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More Italian Yesterdays written by Mrs. Hugh Fraser who was a writer noted for her various memoirs and historical novels. This book was published in 1915. And now republish in ebook format. We believe this work is culturally important in its original archival form. While we strive to adequately clean and digitally enhance the original work, there are occasionally instances where imperfections such as missing pages, poor pictures or errant marks may have been introduced due to either the quality of the original work. Despite these occasional imperfections, we have brought it back into print as part of our ongoing global book preservation commitment, providing customers with access to the best possible historical reprints. We appreciate your understanding of these occasional imperfections, and sincerely hope you enjoy reading this book.
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More Italian Yesterdays
Mrs. Hugh Fraser
CHAPTER I. SAINTS OF THE CHURCH
CHAPTER II. FOUNDER OF MONASTICISM
CHAPTER III. ST. GREGORY THE GREAT
CHAPTER IV. MEMORIES OF THE PANTHEON
CHAPTER V. EARLY LIFE OF FATHER MASTAI
CHAPTER VI. POPE PIUS IX
CHAPTER VII. CAPTIVITY OF POPE PIUS VII
CHAPTER VIII. IN SABINA
CHAPTER IX. PEOPLE OF THE HILLS
CHAPTER X. A STORY OF VENICE
CHAPTER XI. QUEEN JOAN OF NAPLES
CHAPTER XII. A MEDIÆVAL NIGHTMARE
CHAPTER XIII. THE VAMPIRE-MONARCH FROM HUNGARY
CHAPTER XIV. END OF JOAN’S CAREER
CHAPTER XV. NAPLES UNDER MURAT
CHAPTER XVI. MURAT’S LAST DAYS
CHAPTER XVII. ITALIAN SEAS
CHAPTER XVIII. SOUTHERN SHORES
VENICE. THE GRAND CANAL.
It was my good fortune, many years ago, to make friends with a woman whose name was as beautiful as her mind—Mary Grace. We met in another hemisphere, under the Southern Cross, and for many days lived together in Chile’s one little Paradise, Viña del Mar. There, in shady patios, trellised with jessamine and bougainvillea, we talked of the impossible—of meeting in Rome and going together to the holy places and making better acquaintance with the Saints. Two or three years later the impossible happened. My Mary, with her daughter, Lilium, floated into my mother’s drawing-room in the Odescalchi one April afternoon, when the swallows were whirling above the courtyard and the house seemed all roses and sunshine. In the weeks that followed all our dream programme was realized; together we went to the Pope’s Mass, together knelt at his feet while Leo XIII laid his hand on Lilium’s golden head and blessed us and promised to pray for us and all our dear ones; and together we wandered from place to place in the Eternal City, I, who had known it all my life, learning many things from her who came there for the first time, as so often happens. Of all those pleasant inspiring hours, the one we both remembered most appreciatively, I think, was that of our visit to a lonely spot on the Aventine—the hill that somehow has always kept its character and is even to-day very little hurt by the destructions that have defaced most of the other quarters of the town.
My friend was Irish, pur sang, and her appreciations were extremely individual ones: things that other people felt obliged to rave about left her quite cold; but when she had caught and joined the links of some beautiful story that the world had overlooked or forgotten, she became a veritable flame of enthusiasm, and every tiny detail and souvenir she could connect with it had to be sought out and stored in the big warm shrine of her heart. I think, though I am not certain, that she knew the story of the house on the Aventine before she came to Rome. Any way, it was she who took me there, and we went over story and house together, and were exceeding loath to come away when the Ave Maria rang over the city and all respectable people turned their faces homewards.
Here is the story, a story of two ways of loving. It is in two parts, and I only learnt the first long after I was familiar with the second. The beginning takes us back to the last years of the third century, to the oft-mentioned reign of Diocletian. At that time, although the Aventine had never been one of the most distinguished quarters of Rome, it contained a few dwellings of nobles, who, doubtless, overlooked the mass of poorer houses that swarmed about its base, for the sake of the view, both over the city and towards the sea, from which comes always the pleasant west wind that we Romans love. I have spoken of the palace of the good Marcella, where in her old age she was so roughly treated by Alaric’s Goths; before Marcella’s time there lived another noble lady on the Aventine, with very different ideas as to the conduct of life. Her name was Aglaë, not a Roman name, and I fancy she must have come of Greek parentage, although she is spoken of as a noble Roman matron. Of her husband, who seems to have died before the story begins, we are told nothing; her whole existence was wrapped up in a quite unsanctified passion for a handsome pagan called Boniface, a man of generous heart, as the sequel shows, but a sensualist, like most of his class at that time. He adored Aglaë, and the two must have passed some enchanting hours wandering on the terraces of the Aventine villa, or sitting hand in hand to watch the sun sinking red into the distant sea. No thought of the future seems to have come to them there, nor any gleam of a scruple as to their way of life. Youth and beauty and love were theirs; this world was sweet, and they had never heard of another.
Then something happened. We are not told what it was—perhaps some miracle witnessed by Boniface at the martyrdom of some obscure Christian, one of those miracles which so often converted a crowd of brutal, mocking bystanders into Christians, on the spot. Whatever it was, it rent his soul, summoned his intelligence, and claimed him for ever. If Aglaë was not with him at the moment he must have rushed to her for one last visit to tell her of it, for her conversion was simultaneous, and sudden as his own. From that moment the lovers renounced each other for the love of Christ, and the remainder of their lives was devoted to atoning for their guilt in the past. Aglaë, in her lonely palace, gave herself up to prayer and penance; Boniface at once joined himself to the band of Christians who made it their business to gather up and bury the bodies of the martyrs. In no other way could he assuage the tumult of pain and repentance that filled his heart at the remembrance of his sins. Diocletian’s persecution was not confined to Rome, but was raging in many other parts of the Empire, notably in Asia Minor, and thither Boniface travelled with some devoted companions, in order to help and cheer the poor Christians in their sufferings.
