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Reminiscences of a Highland Parish
Communion Sunday


ON a beautiful Sunday in July I once again sat down at the foot of the old Iona-cross in the churchyard of "the Parish." It was a day of perfect summer glory. Never did the familiar landscape appear more lovely to the eye or more soothing and sanctifying to the spirit. The Sound of Mull lay like a sea of glass, without even a breath of fitful air from the hills to ruffle its surface. White sails met their own shadows on the water; becalmed vessels mingled with gray islets, rocky shores, and dark bays, diminishing in bulk from the large brigs and schooners at my feet to the snow-white specks which dotted the blue of the sea and hills of Lorn. The precipice of Unnimore, streaked with waterfalls, rose in the clear air above the old Keep of Ardtornish. The more distant castled promontory of Duart seemed to meet Lismore. Aros Castle, with its ample bay, closed the view in the opposite direction to the west; while over all the landscape a Sabbath stillness reigned, like an invisible mantle of love let down from the cloudless heaven over the weary world below.

It was Communion Sunday in "the Parish."

Few of the people had as yet arrived, and the churchyard was as silent as its graves. But soon the roads and paths leading to the church from the distant glens and nearer hamlets began to stir with the assembling worshippers. A few boats were seen crossing the Sound, crowded with people coming to spend a day of holy peace. Shepherds in their plaids; old men and old women, with the young of the third generation accompanying them, arrived in groups. Some had left home hours ago. Old John Cameron, with fourscore-years-and-ten to carry, had walked from Kinloch, ten miles across the pathless hills. Other patriarchs, with staff in hand, had come greater distances Old women were dressed in their clean white mutches," with black ribands bound round their heads; and some of the more gentle-born had rags of old decency—a black silk scarf, fastened with an old silver brooch, or a primitive-shaped bonnet—adornments never taken out of the large wooden chest since they were made, half a century ago, except on such occasions as the present, or on the occasion of a family marriage feast, or a funeral, when a bit of decayed crape was added. And old men were there who had seen better days, and had been "gentlemen tacksmen" in the "good old times," when the Duke of Argyle was laird. Now their clothes are threadbare; the old blue coat with metal buttons is almost bleached; the oddly shaped hat and silk neckerchief, both black once, are very brown indeed; and the leather gloves, though rarely on, are yet worn out, and cannot stand further mending. But these are gentlemen nevertheless in every thought and feeling. And some respectable farmers from the "low country," who occupy the lands of these old tacks-men, travelled in their gigs. Besides these, there were one or two of the local gentry, and the assisting clergymen.

How quiet and reverent all the people look, as, with steps unheard on the greensward, they collect in groups and greet each other with so much warmth and cordiality! Many a hearty shake of the hand is given; and many a respectful bow, from old gray heads uncovered, is received and returned by their beloved Pastor, who moves about, conversing with them all.

No one can discover any other expression than that of the strictest decorum and sober thoughtfulness, among the hundreds who are here assembling for worship.

It has been the fashion indeed, of some people who know nothing about Scotland or her Church, to use Burns as an authority for calling such meetings "holy fairs." What they may have been in the days of the poet, or how much he may himself have contributed to profane them, I know not. But neither in Ayrshire nor anywhere else have I ever been doomed to behold so irreverent and wicked a spectacle as he portrays. The question was indeed asked by a comparative stranger, on the Communion Sunday I am describing, whether the fact of so many people coming from such great distances might not be a temptation to some to indulge overmuch when "taking refreshments." The reply by one who knew them well was, "No, sir, not one man will go home in a state unbecoming a Christian."

The sentiment of gratitude was, naturally enough, often repeated:—"Oh! thank God for such a fine day!" For weather is an element which necessarily enters into every calculation of times and seasons in the Highlands. If the day is stormy, the old and infirm cannot come up to this annual feast, nor can brother clergymen voyage from distant Island Parishes to assist at it. Why, in the time of the old minister, he had to send a man on horseback over moors, and across stormy arms of the sea, for sixty miles, to get the wheaten bread used at the Communion! And for this reason, while the Communion is dispensed in smaller parishes and in towns every six months, and sometimes every quarter, it has hitherto been only celebrated once a year in most Highland Parishes. At such seasons, however, every man and woman who is able to appear partakes of the holy feast. No wonder, therefore, the people are grateful for their lovely summer day!

The previous Friday had been, as usual, set apart for a day of fasting and prayer. Then the officiating clergy preached specially upon the Communion, and on the character required in those who intended to partake of it; and young persons, after instruction and examination, were for the first time formally admitted (as at confirmation in the Episcopal Church) into full membership.

The old bell, which it is said was once at Iona, began to ring over the silent fields, and the small church was soon filled with worshippers. The service in the church to-day was in English, and a wooden pulpit, or "tent," as it is called, (I remember when it was made of boat sails,) was, according to custom, erected near the old arch in the churchyard, where service was conducted in Gaelic. Thus the people were divided, and, while some entered the church, many more gathered round the tent, and seated themselves on the graves or on the old ruin.

