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Chronicles of the Schonberg-Cotta Family By Elizabeth Rundle Charles Characters: 23856

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


Fritz's Story.

Rome, Augustinian Convent.

Holy as this city necessarily must be, consecrated by relics of the church's most holy dead, consecrated by the presence of her living Head, I scarcely think religion is as deep in the hearts of these Italians as of our poor Germans in the cold north.

But I may mistake; feeling of all kinds manifests itself in such different ways with different characters.

Certainly the churches are thronged on all great occasions, and the festas are brilliant. But the people seem rather to regard them as holidays and dramatic entertainments, than as the solemn and sacred festivals we consider them in Saxony. This morning, for instance, I heard two women criticizing a procession in words such as these, as far as the little Italian I have picked up, enabled me to understand them:-

"Ah, Nina mia, the angels are nothing to-day; you should have seen our Lucia last year! Every one said she was heavenly. If the priests do not arrange it better, people will scarcely care to attend. Besides, the music was execrable."

"Ah, the nuns of the Cistercian convent understand how to manage a ceremony. They have ideas! Did you see their Bambino last Christmas? Such lace! and the cradle of tortoise-shell, fit for an emperor, as it should be! And then their robes for the Madonna on her fêtes! Cloth of gold embroidered with pearls and brilliants worth a treasury!"

"Yes," replied the other, lowering her voice, "I have been told the history of those robes. A certain lady who was powerful at the late Holy Father's court, is said to have presented the dress in which she appeared on some state occasion to the nuns, just as she wore it."

"Did she become a penitent, then?"

"A penitent? I do not know; such an act of penitence would purchase indulgences and masses to last at least for some time."

Brother Martin and I do not so much affect these gorgeous processions. These Italians, with their glorious skies and the rich colouring of their beautiful land require more splendour in their religion than our German eyes can easily gaze on undazzled.

It rather perplexed us to see the magnificent caparisons of the horses of the cardinals; and more especially to behold the Holy Father sitting on a fair palfrey, bearing the sacred Host. In Germany, the loftiest earthly dignity prostrates itself low before that Ineffable Presence.

But my mind becomes confused. Heaven forbid that I should call the Vicar of Christ an earthly dignitary! Is he not the representative and oracle of God on earth?

For this reason,-no doubt in painful contradiction to the reverent awe natural to every Christian before the Holy Sacrament,-the Holy Father submits to sitting enthroned in the church, and receiving the body of our Creator through a golden tube presented to him by a kneeling cardinal.

It must be very difficult for him to separate between the office and the person. It is difficult enough for us. But for the human spirit not yet made perfect to receive these religious honours must be overwhelming.

Doubtless, at night, when the holy father humbles himself in solitude before God, his self-abasement is as much deeper than that of ordinary Christians as his exaltation is greater.

I must confess that it is an inexpressible relief to me to retire to the solitude of my cell at night, and pray to Him of whom Brother Martin and I spoke in the Black Forest; to whom the homage of the universe is no burden, because it is not mere prostration before an office, but adoration of a person. "Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty: heaven and earth are full of thy glory."

Holiness-to which almightiness is but an attribute, Holy One, who hast loved and given thine Holy One for a sinful world, miserere nobis!

Rome, July.

We have diligently visited all the holy relics, and offered prayers at every altar at which especial indulgences are procured, for ourselves and others.

Brother Martin once said he could almost wish his father and mother (whom he dearly loves) were dead, that he might avail himself of the privileges of this holy city to deliver their souls from purgatory.

He says masses whenever he can. But the Italian priests are often impatient with him because he recites the office so slowly. I heard one of them say, contemptuously, he had accomplished thirty masses while Brother Martin only finished one. And more than once they hurry him forward, saying "Passa! passa!"

There is a strange disappointment in these ceremonies to me, and, I think, often to him. I seem to expect so much more,-not more pomp, of that there is abundance; but when the ceremony itself begins, to which all the pomp of music, and processions of cavaliers, and richly-robed priests, and costly shrines, are mere preliminary accessories, it seems often so poor! The kernel inside all this gorgeous shell seems to the eye of sense like a little poor withered dust.

