Agnes of Sorrento
THE dreams of Agnes, on the night after her conversation with the monk and her singular momentary interview with the cavalier, were a strange mixture of images, indicating the peculiarities of her education and habits of daily thought.
She dreamed that she was sitting alone in the moonlight, and heard some one rustling in the distant foliage of the orange-groves, and from them came a young man dressed in white of a dazzling clearness like sunlight; large pearly wings fell from his shoulders and seemed to shimmer with a phosphoric radiance ; his forehead was broad and grave, and above it floated a thin, tremulous tongue of flame ; his eyes had that deep, mysterious gravity which is so well expressed in all the Florentine paintings of celestial beings: and yet, singularly enough, this white-robed, glorified form seemed to have the features and lineaments of the mysterious cavalier of the evening before,—the same deep, mournful, dark eyes, only that in them the light of earthly pride had given place to the calm, strong gravity of an assured peace,— the same broad forehead, — the same delicately chiselled features, but elevated and etherealized, glowing with a kind of interior ecstasy. He seemed to move from the shadow of the orange-trees with a backward floating of his lustrous garments, as if borne on a cloud just along the surface of the ground; and in his hand he held the lily-spray, all radiant with a silvery, living light, just as the monk had suggested to her a divine flower might be. Agnes seemed to herself to hold her breath and marvel with a secret awe, and, as often happens in dreams,she wondered to herself,— “Was this stranger, then, indeed, not even mortal, not even a king’s brother, but an angel ? — How strange,” she said to herself, “ that I should never have seen it in his eyes ! ” Nearer and nearer the vision drew, and touched her forehead with the lily, which seemed dewy and icy cool; and with the contact it seemed to her that a delicious tranquillity, a calm ecstasy, possessed her soul, and the words were impressed in her mind, as if spoken in her ear, “ The Lord hath sealed thee for his own !” — and then, with the wild fantasy of dreams, she saw the cavalier in his wonted form and garments, just as he had kneeled to her the night before, and he said, “ Oh, Agnes ! Agnes! little lamb of Christ, love me and lead me!” — and in her sleep it seemed to her that her heart stirred and throbbed with a strange, new movement in answer to those sad, pleading eyes, and thereafter her dream became more troubled.
The sea was beginning now to brighten with the reflection of the coming dawn in the sky, and the flickering fire of Vesuvius was waxing sickly and pale; and while all the high points of rocks were turning of a rosy purple, in the weird depths of the gorge were yet the unbroken shadows and stillness of night. But at the earliest peep of dawn the monk had risen, and now, as he paced up and down the little garden, his morning hymn mingled with Agnes’s dreams, — words strong with all the nerve of the old Latin, which, when they were written, had scarcely ceased to be the spoken tongue of Italy. " Confirmet actus strenuos,
Dentes retundat invidi,
Casus secundet asperos,
Donet gerendi gratiam! The hymn in every word well expressed the character and habitual pose of mind of the singer, whose views of earthly matters were as different from the views of ordinary working mortals as those of a bird, as he flits and perches and sings, must be from those of the four-footed ox who plods. The “ sobriam ebrietatem spiritus ” was with him first constitutional, as a child of sunny skies, and then cultivated by every employment and duty of the religious and artistic career to which from childhood he had devoted himself. If perfect, unalloyed happiness has ever existed in this weary, work-day world of ours, it has been in the bosoms of some of those old religions artists of the Middle Ages, whose thoughts grew and (lowered in prayerful shadows, bursting into thousands of quaint and fanciful blossoms on the pages of missal and breviary. In them the fine life of color, form, and symmetry, which is the gift of the Italian, formed a rich stock on which to graft the true vine of religious faith, and rare and fervid were the blossoms.
De luce lucem proferens,
Lux lueis et fons luminis,
Dies diem illuminans!
Patrem potentis gratiffi,
Patrem perennis gloriæ:
Culpam releget lubricam!
Potusque noster sit tides:
Laæti bibamus sobriara
Pudor sit ut diluctilum,
Fides velnt meridies,
Crepusculuin mens nesciat! ” 1
For it must be remarked in justice of the Christian religion, that the Italian people never rose to the honors of originality in the beautiful arts till inspired by Christianity. The Art of ancient Rome was a second-hand copy of the original and airy Greek, — often clever, but never vivid and self-originating. It is to the religious Art of the Middle Ages, to the Umbrian and Florentine schools particularly, that we look for the peculiar and characteristic flowering of the Italian mind. When the old Greek Art revived again in modern Europe, though at first it seemed to add richness and grace to this peculiar development, it smothered and killed it at last, as some brilliant tropical parasite exhausts the life of the tree it seems at first to adorn. Raphael and Michel Angelo mark both the perfected splendor and the commenced decline of original Italian Art; and just in proportion as their ideas grew less Christian and more Greek did the peculiar vividness and intense flavor of Italian nationality pass away from them. They became again like the ancient Romans, gigantic imitators and clever copyists, instead of inspired kings and priests of a national development.
