other, and finally upside down; there he found the straying sentence, and joyfully read it, with slow emphasis, to a waiting congregation. I dare say that, even at ten o'clock that night, we could not have told much about the sermon; but we all knew that it had done us good."


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