Monday 25 March 2024

"The Stations of the Cross' by Caryll Houselander.

Sincere apologies for the long delay in posting on this blogsite 'whitesmokeahoy', I hope to post more frequently in the future. You may well say that you didn't really notice, in which case I definitely must do better! I have managed to keep my other blogsite 'umblepie' ticking along, just, but time is at a premium as it always is of course, particularly as the years go and the writer gets older!

Over the years I have posted a number of poems from different sources and by different writers, one of whom Caryll Houselander is a particular favourite of mine.  As well as poetry, Houselander, a devout Roman Catholic, wrote several books for children, and many books on spiritual matters, one of which is the subject of this post, and one I think is particularly appropriate for Passiontide, with Easter Sunday only one week away. The book is entitled 'The Stations of the Cross', and deals with the circumstances of Christ's  final agonising journey on foot, forced to carry his Cross to Mount Calvary, where he was  nailed to the Cross by his hands and his feet, hanged between two criminals, and left to die. 

In all, if not most Catholic churches in the UK (possibly the world), will be displayed around the inner walls fourteen representations eg. paintings, prints, wall-carvings, wood carvings, of Christ's tortuous final hours prior to his crucifixion and death on the Cross. In this particular post, Caryll Houselander introduces on a general basis the long-standing  liturgical practice of procession and prayer before the fourteen Stations by church congregations, most popular in Passiontide just prior to Easter. I hope to reproduce some of her articles on these Stations, during Holy Week, alternating them between this blog and my other blog 'umblepie'. Please watch this space!


‘The Stations of the Cross’  -  Caryll Houselander


Via Crucis’

Three o’clock on a grey afternoon.  Outside, a steady drizzle of rain; inside the church, an odd motley of people.

            A smartly dressed woman, side by side with one who is shabby and threadbare.  A boy and a girl who appear to be in love.  A very old man, so bowed that he is permanently in an attitude of adoration.  A stalwart young soldier whose polished buttons glitter like gems in the candlelight.  A couple of students, shabbily but elegantly dressed in corduroys and bright scarves, rubbing shoulders with a gaunt, round-shouldered man who looks like a tramp. A sprinkle of small children; and behind them all, as if he felt himself to be the modern publican, though there is no reason why he should, a thick-set, square-shouldered businessman.  And, a few seconds before the priest, in come a couple of rather flustered little nuns, like birds shaking the rain off their black feathers.

            What a diversity of places these people must have come from:  luxury flats, tenements, small boarding-houses, institutions, barracks, studios, colleges, dosshouses, schools, offices, convents.  What sharp contrasts there must be between their different lives and circumstances!

            But they seem to be strangely at one here, gathered round a crude coloured picture on the wall of the Church, “The First Station of the Cross”; and it seems to come naturally for them to join together in the same prayer:

            “We adore thee, O Christ, and we bless thee, because by thy holy Cross thou hast redeemed the world.”

            The tender rhythmic prayer, that has been on the lips of men all through the ages, is repeated fourteen times as they move slowly around the church, following the priest from Station to Station, until they reach the last of all, “Jesus Laid in the Tomb”.

            An onlooker -- one, that is, who was uninitiated – would be puzzled.

            In between the repeated ejaculations, he would hear the priest reading meditations; at least he would hear the drone in his voice, but perhaps not what he said, as he would probably read without expression or punctuation.  Even if he did hear the words, they would hardly be likely to enlighten him, for the meditations would, very likely, be couched in the most extravagant terms of sentimental piety and seem to have no relationship to the stark reality of the human suffering which they attempt to describe.

            Neither would the pictures on the wall help him to understand what it is that brings such incongruous, oddly assorted people together, in this seemingly formal and curious devotion.  As likely as not the pictures would be uninspiring, crude, and without any aesthetic value.

            If this onlooker asked one of the people there to enlighten him, she would probably be surprised that he should expect the pictures to attempt either aesthetic beauty, or to represent the physical aspects of the Passion of Christ realistically.  She might explain that the Church does not ask for pictures at all, but simply for fourteen numbered crosses marking fourteen incidents on the way to Calvary, showing not so much the exterior incidents of the Passion as their inward meaning.    

