A Cloistered Retreat
OCCASIONALLY, as events unroll about us, some random current sways aside the curtain before a soul and gives us a startled glimpse of hidden secrets within. Then, before we have had time to reassure our incredulous eyes by a second glance, the curtain drops back into place, and leaves us wondering whether we caught a deceptive illusion or a substantial fact. Of course, if we could be forewarned, we might be ready for the lightning instant of revelation; but certainly, as I rang the bell at the monastery gate, no such premonition crossed my mind.
Learning that visitors were permitted to inspect the tranquil little domain, I next essayed to inquire, by means of my two or three Italian words and many gestures, if an Englishspeaking Brother might be my guide. The monk who had answered the bell hesitated doubtfully, and then indicated that he would consult another white-robed figure that appeared at this moment. The Prior — as I afterward learned he was — paused in his meditative progress across the lawn, sent a questioning look in my direction, murmured a few words, and continued on his way with bent head. Returning to me, the Brother bade me wait on the terrace before the little church.
When I had mounted the ancient stone steps to the wistaria-hung balustrade, the lawn below was empty except for three doves undisturbedly foraging on the fresh green expanse. The sunlit air was drowsy with the scent of wistaria and peonies. Brown earth beneath vines and bushes was flecked with violet and pink petals. Yellowing white plaster walls enclosed a tiny quadrangle where contented peace unfolded its wings almost visibly — the sort of peace that induces somnolent vacuity of mind rather than profound meditation.
A step on the uneven paving roused me. A third monk was approaching across the terrace, approaching with slow and feeble steps, shoulders drooping wearily, thin face haggard beneath a fringe of brown hair. His deep-set eyes were fastened upon me almost feverishly.
‘Father,’ I exclaimed, ‘you are not well!'
‘It is nothing.’ His voice, though low, vibrated as if with excitement. ‘I will be your guide.'
‘Had I known,’I continued, ‘ I should never have troubled you.’
‘Please!’ His thin hand lifted remonstratingly. ‘I wanted to come.’ The tone was tremulously eager. ‘The Prior said I might. It is long since I have heard an English voice—it is long.’ His own voice caught — or was it my fancy? I gazed at him in surprise, but read no sign of emotion in his lined face as he held open a door for me to precede him into the church.
A bare little whitewashed house of devotion it was, stark and clean, with no frescoes, no inlaid marble, no woodcarving mellowed by age, no brilliant windows — none of the embellishments so frequently found in old monasteries. As my companion made his genuflection before the altar he tottered, so I put my hand under his elbow.
‘Thank you,’ he murmured.
‘Really, you must not go farther,’ I said.
‘No!’ His voice suddenly rang out sharply, as he pulled himself erect. ‘I wanted to come,’ he repeated, and this time — were my ears playing me a trick? — this time with a thrill of defiance. He was looking, not at me, but straight at the crucifix above the altar. ‘And the Prior said — ’ He paused, then turned gently to me. ‘ You would, perhaps, be interested to see the burial vault.’
There was no mistaking his sincerity: he had wanted to conduct me about the monastery — had wanted it passionately. But why this insistence upon the Prior’s permission, as if that were the all-important item, as if it were more than a mere permission, as if it were a justification? Why should his desire — natural enough, one might think, this desire to hear his native tongue once again — why should his desire need any justification?
So far I had advanced in thought before he spoke again. ‘English is a beautiful language. Latin is stately and majestic; Italian is soft and sweet; but English — English is strong and manly.’ He gazed at me expectantly. Did he wish me to corroborate his words, or did he wish simply to hear my voice — to hear any words as long as they were English?
‘Orators have found English as stately as Latin,’I ventured. ‘And, perhaps, poets have found it as melodious as Italian.’
’Perhaps — perhaps,’ he sighed.
We had left the church to follow a dirt path that passed through a hedge and along a terrace under a double row of ancient olive trees.
‘ You have traveled much? ’ he asked.
’In Europe,’ I answered, ‘and around the Mediterranean.’
‘You have heard the water tinkling in the fountains of the Alhambra?’ I nodded. ‘You have looked down the long corridor of the Louvre at the Venus of Melos?’
‘The first Greek statue I ever saw,’ I said. ‘You can imagine what it did to me.’
‘Ah, yes. That and the Hermes at Olympia — the one perfect youth, so strong, so graceful, so unconscious of his incomparable beauty! And the Desert of Sahara?’
‘Only at Biskra.’
‘ Biskra, yes; but you must go farther than that to see the Desert. There at night, the full silver moon flooding the whole vast dome of sky that dips down to the dark sand on every side — the utter silence — the loneliness — only you and your tent and your camel and your dragoman. But even then you do not know the magic of the moon until you have seen it shining upon the Taj Mahal amid its pools and cypresses. The world is full of incredibly lovely things.’ He gazed absently across the green campagna to the silveryblue mountains rimming its far edge.
