Not a sound, not a moving object, broke the utter stillness of the glen of Scetis. The shadows of the crags, though paling every moment before the spreading dawn, still shrouded all the gorge in gloom. A winding line of haze slept above the course of the rivulet. The plumes of the palm-trees hung motionless, as if awaiting in resignation the breathless blaze of the approaching day. At length, among the green ridges of the monastery garden, two gray figures rose from their knees, and began, with slow and feeble strokes, to break the silence by the clatter of their hoes among the pebbles.
‘These beans grow wonderfully, brother Aufugus. We shall be able to sow our second crop, by God’s blessing, a week earlier than we did last year.’
The person addressed returned no answer; and his companion, after watching him for some time in silence, recommenced —
‘What is it, my brother? I have remarked lately a melancholy about you, which is hardly fitting for a man of God.’
A deep sigh was the only answer. The speaker laid down his hoe, and placing his hand affectionately on the shoulder of Aufugus, asked again —
‘What is it, my friend? I will not claim with you my abbot’s right to know the secrets of your heart: but surely that breast hides nothing which is unworthy to be spoken to me, however unworthy I may be to hear it!’
‘Why should I not be sad, Pambo, my friend? Does not Solomon say that there is a time for mourning?’
‘True: but a time for mirth also.’
‘None to the penitent, burdened with the guilt of many sins.’
‘Recollect what the blessed Anthony used to say —“Trust not in thine own righteousness, and regret not that which is past.”’
‘I do neither, Pambo.’
‘Do not be too sure of that. Is it not because thou art still trusting in thyself, that thou dost regret the past, which shows thee that thou art not that which thou wouldst gladly pride thyself on being?’
‘Pambo, my friend,’ said Arsenius solemnly, ‘I will tell thee all. My sins are not yet past; for Honorius, my pupil, still lives, and in him lives the weakness and the misery of Rome. My sins past? If they are, why do I see rising before me, night after night, that train of accusing spectres, ghosts of men slain in battle, widows and orphans, virgins of the Lord shrieking in the grasp of barbarians, who stand by my bedside and cry, “Hadst thou done thy duty, we had not been thus! Where is that imperial charge which God committed to thee?”’. . . . And the old man hid his face in his hands and wept bitterly.
Pambo laid his hand again tenderly on the weeper’s shoulder.
‘Is there no pride here, my brother? Who art thou, to change the fate of nations and the hearts of emperors, which are in the hand of the King of kings? If thou wert weak, and imperfect in thy work — for unfaithful, I will warrant thee, thou wert never — He put thee there, because thou wert imperfect, that so that which has come to pass might come to pass; and thou bearest thine own burden only-and yet not thou, but He who bore it for thee.’
‘Why then am I tormented by these nightly visions?’
‘Fear them not, friend. They are spirits of evil, and therefore lying spirits. Were they good spirits they would speak to thee only in pity, forgiveness, encouragement. But be they ghosts or demons, they must be evil, because they are accusers, like the Evil One himself, the accuser of the saints. He is the father of lies, and his children will be like himself. What said the blessed Anthony? That a monk should not busy his brain with painting spectres, or give himself up for lost; but rather be cheerful, as one who knows that he is redeemed, and in the hands of the Lord, where the Evil One has no power to hurt him. “For,” he used to say, “the demons behave to us even as they find us. If they see us east down and faithless, they terrify us still more, that they may plunge us in despair. But if they see us full of faith, and joyful in the Lord, with our souls filled with the glory which shall be, then they shrink abashed, and flee away in confusion.” Cheer up, friend! such thoughts are of the night, the hour of Satan and of the powers of darkness; and with the dawn they flee away.’
‘And yet things are revealed to men upon their beds, in visions of the night.’
‘Be it so. Nothing, at all events, has been revealed to thee upon thy bed, except that which thou knowest already far better than Satan does, namely, that thou art a sinner. But for me, my friend, though I doubt not that such things are, it is the day, and not the night, which brings revelations.’
‘Because by day I can see to read that book which is written, like the Law given on Sinai, upon tables of stone, by the finger of God Himself.’
Arsenius looked up at him inquiringly. Pambo smiled.
‘Thou knowest that, like many holy men of old, I am no scholar, and knew not even the Greek tongue, till thou, out of thy brotherly kindness, taughtest it to me. But hast thou never heard what Anthony said to a certain Pagan who reproached him with his ignorance of books? “Which is first,” he asked, “spirit, or letter? — Spirit, sayest thou? Then know, the healthy spirit needs no letters. My book is the whole creation, lying open before me, wherein I can read, whensoever I please, the word of God.”’
