I TOLD you in one of the stories that have gone before, how Satan delights to imitate the Sacraments and the Rites of the Church, and to turn them to his own accursed worship. Now you shall hear how one of his poor captives was delivered from his bondage, and brought from the miserable tortures which he was enduring, into the glorious liberty of the children of GOD. You know that S. Thomas the Apostle first preached the Gospel in India, and that the light he kindled there was never entirely extinguished. The Christians of Malabar, or of S. Thomas, as they were often called, still existed, though they had fallen into heresy, when the Portuguese, in the fifteenth century, rediscovered India. But afterwards, those western missionaries carried the standard of the Cross further and further into that land of darkness and the shadow of death. From Goa, in the west of India, they spread southward and southward, till at length they reached Cape Comorin; and there in the very southern point of the huge continent, the field promised a most abundant harvest.
It was in the year 1700 that two zealous priests, by name Father Maynard, and Father Martin, who were labouring in the kingdom of Madura, contrived with great difficulty to procure the erection of a very small church. Father Maynard had been engaged for many years in the mission: Father Martin had only lately arrived, and was busily employed in learning the language of Malabar. He was just able to teach the shortest and simplest catechism; and in the cool of the evening he used to sit in the great western porch of the church, and explain it as well as he could to the ten or fifteen children whom he persuaded by little presents to attend. Sometimes a few grown-up persons would stand close by, and amuse themselves with the broken language of the good father, and by putting questions to him which, in his then inability to converse with them, he could not answer. The congregation that assembled in this church were all of the lowest castes; for you know that this is the great instrument of Satan in India--the division of the Hindoos into various castes, from the Pariahs which are the lowest, to the Brahmins which are the highest. And it is forbidden for a man of low caste to prepare the victuals of, or to have any intimate communication with, a man of higher caste. I am sorry to say, that instead of cutting up this wicked system root and branch, the Portuguese missionaries were at first disposed to give in to it. They said that the prejudice was too ancient to be at once overcome: they forgot how S. Peter had declared in opposition to the very same prejudice of the Jews--"GOD hath showed me that I should not call any man common or unclean."
The church these missionaries had built, was a poor little erection of mud, thatched with bamboos, after the custom of the country. But three tall palms above it whispered pleasantly when the evening breeze sprang up from the southern ocean, and glittered beautifully in the moonlight. One evening Father Martin was engaged in his usual occupation, when a man, bowed down under what appeared at a distance to be a heavy burden, came slowly along the road from the village to the church. As he came nearer, the priest's little class was broken up--some knelt before the stranger--some gazed at him with an expression of wonder and reverence, as slowly and painfully he advanced into the midst, and sat down on the wooden bench that ran round the porch. He presented, indeed, a most terrible appearance. About forty years of age he seemed, tall, well-made, and originally handsome; but now his face had an expression of the deepest misery, and every movement and gesture was that of one who had suffered much. And well it might be. Round his neck he wore a collar, something like that employed for horses, only made of iron instead of leather, thick, and very heavy. This was lined with a casing of wood, through every part of which great nails, three inches long, had been driven. You understand, the heads of these nails were between the iron and the interior framework of wood: the points piercing through the wood, and resting upon the man's neck. So that, let him walk, or stand, or sit, or lie down, the collar bore with all its weight on some of these nails, and drove them into the flesh of the miserable sufferer. Neck, chest, and back were all one mass of festering wounds; any change of position was only change of pain; and it seemed wonderful that with such wounds, running one into the other, inflamed with the heat, festered by the dust, and poisoned by the rust of the iron, any human creature could live.
"In the Name of the GOD of mercy," said Father Martin to the boy that best understood him, "who and what is he?"
"Do you not know?" said the boy. "I thought every one in Tinnevelly knew him. That," and he dropped his voice almost to a whisper, "is the great Fakir."
And what does he do it for?" asked the Father.
"I do it," said the stranger, joining in the conversation, "to save my soul. In my youth I was a great sinner. I broke every law of truth, and righteousness, and purity; and then I fell ill of a disease that the physicians declared to be incurable. I made a vow that if I were restored to health, I, beggar as I was, would make the largest tank in all Tinnevelly, in the place where it was most needed. Money of my own I had none; but by travelling about in this fashion, the people give me large sums: they know that I shall lay it out honestly, and that by giving it they will acquire part of my merit. When I have made the tank, I hope that I shall soon be taken out of my misery; for then I shall have saved my soul."
You must remember that, just as good people in Europe used to leave money for the building of bridges, or keeping up beacons, or ringing a bell, in a moorland church, during the dark nights of winter, so in a tropical country there can be no greater work of charity than the forming a tank "in the barren and dry land where no water is."
Oh, how the heart of Father Martin burnt within him to be able to tell the poor man, in his own language, that if any man sin, we have an Advocate with the FATHER, JESUS CHRIST the Righteous, and He is the propitiation for our sins! He did make the attempt: he spoke, and the emergency of the case seemed to enable him to speak better than he had ever done before: he spoke, but to no purpose whatever.
"No man can save me," said the Fakir, "but myself. I must suffer here, or I must suffer hereafter. I choose here, and GOD knows I suffer enough."
