"As to the Communion, the prospect of being rejected terrifies you, but is not that one proof the more that, contrary to your opinion, God does not leave you insensible?"
"Yes, but the idea of communicating alarms me none the less."
"I say to you again: if Jesus were indifferent to you, it would be just the same to you, to consume or not to consume the sacred species."
"All that does not convince me," sighed Durtal. "I do not know where I am; I am afraid of a confessor, of others, of myself; it is foolish, but it is stronger than I. I cannot gain the upper hand."
"You are afraid of the water; imitate Gribouille, throw yourself in boldly; look, suppose I write to La Trappe this very day to say you are coming; when?"
"Oh!" cried Durtal, "wait a while."
"To get an answer, we need two days each way; will you go there five days hence?"
And, as Durtal was astounded and silent,
"Is that settled?"
Then, at that moment, Durtal had a strange experience, as often at St. Severin, a sort of caressing touch and gentle push; he felt a will insinuate itself into his own, and he drew back disquieted at seeing he had a double self, to find he was no longer alone in the depth of his being; then he was inexplicably reassured, and gave himself up, and as soon as he had said "Yes" he felt immensely relieved; then passing from one extreme to the other, he was troubled at the idea that his departure could not take place at once, and was sorry that he had still to pass five days in Paris.
The abbe laughed. "But the Trappists must have notice, it is a simple formality, for with a word from me, you will be received at once, but wait at least until I have sent this word; I will post it this evening, so have no anxiety, and sleep in peace."
Durtal in his turn laughed at his own impatience. "You must think me very ridiculous," he said.
The priest shrugged his shoulders. "Come, you asked me about my little monastery; I must try to satisfy you. It is very small, if compared with the grande Trappe at Soligny, or the establishments at Sept Fonds, Meilleray or Aiguebelle, for there are only about ten choir fathers, and about thirty lay brothers or 'conversi.' There are also a certain number of peasants who work with them, and help them to till their land, and make their chocolate."
"They make chocolate!"
"That surprises you. How do you think they live? Ah! I warn you, you are not going into a sumptuous monastery."
"I like it so. But in regard to the stories of La Trappe, I suppose the monks do not greet each other with 'Brother, we must die,' and that they do not dig their graves every morning?"
"All that is false. They take no trouble about their graves, and they salute each other silently, since they are forbidden to speak."
"Then what am I to do if I need anything?"
"The abbot, the confessor, and the guest-master have the right of conversing with the guests, you will have to do with them alone; the others will bow when you meet them, but if you speak to them they will not answer."
"It is well to know that. What is their dress?"
"Before the foundation of Citeaux, the Benedictines wore, or so it is supposed, the black habit of Saint Benedict; the Benedictines properly so-called wear it still, but at Citeaux the colour was changed, and the Trappists, who are a twig of this branch, have adopted the white robe of Saint Bernard."
"Pray pardon all these questions, which must seem childish, but since I am about to visit these monks, I ought to be in some measure acquainted with the customs of their order."
"I am wholly at your disposition," replied the abbe.
Durtal asked him about the situation of the abbey itself, and he replied,
"The present monastery dates from the eighteenth century, but you will see in the gardens the ruins of the old cloister, which was built in the time of Saint Bernard. In the Middle Ages there was a succession of Blessed in this convent; it is a truly sanctified land, fit for meditation and regret.
"The abbey is situated at the bottom of a valley, according to the orders of Saint Bernard; for you know that if Saint Benedict loved the hills, Saint Bernard sought the low and moist plains wherein to found his convents. An old Latin line has preserved the different tastes of these two saints:
"'Bernardus valles, colles Benedictus amabat.'"
"Was it on account of his own personal liking, or for a pious end, that Saint Bernard built his hermitages in unwholesome and flat places?"
"In order that his monks, whose health was enfeebled by the fogs, might have constantly before their eyes the salutary image of death."
"The deuce he did!"
"I may add at once that the valley in which Notre Dame de l'Atre rises is now drained, and the air is very pure. You will stroll by delightful ponds, and I may recommend you, on the borders of the enclosure, an avenue of secular chestnuts, where you may take some refreshing walks at daybreak."
And after a silence the Abbe Gevresin continued,—
"Walk there a good deal, traverse the woods in all directions; the forests will tell you more about your soul than books: 'Aliquid amplius invenies in sylvis quam in libris,' wrote Saint Bernard—'pray and your days will seem short.'"
Durtal went away from the priest's house comforted, almost joyful; he felt at least the solace of a fixed decision, a resolution taken at last. He said to himself that the only thing now to be done was to prepare himself as best he could for the retreat, and he prayed and went to bed for the first time for months with his mind at rest.
But next day, when he woke, his mood changed, all his preconceived ideas, all his fears returned; he asked himself if his conversion were ripe enough to allow him to cut it separate, and carry it to La Trappe; the fear of a confessor, the dread of the unknown, assailed him afresh. "I was wrong to have answered so soon," and he asked himself, "Why did I say 'yes'?" The recollection of this word pronounced by his lips, conceived by a will which was still his own and yet other than his, came back to his mind. "It is not the first time that such a thing happened to me," he thought, "I have already experienced when alone in the churches unexpected counsels, silent orders, and it must be admitted that it is terrifying to feel this infusion into self of an invisible being, and to know that he can, if he choose, almost turn you out of the domain of your personality.
"But no, it is not that, there is no substitution of an exterior will to one's own, for one's free will is absolutely intact; neither is it one of those irresistible impulses endured by certain sick persons, for nothing is more easy than to resist it; it is still less a suggestion, since, in this case, there are no magnetic passes, no somnambulism induced, no hypnotism; no, it is the irresistible entrance into oneself of a strange will, the sudden intrusion of a precise and discreet desire, a pressure on the soul at once firm and gentle. Ah! again I am incorrect, and play the fool, but nothing can describe that close pressure, which vanishes at the least movement of impatience—it is felt but cannot be expressed.
"Its introduction is always attended by surprise, almost with anguish, since it does not make use of even an interior voice to make itself heard, and is formulated without the aid of words, all is blotted out, the breath which has thrilled you disappears. You would wish that this incitement should be confirmed, that the phenomenon should be repeated in order to be more closely observed, to try to analyze it and understand it, when lo! it is gone; you remain alone with yourself, are free not to obey, your will is unfettered and you know it, but you know also that if you reject these invitations you take on yourself unspeakable risks for the future.
"In fact," pursued Durtal, "it is an angelic influx, a divine touch, something analogous to the interior voice so well known by the mystics, but it is less complete, less precise, and yet it is quite as certain."
He ended his dreams concluding, "I am consumed and collared by myself, before being able to answer this priest, whose arguments would scarce persuade me, unless I had had this help, this unexpected succour.
"But then, since I am thus led by the hand, what have I to fear?"
He feared all the same, and could not be at peace with himself; then if he profited by the comfort of a decision, he was consumed for the moment by the expectation of his departure.
He tried to kill time in reading, but he had to admit once more that he could not expect consolation from any book. None came even distantly into relation with his state of mind. High Mysticism was so little human, soared at such heights far from our mire, that no sovereign aid could be expected from it. He ended by falling back on the "Imitation," in which Mysticism, placed within the reach of the crowd, was like a trembling and plaintive friend who stanched your wounds within the cells of its chapters, prayed and wept with you, and in any case compassionated the desolate widowhood of souls.
Unfortunately, Durtal had read so much, and was so saturated with the Gospels, that he had temporarily exhausted their sedative and soothing virtues. Tired of reading, he again began his courses in the churches. "And suppose the Trappists will not have me," he thought, "what will become of me?"
"But I tell you that they will receive you," said the abbe, whom he went to see. He was not easy till the day the priest handed him the answer from La Trappe.
"We will receive with pleasure, for a week, in our guest-house the retreatant whom you wish to commend to us, and I do not see at the moment any reason why the retreat should not begin next Tuesday.
"In the hope, Monsieur l'Abbe, that we shall also have the pleasure of seeing you again in our solitude, I beg to assure you that I am yours most respectfully,
"F. M. ETIENNE, "Guestmaster."
He read and re-read it, at once delighted and terrified. "There is no further doubt; it is irrevocable," he said, and he went at once in haste to St. Severin, having less need of prayer than of going near to Our Lady; of showing himself to her, paying her, as it were, a visit of thankfulness, and expressing his gratitude by his very presence.
He was taken by the charms of that church, its silence, the shadow which fell on the apse, from the height of its palm trees of stone, and he ended by caring for nothing and sinking on a chair, filled with one sole desire, not to enter again on the life of the streets, never to leave his refuge, never to move.
The next day, which was a Sunday, he went to the Benedictine nuns to hear High Mass. A black monk celebrated; he recognized a Benedictine when the priest chanted "Dominous vobiscoum," for the Abbe Gevresin had told him that the Benedictines pronounced Latin like Italian.