The tones of the monk’s morning hymn awakened both Agnes and Elsie, and the latter was on the alert instantly.
“ Bless my soul! ” she said, “ brother Antonio has a marvellous power of lungs; he is at it the first thing in the morning. It always used to be so; when he was a boy, he would wake me up before daylight, singing.”
“ He is happy, like the birds,” said Agnes, “ because he flies near heaven.”
“ Like enough: he was always a pious boy; his prayers and his pencil were ever uppermost: but he was a poor hand at work: he could draw you an olive-tree on paper; but set him to dress it, and any fool would have done better.”
The morning rites of devotion and the simple repast being over, Elsie prepared to go to her business. It had occurred to her that the visit of her brother was an admirable pretext for withdrawing Agnes from the scene of her daily traffic, and of course, as she fondly supposed, keeping her from the sight of the suspected admirer.
Neither Agnes nor the monk had disturbed her serenity by recounting the adventure of the evening before, Agnes had been silent from the habitual reserve which a difference of nature ever placed between her and her grandmother,—a difference which made confidence on her side an utter impossibility. There are natures which ever must be silent to other natures, because there is no common language between them. .In the same bouse, at the same board, sharing the same pillow even, are those forever strangers and foreigners whose whole stock of intercourse is limited to a few brief phrases on the commonest material wants of life, and who, as soon as they try to go farther, have no words that are mutually understood.
“ Agnes,” said her grandmother, “ I shall not need you at the stand to-day. There is that new flax to be spun, and you may keep company with your unde.
I ’ll warrant me, you ’ll be glad enough of that! ”
“ Certainly I shall,” said Agnes, cheerfully. “ Uncle’s comings are my holidays.”
“ I will show you somewhat further on my Breviary,” said the monk. “ Praised be God, many new ideas sprang up in my mind last night, and seemed to shoot forth in blossoms. Even my dreams have often been made fruitful in this divine work.”
“ Many a good thought comes in dreams,” said Elsie; “ but, for my part, I work too hard and sleep too sound to get much that way.”
“ Well, brother,” said Elsie, after
breakfast, “ you must look well after Agnes to-day; for there be plenty of wolves go round, hunting these little lambs.”
“ Have no fear, sister,” said the monk, tranquilly; “ the angels have her in charge. If our eyes were only clearsighted, we should see that Christ’s little ones are never alone.”
“All that is fine talk, brother; but I never found that the angels attended to any of my affairs, unless I looked after them pretty sharp myself; and as for girls, the dear Lord knows they need a legion apiece to look after them. What with roystering fellows and smooth-tongued gallants, and with silly, empty-headed hussies like that Giulietta, one has much ado to keep the best of them straight. Agnes is one of the best, too, — a well-brought up, pious, obedient girl, and industrious as a bee. Happy is the husband who gets her. I would I knew a man good enough for her.”
This conversation took place while Agnes was in the garden picking oranges and lemons, and filling the basket which her grandmother was to take to the town. The silver ripple of a hymn that she was singing came through the open door; it was part of a sacred ballad in honor of Saint Agnes: —
No sparkling jewels bring to me!
Dearer by far the blood-red rose
That speaks of Him who died for me.
All earthly dreams forgotten be!
My heart is gone beyond the stars,
To live with Him who died for me.”
“ Hear you now, sister,” said t'ne monk, “ how the Lord keeps the door of this maiden’s heart ? There is no fear of her; and I much doubt, sister, whether you would do well to interfere with the evident call this child hath to devote herself wholly to the Lord."
“ Oh, you talk, brother Antonio, who never had a child in your life, and don’t know how a mother’s heart warms towards her children and her children’s children! The saints, as I said, must be reasonable, and ought n’t to be putting vocations into the head of an old woman’s only staff and stay ; and if they ought n’t to, why, then, they won’t, Agnes is a pious child, and loves her prayers and hymns; and so she will love her husband, one of these days, as an honest woman should.”
“ But you know, sister, that the highest seats in Paradise are reserved for the virgins who follow the Lamb.”
“ Maybe so,” said Elsie, stiffly; “ but the lower seats are good enough for Agnes and me. For my part, I would rather have a little comfort as I go along, and put up with less in Paradise, (may our dear Lady bring us safely there !) ’ say I.”
So saying, Elsie raised the large, square basket of golden fruit to her head, and turned her stately figure towards the scene of her daily labors.
