The Chapel of the Hermits

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The Chapel of the Hermits
by John Greenleaf Whittier

"I do believe, and yet, in grief,
I pray for help to unbelief;
For needful strength aside to lay
The daily cumberings of my way.

"I'm sick at heart of craft and cant,
Sick of the crazed enthusiast's rant,
Profession's smooth hypocrisies,
And creeds of iron, and lives of ease.

"I ponder o'er the sacred word,
I read the record of our Lord;
And, weak and troubled, envy them
Who touched His seamless garment's hem;

"Who saw the tears of love He wept
Above the grave where Lazarus slept;
And heard, amidst the shadows dim
Of Olivet, His evening hymn.

"How blessed the swineherd's low estate,
The beggar crouching at the gate,
The leper loathly and abhorred,
Whose eyes of flesh beheld the Lord!

"O sacred soil His sandals pressed!
Sweet fountains of His noonday rest!
O light and air of Palestine,
Impregnate with His life divine!

"Oh, bear me thither! Let me look
On Siloa's pool, and Kedron's brook;
Kneel at Gethsemane, and by
Gennesaret walk, before I die!

"Methinks this cold and northern night
Would melt before that Orient light;
And, wet by Hermon's dew and rain,
My childhood's faith revive again!"

So spake my friend, one autumn day,
Where the still river slid away
Beneath us, and above the brown
Red curtains of the woods shut down.

Then said I,--for I could not brook
The mute appealing of his look,--
"I, too, am weak, and faith is small,
And blindness happeneth unto all.

"Yet, sometimes glimpses on my sight,
Through present wrong, the eternal right;
And, step by step, since time began,
I see the steady gain of man;

"That all of good the past hath had
Remains to make our own time glad,
Our common daily life divine,
And every land a Palestine.

"Thou weariest of thy present state;
What gain to thee time's holiest date?
The doubter now perchance had been
As High Priest or as Pilate then!

"What thought Chorazin's scribes? What faith
In Him had Nain and Nazareth?
Of the few followers whom He led
One sold Him,--all forsook and fled.

"O friend! we need nor rock nor sand,
Nor storied stream of Morning-Land;
The heavens are glassed in Merrimac,--
What more could Jordan render back?

"We lack but open eye and ear
To find the Orient's marvels here;
The still small voice in autumn's hush,
Yon maple wood the burning bush.

"For still the new transcends the old,
In signs and tokens manifold;
Slaves rise up men; the olive waves,
With roots deep set in battle graves!

"Through the harsh noises of our day
A low, sweet prelude finds its way;
Through clouds of doubt, and creeds of fear,
A light is breaking, calm and clear.

"That song of Love, now low and far,
Erelong shall swell from star to star!
That light, the breaking day, which tips
The golden-spired Apocalypse!"

Then, when my good friend shook his head,
And, sighing, sadly smiled, I said:
"Thou mind'st me of a story told
In rare Bernardin's leaves of gold."

And while the slanted sunbeams wove
The shadows of the frost-stained grove,
And, picturing all, the river ran
O'er cloud and wood, I thus began:--

 . . . . . . . . . . . . .

In Mount Valerien's chestnut wood
The Chapel of the Hermits stood;
And thither, at the close of day,
Came two old pilgrims, worn and gray.

One, whose impetuous youth defied
The storms of Baikal's wintry side,
And mused and dreamed where tropic day
Flamed o'er his lost Virginia's bay.

His simple tale of love and woe
All hearts had melted, high or low;--
A blissful pain, a sweet distress,
Immortal in its tenderness.

Yet, while above his charmed page
Beat quick the young heart of his age,
He walked amidst the crowd unknown,
A sorrowing old man, strange and lone.

A homeless, troubled age,--the gray
Pale setting of a weary day;
Too dull his ear for voice of praise,
Too sadly worn his brow for bays.

Pride, lust of power and glory, slept;
Yet still his heart its young dream kept,
And, wandering like the deluge-dove,
Still sought the resting-place of love.

And, mateless, childless, envied more
The peasant's welcome from his door
By smiling eyes at eventide,
Than kingly gifts or lettered pride.

Until, in place of wife and child,
All-pitying Nature on him smiled,
And gave to him the golden keys
To all her inmost sanctities.

Mild Druid of her wood-paths dim!
She laid her great heart bare to him,
Its loves and sweet accords;--he saw
The beauty of her perfect law.

The language of her signs lie knew,
What notes her cloudy clarion blew;
The rhythm of autumn's forest dyes,
The hymn of sunset's painted skies.

