Gateway to the Classics: A Child's Book of Saints by William Canton
A Child's Book of Saints by  William Canton

The Hermit of the Pillar

O n one of the hills near the city of Ancyra Basil the hermit stood day and night on a pillar of stone forty feet high, praying and weeping for his own sins and for the sins of the world.

A gaunt, dark figure, far up in the blue Asian sky, he stood there for a sign and a warning to all men that our earthly life is short, whether for wickedness or repentance; that the gladness and the splendour of the world are but a fleeting pageant; that in but a little while the nations should tremble before the coming of the Lord in His power and majesty. Little heed did the rich and dissolute people of that city give to his cry of doom; and of the vast crowds who came about the foot of his pillar, the greater number thought but to gaze on the wonder of a day, though some few did pitch their tents hard by, and spent the time of their sojourn in prayer and the lamentation of hearts humbled and contrite.

Now, in the third year of his testimony, as Basil was rapt in devotion, with hands and face uplifted to the great silent stars, an Angel, clothed in silver and the blue-green of the night, stood in front of him in the air, and said: "Descend from thy pillar, and get thee away far westward; and there thou shalt learn what is for thy good."

Without delay or doubt Basil descended, and stole away alone in the hush before the new day, and took the winding ways of the hills, and thereafter went down into the low country of the plain to seaward.

After long journeying among places and people unknown, he crossed the running seas which part the eastern world from the world of the west, and reached the City of the Golden Horn, Byzantium; and there for four months he lived on a pillar overlooking the city and the narrow seas, and cried his cry of doom and torment. At the end of the fourth month the Angel once more came to him and bade him descend and go further.

So with patience and constancy of soul he departed between night and light, and pursued his way for many months till he had got to the ancient city of Treves. There, among the ruins of a temple of the heathen goddess Diana, he found a vast pillar of marble still erect, and the top of this he thought to make his home and holy watch-tower. Wherefore he sought out the Bishop of the city and asked his leave and blessing, and the Bishop, marvelling greatly at his zeal and austerity, gave his consent.


A gaunt, dark figure, far up in the blue Asian sky.

The people of Treves were amazed at what they considered his madness; but they gave him no hindrance, nor did they molest him in any way. Indeed, in no long time the fame of his penance was noised abroad, and multitudes came, as they had come at Ancyra, to see with their own eyes what there was of truth in the strange story they had heard. Afterwards, too, many came out of sorrow for sin and an ardent desire of holiness; and others brought their sick and maimed and afflicted, in the hope that the Hermit might be able to cure their ailments, or give them assuagement of their sufferings. Many of these, in truth, Basil sent away cleansed and made whole by the virtue of his touch or of the blessing he bestowed upon them.

Now, though there were many pillar-hermits in the far eastern land, this was the first that had ever been seen in the west, and after him there were but few others.

A strange and well-nigh incredible thing it seemed, to look upon this man on the height of his pillar, preaching and praying constantly, and enduring night and day the inclemency of the seasons and the weariness and discomfort of his narrow standing place. For the pillar, massive as it was, was so narrow where the marble curved over in big acanthus leaves at the four corners that he had not room to lie down at length to sleep; and indeed he slept but little, considering slumber a waste of the time of prayer, and the dreams of sleep so many temptations to beguile the soul into false and fugitive pleasures. No shelter was there from the wind, but he was bare as a stone in the field to the driving rain and the blaze of the sun at noon; and in winter the frost was bitter to flesh and blood, and the snow fell like flakes of white fire. His only clothing was a coat of sheepskin; about his neck hung a heavy chain of iron, in token that he was a thrall and bondsman of the Lord Christ, and each Friday he wore an iron crown of thorns, in painful memory of Christ's passion and His sorrowful death upon the tree. Once a day he ate a little rye bread, and once he drank a little water.

No man could say whether he was young or aged; and the mother who had borne him a little babe at her bosom, and had watched him grow to boyhood, could not have recognised him, for he had been burnt black by the sun and the frost, and the weather had bleached his hair and beard till they looked like lichens on an ancient forest-tree, and the crown of thorns had scarred his brow, and the links of the chain had galled his neck and shoulders.