The monk seated himself on the garden-wall, with his portfolio by his side, and seemed busily sketching and retouching some of his ideas. Agnes wound some silvery-white flax round her distaff', and seated herself near him under an orange-tree ; and while her small fingers were twisting the flax, her large, thoughtful eyes were wandering off’ on the deep blue sea, pondering over and over the strange events of the day before, and the dreams of the night.
“ Dear child,” said the monk, “ have you thought more of what I said to you ? ”
A deep blush suffused her cheek as she answered,—
“ Yes, uncle; and I had a strange dream last night.”
“ A dream, my little heart ? Come, then, and tell it to its uncle. Dreams are the hushing of the bodily senses, that the eyes of the Spirit may open.”
“ Well, then,” said Agnes, “ I dreamed that I sat pondering as I did last evening in the moonlight, and that an angel came forth from the trees ”-
“ Indeed ! ” said the monk, looking up with interest; “ what form had he ? ”
“ He was a young man, in dazzling white raiment, and his eyes were deep as eternity, and over his forehead was a silver flame, and he bore a lily-stalk in his hand, which was like what you told of, with light in itself.”
“ That must have been the holy Gabriel,” said the monk, “ the angel that came to our blessed Mother. Did he say aught ? ”
“ Yes, he touched my forehead with the lily, and a sort of cool rest and peace went all through me, and he said, ' The Lord hath sealed thee for his own !’”
“ Even so,” said the monk, looking up, and crossing himself devoutly, “ by this token I know that my prayers are answered .”
“ But, dear uncle,” said Agnes, hesitating and blushing painfully, “there was one singular thing about my dream,— this holy angel had yet a strange likeness to the young man that came here last night, so that I could not but marvel at it.”
“ It may be that the holy angel took on him in part this likeness to show how glorious a redeemed soul might become, that you might be encouraged to pray. The holy Saint Monica thus saw the blessed Augustine standing clothed in white among the angels while he was yet a worldling and unbeliever, and thereby received the grace to continue her prayers for thirty years, till she saw him a holy bishop. This is a sure sign that this young man, whoever he may be, shall attain Paradise through your prayers. Tell me, dear little heart, is this the first angel thou hast seen ? ”
“ I never dreamed of them before. I have dreamed of our Lady, and Saint Agnes, and Saint Catharine of Siena; and sometimes it seemed that they sat a long time by my bed, and sometimes it seemed that they took me with them away to some beautiful place where the air was full of music, and sometimes they filled my hands with such lovely flowers that when I waked I was ready to weep that they could no more be found. Why, dear uncle, do you see angels often ? ” “ Not often, dear child, but sometimes a little glimpse. But you should see the pictures of our holy Father Angelico, to whom the angels appeared constantly ; for so blessed was the life he lived, that it was more in heaven than on earth. He would never cumber his mind with the things of this world, and would not paint for money, nor for prince’s favor; nor would he take places of power and trust in the Church, or else, so great was his piety, they had made a bishop of him ; but he kept ever aloof and walked in the shade. He used to say, ‘ They that would do Christ’s work must walk with Christ.’ His pictures of angels are indeed wonderful, and their robes are of all dazzling colors, like the rainbow. It is most surely believed among us that he painted to show forth what he saw in heavenly visions.”
“ Ah ! ” said Agnes, “ how I wish I could see some of these things! ”
“ You may well say so, dear child. There is one picture of Paradise painted on gold, and there you may see our Lord in the midst of the heavens crowning his blessed Mother, and all the saints and angels surrounding; and the colors are so bright that they seem like the sunset clouds, — golden, and rosy, and purple, and amethystine, and green like the new, tender leaves of spring; for, you see, the angels are the Lord’s flowers and birds that shine and sing to gladden his Paradise, and there is nothing bright on earth that is comparable to them, — so said the blessed Angelico, who saw them. And what seems worthy of note about them is their marvellous lightness, that they seem to float as naturally as the clouds do, and their garments have a divine grace of motion like vapor that curls and wavers in the sun. Their faces, too, are most wonderful; for they seem so full of purity and majesty, and withal humble, with an inexpressible sweetness; for, beyond all others, it was given to the holy Angelico to paint the immortal beauty of the soul.”
“ It must he a great blessing and favor for you, dear uncle, to see all these things," said Agnes; “ I am never tired of hearing you tell of them.”
“ There is one little picture,” said the monk, “ wherein he hath painted the death of our dear Lady; and surely no mortal could ever conceive anything like her sweet dying face, so faint and weak and tender that each man sees his own mother dying there, yet so holy that one feels that it can he no other than the mother of our Lord; and around her stand the disciples mourning ; but above is our blessed Lord himself, who receives the parting spirit, as a tender new-born babe, into his bosom : for so the holy painters represented the death of saints, as of a birth in which each soul became a little child of heaven.”
