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- Hypatia - 4/97 -


'They were but painted on the walls.'

'Ah!' said the abbot, as if suddenly relieved from a heavy burden. 'But how knewest thou them to be women, when thou hast never yet, unless thou liest--which I believe not of thee--seen the face of a daughter of Eve?'

'Perhaps--perhaps,' said Philammon, as if suddenly relieved by a new suggestion--'perhaps they were only devils. They must have been, I think, for they were so very beautiful.'

'Ah! how knowest thou that devils are beautiful?'

'I was launching the boat, a week ago, with Father Aufugus; and on the bank,....not very near,....there were two creatures....with long hair, and striped all over the lower half of their bodies with black, and red, and yellow....and they were gathering flowers on the shore. Father Aufugus turned away; but I .... I could not help thinking them the most beautiful things that I had ever seen....so I asked him why he turned away; and he said that those were the same sort of devils which tempted the blessed St. Anthony. Then I recollected having heard it read aloud, how Satan tempted Anthony in the shape of a beautiful woman .... And so .... and so .... those figures on the wall were very like .... and I thought they might be....'

And the poor boy, who considered that he was making confession of a deadly and shameful sin, blushed scarlet, and stammered, and at last stopped.

'And thou thoughtest them beautiful? Oh utter corruption of the flesh!--oh subtilty of Satan! The Lord forgive thee, as I do, my poor child; henceforth thou goest not beyond the garden walls.'

'Not beyond the walls! Impossible! I cannot! If thou wert not my father, I would say, I will not!--I must have liberty!--I must see for myself--I must judge for myself, what this world is of which you all talk so bitterly. I long for no pomps and vanities. I will promise you this moment, if you will, never to re-enter a heathen temple--to hide my face in the dust whenever I approach a woman. But I must--I must see the world; I must see the great mother-church in Alexandria, and the patriarch, and his clergy. If they can serve God in the city, why not I? I could do more for God there than here .... Not that I despise this work--not that I am ungrateful to you --oh, never, never that!--but I pant for the battle. Let me go! I am not discontented with you, but with myself. I know that obedience is noble; but danger is nobler still. If you have seen the world, why should not I? If you have fled from it because you found it too evil to live in, why should not I, and return to you here of my own will, never to leave you? And yet Cyril and his clergy have not fled from it....'

Desperately and breathlessly did Philammon drive this speech out of his inmost heart; and then waited, expecting the good abbot to strike him on the spot. If he had, the young man would have submitted patiently; so would any man, however venerable, in that monastery. Why not? Duly, after long companionship, thought, and prayer, they had elected Pambo for their abbot--Abba--father--the wisest, eldest-hearted and headed of them--if he was that, it was time that he should be obeyed. And obeyed he was, with a loyal, reasonable love, and yet with an implicit, soldier-like obedience, which many a king and conqueror might envy. Were they cowards and slaves? The Roman legionaries should be good judges on that point. They used to say that no armed barbarian, Goth or Vandal, Moor or Spaniard, was so terrible as the unarmed monk of the Thebaid.

Twice the old man lifted his staff to strike; twice he laid it down again; and then, slowly rising, left Philammon kneeling there, and moved away deliberately, and with eyes fixed on the ground, to the house of the brother Aufugus.

Every one in the Laura honoured Aufugus. There was a mystery about him which heightened the charm of his surpassing sanctity, his childlike sweetness and humility. It was whispered--when the monks seldom and cautiously did whisper together in their lonely walks-- that he had been once a great man; that he had come from a great city--perhaps from Rome itself. And the simple monks were proud to think that they had among them a man who had seen Rome. At least, Abbot Pambo respected him. He was never beaten; never even reproved--perhaps he never required it; but still it was the meed of all; and was not the abbot a little partial? Yet, certainly, when Theophilus sent up a messenger from Alexandria, rousing every Laura with the news of the sack of Rome by Alaric, did not Pambo take him first to the cell of Aufugus, and sit with him there three whole hours in secret consultation, before he told the awful story to the rest of the brotherhood? And did not Aufugus himself give letters to the messenger, written with his own hand, containing, as was said, deep secrets of worldly policy, known only to himself? So, when the little lane of holy men, each peering stealthily over his plaiting work from the doorway of his sandstone cell, saw the abbot, after his unwonted passion, leave the culprit kneeling, and take his way toward the sage's dwelling, they judged that something strange and delicate had befallen the common weal, and each wished, without envy, that he were as wise as the man whose counsel was to solve the difficulty.

