Eothen, by Alexander William Kinglake

Chapter X

The Monks of Palestine

Whenever you come back to me from Palestine we will find some “golden wine” 24 of Lebanon, that we may celebrate with apt libations the monks of the Holy Land, and though the poor fellows be theoretically “dead to the world,” we will drink to every man of them a good long life, and a merry one! Graceless is the traveller who forgets his obligations to these saints upon earth; little love has he for merry Christendom if he has not rejoiced with great joy to find in the very midst of water-drinking infidels those lowly monasteries, in which the blessed juice of the grape is quaffed in peace. Ay! ay! we will fill our glasses till they look like cups of amber, and drink profoundly to our gracious hosts in Palestine.

Christianity permits, and sanctions, the drinking of wine, and of all the holy brethren in Palestine there are none who hold fast to this gladsome rite so strenuously as the monks of Damascus; not that they are more zealous Christians than the rest of their fellows in the Holy Land, but that they have better wine. Whilst I was at Damascus I had my quarters at the Franciscan convent there, and very soon after my arrival I asked one of the monks to let me know something of the spots that deserved to be seen. I made my inquiry in reference to the associations with which the city had been hallowed by the sojourn and adventures of St. Paul. “There is nothing in all Damascus,” said the good man, “half so well worth seeing as our cellars”; and forthwith he invited me to go, see, and admire the long range of liquid treasure that he and his brethren had laid up for themselves on earth. And these I soon found were not as the treasures of the miser, that lie in unprofitable disuse, for day by day, and hour by hour, the golden juice ascended from the dark recesses of the cellar to the uppermost brains of the friars. Dear old fellows! in the midst of that solemn land their Christian laughter rang loudly and merrily, their eyes kept flashing with joyous bonfires, and their heavy woollen petticoats could no more weigh down the springiness of their paces, than the filmy gauze of a danseuse can clog her bounding step.

You would be likely enough to fancy that these monastics are men who have retired to the sacred sites of Palestine from an enthusiastic longing to devote themselves to the exercise of religion in the midst of the very land on which its first seeds were cast; and this is partially, at least, the case with the monks of the Greek Church, but it is not with enthusiasts that the Catholic establishments are filled. The monks of the Latin convents are chiefly persons of the peasant class from Italy and Spain, who have been handed over to these remote asylums by order of their ecclesiastical superiors, and can no more account for their being in the Holy Land, than men of marching regiments can explain why they are in “stupid quarters.” I believe that these monks are for the most part well conducted men, punctual in their ceremonial duties, and altogether humble-minded Christians. Their humility is not at all misplaced, for you see at a glance (poor fellows!) that they belong to the LAG REMOVE of the human race. If the taking of the cowl does not imply a complete renouncement of the world, it is at least (in these days) a thorough farewell to every kind of useful and entertaining knowledge, and accordingly the low bestial brow and the animal caste of those almost Bourbon features show plainly enough that all the intellectual vanities of life have been really and truly abandoned. But it is hard to quench altogether the spirit of inquiry that stirs in the human breast, and accordingly these monks inquire — they are ALWAYS inquiring inquiring for “news”! Poor fellows! they could scarcely have yielded themselves to the sway of any passion more difficult of gratification, for they have no means of communicating with the busy world except through European travellers; and these, in consequence I suppose of that restlessness and irritability that generally haunt their wanderings, seem to have always avoided the bore of giving any information to their hosts. As for me, I am more patient and good-natured, and when I found that the kind monks who gathered round me at Nazareth were longing to know the real truth about the General Bonaparte who had recoiled from the siege of Acre, I softened my heart down to the good humour of Herodotus, and calmly began to “sing history,” telling my eager hearers of the French Empire and the greatness of its glory, and of Waterloo and the fall of Napoleon! Now my story of this marvellous ignorance on the part of the poor monks is one upon which (though depending on my own testimony) I look “with considerable suspicion.” It is quite true (how silly it would be to INVENT anything so witless!), and yet I think I could satisfy the mind of a “reasonable man” that it is false. Many of the older monks must have been in Europe at the time when the Italy and the Spain from which they came were in act of taking their French lessons, or had parted so lately with their teachers, that not to know of “the Emperor” was impossible, and these men could scarcely, therefore, have failed to bring with them some tidings of Napoleon’s career. Yet I say that that which I have written is true — the one who believes because I have said it will be right (she always is), whilst poor Mr. “reasonable man,” who is convinced by the weight of my argument, will be completely deceived.

In Spanish politics, however, the monks are better instructed. The revenues of the monasteries, which had been principally supplied by the bounty of their most Catholic majesties, have been withheld since Ferdinand’s death, and the interests of these establishments being thus closely involved in the destinies of Spain, it is not wonderful that the brethren should be a little more knowing in Spanish affairs than in other branches of history. Besides, a large proportion of the monks were natives of the Peninsula. To these, I remember, Mysseri’s familiarity with the Spanish language and character was a source of immense delight; they were always gathering around him, and it seemed to me that they treasured like gold the few Castilian words which he deigned to spare them.