To the eye of sense! Yes, I forget. These are the splendours of faith, which faith only can behold.

To-day we gazed on the Veronica,-the holy impression left by our Saviour's face on the cloth St. Veronica presented to him to wipe his brow, bowed under the weight of the cross. We had looked forward to this sight for days; for seven thousand years of indulgence from penance are attached to it.

But when the moment came Brother Martin and I could see nothing but a black board hung with a cloth, before which another white cloth was held. In a few minutes this was withdrawn, and the great moment was over, the glimpse of the sacred thing on which hung the fate of seven thousand years! For some time Brother Martin and I did not speak of it. I feared there had been some imperfection in my looking, which might affect the seven thousand years; but observing his countenance rather downcast, I told my difficulty, and found that he also had seen nothing but a white cloth.

The skulls of St. Peter and St. Paul perplexed us still more, because they had so much the appearance of being carved in wood. But in the crowd we could not approach very close; and doubtless Satan uses devices to blind the eyes even of the faithful.

One relic excited my amazement much-the halter with which Judas hanged himself! It could scarcely be termed a holy relic. I wonder who preserved it, when so many other precious things are lost. Scarcely the Apostles; perhaps the scribes, out of malice.

The Romans, I observe, seem to care little for what to us is the kernel and marrow of these ceremonies-the exhibition of the holy relics. They seem more occupied in comparing the pomp of one year, or of one church, with another.

We must not, I suppose, measure the good things done us by our own thoughts and feelings, but simply accept it on the testimony of the Church.

Otherwise I might be tempted to imagine that the relics of pagan Rome do my spirit more good than gazing on the sacred ashes or bones of martyrs or apostles. When I walk over the heaps of shapeless ruin, so many feet beneath which lies buried the grandeur of the old imperial city; or when I wander among the broken arches of the gigantic Coliseum, where the martyrs fought with wild beasts,-great thoughts seem to grow naturally in my mind, and I feel how great truth is, and how little empires are.

I see an empire solid as this Coliseum crumble into ruins as undistinguishable as the dust of those streets, before the word of that once despised Jew of Tarsus, "in bodily presence weak," who was beheaded here. Or, again, in the ancient Pantheon, when the music of Christian chants rises among the shadowy forms of the old vanquished gods painted on the walls, and the light streams down, not from painted windows in the walls, but from the glowing heavens above, every note of the service echoes like a peal of triumph, and fills my heart with thankfulness.

But my happiest hours here are spent in the church of my patron, St. Sebastian, without the walls, built over the ancient catacombs.

Countless martyrs, they say, rest in peace in these ancient sepulchres. They have not been opened for centuries; but they are believed to wind in subterranean passages far beneath the ancient city. In those dark depths the ancient Church took refuge from persecution: there she laid her martyrs; and there, over their tombs, she chanted hymns of triumph, and held communion with Him for whom they died. In that church I spend hours. I have no wish to descend into those sacred sepulchres, and pry among the graves the resurrection trump will open soon enough. I like to think of the holy dead, lying undisturbed and quiet there; of their spirits in Paradise; of their faith triumphant in the city which massacred them.

No doubt they also had their perplexities, and wondered why the wicked triumph, and sighed to God, "How long, O Lord, how long?"

And yet I cannot help wishing I had lived and died among them, and had not been born in times when we see Satan appear, not in his genuine hideousness, but as an angel of light.

For of the wickedness that prevails in this Christian Rome, alas, who can speak! of the shameless sin, the violence, the pride, the mockery of sacred things!