And thus he seemed to hear the song
Which swept, of old, the stars along;
And to his eyes the earth once more
Its fresh and primal beauty wore.

Who sought with him, from summer air,
And field and wood, a balm for care;
And bathed in light of sunset skies
His tortured nerves and weary eyes?

His fame on all the winds had flown;
His words had shaken crypt and throne;
Like fire, on camp and court and cell
They dropped, and kindled as they fell.

Beneath the pomps of state, below
The mitred juggler's masque and show,
A prophecy, a vague hope, ran
His burning thought from man to man.

For peace or rest too well he saw
The fraud of priests, the wrong of law,
And felt how hard, between the two,
Their breath of pain the millions drew.

A prophet-utterance, strong and wild,
The weakness of an unweaned child,
A sun-bright hope for human-kind,
And self-despair, in him combined.

He loathed the false, yet lived not true
To half the glorious truths he knew;
The doubt, the discord, and the sin,
He mourned without, he felt within.

Untrod by him the path he showed,
Sweet pictures on his easel glowed
Of simple faith, and loves of home,
And virtue's golden days to come.

But weakness, shame, and folly made
The foil to all his pen portrayed;
Still, where his dreamy splendors shone,
The shadow of himself was thrown.

Lord, what is man, whose thought, at times,
Up to Thy sevenfold brightness climbs,
While still his grosser instinct clings
To earth, like other creeping things!

So rich in words, in acts so mean;
So high, so low; chance-swung between
The foulness of the penal pit
And Truth's clear sky, millennium-lit!

Vain, pride of star-lent genius!--vain,
Quick fancy and creative brain,
Unblest by prayerful sacrifice,
Absurdly great, or weakly wise!

Midst yearnings for a truer life,
Without were fears, within was strife;
And still his wayward act denied
The perfect good for which he sighed.

The love he sent forth void returned;
The fame that crowned him scorched and burned,
Burning, yet cold and drear and lone,--
A fire-mount in a frozen zone!

Like that the gray-haired sea-king passed,
Seen southward from his sleety mast,
About whose brows of changeless frost
A wreath of flame the wild winds tossed.

Far round the mournful beauty played
Of lambent light and purple shade,
Lost on the fixed and dumb despair
Of frozen earth and sea and air!

A man apart, unknown, unloved
By those whose wrongs his soul had moved,
He bore the ban of Church and State,
The good man's fear, the bigot's hate!

Forth from the city's noise and throng,
Its pomp and shame, its sin and wrong,
The twain that summer day had strayed
To Mount Valerien's chestnut shade.

To them the green fields and the wood
Lent something of their quietude,
And golden-tinted sunset seemed
Prophetical of all they dreamed.

The hermits from their simple cares
The bell was calling home to prayers,
And, listening to its sound, the twain
Seemed lapped in childhood's trust again.

Wide open stood the chapel door;
A sweet old music, swelling o'er
Low prayerful murmurs, issued thence,--
The Litanies of Providence!

Then Rousseau spake: "Where two or three
In His name meet, He there will be!"
And then, in silence, on their knees
They sank beneath the chestnut-trees.

As to the blind returning light,
As daybreak to the Arctic night,
Old faith revived; the doubts of years
Dissolved in reverential tears.

That gush of feeling overpast,
"Ah me!" Bernardin sighed at last,
I would thy bitterest foes could see
Thy heart as it is seen of me!

"No church of God hast thou denied;
Thou hast but spurned in scorn aside
A bare and hollow counterfeit,
Profaning the pure name of it!

"With dry dead moss and marish weeds
His fire the western herdsman feeds,
And greener from the ashen plain
The sweet spring grasses rise again.

"Nor thunder-peal nor mighty wind
Disturb the solid sky behind;
And through the cloud the red bolt rends
The calm, still smile of Heaven descends.

"Thus through the world, like bolt and blast,
And scourging fire, thy words have passed.
Clouds break,--the steadfast heavens remain;
Weeds burn,--the ashes feed the grain!

"But whoso strives with wrong may find
Its touch pollute, its darkness blind;
And learn, as latent fraud is shown
In others' faith, to doubt his own.

"With dream and falsehood, simple trust
And pious hope we tread in dust;
Lost the calm faith in goodness,--lost
The baptism of the Pentecost!

"Alas!--the blows for error meant
Too oft on truth itself are spent,
As through the false and vile and base
Looks forth her sad, rebuking face.

"Not ours the Theban's charmed life;
We come not scathless from the strife!
The Python's coil about us clings,
The trampled Hydra bites and stings!