For three summers and three winters he endured this stricken life with cheerful fortitude, counting his sufferings as great gain if through them he might secure the crown of celestial glory which God has woven for His elect. Remembering all his prayers and supplications, and the long martyrdom of his body, it was hard for him, at times, to resist the assurance that he must have won a golden scat among the blessed.

"For who, O Lord Christ!" he cried, with trembling hands outstretched, and dim eyes weeping, "who hath taken up Thy cross as I have done, and the anguish of the thorns and the nails, and the parched sorrow of Thy thirst, and the wounding of Thy blessed body, and borne them for years twenty and three, and shown them as I have shown them to the sun and stars and the four winds, high up between heaven and earth, that men might be drawn to Thee, and carried them across the world from the outmost East to the outmost West? Surely, Lord God! Thou hast written my name in Thy Book of Life, and hast set for me a happy place in the heavens. Surely, all I have and am I have given Thee; and all that a worm of the earth may do have I done! If in anything I have failed, show me, Lord, I beseech Thee, wherein I have come short. If any man there be more worthy in Thine eyes, let me, too, set eyes upon him, that I may learn of him how I may the better please Thee. Teach me, Lord, that which I know not, for Thou alone knowest and art wise!"

As Basil was praying thus in the hour before dawn, once more the Angel, clothed in silver and blue-green, as though it had been a semblance of the starry night, came to him, and said: "Give me thy hand;" and Basil touched the hand celestial, and the Angel drew him from his pillar, and placed him on the ground, and said: "This is that land of the west in which thou art to learn what is for thy good. Take for staff this piece of tree, and follow this road till thou reachest the third milestone; and there, in the early light, thou shalt meet him who can instruct thee. For a sign, thou shalt know the man by the little maid of seven years who helpeth him to drive the geese. But the man, though young, may teach one who is older than he, and he is one who is greatly pleasing in God's eyes."

The clear light was glittering on the dewy grass and the wet bushes when Basil reached the third milestone. He heard the distant sound as of a shepherd piping, and he saw that the road in front of him was crowded for near upon a quarter of a mile with a great gathering of geese—fully two thousand they numbered—feeding in the grass and rushes, and cackling, and hustling each other aside, and clacking their big orange-coloured bills, as they waddled slowly onward towards the city.

Among them walked a nut-brown little maiden of seven, clad in a green woollen tunic, with bright flaxen hair and innocent blue eyes, and bare brown legs, and feet shod in shoes of hide. In her hand she carried a long hazel wand, with which she kept in rule the large grey and white geese.

As the flock came up to the Hermit, she gazed at him with her sweet wondering eyes, for never had she seen so strange and awful a man as this, with his sheepskin dress and iron chain and crown of thorns, and skin burnt black, and bleached hair and dark brows stained with blood. For a moment she stood still in awe and fear, but the Hermit raised his hand, and blessed her, and smiled upon her; and even in that worn and disfigured face the light in the Hermit's eyes as he smiled was tender and beautiful; and the child ceased to fear, and passed slowly along, still gazing at him and smiling in return.

In the rear of the great multitude of geese came a churl, tall and young, and comely enough for all his embrowning in the sun and wind, and his unkempt hair and rude dress. It was he who made the music, playing on pan's-pipes to lighten the way, and quickening with his staff the loiterers of his flock.

When he perceived the Hermit he stayed his playing, for he bethought him, Is not this the saintly man of whose strange penance and miracles of healing the folk talk in rustic huts and hamlets far scattered? But when they drew nigh to each other, the Hermit bowed low to the Goose-herd, and addressed him: "Give me leave to speak a little with thee, good brother; for an Angel of heaven hath told me of thee, and fain would I converse with thee. Twenty years and three have I served the King of Glory in supplication and fasting and tribulation of spirit, and yet I lack that which thou canst teach me. Now tell me, I beseech thee, what works, what austerities, what prayers have made thee so acceptable to God."

A dark flush rose on the Goose-herd's cheeks as he listened, but when he answered it was in a grave and quiet voice: "It ill becomes an aged man to mock and jeer at the young; nor is it more seemly that the holy should gibe at the poor."

