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Marius the epicurean %E2.., p.9

Marius the Epicurean — Volume 2, page 9

 part  #2 of  Marius the Epicurean Series


Marius the Epicurean — Volume 2

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  "Wisdom hath builded herself a house: she hath mingled her wine: she hath also prepared for herself a table."

  [128] THE more highly favoured ages of imaginative art presentinstances of the summing up of an entire world of complex associationsunder some single form, like the Zeus of Olympia, or the series offrescoes which commemorate The Acts of Saint Francis, at Assisi, orlike the play of Hamlet or Faust. It was not in an image, or series ofimages, yet still in a sort of dramatic action, and with the unity of asingle appeal to eye and ear, that Marius about this time found all hisnew impressions set forth, regarding what he had already recognised,intellectually, as for him at least the most beautiful thing in theworld.

  To understand the influence upon him of what follows the reader mustremember that it was an experience which came amid a deep sense ofvacuity in life. The fairest products of [129] the earth seemed to bedropping to pieces, as if in men's very hands, around him. How realwas their sorrow, and his! "His observation of life" had come to belike the constant telling of a sorrowful rosary, day after day; till,as if taking infection from the cloudy sorrow of the mind, the eyealso, the very senses, were grown faint and sick. And now it happenedas with the actual morning on which he found himself a spectator ofthis new thing. The long winter had been a season of unvaryingsullenness. At last, on this day he awoke with a sharp flash oflightning in the earliest twilight: in a little while the heavy rainhad filtered the air: the clear light was abroad; and, as though thespring had set in with a sudden leap in the heart of things, the wholescene around him lay like some untarnished picture beneath a sky ofdelicate blue. Under the spell of his late depression, Marius hadsuddenly determined to leave Rome for a while. But desiring first toadvertise Cornelius of his movements, and failing to find him in hislodgings, he had ventured, still early in the day, to seek him in theCecilian villa. Passing through its silent and empty court-yard heloitered for a moment, to admire. Under the clear but immature light ofwinter morning after a storm, all the details of form and colour in theold marbles were distinctly visible, and with a kind of severity orsadness--so it struck him--amid their beauty: [130] in them, and in allother details of the scene--the cypresses, the bunches of paledaffodils in the grass, the curves of the purple hills of Tusculum,with the drifts of virgin snow still lying in their hollows.

  The little open door, through which he passed from the court-yard,admitted him into what was plainly the vast Lararium, or domesticsanctuary, of the Cecilian family, transformed in many particulars, butstill richly decorated, and retaining much of its ancient furniture inmetal-work and costly stone. The peculiar half-light of dawn seemed tobe lingering beyond its hour upon the solemn marble walls; and here,though at that moment in absolute silence, a great company of peoplewas assembled. In that brief period of peace, during which the churchemerged for awhile from her jealously-guarded subterranean life, therigour of an earlier rule of exclusion had been relaxed. And so itcame to pass that, on this morning Marius saw for the first time thewonderful spectacle--wonderful, especially, in its evidential powerover himself, over his own thoughts--of those who believe.

  There were noticeable, among those present, great varieties of rank, ofage, of personal type. The Roman ingenuus, with the white toga andgold ring, stood side by side with his slave; and the air of the wholecompany was, above all, a grave one, an air of recollection. Coming[131] thus unexpectedly upon this large assembly, so entirely united,in a silence so profound, for purposes unknown to him, Marius felt fora moment as if he had stumbled by chance upon some great conspiracy.Yet that could scarcely be, for the people here collected might havefigured as the earliest handsel, or pattern, of a new world, from thevery face of which discontent had passed away. Corresponding to thevariety of human type there present, was the various expression ofevery form of human sorrow assuaged. What desire, what fulfilment ofdesire, had wrought so pathetically on the features of these ranks ofaged men and women of humble condition? Those young men, bent down sodiscreetly on the details of their sacred service, had faced life andwere glad, by some science, or light of knowledge they had, to whichthere had certainly been no parallel in the older world. Was somecredible message from beyond "the flaming rampart of the world"--amessage of hope, regarding the place of men's souls and their interestin the sum of things--already moulding anew their very bodies, andlooks, and voices, now and here? At least, there was a cleansing andkindling flame at work in them, which seemed to make everything elseMarius had ever known look comparatively vulgar and mean. There werethe children, above all--troops of children--reminding him of thosepathetic children's graves, like cradles or garden- [132] beds, he hadnoticed in his first visit to these places; and they more thansatisfied the odd curiosity he had then conceived about them, wonderingin what quaintly expressive forms they might come forth into thedaylight, if awakened from sleep. Children of the Catacombs, some but"a span long," with features not so much beautiful as heroic (thatworld of new, refining sentiment having set its seal even onchildhood), they retained certainly no stain or trace of anythingsubterranean this morning, in the alacrity of their worship--as readyas if they had been at play--stretching forth their hands, crying,chanting in a resonant voice, and with boldly upturned faces, ChristeEleison!

