The Cloister and the Hearth, by Charles Reade

Chapter 92

Yes, the hermit of Gouda was the vicar of Gouda, and knew it not, so absolute was his seclusion.

My reader is aware that the moment the frenzy of his passion passed, he was seized with remorse for having been betrayed into it. But perhaps only those who have risen as high in religious spirit as he had, and suddenly fallen, can realize the terror at himself that took possession of him. He felt like one whom self-confidence had betrayed to the very edge of a precipice.

“Ah, good Jerome,” he cried, “how much better you knew me than I knew myself! How bitter yet wholesome was your admonition!”

Accustomed to search his own heart, he saw at once that the true cause of his fury was Margaret. “I love her then better than God,” said he despairingly; “better than the Church, From such a love what can spring to me, or to her?” He shuddered at the thought. “Let the strong battle temptation; ’tis for the weak to flee. And who is weaker than I have shown myself? What is my penitence, my religion? A pack of cards built by degrees into a fair-seeming structure; and lo! one breath of earthly love, and it lies in the dust, I must begin again, and on a surer foundation.” He resolved to leave Holland at once, and spend years of his life in some distant convent before returning to it. By that time the temptations of earthly passion would be doubly baffled; and older and a better monk, he should be more master of his earthly affections, and Margaret, seeing herself abandoned, would marry, and love another, The very anguish this last thought cost him showed the self-searcher and self-denier that he was on the path of religious duty.

But in leaving her for his immortal good and hers, he was not to neglect her temporal weal. Indeed, the sweet thought, he could make her comfortable for life, and rich in this world’s goods, which she was not bound to despise, sustained him in the bitter struggle it cost him to turn his back on her without one kind word or look, “Oh, what will she think of me?” he groaned. “Shall I not seem to her of all creatures the most heartless, inhuman? but so best; ay, better she should hate me, miserable that I am, Heaven is merciful, and giveth my broken heart this comfort; I can make that villain restore her own, and she shall never lose another true lover by poverty. Another? Ah me! ah me! God and the saints to mine aid!”

How he fared on this errand has been related. But first, as you may perhaps remember, he went at night to shrive the hermit of Gouda. He found him dying, and never left him till he had closed his eyes and buried him beneath the floor of the little oratory attached to his cell. It was the peaceful end of a stormy life. The hermit had been a soldier, and even now carried a steel corselet next his skin, saying he was now Christ’s soldier as he had been Satan’s. When Clement had shriven him and prayed by him, he, in his turn, sought counsel of one who was dying in so pious a frame, The hermit advised him to be his successor in this peaceful retreat. “His had been a hard fight against the world, the flesh, and the devil, and he had never thoroughly baffled them till he retired into the citadel of Solitude.”

These words and the hermit’s pious and peaceful death, which speedily followed, and set as it were the seal of immortal truth on them, made a deep impression upon Clement. Nor in his case had they any prejudice to combat; the solitary recluse was still profoundly revered in the Church, whether immured as an anchorite or anchoress in some cave or cell belonging to a monastery, or hidden in the more savage but laxer seclusion of the independent hermitage. And Clement knew more about the hermits of the Church than most divines at his time of life; he had read much thereon at the monastery near Tergou, had devoured their lives with wonder and delight in the manuscripts of the Vatican, and conversed earnestly about them with the mendicant friars of several nations. Before Printing these friars were the great circulators of those local annals and biographies which accumulated in the convents of every land. Then his teacher, Jerome, had been three years an anchorite on the heights of Camaldoli, where for more than four centuries the Thebaid had been revived; and Jerome, cold and curt on most religious themes, was warm with enthusiasm on this one. He had pored over the annals of St. John Baptist’s abbey, round about which the hermit’s caves were scattered, and told him the names of many a noble, and many a famous warrior who had ended his days there a hermit, and of many a bishop and archbishop who had passed from the see to the hermitage, or from the hermitage to the see. Among the former the Archbishop of Ravenna; among the latter Pope Victor the Ninth. He told him too, with grim delight, of their multifarious austerities, and how each hermit set himself to find where he was weakest, and attacked himself without mercy or remission till there, even there, he was strongest. And how seven times in the twenty-four hours, in thunder, rain, or snow, by daylight, twilight, moonlight, or torchlight, the solitaries flocked from distant points, over rugged precipitous ways, to worship in the convent church; at matins, at prime, tierce, sexte, nones, vespers, and compline. He even, under eager questioning, described to him the persons of famous anchorites he had sung the Psalter and prayed with there; the only intercourse their vows allowed, except with special permission. Moncata, Duke of Moncata and Cardova, and Hidalgo of Spain, who in the flower of his youth had retired thither from the pomps, vanities, and pleasures of the world; Father John Baptist of Novara, who had led armies to battle, but was now a private soldier of Christ; Cornelius, Samuel, and Sylvanus. This last, when the great Duchess de’ Medici obtained the Pope’s leave, hitherto refused, to visit Camaldoli, went down and met her at the first wooden cross, and there, surrounded as she was with courtiers and flatterers, remonstrated with her, and persuaded her, and warned her, not to profane that holy mountain, where no woman for so many centuries had placed her foot; and she, awed by the place and the man, retreated with all her captains, soldiers, courtiers, and pages from that one hoary hermit. At Basle Clement found fresh materials, especially with respect to German and English anchorites; and he had even prepared a “Catena Eremitarum” from the year of our Lord 250, when Paul of Thebes commenced his ninety years of solitude, down to the year 1470. He called them Angelorum amici et animalium, i.e.