‘Dost thou not undervalue learning, my friend?’
‘I am old among monks, and have seen much of their ways; and among them my simplicity seems to have seen this — many a man wearing himself with study, and tormenting his soul as to whether he believed rightly this doctrine and that, while he knew not with Solomon that in much learning is much sorrow, and that while he was puzzling at the letter of God’s message, the spirit of it was going fast and faster out of him.’
‘And how didst thou know that of such a man?’
‘By seeing him become a more and more learned theologian, and more and more zealous for the letter of orthodoxy; and yet less and less loving and merciful — less and less full of trust in God, and of hopeful thoughts for himself and for his brethren, till he seemed to have darkened his whole soul with disputations, which breed only strife, and to have forgotten utterly the message which is written in that book wherewith the blessed Anthony was content’ ‘Of what message dost thou speak?’
‘Look,’ said the old abbot, stretching his hand toward the Eastern desert, ‘and judge, like a wise man, for thyself!’
As he spoke, a long arrow of level light flashed down the gorge from crag to crag, awakening every crack and slab to vividness and life. The great crimson sun rose swiftly through the dim night-mist of the desert, and as he poured his glory down the glen, the haze rose in threads and plumes, and vanished, leaving the stream to sparkle round the rocks, like the living, twinkling eye of the whole scene. Swallows flashed by hundreds out of the cliffs, and began their air-dance for the day; the jerboa hopped stealthily homeward on his stilts from his stolen meal in the monastery garden; the brown sand-lizards underneath the stones opened one eyelid each, and having satisfied themselves that it was day, dragged their bloated bodies and whip-like tails out into the most burning patch of gravel which they could find, and nestling together as a further protection against cold, fell fast asleep again; the buzzard, who considered himself lord of the valley, awoke with a long querulous bark, and rising aloft in two or three vast rings, to stretch himself after his night’s sleep, bung motionless, watching every lark which chirruped on the cliffs; while from the far-off Nile below, the awakening croak of pelicans, the clang of geese, the whistle of the godwit and curlew, came ringing up the windings of the glen; and last of all the voices of the monks rose chanting a morning hymn to some wild Eastern air; and a new day had begun in Seetis, like those which went before, and those which were to follow after, week after week, year after year, of toil and prayer as quiet as its sleep.
‘What does that teach thee, Aufugus, my friend?’
Arsenius was silent.
‘To me it teaches this: that God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all. That in His presence is life, and fulness of joy for evermore. That He is the giver, who delights in His own bounty; the lover, whose mercy is over all His works — and why not over thee, too, O thou of little faith? Look at those thousand birds — and without our Father not one of them shall fall to the ground: and art thou not of more value than many sparrows, thou for whom God sent His Son to die?. . . . Ah, my friend, we must look out and around to see what God is like. It is when we persist in turning our eyes inward, and prying curiously over our own imperfections, that we learn to make a God after our own image, and fancy that our own darkness and hardness of heart are the patterns of His light and love.’
‘Thou speakest rather as a philosopher than as a penitent Catholic. For me, I feel that I want to look more, and not less, inward. Deeper self-examination, completer abstraction, than I can attain even here, are what I crave for. I long — forgive me, my friend — but I long more and more, daily, for the solitary life. This earth is accursed by man’s sin: the less we see of it, it seems to me, the better.’
‘I may speak as a philosopher, or as a heathen, for aught I know: yet it seems to me that, as they say, the half loaf is better than none; that the wise man will make the best of what he has, and throw away no lesson because the book is somewhat torn and soiled. The earth teaches me thus far already. Shall I shut my eyes to those invisible things of God which are clearly manifested by the things which are made, because some day they will be more clearly manifested than now? But as for more abstraction, are we so worldly here in Scetis?’
‘Nay, my friend, each man has surely his vocation, and for each some peculiar method of life is more edifying than another. In my case, the habits of mind which I acquired in the world will cling to me in spite of myself even here. I cannot help watching the doings of others, studying their characters, planning and plotting for them, trying to prognosticate their future fate. Not a word, not a gesture of this our little family, but turns away my mind from the one thing needful.’
‘And do you fancy that the anchorite in his cell has fewer distractions?’
‘What can he have but the supply of the mere necessary wants of life? and them, even, he may abridge to the gathering of a few roots and herbs. Men have lived like the beasts already, that they might at the same time live like the angels — and why should not I also?’