On arriving at Tarsus, St. Paul’s city, he got separated from his fellow travellers, and, wandering around, found that a great number of the Faithful were being cruelly tormented that day, in divers ways, for the name of Christ, and his heart was torn both with compassion for their pains and admiration for their heroism. Approaching them, he kissed their chains and encouraged them to endure these passing tortures for the sake of Him who would so quickly and splendidly reward them by an eternity of joy. Of course he was at once arrested, and the tormentors seem to have tasked their ingenuity in inventing agonies for him to bear. His sins of the flesh were expiated by having his whole body ploughed with hooks of iron, and by spikes of wood run in under his nails and on his limbs; he had spoken sinful words—they poured molten lead into his mouth; he had sinned in the lust of the eyes and the pride of life—the executioners plunged him head downwards in a cauldron of boiling pitch. But from this the Lord delivered him. When they drew him forth, his eyes were clear, his brow unscarred, and he looked once more—his last look—on the fair world where he had been so sinfully happy, and through it all he praised God aloud, saying, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, I thank Thee!” Then came the order—so usual when all the torments had failed, and the clear spirit still clung to the lacerated body—“Behead him!”
As the axe fell, there was a terrific earthquake, and many of the bystanders were converted then and there, but no one was allowed to touch his body. Meanwhile his friends, who had been seeking for him everywhere, learnt of his martyrdom, and came to gather up his remains. But a strict watch had been set, and it was only after paying five hundred pieces of silver that they could obtain possession of the dear corpse. With love and tears they anointed it with precious balms and wrapped it in costly coverings and transported it to Rome.
During these months Aglaë had been living a life of such whole-hearted repentance that our dear Lord had taken her into great grace; and now, by an exquisite, divine bit of indulgence—one of those flashes of hot sympathy that come straight from the Sacred Human Heart of Him in heaven to some poor broken human heart on earth—He sent an Angel to tell her that her Boniface’s body was returning to Rome, and that she could go and meet it. So Aglaë, in her sombre penitential dress, her beautiful face covered with a veil, went forth, and, at a given place, saw the little procession approaching from the sea. There was no danger for her in looking at the beloved features now. Very quiet and strong she seems to have been as she met the wayfarers, bade them pause with their holy burden, and then led them back to her own house. There, where he and she had loved and sinned, she received him who was to leave her no more. Those who had brought him told her of his glorious end, and she thanked the Lord for it again—for the angel had not let her wait so long for the story. And when she had shown her gratitude by most loving hospitality and precious gifts to those who had brought his body, they went away and left her alone with her beloved. Ask any loving woman what she did then. Which of us would not place our dear tortured dead in our hall of honour, and burn sweet spices round them, and light tall tapers and fill the place with every fragrance and loveliness that the garden has to give?
All this, we may be sure, Aglaë did for Boniface; but she did that from which most women are debarred. She turned her palace into a church for his tomb, and prayed near it till she died; and then the poor and suffering, who had been her one care from the day of her conversion, came there and prayed for her soul. But we know that that went straight to heaven.
So there stood the Church of St. Boniface, and, some two hundred years later, a most noble Roman family had established their own palace close to it, and the church, as we know it, now includes a part of the house of Alexis. For this is where a great saint grew to manhood, the loved son of rich and affectionate parents. Alexis had every gift of mind, with beauty of countenance and strength of body; and, when the time was ripe, his father and mother betrothed him to a bride of their choosing, good and sweet, and very fair to see. In this they had, for the first time, met with stubborn opposition from the boy who had never opposed them before. He told them that he had vowed himself to a single life for God’s service, and that no earthly bride, however beautiful, should make him swerve from that allegiance. But they, like many other good parents, persisted in their project, convinced that they knew what was good for their son; and the preparations for his marriage went merrily forward, each day but adding to the young man’s grief and perplexity. Rome was Rome still; he could protest, but he had to obey his father’s direct commands, and obey he did; but his vow had been made to a still higher Authority, and he meant to keep it, and prayed for grace and guidance to do so, nor were grace and guidance refused him, who, as the Breviary puts it, “was of Rome’s noblest, but nobler yet through his great love for Christ.”
On the night of his wedding, when the feasting and singing and congratulating were over, and the matrons conducted the bride, probably a child of thirteen or fourteen, to the lighted, perfumed bridal chamber, Alexis would not so much as touch her hand, but like one, Galahad, of another time and clime, bade her farewell and departed, having received from God a special command to go on a pilgrimage to the “illustrious Churches of the Universe.” He left all behind, riches and servants, and even his name, and for seventeen long years, with no companion but the Lady Poverty, wandered, a nameless poor pilgrim through all the Holy Places, praising the Redeemer for His great mercies, and praying for the hastening of the Kingdom of Heaven.
At the end of those seventeen years he was one day praying fervently before an image of the Blessed Virgin, in the great church at Edessa, when a voice came from the image, proclaiming his name and rank. The people were greatly excited and wished to show him honour, both for his own sake and because Our Lady herself seemed to wish it. But Alexis knew better. That strange sweet voice had not rung in his ears to lure him back to things of earthly pride, and for him the disclosure of his identity was the command to depart from that land. He fled, and boarded the first ship he could find to carry him away from Syria. He never asked the vessel’s destination; it was enough for him that he was obeying a command, but he was being led back to where the second phase of his spiritual career awaited him—in his old home in Rome.