She might add, with a shrug of the shoulders, that the Church tolerates the pictures that we use, just as a mother tolerates the crude and almost symbolic pictures that the older members of the family draw for the younger, knowing that little children will read into them just those things which are already in their own hearts.

            The Stations of the Cross are not given to us only to remind us of the historical Passion of Christ, but to show us what is happening now, and happening to each one of us.

            Christ did not become man, only to lead his short life on earth (unimaginable mercy though that would have been), but to live each of our lives.  He did not choose his Passion, only to suffer it in his own human nature, tremendous though that would have been, but  to suffer it in the suffering of each one of his members, through all ages, until the end of time.

            Most of Christ’s earthly life was hidden.  He was hidden in his Mother’s womb, he was hidden in Egypt and in Nazareth.  During his public life he was often hidden when he fled into “a mountain to pray”.  During the forty days of his risen life, again and again he disappeared and hid himself from men.  Today he is hidden in the Blessed Sacrament, in Heaven, and in his Mystical Body on earth.

            But in his Passion he was exposed, made public property to the whole of mankind.  The last time he went up into a mountain to pray, it was to pray out loud, in a voice that would echo down the ages, ringing in the ears of mankind for ever.  It was to be stripped naked before the whole world, for ever, not only in body,  but in mind and soul.  To reveal not only the height and the depth and the breadth of his love for men, but its intimacy, its sensitivity, its humanity.    

All his secrets were out.  Every detail of his Passion revealed something more of his character as man.  Not only his heroism and his majesty, but his human necessities, and the human limitations which he deliberately adopted as part of his plan of love, in order to in-dwell us as we are, with our limitations and psychological as well as physical necessities and interdependence on one another.

            He was not only simulating our humanness outwardly, but feeling as we feel.  Not only feeling his own grief, fear, compassion, need of sympathy, and so on, as man, but ours.  Not only knowing every nerve and fibre of his own love for us, but that of each one of us for one another.

            The Passion of Christ was an experience which included  every experience, except sin, of every member of the human race.

            If one may say this with reverence, the fourteen incidents of the Stations of the Cross show not only the suffering, but the psychology of Christ.  Above all they show, in detail, his way of transforming suffering by love.  He shows us, step by step, how  that plan of love can be carried out by men, women and children today, both alone in the loneliness of their individual lives, and together in communion with one another.

            Different though each human being is from every other, uniquely his own though each one’s experience is, there are certain inevitable experiences which are common to all men and from which none can escape.

            One of these is death.  Another is love. Every human being alive is on the road to death.  Everyone is capable of love for someone, even if it is only for himself, and the price of love, perhaps particularly of self-love, is suffering.  But the power of love, and this does not apply to self-love, is to transform suffering, to heal its inevitable wounds.

            Now it is easier to understand what it is that brings the incongruous motley of people together to “make the way of the Cross”

            Each one meets himself on the “Via Crucis”, which is the road through death to life.  In Christ he finds the meaning of his own suffering, the power of his own capacity for love.  He finds the explanation of himself in Our Lady, the Mother of Christ.  And in those others too, who are taking part in the Passion of the Son of Man – Simon of Cyrene, Magdalen and John, Veronica, the women of Jerusalem, the good thief, the centurion, the man who lent his tomb, the scattered apostles who crept back, and ran to the empty tomb on the morning of resurrection.  Those in whom, through grace and mercy Christ is being formed, and growing from the darkness of the buried seed to his full flowering.

            Yes, in the Stations of the Cross, he who has the eye of faith sees the story of Christ’s historical Passion – his own individual story – and the story of the suffering world, in which Christ’s Passion goes on through time; the way of the Cross which, though it leads to the tomb and the dark sleep of death, leads on beyond it to the waking morning of resurrection and the everlasting springtime of life.

            For us, here and now, there is a more immediate and more practical meaning in those fourteen incidents on the way to Calvary.  It is a showing not simply of the way of sorrows, which we are all destined to walk, if we will or not, but of the way of love, which heals sorrow, and which we all can take if we walk in the footsteps Christ has marked out for us, and not only imitate him but identify ourselves with him.