In the Coliseum, in the Pantheon, in the Church of St. Sebastian, I feel an atom-but an atom in a solid, God-governed world, where truth is mightiest;-insignificant in myself as the little mosses which flutter on these ancient stones; but yet a little moss on a great rock which cannot be shaken-the rock of God's providence and love. In the busy city, I feel tossed hither and thither on a sea which seems to rage and heave at its own wild will, without aim or meaning-a sea of human passion. Among the ruins, I commune with the spirits of our great and holy dead, who live unto God. At the exhibition of the sacred relics, my heart is drawn down to the mere perishable dust, decorated with the miserable pomps of the little men of the day.

And then I return to the convent and reproach myself for censoriousness, and unbelief, and pride, and try to remember that the benefits of these ceremonies and exhibitions are only to be understood by faith, and are not to be judged by inward feeling, or even by their moral results.

The Church, the Holy Father, solemnly declare that pardons and blessings incalculable, to ourselves and others, flow from so many Paternosters and Aves recited at certain altars, or from seeing the Veronica or the other relics. I have performed the acts, and I must at my peril believe in their efficacy.

But Brother Martin and I are often sorely discouraged at the wickedness we see and hear around us. A few days since he was at a feast with several prelates and great men of the Church, and the fashion among them seemed to be to jest at all that is most sacred. Some avowed their disbelief in one portion of the faith, and some in others; but all in a light and laughing way, as if it mattered little to any of them. One present related how they sometimes substituted the words panis es, et panis manebis in the mass, instead of the words of consecration, and then amused themselves with watching the people adore what was, after all, no consecrated Host, but a mere piece of bread.

The Romans themselves we have heard declare, that if there be a hell, Rome is built over it. They have a couplet,-

"Vivere qui sancte vultis, discedite Roma:

Omnia hic esse licent, non licet esse probum."[7]

O Rome! in sacredness as Jerusalem, in wickedness as Babylon, how bitter is the conflict that breaks forth in the heart at seeing holy places and holy character thus disjoined! How overwhelming the doubts that rush back on the spirit again and again, as to the very existence of holiness or truth in the universe, when we behold the deeds of Satan prevailing in the very metropolis of the kingdom of God!

Rome, August.

Mechanically, we continue to go through every detail o

f the prescribed round of devotions, believing against experience, and hoping against hope.

To-day Brother Martin went to accomplish the ascent of the Santa Scala-the Holy Staircase-which once, they say, formed part of Pilate's house. I had crept up the sacred steps before, and stood watching him as, on his knees, he slowly mounted step after step of the hard stone, worn into hollows, by the knees of penitents and pilgrims. An indulgence for a thousand years-indulgence from penance-is attached to this act of devotion. Patiently he crept half way up the staircase, when, to my amazement, he suddenly stood erect, lifted his face heavenward, and, in another moment, turned and walked slowly down again.

He seemed absorbed in thought, when he rejoined me; and it was not until some time afterwards that he told the meaning of this sudden abandonment of his purpose.

He said that, as he was toiling up, a voice, as if from heaven, seemed to whisper to him the old, well-known words, which had been his battle-cry in so many a victorious combat,-"The just shall live by faith."

He seemed awakened, as if from a nightmare, and restored to himself. He dared not creep up another step; but, rising from his knees, he stood upright, like a man suddenly loosed from bonds and fetters, and, with the firm step of a freeman, he descended the Staircase and walked from the place.

August, 1511.

To-night there has been an assassination. A corpse was found near our convent gates, pierced with many wounds. But no one seems to think much of it. Such things are constantly occurring, they say; and the only interest seems to be as to the nature of the quarrel which led to it.

"A prelate is mixed up with it," the monks whisper: "one of the late Pope's family. It will not be investigated."

But these crimes of passion seem to me comprehensible and excusable, compared with the spirit of levity and mockery which pervades all classes. In such acts of revenge you see human nature in ruins; yet in the ruins you can trace something of the ancient dignity. But in this jesting, scornful spirit, which mocks at sacredness in the service of God, at virtue in woman, and at truth and honour in men, all traces of God's image seem crushed and trodden into shapeless, incoherent dust.