He said the last words in such a tone of misery, that Father Martin could hardly restrain himself. "I am," he said, "as you hear, a stranger: will you wait till my companion, who speaks your language perfectly, can converse with you himself?"
"I wait for no man," said the Fakir; "but if any one will give me a place to lie down in for to-night--"
"I will!" and, "I will!" and, "I will!" burst at once from three or four of the bystanders.
"I thank you," said the Fakir; "I shall remain here to-night, and continue my journey to the Cape to-morrow."
"But where shall you be?" inquired Father Martin.
"If any man seeks me, he will find me in this very place to-morrow at sunrise," replied the pilgrim.
The good priest bid his children and the rest of the bystanders, good-night, and went back with all speed to the bamboo cottage, where he and Father Maynard lived. The brief twilight of Southern India came on. The parrot ceased to shriek, the monkeys ceased to chatter from the neighbouring jungle: only the guinea-fowls, settling themselves in their roosting-place?, disturbed the silence. Venus presently shone brightly out: looking down as peacefully on that work of GOD in distant Tinnevelly, as on many a grey cloister, or lonely church, in the various countries of Europe.
The good Father returned to his dwelling, and related to Father Maynard all that had occurred.
"You lacked faith, good brother," said the elder priest. "I will be there myself, with GOD'S blessing, to-morrow, at the time appointed, and we will see if we two cannot put to flight a host of evil spirits."
Accordingly twilight had scarcely dawned, when the two were on their way to the little church. The dew lay thick on the banana and the plantain; the birds in the neighbouring grove were beginning their harsh morning song; and true to his word the Fakir was just before them, and had taken his seat on the bench of the little porch. In the bright morning light he looked even a more horrible object than on the preceding evening: the wounds in his neck seemed more festered, his countenance more worn and sharpened with pain.
"Come into the church with me, my son," said Father Maynard, speaking the language of the country with as much facility as his own native French: "come into the church, that I may relate to you a story which it much concerns you to hear."
He led the way into the interior of the building, a wretched little edifice of mud, ornamented only by five or six miserable daubs of saints; but a place, nevertheless, wherein much earnest prayer had gone up to GOD. He desired the Fakir to sit down on one of the forms; he himself stood in front of him. "Listen," he said: "there was a certain Christian, by name Simeon, who lived about fourteen hundred years ago, and was determined, as you are determined, that his whole life should be one long penance. Accordingly, he reared up for himself a high pillar, took his stand upon the top of it, and determined that, night and day, he would never leave that post. Some said that he never slept: some said that he had the art of so sleeping as never to lose his balance. Anyhow, his life was a life of such mortification and self-denial, as we have scarcely another example to match. The common people greatly admired and reverenced this man: they said that he had the power of working miracles: they used to set before him the sick, the maimed, the halt, the blind, and to beseech his prayers over them. But the Bishops--that is to say, the chief Clergy--doubted very much whether the man were indeed so holy. They said that his life was not a life of holiness, but of pride and vain-glory: and they determined to do what they could to prevent the people from being misled by him. At last one of them said, 'Let us do thus, my brethren. Let us all go together to Simeon's pillar, and command him to come down. If he obey, I shall confess that his work is the work of GOD: if not, I shall ascribe it to his own vain-glory.' To him they all agreed: they went forth, saw Simeon, as usual, on the top of his pillar, and surrounded by a multitude of people, come to consult him, or to be healed of their diseases. They commanded him instantly to leave his pillar and to come down. 'I will come this instant,' replied Simeon: 'let my ladder only be set up, and I will descend that very second.' He did so; and the Bishops, satisfied with his obedience, gave him leave to pursue the same life on which he had entered. In like manner, my brother, I command you, in the name of our LORD JESUS CHRIST, Who only has all power in heaven and in earth, to lay aside that instrument of torture now, before His holy altar: having done which, you shall be instructed further in the principles of our most holy faith; and shall hear of a better offering for sin than any sufferings and penance of your own can be."
Father Martin looked for no other effect than increased opposition on the part of the Fakir; but it was not so.
"I will do what you tell me," said he: "send for a blacksmith that he may unrivet my collar."
There was great excitement and consternation as it became known that the Fakir was about to renounce his ancient life, and to be taught, like a Christian child, by the Fathers. Some ascribed it to witchcraft; some asserted that he must be paid handsomely for his renunciation of the collar: all agreed that he would be the subject of ridicule as long as he lived.
The blacksmith was fetched. It was a work of no small labour and time to unrivet the nails, so tightly had they been driven in; so determined was the artificer to prevent any attempt on the part of the sufferer to rid himself of his burden. He had never, he said, seen such an apparatus of torture before; and more than an hour passed before he could make any impression on the iron. At last it yielded: the heavy weight was removed from the Fakir's neck, and he was once more free.
"Kneel down, my son, and thank Him Whom you as yet know not, the LORD JESUS CHRIST, that He has vouchsafed to deal so mercifully with you."
The sufferer obeyed: and years afterwards he was wont to tell his children and grandchildren, pointing to the scars on his neck and shoulders, how GOD had smitten the bands of brass, and burst the bars of iron in sunder.