            The Stations show us how each one can lighten the heavy Cross that is laid upon the bent back of the whole human race now.  Now each one in the power of Christ’s love can sweeten his own suffering and that of those who are dear to him.

            This is why the prayer “We adore thee, O Christ, and we bless thee, because by thy holy Cross thou hast redeemed the world” echoes down the centuries, not in tones of fear and reluctance, but as a cry of welcome, a tender cry, in the tones of a lover’s greeting,  to him,  whom every man must meet on the way of sorrows, changed for him to the way of love.

                   Ack. 'The Stations of the Cross'  by Caryll Houselander.                   First Published Sheed & Ward 1955

Saturday 28 October 2023

'The Tears of Repentance' - by Francesca Alexander (late 19th c.)



‘The Tears of Repentance’

Part First


The Mountain


A wild, sad story I tell today,

And I pray you to listen all!

You cannot think how my heart is moved,

As the legend I recall, ---


The legend that made me weep so oft,

When I was a child like you!

I tell it now, in my life’s decline,

And it brings the tears anew.


It came to us down through ages long;

For this story had its scene

In the far-away, gorgeous, stormy days

Of the empire Byzantine.


And it tells of a famous mountain chief,

A terrible, fierce brigand,

Who ravaged the country, far and wide,

At the head of an armed band.


So hard of heart was this evil man

That he spared not young nor old;

He killed and plundered, and burned and spoiled,

In his maddening thirst for gold;


Would come with a swoop on a merchant troop,

That peacefully went its way,

And the counted gains of a journey long

Were scattered in one short day!


He knew no pity, he owned no law,

Nor human, nor yet divine;

Would take the gold from a Prince’s chest,

Or the lamp from a wayside shrine.


In hidden valley, in wild ravine,

On desolate, heath-grown hill,

He buried his treasure away from sight,

And most of it lies there still.


And none were free in that land to dwell,

Except they a tribute paid;

For the robber chief, who was more than king,

Had this burden on them laid.


If any dared to resist the claim,

He was met with vengeance dire;

His lands were wasted before the dawn,

And his harvest burned with fire.


And some day maybe himself was slain,

And left in the road to lie;

To fill with terror the quaking heart

Of the next who journeyed by.


And many fled to the towns afar

And their fields were left untilled,

While want and trouble and trembling fear

Had the stricken country filled.


High up on a mountain’s pathless side

Had the robber made his den,

In a rocky cave, where he reigned supreme

Over twenty lawless men.


A price had long on his head been set,

But for that he little cared;

For few were they who could climb the way,

And fewer were those who dared.


For those who hunted him long before

Had a fearful story brought:

They were not men on the mountain side,

But demons who with them fought!


For horrible forms arose, they said,

As if from the earth they grew;

And rolled down rocks from the cliffs above

On any who might pursue.


From town to town and from land to land,

Had his evil fame been spread;

And voices lowered and lips grew grave

When the hated name they said.


The people’s heart had grown faint with fear,

And they thought no hope remained;

But hope again on their vision dawned,

When the Emperor’s ear they gained.


Mauritius reigned o’er the nations then;

He was great in warlike fame,

And he was not one to shrink or quake

At a mountain bandit’s name.


He sent a band of a hundred strong

For the troubled land’s release,

To kill the man and his bloody crew,

And to give the country peace.


For what was a robber chief to him?

He had conquered mighty kings;

He gave the order, and then ‘t was done,

And he thought of other things.


But few, alas, of that troop returned,

And they told a ghostly tale;

And women wept, and the strongest men,

As they heard, grew mute and pale.


Those soldiers oft in the war had been,

And they counted danger light;

From mortal foe had they never turned,

But with demons who could fight?


The Emperor silent was and grave,

For his thoughts were deep and wise;

He saw that the robber chief was one

Whom he could not well despise.


There might be reason in what they said,

That the demons gave him aid,

And earthly weapon would ne’er be found

That could make such foes afraid.


But yet, they will flee from sacred things,

And the martyred saints, he knew,

Have holy virtue, that to them clings,

That can all their spells undo.


But how could such weapon reach the soul

That for years had owned their sway?

A question grave that he pondered long;

But at length he found a way.


A reliquary he made prepare;

It was all of finest gold:

For as monarch might with monarch treat,

He would serve this bandit bold.


