WHILE you work all day long in the open air, you do not hear sounds consciously; you draw them in with your breath: the voices of birds, the long murmur of insects, the rustle and splash of falling water. Only when I heard the soft crush of gravel under the sandals of a brother, I would lift my head to greet him; but often I was not conscious of any sound until the chapel bell summoned me into silence. My work absorbed me. My mother often used to say that from my earliest childhood I had had ‘green hands,’ so that plants always grew willingly for me.
All the vines in our great vineyards were under my care. They ran down, in terraces, from the mountain top, and in the hard winters they were on my mind as a sleeping baby is on his mother’s mind. The snow lay heavy upon us for four months out of the year, nor had we the certainty of great heat in summer, as they have in Southern lands.
It was not my business to answer the visitors’ bell; but one morning in July, I think it was in the second year of my novitiate, I had been told to do this service for Father Thomas, who was wanted elsewhere.
I was a little anxious, for I had had no dealings with visitors since I entered the Kloster, but I thought, ‘No one will ring the bell this morning. The peasants come in without ringing; and it is too early for pilgrims.’
When the bell rang, I hurried down the hillside, knowing that it must be a stranger.
He stood in the gateway, with his bare head shining like kingcups, and a rucksack on his back. His spine, his head, and his heels made one straight line together, without rigidity.
I looked once at him; and then I turned my eyes away from his face; but it was no use. I knew that I should always see him.
I do not know that monks are uglier than other men; as they grow older, if they are true children of God, there is a beauty to be found in all their faces; but it has to be looked for. The beauty of this stranger could not be avoided; it was shattering. Nor was it only the shape and color of his features, or the depths of his eyes (the color of them I never knew), but in the whole person there was no contradiction. He was all beauty, as the sun is all light.
I have been in the Kloster since I was seventeen, and though I have not seen much of the outside world, I have seen many pilgrims; but pilgrims are seldom beautiful, and one is so busy attending to their needs that one is not disturbed by anything they look like; and though the intentions of a pilgrim are good, his manners are rarely attractive. This man was a prince among men.
To make Tokay you take only perfect grapes. He was of that vintage.
In the years that followed I often tried to recall that first meeting, but I could only remember the sun burning upon the apricots.
He asked to see our Father Superior, though it was not the hour for visitors; and I was rebuked because I forgot this, and took him at once to see our Reverend Father.
I went back into the garden to dig as I had been digging when he rang the bell; and it was then that I noticed how sharp and clear were the light summer sounds. The birds’ songs penetrated my heart; and the whole valley beneath me sent up a kind of music.
I did not confess this change in me, because I had no wishes; and to this day I think that to love without a wish is not a sin.
Our guest did not stay very long with us, nor did he speak to me.
I saw him sometimes at sunset, or in the early mornings before the first Mass, standing on the topmost peak of our mountain, under a group of silver birches close to where our monks are buried. We have a very small Friedhof, and all of us lie, looking towards the east, at the same distance one from the other and with the same small carved crucifix of wood.
Beneath where he stood the mountain drops a thousand feet into the valley, and the Danube winds through the blue plains, glittering like the tail of a dragon.
Our stranger looked like the Blessed Michael standing there, with the light on his golden head, and the Dragon at his feet.
Father Theodosius had given him the rooms which were used long ago for the Emperor’s yearly retreat, so it was suspected among us that our guest was a member of the royal family, perhaps the son of an archduke. He spoke to none of us but our Father Superior, and not often to him. He may have been under a vow of silence, or doing some penance; it need not have been pride.
He spent much time in the chapel, kneeling erect, as if he were frozen to the floor; and more time still climbing on to the mountains, which rise beyond our special peak, and wandering there alone, for hours.
The others became accustomed to his presence among us; but to me, whenever I saw him, it was as if the moon suddenly rounded a peak and shone out with all her light.
One day, when I was digging a trench between the vines under the study window of our Superior, I heard the stranger’s voice.
The words floated out into the air like living things, and I could not stop them by proclaiming my presence, any more than I could have put up my hand to turn back the flight of a bird.