The Communion service of the Church of Scotland is a very simple one, and may be briefly described. It is celebrated in the church, of course, after the service and prayers are ended. In most cases a long, narrow table, like a bench, covered with white cloth, occupies the whole length of the church, and the communicants are seated on each side of it. Sometimes, in addition to this, the ordinary seats are similarly covered. The presiding minister, after reading an account of the institution from the Gospels and Epistles, and giving a few words of suitable instruction, offers up what is called the consecration prayer, thus setting apart the bread and wine before him as symbols of the body and blood of Jesus. After this he takes the bread, and, breaking it, gives it to the communicants near him, saying, "This is my body broken for you, eat ye all of it." He afterwards hands to them the cup, saying, "This cup is the new testament in my blood, shed for the remission of the sins of many, drink ye all of it; for as oft as ye eat this bread and drink this cup, ye do show forth the Lord's death until He come again." The bread and wine are then passed from the communicants to each other, assisted by the elders who are in attendance. In solemn silence the Lord is remembered, and by every true communicant is received as the living bread, the life of their souls, even as they receive into their bodies the bread and wine. During the silence of communion every head is bowed down, and many an eye and heart are filled, as the thoughts of Jesus at such a time mingle with those departed ones, with whom they enjoy, in and through Him, the communion of saints. Then follows an exhortation by the minister to faith and love and renewed obedience; and then the 103rd Psalm is generally sung, and while singing it the worshippers retire from the table, which is soon filled with other communicants; and this is repeated several times, until the whole service is ended with prayer and praise.

Let no one thoughtlessly condemn these simple services because they are different in form from those he has been accustomed to. Each nation and church has its own peculiar customs, originating generally in circumstances which once made them natural, reasonable, or perhaps necessary. Although these originating causes have passed away, yet the peculiar forms remain, and become familiar to the people, and venerable, almost holy, from linking the past with the present. Acquaintance with other branches of the Christian Church; a knowledge of living men, and the spirit with which the truly good serve God according to the custom of their fathers; a dealing, too, with the realities of human life, and Christian experience, rather than with the ideal of what might, could, would, or should be, will tend to make us charitable in our judgments of those who receive good, and express their love to God, through outward forms very different from our own. Let us thank God when men see and are guided by true light, whatever may be the form or setting of the lens by which it is transmitted. Let us endeavour to penetrate beneath the variable, the temporary, and accidental, to the unchangeable, the eternal, and necessary; and then we shall bless God when among "different communions" and "different sacraments," we can discover earnest believing souls, who have communion with the same living Saviour, who receive with faith and love the same precious sacrifice to be their life. I have myself, with great thankfulness, been privileged to receive the sacrament from the hands of "priests and bishops" in the rural churches and hoary cathedrals of England, and to join in different parts of the world, cast and west, with brethren of different names, but all having the same faith in the One Name, "of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named." I am sure the "communion" in the Spirit was the same in all.

Close behind the churchyard wall I noticed a stone which marked the grave of an old devoted Wesleyan minister. He was a lonely man, without any "kindred dust" to lie with. It had been his wish to be buried here, beside a child whom he had greatly admired and loved. "In memory," so runs the inscription, "of Robert Harrison, missionary of the Lord, who died 29th January 1832. 'I have sinned; I have repented; I have believed; I love; and I rest in the hope that by the grace of God I shall rise and reign with my Redeemer throughout eternity."' Beyond the churchyard are a few old trees surrounding a field where, according to tradition, once stood the "palace" of Bishop Maclean. The bishop himself lies under the old archway, near the grave of Flora Cameron.

Was it "latitudinarianism" to believe, as I do, that could Wesleyan missionary and Episcopalian. bishop have returned to earth, neither of them would have refused to remember Jesus with those Presbyterian worshippers on the ground of "schism?"

When the service in the church was ended, I again sat down beside the old cross. The majority of the congregation had assembled around the tent in the churchyard near me. The officiating minister was engaged in prayer, in the midst of the living and the dead. The sound of his voice hardly disturbed the profound and solemn silence. One heard with singular distinctness the bleating of the lambs on the hills, the hum of the passing bee, the lark "singing like an angel in the clouds," with the wild cries coming from the distant sea of birds that flocked over their prey. Suddenly the sound of psalms arose from among the tombs. It was the thanksgiving and parting hymn:—

"Salvation and immortal praise
To our victorious King!
Let heaven and earth, and rocks and seas,
With glad hosannas ring.
To Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,
The God whom we adore,
Be glory, as it was, and is,
And shall be evermore."

So sang those humble peasants, ere they parted to their distant homes,—some to meet again in communion here, some to meet at a nobler feast above. So sang they that noble hymn, among the graves of their kindred, with whose voices theirs had often mingled on the same spot, and with whose spirits they still united in remembering and praising the living Saviour.

Some, perhaps, there are who would have despised or pitied that hymn, because sung with so little art. But a hymn was once sung long ago, on an evening after the first Lord's Supper, by a few lowly men in an upper chamber in Jerusalem, and the listening angels never heard such music ascending to the ears of God from this jarring and discordant world! The humble Lord who sang that hymn, and who led that chorus of fishermen, will not despise the praises of peasant saints; nor will the angels perceive the songs of the loving heart as ever out of harmony with the noblest chords struck from their own golden harps, or the noblest anthems sung within God's temple of the sky.

As I now write these lines where so many beloved faces pass before me, which made other years a continual benediction, and as I hear their familiar voices greet me as of yore, in tones which will never more be silent to me, but mingle with my holiest, happiest hours, I cannot conclude my reminiscences of this dear old parish, which I leave at early dawn, without expressing my deep gratitude to Almighty God for His gift, to me and to many, of those who once here lived, but who now live for evermore with Christ—enjoying an eternal Communion Sunday.


 


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