FRIENDS OF ANGELS AND ANIMALS.

Thus, though in those days he never thought to be a recluse, the road was paved, so to speak; and when the dying hermit of Gouda blessed the citadel of Solitude, where he had fought the good fight and won it, and invited him to take up the breast-plate of faith that now fell off his own shrunken body, Clement said within himself: “Heaven itself led my foot hither to this end.” It struck him, too, as no small coincidence that his patron, St. Bavon, was a hermit, and an austere one, a cuirassier of the solitary cell.

As soon as he was reconciled to Ghysbrecht Van Swieten, he went eagerly to his abode, praying Heaven it might not have been already occupied in these three days. The fear was not vain; these famous dens never wanted a human tenant long. He found the rude stone door ajar; then he made sure he was too late; he opened the door and went softly in. No; the cell was vacant, and there were the hermit’s great ivory crucifix, his pens, ink, seeds, and, memento mori, a skull; his cilice of hair, and another of bristles; his well-worn sheepskin pelisse and hood; his hammer, chisel, and psaltery, etc. Men and women had passed that way, but none had ventured to intrude, far less to steal. Faith and simplicity had guarded that keyless door more securely than the houses of the laity were defended by their gates like a modern gaol, and think iron bars at every window, and the gentry by moat, bastion, chevaux de frise, and portcullis.

As soon as Clement was fairly in the cell there was a loud flap, and a flutter, and down came a great brown owl from a corner, and whirled out of the window, driving the air cold on Clement’s face, He started and shuddered.

Was this seeming owl something diabolical? trying to deter him from his soul’s good? On second thoughts, might it not be some good spirit the hermit had employed to keep the cell for him, perhaps the hermit himself? Finally he concluded that it was just an owl, and that he would try and make friends with it.

He kneeled down and inaugurated his new life with prayer.

Clement had not only an earthly passion to quell, the power of which made him tremble for his eternal weal, but he had a penance to do for having given way to ire, his besetting sin, and cursed his own brothers.

He looked round this roomy cell furnished with so many comforts, and compared it with the pictures in his mind of the hideous place, eremus in eremo, a desert in a desert, where holy Jerome, hermit, and the Plutarch of hermits, had wrestled with sickness, temptation, and despair four mortal years; and with the inaccessible and thorny niche, a hole in a precipice, where the boy hermit Benedict buried himself, and lived three years on the pittance the good monk Romanus could spare him from his scanty commons, and subdivided that mouthful with his friend, a raven; and the hollow tree of his patron St. Bavon; and the earthly purgatory at Fribourg, where lived a nameless saint in a horrid cavern, his eyes chilled with perpetual gloom, and his ears stunned with an eternal waterfall; and the pillar on which St. Simeon Stylita existed forty-five years; and the destina, or stone box, of St. Dunstan, where, like Hilarion in his bulrush hive, sepulchro potius quam domu, he could scarce sit, stand, or lie; and the living tombs, sealed with lead, of Thais, and Christina, and other recluses; and the damp dungeon of St. Alred. These and scores more of the dismal dens in which true hermits had worn out their wasted bodies on the rock, and the rock under their sleeping bodies, and their praying knees, all came into his mind, and he said to himself, “This sweet retreat is for safety of the soul; but what for penance Jesu aid me against faults to come; and for the fault I rue, face of man I will not see for a twelvemonth and a day.” He had famous precedents in his eye even for this last and unusual severity. In fact the original hermit of this very cell was clearly under the same vow. Hence the two apertures, through which he was spoken to, and replied.