‘Father, I want to stay here always,’ our guest said. ‘You know my history. The world of to-day has no use for me; nor does it contain anything that I desire. I love beauty; and to me God is beauty; and here I have found God. I can give myself up to Him in this KIoster, and it may be that in return you can make use of me. I will take any vows! Only let me stay here where for the first time I have found a beauty which is untravestied!’
There was a silence that seemed longer than the pause between the beats of my heart.
Then our Father Theodosius said: ‘My dear son, you have said that you love beauty, and that by beauty you mean God. That you win pleasure from this faith I can well believe, but such pleasure is not love.’
Our guest cried: ‘What do you mean, Father? Do I not show my love by my content? Why, I need nothing else but beauty. I am her tireless worshiper! I ask only to be allowed to stay upon my knees.’
I thought our Father cruel when he spoke again, although his voice was gentle.
‘Lovers give,’ he said. ‘They are without needs. There is no other way of showing love but service. You could not serve beauty here, my son, for here she is free — she has no need of servants. But below, where beauty is chained, where you have found such ugliness, such great misery, and so many slaveries — you can serve beauty there! Go down again, my son. Fight for what you love; live for it; and when you have fought and lived until the strength in you is vanquished, then you may come back to where beauty need not be fought for, but is open, without penalties, to all who have eyes to see.’
There came a great darkness over my mind so that I could no more hear what either of them said, if they said anything.
It was the hour of vespers.
When I reached the chapel, the lights upon the altar were already lit.
It was high summer, but I felt the blood drain out of my body, and my hands and feet grew cold.
I thought that I had wished for nothing, but I must have wished that he should sometimes be visible.
The years pass very quickly when you are doing the same thing in the same place.
I had nothing to complain of; the seasons shifted without menace one into the other.
Between me and the sound of the voice there were many summers. Even the winters passed. There is much to fight against here in the winter — cold and sickness; while among the peasants the teeth of poverty are bared.
The little events of life fell muffled upon my heart, as sounds when snow is falling. I can easily understand how life passes into sleep; sleep into death; and death into eternal peace. It is resurrection that I find difficult to understand — and sometimes painful.
He came again. One day in early spring, in the wake of the March kingcups which run down over our vineyards following the line of the melting snows. The lambs, newly born, tried to dance upon the air; they were so active with surprise and so willing to make sure of their unknown powers.
I should have recognized him anywhere, though time had left a thousand marks upon him; and he had been wounded in a great war. He had known and made changes; and he had been betrayed by great disasters. He had overcome defeat and known how small victory can be; but though he looked worn, and as a sword that has been used too often, his beauty burned on in him.
I think he was glad to come back to us. He did not, of course, remember me; but from the hour of his return we became friends.
He spoke now to all of us. He lived with us, and took our vows.
It seemed to the whole community that his ripeness, and world wisdom, gave to our Kloster a fresh lease of life.
Our Father was growing old, and was often silent, as if he had nothing more to say.
Usually when we are reborn to God we choose our own names; but brother Martin did not choose his. Father Theodosius said to him one day: ‘My son, let us call you Martin. For Martin gave away half his cloak to a beggar, and you have given away half of yours to that poor old beggar, the world; but I do not yet know what you will do with the other half of it.’
I felt angry, for surely it was to us and to the service of our rule that Martin was giving the other half of his cloak. Besides, I had hoped that he would be called Michael.
Father Martin was a great preacher. The first year that he became one of us the pilgrims doubled in quantity. The work in August was so heavy upon us that help had to be brought in from outside. We had to buy food for the pilgrims beyond what we could make out of our stores, and they wanted more wine than the vineyards could give; but many souls were brought to God, so that we were thankful.
I do not know how long it was before Father Martin began to talk about a new rule — stricter than ours; but this thing was a great concern to him. Our daily tasks, he said, were too easy and we prayed less than many monks.
In the winter we never got up before five o’clock in the morning, whereas in many Klosters the brothers serve God on their knees in the heart of the night.
‘For,’ Martin often told me, ‘if we give God only our comfortable moments, we give Him only half of ourselves — and that the weaker half. A man’s soul and body in discomfort also belong to God.’
But Father Ambrose, who had been long with us, and was much beloved, spoke differently.