‘And thou art the wise man of the world — the student of the hearts of others — the anatomiser of thine own? Hast thou not found out that, besides a craving stomach, man carries with him a corrupt heart? Many a man I have seen who, in his haste to fly from the fiends without him, has forgotten to close the door of his heart against worse fiends who were ready to harbour within him. Many a monk, friend, changes his place, but not the anguish of his soul. I have known those who, driven to feed on their own thoughts in solitude, have desperately cast themselves from cliffs or ripped up their own bodies, in the longing to escape from thoughts, from which one companion, one kindly voice, might have delivered them. I have known those, too, who have been so puffed up by those very penances which were meant to humble them, that they have despised all means of grace, as though they were already perfect, and refusing even the Holy Eucharist, have lived in self-glorying dreams and visions suggested by the evil spirits. One such I knew, who, in the madness? of his pride, refused to be counselled by any mortal man — saying that he would call no man master: and what befell him? He who used to pride himself on wandering a day’s journey into the desert without food or drink, who boasted that he could sustain life for three months at a time only on wild herbs and the Blessed Bread, seized with an inward fire, fled from his cell back to the theatres, the circus, and the taverns, and ended his miserable days in desperate gluttony, holding all things to be but phantasms, denying his own existence, and that of God Himself.’
Arsenius shook his head.
‘Be it so. But my case is different. I have yet more to confess, my friend. Day by day I am more and more haunted by the remembrance of that world from which I fled. I know that if I returned I should feel no pleasure in those pomps, which, even while I battened on them, I despised. Can I hear any more the voice of singing men and singing women; or discern any longer what I eat or what I drink? And yet — the palaces of those seven hills, their statesmen and their generals, their intrigues, their falls, and their triumphs — for they might rise and conquer yet! — for no moment are they out of my imagination,-no moment in which they are not tempting me back to them, like a moth to the candle which has already scorched him, with a dreadful spell, which I must at last obey, wretch that I am, against my own will, or break by fleeing into some outer desert, from whence return will be impossible!’
‘Again, I say, this is the worldly-wise man, the searcher of hearts! And he would fain flee from the little Laura, which does turn his thoughts at times from such vain dreams, to a solitude where he will be utterly unable to escape those dreams. Well, friend! — and what if thou art troubled at times by anxieties and schemes for this brother and for that? Better to be anxious for others than only for thyself. Better to have something to love — even something to weep over — than to become in some lonely cavern thine own world — perhaps, as more than one whom I have known, thine own God.’
‘Do you know what you are saying?’ asked Arsenius in a startled tone.
‘I say, that by fleeing into solitude a man cuts himself off from all which makes a Christian man; from law, obedience, fellow-help, self-sacrifice — from the communion of saints itself.’
‘How canst thou hold communion with those toward whom thou canst show no love? And how canst thou show thy love but by works of love?’
‘I can, at least, pray day and night for all mankind. Has that no place — or rather, has it not the mightiest place — in the communion of saints!
‘He who cannot pray for his brothers whom he does see, and whose sins and temptations he knows, will pray but dully, my friend Aufugus, for his brothers whom he does not see, or for anything else. And he who will not labour for his brothers, the same will soon cease to pray for them, or love them either. And then, what is written? “If a man love not his brother whom he hath seen, how will he love God whom he hath not seen?”’
‘Again, I say, do you know whither your argument leads?’
‘I am a plain man, and know nothing about arguments. If a thing be true, let it lead where it will, for it leads where God wills.’
‘But at this rate, it were better for a man to take a wife, and have children, and mix himself up in all the turmoil of carnal affections, in order to have as many as possible to love, and fear for, and work for.’
Pambo was silent for a while.
‘I am a monk and no logician. But this I say, that thou leavest not the Laura for the desert with my good will. I would rather, had I my wish, see thy wisdom installed somewhere nearer the metropolis — at Troe or Canopus, for example — where thou mightest be at hand to fight the Lord’s battles. Why wert thou taught worldly wisdom, but to use it for the good of the Church? It is enough. Let us go.’
And the two old men walked homeward across the valley, little guessing the practical answer which was ready for their argument in Abbot Pambo’s cell, in the shape of a tall and grim ecclesiastic, who was busily satisfying his hunger with dates and millet, and by no means refusing the palm-wine, the sole delicacy of the monastery, which had been brought forth only in honour of a guest.
The stately and courtly hospitality of Eastern manners, as well as the self-restraining kindliness of monastic Christianity, forbade the abbot to interrupt the stranger; and it was not till he had finished a hearty meal that Pambo asked his name and errand.
‘My unworthiness is called Peter the Reader. I come from Cyril, with letters and messages to the brother Aufugus.’
Pambo rose, and bowed reverentially.
‘We have heard your good report, sir, as of one zealously affected in the cause of the Church Catholic. Will it please you to follow us to the cell of Aufugus?’