Adopting, in other respects, the uniform rule of hermits and anchorites, he divided his day into the seven offices, ignoring the petty accidents of light and dark, creations both of Him to whom he prayed so unceasingly. He learned the psalter by heart, and in all the intervals of devotion, not occupied by broken slumbers, he worked hard with his hands. No article of the hermit’s rule was more strict or more ancient than this. And here his self-imposed penance embarrassed him, for what work could he do, without being seen, that should benefit his neighbours? for the hermit was to labour for himself in those cases only where his subsistence depended on it. Now Clement’s modest needs were amply supplied by the villagers.

On moonlight nights he would steal out like a thief, and dig some poor man’s garden on the outskirts of the village. He made baskets and dropped them slily at humble doors.

And since he could do nothing for the bodies of those who passed by his cell in daytime, he went out in the dead of the night with his hammer and his chisel, and carved moral and religious sentences all down the road upon the sandstone rocks. “Who knows?” said he, “often a chance shaft strikes home.”

Oh, sore heart, comfort thou the poor and bereaved with holy words of solace in their native tongue; for he said “well, ’tis ‘clavis ad corda plebis.’” Also he remembered the learned Colonna had told him of the written mountains in the east, where kings had inscribed their victories, “What,” said Clement, “are they so wise, those Eastern monarchs, to engrave their war-like glory upon the rock, making a blood bubble endure so long as earth; and shall I leave the rocks about me silent on the King of Glory, at whose word they were, and at whose breath they shall be dust? Nay, but these stones shall speak to weary wayfarers of eternal peace, and of the Lamb, whose frail and afflicted yet happy servant worketh them among.”

Now at this time the inspired words that have consoled the poor and the afflicted for so many ages were not yet printed in Dutch, so that these sentences of gold from the holy evangelists came like fresh oracles from heaven, or like the dew on parched flowers; and the poor hermit’s written rocks softened a heart Or two, and sent the heavy laden singing on their way2.

These holy oracles that seemed to spring up around him like magic; his prudent answers through his window to such as sought ghostly counsel; and above all, his invisibility, soon gained him a prodigious reputation, This was not diminished by the medical advice they now and then extorted from him sore against his will, by tears and entreaties; for if the patients got well they gave the holy hermit the credit, and if not they laid all the blame on the devil. “I think he killed nobody, for his remedies were womanish and weak.” Sage and wormwood, sion, hyssop, borage, spikenard, dog’s-tongue, our Lady’s mantle, feverfew, and Faith, and all in small quantities except the last.

Then his abstinence, sure sign of a saint. The eggs and milk they brought him at first he refused with horror. Know ye not the hermit’s rule is bread, or herbs, and water? Eggs, they are birds in disguise; for when the bird dieth, then the egg rotteth. As for milk, it is little better than white blood. And when they brought him too much bread he refused it. Then they used to press it on him. “Nay, holy father; give the overplus to the poor.”

“You who go among the poor can do that better. Is bread a thing to fling haphazard from an hermit’s window?” And to those who persisted after this: “To live on charity, yet play Sir Bountiful, is to lie with the right hand. Giving another’s to the poor, I should beguile them of their thanks, and cheat thee the true giver. Thus do thieves, whose boast it is they bleed the rich into the lap of the poor. Occasio avaritiae nomen pauperum.”

When nothing else would convince the good souls, this piece of Latin always brought them round. So would a line of Virgil’s Aeneid.

This great reputation of sanctity was all external. Inside the cell was a man who held the hermit of Gouda as cheap as dirt.