“ How great grace must come from such pictures! ” said Agnes. “ It seems to me that the making of such holy things is one of the most blessed of good works. — Dear uncle,” she said, after a pause, “ they say that this deep gorge is haunted by evil spirits, who often waylay and bewilder the unwary, especially in the hours of darkness.”
“ I should not wonder in the least,” said the monk; “for you must know, child, that our beautiful Italy was of old so completely given up and gone over to idolatry that even her very soil casts up fragments of temples and stones that have been polluted. Especially around these shores there is scarcely a spot that hath not been violated in all rimes by vilenesses and impurities such as the Apostle saith it is a shame even to speak of. These very waters cast up marbles and fragments of colored mosaics from the halls which were polluted with devil-worship and abominable revellings; so that, as the Gospel saith that the evil spirits cast out by Christ walk through waste places, so do they cling to these fragments of their old estate.”
“ Well, uncle, I have longed to consecrate the gorge to Christ by having a shrine there, where I might keep a lamp burning.”
“ It is a most pious thought, child.”
“ And so, dear uncle, I thought that you would undertake the work. There is one Pietro hereabout who is a skilful worker in stone, and was a playfellow of mine,—-though of late grandmamma has forbidden me to talk with him, — and I think he would execute it under your direction
“ Indeed, my little heart, it shall be done,” said the monk, cheerfully; “and I will engage to paint a fair picture of our Lady to be within ; and I think it would be a good thought to have a pinnacle on the outside, where should stand a statue of Saint Michael with his sword. Saint Michael is a brave and wonderful angel, and all the devils and vile spirits are afraid of him. I will set about the devices to-day.”
And cheerily the good monk began to intone a verse of an old hymn,—
Pax in terra, pax in cœlis.”2
In such talk and work the day passed away to Agnes ; but we will not say that she did not often fall into deep musings on the mysterious visitor of the night before. Often while the good monk was busy at Lis drawing, the distaff would droop over her knee and her large dark eyes become intently fixed on the ground, as if she were pondering some absorbing subject.
Little could her literal, hard-working grandmother, or her artistic, simple-minded uncle, or the dreamy Mother Theresa, or her austere confessor, know of the strange forcing process which they were all together uniting to carry on in the mind of this sensitive young girl. Absolutely secluded by her grandmother’s watchful care from any actual knowledge and experience of real life, she had no practical tests by which to correct the dreams of that inner world in which she delighted to live and move, and which was peopled with martyrs, saints, and angels, whose deeds were possible or probable only in the most exalted regions of devout poetry.
So she gave her heart at once and without reserve to an enthusiastic desire for the salvation of the stranger, whom Heaven, she believed,had directed to seek her intercessions ; and when the spindle drooped from her hand, and her eyes became fixed on vacancy, she found herself wondering who he might really be, and longing to know yet a little more of him.
Towards the latter part of the afternoon, a hasty messenger came to summon her uncle to administer the last rites to a man who had just fallen from a building, and who, it was feared, might breathe his last unshriven.
“ Dear daughter, I must hasten and carry Christ to this poor sinner,” said the monk, hastily putting all his sketches and pencils into her lap. “ Have a care of these till I return, — that is my good little one ! ”
Agnes carefully arranged the sketches and put them into the book, and then, kneeling before the shrine, began prayers for the soul of the dying man.
She prayed long and fervently, and so absorbed did she become, that she neither saw nor heard anything that passed around her.
It was, therefore, with a start of surprise, as she rose from prayer, that she saw the cavalier sitting on one end of the marble sarcophagus, with an air so composed and melancholy that he might have been taken for one of the marble knights that sometimes are found on tombs.
“ You are surprised to see me, dear Agnes,” he said, with a calm, slow utterance, like a man who has assumed a position lie means fully to justify; “but I have watched day and night, ever since I saw you, to find one moment to speak with you alone.”
“ My Lord,” said Agnes, “ I humbly wait your pleasure. Anything that a poor maiden may rightly do I will endeavor, in all loving duty.”
“ Whom do you take me for, Agnes, that you speak thus ? ” said the cavalier, smiling sadly.
“ Are you not the brother of our gracious King ? ” said Agnes. “ No, dear maiden ; and if the kind promise you lately made me is founded on this mistake, it may be retracted.”
“ No, my Lord,” said Agnes,—u though I now know not who you are, yet if in any strait or need you seek such poor prayers as mine, God forbid I should refuse them! ”
“ I am, indeed, in strait and need, Agnes ; the sun does not shine on a more desolate man than I am,— one more utterly alone in the world ; there is no one left to love me. Agnes, can you not love me a little? —let it be ever so little, it shall content me.”