The gold was his, but the work he gave

To the skilled and patient hand

Of an artist monk, who counted then

For the first in all the land.


Now see him close to his labour bent,

In a cell remote and high,

Where all he saw of the world without

Was a square of roof and sky.


A holy man was this artist monk,

And for gain he did not ask,

If only the Lord his work would bless,

For his heart was in the task.


And day by day from his touch came forth

The image of holy things;

The cross was there, and the clustered vine,

And the dove with outspread wings, ---


The dove that bore in her golden beak

The olive in sign of peace,---

And still, as he wrought, his hand kept time

To the prayer that would not cease!


For pity stirred in him when he thought

Of that dark and stormy breast,

So hard, so hopeless, from God so far,

Where the little sign would rest.


And perhaps if angels were looking on,

(And I doubt not some were there!)

They saw that the work was sewn with pearls,

And each pearl a burning prayer.


So weeks went on, and the shrine was done,

And within it, sealed and closed,

Were holy relics of martyred saints

Who near in the church reposed.


And trusted messengers bore it forth

To the distant mountain land;

With such a weapon they need not fear;

They could meet the famed brigand.


‘T was winter now on the mountain side,

And the way was long and hard,

As the faithful envoys upward toiled

In their bandit escort’s guard,---


Toiled up to a grove of ancient firs,

For that was the place designed,

Where, after parley and long delay,

Had the meeting been combined.


No sound but their feet that crushed the snow,

And the world looked sad and dead;

They thought of lives on the mountain lost,

And it was not much they said.


The sun, as it shone with slanting ray

Through the stripped and silent trees,

Could melt but little the clinging ice

Which tonight again would freeze.


They reached the grove, and the chief was there,

Like a king in savage state;

Erect and fearless, above them all,

While his men around him wait.


He stood before them like what he was,

A terrible beast of prey;

But even tigers have something grand,

And he looked as grand as they.


But, oh, the look that he on them turned!

It was fearful to behold;

It chilled their hearts, but they did not shrink,

For their faith had made them bold.


And looking straight in those gloomy eyes,

With their hard and cruel glare,

“We come,” said one, “in the Emperor’s name,

And from him a token bear.”


Then said the chief, with a mocking smile,

“And what may my Lord command?”

And made a sign with his evil eye,

For the men on guard to stand.


No faith had he in a tale so wild,

And he somewhat feared a snare;

There might be others in hiding near,

But he did not greatly care.


Then forth came he who the relics bore,---

‘T was a prudent man and brave,---

And into the hand that all men feared,

He the holy token gave.


“This gift to you has the Emperor sent,

In token of his good will,”

He said;  and at first the fierce brigand

Stood in wonder, hushed and still.


What felt he then as that holy thing

In his guilty hand he took?

What changed his face for a moment’s time

To an almost human look?


There lay the shrine in his open palm,

Yet he thought it could not be:

“For me?” he asked, but his voice was strange,

And again he said, “for me?”


Three times the messenger told his tale,

And he said ’t was all he knew;

The bandit looked at the wondrous work,

And he could not doubt ‘t was true.


So over his neck the chain he hung,

The shrine on his bosom lay

With all its wealth of a thousand prayers;

And they were not cast away.


Day followed day in the bandit’s cave,

And a restless man was he;

A heart so hard and so proud as his

With the saints could ill agree.


The holy relics that on it lay

Did a strange confusion make;

In all that most he had loved before,

He could no more pleasure take.


A charm there was in the golden shrine

That had all his soul possessed;

He sat and looked at each sacred sign

With a dreamy sense of rest.


‘T was not the gold that could soothe him thus,

And ‘t was not the work so fine:

‘T was the holy soul of the artist monk,

For it lived in every line.


Like one who sleeps when the day begins,

And, before his slumbers end,

The morning light and the morning sounds

With his dreaming fancies blend;


So now and then would his heart be stirred

By a feeling strange and new,

And thoughts he never had known before

In his mind unconscious grew.



Till on a sudden his blinding pride,

Like a bubble, failed and broke;

With eyes wide open, the guilty man

From his life-long dream awoke.