Peter stalked after them with a sufficiently important air to the little hut, and there taking from his bosom Cyril’s epistle, handed it to Arsenius, who sat long, reading and re-reading with a clouded brow, while Pambo watched him with simple awe, not daring to interrupt by a question lucubrations which he considered of unfathomable depth.
‘These are indeed the last days,’ said Arsenius at length, ‘spoken of by the prophet, when many shall run to and fro. So Heraclian has actually sailed for Italy?’
‘His armament was met on the high seas by Alexandrian merchantmen, three weeks ago.’
‘And Orestes hardens his heart more and more?’
‘Ay, Pharaoh that he is; or rather, the heathen woman hardens it for him.’
‘I always feared that woman above all the schools of the heathen,’ said Arsenius. ‘But the Count Heraclian, whom I always held for the wisest as well as the most righteous of men! Alas! — alas! what virtue will withstand, when ambition enters the heart!’
‘Fearful, truly,’ said Peter, ‘is that same lust of power: but for him, I have never trusted him since he began to be indulgent to those Donatists.’
‘Too true. So does one sin beget another.’
‘And I consider that indulgence to sinners is the worst of all sins whatsoever.’
‘Not of all, surely, reverend sir?’ said Pambo humbly. But Peter, taking no notice of the interruption, went on to Arsenius —
‘And now, what answer am I to bear back from your wisdom to his holiness?’
‘Let me see — let me see. He might — it needs consideration — I ought to know more of the state of parties. He has, of course, communicated with the African bishops, and tried to unite them with him?’
‘Two months ago. But the stiff-necked schismatics are still jealous of him, and hold aloof.’
‘Schismatics is too harsh a term, my friend. But has he sent to Constantinople?’
‘He needs a messenger accustomed to courts. It was possible, he thought, that your experience might undertake the mission.’
‘Me? Who am I? Alas! alas! fresh temptations daily! Let him send by the hand of whom he will. . . . And yet — were I— at least in Alexandria — I might advise from day to day. . . . I should certainly see my way clearer. . . . And unforeseen chances might arise, too. . . . Pambo, my friend, thinkest thou that it would be sinful to obey the Holy Patriarch?’
‘Aha!’ said Pambo, laughing, ‘and thou art he who was for fleeing into the desert an hour agone! And now, when once thou smellest the battle afar off, thou art pawing in the valley, like the old war-horse. Go, and God be with thee! Thou wilt be none the worse for it. Thou art too old to fall in love, too poor to buy a bishopric, and too righteous to have one given thee.’
‘Art thou in earnest?’
‘What did I say to thee in the garden? Go, and see our son, and send me news of him.’
‘Ah! shame on my worldly-mindedness! I had forgotten all this time to inquire for him. How is the youth, reverend sir?’
‘Whom do you mean?’
‘Philammon, our spiritual son, whom we sent down to you three months ago,’ said Pambo. ‘Risen to honour he is, by this time, I doubt not?’
‘He? He is gone!’
‘Ay, the wretch, with the curse of Judas on him. He had not been with us three days before he beat me openly in the patriarch’s court, cast off the Christian faith, and fled away to the heathen woman, Hypatia, of whom he is enamoured.’
The two old men looked at each other with blank and horror-stricken faces.
‘Enamoured of Hypatia?’ said Arsenius at last.
‘It is impossible!’ sobbed Pambo. ‘The boy must have been treated harshly, unjustly? Some one has wronged him, and he was accustomed only to kindness, and could not bear it. Cruel men that you are, and unfaithful stewards. The Lord will require the child’s blood at your hands!’
‘Ay,’ said Peter, rising fiercely, that is the world’s justice! Blame me, blame the patriarch, blame any and every one but the sinner. As if a hot head and a hotter heart were not enough to explain it all! As if a young fool had never before been bewitched by a fair face!’
‘Oh, my friends, my friends,’ cried Arsenius, ‘why revile each other without cause? I, I only am to blame. I advised you, Pambo! — I sent him — I ought to have known — what was I doing, old worldling that I am, to thrust the poor innocent forth into the temptations of Babylon? This comes of all my schemings and my plottings! And now his blood will be on my head-as if I bad not sins enough to bear already, I must go and add this over and above all, to sell my own Joseph, the son of my old age, to the Midianites! Here, I will go with you — now — at once — I will not rest till I find hint, clasp his knees till he pities my gray hairs! Let Heraclian and Orestes go their way for aught I care — I will find him, I say. O Absalom, my son! would to God I had died for thee, my son! my son!’
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56