The monks do a world of good in their way; and there can be no doubting that previously to the arrival of Bishop Alexander, with his numerous young family and his pretty English nursemaids, they were the chief propagandists of Christianity in Palestine. My old friends of the Franciscan convent at Jerusalem some time since gave proof of their goodness by delivering themselves up to the peril of death for the sake of duty. When I was their guest they were forty I believe in number, and I don’t recollect that there was one of them whom I should have looked upon as a desirable life-holder of any property to which I might be entitled in expectancy. Yet these forty were reduced in a few days to nineteen. The plague was the messenger that summoned them to a taste of real death; but the circumstances under which they perished are rather curious; and though I have no authority for the story except an Italian newspaper, I harbour no doubt of its truth, for the facts were detailed with minuteness, and strictly corresponded with all that I knew of the poor fellows to whom they related.

It was about three months after the time of my leaving Jerusalem that the plague set his spotted foot on the Holy City. The monks felt great alarm; they did not shrink from their duty, but for its performance they chose a plan most sadly well fitted for bringing down upon them the very death which they were striving to ward off. They imagined themselves almost safe so long as they remained within their walls; but then it was quite needful that the Catholic Christians of the place, who had always looked to the convent for the supply of their spiritual wants, should receive the aids of religion in the hour of death. A single monk therefore was chosen, either by lot or by some other fair appeal to destiny. Being thus singled out, he was to go forth into the plague-stricken city, and to perform with exactness his priestly duties; then he was to return, not to the interior of the convent, for fear of infecting his brethren, but to a detached building (which I remember) belonging to the establishment, but at some little distance from the inhabited rooms. He was provided with a bell, and at a certain hour in the morning he was ordered to ring it, IF HE COULD; but if no sound was heard at the appointed time, then knew his brethren that he was either delirious or dead, and another martyr was sent forth to take his place. In this way twenty-one of the monks were carried off. One cannot well fail to admire the steadiness with which the dismal scheme was carried through; but if there be any truth in the notion that disease may be invited by a frightening imagination, it is difficult to conceive a more dangerous plan than that which was chosen by these poor fellows. The anxiety with which they must have expected each day the sound of the bell, the silence that reigned instead of it, and then the drawing of the lots (the odds against death being one point lower than yesterday), and the going forth of the newly doomed man — all this must have widened the gulf that opens to the shades below. When his victim had already suffered so much of mental torture, it was but easy work for big bullying pestilence to follow a forlorn monk from the beds of the dying, and wrench away his life from him as he lay all alone in an outhouse.

In most, I believe in all, of the Holy Land convents there are two personages so strangely raised above their brethren in all that dignifies humanity, that their bearing the same habit, their dwelling under the same roof, their worshipping the same God (consistent as all this is with the spirit of their religion), yet strikes the mind with a sense of wondrous incongruity; the men I speak of are the “Padre Superiore,” and the “Padre Missionario.” The former is the supreme and absolute governor of the establishment over which he is appointed to rule, the latter is entrusted with the more active of the spiritual duties attaching to the Pilgrim Church. He is the shepherd of the good Catholic flock, whose pasture is prepared in the midst of Mussulmans and schismatics; he keeps the light of the true faith ever vividly before their eyes, reproves their vices, supports them in their good resolves, consoles them in their afflictions, and teaches them to hate the Greek Church. Such are his labours, and you may conceive that great tact must be needed for conducting with success the spiritual interests of the church under circumstances so odd as those which surround it in Palestine.

But the position of the Padre Superiore is still more delicate; he is almost unceasingly in treaty with the powers that be, and the worldly prosperity of the establishment over which he presides is in great measure dependent upon the extent of diplomatic skill which he can employ in its favour. I know not from what class of churchmen these personages are chosen, for there is a mystery attending their origin and the circumstance of their being stationed in these convents, which Rome does not suffer to be penetrated. I have heard it said that they are men of great note, and, perhaps, of too high ambition in the Catholic Hierarchy, who having fallen under the grave censure of the Church, are banished for fixed periods to these distant monasteries. I believe that the term during which they are condemned to remain in the Holy Land is from eight to twelve years. By the natives of the country, as well as by the rest of the brethren, they are looked upon as superior beings; and rightly too, for Nature seems to have crowned them in her own true way.

The chief of the Jerusalem convent was a noble creature; his worldly and spiritual authority seemed to have surrounded him, as it were, with a kind of “court,” and the manly gracefulness of his bearing did honour to the throne which he filled. There were no lords of the bedchamber, and no gold sticks and stones in waiting, yet everybody who approached him looked as though he were being “presented”; every interview which he granted wore the air of an “audience”; the brethren as often as they came near bowed low and kissed his hand; and if he went out, the Catholics of the place that hovered about the convent would crowd around him with devout affection, and almost scramble for the blessing which his touch could give. He bore his honours all serenely, as though calmly conscious of his power to “bind and to loose.”

24 “Vino d’oro.”

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 21:44