"Dear son in Christ," said the Hermit, "I do not gibe or mock at thee. By the truth of the blessed tree, I was told of thee by an Angel in the very night which is now over and gone, and was bidden to question thee. Wherefore be not wrathful, but answer me truly, I beg of thy charity."

The Goose-herd shook his head. "This is a matter beyond me," he replied. "All my work, since thou askest of my work, hath been the tending and rearing of geese and driving them to market. From the good marsh lands at the foot of the hills out west I drive them, and the distance is not small, for, sleeping and resting by boulder and tree, for five days are we on the way. Slow of foot goeth your goose when he goeth not by water, and it profits neither master nor herd to stint them of their green food. And all my prayer hath been that I might get them safe to market, none missing or fallen dead by the way, and that I might sell them speedily and at good price, and so back to the fens again. What more is there to say?"

"In thy humility thou hidest something from me," said the Hermit, and he fixed his eyes thoughtfully on the young man's face.

"Nay, I have told thee all that is worth the telling."

"Then hast thou always lived this life?" the Hermit asked.

"Ever since I was a small lad—such a one as the little maid in front, and she will be in her seventh year, or it may be a little older. Before me was my father goose-herd; and he taught me the windings of the journey to the city, and the best resting-places, and the ways of geese, and the meaning of their cries, and what pleaseth them and serveth flesh and feather, and how they should be driven. And now, in turn, I teach the child, for there be goose-girls as well as men."

"Is she then thy young sister, or may it be that she is thy daughter?"

"Neither young sister nor daughter is she," replied the Herd, "and yet in truth she is both sister and daughter."

"Wilt thou tell me how that may be?" asked the Hermit.

"It is shortly told," said the Herd. "Robbers broke into their poor and lonely house by the roadside and slew father and mother and left them dead, but the babe at the breast they had not slain, and this was she."

"Didst thou find her?" asked the Hermit.

"Ay, on a happy day I found her; a feeble little thing bleating like a lambkin forlorn beside its dead dam."

"And thy wife, belike, or thy mother, reared her?"

"Nay," said the Herd, "for my mother was dead, and no wife have I. I reared her myself—my little white gooseling; and she throve and waxed strong of heart and limb, and merry and brown of favour, as thou hast seen."

"Thou must have been thyself scantly a man in those days," said the Hermit.

"Younger than to-day," replied the Herd; "but I was ever big of limb and plentiful of my inches."

"And hath she not been often since a burthen to thee, and a weariness in the years?"

"She hath been a care in the cold winter, and a sorrow in her sickness with her teeth—for no man, I wot, can help a small child when the teeth come through the gum, and she can but cry ah! ah! and hath no words to tell what she aileth."

"Why didst thou do all this?" asked the Hermit. "What hath been thy reward? Or for what reward dost thou look?"

The Goose-herd looked at him blankly for a moment; then his face brightened. "Surely," he said, "to see her as she goes on her way, a bright, brown little living thing, with her clear hair and glad eyes, is a goodly reward. And a goodly reward is it to think of her growth, and to mind me of the days when she could not walk and I bore her whithersoever I went; and of the days when she could but take faltering steps and was soon fain to climb into my arms and sit upon my neck; and of the days when we first fared together with the geese to market and I cut her her first hazel stick; and in truth of all the days that she hath been with me since I found her."

As the Goose-herd spoke the tears rose in the Hermit's eyes and rolled slowly down his cheeks; and when the young man ceased, he said: "O son, now I know why thou art so pleasing in the eyes of God. Early hast thou learned the love which gives all and asks nothing, which suffereth long and is ever kind, and this I have not learned. A small thing and too common it seemed to me, but now I see that it is holier than austerities, and availeth more than fasting, and is the prayer of prayers. Late have I sought thee, thou ancient truth; late have I found thee, thou ancient beauty; yet even in the gloaming of my days may there still be light enough to win my way home. Fare- well, good brother; and be God tender and pitiful to thee as thou hast been tender and pitiful to the little child."

"Farewell, holy man!" replied the Herd, regarding him with a perplexed look, for the life and austerities of the Hermit were a mystery he could not understand.

Then going on his way, he laid the pan's-pipes to his lips and whistled a pleasant music as he strode after his geese.

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