Saints of Italy – The Saint of the White Robe

[Saint Romuald]On a certain summer morning, long ago, a youth named Romualdo, of a noble family of Ravenna, rose early to follow the chase. He rode forth on his favourite steed, followed by his hounds, and holding before him on the saddle a brachet, which he loved well, and when he breathed the fresh air, and heard the song of the birds, he too began to sing for the joy of his heart.

Soon the hounds roused a stag, and Romualdo went merrily in pursuit. The flying beast disappeared into a great forest of pine trees. Romualdo followed after, but as soon as he had entered the forest, a spell laid hold upon him; he forgot the stag, and, slackening his bridle, fell into deep thought. For here, in the dim light and the solemn silence, all the noise and confusion of the gay city died away in his ears, and it seemed to the awe-struck youth that God Himself was walking amidst the trees. His heart swelled with love and adoration, and there came upon him a great longing for the joys which are not of this world, and the peace which passeth all understanding. In vain the brachet whined upon the saddle, and the hounds, springing up and licking his hands, sought to reawaken in their master the zest for the chase. He heeded them not, but wandered on in this manner for hours, till the sunbeams, slanting betwixt the stems of the trees, smote his eyes, and announced to him the lateness of the hour; whereupon, with a deep sigh, he turned his horse’s head towards home.

As he paced slowly and pensively on his way, Romualdo perceived in an open green space, at a little distance, two knights in converse together. Suddenly one of them secretly drew his sword, and lifting his arm, smote the head of the other with a mighty blow, so that he fell violently from his horse to the ground. Then leaping down, the assailant bestrode his victim, and was about to smite him a second time, when a loud cry was heard, and the youth Romualdo flung himself from his horse, and dashing aside the weapon, knelt down to succour the wounded man. But immediately, with one strange dreadful stare at the compassionate youth, the knight gave a great gasp and died. Then a rough blow from the hilt of a sword fell upon Romualdo’s shoulder, and an angry voice cried, “This is no matter for thy meddling, boy; let that carrion be, and follow me.” And the youth was filled with grief and horror, for now he perceived the murderer to be none other than the count, his own father, to whom long ago the dead man had done some slight injury. Weeping bitterly, he smoothed out the stiffened limbs tenderly upon the sward, and rose to follow his father, who rode off with a laugh of scorn. For this count was a proud and wicked man, swift to anger, and very pitiless. Many a time the gentle youth, who loved all creatures great and small, and hated cruelty, had bewailed in secret the evil deeds of his father, and now was he more grievously afflicted than ever before by the treacherous deed which he had witnessed. Surely those glassy eyes, he thought, had cried to heaven for vengeance on the slayer. As he pondered sorrowfully on this thing, he let the reins fall loose on his horse’s neck, and the creature began to loiter and to pluck the grass by the wayside. The count, galloping furiously ahead, was quickly lost to sight, and presently Romualdo found himself quite alone, with his dogs, in a little valley, through which ran a stream. Weary and thirsty, he dismounted and drank, and the day being now well-nigh spent, and his heart very heavy, he laid himself down upon the ground and fell asleep, with his horse standing beside him and the dogs couched at his feet.

He was awakened very early by the sound of a sweet, quavering song, and, looking up, he beheld, a little way off, an old hermit, who was singing a psalm, as he picked herbs upon the hillside. The youth turned away his eyes, and, remembering all his sorrow, he began to weep. Presently the old man approached and asked him, saying, “My son, wherefore art thou sorrowful? What evil hast thou done?” Romualdo answered, “I grieve not because of my own transgressions, for which I may repent, but I know not how to atone for the sins of another.” And he wept again very bitterly. Then the old hermit said quietly, as if to himself, “The Son of God died for the sins of all,” and went on his way. Immediately a sweet consolation and hope came to the youth, and he remembered him of the mercy of the Lord. He resolved to put his trust therein, and to pray night and day that his father might be brought to acknowledge his sins.

Much comforted, he rose up and rode home. He delayed not to seek the count, and declared to him that he was disgusted with the world, which was full of unkindness and bloodshed, and desired to retire to a monastery, and there succour the poor and sorrowful, and pray for sinners. Now, the old warrior hated monks, and despised the things of God. He was resolved that his son should follow in his own footsteps, and hearing him speak thus, he fell into a great rage, and when Romualdo would not renounce his purpose, he called his servants and bade them throw the youth into the deepest dungeon of the castle, and bind his hands and feet with heavy chains. Romualdo submitted cheerfully, and when night came, he slept peacefully in his horrid cell, with a smile upon his face. And about midnight the fast-barred door suddenly flew open, and an angel stood beside the prisoner and touched him on the shoulder. He sprang up, amazed, and the fetters fell from his hands and feet. At the angel’s bidding, he followed him out of the dungeon, and by a secret passage and stairway to a gate in the castle wall, which opened to them without touch of mortal hand. Then the angel left him, and Romualdo stood looking about him, wondering and joyful, scarce able to believe that this which had come to pass was true. After he had given thanks for his deliverance, he perceived, a little way below him, a horse, held by a servant, and, descending, found it was his own dear steed, and Pietro, his faithful foster-brother. He uttered a cry of gladness, and inquired of Pietro how he was come there, and Pietro related how a venerable man, whom he had never seen before, had met him that afternoon, and bade him very solemnly to be without the castle at midnight with Romualdo’s horse, and he, all eager to help his young lord, had obeyed the command. Then Romualdo embraced Pietro, and bade him farewell, and, springing upon his horse, he set off and rode all night long, and till noon the next day, when he came to a famous monastery. The abbot and monks issued forth from the great gate to meet him, and when Romualdo made known to them that he was come to dwell among them, they received him very gladly into their brotherhood.