Though he was not inclined to like that pronunciation which took away from Latin the sonorous tones of its words, and turned after a fashion the phrases of that tongue into a ring of bells with their clappers muffled or their vases stuffed with tow, he let himself go, taken hold of by the unction, by the humble piety of the monk, who almost trembled with reverence and joy when he kissed the altar, and he had a deep voice, to which, behind the grating, answered the clear high voices of the nuns.
Durtal panted, listening to the fluid pictures of the Early Masters sketch and form and paint themselves on the air; he was affected to his very marrow, as he had formerly been during High Mass at St. Severin. He had lost that emotion now in that church, where the flower of melody had faded for him since he knew the Benedictine plain song, and he now found it again, or rather he took it with him from St. Severin to this chapel.
And for the first time he had a wild desire, a desire so violent that it seemed to melt his heart.
It was at the moment of the Communion. The monk, elevating the Host, uttered the "Domine non sum dignus." Pale, with drawn features, sorrowful eyes, and serious mouth, he seemed to have escaped from a monastery of the Middle Ages, cut out of one of those Flemish pictures where the monks are standing in the background, while, before them, nuns are praying on their knees with joined hands, near the donors, to the child Jesus on whom the Virgin smiles, while lowering her long lashes under her arching brow.
And while he descended the steps and communicated two women, Durtal trembled, and his desires went forth towards the ciborium.
It seemed to him that if he were nourished on that Bread, there would be an end of all his dryness and all his fears; it would seem to him that the wall of his sins, higher and higher from year to year, and now barring his view, would roll away, and at last he would see. And he was in haste to set off for La Trappe, that he too might receive the Sacred Body from the hands of a monk.
That mass gave him new strength like a tonic, he came out of the chapel joyful and firmer, and when the impression grew somewhat feebler in the course of hours, he remained perhaps less affected, but still resolute, joking in the evening with a gentle melancholy about his condition: "There are many people who go to Bareges or Vichy to cure their bodies, and why should not I go and cure my soul in a Trappist monastery?"
"I shall make myself a prisoner in two days," sighed Durtal; "it is time to think about packing. What books shall I take to help me to live down there?"
He searched his library, and turned over the mystical books, which had, by degrees, replaced profane works on the shelves.
"I will not talk of Saint Teresa," he thought; "neither she, nor Saint John of the Cross, would be indulgent enough to me in solitude; I have need of more pardon and consolation."
"Saint Denys the Areopagite, or the apocryphal book known under that name? He is the first of the Mystics, and perhaps has gone the furthest in his theological definitions. He lives in the rarefied air of the mountain tops, above the gulfs, on the threshold of the other world which he sees in part by flashes of grace, and he remains lucid, undazzled in the blaze of light around him.
"It seems that in his 'Celestial Hierarchies,' in which he brings out in procession the armies of heaven, and shows the meaning of angelic attributes and symbols, he has already passed the limits assigned to man, and yet in his 'Divine Names' he ventures even a step further, and then he raises himself into the super-essence of metaphysics at once calm and stern.
"He over-heats the human word to give it greater force, but when after all his efforts he endeavours to define the Indescribable, to distinguish those never to be confounded Persons of the Trinity who in their plurality never lose their unity, words fail on his lips, and his tongue is paralyzed under his pen; then tranquilly and without any astonishment he makes himself again a child, comes down from those heights among us, and in order to try and explain to us what he understands, he has recourse to comparisons with domestic life; and that he may explain the Trinity in Unity he notices how, if many torches be lighted in one hall, lights, though distinct, mingle in one, and are in fact no more than one.
"Saint Denys," thought Durtal, "is one of the boldest explorers of the eternal regions, but he would be dry reading at La Trappe."
"Ruysbroeck?" he thought—"perhaps, and yet I hardly am sure—I might put him in my bag as well as for a cordial the little collection distilled by Hello; as for the Spiritual Marriages, so well translated by Maeterlinck, they are disconnected and obscure, they stifle me, this Ruysbroeck oppresses me less. This hermit is singular, all the same, for he does not enter into us, but rather goes round about us; he endeavours, like Saint Denys, to arrive at God, rather in heaven than in the soul, but in wishing to take such a flight, he strains his wings, and stammers incomprehensibly when he comes down.
"We will leave him behind, then. Now let us see. Saint Catherine of Genoa? Her discussions between the soul, the body, and self-love are unmeaning and confused, and when in her 'Dialogues,' she treats of the operations of the interior life, she is greatly below Saint Teresa and Saint Angela. On the other hand her Treatise on Purgatory is clear. It declares that she alone has penetrated into the spaces of unknown sorrows, and that she has disentangled and taken hold of the joys; she has in fact succeeded in reconciling two contraries which seemed eternally repugnant; the suffering of the soul in its purification from sin, and the joy of the same soul, which at the very moment it is enduring frightful torment experiences immense happiness, for little by little it draws near to God, and feels His rays attract it more and more, and His love inundate it with such excess, that it would seem the Saviour desires nought but only it.
"Saint Catherine sets forth also that Jesus forbids heaven to none, that it is the soul herself who, deeming herself unworthy to attain it, flings herself by her own motion into Purgatory there to cleanse herself, for she has only one end, to re-establish herself in her primitive purity, only one desire, to attain her last end, by destroying herself, annihilating herself, losing herself in God.
"This is a conclusive study," murmured Durtal, "but not that which would lead to La Trappe. We must try again."
He touched other volumes in the book-cases.
"Here, for instance, is one which obviously I should use," he went on, as he took down the "Seraphic Theology" of Saint Bonaventure, "for he condenses the means of self-examination, of meditation for communion, of thoughts on death, then in these 'Selections' is a treatise on the Contempt of the World, whose terse phrases are admirable; it is the true essence of the Holy Spirit, a jelly of unction firm set—we will put that on one side.
"I shall hardly find a better help to remedy the probable weariness of solitude," murmured Durtal, turning over new ranks of volumes. He looked at the titles. "The Life of the Blessed Virgin," by M. Olier.
He hesitated, saying to himself, "Under a style which is like water with scarcely the chill off, there are some interesting observations, some tasteful comments. M. Olier has in a way traversed the mysterious territory of hidden designs, and has there discovered the unimaginable truths which the Lord is sometimes pleased to reveal to His saints. He has made himself the liege-man of Our Lady, and living near her has made himself also the herald of her attributes, the legate of her graces. His Life of Mary is certainly the only one which seems really inspired and is possible to read. Where the abbess of Agreda wanders, he alone remains vigorous and clear. He shows us the Virgin existing from all eternity in God, conceiving without ceasing to be immaculate, like the crystal which receives and reflects the rays of the sun, yet loses nothing of its lustre, and indeed shines with greater brightness, bringing forth without pain, but suffering at the death of her Son the pangs she would have borne at His birth. Then he gives us learned dissertations on Her whom he calls the Treasure-house of all good, the Mediatrix of love and impetration. Yes, but to converse with Her nothing is so good as the 'Officium parvum beatae Virginis,' and that," concluded Durtal, "I will put in my bag with my Prayer-book; we will not disturb M. Olier's volume."
"My stock begins to give out," he continued. "Angela of Foligno? Certainly she is a brasier at which one may warm one's soul. I will take her with me. What more—Tauler's Sermons? I am tempted to do so, for never has any treated better than this monk the most abstruse subjects with a more perfectly lucid mind. By aid of familiar images, humble analogies, he has rendered accessible the highest speculations of Mysticism. He is homely and deep, then he borrows a little from quietism, and, perhaps, it will be no bad thing to absorb, down there, a few drops of that mixture. Yet on the whole, no; I have rather need of nerve tonics. As to Suso, he is a remedy far inferior to Saint Bonaventure, or Saint Angela. I put aside also Saint Bridget of Sweden, for in her conversations with heaven she seems aided by a God morose and tired, who reveals to her nothing unexpected, nothing new.
"There is also Saint Magdalen of Pazzi, that voluble Carmelite whose work is a series of apostrophes. An exclamatory person, clever at analogies, expert in coincidences, a saint infatuated with metaphors and hyperboles. She talks directly with God the Father, and stammers out in ecstasy explanations of the mysteries revealed to her by the Ancient of days. Her books contain one sovereign page on the Circumcision, another magnificent one, entirely made up of antitheses, on the Holy Spirit, others, very strange, on the deification of the human soul, on its union with heaven, and on the part assigned in this operation to the wounds of the Word.
"These are inhabited nests; the eagle which is the symbol of Faith resides in the eyrie of the left foot; in the hole of the right foot resides the melancholy sweetness of the turtle-doves; in the wound of the left hand the dove ensconces herself, the symbol of surrender, and in the cavity of the right hand reposes the pelican, the emblem of love.
"These birds leave their nests and come to seek the soul that they may lead it to the nuptial chamber of the wound which bleeds in the side of Christ.
"Was it not also that Carmelite nun who, ravished by the power of grace, despised so greatly the certitude acquired by the way of the senses, as to say to the Lord: 'If I saw Thee with mine eyes, I should have Faith no more, because Faith ceases where evidence comes in'?