It was the first time that words of this purport had ever been addressed to Agnes ; but they were said so simply, so sadly, so tenderly, that they somehow seemed to her the most natural and proper things in the world to be said; and this poor handsome knight, who looked so earnest and sorrowful, — how could she help answering, “Yes”? From her cradle she had always loved everybody and every tiling, and why should an exception be made in behalf of a very handsome, very strong, yet very gentle and submissive human being, who came and knocked so humbly at the door of her heart ? Neither Mary nor the saints had taught her to be hard-hearted.
“ Yes, my Lord,” she said, “ you may believe that I will love and pray for you; but now you must leave me, and not come here any more, — because grandmamma would not be willing that I should talk with you, and it would be wrong to disobey her, she is so very good to me.”
“ But, dear Agnes,” began the cavalier, approaching her, “ I have many things to say to you, — I have much to tell you.”
“ But I know grandmamma would not be willing,” said Agnes; “indeed, you must not come here any more.”
“Well, then,” said the stranger, “at least you will meet me at some time,— tell me only where.”
“ I cannot,— indeed, I cannot,” said Agnes, distressed and embarrassed. “Even now, if grandmamma knew you were here, she would be so angry.”
“ But how can you pray for me, when you know nothing of me ? ”
“ The dear Lord knowoth you,” said Agnes; “and when I speak of you, He will know what you need.”
“ Ah, dear child, how fervent is your faith ! Alas for me, I have lost the power of prayer! I have lost the believing heart my mother gave me, — my dear mother who is now in heaven.”
“Ah, how can that be?” said Agnes. “ Who could lose faith in so dear a Lord as ours, and so loving a mother? ”
“ Agnes, dear little lamb, you know nothing of the world; and I should be most wicked to disturb your lovely peace of soul with any sinful doubts. Oh, Agnes, Agnes, I am most miserable, most unworthy! ”
“ Dear Sir, should you not cleanse your soul by the holy sacrament of confession, and receive the living Christ within you ? For He says, 1 Without me ye can do nothing? ”
“ Oh, Agnes, sacrament and prayer are not for such as me ! It is only through your pure prayers I can hope for grace.”
“ Dear Sir, I have an uncle, a most holy man, and gentle as a lamb. He is of the convent San Marco in Florence, where there is a most holy prophet risen up.”
“ Savonarola ? ” said the cavalier, with flashing eyes.
“ Yes, that is he. You should hear my uncle talk of him, and how blessed his preaching has been to many souls. Dear Sir, come some time to my uncle.”
At this moment the sound of Elsie's voice was heard ascending the path to the gorge outside, talking with Father Antonio, who was returning.
Both started, and Agnes looked alarmed.
“Fear nothing, sweet lamb,” said the" cavalier ; “ I am gone.”
He kneeled and kissed the hand of Agnes, and disappeared at one hound over the parapet on the side opposite that which they were approaching. Agnes hastily composed herself, struggling with that half-guilty feeling which is apt to weigh on a conscientious nature that has been unwittingly drawn to act a part which would be disapproved by those whose good opinion it habitually seeks. The interview had but the more increased her curiosity to know the history of this handsome stranger. Who, then, could he be ? What were his troubles ? She wished the interview could have been long enough to satisfy her mind on these points. From the richness of his dross, from his air and manner, from the poetry and the jewel that accompanied it, she felt satisfied, that, if not what she supposed, he was at least nobly born, and had shone in some splendid sphere whose habits and ways were far beyond her simple experiences. She felt towards him somewhat of the awe which a person of her condition in life naturally felt toward that brilliant aristocracy' which in those days assumed the state of princes, and the members of which were supposed to look down on common mortals from as great a height as the stars regard the humblest flowers of the field.
“ How strange,” she thought, “ that he should think so much of me ! What can he see in me? And how can it be that a great lord, who speaks so gently and is so reverential to a poor girl, and asks prayers so humbly, can be so wicked and unbelieving as he says he is ? Dear God, it cannot be that he is an unbeliever ; the great Enemy has been permitted to try him, to suggest doubts to him, as he has to holy saints before now. How beautifully he spoke about his mother !— tears glittered in his eyes then,— ah, there must be grace there after all! ”
“ Well, my little heart,” said Elsie, interrupting her reveries, “ have y'ou had a pleasant day ? ”
“ Delightful, grandmamma,” said Agnes, blushing deeply with consciousness.