From graves forgotten his crimes came forth,

In his face they seemed to stare:

To all one day will such waking come;

God grant it be here, not there.


Then wild remorse on his heart took hold,

And beneath its burning sting

He shrank from himself as one might shrink

From a venomous, hateful thing.


For scenes of blood from the years gone by

Forever before him came;

He closed his eyes, and his face he hid,

But he saw them just the same.


And in the horror he dared not pray,

For he felt his soul accurst,

And he feared to live, and he feared to die,

And he knew not which was worst.


Yet far on high, and beyond his reach,

He could see a vision dim,

A far-off glory of peace and love;

But he felt ‘t was not for him.


Awhile his trouble he hid from all,

For his will was iron strong,

But never was man, since man was made,

Who could bear such torment long.


A strange, sick longing was growing up

In his spirit, day by day,

A longing for what he most had feared, ---

To let justice have her way;


Until the will to a purpose grew,

To the Emperor’s fee to fly,

To own his sin without prayer or plea,

And then give up all and die.


And so one night, without sound or word,

Away in the dark he stole,

And all that he took for his journey long

Was the weight of a burdened soul.


They waited long in that den of crime,

But they saw their chief no more;

Or dead, or living, they found him not,

Though they searched the mountain o’er.


And in the country, so long oppressed,

When his sudden flight was known,

They spoke of a wild and fearful night,

When the fiends had claimed their own.


And soon the tale to a legend turned,

And men trembling used to tell

Of how they carried him, body and soul,

To the place where demons dwell.


His men, so bold, were in mortal fear

Of what might themselves befall;

So some in a convent refuge sought,

And the rest were scattered all.


And no one climbed to their empty cave,

For ‘t was called a haunted place,

Though soon the summer had swept away

Of its horror every trace.


And mountain strawberries nestled low,

And delicate harebells hung,

In beauty meek, from its broken arch,

Where the swallows reared their young.


But where had he gone, that man of woe?

Had he found the rest he sought?

In haste he went, but with noiseless tread,

As his bandit life had taught.


And going downward he met the spring,

With its mingled sun and showers;

But storms of winter he bore within,

And he did not see the flowers.


And how did he live from day to day,

And the ceaseless strain endure?

Kind hearts there are that can feel for all,

And the poor will help the poor.


In frightened pity, a shepherd girl,

As she fled o’er the daisied grass,

Would let the bread from her apron fall

On the turf where he should pass;


Or workmen, eating their noonday meal

On a bank beside the way,

Would give him food, but with outstretched arm,

And they asked him not to stay.


He went like a shadow taken shape

From some vague and awful dream,

And word of comfort for him was none,

In his misery so extreme.


Alas, from himself he could not flee,

Though he tried, poor haunted man;

And he reached the city beside the sea,

As the Holy Week began.


Part Second.


‘T was Sunday morn, and a hundred bells

With their sweet and saintly sound

Were calling the people into prayer

From the pleasant hills around,---


The morn when strivings should end in peace,

And each wrong forgotten be,

That Holy Week may its blessing shed

Upon souls from discord free.


The streets were bright with a moving throng,

And before the palace gate,

With eager eyes and in garments gay,

Did a crowd expectant wait.


For the Emperor goes in solemn state,

With his court, like all the rest,

To the church with many lamps ablaze,

Where today the palms are blest.


And stately ladies and timid girls,

In their modest plain attire,

From curtained windows are looking down,

And the shifting scene admire.


They come, they come, from the cool deep shade

Of the courtyard’s marble arch,---

The nobles all in their rich array,

And the guards with sounding march.


And stay, the square is as still as death,

For the Emperor passes now;

The girls at the window hold their breath,

And the people bend and bow.


But who is this that among them moves

With that quick and stately pace?

What see they all in his rigid look,

That they shrink and give him place?


Too late the guards would have barred the way,

For he darted swiftly by,

As hunted creatures, when hard beset,

To man in their terror fly.


And sinking low at the feet of him

He had come so far to see,

He waited silent with folded hands,

Nor asked what his fate should be.


“Who are you, come in such deep distress,

And what is the grace you seek?”

The Emperor’s voice was grave and kind,

And the stranger tried to speak.