"All things considered," he said; "Magdalen of Pazzi, with her dialogues and contemplations, opens eloquent horizons, but the soul, snared in the bird-lime of its sins, cannot follow her. No; this saint cannot reassure me in the cloister.
"Ah!" he went on, shaking the dust from a volume in a grey cover; "ah! it is true I have The Precious Blood, of Father Faber." And he began to dream as he turned over its pages where he stood.
He remembered the impression, till now forgotten, produced on him when he read it. The work of this Oratorian was at least strange. The pages boiled over, ran forth tumultuously, carrying with them grandiose visions, such as Hugo conceived, developing historical perspectives such as Michelet loved to paint. In this volume was seen advancing the solemn procession of the Precious Blood, starting from the confines of humanity, from the origin of the ages, and it broke the bounds of the worlds, overwhelmed the nations, submerged history.
Father Faber was less a mystic, properly so-called, than a visionary and a poet; in spite of the abuse of rhetoric transferred from the pulpit to a book, he tore up souls by roots, carried them away on the rush of the stream, but when one regained footing, and sought to remember what had been heard and seen, one could recall nothing; on reflection one recognized that the theme of the work was very thin, too slender to have been executed by so noisy an orchestra, and there remained of that reading something distracting and feverish which made you uneasy, and made you think that this kind of book had only very distant relation to the heavenly fulness of the great mystics.
"No, not that," thought Durtal. "Now what have we selected? I keep the little collection of Ruysbroeck, the Life of Angela of Foligno, and Saint Bonaventure, and the best of all for my state of soul," he said, striking his forehead. He went back to his book-case, and seized a little book, which lay alone in a corner.
He sat down, and turned it over, saying, "Here is the tonic, the stimulant in weakness, the strychnine for failure of Faith, the goad which drives you in tears to the feet of Christ, the 'Dolorous Passion' of Sister Emmerich."
She was no chemist of the spiritual being, like Saint Teresa; she had nothing to do with our interior life; in her book she forgot herself, and left us on one side, for she saw only Jesus crucified, and wished only to show the stages of His agony, and to leave marked on her pages, as on the veil of Veronica, the imprint of the Holy Face.
Though she was of our time, for Catherine Emmerich died in 1824, this great work dates from the Middle Ages. It is a picture which seems to belong to the early schools of Franconia and Swabia. This woman was the sister of the Zeitbloms and the Gruenewalds, she had their clear visions, their vivid colouring, their wild scent; but she seemed to bring back also, by her care for exact detail, by her precise indication of places, the old Flemish Masters, Roger Van der Weyden and Bouts; she united in herself two currents, springing one from Germany, the other from Flanders, and this painting brushed in with blood, and varnished with tears, was transposed by her into a prose style which has no relation to any known literature, of which we can only find by analogy the ancestry in the panels of the fifteenth century.
Moreover, she was quite illiterate, had never read a book, nor seen a painting; she told quite plainly what she saw in her ecstasies.
The pictures of the Passion unfolded themselves before her while she was bed-ridden, crushed by suffering, bleeding from the wounds of her stigmata; she mourned and wept, brought to nothingness by love and pity, before the torments of Christ.
According to her words, which a scribe took down, Calvary rose, and the whole rascaldom of the soldiers rushed at the Saviour and spat on Him; frightful episodes took place where Jesus, chained to a pillar, twisting like a worm, under the lashes of the scourgers, then falling, looking with His failing eyes, at the fallen women who held Him by the hand, and turned away in disgust from His lacerated body, from His face covered with threads of blood as with a red net.
Then slowly, patiently, only stopping to sob, and cry for mercy, she described the soldiers tearing away the stuff which had stuck to the wounds, the Virgin weeping; her face livid and her lips blue, she related the agony of His bearing His Cross, how He fell on His knees, grew weaker and more worn when death came.
It was a frightful spectacle, told in its every particular, forming a sublime and frightful whole. The Redeemer was extended on a cross laid on the ground, one of the executioners placed a knee against His side, while another spread His fingers abroad, and a third hammered in a flat-headed nail as broad as a crown, and so long that the point came out behind the wood. And when the right hand was riveted the torturers saw that the left would not reach to the place they intended to pierce, therefore they attached a rope to the arm, pulled it with all their force, dislocated the shoulder, and the cries of the Saviour were heard above the blows of the hammer, His breast was seen heaving, while His body was anguished and furrowed by terrible shuddering.
The same scene was repeated to fix His feet. They also did not reach the place which the executioners had marked. The body had to be tied and the arms bound so as not to tear the hands from the wood, and then it was necessary to hang on the legs so as to lengthen them as far as the bracket on which they were to rest; all at once the entire body yielded, the ribs moved under the skin; the shock was so fearful, that the executioners believed that the bones would start, and burst the flesh, wherefore they made haste to rest the left foot on the right, but their difficulties began again, the feet turned over, and it was necessary to bore them with an auger to fasten them.
This continued till Jesus died, when Sister Emmerich fainted from terror, her stigmata bled afresh, and her wounded head rained blood.
In this book the whole pack of Jewish hounds was seen in full cry, the imprecations and shouts of the crowd were heard, the Virgin was shown trembling with fever, the Magdalen, beyond herself, was terrible by her cries, and towering above this lamentable group, Christ appeared, pale and swollen, His legs entangled in His robe, when He mounted to Golgotha clenching His broken nails on the cross as it slipped from His grasp.
This extraordinary visionary, Catherine Emmerich, also described the surroundings of these scenes, the landscapes of Judaea, which she had never visited, but have since been recognized as exact; without knowing it, without willing it, this illiterate woman became an unique and powerful artist.
"Wonderful visionary, wonderful painter," cried Durtal, "and also wonderful saint," he added, running over the life of this nun, placed as a preface to the book.
She was born in 1774, in the diocese of Muenster, the child of poor peasants. From her infancy she had conversations with the Virgin, and possessed the gift which also was given to Saint Sibylline of Pavia, Ida of Louvain, and more recently to Louise Lateau, of discerning, when she looked at, or touched them, objects which had been blessed from those which had not. She entered, as a novice, the Augustinian convent at Dulmen, made her profession when she was twenty-nine; her health failed and incessant pain tortured her, which she increased, for, like Blessed Lidwine, she obtained from Heaven permission to suffer for others, and succour the sick by taking their maladies. In 1811, under the government of Jerome Bonaparte, King of Westphalia, the convent was suppressed and the nuns dispersed. Infirm and penniless, she was carried to a room in an inn where she had to bear every sort of curiosity and insult. Christ added to her martyrdom in giving her the stigmata for which she asked; she could neither rise, nor walk, nor sit, could take no food but the juice of a cherry, but she was transported by long ecstasies. In these she visited Palestine, following the Saviour step by step, dictated with groans this fond book, then said with her death-rattle, "Let me die in shame with Jesus on the Cross," and died overwhelmed with joy, thanking Heaven for the life of suffering she had endured.
"Ah, yes; I will take the 'Dolorous Passion!'" cried Durtal to himself.
"Take the Gospels also," said the abbe, who came in meanwhile; "they are the heavenly phials from which you will draw the oil you need to dress your wounds."
"It will be equally useful, and truly in accordance with the atmosphere of La Trappe, to be able to read in the abbey itself the works of Saint Bernard, but they consist of unmanageable folios, and the abridgments and extracts in volumes of a more convenient form are so ill-chosen, that I have never had the courage to buy them."
"They have Saint Bernard at La Trappe, and will lend you the volumes if you ask them; but where are you from the spiritual point of view? How are you getting on?"
"I am melancholy, badly prepared and resigned. I cannot tell if weariness has come from my turning always on the same round, like a circus horse, but at this moment I am not suffering. I am persuaded that this change of place is necessary, and that it would be useless to hesitate. All the same," he said, after a silence, "it is very odd that I am going to imprison myself in a monastery, and in truth, in spite of myself, that astonishes me."
"I will admit," said the abbe, laughing, "that when I first met you at Tocane's, I never thought I was pointed out to direct you to a monastery; ah, you see I must evidently belong to that category of people whom I may call mere bridges, involuntary brokers of souls who are imposed on you for a certain end which you do not suspect, and of which even themselves are ignorant."
"Rather, if any one were a mere bridge in this matter," answered Durtal, "it was Tocane, for it was he who brought us together, and we kick him away as soon as he has finished his unconscious task; it was evidently designed that we should know each other."
"That is true," said the abbe, with a smile; "now I do not suppose I shall see you again before you start, for I go to-morrow to Macon, where I shall stay five days, time to see my nephews and to sign some law papers: at any rate keep up your courage, and do not forget to send me news of yourself. Write to me without much delay, that I may find your letter when I return to Paris."
And as Durtal thanked him for his constant kindness, he took his hand and held it in his own.
"Say nothing about that," he said; "you have only to thank Him, whose fatherly impatience has broken the obstinate slumber of your Faith; you owe thanks to God only.