“ Well,” said Elsie, with satisfaction, “one thing I know,—I ’ve frightened off that old hawk of a cavalier with his hooked nose. I have n’t seen so much as the tip of his shoe-tie to-day. Yesterday he made himself very busy around our stall; but I made him understand that you never would come there again till the coast was clear.”
The monk was busily retouching the sketch of the Virgin of the Annunciation. He looked up, and saw Agnes standing gazing towards the setting sun, the pale olive of her cheek deepening into a crimson flush. His head was too full of his own work to give much heed to the conversation that had passed, but, looking at the glowing face, he said to himself,—
“ Truly, sometimes she might pass for the rose of Sharon as well as the lily of the valley! ”
The moon that evening rose an hour later than the night before, yet found Agnes still on her knees before the sacred shrine, while Elsie, tired, grumbled at the draft on her sleeping-time.
“ Enough is as good as a feast," she remarked between her teeth; still she had, after all, too much secret reverence for her grandchild’s piety openly to interrupt her. But in those days, as now, there were the material and the spiritual, the souls who looked only on things that could be seen, touched, and tasted, and souls who looked on the things that were invisible.
Agnes was pouring out her soul in that kind of yearning, passionate prayer possible to intensely' sympathetic people, in which the interests and wants of another seem to annihilate for a time personal consciousness, and make the whole of one’s being seem to dissolve in an intense solicitude for something beyond one’s self. In such hours prayer ceases to be an act of the will, and resembles more some overpowering influence which floods the soul from without, bearing all its faculties away on its resistless tide.
Brought up from infancy to feel herself in a constant circle of invisible spiritual agencies, Agnes received this wave of intense feeling as an impulse inspired and breathed into her by some celestial spirit, that thus she should be made an interceding medium for a soul in some unknown strait or peril. For her faith taught her to believe in an infinite struggle of intercession in which all the Church Visible and Invisible were together engaged, and which bound them in living bonds of sympathy to an interceding Redeemer, so that there was no want or woe of human life that had not somewhere its sympathetic heart, and its never-ceasing prayer before the throne of Eternal Love. Whatever may be thought of the actual truth of this belief, it certainly was far more consoling than that intense individualism of modern philosophy which places every soul alone in its life-battle,— scarce even giving it a God to lean upon.
THE reader, if a person of any common knowledge of human nature, will easily see the direction in which a young, inexperienced, and impressible girl would naturally be tending under all the influences which we perceive to have come upon her.
But in the religious faith which Agnes professed there was a modifying force, whose power both for good and evil can scarcely be estimated.
The simple Apostolic direction, “ Confess your faults one to another,” and the very natural need of personal pastoral guidance and assistance to a soul in its heavenward journey, had in common with many other religious ideas been forced by the volcanic fervor of the Italian nature into a certain exaggerated proposition. Instead of brotherly confession one to another, or the pastoral sympathy of a fatherly elder, the religious mind of the day was instructed in an awful mysterious sacrament of confession, which gave to Some human being a divine right to unlock the most secret chambers of the soul, to scrutinize and direct its most veiled and intimate thoughts, and, standing in God’s stead, to direct the current of its most sensitive and most mysterious emotions.
Every young aspirant for perfection in the religious life had to commence by an unreserved surrender of the whole being in blind faith at the feet of some such spiritual director, all whose questions must be answered, and ail whose injunctions obeyed, as from God himself. Thenceforward was to be no soul-privacy, no retirement, nothing too sacred to be expressed, too delicate to be handled and analyzed. In reading the lives of those ethereally made and moulded women who have come down to our day canonized as saints in the Roman Catholic communion, one too frequently gets the impression of most regal natures, gifted with all the most divine elements of humanity, but subjected to a constant unnatural pressure from the ceaseless scrutiny and ungenial pertinacity of some inferior and uncomprehending person invested with the authority of a Spiritual Director.
That there are advantages attending this species of intimate direction, when wisely and skilfully managed, cannot be doubted. Grovelling and imperfect natures have often thus been lifted up and carried in the arms of superior wisdom and purity. The confession administered by a Fénelon or a Francis de Sales was doubtless a beautiful and most invigorating ordinance; but the difficulty in its actual working is the rarity of such superior natures, — the fact, that the most ignorant and most incapable may be invested with precisely the same authority as the most intelligent and skilful.
He to whom the faith of Agnes obliged her to lay open her whole soul, who had a right with probing-knife and lancet to dissect out all the finest nerves and fibres of her womanly nature, was a man who had been through all the wild and desolating experiences incident to a dissipated and irregular life in those turbulent days.
It is true, that he was now with most stringent and earnest solemnity striving to bring every thought and passion into captivity to the spirit of his sacred vows; but still, when a man has once lost that unconscious soul-purity which exists in a mind unscathed by the fires of passion, no after-tears can weep it back again. No penance, no prayer, no anguish of remorse can give back the simplicity of a soul that has never been stained.
