The Hidden Servants
This is a legend about a hermit who lived long ago. He lived high up on the mountain-side in a tiny cave; his food was roots and acorns, a bit of bread given by a peasant, or a cheese brought by a woman who wanted his prayers; his work was praying, and thinking about God. For forty years he lived so, preaching to the people, praying for them, comforting them in trouble, and, most of all, worshiping in his heart. There was just one thing he cared about: it was to make his soul so pure and perfect that it could be one of the stones in God's great Temple of Heaven.
One day, after the forty years, he had a great longing to know how far along he had got with his work,—how it looked to the Heavenly Father. And he prayed that he might be shown a man—
As he looked up from his prayer, a white-robed angel stood in the path before him. The hermit bowed before the messenger with great gladness, for he knew that his wish was answered. "Go to the nearest town," the angel said, "and there, in the public square, you will find a mountebank (a clown) making the people laugh for money. He is the man you seek, his soul has grown to the selfsame stature as your own; his treasure on the celestial shore is neither less than yours nor more."
When the angel had faded from sight, the hermit bowed his head again, but this time with great sorrow and fear. Had his forty years of prayer been a terrible mistake, and was his soul indeed like a clown, fooling in the market-place? He knew not what to think. Almost he hoped he should not find the man, and could believe that he had dreamed the angel vision. But when he came, after a long, toilful walk, to the village, and the square, alas! there was the clown, doing his silly tricks for the crowd.
The hermit stood and looked at him with terror and sadness, for he felt that he was looking at his own soul. The face he saw was thin and tired, and though it kept a smile or a grin for the people, it seemed very sad to the hermit. Soon the man felt the hermit's eyes; he could not go on with his tricks. And when he had stopped and the crowd had left, the hermit went and drew the man aside to a place where they could rest; for he wanted more than anything else on earth to know what the man's soul was like, because what it was, his was.
So, after a little, he asked the clown, very gently, what his life was, what it had been. And the clown answered, very sadly, that it was just as it looked,—a life of foolish tricks, for that was the only way of earning his bread that he knew.
"But have you never been anything different?" asked the hermit, painfully.
The clown's head sank in his hands. "Yes, holy father," he said, "I have been something else. I was a thief! I once belonged to the wickedest band of mountain robbers that ever tormented the land, and I was as wicked as the worst."
Alas! The hermit felt that his heart was breaking. Was this how he looked to the Heavenly Father,—like a thief, a cruel mountain robber? He could hardly speak, and the tears streamed from his old eyes, but he gathered strength to ask one more question. "I beg you," he said, "if you have ever done a single good deed in your life, remember it now, and tell it to me;" for he thought that even one good deed would save him from utter despair.
"Yes, one," the clown said, "but it was so small, it is not worth telling; my life has been worthless."
"Tell me that one!" pleaded the hermit.
"Once," said the man, "our band broke into a convent garden and stole away one of the nuns, to sell as a slave or to keep for a ransom. We dragged her with us over the rough, long way to our mountain camp, and set a guard over her for the night. The poor thing prayed to us so piteously to let her go! And as she begged, she looked from one hard face to another with trusting, imploring eyes, as if she could not believe men could be really bad. Father, when her eyes met mine something pierced my heart! Pity and shame leaped up, for the first time, within me. But I made my face as hard and cruel as the rest, and she turned away, hopeless.
"When all was dark and still, I stole like a cat to where she lay bound. I put my hand on her wrist and whispered, 'Trust me, and I will take you safely home.' I cut her bonds with my knife, and she looked at me to show that she trusted. Father, by terrible ways that I knew, hidden from the others, I took her safe to the convent gate. She knocked; they opened; and she slipped inside. And, as she left me, she turned and said, 'God will remember.'
"That was all. I could not go back to the old bad life, and I had never learned an honest way to earn my bread. So I became a clown, and must be a clown until I die."
"No! no! my son," cried the hermit, and now his tears were tears of joy. "God has remembered; your soul is in his sight even as mine, who have prayed and preached for forty years. Your treasure waits for you on the heavenly shore just as mine does."
"As yours? Father, you mock me!" said the clown.
But when the hermit told him the story of his prayer and the angel's answer, the poor clown was transfigured with joy, for he knew that his sins were forgiven. And when the hermit went home to his mountain, the clown went with him. He, too, became a hermit, and spent his time in praise and prayer.
Together they lived, and worked, and helped the poor. And when, after two years, the man who had been a clown died, the hermit felt that he had lost a brother holier than himself.
For ten years more the hermit lived in his mountain hut, thinking always of God, fasting and praying, and doing no least thing that was wrong. Then, one day, the wish once more came, to know how his work was growing, and once more he prayed that he might see a being—
Once more his prayer was answered. The angel came to him, and told him to go to a certain village on the other side of the mountain, and to a small farm in it, where two women lived. In them he should find two souls like his own, in God's sight.
When the hermit came to the door of the little farm, the two women who lived there were overjoyed to see him, for every one loved and honored his name. They put a chair for him on the cool porch, and brought food and drink. But the hermit was too eager to wait. He longed greatly to know what the souls of the two women were like, and from their looks he could see only that they were gentle and honest. One was old, and the other of middle age.
Presently he asked them about their lives. They told him the little there was to tell: they had worked hard always, in the fields with their husbands, or in the house; they had many children; they had seen hard times,—sickness, sorrow; but they had never despaired.
"But what of your good deeds," the hermit asked,—"what have you done for God?"
"Very little," they said, sadly, for they were too poor to give much. To be sure, twice every year, when they killed a sheep for food, they gave half to their poorer neighbors.
"That is very good, very faithful," the hermit said. "And is there any other good deed you have done?"
"Nothing," said the older woman, "unless, unless—it might be called a good deed—" She looked at the younger woman, who smiled back at her.
"What?" said the hermit.
Still the woman hesitated; but at last she said, timidly, "It is not much to tell, father, only this, that it is twenty years since my sister-in-law and I came to live together in the house; we have brought up our families here; and in all the twenty years there has never been a cross word between us, or a look that was less than kind."
The hermit bent his head before the two women, and gave thanks in his heart. "If my soul is as these," he said, "I am blessed indeed."
And suddenly a great light came into the hermit's mind, and he saw how many ways there are of serving God. Some serve him in churches and in hermit's cells, by praise and prayer; some poor souls who have been very wicked turn from their wickedness with sorrow, and serve him with repentance; some live faithfully and gently in humble homes, working, bringing up children, keeping kind and cheerful; some bear pain patiently, for his sake. Endless, endless ways there are, that only the Heavenly Father sees.
And so, as the hermit climbed the mountain again, he thought,—