  For the silence--silence, amid those lights of early morning to whichMarius had always been constitutionally impressible, as having in thema certain reproachful austerity--was broken suddenly by resoundingcries of Kyrie Eleison! Christe Eleison! repeated alternately, againand again, until the bishop, rising from his chair, made sign that thisprayer should cease. But the voices burst out once more presently, inricher and more varied melody, though still of an antiphonal character;the men, the women and children, the deacons, the people, answering oneanother, somewhat after the manner of a Greek chorus. But again withwhat a novelty of poetic accent; what a genuine expansion of heart;what profound intimations for the [133] intellect, as the meaning ofthe words grew upon him! Cum grandi affectu et compunctionedicatur--says an ancient eucharistic order; and certainly, the mystictone of this praying and singing was one with the expression ofdeliverance, of grateful assurance and sincerity, upon the faces ofthose assembled. As if some searching correction, a regeneration ofthe body by the spirit, had begun, and was already gone a great way,the countenances of men, women, and children alike had a brightness onthem which he could fancy reflected upon himself--an amenity, a mysticamiability and unction, which found its way most readily of all to thehearts of children themselves. The religious poetry of those Hebrewpsalms--Benedixisti Domine terram tuam: Dixit Dominus Domino meo, sedea dextris meis--was certainly in marvellous accord with the lyricalinstinct of his own character. Those august hymns, he thought, mustthereafter ever remain by him as among the well-tested powers in thingsto soothe and fortify the soul. One could never grow tired of them!

  In the old pagan worship there had been little to call theunderstanding into play. Here, on the other hand, the utterance, theeloquence, the music of worship conveyed, as Marius readily understood,a fact or series of facts, for intellectual reception. That becameevident, more especially, in those lessons, or sacred readings, which,like the singing, in broken [134] vernacular Latin, occurred at certainintervals, amid the silence of the assembly. There were readings, againwith bursts of chanted invocation between for fuller light on adifficult path, in which many a vagrant voice of human philosophy,haunting men's minds from of old, recurred with clearer accent than hadever belonged to it before, as if lifted, above its first intention,into the harmonies of some supreme system of knowledge or doctrine, atlength complete. And last of all came a narrative which, with athousand tender memories, every one appeared to know by heart,displaying, in all the vividness of a picture for the eye, the mournfulfigure of him towards whom this whole act of worship still consistentlyturned--a figure which seemed to have absorbed, like some rich tincturein his garment, all that was deep-felt and impassioned in theexperience
s of the past.

  It was the anniversary of his birth as a little child they celebratedto-day. Astiterunt reges terrae: so the Gradual, the "Song ofDegrees," proceeded, the young men on the steps of the altar respondingin deep, clear, antiphon or chorus--

  Astiterunt reges terrae-- Adversus sanctum puerum tuum, Jesum: Nunc, Domine, da servis tuis loqui verbum tuum-- Et signa fieri, per nomen sancti pueri Jesu.

  And the proper action of the rite itself, like a [135] half-opened bookto be read by the duly initiated mind took up those suggestions, andcarried them forward into the present, as having reference to a powerstill efficacious, still after some mystic sense even now in actionamong the people there assembled. The entire office, indeed, with itsinterchange of lessons, hymns, prayer, silence, was itself like asingle piece of highly composite, dramatic music; a "song of degrees,"rising steadily to a climax. Notwithstanding the absence of anycentral image visible to the eye, the entire ceremonial process, likethe place in which it was enacted, was weighty with symbolicsignificance, seemed to express a single leading motive. The mystery,if such in fact it was, centered indeed in the actions of one visibleperson, distinguished among the assistants, who stood ranged insemicircle around him, by the extreme fineness of his white vestments,and the pointed cap with the golden ornaments upon his head.

  Nor had Marius ever seen the pontifical character, as he conceivedit--sicut unguentum in capite, descendens in oram vestimenti--so fullyrealised, as in the expression, the manner and voice, of this novelpontiff, as he took his seat on the white chair placed for him by theyoung men, and received his long staff into his hand, or moved hishands--hands which seemed endowed in very deed with some mysteriouspower--at the Lavabo, or at the various benedictions, or [136] to blesscertain objects on the table before him, chanting in cadence of a gravesweetness the leading parts of the rite. What profound unction andmysticity! The solemn character of the singing was at its height whenhe opened his lips. Like some new sort of rhapsodos, it was for themoment as if he alone possessed the words of the office, and theyflowed anew from some permanent source of inspiration within him. Thetable or altar at which he presided, below a canopy on delicate spiralcolumns, was in fact the tomb of a youthful "witness," of the family ofthe Cecilii, who had shed his blood not many years before, and whoserelics were still in this place. It was for his sake the bishop puthis lips so often to the surface before him; the regretful memory ofthat death entwining itself, though not without certain notes oftriumph, as a matter of special inward significance, throughout aservice, which was, before all else, from first to last, acommemoration of the dead.

