The Astonished Prior. An Island Story.
NOT many years ago there was a young officer in the French Navy who had been brought up by religious parents, and who had never doubted, whilst he was still a child, that all they taught him was right and true. But as he grew into a man, he began, as most do who think at all, to consider whether there was any real foundation for that which he had been taught. He could believe there was a God, for he saw much in the things around him to convince him that it was more impossible there should be no God.
But several things he had learnt from his parents and his priest, troubled him greatly. Why did they tell him that a small wafer made of flour and water was suddenly transformed into God Himself, when the priest had spoken over it a few Latin words? Could that possibly be true? And if it were, there must be thousands of gods eaten by men. Other things appeared to him equally impossible, but he knew that he might not choose which he should believe, and which he should disbelieve. "I felt," he said, "as though my mind and my conscience were in a vice, so tightly held, that even to consider for a moment whether this or that were true in the Roman Catholic teaching was in itself a deadly sin." He trembled to think that he was on the high road to being an infidel—and that this road was the broad road which led to eternal destruction. He determined to think no more, but the thoughts came back by night and by day, as he walked the deck, or was alone in his cabin. He imagined that if his mind were put under a strict rule, his thoughts would trouble him less. He would like to have them all mapped out for him and fixed down to certain subjects. He determined to become a Trappist Monk. He was still young, with all his life before him—but eternity was before him also, and what were a few years in comparison with eternity!
Off the southern coast of France, surrounded by the blue waters of the Mediterranean, is a very small island. It consists chiefly of red rocks, with sufficient earth to serve as a foothold for ancient pines, and to furnish a bed for thick masses of myrtle growing close to the ground, and for bushes of pink cistus. Long, long ago, about 400 years after the birth of the Lord, a servant of God came to this island, and with a few friends, he built and governed a small monastery. Small as it was, it became, after some years, a burning and shining light in the darkness of the heathenism around.
For though the Roman Empire, of which the island formed a part, had begun to call itself Christian; it professed a Christianity little better than paganism, and for the most part, clergy and people loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. Do you remember a prayer in the English prayer-books, written by S. Chrysostom about the time when the Island Monastery was built? S. Chrysostom gives a terrible account of the state of those around him, and in other countries, who called themselves Christians. "I would rather," he said, "fall amongst thieves, than amongst bishops."
Yet, amongst these men and women who loved the darkness, there were some who loved the Saviour who had redeemed them. They knew Him very imperfectly, but they served Him with a devotedness that puts to shame most of those who now have better teaching and greater knowledge. Many of these servants of God, finding they must otherwise live amongst wars and tumults, or amongst rioting and drunkenness, fled from the world, and lived alone in dens and caves of the earth, or built for themselves quiet retreats where they could worship God together, and work for the good of their fellowmen. Would they not have been better able to do good to men had they lived amongst them? Sometimes it might have been so, but there was a service they could render, the greatest of all, which needed that they should be quiet and alone. These men and women, who knew the love of Christ, loved the blessed Word of God which tells of Him. Bibles could only be copied out, as you know, in those old times, and they believed they could in no way serve men so effectually as in providing them with Bibles.
In the little pine-clad island, a number of them were constantly employed in this work. An old Bible, copied by them more than 1,400 years ago, is still kept in the church of a town not far from the island. I do not know when the rule was made, but such a rule exists still, that every monk who enters the monastery is presented with a Latin Bible. Of course, there is no copying of Bibles there now, nor at any time since the invention of printing. The monks who now live in the island, take charge of some orphans, or work in the kitchen-garden, which fills almost the whole space between the belt of ancient pines. Those who are not employed in teaching are now—that is to say, for the last 20 or 30 years—under a rule of silence—they are Trappists.
To this island, the young sailor betook himself. He was there cut off from the restless world—which had become to him a sorrowful place, for he had found no peace for his soul—and he had lived amongst those who were walking in darkness and calling it light. When he arrived, the Bible was placed in his hands. He was to be one of the silent Trappists. As he had never been used to labour with his hands, he was allowed to spend his spare time in reading. All round the island stood formerly seven little chapels, the ruins of which remain. He had to walk round daily and repeat some prayers in each of these chapels. Between whiles, he sat on the rocks under the pine-trees with his Bible. He had never seen a Bible before. He looked anxiously through the New Testament to see if he could find there that the wafer becomes God when the priest consecrates it, and if he ought therefore to worship it. He found neither priest, nor wafer, nor consecration, but he read that the first Christians met together to break and eat bread, and to drink wine, quite simply, in remembrance of the Lord's death.