As the ship sped north and west, and one by one the lovely Greek islands seemed to come floating towards him, like opals on the shifting sapphire of the sea, he still kept silence, still prayed and praised. What cared he whither her course was set? The white sails might have been angel’s wings—so sure was Alexis that God was leading him. Then, when the Apennines swam up blue from the bluer water, and scents of violet and orange blossom were wafted out to greet the wanderer, he knew that this was Italy—and home. Still he spoke not—questioned not; past the isles of the Sirens, past Circe’s Promontory, still on, past all that shore of coral and pearl, of palm and ilex and olive, with Vesuvius’s dark smoke hanging like a menace in the background, the little Syrian galley held her way, and at last the helmsman turned her prow to the land; the sails were all furled but one; the enormous oars worked her up against a rushing yellow current till the long quay was reached, and with a rattling of chains the weary galley slaves shipped their oars and bent down to look, each through his little opening, at “the port of Rome.”
With the merchants and the free seamen Alexis stepped on shore, and gazed at the city of his birth. He had been brought back—for what? Blindly, joyfully, obediently, he had gone forth, to fare alone with God, and alone with God he was still to be. An hour or so later a haggard mendicant stood at the gate of a palace on the Aventine, asking for charity. That was never refused in that house, and the servants brought him in, showed him a dark corner under a stairway, close to the entrance, where they told him he might sleep, and gave him some scraps of food. Humbly and gratefully he accepted it all; he heard them speak of the master and the mistress and the “widow” of the eldest son who was long since dead; and that day or the next he must have seen his father and mother, and the maid who had never been a wife, passing through the courtyards or lingering in the garden.
God’s ways are not our ways. When He covets the love of certain souls for Himself, He will not share it with any one, and that Divine jealousy leads the chosen soul through hard paths. The hearts that love God intensely are the very ones that are the most loving of their fellows, especially of all who hold close to them in the sacred ties of family affection. But these ties have to be snapped on earth when the Divine Lover so wills—and Saints like Alexis, and poor sinners like the rest of us, have to leave the broken ends in His hands, knowing that the pain we are made to cause our dear ones is as necessary for them as that which we suffer is for us, and that every pang of theirs is a golden strand in the garment of their immortality.
Alexis’s parents had sinned against him and Heaven in trying to force him to break his vow of virginity; their son had long forgiven them, but Heaven in its mercy was allowing them to expiate their sin here instead of hereafter; and, through their obstinacy, the young girl who might, wedded to another spouse, have become a joyful mother of children, had to spend her life in their sad house, waiting upon them, and with the prospect of a very lonely age before her when they should have passed away.
We may be sure that many and many a time Alexis longed to emerge from his despised obscurity and comfort them all three, but it was not for that God had brought him back. The command of silence was never lifted, and so the son—the heir—lived on, a ragged beggar, laughed at and also abused by his father’s servants, praying in St. Boniface’s Church by day, sleeping in the cranny under the stairs at night, allaying his hunger by the scraps the servants threw him, and always blessing them and praising God, who thus satisfied His own servant’s hunger for poverty and suffering and humiliation. This second trial, this exile of the heart, lasted also seventeen years. At that time the very existence of Rome was threatened by Alaric the Goth; once and twice he had turned from its gates laden with the ransom exacted for not entering them; he was threatening to approach again, and this time he had sworn to enter and destroy. The population was crowding the churches to pray for deliverance, when a mysterious voice rang out in each separate church, “Seek ye the man of God, that he may pray for Rome!” Terror fell upon the suppliant masses, and none dared speak or move. Then the same voice cried, “Seek in the house of Euphemian.”
There was a rush to the Aventine, for all knew the great noble’s dwelling. The Pope, Innocent I, had heard the command and himself went thither, followed by all his ecclesiastics and the Senators as well. When they reached Euphemian’s house it was the Pope who led them to the dark corner under the stairs—dark no longer, but flooded with celestial light, where the nameless beggar lay dying alone. His hands were already cold, but in one he held a crucifix, in the other a slip of parchment which no one could make him relinquish, though many tried to take it away from him. Then Innocent commanded him, in the Name of God, to give it up, and immediately Alexis let him take it with his own hand. And the Pope, standing up beside the dying man, opened the slip, and read aloud therefrom the name and family of the beggar; and a great cry went through the house that it was Alexis, the son who had been mourned for dead these many years. And father and mother and wife threw themselves down beside him, embracing him and weeping bitterly, for in that moment his soul had gone to God.
Then Innocent buried him in the Church of St. Boniface, and it was called both by his name and that of Alexis for many years. Both their bodies rest there, and a chapel was thrown out at one side to take in the stairway, which, now covered with glass, remains to this day. Both Boniface and Alexis had travelled and prayed and suffered in the East, and their church came to be a heritage of both East and West; for, five hundred years after the July day on which Alexis died, a great monastery called after him and built close to the church on the hill of the “house of Euphemian” sheltered monks of the Basilian and Benedictine orders at the same time, an innumerable spiritual family “to replace the fair family he had renounced to this world.”
The Aventine has been little touched by time and is still one of the quietest and loveliest spots in Rome. At certain season it suffers from malaria—blown up from the marshes near Ostia—and for that reason both mediæval and modern builders have generally avoided it. But it is full of gardens. That of St. Alexis’s Convent, now an Asylum for the Blind, is famous for its orange and lemon trees; and one can trace the dispositions of the terraces and courts of the old house in the approaches to the church. I do not think that when my friend and I were wandering there we noticed one curious feature which, however, still exists to give one a glimpse of old Roman domestic ways—the queer little cells, one on each side of the inner porch of Euphemian’s house where the slave porter, and his companion the watch-dog, were chained opposite to each other, to their respective posts! What queer and sympathetic confidences they must have exchanged sometimes!