‘Some of them you have here about you,’ I suggested.
‘Yes, these hills and plains are picturesque,’ he agreed. ‘But if you want grandeur, there are the Rockies at home — and the barren peak of the Matterhorn, and the snowy top of Ætna with its plume of tan smoke — and Fujiyama — I was almost forgetting Fujiyama.’
I stared at him, amazed. Was it possible that he had seen all these things? As if he knew the question in my mind, he added with a faint smile, ‘ And all of that I have left — for this.’ He pointed to a low doorway in the white wall at our side, and followed me into a dim, square room. Around three sides were tiers of shelves from earthen floor to ceiling, many of them occupied by plain coffins that just fitted their allotted space.
‘Here we are all laid at last — each one in the robe he has worn, on his right side, his hand with palms together under his face — so.’ He imitated the position. ‘Here we find our rest,
Till the Master of All Good Workmen shall set us to work anew! ’
At my expression, he exclaimed, ‘You recognize the lines? It is —' he hesitated — ‘it is a satisfaction to talk to one who understands.’
Was this, I asked myself, merely a polite phrase, or did it imply some unexpressed idea behind? Had he found a lack of understanding in this cloistered retreat? The Prior, for instance? Yet, nothing in his manner suggested that his words had other than their face value.
‘I shall finally join my brothers here. Possibly in this very spot.’ He pointed to the next vacant shelf. ‘ Soon, perhaps. Last week I thought it might be sooner than this; I was very ill. But I had not finished my allotted tasks; I still had to conduct you about the monastery.’ He smiled wanly, pathetically. Then his lips drooped sadly as he added, ‘And that, I fear, is now done. This is not a great and spectacular monastery, as you see. We devote ourselves to a contemplative life, and have n’t much to show to visitors.’ Hesitatingly, he turned to the door; but on the terrace he suddenly paused to place a tremulous hand on my arm. ‘Or, would you — would you care to see my own cell?’ His eyes lighted eagerly.
‘Very much,’ I replied emphatically, ‘if it is not an intrusion.’
‘Not at all.’ His low voice thrilled happily. ‘I was almost afraid to ask you, for fear you might find it a bore.’
‘Everything here interests me,’ I said. ‘Otherwise, I should not have come at all.’
With startling abruptness he halted, and his wide blue eyes peered at me intently, almost with an expression of fright. ‘You — you are thinking of coming to join us here?’ The tone of his voice forbade my mistaking the importance that he attached to the question; he did not ask from idle curiosity, he felt deeply concerned. But whether he hoped to hear me say ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ I could not for the life of me decide. Was he eager for the company of a compatriot, or was he horrified at the idea of my committing what he had found to be a tragic error? The question almost rose involuntarily to my lips as I gazed at his eager face.
‘No,’ I said gently. ‘No. I have my work elsewhere.’
His figure relaxed. Its frail tautness vanished into its customary frail weariness. ‘No.’ The word was hardly more than a sigh, but whether of relief or of disappointment I could not possibly tell. I hoped he would say something further, — enough to give me some clue to the tantalizing mystery, — but he expressed neither regret nor satisfaction. Whatever his inward emotions, — and they had been strong, I knew from the manner of his question, — he did not attempt the rôle of missionary to convert me, nor did he by slightest implication condemn his monastery. That, no doubt, he would have considered traitorous, even blasphemous.
Then, as we returned through the hedge to the little green lawn where I had entered the monastery, we met the Prior, still moving slowly with bent head. His well-rounded figure displayed a marked contrast to my guide; such fasting as he had done had not diminished his energy and firmness. My companion paused to address a few words to the Prior, apparently explaining that I wished to see the cell. Silently, gravely, the Prior listened. As there was no answer, the Brother suddenly added a more eager phrase or two, almost as if he were justifying what might be considered a dubious action, almost like a child making a half-timid excuse. Thereupon the Prior looked at me gravely, appraisingly, and I thought I caught a gleam of calculating interest in his still, dark eyes. But he merely nodded at my guide, who seemed to hurry as we continued our walk.
What, I wondered,was the exact relationship between these two? It was easy enough to see that the Prior ruled his diminutive realm with no wavering power, that he expected unquestioning obedience from his flock. But did he wield his power benevolently or oppressively? The Brother at my side, for example — was he deferential from a sense of duty, or from a sense of genuine and grateful loyalty? The scene that I had witnessed — had it simply displayed the benevolent and gladly accepted discipline of the monastery, or had I really felt the faint heat of a friction engendered by the too close contact of incompatible characters? The episode had been too brief to suggest any sure answer to the question; it left me still on the rim of an interesting situation, into which I was quite incapable of piercing without aid.