‘Let God alone,’ he said. ‘It is His business to make us more comfortable or more uncomfortable. We need not add anything to our rule; we have not yet followed it perfectly if we are not satisfied with it!’
Some of the brothers accepted Father Martin’s ideas, as I must confess I always did, for they seemed reasonable, and in spite of the strictness of his life he had time to spare for any fresh duty or act of kindness; and some of our brothers accepted Father Ambrose’s opinion. We took this question to heart so greatly that we strove among ourselves as to which rule was best; and anger came among us, so that we looked without pleasure into each other’s eyes, and I sometimes thought that we wasted what might have been given more serviceably to God.
At last our Reverend Father, who had grown very old, and almost altogether silent, sent for us all and asked us to vote upon the subject of our rule. He said that he was too old to judge of a new matter, so that he would not vote himself, but that he was willing to carry out faithfully, and with love, whatever the majority of us thought best.
Nevertheless we all begged him for his opinion, for we knew him to be very wise; and he was bound to us by many years of love and obedience.
For a long time he was silent, looking away from us, through a great window that opened over the yellowing vines. It was autumn and the trees were thin, so that you could see through them down into the valley.
At last he said: ‘My children, you have asked me to tell you if I think an easy or a stern rule more pleasing to God. But how can I — a poor monk like yourselves — tell what is in the mind of God? His laws are open to us to observe; His life is in us; but what is in His mind we cannot know. A fragment of a rainbow cannot tell you where light is born. But though I cannot tell you what God would wish us to do, I have lived a long time with His children, and I have observed that what we love most we do best. Let those, then, who love our old rule best follow it; and let those who wish to live more strictly have our respect and blessing, and harden the rule for themselves as they see fit.’
But Father Martin said: ‘With due submission, Reverend Father, could it not be that strife might come of this, and that those who believe in the stricter rule might look down upon their weaker brothers who prefer the easier rule, while those who prefer the easier rule might resent the greater strictness of their stronger brothers, and feel themselves provoked by it?’
The Reverend Father was silent for so long that we wondered if he slept; but he spoke at last, looking at Martin as if he deeply loved him, and was expecting something in this love to reach him beyond agreement or disagreement.
‘I think that might very well be so, my dear son, for we are all human, and few have learned that if their aim is to please God solely it is of no account what others do; nor what others think of them for doing differently. But, my son, do you not speak as if strength is more pleasing to God than weakness? But what can we know of this? A lamb is God’s handiwork as well as a lion; and He has never told us that He prefers His lions to His lambs.
‘Since all we know is that we are in an imperfect world and very worthy of it, through our own imperfections, let us think well over this question of our aim; and, praying God that the issue may be blessed, let us vote each for the rule which he believes will be of most service to our Community. For surely it is in Unity that man must live, and what is best for all is best for each of us.’ And, having spoken, the Reverend Father sank more deeply still into silence.
But I was in anguish, for after the Reverend Father had spoken I could no longer see my way so plainly as to voting for the new rule.
Ten of our brothers voted for the old rule, with Father Ambrose for their leader; and ten voted for the new rule, with Father Martin as their leader; but I sat with the empty paper before me and Martin’s eyes upon my face.
The others when they had voted went out; and after a while Martin too rose, and smiling down upon me, as if he were sure of my support, he went after the rest.
The Reverend Father slept. After a long time he woke, and found me still beside him. ‘My son,’ he asked me, ‘what is on your mind?’
And I said: ‘Father, I would gladly accept this harder rule. It was in my heart to do so; but since you have spoken I feel a trouble about my aim. I do not know whether I want to please God, or if I want only to please Father Martin.’
‘My son,’ Father Theodosius said, ‘go into the chapel and pray and God will show you whom you most wish to please.’
I went into the chapel, and my heart was like a fiery darkness; I felt all the pains of fire, and could see nothing.
I knew that I was between my friend and God, and it seemed to me that I loved my friend most; and that if I failed him, he would punish me with less love; and that God — if I failed God — would not punish me so much because He had not the power. I loved Martin most. I was ashamed when I knew this, and wept bitterly.