From such thoughts I often take refuge in the Campagna, and feel a refreshment in its desolate spaces, its solitary wastes, its traces of material ruin.

The ruins of empires and of imperial edifices do not depress me. The immortality of the race and of the soul rises grandly in contrast. In the Campagna we see the ruins of Imperial Rome; but in Rome we see the ruin of our race and nature. And what shall console us for that, when the presence of all that Christians most venerate is powerless to arrest it?

Were it not for some memories of a home at Eisenach, on which I dare not dwell too much, it seems at times as if the very thought of purity and truth would fade from my heart.

Rome, August.

Brother Martin, during the intervals of the business of his Order, which is slowly winding its way among the intricacies of the Roman courts, is turning his attention to the study of Hebrew, under the Rabbi Elias Levita.

I study also with the Rabbi, and have had the great benefit, moreover, of hearing lectures from the Byzantine Greek professor, Argyropylos.

Two altogether new worlds seem to open to me through these men,-one in the far distances of time, and the other in those of space.

The Rabbi, one of the race which is a by-word and a scorn among us from boyhood, to my surprise seems to glory in his nation and his pedigree, with a pride which looks down on the antiquity of our noblest lineages as mushrooms of a day. I had no conception that underneath the misery and the obsequious demeanour of the Jews such lofty feelings existed. And, yet, what wonder is it! Before Rome was built, Jerusalem was a sacred and royal city; and now that the empire and the people of Rome have passed for centuries, this nation, fallen before their prime, still exists to witness their fall.

I went once to the door of their synagogue, in the Ghetto. There were no shrines in it, no altars, no visible symbols of sacred things, except the roll of the Law, which was reverently taken out of a sacred treasury and read aloud. Yet there seemed something sublime in this symbolizing of the presence of God only by a voice reading the words which, ages ago, He spoke to their prophets in the Holy Land.

"Why have you no altar?" I asked once of one of the Rabbis.

"Our altar can only be raised when our temple is built," was the reply. "Our temple can only rise in the city and on the hill of our God. But," he continued, in a low, bitter tone, "when our altar and temple are restored, it will not be to offer incense to the painted image of a Hebrew maiden."

I have thought of the words often since. But were they not blasphemy? I must not dare recall them.

But those Greeks! they are Christians, and yet not of our communion. As Argyropylos speaks, I understand for the first time that a Church exists in the East, as ancient as the Church of Western Europe, and as extensive, which acknowledges the Holy Trinity and the Creeds, but owns no allegiance to the Holy Father the Pope.

The world is much larger and older than Elsè or I thought at Eisenach. May not God's kingdom be much larger than some think at Rome?

In the presence of monuments which date back to days before Christianity, and of men who speak the language of Moses, and, with slight variations, the language of Homer, our Germany seems in its infancy indeed. Would to God it were in its infancy, and that a glorious youth and prime may succeed, when these old, decrepit nations are worn out and gone!

Yet Heaven forbid that I should call Rome decrepit-Rome on whose brow rests, not the perishable crown of earthly dominion, but the tiara of the kingdom of God.

September.

The mission which brought Brother Martin hither is nearly accomplished. We shall soon-we may at a day's notice-leave Rome and return to Germany.

And what have we gained by our pilgrimage?

A store of indulgences beyond calculation. And knowledge; eyes opened to see good and evil. Ennobling knowledge! glimpses into rich worlds of human life and thought, which humble the heart in expanding the mind. Bitter knowledge! illusions dispelled, aspirations crushed. We have learned that the heart of Christendom is a moral plague-spot; that spiritual privileges and moral goodness have no kind of connection, because where the former are at the highest perfection, the latter is at the lowest point of degradation.

We have learned that on earth there is no place to which the heart can turn as a sanctuary, if by a sanctuary we mean not merely a refuge from the punishment of sin, but a place in which to grow holy.

In one sense, Rome may, indeed, be called the sanctuary of the world! It seems as if half the criminals in the world had found a refuge here.