For an hour or more the abbot remained there, talking earnestly and low; and then a solemn sound as of the two old men praying with sobs and tears; and every brother bowed his head, and whispered a hope that He whom they served might guide them for the good of the Laura, and of His Church, and of the great heathen world beyond; and still Philammon knelt motionless, awaiting his sentence; his heart filled- who can tell how? 'The heart knoweth its own bitterness, and a stranger intermeddleth not with its joy.' So thought he as he knelt; and so think I, too, knowing that in the pettiest character there are unfathomable depths, which the poet, all-seeing though he may pretend to be, can never analyse, but must only dimly guess at, and still more dimly sketch them by the actions which they beget.

At last Pambo returned, deliberate, still, and slow, as he had gone, and seating himself within his cell, spoke--

'And the youngest said, Father, give me the portion of goods that falleth to my share .... And he took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance with riotous living. Thou shalt go, my son. But first come after me, and speak with Aufugus.'

Philammon, like everyone else, loved Aufugus; and when the abbot retired and left the two alone together, he felt no dread or shame about unburdening his whole heart to him. Long and passionately he spoke, in answer to the gentle questions of the old man, who, without the rigidity or pedantic solemnity of the monk, interrupted the youth, and let himself be interrupted in return, gracefully, genially, almost playfully. And yet there was a melancholy about his tone as he answered to the youth's appeal--

'Tertullian, Origen, Clement, Cyprian--all these moved in the world; all these and many more beside, whose names we honour, whose prayers we invoke, were learned in the wisdom of the heathen, and fought and laboured, unspotted, in the world; and why not I? Cyril the patriarch himself, was he not called from the caves of Nitria to sit on the throne of Alexandria?'

Slowly the old man lifted his band, and putting back the thick locks of the kneeling youth, gazed, with soft pitying eyes, long and earnestly into his face.

'And thou wouldst see the world, poor fool? And thou wouldst see the world?'

'I would convert the world!'

'Thou must know it first. And shall I tell thee what that world is like, which seems to thee so easy to convert? Here I sit, the poor unknown old monk, until I die, fasting and praying, if perhaps God will have mercy on my soul: but little thou knowest how I have seen it. Little thou knowest, or thou wouldst be well content to rest here till the end. I was Arsenius .... Ah! vain old man that I am! Thou hast never heard that name, at which once queens would whisper and grow pale. Vanitas vanitatum! omnia vanitas! And yet he, at whose frown half the world trembles, has trembled himself at mine. I was the tutor of Arcadius.'

'The Emperor of Byzantium?'

'Even so, my son, even so. There I saw the world which thou wouldst see. And what saw I? Even what thou wilt see. Eunuchs the tyrants of their own sovereigns. Bishops kissing the feet of parricides and harlots. Saints tearing saints in pieces for a word, while sinners cheer them on to the unnatural fight. Liars thanked for lying, hypocrites taking pride in their hypocrisy. The many sold and butchered for the malice, the caprice, the vanity of the few. The plunderers of the poor plundered in their turn by worse devourers than themselves. Every attempt at reform the parent of worse scandals; every mercy begetting fresh cruelties; every persecutor silenced, only to enable others to persecute him in their turn: every devil who is exorcised, returning with seven others worsethan himself; falsehood and selfishness, spite and lust, confusion seven times confounded, Satan casting out Satan everywhere--from the emperor who wantons on his throne, to the slave who blasphemes beneath his fetters.'

'If Satan cast out Satan, his kingdom shall not stand.'

'In the world to come. But in this world it shall stand and conquer, even worse and worse, until the end. These are the last days spoken of by the prophets,--the beginning of woes such as never have been on the earth before--"On earth distress of nations with perplexity, men's hearts failing them for fear, and for the dread of those things which are coming on the earth." I have seen it long. Year after year I have watched them coming nearer and ever nearer in their course like the whirling sand-storms of the desert, which sweep past the caravan, and past again, and yet overwhelm it after all--that black flood of the northern barbarians. I foretold it; I prayed against it; but, like Cassandra's of old, my prophecy and my prayers were alike unheard. My pupil spurned my warnings. The lusts of youth, the intrigues of courtiers, were stronger than the warning voice of God; then I ceased to hope; I ceased to pray for the glorious city, for I knew that her sentence was gone forth; I saw her in the spirit, even as St. John saw her in the Revelations; her, and her sins, and her ruin. And I fled secretly at night, and buried myself here in the desert, to await the end of the world. Night and day I pray the Lord to accomplish His elect, and to hasten His kingdom. Morning by morning I look up trembling, and yet in hope, for the sign of the Son of man in heaven, when the sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the skies pass away like a scroll, and the fountains of the nether fire burst up around our feet, and the end of all shall come. And thou wouldst go into the world from which I fled?'


Hypatia - 4/97

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