II Padre Francesco had not failed to make those inquiries into the character of Agnes’s mysterious lover which he assumed to be necessary as a matter of pastoral faithfulness.
It was not difficult for one possessing the secrets of the confessional to learn the real character of any person in the neighborhood, and it was with a kind of bitter satisfaction which rather surprised himself that the father learned enough ill of the cavalier to justify his using every possible measure to prevent his forming any acquaintance with Agnes. He was captain of a band of brigands, and, of course, in array against the State; he was excommunicated, and, of course, an enemy of the Church. What but the vilest designs could be attributed to such a man ? Was he not a wolf prowling round the green, secluded pastures where as yet the Lord’s lamb had been folded in unconscious innocence?
Father Francesco, when he next met Agnes at the confessional, put such questions as drew from her the whole account of all that had passed between her and the stranger. The recital on Agnes’s part was perfectly translucent and pure, for she had said no word and had had no thought that brought the slightest stain upon her soul. Love and prayer had been the prevailing habit of her life, and in promising to love and pray she had had no worldly or earthly thought. The language of gallantry, or even of sincere passion, had never reached her ear ; but it had always been as natural to her to love every human being as for a plant with tendrils to throw them round the next plant, and therefore she entertained the gentle guest who had lately found room in her heart without a question or a scruple.
As Agnes related her childlike story of unconscious faith and love, her listener felt himself strangely and bitterly agitated. It was a vision of ignorant purity and unconsciousness rising before him, airy and glowing as a child’s soap-bubble, which one touch might annihilate; but he felt a strange remorseful tenderness, a yearning admiration, at its unsubstantial purity. There is something pleading and pitiful in the simplicity of perfect ignorance, — a rare and delicate beauty in its freshness, like the morning-glory cup, which, once withered by the heat, no second morning can restore. Agnes had imparted to her confessor, by a mysterious sympathy, something like the morning freshness of her own soul ; she had redeemed the idea of womanhood from gross associations, and set before him a fair ideal of all that female tenderness and purity may teach to man. Her prayers — well he believed in them, — but he set his teeth with a strange spasm of inward passion, when he thought of her prayers and love being given to another. He tried to persuade himself that this was only the fervor of pastoral zeal against a vile robber who had seized the fairest lamb of the sheepfold ; but there was an intensely bitter, miserable feeling connected with it, that scorched and burned his higher aspirations like a stream of lava running among fresh leaves and flowers.
The conflict of his soul communicated a severity of earnestness to his voice and manner which made Agnes tremble, as he put one probing question after another, designed to awaken some consciousness of sin in her soul. Still, though troubled and distressed by his apparent disapprobation, her answers came always clear, honest, unfaltering, like those of one who could not form an idea of evil.
When the confession was over, he came out of his recess to speak with Agnes a few words face to face. His eyes had a wild and haggard earnestness, and a vivid hectic flush on either cheek told how extreme was his emotion. Agnes lifted her eyes to his with an innocent wondering trouble and an appealing confidence that for a moment wholly unnerved him. He felt a wild impulse to clasp her in his arms; and for a moment it seemed to him he would sacrifice heaven and brave hell, if he could for one moment hold her to his heart, and say that he loved her,— her, the purest, fairest, sweetest revelation of God’s love that had ever shone on his soul, — her, the only star, the only flower, the only dew-drop of a burning, barren, weary life. It seemed to him that it was not the longing, gross passion, but the outcry of bis whole nature for something noble, sweet, and divine.
But he turned suddenly away with a sort of groan, and, folding his robe over his face, seemed engaged in earnest prayer. Agnes looked at him awe-struck and breathless.
“ Oh, my father! ” she faltered, “ what have I done ? ”
“Nothing, my poor child,” said the father, suddenly turning toward her with recovered calmness and dignity; “ but I behold in thee a fair lamb whom the roaring lion is seeking to devour. Know, my daughter, that I have made inquiries concerning this man of whom you speak, and find that he is an outlaw and a robber and a heretic, — a vile wretch stained by crimes that have justly drawn down upon him the sentence of excommunication from our Holy Father the Pope.”
Agnes grew deadly pale at this announcement.
“Can it be possible?” she gasped. “Alas! what dreadful temptations have driven him to such sins?”
“Daughter, beware how you think too lightly of them, or suffer his good looks and flattering words to blind you to their horror. You must from your heart detest him as a vile enemy.”
“ Must I, my father ? ”
“ Indeed you must.”