Presently my companion reverted to his earlier words. ‘You have your work elsewhere. Perhaps this life seems to you circumscribed — selfish.'
‘No,’I replied. ‘Different work for different people. For some natures this tranquillity and orderliness are necessary.’
‘Yes, they are necessary.’ He repeated the phrase as if to emphasize it properly. ‘Some of us need what we find here — and only that. It may not seem much, but it is enough — quite enough.’ Was he reassuring himself or me? Was I making the mistake of interpreting his calm words from my own point of view rather than from his? Could I, an outsider, possibly unsympathetic, ever arrive at a true understanding of this situation?
He feebly pushed open a wooden gate, admitting to a long narrow rectangle of immaculately neat garden. The one-story buildings extending along the sides of the space were obviously the dormitories, each apartment with its own door opening upon the garden. At the far end, a low stone wall connected the two buildings. Beyond it the hill fell steeply, so that one looked across the tops of almond trees upon the valley below.
‘How pretty it is,’ I said; ‘so quiet, and so removed from the turbulence and the worry and the irritation that meet one so generously out there.'
Possibly he felt that my admiration was not very profound, since I had not exchanged that life for this tranquillity. At any rate he murmured an assent, but without enthusiasm. It was as if some insincerity on my part had been felt, and had suddenly blurred the clear understanding and sympathy between us.
‘These are my flowers,’he said in a tone of pride, pointing to a bed of red and gold and purple and white blossoms, ‘and this is my door.'
The microscopic square entry into which we stepped had space for one door in each wall, and a tiny shelf in one corner. ‘My food and wine are left on this shelf; we eat alone. Here, to the left, is my study.’ The room, hardly larger than the entry, contained a table, a chair, and shelves above, filled with theological books in Latin, Greek, Italian. On the table lay a neat pile of manuscript, penned in a hand as clear and minute as those monkish notes of mediæval days.
‘Did my visit interrupt your work?’
‘Oh, no,’ he replied. ‘I was resting — in here.’ We entered a slightly larger room, his bedroom. A white, glazed stove in one corner, and a wooden bedstead with mattress, pillow, and blanket in the other — nothing more. From the bedpost was hanging a braided leather whip. He saw my gaze upon it. ‘ You see,’he continued, ‘I have everything my soul desires.'
‘One really needs very little, if he did but know it,’I agreed. ’Books and flowers and peace — they should go far to content one.'
‘So I have found it.’ His voice was hardly audible. He repeated more firmly, ‘So I have found it.'
‘And yet — ’ I paused.
‘And yet?’ He turned eagerly. ‘You need not hesitate to say it. You would find it difficult?’
‘No.’ His voice was emphatic. ‘No, not impossible.'
‘Do you suppose,’I ventured, ‘that none of the Brothers ever regret?’
He gazed squarely at me. ’That I cannot say. We never speak to each other except on urgent matters. No, I think not. We most of us join the Order in our youth. I have been here fifteen years.’ His tone was self-possessed, even matter-of-fact, but in the depths of his eyes burned an odd flame, and one hand moved restlessly. If his inner soul had ever revolted from this life, obviously I was not to be permitted to intrude upon the secret. Even then I could not decide whether any such secret really existed, or whether I was reading into the situation a meaning entirely unwarranted by the context.
‘This last room is my oratory for private devotion.'
It corresponded to the tiny study. Before the door, but pushed against a wall to the side, was a prie-dieu, facing an altar that was raised well above the floor. On each end of the altar stood a little bunch of pale blue blossoms like forget-me-nots — Santa Maria, the Italians call them, from their color, I suppose. Above the altar, in a dull gold Renaissance frame, a picture of the Madonna looked down upon us. At first glance I thought that it came from some early Renaissance brush, because of the stiff formality of its style and the general simplicity of its colors; but a second glance showed me my error — the face was distinctly not Italian. It was sweet and pretty and refined, but somehow lacked the fragility and spirituality that one always expects from Renaissance artists. On continued inspection, too, its refinement seemed more a matter of aristocracy. In my interest, I had momentarily forgotten my host. By way of apology, I said, ‘I like your altarpiece very much.'
The tired face at my side lighted eagerly. ‘I am so glad,’he said. Then, hesitatingly, ‘I painted it.’
‘Really!’ I exclaimed. ‘I had no idea that you were an artist.’