"Thank Him in getting rid of your nature as soon as possible, and leaving the house of your conscience empty for Him. The more you die to yourself the better will He live in you. Prayer is the most powerful ascetic means by which you can renounce yourself, empty yourself and render yourself humble in this matter; pray therefore without ceasing at La Trappe. Implore our Lady especially, for like myrrh which consumes the proud flesh of wounds, she heals the ulcers of the soul; I on my side will pray for you as best I can; you can thus in your weakness lean, so as not to fall, on that firm and protecting pillar of prayer of which Saint Teresa speaks. Once again, a safe journey to you; we shall meet soon again, my son, good-bye."
Durtal remained much disturbed. "It is most tiresome," he thought, "that this priest is leaving Paris before me, for indeed if I have need of spiritual help or counsel, to whom shall I go? It is clearly written that I must end as I have begun, alone, but ... but ... solitude under these conditions is alarming. I am no spoilt child, whatever the abbe may say."
Next morning Durtal awoke ill; furious neuralgia bored his temples like a gimlet; he tried to stop it with antipyrine, but this medicine in a large dose put his stomach out of order without abating the strokes of the machine which penetrated his skull. He wandered about his rooms, changing from one seat to another, coiling himself up in an arm-chair, getting up to lie down again, jumping from his bed in fits of sickness, upsetting his furniture from time to time.
He could assign no precise cause for this attack; he had slept his fill, and had not exceeded in any way the night before.
He thought, with his head in his hands, "There are still two days counting to-day before I leave Paris, and very fit I am for it! I shall not be in a state to travel by train, and if I travel, the food at La Trappe will finish me."
He had a minute's comfort from the idea that through no fault of his own he might perhaps avoid his painful duty, and remain at home; but the reaction was immediate; he understood that if he did not go, he was lost; the vacillation of his soul had become chronic, the crisis of disgust of self, the acute regret of an effort consented to with pain, and suddenly missed, the certainty that it would only be postponed for a time, that he would have to pass again through alternations of revolt and terror, and begin again to fight with himself for conviction.
"Admitting that I am not in a state to travel, I have always the resource of making my confession to the abbe when he returns, and of communicating in Paris," he thought, but he shook his head, saying to himself once more that he felt and knew that was not his duty. "But then," he said to God: "since Thou dost implant this idea in me so violently that I cannot even discuss it, in spite of its entire common sense—for after all it is not necessary to immure myself in a Trappist monastery in order to reconcile myself to Thee—then let me go!"
And he spoke to God quietly.
"My soul is an evil place, sordid and infamous; till now it has loved only perverse ways; it has exacted from my wretched body the tithe of illicit pleasures and unholy joys, it is worth little, it is worth nothing, and yet down there near Thee, if Thou wilt succour me, I think that I shall subdue it, but if my body be sick, I cannot force it to obey me; this is worse than all, I am disarmed if Thou do not come to my aid.
"Take count of this, O Lord; I know by experience that when I am ill-fed, I have neuralgia; humanly, logically speaking, I am certain to be horribly ill at Notre Dame de l'Atre; nevertheless, if I can get about at all, the day after to-morrow, I will go all the same.
"In default of love, this is the sole proof I can give that I truly desire Thee, that truly I hope and believe in Thee, but then, O Lord, aid me."
He added sadly, "Ah! indeed I am no Lidwine or Catherine Emmerich, who when Thou didst strike them cried out, More, more!—Thou dost scarce touch me, and I protest; but what wouldest Thou? Thou dost know better than I; physical suffering breaks me down, drives me to despair."
He went to sleep at last to kill the day in bed; slumbering to wake again suddenly from frightful nightmares.
The next day his head seemed empty and his heart feeble, but his neuralgia was less violent. He rose, saying to himself that he must eat, though he was not hungry, for fear his pain should return. He went out and wandered in the Luxembourg, saying to himself that he must arrange his time, that after breakfast he would visit St. Severin, then he would go home and pack, and afterwards finish the day at Notre Dame des Victoires.
The walk did him good, his head was lighter, and his heart free. He went into a restaurant, where because of the early hour nothing was ready; he spent the time before a newspaper, on a bench. How often he had held papers thus without reading them, how many evenings he had waited in cafes with his nose in an article, thinking of other matters, at those times especially when he was striving with his vices; when Florence appeared to him, still keeping the clear smile of a little girl on her way to school, her eyes cast down, her hands in the pockets of her apron.
Suddenly the child changed into a ghoul who whirled round him wildly, and made him silently understand the horror of his desires....
All that was now far distant; almost in one day the charm was broken, without any real strife or true effort, without inward struggles; he had abstained from seeing her, and now when she roused his memory again she was no more in fact than a recollection odious and sweet.
"After all," thought Durtal, as he cut up his beefsteak, "I wonder what she thinks of me; she must certainly suppose me dead or lost; happily I have never met her, and she does not know my address.
"Well," he went on, "there is no use in stirring the mud, it will be time to cleanse it when I am at La Trappe," and he shuddered, for the idea of the confessor again took root in him, and he was obliged to tell himself for the twentieth time that the expected never happens, and to declare that he should find some good fellow of a monk who would listen to him; then he was afraid again, putting things at their worst, and fancying himself turned out, like a mangy dog.
He finished his breakfast, and went to St. Severin; there the crisis declared itself, the overcharged soul gave way, struck down by a congestion of sadness.
He lay on a chair in such a state of depression that he could think no more, he remained inert without the power of suffering, till little by little the soul, recovered from its torpor, came to itself in a flood of tears.
These tears gave him solace; he wept over his lot, thought himself so unhappy, so worthy of pity, that he hoped still more for help, yet he dare not address himself to Christ, whom he thought less accessible, but he spoke in low tones to the Virgin, murmuring that prayer in which Saint Bernard reminds the Mother of Christ that never in human memory was it heard that she abandoned any of those who sought her aid.
He left St. Severin, consoled and more resolved, and, when once at home, was taken up with preparations for departure. Afraid that he would find nothing he wanted down there, he determined to stuff his portmanteau full; he crammed into the corners sugar, packets of chocolate, that he might try to deceive if needful the anguish of a fasting stomach, took towels thinking there would be few at La Trappe, prepared a stock of tobacco and matches; then besides books, paper, pencils, ink, packets of antipyrine, a phial of laudanum, which he wrapped in handkerchiefs and wedged into his slippers.
When he had strapped his portmanteau, he said to himself, looking at the clock: "To-morrow at this time I shall be jolting in a cab, and my seclusion will be near at hand; never mind, I shall do well, in anticipation of bodily ailment, to ask for the confessor as soon as I get there, and suppose that turns out badly, I shall have time to make arrangements and take the train back at once.
"All the same this will not prevent my having a wretched moment this evening when I enter Notre Dame des Victoires," but his anxieties and emotions vanished when the hour of Benediction came. He was seized by the giddy infection of the church, and he wrapped, steeped, and lost himself in the prayer which arose from all those souls, in the chant which went up from every mouth, and when the monstrance was brought forward to make its sign in the air, he felt a vast peace descend upon him.
At evening as he undressed he sighed: "To-morrow I shall lie down in a cell, amazing when I think of it! I should have considered anyone mad, who, a few years ago, had prophesied that I should take refuge in a Trappist monastery; yet now I am going there of my own accord, and yet no, I am going driven by an unknown power, I am going as a whipped cur.
"After all, what a symptom of the time it is! Society must indeed be unclean, if God has no longer the right to be hard, and is reduced to pick up what He finds, and to content Himself with gathering to Himself people like me!"
Durtal awoke, gay and brisk, astonished at not hearing himself groan, when the moment had come in which he should set off for La Trappe; he was wonderfully reassured. He tried to recollect himself, and to pray, but he felt his thoughts more scattered and wandering than usual; he remained indifferent and unmoved. Surprised at this result, he tried to examine himself, and touched the void; he was slack that morning, in one of those sudden dispositions in which a man becomes a child again, incapable of attention, in which the wrong side of things disappears, and everything distracts.
He dressed hastily, got into a cab, was too early at the station; and there experienced a perfectly childish attack of vanity. Looking at the people who hurried through the waiting rooms, thronged the ticket offices, or resignedly followed their luggage, he was not far from admiring himself. "If these travellers who think only of their pleasures or their business, knew where I am going," he thought.
Then he reproached himself for the stupidity of these reflections, and as soon as he was settled in his compartment, in which he chanced to be alone, he lighted a cigarette, saying to himself, "Let us profit at least by the time there is still for smoking," and he began to wander, to dream about the position of the monastery, and rove about the neighbourhood of La Trappe.
He remembered that a review had recently estimated the number of nuns and monks in France at two hundred thousand.
"Two hundred thousand persons, who, in such an epoch, have understood the wickedness of the struggle for life, the filth of sexual relations, the horror of lyings-in, those are they who save the honour of the country," he thought.
