The Burning of Abbot Spiridion
M any wonderful things are told of the Abbot Spiridion, who lived a hundred years and four and yet grew never old; neither was the brightness of his eyes dimmed nor his hair silvered, nor was his frame bowed and palsied with the weakness of age.
During the long years in which he ruled the abbey he had founded, he seemed to live less in this world than in the communion of the blessed souls of men redeemed. The whole earth was as clear to him as though it had been of crystal, and when he raised his eyes he saw not solely what other men saw, but the vision of all that is under the heavens. And this vision of life was at once his trial and his consolation. For it was an unspeakable sorrow and anguish to see on all sides the sin and suffering and misery of creation, and often he wept bitterly when no one dared ask him the reason of his affliction. Yet oftentimes, on the other hand, he laughed for lightness of spirit, and bade the brethren rejoice because of the salvation of some repro bate soul, or the relief of one oppressed, or the bestowal of some blessing on the servants of God.
When it happened that a brother had been sent on a journey and was long absent, and the community was talking of him, wondering how he had fared and where he might now be, the Abbot would sometimes break silence and say: "I see our brother resting in such or such a cell," or "Our brother is even now singing a psalm as he drifts in his small boat of skins down this or that river," or, per-chance, "Our brother is coming over the hill and in an hour he will be with us."
In the abbey there was a certain lay-brother, dull and slow of wit, with a hindrance in his speech; and one of the monks despised him and scoffed at his defect of nature. This lay-brother had the care of the garden of pot-herbs and fruit-trees, and as he was toiling there one day the Abbot called the uncharitable monk to him, and said: "Come, let us see what our brother the Fool is doing."
The monk trembled when he heard those words, for he knew that his scornfulness had been discovered, and he followed the Abbot in great confusion. In the garden they found the lay-brother planting cabbages.
"Is our brother the Fool alone?" asked the Abbot.
"Our brother is alone, father," replied the monk.
Then the Abbot touched the monk's eyes, and straightway he saw that the lay-brother was not alone: beside him were two radiant child-angels, one of whom held for him a basket containing the young plants, and the second walked to and fro playing on a lute to lighten his labour. Then, overwhelmed with shame, the monk fell on his knees, confessing his sin and promising amendment.
More strange than this is the story I have now to tell. It happened through mischance that fire broke out in the abbey, and the flames were spreading so fiercely from one wattled cell to another that there was great danger of the whole monastery being destroyed. With piteous cries the religious surrounded the Abbot, and besought him to intercede with God that their home might be spared.
Spiridion gently shook his head. "The mercy of God," he replied, "has given it to another to intercede for us in our danger this day. The holy Pontiff, Gregory, has looked out of Rome and seen us in our trouble. At this moment he is kneeling in prayer for us, and his supplication on our behalf will avail."
Even while Spiridion was speaking, the Pope, far away in the Golden City, beheld the flames rising from the abbey, and called his household to join him in entreating heaven; and at once it was seen that the flames were being beaten to the ground and extinguished as though invisible hands were beating them down with invisible branches of trees.
Now when the brethren were made aware that the whole earth was being constantly shown thus in vision to the Abbot, they stood in sad dread of him; even the most pure and lowly-hearted were abashed at this thought that perchance every act and every vain fancy of theirs was laid bare to his knowledge. So it came to pass that out of shame and fear their hearts were little by little estranged from him.
The Abbot was not slow to perceive the change, and he spoke of it when they met in chapter.
"Truly it is a grievous and a terrible thing," he said, "that any man should see with the eyes of the soul more than it is given the eye of flesh to see; and I pray you, brethren, beseech the Lord, if it be His will, that the vision be withdrawn from me. But if His will it be not, beseech Him that I may not sin through seeing. So much for myself; but as for you, dear children, why are you grieved? Because it may be that I see you when you think no man sees you? Am I then the only one who sees you? Is there not at least one other—even the high God, from whom the hidden man of the heart is nowise hidden? If you fear His holy eyes, little need you fear the eyes of any sinful man."
Such a one was the Abbot Spiridion. His spirit passed from among men in the hundred and fifth year of his exile, in the third month of the year, on the morning of the resurrection of the Lord Christ, between the white and the red of the morning, when the brethren were singing prime. As he listened to them singing, his cheeks suddenly became flushed with bright colour, and those who were about him, thinking he was in pain, asked if in any way they might relieve him; but he replied in a low voice, "When the heart is glad the face flowers." In a little after that he laughed softly to himself, and so they knew that his end was gladness.
