"The Monk and the Bird of Paradise." by Lilian Gask (1865-)
THE banks of the Rhine stood a large Monastery, where dwelt a company of monks. These holy men were not only distinguished for sanctity, but also for their wisdom and learning, and one of the foremost was Brother Bernard, whom all reverenced for his piety. From far and near students came to consult him, and his words were quoted as if he were an oracle.
In spite of his holiness, however, Brother Bernard had serious misgivings as to the state of his own soul. He could not imagine himself living in Paradise for ever without becoming weary of it.
"Alas!" he cried, "we tire of everything upon this earth, and I fear that even an eternity of bliss would at last become monotonous. The vesper hymn is very sweet, but I should not care for it unceasingly."
He was so tormented by this thought that he could neither read nor pray. At the foot of the mountain on which the Monastery was built stood a great forest, and here he wandered for hours in the shade of the giant trees, so absorbed in his reflections that he paid no heed to where he trod. At last he prayed that God would work some miracle that he might know that life in Heaven would neither be dull nor dreary.
After a while he grew fatigued by his long ramble and looked around to see whence he had come. To his surprise he found himself in an unknown part of the forest, and on reaching a clearing where the sunlight streamed on the fallen needles of the pines, he threw himself into the midst of their fragrance to rest awhile. Just then a little bird, with plumage the colour of the sky itself, alighted on the branch above him, and began to sing. So pure and exquisite were its notes that Brother Bernard listened in ecstasy until the sweet song ceased. As the bird vanished, the monk rose from his seat. "Dear me," he cried, "how stiff I am! I must have walked much further than I thought."
In stooping to brush the pine-needles from his robe he noticed that his beard was snowy white, and that his hands were wrinkled, like those of an old man. Even the forest itself looked changed to him, for the trees were larger, and the bushes had disappeared. He wondered if he could be dreaming, for otherwise, he thought, his senses must be deceiving him. With great difficulty he found his way back to the village, where he was surprised to meet unfamiliar faces. He rubbed his eyes again and again, feeling greatly disturbed.
"I thought that I knew every one," he muttered to himself, "but here are people whom I never met before. Who are they, and why do they stare at me as if I were some wild man of the woods, instead of hastening to kiss my hand and receive my benediction?" He was too weary to question them, however, and made his way to the Monastery. His astonishment increased when he found a stranger in charge of the gate instead of good Brother Antoine, who had held the office for more than fifty years.
"Where is the porter?" he asked him falteringly, "and what has happened to cause the changes which I see around me?"
The Brother looked at him curiously.
"I do not know what you mean," he said, "for I have been porter here for thirty years, and I can assure you that there have been no changes in my time."
"Then what can have happened to me?" exclaimed the bewildered monk. "I went out this morning to walk in the forest, and on my return I find no trace of my old comrades."
Just then two aged monks came slowly by, and Brother Bernard stepped in front of them.
"Do you not recognise me?" he asked. "Is there no one here who knows Brother Bernard?"
"'Brother Bernard'?" said the oldest, reflectively. "We have no Brother of that name in the Monastery now, but I remember having read of him in our chronicles. He was a most holy man, with the simple faith of a little child. One morning, they say, he quitted the Monastery and went to the forest that he might meditate and pray with nothing between him and the floor of Heaven. He never returned, and though a diligent search was made, no trace of him could be found. It was thought that he had been carried up to the skies, like the prophet Elijah, in a chariot of fire: a fitting end to his life of sanctity."
"How long ago was this?" asked Brother Bernard tremblingly.
THOUSAND years," said the old monk. "You may see by our books that this is so."
On hearing this Brother Bernard fell on his knees.
"God heard my prayer, and worked a miracle," he cried, "that I might have faith. He sent His Bird of Paradise to sing to me, and, while I listened, a thousand years passed by. Now indeed I believe, and would feign enter His Holy Kingdom."
He bowed his head in silence, and when they spoke to him again they found that his spirit had passed away. The smile on his lips was so full of sweetness that the monks marvelled greatly, and they noted with awe that his wrinkled face had grown smooth again.
"God is good to His Saints," murmured one monk. "Amen," returned the others solemnly.