Then, passing at a bound from cloistered souls to the treatises he had put in his portmanteau, he went on: "It is, all the same, curious how completely the temperament of French art rebels against Mysticism!
"All exalted writers are foreigners. Saint Denys the Areopagite was a Greek; Eckhart, Tauler, Suso, Sister Emmerich, were Germans; Ruysbroeck came from Flanders; Saint Teresa, Saint John of the Cross, Saint Marie d'Agreda, were Spaniards; Father Faber was English; Saint Bonaventure, Angela of Foligno, Magdalen of Pazzi, Catherine of Genoa, Jacopo de Voragine, were Italians....
"Ah!" he said, struck by the last name he had cited, "I ought to have brought his Golden Legend in my bag; how was it I did not remember it, for that book is, in fact, the very crowning work of the Middle Ages, the stimulant for hours rendered languid by the prolonged uneasiness of fasting, the simple aid of pious vigils? For the most incredulous souls of our time, the Golden Legend at least still seems like one of those pure parchments, on which simple illuminators painted the faces of saints with gum water, or white of egg on golden backgrounds. Jacopo de Voragine is the Jehan Fouquet, the Andre Beaunevue, of literary miniature, of mystic prose!
"It is quite absurd to have forgotten that book, for it would have made me pass precious days, like those of old, in La Trappe.
"Yes, it is strange," he thought, returning on his thoughts, and coming back to his first idea; "France can count religious authors, more or less celebrated, but very few mystical writers, properly so-called, and it is just the same also in painting. The true Early Masters are Flemish, German or Italian, none are French, for our Burgundian School descended from the Flemish.
"No, it cannot be denied, the genius of our race cannot easily follow and explain how God acts when He works in the central depths of the soul, which is the ovary of thought, the very source of conception; it is refractory at explaining, by the expressive power of words, the crash or the silence of grace; bursting forth in the domain which is wasted by sin, it is inapt at extracting from that secret world, works of psychology like those of Saint Teresa and Saint John of the Cross, works of art, like those of Voragine or Sister Emmerich.
"Besides that our field is scarcely arable, and our soil harsh, where shall we now find the labourer who sows and harrows it, who prepares not even a mystical harvest, but even any spiritual fruit, capable of assuaging the hunger of the few who stray and are lost, and fall from inanition in the icy desert of our time?
"He who should be the cultivator of that land, the farmer of souls, the priest, has not strength to clear the ground.
"The seminary has made him arbitrary and puerile, life outside has made him lukewarm. Therefore it seems that God has withdrawn Himself from him, and the proof of this is that He has taken away all ability from the priesthood. There are no priests now who have talent, either in the pulpit or in books; the laity have inherited that grace which was so common in the Church of the Middle Ages. Another example proves it still more, priests make so few conversions. In these days the being who pleases Heaven does without them, the Saviour Himself strikes him down, handles him, works directly on him.
"The ignorance of the clergy, their want of education, their unintelligence of their surroundings, their dislike for Mysticism, their incomprehension of art, have taken away all their influence on the aristocracy of souls. Their only action is now on the childish brains of bigots and pretenders; and this is no doubt providential; it is better so, for if the priest became the master, if he succeeded in raising and vivifying the wearisome tribe he manages, it would be like a waterspout of clerical stupidity beating down on a country, would be the end of all literature and all art in France.
"To save the Church there remains the monk, whom the priest detests, for the life of the cloister is a constant reproach to his own existence," continued Durtal; "always supposing that my illusions are not again destroyed when I see a monastery ... but no, I am lucky; I have discovered in Paris one of those few abbes who is neither indifferent nor a pedant; why should I not, in an abbey, come into contact with authentic monks?"
He lighted a cigarette, and looked at the landscape from the carriage window; the train was passing through fields in front of which the telegraph wires danced in puffs of steam; the landscape was flat and uninteresting. Durtal fell back sulkily in his corner.
"The arrival at the convent disturbs me," he murmured; "since there are no useless words to proffer, I shall confine myself to giving his letter to the Father Guestmaster; ah! and then all will arrange itself."
He felt, in fact, a perfect calm, and was astonished at not finding in himself any disgust or fear, at being almost in high spirits: "Well, my good priest was right in declaring that I was creating monsters in advance;" and he thought of the Abbe Gevresin, was surprised that long as he had visited him, he knew nothing whatever of his antecedents, that he was no more intimate with him than on the very first day; "In fact, it only rested with me to question him discreetly, but the idea never entered my head: it is true that our intercourse has been strictly limited to matters of religion and art; this perpetual reserve does not create very thrilling friendships, but it institutes a sort of Jansenism of the affections which is not without charm.
"In any case that ecclesiastic is a holy man; he has not even that manner at once caressing and reserved of other priests. Apart from certain gestures, his habit of rolling his arms in his cincture, of wrapping his hands in his sleeves, of liking to walk backwards when in conversation; apart from his innocent mania of interlarding his phrases with Latin, he does not recall either the attitude or the unfashionable speech of his brethren. He loves mysticism and plain song; he is exceptional, and therefore he must have been also carefully chosen for me in heaven.
"Ah well! we must be getting near," he sighed, looking at his watch, "I am beginning to feel hungry; come, that is all right, we shall be at Saint Landry in a quarter of an hour."
He strummed on the windows of the carriage, saw the fields and woods fly past, smoked a cigarette or two, took his bag from the rack, at last arrived at the station and got out.
Close to the tiny station he recognized the inn of which the abbe had told him. He found a good woman in the kitchen who said, "All right, sir, sit down, they will put the horse to while you breakfast."
He fed himself on uneatable things, they brought him a calf's head forgotten in a tub, some cutlets that were high, vegetables blackened with gravy from the stove.
In his present mood he was amused at this infamous meal, fell back upon a thin wine which rasped his throat, and resignedly drank coffee which left a sediment of peat at the bottom of the cup.
Then he climbed into a jolting car driven by a young man, and the horse went off at a smart pace through the village and into the country.
On the way he asked the driver for some information about La Trappe, but the peasant knew nothing. "I often go there," he said, "but never enter, the carriage stays at the gate, so you see I can tell you nothing."
They went for an hour rapidly through the lanes, and the peasant saluted a roadmaker with his whip, and said to Durtal,
"They say that the eminets eat their bellies."
And as Durtal asked what he meant,
"They are idle dogs, they lie all the summer on their bellies in the shade."
And he said no more.
Durtal thought of nothing; he digested and smoked, dizzy with the rumbling of the carriage.
At the end of another hour they came into the heart of the forest.
"Are we near?"
"Oh, not yet!"
"Can we see La Trappe from a distance?"
"Oh no, you must have your nose just over it to see it, it is quite in a bottom, at the end of a lane, like that," said the peasant, pointing to a grassy lane into which they turned.
"There is a fellow coming from the place," he said, pointing out a vagabond, who was crossing the copse at a great pace.
And he explained to Durtal that every beggar had a right to food and even to lodging at La Trappe; they gave them the ordinary fare of the community in a room close to the brother porter's lodge, but did not let them into the convent.
When Durtal asked him the opinion which the villagers round about had of the monks, the peasant was evidently afraid of compromising himself, for he answered,
"Some say nothing about them."
Durtal began to be rather weary, when suddenly as they turned out of a lane, he saw an immense building below him.
"There is La Trappe!" said the peasant, gathering his reins for the descent.
From the height where he was, Durtal looked over the roofs, and saw a large garden, with thickets, and in front of them a formidable crucifix.
Then the vision disappeared, the carriage again went through the wood, descending by zig-zag roads where the foliage intercepted the view.
They came at last, by long circuits, to an open place, at the end of which rose a wall with a large gate in the middle. The carriage stopped.
"You have only to ring," said the peasant, showing Durtal an iron chain along the wall; and he added,
"Shall I come for you again to-morrow?"
"Then you remain here?" and the peasant looked at him with astonishment, turned about, and drove up the hill.
Durtal remained as one crushed, his portmanteau at his feet, before the door; his heart beat violently; all his assurance, all his enthusiasm, had vanished, and he stammered: "What will happen to me within?"
And with a swift feeling of dread, there passed before him the terrible life of the Trappists; the body ill-nourished, exhausted from want of sleep, prostrate for hours on the pavement; the soul trembling, squeezed like a sponge in the hand, drilled, examined, ransacked even to its smallest folds; and at the end of its failure of an existence, thrown like a wreck against this rude rock, into the silence of a prison, and the dreadful stillness of the tomb!
"My God, my God, have pity upon me!" said he, as he wiped his brow.
Mechanically he looked around, as if he expected some help; the roads were deserted and the woods were empty; no sound was heard in the country, or in the monastery.
"At any rate I must make up my mind to ring;" and, his limbs sinking under him, he pulled the chain.
The sound of the bell, hard, rusty, grumbling, sounded on the other side of the wall.
"Get up and don't be a fool," he said to himself, as he heard the clatter of a pair of sabots behind the door.