Alexis surely prayed for his native city, but all the prayers of all her Saints could not avert the trials that were to visit on Rome her past sins. Constantine the Great believed that he had left the Church in the West impregnable in strength and assured of peace; and for nearly three centuries after his death she was forced to fight for her existence almost as stubbornly as she had during the three centuries preceding it. In 361, only twenty-four years after the death of Constantine, Julian the Apostate reversed his edicts and strained every nerve to re-establish the worship of the Olympian deities. Paganism was dead, and he failed in his iniquitous efforts to restore animation to its corpse, but much suffering did he bring to the Church, and it was only at the price of blood that she conquered in the end. After Julian came the Barbarians—Alaric, Genseric, Odoacer, Totila—during the short space of one hundred and thirty years Rome was taken and ravaged five separate times, so that when, in 553, Narses, the prototype of Napoleon, abolished the Senate and annexed the city to the Eastern Empire, she had reached the lowest point in her history, and was scarcely regarded as a prize even by the Lombards when, in response to the invitation of Narses himself, they overran Italy from the Alps to the sea, only to be finally expulsed by Charlemagne some two hundred years later.
But the Church had realized the truth of the saying that the darkest hour comes just before the dawn. The high courage that had come unscathed through such appalling conflicts rose gallant and audacious in its certainty of final victory, and at the very moment when Rome seemed to be annihilated, decreed to it such a triumph as the world had never seen before.
In 568, just a year after Narses, to gratify a personal spite, had invited the hornet swarm of Lombards to cross the Alps, he died in the city he had insulted. We must remember that there were two Romes, the corporeal city, depopulated and impoverished, despoiled and dying—the city of the government of the once proud “Senatus Populusque Romanus,” which had failed signally at every point, and had crawled to the feet of every conqueror; and the spiritual city, ruled by strong and holy men who patiently went on with their invisible building, adding stone to stone with such calmness and patience that in contemplating their work one is almost led to believe that they were unconscious of the material ruin around them.
During the forty years that followed the death of Narses there was growing up in Rome a phalanx of learned and holy ones to replace the leaders who had been found wanting, and we of to-day are still the inheritors and possessors of the treasures they amassed. While the grass grew unchecked in the streets, and all who could migrated to happier lands, while commerce and war turned aside from the now worthless prize, and the poor tethered their few goats and sheep in the courtyards of the great ruined houses, the Benedicts, the Gregorys, the Bonifaces, with their clear-eyed, disciplined cohorts, were building the Liturgy, building the Monastic Orders, building the polity that guides and rules the Church and the Faithful to-day. Nothing escaped them; whether it were a question of the right antiphon for one of the psalms of a Nocturn, the placing on the Index some doubtful legend of a Saint (like that of our Saint George, which the popular fancy was turning into a grotesque myth), the annihilation of some startling new heresy which was raising its poisonous head, or the question of bringing Constantinople to its senses by bold remonstrance with the Emperor—to every detail was brought the thoroughness and directness of trained minds, the compelling force of superior courage and invincible intellect.
And this work had been going on silently and infallibly from the moment that official persecution ceased. Through sieges and invasions, desertions and desolations, the mills of God were grinding the grain and filling the great storehouses with golden wealth. In 480, in the little town of Nursia, high among the fastnesses of the Abruzzi, where the snow lay thick in winter, as in the Alps, there was born to the lord of the place a son, who was christened Benedict—“the Blest,” and a little daughter whom the father, a great admirer of learning, called Scholastica. When these two passed away, sixty-three years later, Literature and Saintliness were throned in Europe, and hold their thrones still in the innumerable fortresses manned by the spiritual descendants of the Nursian twins. Outside the Church few, comparatively, knew their names when they died. Learning and piety would scarcely exist for us had they not lived.
In the heart of the Sabines, where the Nar breaks out from the rock near the mountain called the Lioness, there has been since very early times a little town, too inaccessible to tempt the spoiler and the invader, too sturdy and independent to serve long as a footstool for mediæval tyrants. It was well fortified, however, and the ancient walls encircle it still, in good repair, as witnesses to its immunity from the fate that has annihilated so many other little old cities, its neighbours. Nature, stern and wild enough here, helped to protect it. Even now it can only be reached by a carriage journey, a lengthy, tedious business in the winter time, when the snow almost cuts it off from communication with the outside world.
The townsfolk have long memories, however. The chief square is called Piazza Sertorio, after the Roman General, Quintus Sertorius, who was born here in the second century before Christ, and the only public monument in Norcia is a statue of their other distinguished citizen, St. Benedict, in the same square. People from other places do not interest the good burghers of Norcia. They have accorded a passing notice to a gentleman named Vespasian, known elsewhere as a fairly successful Emperor, but, as they would tell you, “a person quite without education”—that is to say, with no manners; nevertheless they have allowed a hill in the vicinity to be called Monte Vespasio because his mother was a decent woman and owned a farm there.
I fancy life in Norcia is in its essentials very much what it was when, in the year of grace 480, the lord of the manor was informed that his good wife had borne him twins, a son and a daughter. It is easy, knowing the ways of the people, to call up the picture of the “Matrona” in her best gown—the midwife is the most honoured woman in every Roman town—coming down from the lady’s apartment in the tower to the head of the house, sitting, quite forgotten and rather lonely, in the hall, waiting for news from the centre of interest upstairs. His own servants would only approach with signs of submission and respect; not so the all-important Matrona! Conscious of her dignity and grave as a judge, she would advance a few steps and wait for him to rise. Then, as he approached on tiptoe and with some timidity, she would turn back the woollen covering from the unexpectedly large bundle on her left arm, and, without a word, show him two little pink faces where he only expected one.
“Yes,” she would say in answer to his exclamations of delight and astonishment, “two has Domine Dio sent to this noble house. Two will be the gifts my lord must bestow on his lady”—this to remind him as well of the double remuneration due to herself. “Pretty? Oh no, but they are not bad—thanks be! Will it please my lord to send for the priest—the ‘feminuccia’ is the younger—and seems not over strong! I thank my lord!”