The brothers came into Compline, and prayed more earnestly than usual, and stayed longer on their knees; but at last they all left the chapel except Martin. The altar was between us, but I could see how arrowy straight he kneeled, like a knight, to receive the accolade; and though it was twenty years since he was young, his gold and silver hair glistened like the Danube, winding in sunshine, through the distant plains.
I could feel with what passion his prayers beat upon my defenseless heart. It seemed to me that if he had had faith in me, and had left me alone, I should have cleaved to him; but now that I felt the weight of his prayers against me I knew that I must vote for our old rule. If Martin’s aim had been to please God solely, he would not have prayed against me; and with the easier rule we should be constraining no one.
We need never prevent our brothers from being stricter than we; but if they chose the new rule they would force us into a strictness our wills had not accepted; and suddenly, although my heart was heavier than lead, there was light in my soul.
I rose from my knees and Martin turned and looked at me. He knew what I was going to do; and in that look his soul left my soul alone, forever.
My feet took me into the vineyards, but my eyes saw nothing; and I stumbled against the wood of old vines and bruised myself; and once I fell into a pit, which I had dug, and lay there wishing it was my grave.
At last I came to the birches, which I have often thought in autumn were like the Holy Ghost; above their white and slender stems their leaves move lightly, like gold and silver wings.
From them I looked down into the valley, and cursed my life. I asked to have it taken from me; but before nightfall I went back and gave my vote against Martin.
The Reverend Father knew that I had done this thing; but he said nothing.
The motions of life went on the same, but the spirit of it had escaped. I noticed nothing that I did and saw nothing that went on about me. I did not even notice that the Reverend Father was failing fast all winter long; nor was I with him when the end came.
I had loved him greatly all my life; but when I heard that he had passed away I was glad. ‘Martin will have his way now,’ I thought; and though I knew that Martin could never forgive me for having failed him, yet I was happier because now he could make our rule what he wished.
I had no doubt in my mind that Martin would be made our new Father Superior, though there were some of our brothers who thought Ambrose might be chosen because he had been longer in the Kloster than any of us. But Martin had brought our fame to all the countryside, and to the big towns as well. He was everywhere beloved for his great sanctity and his golden tongue. In our Kloster, it is the custom for the Father Superior to name in confidence, to the Father Provincial, the most likely of the brothers to take his place; if the Father Provincial is of the same mind, their choice is final; should they differ, the Bishop is asked to give them his aid and counsel; but we knew that in this case the Bishop had not been called in.
I worked all day in my vineyards, for it was a dangerous moment for my vines, and I was spraying them with peroxide of lime against phylloxera. I thought: ‘This will be a good year. We shall be able to make Tokay, for there will be perfect grapes.’
Suddenly I saw one of the novices running across the terrace. ‘The Father Provincial is here,’ he told me breathlessly, ‘and he has sent you this!’ And he thrust a letter into my hands, and stood with his head bowed, submissively, as novices should; but he was watching me — as they also do, and should not; so I turned my back upon him, and the western sun flamed against my eyes, making the words turn black.
‘My son,’ I read, ‘you will take my place, because you could not vote against our rule, although your heart desired to. When you had not yet made up your mind, I knew that it was already made up, for we only feel undecided when we have decided not to change.
‘You will rebel against this order, but only those who do not wish for power can safely use it; so use this power, my most beloved son, that you love your brother more for loving God most.’
It was from Father Theodosius, written before his death. I had not known that he loved me with any special love. I covered my face with my hands to shut out the words, but they spun in my mind like the wheels of a torture engine, going round and round against raw flesh.
A voice cried out in me: ‘Martin! Martin! Martin!’
I saw his face as he stood outside the gate when he came to the Kloster, so proud and young, in its first beauty. He was alive in my heart, with no one thing forgotten, no one grace denied. I think I knew then that he was dead.
He had thrown away the other half of his cloak.
When they told him that I had been chosen as Father Superior, Martin went to his cell and hanged himself.
We had a doctor who loved us greatly, so there was no scandal; besides, Martin had been a prince.
I buried him as close as I could to the rest of us. You will see the grave under the silver birches. He had the sacred earth from Jerusalem sprinkled over it, and the same crucifix that marks the graves of the brothers. He lies only a few feet from us; but there is the wall between, and this I could not alter. He must lie outside the wall.