This opened, and a very old monk, clad in the brown cloth of the Capuchins, looked at him inquiringly.
"I come to make a retreat, and I wish to see Father Etienne."
The monk bowed, took up the portmanteau, and made a sign to Durtal to follow him. He went with bent head and short steps across an orchard. They reached a grating, passed on the right of the vast building a sort of dilapidated chateau, flanked by two wings advancing on a court.
The brother entered the wing close to the grating. Durtal followed him along a corridor into which several grey doors opened; on one of these he read the word "Auditorium." The Trappist stopped before it, lifted the wooden latch, ushered Durtal into the room, and after some minutes he heard repeated calls on the bell.
Durtal sat down and looked at this gloomy chamber, for the window was half closed by shutters. There was little furniture; the most important a dining-table with an old cover; in the corner, a "prie-Dieu" above which was nailed a figure of Saint Antony of Padua rocking the infant Jesus in his arms; a large crucifix on the other wall, and here and there were placed two high-backed chairs and four ordinary chairs.
Durtal took from his pocket-book the letter of introduction to the father. "What sort of reception will he give me?" he asked himself; "he at any rate can speak; well, we shall soon see," he said, as he heard steps.
A monk in white with a black scapular whose two ends fell, one on his shoulders, the other on his breast, appeared; he was young and smiling.
He read the letter, then he took Durtal's hand, and led him in silent astonishment across the court to the other wing of the building, opened a door, dipped his finger in a holy-water stoup, and offered it to him.
They were in a chapel. The monk invited Durtal by a sign to kneel on a step before the altar, and he prayed in a low voice; he then rose, returned slowly to the threshold, offered Durtal holy water again, still without opening his lips, and leading him by the hand they went the way they came to the Auditorium.
There, he inquired after the health of the Abbe Gevresin, seized the portmanteau, and mounted an immense staircase falling into ruin. At the top of this staircase, which had only one story, there extended a vast landing bounded at each of its extremities by a door.
Father Etienne entered that on the right, crossed a broad vestibule, and led Durtal into a room, which a ticket printed in large letters placed under the invocation of St. Benedict, and said, "I am sorry, sir, to be only able to put at your disposal this room, which is not very comfortable."
"But it will do very well," said Durtal, "and the view is charming," he continued, approaching the window.
"At least you will be in good air," said the monk, opening the casement.
Below stretched the orchard through which Durtal had passed under the conduct of the brother porter. An enclosure full of apple trees stunted and clipped, silvered by lichens, and gilt by moss; then beyond the monastery, and above the walls, rose fields of clover intersected by a great white road, extending to the horizon, which was notched by the foliage of trees.
"You will see, sir," Father Etienne went on, "if you need anything in this cell, and tell me quite simply, will you not? for otherwise we should heap up regret for both of us, for you who have only to ask for what might be useful to you, for me who should only discover it later and be sorry for my forgetfulness."
Durtal looked at him reassured by this frank greeting; he was a young priest, about thirty years old. His face bright, and finely cut, was streaked with red fibres on the cheeks; this monk wore a beard, and round his shaven head was a crown of brown hair. He spoke somewhat rapidly, and smiled, with his hands pushed into the large leathern belt round his waist. "I will come back directly, for I have some important work to finish," he said; "try to make yourself at home as much as possible, and if you have time glance over the rule which you have to follow in this monastery—it is written on one of these cards on the table; we will talk about it after you have mastered it, if you like."
And he left Durtal alone.
He soon made an inventory of the room; it was very high and extremely narrow like a gun-barrel, the door was at one end, the window at the other.
At the bottom, in a corner, near the casement, was a little iron bed, and a small round table in chestnut wood. At the foot of the bed which stood along the wall was a prie-Dieu in faded rep, upon which was a crucifix, and a branch of dried fir below it; on the same side was a table of white wood covered with a towel, on which were placed an ewer, a basin, and a glass. On the opposite wall was a wardrobe, and by the fireplace, on the mantelpiece of which a crucifix was placed, was a table opposite the bed near the window; three straw chairs completed the furniture of this room. "I shall never have water enough to wash in," thought Durtal, gauging the miniature jug, which held about a pint; "since Father Etienne shows himself so obliging, I must ask him for a larger ration." He unpacked his portmanteau, undressed, put on flannel instead of his starched shirt, arranged his toilet things on the washing-stand, folded his linen in the wardrobe; then sat down, looked around the cell, and thought it sufficiently comfortable, and above all very clean. He then went towards the table on which were laid a ream of ruled paper, an inkstand, and some pens; he was grateful for this attention of the monk, who knew no doubt by the Abbe Gevresin's letter that his business was writing, opened two volumes bound in leather and shut them again. The one was "The Introduction to the Devout Life," by Saint Francis de Sales, the other was "Manresa," or "The Spiritual Exercises" of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, and he arranged his own books on the table.
Then he took up, just as it came, one of the cards spread on the table and read:—
"Exercises of the Community for ordinary days—from Easter to the Invention of the Cross in September.
Rise. 2. Prime and Mass. 5.15. Work after the Chapter. End of work and leisure time. 9. Sext. 11. Angelus and Dinner. 11.30. Siesta after Dinner. End of Siesta. 1.30. None and work, five minutes after waking. End of work and leisure. 4.30. Vespers followed by prayer. 5.15. Supper and leisure. 6. Compline. 7.25. Retire to rest. 8."
He turned the card, and on the other side was a new horary, entitled:—
"Winter Exercises, from the Invention of the Cross in September to Easter."
The hour of rising was the same, but bed-time was an hour earlier; dinner was changed from 11.30 to 2; siesta and supper at 6 o'clock were suppressed; the canonical hours were the same, except vespers and compline, which were changed from 5.15 and 7.25 to 4.30 and 6.15.
"It is not pleasant to drag oneself from bed in the middle of the night," sighed Durtal, "but I am inclined to think that the Retreatants are not subject to this rule of wakefulness," and he took up another card. "This must be the one intended for me," he said, reading the head of the card:—
Rules of Retreat from Easter to the Invention of the Cross in September.
Let us look at these rules rather more closely.
He examined the two tables, brought together, one for the morning, and one for the evening.
4. Rise at the Angelus bell. 4.30. Prayer and Meditation. 5.15. Prime and Mass. 6-7. Examination of Conscience. 7. Breakfast. 7.30. Way of the Cross. 8. Sext and None. 8.30. Second Meditation. 9. Spiritual Reading. 11. Adoration and Examination. Tierce. 11.30. Angelus. Dinner. Recreation. 12.15. Siesta. Absolute Silence.
1.30. End of Siesta. Rosary. 2. Vespers and Compline. 3. Third Meditation. 3.15. Spiritual Reading. 4.15. Matins and Lauds. 5.15. Reflections. Choir Vespers. 5.30. Examination and Prayer. 6. Supper and Recreation. 7. Litanies. Absolute Silence. 7.15. Assist at Compline. 7.30. Salve Regina. Angelus. 7.45. Private Examination. Retire to rest.
"This at any rate is more practical—four o'clock in the morning is an almost possible hour, but I do not understand it, the canonical hours on this tablet do not agree with those of the monks, and then why these double Vespers and Compline? Lastly, these little points in which you are invited to meditate so many minutes, to read so many more, scarcely suit me. My mind is scarcely malleable enough to run in those channels—it is true that after all I am free to do as I please, for no one can verify what tricks I may play, can know, for instance, if I meditate....
"Ah, here is again a regulation at the back," he went on, as he turned the card, "the regulation for September, I need not trouble myself about it, it differs, moreover, little from the other; but here is a postscript which concerns both horaries."
1. Those who are not bound to say the Breviary will say the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin.
2. The Retreatants are requested to make their Confessions at an early date, in order to have their mind more free for meditation.
3. After each meditation an analogous chapter of the Imitation must be read.
4. The best time for confessions and the Way of the Cross is from 6-9 in the morning, 2-5 in the afternoon, and in summer from 9 in the morning till 5 in the afternoon.
5. To read the table of notices.
6. It is well to be punctual at meals to keep no one waiting.
7. The Father Guestmaster alone is charged with providing for the wants of guests.
8. Guests may ask for books for the retreat, if they have none themselves.
Confession! He saw this word only in the whole series of rules. He must at once have recourse to it. He felt a cold shiver down his back; and knew that he must speak to Father Etienne about it as soon as he returned.
He had not long to wrestle with himself, for the monk entered almost at once and said,
"Have you noticed anything you need, and the presence of which may be useful to you?"
"No, Father; yet if you could let me have a little more water."
"Nothing is easier; I will send you up a large pitcher every morning."
"Thank you ... see, I have been studying the rules."
"I will at once put you at ease," said the monk. "You are compelled to nothing but the strictest punctuality. You must follow the canonical offices to the letter. As to the exercises marked on the card, they are not of obligation; they may be useful, as they are laid down, for people who are very young and devoid of all initiative, but, as I think at least, they somewhat hamper others, and as a general rule we do not trouble the retreatants here, we let solitude act on them; it belongs to yourself to discriminate and distinguish the best mode of occupying your time holily. Therefore I will not impose on you any of the reading laid down on this card, and only take leave to get you to say the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin. Have you it?"