My lord has been feeling in his pouch and has slipped two of his few gold pieces into her hand, and, seeing that he is inclined to admire the babies, she covers them up and stalks away. Her demeanour has been rhadamanthine throughout. There must be no expression of admiration, no kissing or fondling of the little creatures before they are baptized. That would call the attention of the devil to the small unregenerates who are still his property. When the taint of original sin has been washed away they will be angels of innocence, beautiful cherubs to be shown proudly to all and sundry—but not before!
So my lord sent for the priest, and pondered meanwhile on the names he would give the new son and daughter, little dreaming, good man, that fifteen centuries later those names would be household words to every Catholic ear and perpetuated in the colossal literature of sanctuaries of holiness and learning. He fixed on Benedict for the boy, and Scholastica for the girl, and, so far as I can trace, it was the first time the names had been used. Benedict means “the Blest” or “Well-spoken,” Scholastica signifies a lover of learning, or “the Well-taught”; so we may infer that the Lord of Norcia (it was called Nursia then) was a man of more education than most country gentlemen of those rough times, times of which history says, “Europe has perhaps never known a more calamitous or apparently desperate period than that which reached its climax at this date, the year 480. Confusion, corruption, despair, and death were everywhere; social dismemberment seemed complete. In all the ancient Roman world there did not exist a prince who was not either a pagan, or an Arian, or a Eutychian. In temporal affairs, the political edifice originated by Augustus—that monster assemblage of two hundred millions of human creatures, ‘of whom not a single individual was entitled to call himself free’—was crumbling into dust under the blows of the Barbarians.”
Nevertheless Rome still continued to be looked upon by the surrounding provinces as the centre of education—there was none, at any rate, to be had anywhere else within reach; and thither the Lord of Norcia, a descendant of the great family of the Anicia so often mentioned in the Roman chronicles, sent his son to be instructed in philosophy and law—the two subjects which still promised some kind of a career to an intelligent youth. Benedict was scarcely that yet—he was certainly not more than twelve years old, so much of a child that his nurse, Cyrilla, was sent with him to take care of him. Doubtless she found some respectable people with whom to lodge, and indeed one feels some pity for the simple countrywoman, charged with such a heavy responsibility in a strange and, as it must have seemed to her, a very wicked great city.
So it seemed to the boy too. He studied, tried to carry out his father’s instructions as faithfully as he could, but all he saw around him inspired him with such a horror of the world and its ways that life became insupportable to him, and he resolved to fly into the wilderness and seek for God. He was only fourteen years old, but he knew with certainty that his life was not to lie in the crowded places. The devout nurse did not oppose his decision; his will was hers, and together they left Rome and took the road towards their old home. I fancy that the boy only then told her that Norcia was not to be their destination. Before reaching it he would find the place where Heaven willed him to stay.
Thus they travelled on, till they came to La Mentorella, one of the strangest spots in all those strange mountains. Its parent is Guadagnolo, the highest standing town in the whole of Romagna, perched on a peak 4,000 feet high, and yet shut in on every side with a wall of rock that completely hides it from the outer world. Just below the town a ledge of the precipitous rock juts out abruptly and affords foothold for a church and hermitage, built here in memory of the conversion of St. Eustace, the mighty hunter. He was called Placidus then, and was a soldier, a noble and a good man, a commander-in-chief much trusted by his Emperor, Trojan, and very upright and charitable in all his dealings with his fellow men. It has been thought by scientific historians that it is of him that Josephus spoke when recounting the exploits of the Tribune Placidus in the war with the Jews. There are links which seem to connect Placidus with the Octavian family, thus making him a relation of Augustus, and some writers see in the young Placidus, whom his father Tertullus confided to Benedict’s care, a descendant of the gallant soldier and hunter of Trojan’s time.
Be all that as it may, we do know that in the days of his pagan prosperity Placidus, hunting in the mountains, sighted a magnificent stag and pursued it madly through the narrow defiles till it fled up to the summit of an apparently inaccessible rock, and there turned and stood still, gazing down on him. Then Placidus fell on his knees in mortal fear, for between the creature’s antlers was a crucifix of fire from which shot forth rays of such brilliance that they lighted up all the hillside. And from it came a voice saying, “Placidus, why dost thou pursue me? I am Christ, whom thou hast hitherto served without knowing Me. Dost thou now believe?”
Yes, indeed, Placidus believed, and his whole house with him, and in the after years was privileged to suffer great things for his, till then, unknown Master. But for me, I never got much farther with his story than that blessed word, “Whom thou hast served without knowing Me.” When I read it I think of all the good, brave souls who thus served in past ages, and of those who are serving thus now, all over the world, truly and successfully, by the inner light which is imparted to all, of every clime and every faith, so long as they are sincere and have the “single eye” to which Christ promised that “the body shall be full of light.”
Placidus, on becoming a Christian, took (or began to use, it may have been his already) the name of Eustace. Either in his time or soon afterwards a church was built on the site of his vision, and the bell-tower of the “Madonna della Vulturella,” although its name has been shortened to “La Mentorella,” still carries on its summit a gigantic pair of antlers in commemoration of the miracle. Until a few years ago (it may be so even now) the Feast of St. Eustace attracted great crowds of pilgrims to the wild and beautiful spot. His day—the day of his martyrdom under Trajan, who, after all his great services, could not forgive him for refusing to sacrifice to the gods on the occasion of the triumph which Eustace had won for him—falls on September 20, that ominous “date which marks one of the blackest steps of history,” as Dom Guéranger says, and the martyr’s Feast has been combined with that of St. Michael on the 29th.
