By Jim Denney
I recently read a short story by W. Somerset Maugham called “The Verger.” If you’ve never read the story, here’s a SPOILER ALERT. That’s right, fair warning, I’m about to spoil the ending. But here’s a link to the story online, if you’d like to read the entire story before I ruin it for you. You can read it ten or twelve minutes. Feel free to do so, then come right back. I’ll wait.
Waiting . . .
Waiting . . .
Waiting . . .
Okay, by now you’ve either read the story, or you don’t mind spoilers. Here we go.
“The Verger” is a parable about the paradoxical blessings of affliction and adversity. The protagonist is a man named Albert Edward Foreman, the verger (a caretaker or janitor in the Anglican Church). Albert has been the verger at St. Peter’s Church at Neville Square in London for sixteen years. He became the verger when he was only twelve, and had expected to remain the verger until he died.
One day, a new vicar takes over as the pastor and chief administrator of St. Peter’s Neville Square. The new vicar calls Albert into his office and says, “I have discovered to my astonishment that you can neither read nor write.”
Albert replies, “The last vicar knew that, sir. He said it didn’t make no difference.”
The vicar offers Albert three months to learn to read, but Albert refuses. “I’m afraid it’s no good. I’m too old a dog to learn new tricks. . . . If I could learn now, I don’t know as I’d want to.”
“In that case, I’m afraid you must go.”
“Yes sir, I quite understand. I shall be happy to hand in my resignation as soon as you’ve found somebody to take my place.” Though he’s said to leave a job he’s had so long, he doesn’t like the new vicar very much, so he leaves without regrets.
As Albert walks back to his home, an idea occurs to him: Why not go into business for himself?
So, after resigning from St. Peter’s Neville Square, Albert opens a little newsstand. It thrives, and he proceeds to open a second newsstand, then a third. After ten years, he owns a string of ten newsstands all around London. He has amassed savings totaling more than thirty thousand pounds.
His banker tries to talk him into investing his money in stocks and bonds, and offers to write up a list of recommended securities. Albert tells the bank not to bother, because he can neither read nor write.
The banker is amazed. “That’s the most extraordinary thing I ever heard. . . . You’ve built up this business and amassed a fortune of thirty thousand pounds without being able to read or write? Just think — what would you be now if you had learned to read?”
Albert smiles. “I can tell you what I’d be, sir, I’d be the verger of St. Peter’s Neville Square.”
His inability to read and write was the curse that became a blessing. It cost him his job, and brought him a lucrative new career. His illiteracy led him to start a business that brought him more wealth than he ever imagined.
Albert the verger reminds me of Joseph in the Book of Genesis — Joseph the seventeen-year-old dreamer in Genesis 37, the young man with the coat of many colors. To Joseph’s brothers, that coat symbolized their father Jacob’s favoritism and unfairness. The jealous brothers were so envious of Joseph that they plotted to murder him. They ambushed him, threw him in a pit, and would have left him to die — but one of them got the bright idea of selling him into slavery instead. So Joseph’s brothers sold him to some slave traders, who in turn sold him to an Egyptian official named Potiphar.
Because of Joseph’s godly character, Potiphar gave him a position of trust and leadership in his household. But Potiphar’s wife lusted for him and repeatedly tried to seduce him. Joseph refused her advances, so she accused him of attempted rape — and Joseph the righteous, godly slave ended up in prison. As the saying goes, “No good deed goes unpunished.”
Long story short, God enabled Joseph to be released from prison and elevated to the position of second highest official in Egypt — second only to Pharaoh himself in power and influence. Joseph was thirty years old when he was promoted from the prison to the palace. He had spent thirteen years as a slave or a prisoner. He had lived his entire adult life under incredible affliction and adversity.
Later, when Joseph’s brothers came to Egypt seeking food in a time of famine, they were stunned to realize that the Egyptian official in front of them was their long-lost brother Joseph. They feared that Joseph would take his revenge against them. Joseph replied, “Don’t be afraid. . . . You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good.”
Like Albert the verger, Joseph was blessed by adversity. If he had never been sold into slavery, if he had never been falsely accused and thrown into prison, he never would have risen to become Pharaoh’s right-hand man.
If you’re going through tough times right now, if you’ve been treated unfairly, trust God and remember Albert the verger, remember Joseph, and remember the words of Peter: “And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast” (1 Peter 5:10).
Note: Battle Before Time, the first book in my newly revised and updated Timebenders series for young readers, has just been released in paperback. Click this link to learn more.
And if you’d like to learn more about how to write faster, more freely, and more brilliantly than you ever thought possible, read my book Writing In Overdrive, available in paperback and ebook editions at Amazon.com. —J.D.
I read this story when I was in high school and I never forgot the irony. Thank you for sharing. I loved hearing it again.