But in searching the pages of the Bible, there dawned upon him the marvellous light of the glory which the eye of man could never see, till the Spirit of God reveals it—the glory of the grace of the God who is Love. He read that Christ has loved us—us sinners—and washed us from our sins in His own blood. That God, for His great love wherewith He loved us, even when we were dead in sins, hath made us alive together with Christ—alive with the life of Christ Himself. He read that Christ has made peace, perfect peace, between the soul and God, by the precious blood of His Cross. That He died, the Just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God—bring us so near that we cannot be nearer; made already one with His beloved Son; loved by Him as His Son is loved; accepted according to that which Christ is in the eyes of His Father. It was, he said, as if the heavens were opened, and the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ shone down into the depths of his soul. He spent the days beneath the pine-trees in rejoicing and praising God. There alone, in the stillness of his island, the waves of the blue sea alone heard, gently washing the myrtle-clad rocks, he had nothing to withdraw his thoughts from his God and Saviour. Each day he found more precious treasures in the book of God.
Thus passed 365 days. He might then for the first time open his lips. He was to take the vows which bound him for life to the Island Monastery. He stood before the Prior and he spoke. But it was to say, "Since I came to the island, the Lord Jesus has saved me. I cannot remain; I must go into the world outside, and tell others of that which He has told me. I must tell other sinners of His precious blood, and His immeasurable love." The Prior was astonished, but he, and the other monks who were to receive the vows of the young sailor, spoke kindly to him, and told him he must do as his conscience directed him. They would not urge him to remain if he felt he ought to leave. And they wished him God-speed.
The young man landed from the island in the bright gay town on the opposite shore. He was now in the midst of talking men and women, and it seemed strange to him after the stillness of his peaceful island. It seemed strange and sad, for no one spoke of Christ, or of God, His Father. No one spoke of Heaven, or of the way there. They talked of pleasure, or business, or of the weather, or of one another. And he looked across the strip of sea to his quiet island, and said to himself, "What is the good of all the talking? I was happier when I was alone with God." But in time he found that amongst the empty and miserable hearts around him, there were some who would listen to the message of God. This comforted him, for he had many bitter sorrows to endure.
Although the monks had spoken so kindly, and had respected his conscience and his faith, his family determined to see him no more. The sister he so loved died without any last message to him. His letters were returned unopened, and he was henceforth to be an outcast from his old home. He learnt now what it was to suffer with Christ, and to drink of His cup. But his heart's desire was given him. He became a preacher of the Gospel he had learnt on the island rocks and is now the pastor of a church among the high Alps. Thus did God own the labours of the faithful men of olden days, who, in their island home, had loved and copied the Bible, and handed it down from generation to generation; so that even now, that well of living water is still open there, and thirsty souls may still drink of it. From that island, the Word of God was sent of old to distant lands. From thence did Patrick, the apostle of Ireland, bring it to the heathen Irish. From thence the light shone forth in the darkest days, and even now we have this example given us of the power of that Word that abideth for ever.
It was not the monastery, but the Word of God that shed the light abroad—"the only true, the only pure Christianity," writes the man whose history I have told you, "the only Christianity that saves is neither the law, nor is it a life of good works; it is not the practice of the most splendid virtues; it is not even the complete sacrifice of self and of all that self holds dear. THE TRUE, THE ONLY CHRISTIANITY IS CHRIST; HIS DIVINE, HIS ADORABLE PERSON SEEN AND TRUSTED BY THE LIVING FAITH OF THE HEART. And outside of Christ, outside of that faith which owns Him alone, which trusts in Him alone, there is but the mirage, there is but delusion and emptiness.”
"In finding Thee, all, all I found,
By faith this blessedness is mine;
Upon Thy breast in peace I rest,
For I am Thine, for I am Thine."
"The Springing Well" 1898.