Then the lonely rocks of Guadagnolo resound to hymns and litanies, and at night are all lit up with bonfires, one to every little group of pilgrims, who make a point of passing the night there, each family sleeping round its own well-stacked fire. For the autumn nights are keen among those wild precipices, with two cold mountain streams, the Girano and the Siciliano, roaring along their deep beds in the impenetrable darkness below; and also the crags used to be the haunts of naughty brigands who might well covet the gold chains and silver buttons, the rich cloth and lace of the peasants’ costumes. So some of the men kept watch, with their old-fashioned muzzle-loaders across their knees, while their rosaries slipped through their fingers—and the Blessed Madonna and St. Eustachio were pleased with their faith and kept the robbers away, for never yet has the pilgrimage been disturbed by those sons of Belial.
It was to La Mentorella that Benedict came, in the year 494, and there he remained for a while, praying to be delivered from the snares of the world. And the faithful Cyrilla stayed with him, and, their little store of money being exhausted, begged food from the good people round about, for herself and him. For she had not the courage to send and ask for money at home, now that the boy had broken away from teachers and parents to follow the higher call. And the neighbours gave gladly, and lent her utensils to cook with. One day she was grinding meal in a little sieve, a stone bowl pierced with holes. To her dismay she let it drop, and it shivered in pieces at her feet. What should she say to the lender? Hearing her lamentations, Benedict came to see what was the matter. He picked up the broken pieces, and at once they welded themselves together in his hands, and he gave her back the sieve, whole. Her delight got the better of her prudence, or else some one witnessed the miracle, for immediately the people cried out that they had a saint in their midst, and they hung the stone bowl up in the church as a sacred thing.
Their laudations horrified Benedict, and he ran away, alone this time, to find a place where no such temptations could assault his humility. At last he came to a solitary ravine with steep rocky walls through which rushed a turbulent little river, which four hundred years earlier had served Nero unwillingly, being dammed up and made to spread out into pleasure lakes for his gardens a little farther on. All was deserted now, and Benedict, being an active, agile boy, crept along the face of the cliff and found a cave, so deep that the light of day never penetrated beyond the entrance; and here he remained, sure of the food his soul needed, solitary communion with God—and royally careless about sustenance for his body. But a kindred heart found him out. Lower down on the course of the Anio, a company of monks had established themselves on the ruins of Nero’s villa. There were many such communities then, living apart from the world to pray and do works of charity and penance, under no fixed rule, and therefore insufficiently organised, but many of them leading very holy lives all the same.
One of these monks of Sub Laqueum (as the place was called from the artificial lakes), Romanus by name, found out Benedict’s hiding-place, and took it upon himself to provide him with food. He told none of his companions about the ardent young recluse, but every day he cut his one loaf of bread in two, and going to the edge of the cliff he let down the half loaf on a string, to which he had attached a little bell so that Benedict should know when to come to the mouth of the cave and reach out to catch the bread.
Romanus had given him a hair shirt and a monastic habit made of skins. He slept on the bare ground and waged constant war on all the impulses of the flesh. That rebelled, fiercely. Many a temptation assailed him. The remembered beauty of one woman in Rome continually haunted him, and very nearly dragged him forth from his cave to go and find her; but when that thought came to him he pulled off his fur robe and rolled his young body in a clump of thorns that grew on the platform of his cave, till it was all one bleeding wound, and his soul regained the mastery.
STATUE OF ST. BENEDICT.In a cave at Subiaco, near Tivoli.
Seven centuries afterwards St. Francis came from Assisi to visit the spot. He knelt there long, and shed many tears over the thicket of thorns. Then he planted two rose trees there, and the thorns gave place to roses that have bloomed for eight hundred summers, and were blooming when I saw them, with never a thorn on their stems. But every leaf of their foliage has a little white line zig-zagging across it—to mark the flight of the defeated Serpent from St. Benedict’s Eden. There is a pretty story that tells how, after nearly three years, the hermit’s retreat was discovered. Sometimes the devil, in sheer spite (or maybe the chafing points of rock on which Romanus was letting down the bread) would cut the string, and then, as Romanus could not come back till the next day, poor young Benedict, his whole supply for twenty-four hours whirled away into the river below, would grow faint and hungry before his benefactor could reach him again.
The devil is always rampantly busy at holy seasons—it enrages him to see everybody trying to be good—and when Benedict had held out against him for three solid years, he selected Easter Sunday for one of these wicked tricks. Romanus’s string snapped, the loaf plunged into the river, and Benedict, always blessing God, resigned himself and went on with his prayers. The pangs of hunger made themselves felt with painful persistence, but he tried to take no notice of them. Not so his kind Creator. In His love for this faithful child He spoke to a good parish priest who was sitting down to his Easter dinner at that moment with a glad heart. “How canst thou enjoy these luxuries while a servant of God is pining for food?”
The good priest sprang up, gathered together all that he could carry, and, leaving his own dinner untouched, started out to find the suffering recluse. He knew not his name or his dwelling, but angels guided his steps and helped him to reach the inaccessible cave. There, instead of some aged penitent, he found a tall boy, with beautiful, serious eyes, and lithe and strong, though his body, clothed in tattered skins, was terribly thin.
Benedict was as much surprised as his visitor. The latter spread the good things before him and bade him eat.
“Nay, friend,” said Benedict, “thou bringest meat, eggs! How can I partake of such luxurious food in this season? It is Lent.”
“Lent!” replied the Priest. “No, indeed, my son! Lent is over. This is Easter Sunday!”
Then the boy fell to, rejoicing. He had lost count of the days in his solitude.
The priest stayed some time with him and questioned him of his way of life, and Benedict answered in all humility; and the visitor went away convinced of the truth proclaimed by the mysterious voice when it called him a servant of God.