"Here it is," said Durtal, holding out a bound book.
"Your volume is charming," said Father Etienne, as he turned over the pages exquisitely printed in red and black. He paused at one of them, and read aloud the third lesson of Matins.
"Is it not fine?" he cried. A sudden joy sprang up in his face; his eyes grew bright, his hands trembled on the cover. "Yes," he said, closing it, "read this office, here especially, for you know our true patroness, the true Abbot of the Trappists, is the Blessed Virgin!"
After a silence he continued: "I have fixed a week as the duration of your retreat, in the letter I sent to the Abbe Gevresin, but I need not say that if you are not too weary here, you can stay as long as seems good to you."
"I hope to be able to prolong my stay among you, but this must depend upon the way in which my body stands the struggle; my stomach is somewhat weak, and I am not without some fear; I shall, therefore, be much obliged to you if you will let me see the confessor as soon as possible."
"Good; you shall see him to-morrow. I will tell you the time this evening, after compline. As for the food, if you think it insufficient, I will see that you have an extra egg, but there ceases the discretion I can exercise, for the rule is precise, no fish, no flesh—vegetables, and I am bound to admit they are not first rate.
"But you shall judge, and, indeed, as it is just upon supper-time, I will show you the room where you will dine in company with M. Bruno."
And as they descended the staircase, the monk went on: "M. Bruno is a person who has renounced the world, and, without having taken the vows, lives enclosed. He is what our rule calls an oblate, he is a holy and learned man, whom you will certainly like; you can talk with him during the meal."
"Ah!" said Durtal, "and before and after I must keep silence?"
"Yes, unless you have anything to ask, in which case I shall be always at your service, ready to answer you. As for that question of silence, as for those of the hours of rising and going to bed, and the offices, the rule allows no modification, it must be observed to the letter."
"Good," said Durtal, a little taken aback by the decided tone of the Father, "but I saw on my card a note directing me to consult a table of regulations, and I have not that table."
"It hangs on the wall of the staircase, near your room; you can read it when your head is rested to-morrow. Will you go in?" he said, opening a door in the lower corridor, just opposite that of the auditorium.
Durtal bowed to an old gentleman who came to meet him; the monk introduced them and vanished.
The dishes were on the table, two poached eggs, a bowl of rice, another of French beans, and a pot of honey.
M. Bruno said grace, and proceeded to help Durtal.
He gave him an egg.
"This is a poor supper for a Parisian," he said, with a smile.
"Ah, as long as there is an egg and wine it is bearable. I was afraid, I confess, that my only drink would be cold water."
They talked as friends.
The man was pleasant, and distinguished, with ascetic features, but with a bright smile, lighting up a grave face, yellow and wrinkled.
He lent himself with perfect good grace to Durtal's inquiries, and told him, that after a tempestuous life, he felt that Grace had touched him, and he had retired from the world to expiate by years of austerities and silence his own sins and those of others.
"And you have never grown tired of being here?"
"Never, during the five years that I have spent in this cloister, time, cut up as it is at La Trappe, seems short."
"You are present at all the exercises of the Community?"
"Yes; I only replace manual labour by meditation in my cell; my position as oblate, however, dispenses me, if I so wish, from getting up at two o'clock to follow the night office, but it is a great joy to me to recite the magnificent Benedictine Psalter before daybreak—but you are listening to me, and eat nothing. Let me give you a little more rice."
"No, thank you, but I will take, if you will allow me, a spoonful of honey.
"The food is not bad," he said, "but I do not quite understand the same strange and identical taste in all the dishes; it smells, how shall I express it? like burnt fat or suet."
"That is the warm oil with which the vegetables are dressed, you will soon grow accustomed to it, in a couple of days you will cease to notice it."
"But in what consists, precisely, the part of an oblate?"
"His life is less austere, and more contemplative than that of a monk; he may travel if he will, and though he is not bound by vows, he shares in all the spiritual advantages of the order.
"In old times the rule admitted those whom it styled 'familiars.'
"Those were oblates who received the tonsure, wore a distinct costume, and pronounced the three greater vows; they led in fact a mitigated life, half layman, half monk. This rule, which still exists among the true Benedictines, has disappeared among the Trappists since the year 1293, the date at which it was suppressed by the Chapter General.
"At the present time, in the Cistercian abbeys are only the fathers, the lay brothers, the oblates, when there are any, and the peasants employed in field labour."
"The lay brothers, I suppose, are those whose heads are completely shaven, and who are clothed in a brown habit, like the monk who opened the door to me?"
"Yes; they do not sing office, and have only manual tasks."
"By the way, the rule for retreat which I read in my room does not seem clear. As far as I recall it, it doubles certain offices, places Matins at four in the afternoon, and Vespers at two; in any case the horary is not the same as that of the Trappists; how am I to understand and reconcile them?"
"You have only to take into consideration the exercises set out on your card; Father Etienne must, I think, have said so; that mould was only made for people who cannot occupy and guide themselves. That explains to you how, to prevent them from becoming idle, the priests' breviary has been in some degree taken to pieces, and their time has been distributed in small slices, so that, for instance, they may be obliged to recite the psalms for Matins at hours when there is no psalm."
Dinner was over; M. Bruno said grace, and said to Durtal,
"You have twenty minutes free from now to Compline; you can make acquaintance with the garden and woods." He bowed politely and went out.
"I can smoke a cigarette," thought Durtal, when he was alone. He took his hat and left the room. Night was coming on. He passed through the great court, skirted a small building surmounted by a long chimney-stack, discovered by the smell that it was a chocolate factory, and entered an avenue of trees.
The sky was so obscure that he could scarcely see the group of trees he entered, and not seeing anyone he rolled his cigarettes, and smoked them slowly, with enjoyment, consulting his watch from time to time by his cigar lights.
He was astonished at the silence of the monastery; not a sound, however hushed, however distant, save now and then a gentle rustle of boughs; he went to the side whence the noise came, and saw a piece of water, on which a swan was sailing, which came towards him.
He saw its white plumage oscillate against the darkness which it displaced with a splash, when a bell sounded with slow strokes; "Ah," said he, looking again at his watch, "that is the hour of Compline."
He went to the chapel, which was still empty; and he took occasion of the solitude to examine it at his ease.
It was in the form of a truncated cross, a cross without a foot, rounded at the summit, holding out two square arms, with a door at either end.
The upper part of the cross, below a cupola painted blue, formed a little circular apse, round which was a circle of stalls placed back against the wall; in the middle rose a great altar of white marble, surmounted by wooden chandeliers, flanked on the left and right by candelabra also of wood, placed on marble shafts.
The lower part of the altar was hollow, and closed in front by a glass, behind which appeared a shrine in Gothic style, which reflected in its copper gilt mirror the light of the lamps.
The apse opened into a large porch, with three steps in front, on the arms of the cross, which were prolonged into a kind of vestibule serving at once as nave and side aisles to this stumpy church.
The hollowed arms, at their extremities near the doors, held two very small chapels set back in niches painted blue, like the cupola, containing above two stone altars without ornament, two mediocre statues, one of Saint Joseph, the other of Christ.
Lastly, a fourth altar, dedicated to the Virgin, was situated in this vestibule opposite the steps leading to the apse, opposite therefore to the high altar. It was relieved against a window whose lights represented Saint Bernard in white on one hand, and Saint Benedict in black on the other, and it appeared to recede into the church, because of the two ranges of seats which stood on the left and right before the two other little chapels, leaving only room necessary to pass along the vestibule, or to go in a straight line from this altar of the Virgin in the apse, to the high altar.
"This sanctuary is alarmingly ugly," said Durtal, who had sat down on a bench in front of the statue of Saint Joseph. "To judge by the few subjects carved along the walls, this edifice dates from the time of Louis XVI., an abominable date for a church."
He was disturbed in these thoughts by the sound of bells, and at the same time all the doors were opened; one situated in the apse itself, on the left of the altar, gave passage to about half a score monks, wrapped in great white cowls, who spread out into the choir, and occupied the stalls on either side.
Then, by the two doors of the vestibule, came a crowd of brown monks, who knelt at the benches on the two sides of Our Lady's altar.
Durtal had some of them near him; but they bowed their heads, and joined their hands, he dared not observe them; moreover, the vestibule had become almost dark, the light was concentrated in the choir, where the lamps were kindled.
He could make out the faces of the white monks in their stalls in the part of the apse he could see, and among them he recognized Father Etienne on his knees near a short monk; but another at the end of the stalls near the porch, almost opposite the altar, and in full light, attracted him.
