I n the ancient days of faith the doors of the churches used to be opened with the first glimmer of the dawn in summer, and long before the moon had set in winter; and many a ditcher and woodcutter and ploughman on his way to work used to enter and say a short prayer before beginning the labour of the long day.
Now it happened that in Spain there was a farm-labourer named Isidore, who went daily to his early prayer, whatever the weather might be. His fellow-workmen were slothful and careless, and they gibed and jeered at his piety, but when they found that their mockery had no effect upon him, they spoke spitefully of him in the hearing of the master, and accused him of wasting in prayer the time which he should have given to his work.
When the farmer heard of this he was displeased, and he spoke to Isidore and bade him remember that true and faithful service was better than any prayer that could be uttered in words.
"Master," replied Isidore, "what you say is true, but it is also true that no time is ever lost in prayer. Those who pray have God to work with them, and the ploughshare which He guides draws as goodly and fruitful a furrow as another."
This the master could not deny, but he resolved to keep a watch on Isidore's comings and goings, and early on the morrow he went to the fields.
In the sharp air of the autumn morning he saw this one and that one of his men sullenly following the plough behind the oxen, and taking little joy in the work. Then, as he passed on to the rising ground, he heard a lark caroling gaily in the grey sky, and in the hundred-acre where Isidore was engaged he saw to his amazement not one plough but three turning the hoary stubble into ruddy furrows. And one plough was drawn by oxen and guided by Isidore, but the two others were drawn and guided by Angels of heaven.
When next the master spoke to Isidore it was not to reproach him, but to beg that he might be remembered in his prayers.
Now the one great longing of Isidore's life was to visit that hallowed and happy country beyond the sea in which our Lord lived and died for us. He longed to gaze on the fields in which the Shepherds heard the song of the Angels, and to know each spot named in the Gospels. All that he could save from his earnings Isidore hoarded up, so that one day, before he was old, he might set out on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. It took many years to swell the leather bag in which he kept his treasure; and each coin told of some pleasure, or comfort, or necessary which he had denied himself.
Now, when at length the bag was grown heavy, and it began to appear not impossible that he might yet have his heart's desire, there came to his door an aged pilgrim with staff and scallop-shell, who craved food and shelter for the night. Isidore bade him welcome, and gave him such homely fare as he might—bread and apples and cheese and thin wine, and satisfied his hunger and thirst.
Long they talked together of the holy places and of the joy of treading the sacred dust that had borne the marks of the feet of Christ. Then the pilgrim spoke of the long and weary journey he had yet to go, begging his way from village to village (for his scrip was empty) till he could prevail on some good mariner to give him ship-room and carry him to the green isle of home, far away on the edge of sunset. Thinking of those whom he had left and who might be dead before he could return, the pilgrim wept, and his tears so moved the heart of Isidore that he brought forth his treasure and said:
"This have I saved in the great hope that one day I might set eyes on what thou hast beheld, and sit on the shores of the Lake of Galilee, and gaze on the hill of Calvary. But thy need is very great. Take it, and hasten home (ere they be dead) to those who love thee and look for thy coming; and if thou findest them alive bid them pray for me."
And when they had prayed together Isidore and the pilgrim lay down to sleep.
In the first sweet hours of the restful night Isidore became aware that he was walking among strange fields on a hillside, and on the top of a hill some distance away there were the white walls and low flat-roofed houses of a little town; and some one was speaking to him and saying, "These are the fields in which the Shepherds watched, and that rocky pathway leads up the slope to Bethlehem."
At the sound of the voice Isidore hastily looked round, and behind him was the pilgrim, and yet he knew that it was not truly the pilgrim, but an Angel disguised in pilgrim's weeds. And when he would have fallen at the Angel's feet, the Angel stopped him and said, "Be not afraid; I have been sent to show thee all the holy places that thy heart has longed to see."
On valley and hill and field and stream there now shone so clear and wonderful a light that even a long way off the very flowers by the roadside were distinctly visible. Without effort and without weariness Isidore glided from place to place as though it were a dream. And I cannot tell the half of what he saw, for the Angel took him to the village where Jesus was a little child, which is called Nazareth, "the flower-village;" and he showed him the River Jordan flowing through dark green woods, and Hermon the high mountain, glittering with snow (and the snow of that mountain is exceeding old), and the blue Lake of Gennesareth, with its fishing-craft, and the busy town of Capernaum on the great road to Damascus, and Nain where Jesus watched the little children playing at funerals and marriages in the market-place, and the wilderness where He was with the wild beasts, and Bethany where Lazarus lived and died and was brought to life again (and in the fields of Bethany Isidore gathered a bunch of wild flowers), and Jerusalem the holy city, and Gethsemane with its aged silver-grey olive-trees, and the hill of Calvary, where in the darkness a great cry went up to heaven: "Why hast Thou forsaken me?" and the new tomb in the white rock among the myrtles and rose-trees in the garden.
These are the fields in which the Shepherds watched.
There was no place that Isidore had desired to see that was denied to him. And in all these places he saw the children's children of the children of those who had looked on the face of the Saviour—men and women and little ones—going to and fro in strangely coloured clothing, in the manner of those who had sat down on the green grass and been fed with bread and fishes. And at the thought of this Isidore wept.
"Why dost thou weep?" the Angel asked.
"I weep that I was not alive to look on the face of the Lord."
Then suddenly, as though it were a dream, they were on the sea-shore, and it was morning. And Isidore saw on the sparkling sea a fisher-ship drifting a little way from the shore, but there was no one in it; and on the shore a boat was aground; and half on the sand and half in the wash of the sea there were swathes of brown nets filled with a hundred great fish which flounced and glittered in the sun; and on the sand there was a coal fire with fish broiling on it, and on one side of the fire seven men—one of them kneeling and shivering in his drenched fisher's coat—and on the other side of the fire a benign and majestic figure, on whom the men were gazing in great joy and awe. And Isidore, knowing that this was the Lord, gazed too at Christ standing there in the sun.
And this was what he beheld: a man of lofty stature and most grave and beautiful countenance. His eyes were blue and very brilliant, his cheeks were slightly tinged with red, and his hair was of the ruddy golden colour of wine. From the top of his head to his ears it was straight and without radiance; but from his ears to his shoulders and down his back it fell in shining curls and clusters.
Again all was suddenly changed, and Isidore and the Angel were alone.
"Thou hast seen," said the Angel; "give me thy hand so that thou shalt not forget."
Isidore stretched out his hand, and the Angel opened it, and turning the palm upward, struck it. Isidore groaned with the sharp pain of the stroke, and sank into unconsciousness.
When he awoke in the morning the sun was high in the heavens, and the pilgrim had departed on his way. But the hut was filled with a heavenly fragrance, and on his bed Isidore perceived the wild flowers that he had plucked in the fields of Bethany—red anemones and blue lupins and yellow marigolds, with many others more sweet and lovely than the flowers that grew in the fields of Spain.
"Then surely," he cried, "it was not merely a dream."
And looking at his hand, he saw that the palm bore blue tracings such as one sees on the arms of wanderers and seafaring men. These marks, Isidore learned afterwards, were the Hebrew letters that spelt the name "JERUSALEM."
As long as he lived those letters recalled to his mind all the marvels that had been shown him. And they did more than this, for whenever his eyes fell on them he said, "Blessed be the promise of the Lord the Redeemer of Israel, who hath us in His care for evermore!"
Now these are the words of that promise:
"Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb? Yea, they may forget, yet will I not forget thee. Behold, I have engraven thee upon the palms of my hands."