When I think of Rome in future as a city of the living, I shall think of assassination, treachery, avarice, a spirit of universal mockery, which seems only the foam over an abyss of universal despair; mockery of all virtue, based on disbelief in all truth.

It is only as a city of the dead that my heart will revert to Rome as a holy place. She has indeed built, and built beautifully, the sepulchres of the prophets.

Those hidden catacombs, where the holy dead rest, far under the streets of the city,-too far for traffickers in sacred bones to disturb them,-among these the imagination can rest, like those beatified ones, in peace.

The spiritual life of Rome seems to be among her dead. Among the living all seems spiritual corruption and death.

May God and the saints have mercy on me if I say what is sinful. Does not the scum necessarily rise to the surface? Do not acts of violence and words of mockery necessarily make more noise in the world than prayers? How do I know how many humble hearts there are in those countless convents there, that secretly offer acceptable incense to God, and keep the perpetual lamp of devotion burning in the sight of God?

How do I know what deeper and better thoughts lie hidden under that veil of levity? Only I often feel that if God had not made me a believer through his word, by the voice of Brother Martin in the Black Forest, Rome might too easily have made me an infidel. And it is certainly true, that to be a Christian at Rome as well as elsewhere, (indeed, more than elsewhere) one must breast the tide, and must walk by faith, and not by sight.

But we have performed the pilgrimage. We have conscientiously visited all the shrines; we have recited as many as possible of the privileged acts of devotion, Paters and Aves, at the privileged shrines.

Great benefits must result to us from these things.

But benefits of what kind? Moral? How can that be? When shall I efface from my memory the polluting words and works I have seen and heard at Rome? Spiritual? Scarcely; if by spiritual we are to understand a devout mind, joy in God, and nearness to him. When, since that night in the Black Forest, have I found prayer so difficult, doubts so overwhelming, the thoughts of God and heaven so dim, as at Rome?

The benefits, then, that we have received, must be ecclesiastical-those that the Church promises and dispenses. And what are these ecclesiastical benefits? Pardon? But is it not written that God gives this freely to those who believe on his Son? Peace? But is not that the legacy of the Saviour to all who love him?

What then? Indulgences. Indulgences from what? From the temporal consequences of sin? Too obviously not these. Do the ecclesiastical indulgences save men from disease, and sorrow, and death? Is it, then, from the eternal consequences of sin? Did not the Lamb of God, dying for us on the cross, bear our sins there, and blot them out? What then remains, which the indulgences can deliver from? Penance and purgatory. What then are penance and purgatory? Has penance in itself no curative effect, that we can be healed of our sins by escaping as well as by performing it? Have purgatorial fires no purifying powers, that we can be purified as much by repeating a few words of devotion at certain altars as by centuries of agony in the flames?

All these questions rise before me from time to time, and I find no reply. If I mention them to my confessor, he says,-

"These are temptations of the Devil. You must not listen to them. They are vain and presumptuous questions. There are no keys on earth to open these doors."

Are there any keys on earth to lock them again, when once they have been opened?

"You Germans," others of the Italian priests say, "take everything with such desperate seriousness. It is probably owing to your long winters and the heaviness of your northern climate, which must, no doubt, be very depressing to the spirits."

Holy Mary! and these Italians, if life is so light a matter to them, will not they also have one day to take death "with desperate seriousness," and judgment and eternity, although there will be no long winters, I suppose, and no heavy northern climate, to depress the spirits in that other world.

We are going back to Germany at last. Strangely has the world enlarged to me since we came here. We are accredited pilgrims; we have performed every prescribed duty, and availed ourselves of every proffered privilege. And yet it is not because of the regret of quitting the Holy City that our hearts are full of the gravest melancholy as we turn away from Rome.

When I compare the recollections of this Rome with those of a home at Eisenach, I am tempted in my heart to feel as if Germany, and not Rome, were the Holy Place, and our pilgrimage were beginning, instead of ending, as we turn our faces northward!

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