‘I’m not. It is almost the only thing I ever tried. At first the Prior did not think I ought to waste time on it, but finally he gave me permission. Perhaps he thought it would occupy my mind. I was very happy. I had to try it many times before I got it right. Even now it does not satisfy me. But the Prior decided I had spent time enough — so, there it is.’ He spoke rapidly, impulsively, without a thought of his implication, as if an unconscious check had been removed suddenly, letting the words come in an unhindered torrent. His eyes were shining. ‘You are the first to praise it. You can’t imagine how pleased I am.’
’I admire it tremendously,’I said. ’At first I thought it was a Renaissance work, but the face is n’t Renaissance at all. It looks like somebody I know, but I can’t remember whom.’
‘Oh, no!’ A sudden alarm quivered in his voice. ‘It is not a portrait — only an ideal of beauty.’
‘An American ideal,’ I said; ‘not an Italian.’
‘Universal,’ he rejoined. ‘An ideal of universal beauty.’
It was not for me to press the matter, and he seemed indisposed to say anything further, perhaps already regretting his comments about the Prior. Certainly they had illuminated the relationship between the two men — or I thought they had. I pictured the young convert, not over thirty at the time, assailed by unexpressed doubts of the course he had adopted for some powerful reason—the Prior astutely aware of his restlessness, rigidly upholding the monastic discipline, finally permitting this diversion, declining perhaps any permission to speak or to hear the English tongue, fearing that it might further unsettle the young man. I had no opportunity at that moment to set in order this flood of ideas, for the time had obviously come for my departure.
‘Your visit has given me most genuine pleasure.’ He took my hand.
‘Might I, perhaps — might I call upon you again?’ I asked.
‘Oh, no.’ His voice was agitated. He dropped my hand. Then, with an effort, he recovered himself. ‘Please do not think me inhospitable. But the Prior — we are not expected to receive personal callers — we are busy with our work. You understand?’ he ended pathetically.
‘Quite,’ I said. ‘You are right. It would be an intrusion that one should not have asked.'
So we walked slowly, almost silently, back to the gate, where I gave him my cordial thanks for his hospitality. ‘I do not know your name,’ I suggested.
He hesitated before answering, ‘I am called Fra Filippo.'
‘Good-bye, Fra Filippo. I shall remember this visit with keenest pleasure.’
‘And I,’ said he, gazing kindly into my face. ‘Good-bye.’
His tired shoulder drooped against the heavy wooden door; his deep blue eyes looked wistfully at me above his sunken cheeks. I could not turn away. I believe I half held out my hand toward him. The door slowly closed, and a bar within dropped dully into place. The faintest of shuffling steps whispered away into silence.
All the way down the hill to my albergo in the village I pondered. Was I a sentimental fool, misinterpreting the whole episode, or had I left a desperately lonely soul at the end of his endurance? Upon what did I base my fantastic conception? Fleeting lights in his eyes, fancied tones in his voice, momentary expressions of his face — any or all of which might very naturally be expected of an ill man stirred by the excitement of an unforeseen contact with his distant life. No spoken word of his justified my inferences. Yet, sensible as I tried to be, Fra Filippo’s wan face and meagre figure haunted my thoughts that day and my dreams that night.
The next morning, as I looked from my window across the sun-swept green hillside, the sound of a distant bell floated down the fresh air, ringing in slow and measured strokes. Instantly I knew what it meant. At lunch my waiter replied, to my question, that one of the Brothers at the monastery had died. So, not quite knowing what excuse I might make for presenting myself again at the gate, I toiled up the road once more, rehearsing a few sentences in Italian as I went.
The Brother who answered my ring, obviously surprised at my inquiry, eyed me keenly as he thanked me. He was sorry to inform me that Fra Filippo had died. They had found him that morning in his oratory, kneeling on his prie-dieu, his clasped hands extended toward the altar, his head fallen forward upon his arms, his body supported by the prie-dieu and the wall at his side. All this was made clear by a dramatic imitation. It was perhaps sad, but the Brothers were rejoiced to know that Fra Filippo’s soul had ascended with his last prayers straight to the effulgent glory and the ineffable joy that surround the throne of God. No, there was nothing I could do.
About to turn away, I suddenly bethought me of one thing more. With considerable difficulty I made myself understood. Would the monastery sell me the picture of the Madonna above Fra Filippo’s altar? The Brother was clearly nonplused at this suggestion. Finally he replied that he would consult the Prior.
I waited in the silent courtyard, with its little green lawn, its wistariahung balustrade, its yellowing white walls. In imagination I saw Fra Filippo lying in the dim burial vault, exactly as he had described it the preceding day.
Before I expected him the Brother returned. There was a subtle change in his manner; the gentle kindliness and interest seemed to be replaced by a no less gentle abruptness and finality. The monastery could not part with any of its works of art. He held open the gate, bowed me out, and softly closed it behind me, leaving me still wondering, my riddle still unanswered.