Now some of the shepherds of that country—doubtless in seeking for some strayed kid of the goats—had caught sight of Benedict in his dark cave, and his matted hair and robe of skins had so terrified them that they fled, thinking they had seen a strange wild beast. Now their pastor told them about him, and the poor people began to come to him to ask for his prayers. And those who felt called to a higher life gathered themselves to him for guidance, and the fame of his sanctity and the miracles he wrought went abroad, so that certain monks of Vico Varo begged him to come and rule over them. He consented at last and came, but when they realized that he meant to enforce a strict rule instead of letting them follow their own varying inclinations, their admiration—it had never been love—turned to hatred. Satan entered in amongst them, and they resolved to poison him. When the fatal cup was handed to Benedict, he took it without a word—and made the sign of the Cross over it. It was shivered to fragments on the instant.
Then he left these false brethren and returned to his grotto, but never more to his solitude. Many came to him, some praying that he would guide their steps in religion, some to confide to him their sons to educate. This multitude could not be housed in the clefts of the rock, so he built twelve monasteries at Sub Laqueum, on the ruins of Nero’s villa, and placed in each twelve monks who bound themselves to live under certain plain and simple rules—much prayer, much labour, fasting and penance, active charity, life-long chastity, and finally, poverty, for no individual might own property of any kind. Thus began the monastic life of the West. Up to Benedict’s time, as I have said, the religious life was indeed led by many devout persons, but also by many who lacked true devotion and brought the calling into some disrepute. The founder par excellence appeared, and immediately it took on the character by which we recognize it now.
Its deepest and strongest foundation was in its humility. In Benedict nature had been wholly subdued; his self-abasement was complete. No vision of the future had been granted him as yet, no breath of prophecy had whispered that in the years to come thirty thousand monasteries in Europe would be called by his name.
Meanwhile his twelve little houses at Sub Laqueum—our Subiaco—prospered exceedingly, and the numbers of his subjects increased daily. The times were so terrible that men who loved God and His peace were overjoyed to find a spot where war and murder came not, and where they could serve God with quiet hearts. There were some such among the Barbarians themselves, and more than one Goth asked to be enrolled among Benedict’s spiritual children. All had to work, and the Goths, big honest fellows, but dense and unskilful, joined the band of builders and cultivators of the soil. The country was thickly wooded then, and there was much felling to be done. One day a Goth, hewing away at a tree, let his axe slip and fall into the lake. Immediately he began to weep and lament, for the implements were few and precious. Benedict came to him, saw what had happened, and made the sign of the Cross over the water. At once the heavy axe floated to the surface, and the Saint drew it forth and gave it back to the poor man, saying, “Ecce, labora, et noli contristare!” (“There, work, and be not afflicted!”)
“Symbolical words,” says Montalembert, “in which we find an abridgment of the precepts and examples lavished by the monastic order on so many generations of conquering races! ‘Ecce, labora!’”
In the miserable and confused condition of public affairs it was difficult for parents of the better classes to procure proper education for their sons, and as soon as the fame of Benedict’s holiness spread abroad, young boys of noble families were brought to him at Subiaco and confided to his care in the hope that they too would devote themselves to the service of God. Two of these, Placidus and Maurus, were especially dear to him and were destined to become in a special manner his disciples and helpers. Placidus, the younger of the two, was the son of Tertullus, the feudal lord of Subiaco and of many other towns, and a great benefactor to the infant community. But Benedict would allow no distinctions of rank to interfere with the training in obedience and humility which is the only sure foundation for the religious life, and the two young patricians had to perform their share of menial labour like all the rest.
One day Placidus had been sent to fetch water from the lake, and as he stooped to lift out his heavy pitcher he lost his balance and fell into the water, which at that spot formed a dangerous whirlpool. St. Benedict witnessed the accident, and turning to Maurus, who stood, horrified, beside him, said, “Go, my son, and save thy companion.”
Without an instant’s hesitation Maurus walked across the water with a step as firm as if it had been dry land, drew the drowning boy out of the whirlpool and set him safely on the bank. St. Gregory, in his life of St. Benedict, says, “To what shall I attribute so great a miracle? To the virtue of the obedience, or to that of the commandment?”
“To both,” says Bossuet; “the obedience had grace to accomplish the command, and the command had grace to give efficacy to the obedience.”
St. Gregory gives us a beautiful picture of St. Benedict’s loving training of these two predestined souls. He kept them always near him, and would walk along the woody banks of the Anio leaning on Maurus and leading Placidus by the hand, discoursing so wisely and yet so clearly that the appeal to the more mature intelligence of the one was as convincing as to the childlike mind of the other. They witnessed his many miracles trembled at the punishments that fell on some unfaithful members of the community, and stored up all his words in their hearts—Placidus to be the Apostle of Sicily and the first martyr of the Order, Maurus to become the founder of the religious life in France, where he died at the age of seventy, after having, as the Breviary puts it, “seen already more than one hundred of his spiritual children precede him to heaven.”
Those first years at Subiaco were very happy and consoling ones for St. Benedict, but wicked men, some envious of his fame, some the open enemies of all virtue, tried by all means in their power to injure him and corrupt his followers. He took no notice of their calumnies, was unmoved by the attempt of one wretch to poison him; as long as he only was attacked he went calmly on his way. But when the conspirators sent a crowd of abandoned women to invade the garden where the monks were working, he felt the time had come when he should depart and draw the attacks away from his beloved disciples. So, having set all things in order and adjured the mountain community to be faithful to its vows, he travelled southwards, surely with a heavy heart, and did not pause till he had put nearly a hundred miles between himself and his beloved retreat at Subiaco.
About eighty-five miles from Rome, where the ever-capricious Apennines sink to a rounded plain and rise in its centre in a natural fortress of rock, there stood, in Roman times, the little town of Cassinum, once the home of Varrus, whom Cicero called “sanctissimus et integerrimus,” one of those who served God without knowing Him. The place was in ruins when St. Benedict reached it, but he cared nothing for that; what arrested him was the sight of the poor country people climbing the hill to sacrifice to Apollo in the temple on the summit. Pagans yet! He stayed to teach them Christianity, and very soon the temple and grove of Apollo gave place to a church and monastery—the most famous in the world, the monastery of Monte Cassino.
