If Rip should return

In our little country parish we have seen all kinds of parsons pass: visiting clergy from pulpit-supply, missionaries and lay preachers. Out of hundreds of sermons listened to - or half listened to - only a few stand out vividly, above all the sermon that was not really a sermon at all, rather a story told about time. We remembered it because of its theme, its oddity, its effect on us, and because of the person of the preacher.

When we came to the village the minister had been there for some years, a frail, stooped figure of a man, so little shaped from our commoner clay that he seemed out of place in a farming community.

We often met him wandering about the surrounding fields and woodlands, followed by an ancient black Labrador. He stopped every now and then, as if listening to something no one else heard, something besides the chatter of the burn, larksong and the peeweep's cry. We always had the odd impression of someone alien on earth.

On Sundays he would give out his text, then go wandering off into reflections on his chief preoccupation - eternity. Mere time was all we considered. The farmers in the congregation listened for a while, then muttered, bewildered, ''What's he talking about?'' They dozed, slumping lower and lower in their pews, mouths agape, their collies and lurchers twitching in dreams at their feet. Those of us still awake were like Milton's fallen angels in Paradise Lost who ''found no end in wandering mazes lost.''

Finally we noticed nothing but his shortcomings, forgetting his beaming radiance at christenings, his kindly, awkward attempts to comfort us at burials. We had no understanding of his love for learning, never wondering why a light often burned all night at his study window in the manse. We saw in him no kinship with Matthew Arnold's Scholar Gypsy, ''waiting for the spark from heaven.'' We were far too absorbed in our own affairs.

When one day the news went 'round the parish that he had had a call and was leaving us for the foreign field, we felt an immense relief. Now we would have a vigorous new man who could talk about lambing and potato crops and bad harvests, instead of drifting off into cloudy realms where no one could follow.

On a bleak, sleety day in mid-December the minister stood up in the pulpit for the last time, looking down on us. We settled back in our pews, expecting the usual musings on man-made time and God's eternity, immersed in our customary considerations: Had we remembered to turn off the stove, should we pull down the old byre and put up a new hayloft, and what should we invest in for the best yield? As servants of mammon the words uppermost in our minds were profit, gain, spend, save, invest. . . .

Then into our indifference fell his gentle, familiar voice. He didn't give out a text. Instead, as a grandfather would hold the attention of a grandchild with ''Once upon a time . . . '', he began to tell us a story. It was Washington Irving's tale of Rip Van Winkle: how he escaped from his nagging wife and set off into the Catskill Mountains. There he came on Henrik Hudson and the crew of the Half Moon playing nine-pins. Rip joined in the game, playing until he fell fast asleep on the hillside.

It was no ordinary sleep. Returning to his village, Rip hardly recognized it, the changes were so vast. No wonder. While he slumbered in the Catskills - not for a night, but for twenty years - family and friends had died, the American Revolution had taken place, a new era had dawned. His sleep had about it something of the sleep of Lazarus, half entering eternity.

At first we had only one ear open; then we began to sit up and listen as a child might, his curiosity aroused, taken by the charm of the story, the simplicity of its telling and the mysterious inkling of something lying beyond it. Then his voice ceased and he raised his arms in a benediction that was at the same time a farewell. He came slowly down the pulpit steps, then vanished off into the vestry and out of our lives. A young, bustling man took over the charge, and that might have been the end of the story.

After a time, however, we began to consider that strange sermon more and more. No moral had been pointed out, no rebuke given - it was rather in the nature of the man to consider the beam in his own eye than to tell us about the mote in ours. Yet he had left us with a vague unease, with a thought that simmered in our subconscious and eventually rose to the surface.

We had a vision of our former minister, who had always appeared to us more asleep than awake, as a latter-day Rip. If, after twenty years in the foreign field, he were to return to our parish, what would he find? Would the outside world be transformed? More important, would any change have taken place in our worldly and uncharitable hearts? Would we still be rendering unto Caesar?

It would be too sweeping to claim that he had reformed us with his tale of Rip, but he had turned us inwards on ourselves and we kept coming back to it. Whenever anyone amongst us was especially rancourous or petty we became thoughtful. ''Mind yon sermon!'' we would say. As the ghost called to Hamlet, ''Adieu, adieu, remember me!'' so we too bethought ourselves and remembered Rip.

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