St John Gualbert's Crucifix
When you go to Florence and to the Church of the Holy Trinity, you will see it; they will show it to you, the Crucifix of St John Gualbert, he who founded the monastery up among the hills in the remote umbrageous valley—the Vallombrosa, and another at San Salvi, where you may see Andrea del Sarto's beautiful fresco of the Last Supper, San Giovanni Gualberto, who made so brave a battle against the sin of simony in the Church of his day, and in whose behalf one of his monks, afterward named Peter Igneus, successfully underwent the trial by fire.
You will see that crucifix of which this is the story.
The voice of bells was rising in chorus from the steeples of Florence in the valley below; voices high and silver sweet sounded in pulsing, rhythmic syncopation with voices deep and sombre. All arose into the golden air of sunset.
Up the road leading to the church of San Miniato ran Giovanni Gualberto, his crimson cloak trailing unheeded in his haste; his eyes staring unseeing before him. Like one smitten with ague, he trembled from the gallant plume in his jewelled cap down to his embroidered shoes. The sheath of his dagger hung empty at his side—the dagger he had so lately drawn, with purpose of burying it in his enemy's heart, but which he had thrown from him, and left lying in the grass by the roadside.
He hastened on without pause until he came to the open door of the church. Within, all was dark but for the few tapers lighted on the chief altar. Never was Good Friday a day of illumination or of brilliant celebration. The church was vast and tenebrous. Near the high altar knelt the faithful in silent prayer.
Gualberto, entering, turned into the chapel nearest to the door, and falling upon the steps before the little altar bowed his head between his outstretched arms. A long time he lay without will or power to formulate a prayer; only the necessity to seek the peace and the stillness of sanctuary had brought him thither. He lay motionless and silent, while footfalls came and went in the aisles of the church. Then all was quiet. Gian Gualberto, raising himself to his knees, looked up at the crucifix above him. The face of the Christ was visible to him, illumined by the glow of one faint light hanging high in a silver lamp; the head was thrown back and the heavenward-gazing eyes were full of sorrow and pain.
Gian Gualberto looked at the tortured visage of his Saviour, looked long in silent pleading; and finally he prayed:
"Oh, God, my Heavenly Father—forgive!—forgive, that on this day the grief and wrath of my earthly father, and the grief and tears of my mother, added themselves to my own, and filled my heart with hunger for revenge!
"Oh, God, my Brother—forgive!—forgive, that wrath and grief for the shed blood of my earthly brother filled my heart with lust for the blood of his slayer!
"Father and Brother, forgive, that in arrogance and hatred I thought it mine to seek vengeance for the murder of my brother, my Ugo—best beloved of my heart, Ugo—light of my eyes!
"Forgive that I purposed to slake my thirst with the blood of his adversary. Thou knowest my intent to have spent my days in the clamour of battle, in the pomp of war. Here and now I renounce that purpose, as I forswear the life of this world, and vow myself to Thy service and worship alone—if Thou wilt but forgive!
"And, oh, my Father and my Brother, accept the thanks that from this day shall never cease to rise to Thee, that it was on this day of days, the day of Thy passion and death, that I met my adversary in the road upon this hillside, met him face to face, came upon him unprepared, unarmed, and unaccompanied, met him at a moment when he was all at my mercy, when I with dagger drawn might with ease have dispatched him.
"My God and My Saviour, my heart cries out its thanks to Thee, that he then, seeing his doom upon him, tried not to defend himself, but falling on his knees in the road before me, and spreading wide his arms as if they had been stretched upon a cross, adjured me in Thy name to spare him.
"Oh, Christ, my Redeemer! How did the memory of Thee then come upon me and blot out all other thought! How arose the vision of Thee before my eyes, hanging upon Thy Cross, and how echoed in my ears Thy words, 'Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do!'
"Father—forgive! I knew not what I did!
"Brother! I thank Thee that Thou didst save me from the crime with which I was in the act of blackening and damning my soul!
"I give Thee thanks that Thou didst cause me to throw from me my drawn weapon and, embracing my enemy, utter the words of pardon.
"I give Thee thanks that in Thy great mercy Thou didst cause me to show mercy.
"Wilt Thou not now show mercy to me a sinner, because I too, though but a sinner, was merciful?
"Give me a sign, O Gracious Master, that Thou dost deign to accept the gift of my unworthy life!"
Gian Gualberto lifted supplicating hands; tears filled his eyes and bathed his cheeks, but through them, as he gazed upward, his glance met that of Eyes above him. The Eyes of Him upon the Cross, which had lately been raised in anguish, were now bent upon him in pitying and gravely pensive scrutiny.
For a long space Gian Gualberto and his Saviour looked deep into each other's souls, and then the Head above slowly bowed in majestic and gracious assent.