“ But if the dear Lord loved us and died for us when we were his enemies, may we not pity and pray for unbelievers ? Oh, say, my dear father, is it not allowed to ns to pray for all sinners, even the vilest ? ”
“ I do not say that you may not, my daughter," said the monk, too conscientious to resist the force of this direct appeal ; “ but, daughter,” he added, with an energy that alarmed Agnes, “ you must watch your heart; you must not suffer your interest to become a worldly love: remember that you are chosen to be the espoused of Christ alone.”
While the monk was speaking thus, Agnes fixed on him her eyes with an innocent mixture of surprise and perplexity, which gradually deepened into a strong gravity of gaze, as if she were looking through him, through all visible things into some far-off depth of mysterious knowledge.
“ My Lord will keep me,” she said ; “my soul is safe in His heart as a little bird in its nest; but while 1 love Him, I cannot help loving everybody whom He loves, even His enemies: and, father, my heart prays within me for this poor sinner, whether I will or no ; something within me continually intercedes for him.”
“ Oh, Agnes! Agnes! blessed child, pray for me also,” said the monk, with a sudden burst of emotion which perfectly confounded his disciple. He hid his face with his hands.
“ My blessed father ! ” said Agnes, “ how could I deem that holiness like yours had any need of my prayers ? ”
“ Chiltl ! child ! you know nothing of me. I am a miserable sinner, tempted of devils, in danger of damnation.”
Agnes stood appalled at this sudden burst, so different from the rigid and restrained severity of tone in which the greater part of the conversation had been conducted. She stood silent and troubled ; while he, whom she had always regarded with such awful veneration, seemed shaken by some internal whirlwind of emotion whose nature she could not comprehend.
At length Father Francesco raised his head, and recovered his wonted calm severity of expression.
“ My daughter,” he said, “ little do the innocent lambs of the flock know of the dangers and conflicts through which the shepherds must pass who keep the Lord’s fold. We have the labors of angels laid upon ns, and we are but men. Often we stumble, often we faint, and Satan takes advantage of our weakness. I cannot confer with you now as I would; but, my child, listen to my directions. Shun this young man ; let nothing ever lead you to listen to another word from him; you must not even look at him, should you meet, but turn away your head and repeat a prayer. I do not forbid you to practise the holy work of intercession for his soul, but it must be on these conditions.”
“ My father,” said Agnes, “ you may rely on my obedience”; and, kneeling, she kissed his hand.
He drew it suddenly away, with a gesture of pain and displeasure.
“ Pardon a sinful child, this liberty,” said Agnes.
“ You know not what you do,” said the father, hastily. “ Go, my daughter, — go, at once; I will confer with you some other time ” ; and hastily raising his hand in an attitude of benediction, he turned and went into the confessional.
“ Wretch ! hypocrite ! whited sepulchre!” he said to himself, — “to warn this innocent child against a sin that is all the while burning in my own bosom ! Yes, I do love her, — I do ! I, that warn her against earthly love, I would plunge into hell itself to win hers! And yet, when I know that the care of her soul is only a temptation and a snare to me, I cannot, will not give her up ! No, I cannot ! — no, I will not! Why should I not love her ? Is she not pure as Mary herself? Ah, blessed is he whom such a woman leads! And I — I — have condemned myself to the society of swinish, ignorant, stupid monks,— I must know no such divine souls, no such sweet communion ! Help me, blessed Mary ! — help a miserable sinner ! ”
Agnes left the confessional perplexed and sorrowful. The pale, proud, serious face of the cavalier seemed to look at her imploringly, and she thought of him now with the pathetic interest we give to something noble and great exposed to some fatal danger. " Could the sacrifice of my whole life,” she thought, “ rescue this noble soul from perdition, then I shall not have lived in vain. I am a poor little girl ; nobody knows whether I live or die. He is a strong and powerful man, and many must stand or fall with him. Blessed be the Lord that gives to his lowly ones a power,to work in secret places ! How blessed should I be to meet him in Paradise, all splendid as I saw him in my dream ! Oh, that would be worth living for,— worth dying for ! ”
- Splendor of the Father’s glory, Bringing light with cheering ray, Light of light and fount of brightness, Day, illuminating day!↩
- In our prayers we call thee Father, Father of eternal glory, Father of a mighty grace: Heal our errors, we implore thee!↩
- Form our struggling, vague desires; Power of spiteful spirits break; Help us in life’s straits, and give us Grace to suffer for thy sake!↩
- Christ for us shall be our food; Faith in him our drink shall be; Hopeful, joyful, let us drink Soberness of ecstasy!↩
- Joyful shall our day go by, Purity its dawning light, Faith its fervid noontide glow, And for us shall be no night!↩
- 3 “ ’Neath Saint Michael’s watch is given
Peace on earth and peace in heaven.’’↩