St. Benedict must have possessed even more than the Saint’s usual gift of divine magnetism, for wherever he went eager disciples sprang up around him—many faithful, some few less so, but all irresistibly attracted to the man himself. As it had been at Subiaco, so it was here. Very quickly he converted the poor people of the district, signs and wonders too many to recount “confirming the word,” and his inexhaustible charity making the harried peasants feel that they had found a father, a doctor, a protector, in the benignly gentle monk. The great heart that was utterly empty of self felt for all their sorrows and hardships; the eyes that, as St. Gregory tells us, had already been opened to the vision of the Godhead, saw, as mortals do not see, into the hearts of men, and showed events taking place hundreds of miles away as clearly as those close by, so that when his monks returned from the missions on which he sent them, it was he who told them all they had said and done and thought on the way.
He seems to have understood that God would spare him further wandering, and accepted Monte Cassino as the cradle of the Order he was called to found. Here he composed the Rule which became the model of all succeeding Orders, and in its simple completeness contains the essence and ideal of the religious life. That, according to St. Benedict, must include prayer and praise and penance, labour, and unbounded charity, but it does not consist in them. They are its garment, its inevitable expression, so to speak, but the life is the life of the heart in constant union with God. He was opposed to all undue extremes in outward observances, though inflexible as to the keeping of the Rule. “Let this,” he said, “be arduous enough to give the strong something to strive for, but not so hard as to discourage the weak!”
He worked at Monte Cassino as if for eternity, yet it was revealed to him that forty years after his death the Lombards would destroy the convent and disperse the monks. It puzzles one to understand that perfect trust and obedience. The knowledge saddened him, but it never made him desist from his labours, so splendidly justified by after events. “I have obtained from the Lord this much,” he told the frightened disciples: “when the Barbarian comes he will take things, not lives—res, non animas.” But other Barbarians were overrunning the country, left now to its fate by its supine and helpless rulers in Constantinople. The Goths were everywhere; many, indeed, became devout followers of Benedict, but their Arian brethren pillaged and persecuted, burnt and ravaged, unchecked, and terribly did the people suffer. St. Benedict, who foresaw the great destinies of these northern races when they should become enlightened, stood between the conquerors and the conquered as judge and protector, and both in the end always bowed to his ruling.
There is a wonderful story that I must set down, because it shows his power over nature, both animate and inanimate things. To me it seems more impressive than all his other miracles, even those of restoring the dead to life. A particularly fierce Goth robber, named Galla, “traversed the country, panting with rage and cupidity, and made a sport of slaying the priests and monks who fell under his power, and spoiling and torturing the people to extort from them the little they had remaining. An unfortunate peasant, exhausted by the torments inflicted upon him by the pitiless Goth, conceived the idea of bringing them to an end by declaring that he had confided all that he had to the keeping of Benedict, a servant of God; upon which Galla stopped the torture of the peasant, but, binding his arms with ropes and thrusting him in front of his own horse, ordered him to go before and show the way to the house of this Benedict who had defrauded him of his expected prey. Both thus pursued the way to Monte Cassino, the peasant on foot, with his hands tied behind his back, urged on by the blows and taunts of the Goth, who followed on horseback.
“When they reached the summit of the mountain they perceived the Abbot, seated alone, reading at the door of his monastery. ‘Behold,’ said the prisoner, ‘there is the Father Benedict of whom I told thee.’
“Then the Goth shouted furiously to the monk, ‘Rise up, rise up, and restore quickly what thou hast received from this peasant!’ The man of God raised his eyes from his book, and, without speaking, slowly turned his gaze first on the Barbarian on horseback, and then upon the husbandman, bound, and bowed down by his cords. Under the light of that powerful gaze the cords which tied his poor arms loosed of themselves, and the innocent victim stood erect and free, while the ferocious Galla, falling on the ground, trembling and beside himself, remained at the feet of Benedict, begging the Saint to pray for him. Benedict called his brethren and directed them to carry the fainting Barbarian into the monastery and give him some blessed bread. And when he had come to himself the abbot represented to him the injustice and cruelty of his conduct, and exhorted him to change it for the future. The Goth was completely subdued.”
The picture of the holy Abbot sitting and reading in the doorway is one which recurs several times in his history, and it is good to know that the doorway is one of the very few fragments remaining of Benedict’s home at Monte Cassino. It still contains, I believe, an inscription to that effect. The Lombard destruction left this archway standing, and also the little tower whence Benedict’s bell called the monks to work and prayer. One loves even to touch the stones that knew his presence at Monte Cassino. Subiaco is full of him indeed, but it was at Monte Cassino that his greatest work was done; over its foreseen destruction he wept bitterly and it was there that he died.
A yet more notable encounter than the one with Galla took place at the arched doorway, in 542, one year before Benedict’s death. Totila, the Ostrogoth, swept down through Italy to retrieve the losses and defeats inflicted on his predecessor by Belisarius. It was a triumphal progress. He was on his way to Naples when the whim took him to see for himself the venerated prophet of the holy mountain. But first he wished to test the prophet’s powers. So he caused the captain of his guard to be dressed in all his own royal robes, down to the famous purple boots, gave him three noble counts for his attendants and a great escort of soldiers, and told him to go and pass himself off on Benedict as the real Totila. We are not informed how the unlucky captain regarded his mission—probably with fear and reluctance—but it failed dismally. As he approached the monastery, St. Benedict perceived him from afar, and called out, “My son, put off the dress you wear! It is not yours.”
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