When he died there were three hundred religious in that monastery, and in his stead Samson was made Abbot of Gracedieu.
The body of Spiridion was laid in a stone coffin hard by the abbey church, and to those who had known the holy man it seemed nothing strange that the sick and afflicted should come and kneel by his grave, in the hope that by his intercession they might obtain succour in their misery. Certain it is that the blind were restored to sight, and the sick to health, and the painful to great ease; and the fame of these miracles was noised abroad in the world till thousands came in pilgrimage to the spot, and costly gifts—gold and silver and jewels, sheep and cattle, wine and corn, and even charters of large demesnes, fruitful fields and woods and waters—were bestowed as thank-offerings to the saintly man.
Then over his tomb rose a vast and beautiful minster, and the tomb itself was covered with a shrine, brilliant with blue and vermilion and gold and sculptured flowers, and guarded by angels with outspreading wings.
At the beginning Abbot Samson was well pleased, for the great church rose like a dream of heaven, but when he perceived that the constant concourse of people was destroying the hushed contemplation and piety of the house, and that the brethren were distracted with eagerness for gain and luxury and the pride of life, he resolved to make an end. Wherefore after High Mass on the Feast of All Saints he bade the religious walk in procession to the splendid shrine, and there the Abbot, with the shepherd's staff of rule in his hand, struck thrice on the stone coffin, and three times he called aloud: "Spiridion! Spiridion! Spiridion!" and begged him, as he had been founder and first father of that monastery, to listen to the grievance which had befallen them in consequence of the miracles he had wrought from his grave.
And after an indignant recital of their loss of humility, of their lukewarmness, of their desire for excitement and the pageants of the world, of their lust for buildings of stone and pillared walks and plentiful living, he concluded: "Make, then, we beseech thee, no sign from thy sepulchre. Let life and death, and joy and sorrow, and blindness and disease, and all the vicissitudes of this world follow their natural courses. Do not thou, out of compassion for thy fellow-man, interpose in the lawful succession of things. This is what we ask of thee, expecting it of thy love. But if it be that thou deny us, solemnly we declare unto thee, by the obedience which once we owed thee, we shall unearth thy bones and cast them forth from amongst us."
Now whether it was that for some high purpose God delayed the answer to that prayer, or whether it was the folly and superstition of men which gave to things natural the likeness of the miraculous, and even peradventure the folk lied out of a mistaken zeal for the glory of the saints, there was no abatement of the wonders wrought at Spiridion's tomb; and when the Abbot would have forbidden access to the vast crowds of pilgrims, the people resisted with angry violence and threatened fire and bloodshed.
So Samson summoned the wisest and holiest of the brotherhood, and took them into counsel.
"This thing," said he, "cannot be of God, that one of His saints, the founder of this house, should lead into sloth and luxury the children of the house he has founded. Sooner could I believe that this is a malignant snare of the most Evil One, who heals the bodily ailments of a few that he may wreck the immortal souls of many."
Then arose Dom Walaric, the most aged of the monks, and said: "Already, Father Abbot, hast thou spoken judgment. Grievously shall I lament what must be done; but in one way only can we root out this corruption. Let the banes of the holy man be unearthed and cast forth. He in the high heavens will know that we do not use him despite- fully, but that of two evils this, indeed, is scarcely to be spoken of as an evil."
Wherefore, in a grassy bay of the land by the river a great pile of faggots was reared, dry and quick for the touch of flame. And the Abbot broke down the shrine and opened the tomb.
When the stone lid of the coffin had been lifted, the religious saw that, though it had been long buried, the body showed no sign of decay. Fresh and uncorrupted it lay in the sacred vestments; youthful and comely of face, despite a marvellous old age and years of sepulture.
With many tears they raised what seemed rather a sleeping man than a dead, and bore him to the river; and when they had heaped the faggots about him, the Abbot blessed the body and the fuel, and with his own hand set fire to the funeral pile.
The brethren restrained not their weeping and lamentation as they witnessed that hallowed burning; and the Abbot, with heavy eyes, tarried till the last ember had died out. Then were all the ashes of the fire swept together and cast into the fleeting river, which bore them through lands remote into the utmost sea that hath no outland limit save the blue sky and the low light of the shifting stars.