  A sacrifice also,--a sacrifice, it might seem, like the most primitive,the most natural and enduringly significant of old pagan sacrifices, ofthe simplest fruits of the earth. And in connexion with thiscircumstance again, as in the actual stones of the building so in therite itself, what Marius observed was not so much new matter as a newspirit, moulding, informing, with a new intention, many observances not[137] witnessed for the first time to-day. Men and women came to thealtar successively, in perfect order, and deposited below thelattice-work of pierced white marble, their baskets of wheat andgrapes, incense, oil for the sanctuary lamps; bread and wineespecially--pure wheaten bread, the pure white wine of the Tusculanvineyards. There was here a veritable consecration, hopeful andanimating, of the earth's gifts, of old dead and dark matter itself,now in some way redeemed at last, of all that we can touch or see, inthe midst of a jaded world that had lost the true sense of such things,and in strong contrast to the wise emperor's renunciant and impassiveattitude towards them. Certain portions of that bread and wine weretaken into the bishop's hands; and thereafter, with an increasingmysticity and effusion the rite proceeded. Still in a strain ofinspired supplication, the antiphonal singing developed, from thispoint, into a kind of dialogue between the chief minister and the wholeassisting company--


  It might have been thought the business, the duty or service of youngmen more particularly, as they stood there in long ranks, and in severeand simple vesture of the purest white--a service in which they wouldseem to be flying [138] for refuge, as with their precious, theirtreacherous and critical youth in their hands, to one--Yes! one likethemselves, who yet claimed their worship, a worship, above all, in theway of Aurelius, in the way of imitation. Adoramus te Christe, quia percrucem tuam redemisti mundum!--they cry together. So deep is theemotion that at moments it seems to Marius as if some there presentapprehend that prayer prevails, that the very object of this patheticcrying himself draws near. From the first there had been the sense, anincreasing assurance, of one coming:--actually with them now, accordingto the oft-repeated affirmation or petition, Dominus vobiscum! Some atleast were quite sure of it; and the confidence of this remnant firedthe hearts, and gave meaning to the bold, ecstatic worship, of all therest about them.

  Prompted especially by the suggestions of that mysterious old Jewishpsalmody, so new to him--lesson and hymn--and catching therewith aportion of the enthusiasm of those beside him, Marius could discerndimly, behind the solemn recitation which now followed, at once anarrative and a prayer, the most touching image truly that had evercome within the scope of his mental or physical gaze. It was the imageof a young man giving up voluntarily, one by one, for the greatest ofends, the greatest gifts; actually parting with himself, above all,with the serenity, the divine serenity, of his [139] own soul; yet fromthe midst of his desolation crying out upon the greatness of hissuccess, as if foreseeing this very worship.* As centre of thesupposed facts which for these people were become so constraining amotive of hopefulness, of activity, that image seemed to display itselfwith an overwhelming claim on human gratitude. What Saint Lewis ofFrance discerned, and found so irresistibly touching, across thedimness of many centuries, as a painful thing done for love of him byone he had never seen, was to them almost as a thing of yesterday; andtheir hearts were whole with it. It had the force, among theirinterests, of an almost recent event in the career of one whom theirfathers' fathers might have known. From memories so sublime, yet soclose at hand, had the narrative descended in which these acts ofworship centered; though again the names of some more recently deadwere mingled in it. And it seemed as if the very dead were aware; tobe stirring beneath the slabs of the sepulchres which lay so near, thatthey might associate themselves to this enthusiasm--to this exaltedworship of Jesus.

  One by one, at last, the faithful approach to receive from the chiefminister morsels of the great, white, wheaten cake, he had taken intohis hands--Perducat vos ad vitam aeternam! he prays, half-silently, asthey depart again, after [140] discreet embraces. The Eucharist ofthose early days was, even more entirely than at any later or happiertime, an act of thanksgiving; and while the remnants of the feast areborne away for the reception of the sick, the sustained gladness of therite reaches its highest point in the singing of a hymn: a hymn likethe spontaneous product of two opposed militant companies, contendingaccordantly together, heightening, accumulating, their witness,provoking one another's worship, in a kind of sacred rivalry.

  Ite! Missa est!--cried the young deacons: and Marius departed fromthat strange scene along with the rest. What was it?--Was it this madethe way of Cornelius so pleasant through the world? As for Mariushimself,--the natural soul of worship in him had at last been satisfiedas never before. He felt, as he left that place, that he musthereafter experience often a longing memory, a kind of thirst, for allthis, over again. And it seemed moreover to define what he mustrequire of the powers, whatsoever they might be, that had brought himinto the world at all, to make him not unhappy in it.


  139. *Psalm xxii.22-31.

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