He was tall and strong, and looked like an Arab in his white burnous. Durtal could only see him in profile, and he distinguished a long grey beard, a shaven skull, surrounded by the monastic crown, a high forehead, and a nose like an eagle's beak. He had a grand appearance, with his imperious features, and his fine figure as it swayed under the cowl.
"That is probably the abbot of La Trappe," thought Durtal, and he felt certain when this monk struck a little bell hidden under the desk before him, and directed the office.
All the monks bowed to the altar; the abbot recited the opening prayers, then there was a pause, and, from the other side of the apse, which Durtal could not see, rose the frail voice of an old man, a voice which had returned to the clear tones of childhood, but was just a little cracked, growing higher as it declaimed the antiphon,
"Deus in adjutorium meum intende."
And the other side of the choir, that on which were Father Etienne and the abbot, answered, scanning the syllables very slowly, with voices of bass pitch,—
"Domine ad adjuvandum me festina."
And all bowed their heads over the folios placed before them, and took up the words,—
"Gloria Patri et Filio et Spiritui Sancto."
And they lifted their heads while the other part of the Fathers pronounced the response, "Sicut erat in principio, etc."
The office began.
It was not chanted but declaimed, now rapid and now slow. The side of the choir which Durtal saw made all the vowels sharp and short letters; the other, on the contrary, altered them all into long letters and seemed to cap all the Os with a circumflex accent. It might be said that one side had the pronunciation of the South, the other that of the North; thus chanted, the office became strange, and ended by rocking like an incantation, and soothing the soul which fell asleep in the rolling of the verses, interrupted by the recurrent doxology like a refrain after the last verse of each of the psalms.
"Ah well, I cannot understand it," thought Durtal, who had his Compline at his fingers' ends, "they are not singing the Roman office at all."
The fact is that one of the psalms was wanting. He caught indeed, at one moment, the hymn of Saint Ambrose, the "Te lucis ante terminum," sung to a simple and rugged tune of the old plain chant, and yet the last stanza was not the same; but he lost himself afresh, and waited for the "Short Lessons" and the "Nunc Dimittis" which never came.
"Yet Compline does not vary like Vespers," he thought, "I must ask Father Etienne the meaning of this to-morrow."
Then his reflections were disturbed by a young white monk, who passed him, genuflected to the altar, and lighted two tapers.
Suddenly all rose, and with a great shout, the "Salve Regina" shook the arches.
Durtal was affected as he listened to this admirable chant, which had nothing in common with that which is bellowed at Paris in the churches. This was at once flexible and ardent, sustained by such suppliant adoration, that it seemed to concentrate in itself alone, the immemorial hope of humanity, and its eternal lamentation.
Chanted without accompaniment, unsustained by the organ, by voices indifferent to themselves and blending in one only, masculine and deep, it rose with quiet boldness, sprang up with irresistible flight towards Our Lady, then made, as it were, a return upon itself, and its confidence was lessened; it advanced more tremblingly, but so different, so humble, that it felt itself forgiven, and dared then in passionate appeals to demand the undeserved pleasures of heaven.
It was the absolute triumph of the neumes, those repetitions of notes on the same syllable, the same word, which the Church invented to paint the excess of that interior joy or sorrow which words cannot render; it was a rush, a going forth of the soul, escaping in the passionate voices, breathed forth by the bodies of the monks as they stood and trembled.
Durtal followed in his prayer-book this work with so short a text, so long a chant; and as he listened to, and read it with recollection, this magnificent prayer seemed to decompose as a whole, and to represent three different states of the soul, to exhibit the triple phase of humanity, during its youth, its maturity, and its decline; it was, in a word, an essential summary of prayer for all ages.
First, there was the canticle of exultation, the joyous welcome of a being yet little, stammering forth respectful caresses, petting with gentle words, and fondness of a child who seeks to coax his mother—this is the "Salve Regina, Mater misericordiae, vita, dulcedo et spes nostra, salve." Then the soul so candid, so simply happy, has grown, and knowing the wilful failings of thought, the repeated loss through sin, joins her hands, and asks, sobbing, for help. She adores no longer with a smile, but with tears; it is "Ad te clamamus, exsules filii Hevae; ad te suspiramus, gementes et flentes in hac lachrymarum valle." At last old age comes; the soul lies, tormented by the memory of counsels neglected, by regret for lost graces; and having become weaker, and more full of fears, is alarmed before her deliverance, before the destruction of that prison of the flesh which she feels at hand, and then she thinks of the eternal death of those whom the Judge condemns. On her knees she implores the Advocatress of earth, the Consultrix of heaven; it is the "Eia ergo Advocata nostra; illos tuos misericordes oculos ad nos converte; et Jesum, benedictum fructum ventris tui, nobis post hoc exilium ostende."
And to that essence of prayer composed by Peter of Compostella or Hermann Contract, Saint Bernard, in an excess of hyperdulia, added the three invocations at the end, "O clemens, O pia, O dulcis Virgo Maria," sealing the inimitable prose with a triple seal, by those three cries of love which recall the hymn to the affectionate adoration of its beginning.
"This is unprecedented," thought Durtal, as the Trappists chanted these sweet and eager appeals; the neumes were prolonged on the Os, which passed through all the colours of the soul, through the whole register of sound; and these interjections summed up again, in the series of notes which clothed them, the inventory of the human soul, which now recapitulated the whole body of the hymn.
And suddenly at the word "Maria," at the glorious cry of that name, the chant fell, the tapers were extinguished, the monks fell on their knees, a silence like death came upon the chapel. The bells rang slowly, and the Angelus unfolded under the arches the separated petals of its clear sounds.
All, now prostrate, their faces buried in their hands, were praying, and this lasted long; then the sound of the little hand-bell was heard, everyone rose, genuflected to the altar, and in silent file the monks disappeared through the door in the apse.
"Ah! the true creator of plain music, the unknown author who cast into the brain of man the seed of plain chant, was the Holy Ghost," said Durtal, sick and dazzled, with tears in his eyes.
M. Bruno, whom he had not noticed in the chapel, came and joined him. They crossed the court without speaking, and when they had entered the guest-house, M. Bruno lighted two candles, gave one to Durtal, and said gravely, "I wish you a good night, sir."
Durtal went up the staircase behind him. They bowed again on the landing, and Durtal entered his cell.
The wind blew under the door, and the room, scarcely lighted by the low flame of the candle, seemed to him gloomy, the high ceiling vanished in shadow, and rained down darkness.
Durtal sat down by his bed, discouraged.
And yet he was thrust forward by one of those impulses it is impossible to translate into words, in which it seems that the heart swells almost to bursting, and before his inability to get away and fly from self, Durtal ended by becoming a child again, by weeping without definite cause, simply from the need of relieving himself by tears.
He sank down at the prie-Dieu, expecting he knew not what, which never came; then before the crucifix which stretched its arms above him, he began to speak to Him, and to say to Him in low tones:
"Father, I have driven the swine from my being, but they have trampled on me, and covered me with mire, and the very stye is in ruins. Have pity on me, for I return from a distant land. Have mercy, O Lord, on the swine-herd without a house. I have entered into Thy house; do not send me away, be to me a kindly host, wash me."
"Ah," he said suddenly, "that reminds me that I have not seen Father Etienne, who was to tell me the hour at which the confessor would receive me to-morrow; he has no doubt forgotten to ask him; so much the better. At any rate it will put it off for a day; my soul is so cramped that I have indeed need of rest."
He undressed, sighing: "I must be up at half-past three to be in the chapel at four: I have no time to lose if I wish to sleep. If only I have no neuralgia to-morrow, and can wake before dawn!"
He passed a most terrible night; it was so special, so dreadful, that he did not remember, in the whole of his existence, to have endured such anguish, undergone the like fears.
It was an uninterrupted succession of sudden wakings and of nightmares.
And these nightmares overpassed the limits of abomination that the most dangerous madness dreams. They developed themselves in the realm of lust; and they were so special, so new to him, that when he woke Durtal remained trembling, almost crying out.
It was not at all that involuntary and well known act, that vision which ceases just at the moment when the sleeper clasps an amorous form; it was as and more complete than in nature, long and accomplished, accompanied by all the preludes, all the details, all the sensations, and the orgasm took place with a singularly painful acuteness, an incredible spasm.
A strange fact, which seemed to point the difference between this state, and the unconscious uncleanness of night, was, beyond certain episodes and caresses which could only follow each other in reality, but were united at the same moment in the dream, the sensation clear and precise of a being, of a fluid form disappearing, with the sharp sound of a percussion cap, or the crack of a whip close by, on waking. This being was felt near him so distinctly, that the sheet, disarranged by the wind of the flight, was still in motion, and he looked at the empty place in terror.
"Ah," thought Durtal, when he had lighted his candle, "this carries me back to the time when I used to visit Madame Chantelouve, and reminds me of the stories of the Succubus."
He remained sitting up in bed, astonished, and looked with real uneasiness round the cell steeped in shadow. He looked at his watch, it was only eleven o'clock at night. "God," he said, "if the nights are always like this in monasteries!"