The golden casket he raised in sight,

While he bent his eyes for shame;

Then said he, “I am that wicked man,”

And he told the dreaded name.


A shudder fell upon all who heard,

But the people nearer drew;

From mouth to mouth, in a whisper low,

The name of the bandit flew.


While he, uplifting those woeful eyes,

In the boldness of despair,

With ne’er a thought of the crowd who heard,

His errand did thus declare:


“I come not here to confess my sins,

For you know them all too well;

My crimes are many and black and great,

They are more than tongue can tell.


“But here at your feet my life I lay,

I have nothing else to give;

So now, if it please you, speak the word,

For I am not fit to live.”


The words came straight from his broken heart

In such sad and simple style,

That the Emperor’s firm, proud lips were moved

To a somewhat softened smile.


For his warlike spirit felt the charm

Of that savage strength and grace,

And the strange fierce beauty that lingered still

In the dark and troubled face.


So grand of form and so lithe of limb,

And still in his manhood’s prime,

‘T would be a pity for one like him

To perish before his time.


And ‘t was well to see him kneeling there,

Whose terror had filled the land,

Like a captive tiger, caught and tamed

By his own imperial hand.


“Arise” he said, “you have nought to fear,

Take comfort and go your way,

And may God in heaven my sins forgive,

As I pardon yours today.”


A murmur rose from the crowded square,

At the sound of words like these;

For some rejoiced in the mercy shown,

And others it did not please.


Some thanked the Lord for the pardoned man,

And some were to scorn inclined;

And motherly women wiped their eyes,

For the women’s hearts are kind.


“God bless our Emperor,” many said;

But others began to frown,

And asked, “Will he turn this wild brigand

Adrift in our peaceful town?”


No word of thanks did the bandit say,

But he raised one shining fold

Of the robe imperial, trailing low

With its weight of gems and gold.


The border first to his lips he pressed,

And then to his heavy heart;

Then rose and waited with bended head,

Till he saw them all depart.


No eye had he for the gorgeous train,

As along the square it passed;

One stately presence was all he knew,

And he watched it till the last.


A heavy sigh, and he turned away,

But with slow and weary tread;

No rest as yet on the earth for him,

Not even among the dead.


He lived, and he bore his burden still,

But the dumb despair had ceased:

That word of mercy had brought a change,

And he now had tears, at least;


He now could pray, though it brought not light,

And he seemed to ask in vain,

And his prayer had more of tears than words,

But it helped him bear the pain.


And oft in church did they see him kneel

In some corner all alone,

And weep till the great hot drops would fall

On the floor of varied stone.


And children clung to their mothers’ hand,

When they saw that vision wild,---

That haggard face, and that wasting form,.

And those lips that never smiled.


But grief was wearing his life away,

And for him perhaps ‘t was well;

It was not long on the city street

That his saddening shadow fell.


A fever slowly within him burned,

Till the springs of life were dry,

And glad he was when they laid him down

On a hospital bed to die.


His heart was broken, his strength was gone,

He had no more wish to live;

He almost hoped that the Lord on high,

Like the Emperor, might forgive;


That somewhere down in the peaceful earth

He should find a refuge yet,

A place to rest and his eyes to close,

And the woeful past forget.


He could not lie where the others lay,

For such gloom around him spread,

That soon in a chamber far away

Had they set his friendless bed.


‘T’ was there he suffered and wept and prayed,

From the eyes of all concealed:

Alas! But it takes a weary time

For a life like his to yield.


The grand old hospital where he died

Was beneath the watchful care

Of a certain doctor, famed afar

For his skill and learning rare.


But more than learning and more than skill

Was his heart, so large and kind,

That knew the trouble and felt the needs

Of the sick who near him pined.


With conscience pure had he served the Lord

From youth till his hair was grey,

Yet only pity he felt, not scorn,

For the many feet that stray.


In troubled scenes had his life been passed;

He was used to woe and sin,

And when men suffered he did not ask

If their lives had blameless been.


His part was but to relieve their pain,

And he helped and soothed and cheered;

But most he cared for the stricken man

Whom the others shunned and feared.


Each art to save him he tried in vain,

And it could but useless prove,

For the poisoned thorn that pierced his heart

Could no earthly hand remove.