“Ah!” said he, “I cannot deceive myself; I cannot deceive God’s animals. See the little birds, how coy they be; I feed and feed them, and long for their friendship, yet will they never come within, nor take my hand, by lighting on’t. For why? No Paul, no Benedict, no Hugh of Lincoln, no Columba, no Guthlac bides in this cell. Hunted doe flieth not hither, for here is no Fructuosus, nor Aventine, nor Albert of Suabia; nor e’en a pretty squirrel cometh from the wood hard by for the acorns I have hoarded; for here abideth no Columban. The very owl that was here hath fled. They are not to be deceived; I have a Pope’s word for that; Heaven rest his soul.”

Clement had one advantage over her whose image in his heart he was bent on destroying.

He had suffered and survived the pang of bereavement, and the mind cannot quite repeat such anguish. Then he had built up a habit of looking on her as dead. After that strange scene in the church and churchyard of St. Laurens, that habit might be compared to a structure riven by a thunderbolt. It was shattered, but stones enough stood to found a similar habit on; to look on her as dead to him.

And by severe subdivision of his time and thoughts, by unceasing prayers and manual labour, he did in about three months succeed in benumbing the earthly half of his heart.

But lo! within a day or two of this first symptom of mental peace returning slowly, there descended upon his mind a horrible despondency.

Words cannot utter it, for words never yet painted a likeness of despair. Voices seemed to whisper in his ear, “Kill thyself! kill! kill! kill!”

And he longed to obey the voices, for life was intolerable.

He wrestled with his dark enemy with prayers and tears; he prayed God but to vary his temptation. “Oh let mine enemy have power to scourge me with red-hot whips, to tear me leagues and leagues over rugged places by the hair of my head, as he has served many a holy hermit, that yet baffled him at last; to fly on me like a raging lion; to gnaw me with a serpent’s fangs; any pain, any terror, but this horrible gloom of the soul that shuts me from all light of Thee and of the saints.”

And now a freezing thought crossed him. What if the triumphs of the powers of darkness over Christian souls in desert places had been suppressed, and only their defeats recorded, or at least in full; for dark hints were scattered about antiquity that now first began to grin at him with terrible meaning.

“THEY WANDERED IN THE DESERT AND PERISHED BY SERPENTS,” said an ancient father of hermits that went into solitude, “and were seen no more.” And another at a more recent epoch wrote: Vertuntur ad melancholiam: “they turn to gloomy madness.” These two statements, were they not one? for the ancient fathers never spoke with regret of the death of the body. No, the hermits so lost were perished souls, and the serpents were diabolical 3 thoughts, the natural brood of solitude.

St. Jerome went into the desert with three companions; one fled in the first year, two died; how? The single one that lasted was a gigantic soul with an iron body.

The cotemporary who related this made no comment, expressed no wonder, What, then, if here was a glimpse of the true proportion in every age, and many souls had always been lost in solitude for one gigantic mind and iron body that survived this terrible ordeal.

The darkened recluse now cast his despairing eyes over antiquity to see what weapons the Christian arsenal contained that might befriend him. The greatest of all was prayer. Alas! it was a part of his malady to be unable to pray with true fervour. The very system of mechanical supplication he had for months carried out so severely by rule had rather checked than fostered his power of originating true prayer.

He prayed louder than ever, but the heart hung back cold and gloomy, and let the words go up alone.

“Poor wingless prayers,” he cried, “you will not get half-way to heaven.”

A fiend of this complexion had been driven out of King Saul by music.

Clement took up the hermit’s psaltery, and with much trouble mended the strings and tuned it.

No, he could not play it. His soul was so out of tune. The sounds jarred on it, and made him almost mad.

“Ah, wretched me!” he cried; “Saul had a saint to play to him. He was not alone with the spirits of darkness; but here is no sweet bard of Israel to play to me; I, lonely, with crushed heart, on which a black fiend sitteth mountain high, must make the music to uplift that heart to heaven; it may not be.” And he grovelled on the earth weeping and tearing his hair.

VERTEBATUR AD MELANCHOLIAM.

2 It requires nowadays a strong effort of the imagination to realize the effect on poor people who had never seen them before of such sentences as this

“Blessed are the poor” etc.

3 The primitive writer was so interpreted by others besides Clement; and in particular by Peter of Blois, a divine of the twelfth century, whose comment is noteworthy, as he himself was a forty-year hermit.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/r/reade/charles/cloister-and-the-hearth/chapter92.html

Last updated Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 15:33