Romualdo abode here a long time, ministering to the sick and needy, and teaching the ignorant in the country round about. But though he fasted, and prayed continually to God to soften his father’s heart, he could not forget that bloody deed, and longed in vain for the peace and joy which had been revealed to him in the forest. Moreover, the good abbot shortly died, and another was set up in his stead, who governed the community foolishly, and suffered the monks to go astray into sin. This was very grievous to Romualdo, and he upbraided the erring brothers, and instead of repenting, they were provoked to anger by his words, and plotted to do him evil. Now, it was his custom to rise from his bed at midnight and pass silently into the church, where, kneeling before the high altar, he would watch and pray till dawn. In the cloister, between his cell and the church, there was a deep pit, which was covered over with a heavy flagstone. One night the wickedly disposed monks removed the stone secretly, hoping that he would fall into the pit. Now, in the monastery, there was a poor dog, which was beaten and kicked by everybody, save only Romualdo, who cared for it and gave it food and kind words, so that the creature loved him, and came often to lick his hands. On this same night, the good brother rose as usual. When he was come into the cloister, and was stepping along carefully in the darkness, his foot struck against something big and soft, and stooping down to feel with his hand, he discovered it was the dog. He bade it move aside, but it would not obey, and when he would have stepped over its body, it rose up and growled fiercely. At length Romualdo was compelled to take another way to the church. When he returned at dawn, he beheld, with astonishment and horror, the yawning pit, and the peril which had beset him. And understanding how the Lord had delivered him from the snare of his enemies in a marvellous manner by means of the poor dumb beast, he knelt down and gave fervent thanks, and afterward called the dog and caressed it with great kindness.

He now determined to abide no longer with these malicious brethren. He assembled together a few of the monks, who were of like mind with himself, and one morning, very early, the little company, shaking the dust of that habitation off their feet, went forth, followed by the faithful dog, to seek a holier dwellingplace. They wandered for many days, and one evening they reached a solitary glen among the wild and barren mountains, where, having satisfied their hunger with the scanty herbs which grew around, they lay down to rest beside a rushing stream. And there Romualdo was visited by a wondrous dream. For, as he reposed on the hard ground, not knowing that he was asleep, he beheld a high ladder, set up between earth and heaven, such as that whereon the patriarch Jacob saw in his vision the angels ascending and descending. And up the ladder figures were mounting by twos and threes, clothed all in white, and they shone with a dazzling radiance, so that he looked upon them with great awe, supposing that they had been angels. And all at once he perceived that their faces were the faces of his own dear brethren, who had followed him into this wilderness. When he woke up he pondered long on the vision, and in the morning he related it to the monks and declared that this and none other should be the place of their future habitation. And with one accord they joyfully agreed, and gathering together wood and stones, they set to work and built a number of little separate cells, one for him who was to be their head, in the midst, and one for each of themselves. Moreover, Romualdo caused garments to be made of spotless white woollen stuff, and he and his disciples put off the black habits which they had worn in the monastery, and went from that time forth clad in pure white robes, like unto the monks whom he had seen in his dream.

And now Romualdo dwelt peacefully in this new abode, and continued to do good to all. And he ceased not to pray for his father, but many a time he watched till dawn upon the mountain-side in fervent supplication. One night, as he knelt in the starry darkness, a great joy came into his soul, and he heard a still voice which whispered in his ear that his prayer was heard, and his desire accomplished. The next day, at sundown, he was sitting at the threshold of his little dwelling, when he spied far off a poor old man, who was toiling up the mountain, stumbling and falling often on the sharp rocks. Moved with compassion he went forward to meet the pilgrim, who sank to the ground when he saw the saint, and would not suffer himself to be lifted up, but kept his face hidden, as if ashamed, and kissed the feet of the good brother again and again, shedding abundant tears. At length he said, in a trembling voice, “Thou holy man, dost thou not know who it is that humbleth himself before thee?” Then Romualdo saw that this poor weary pilgrim was his own father, the once haughty count. He bent down, and taking him in his arms, embraced him very tenderly, rejoicing over him with an exceeding great gladness. After they had wept on one another’s neck for a little space, Romualdo led the old man to his hut and gave him to eat and drink. And the count related how the brothers and sons of the man he had slain in the forest had surprised him and his household in their sleep one night, and had done great slaughter upon them, and burnt down the castle, and how he himself, with a few others, had fought their way through the foe and escaped. And one by one his followers had abandoned him, and he had wandered destitute and hungry, till at length he found shelter in the hut of a poor shepherd in the mountains. There in his poverty and despair he perceived that the vengeance of God was come upon him for all his evil deeds. He resolved to do penance for the remainder of his days, and set out to seek his son, whom he had once persecuted and now yearned after, desiring that his tottering steps might be guided and supported in their new path. And here, after many long days and much bitter suffering, he had found him whom he sought. Romualdo listened very earnestly, now weeping for his father’s pain, now laughing for joy because the old man was come to him at last. And in due time he received him into the little fellowship of monks, and clothed him in a white robe, like unto his own. Then father and son knelt down before the altar, and joined together with heart and soul in one glad hymn of praise and thanks.

– from Saints of Italy, by Ella Noyes; J M Dent and Sons, London, 1901