When hope had failed, he would kneel and pray,

And his heart with tears outpour,

That God in mercy would comfort send

To that soul in torment sore.


And though the burden he might not lift,

He could help its weight to bear;

He talked of mercy, of peace to come,

And he bade him not despair.


And so, on the last sad night of all,

‘T was the brave, good doctor came

To watch alone by the bandit’s side,

When he died of grief and shame.


The spring to summer was wearing on,

‘T was the fairest night in May,

When sleep to those eyes in mercy came,

And the deadly strain gave way.


No candle burned, for the moon was full,

And the peaceful splendour fell

Through the open window, lighting all:

It was like a kind farewell.


And scents from the garden floated in,

And the silent fireflies came,

And breathed and vanished, and breathed again,

With their soft mysterious flame.


The doctor watched with a heavy heart,

His head on his hand was bowed;

He thought how many his prayers had been,

But they could not lift the cloud.


‘T was over now, there was nothing left

For his pitying love to do;

The worn-out body would rest at last,

But the guilty soul, -- who knew?


No more to do but to watch and wait

Till the failing breath should cease;

He longed, as the counted minutes flew,

For one parting smile of peace.


He looked: a handkerchief veiled the eyes,

For they wept until the end,

And sadly still on the wasted cheek

Did a few slow drops descend.


The peace that oft to the dying comes

Was to him as yet denied, ---

No sunset clear after stormy day,

And no brightening ere he died.


“Alas! He will go away tonight,

And without one hopeful sign,

Away from pity, away from care,

And from such poor help as mine!”


The doctor sighed, but he hoped as well,

For he said, “It cannot be

That the Lord, who died for all, will have

No mercy for such as he.”


‘T was then that sleep on the doctor fell,

And before him stood revealed,

In dreaming vision, a wondrous sight,

From his waking eyes concealed.


For other watchers were in the room,

And he knew the ghastly throng

Of demon spirits, the very same

Whom the man had served so long.


And two were leaning across the bed,

And another pressed behind,

And some in the shadow waiting stood,

With a chain his soul to bind.


But angels watched by the bedside too;

‘T was a strange and solemn scene,---

The angels here and the demons there,

And the dying man between.


The angels looked with a troubled gaze

On the face consumed with grief,

And over the pillow bent and swayed,

As in haste to bring relief.


And one on the bowed and burdened head

Did a hand in blessing lay,

And he said, “Poor soul, come home with us,

Where the tears are wiped away.”


“Not so,” cried one of the demon troop,

“he is black with every sin;

And you may not touch our lawful prey

That we laboured years to win.


“We bought his soul, and the price we paid,

And our part has well been done;

We helped him ever from crime to crime,

Till his buried wealth was won;


“And we almost thought him one of us,

He had so well learned our ways;

So go, for we do but seek our own,

And be done with these delays.”


The angel said, “He has wept his sin,

As none ever wept before,

Has mourned till his very life gave way,

And what could a man do more?


“And our Blessed Lord, who pities all,

And the sins of all has borne,

Will never His mercy turn away

From a heart so bruised and torn.”


“But how? And shall mercy be for him

Who has mercy never shown?

Can his sorrow bring the dead to life,

Or can tears for blood atone?


“Is he to rest with the angels now,

Has he done with tears and pain?

Tomorrow morn he will wish he lay

On the hospital bed again;


“There is somewhat more to weep for down

In the place where he must stay!”

The demon looked at his fiendish mates;

And he laughed, and so did they.


And they gathered close, like hungry wolves,

In their haste to rend and tear;

But they could not touch the helpless head

While that strong white hand was there.


Then out of the shadow one came forth,

‘T was a demon great and tall;

An iron balance he held on high,

As he stood before them all.


And fiercely he to the angels called,

“Do you dare to claim him still?

Then come, for the scales are in my hand,

We will weigh the good and ill.”


And into the nearest scale he threw,

As he spoke, a parchment roll,

With on it a note of every sin

That had stained the parting soul.


‘T was closely written, without, within,

And the balance downward flew

And struck the ground with a blow, as though

It would break the pavement through.


“He is ours for ever,” the demons said,

“If justice the world controls;

For sins so heavy do on him lie,

They would sink a hundred souls!