"Meanwhile, the sport of seeming chance,
The plastic shapes of circumstance,
What might have been we fondly guess,
If earlier born, or tempted less.

"And thou, in these wild, troubled days,
Misjudged alike in blame and praise,
Unsought and undeserved the same
The skeptic's praise, the bigot's blame;--

"I cannot doubt, if thou hadst been
Among the highly favored men
Who walked on earth with Fenelon,
He would have owned thee as his son;

"And, bright with wings of cherubim
Visibly waving over him,
Seen through his life, the Church had seemed
All that its old confessors dreamed."

"I would have been," Jean Jaques replied,
"The humblest servant at his side,
Obscure, unknown, content to see
How beautiful man's life may be!

"Oh, more than thrice-blest relic, more
Than solemn rite or sacred lore,
The holy life of one who trod
The foot-marks of the Christ of God!

"Amidst a blinded world he saw
The oneness of the Dual law;
That Heaven's sweet peace on Earth began,
And God was loved through love of man.

"He lived the Truth which reconciled
The strong man Reason, Faith the child;
In him belief and act were one,
The homilies of duty done!"

So speaking, through the twilight gray
The two old pilgrims went their way.
What seeds of life that day were sown,
The heavenly watchers knew alone.

Time passed, and Autumn came to fold
Green Summer in her brown and gold;
Time passed, and Winter's tears of snow
Dropped on the grave-mound of Rousseau.

"The tree remaineth where it fell,
The pained on earth is pained in hell!"
So priestcraft from its altars cursed
The mournful doubts its falsehood nursed.

Ah! well of old the Psalmist prayed,
"Thy hand, not man's, on me be laid!"
Earth frowns below, Heaven weeps above,
And man is hate, but God is love!

No Hermits now the wanderer sees,
Nor chapel with its chestnut-trees;
A morning dream, a tale that's told,
The wave of change o'er all has rolled.

Yet lives the lesson of that day;
And from its twilight cool and gray
Comes up a low, sad whisper, "Make
The truth thine own, for truth's own sake.

"Why wait to see in thy brief span
Its perfect flower and fruit in man?
No saintly touch can save; no balm
Of healing hath the martyr's palm.

"Midst soulless forms, and false pretence
Of spiritual pride and pampered sense,
A voice saith, 'What is that to thee?
Be true thyself, and follow Me!

"In days when throne and altar heard
The wanton's wish, the bigot's word,
And pomp of state and ritual show
Scarce hid the loathsome death below,--

"Midst fawning priests and courtiers foul,
The losel swarm of crown and cowl,
White-robed walked Francois Fenelon,
Stainless as Uriel in the sun!

"Yet in his time the stake blazed red,
The poor were eaten up like bread
Men knew him not; his garment's hem
No healing virtue had for them.

"Alas! no present saint we find;
The white cymar gleams far behind,
Revealed in outline vague, sublime,
Through telescopic mists of time!

"Trust not in man with passing breath,
But in the Lord, old Scripture saith;
The truth which saves thou mayst not blend
With false professor, faithless friend.

"Search thine own heart. What paineth thee
In others in thyself may be;
All dust is frail, all flesh is weak;
Be thou the true man thou dost seek!

"Where now with pain thou treadest, trod
The whitest of the saints of God!
To show thee where their feet were set,
the light which led them shineth yet.

"The footprints of the life divine,
Which marked their path, remain in thine;
And that great Life, transfused in theirs,
Awaits thy faith, thy love, thy prayers!"

A lesson which I well may heed,
A word of fitness to my need;
So from that twilight cool and gray
Still saith a voice, or seems to say.

We rose, and slowly homeward turned,
While down the west the sunset burned;
And, in its light, hill, wood, and tide,
And human forms seemed glorified.

The village homes transfigured stood,
And purple bluffs, whose belting wood
Across the waters leaned to hold
The yellow leaves like lamps of hold.

Then spake my friend: "Thy words are true;
Forever old, forever new,
These home-seen splendors are the same
Which over Eden's sunsets came.

"To these bowed heavens let wood and hill
Lift voiceless praise and anthem still;
Fall, warm with blessing, over them,
Light of the New Jerusalem!

"Flow on, sweet river, like the stream
Of John's Apocalyptic dream
This mapled ridge shall Horeb be,
Yon green-banked lake our Galilee!

"Henceforth my heart shall sigh no more
For olden time and holier shore;
God's love and blessing, then and there,
Are now and here and everywhere."