“Come, hasten, angels, the time is short,

And words are of no avail;

Come, bring the note of your friend’s good deeds,

To lay in the empty scale.”


The angels searched, but they searched in vain,

There was no good deed to bring;

In all that ever that hand had done,

They could find no worthy thing.


A taunting shout from the demons broke,

And each hard malignant face

With joy and triumph was all aflame;

But the angels held their place,


Though dimness fell like a passing cloud

On their pure and holy light;

And if ever angel eyes have tears,

There were some in theirs that night.


But he who had been the first to speak,

With a glimmering hope possessed,

Still sought some good that would turn the scale,

Though it seemed a useless quest.


He saw the handkerchief where it lay,

And he raised it off the bed,

All wet and clinging, and steeped in tears

That the dying eyes had shed.


He turned around, but his face was pale,

As the last poor chance he tried;

He laid it down in the empty scale,

And he said, “Let God decide!”


When, lo!  It fell till it touched the earth,

And the demons stood dismayed;

It seemed so little and light a thing,

But it all his sins outweighed.


But who shall ever the anger tell

Of that black and hateful band,

When most in triumph they felt secure,

The prey had escaped their hand.


They stood one moment in speechless rage,

And then, with a fearful sound

Of shrieks and curses and rattling chains,

They vanished beneath the ground.


Then holy peace on the chamber fell,

Till it flooded all the air;

The angels praised and they thanked the Lord,

Who so late had heard their prayer.


And their clouded glory shone again,

With a clear celestial ray,

As the trembling soul, which that moment passed,

They bore in their arms away.


Then through the room, as they took their flight,

Did a flood of music stream,

So loud, so sweet, and so close at hand,

That it waked him from his dream.


He looked around; there was nothing stirred

In the empty, moonlit room,

Where a faint, sweet odour filled the air

From the orange-trees in bloom.


And the notes divine he had thought to hear

Were only the liquid flow

Of a nightingale’s song, that came up clear

From the garden just below.


Then up from his seat the doctor rose,

And he stood beside the bed;

He knew, when he touched the quiet hand,

That the poor brigand was dead.


The handkerchief on the pillow lay,

But its weary use was o’er,

And he raised it, heavy and wet with tears,

From the eyes that could weep no more.


Ack. Taken from ‘The Hidden Servants’, and other very old stories’ told over again by Francesca Alexander.  Published by David Nutt, at the Sign of the Phoenix, Long Acre, London 1911.


Francesca Alexander was the daughter of an American artist and lived most of her life in Italy. A deeply religious woman, Protestant by upbringing, she had this to say about her work, “With regard to this present collection of ballads, I can tell its history in a few words. When I was a young girl many old and curious books fell into my hands and became my favourite reading (next to the Bible, and perhaps, the Divina Commedia), as I found in them the strong faith and simple modes of thought which were what I liked and wanted. Afterwards in my constant intercourse with the country people, and especially with old people, whom I always loved, I heard a great many legends and traditions, often beautiful, often instructive, and which, as far as I knew, had never been written down.” As she grew older Francesca gradually lost her sight, limiting her writing opportunities, but persuading her to adopt poetry in translating these many works, which she believed made the stories ‘vivid and comprehensible’ particularly for children, but also for older people. In her letter Francesca, who for most of her life worked as an artist, commented that “when the Lord took from me one faculty, He gave me another, which in no way is impossible. And I think of the beautiful Italian proverb: ‘When God shuts a door He opens a window.’ “ 

Cardinal Manning, when writing to Mr Ruskin in 1883 to thank him for a copy of Francesca’s ‘Story of Ida’, writes :---“It is simply beautiful, like the Floretti di San Francesco.  Such flowers can grow in one soil alone.  They can be found only in the Garden of Faith, over which the world of light hangs visibly, and is more intensely seen by the poor and the pure in heart than by the rich, or the learned, or the men of culture.”


'The Tears of Repentance' I found in a book called 'Maraviglie di Dio Suoi Santi' by the Jesuit Father, Padre Carlo Gregorio Rosignoli, printed at Bologna in 1696.  He says it was written originally by Theophilus Raynaudus.

'Foreword to poem- by Francesca Alexander.'