Saints of Italy – The Marvellous Sword

[Sword of Saint Galganus]There was in the city of Siena a wealthy young nobleman, named Galgano, who lived riotously and kept the company of careless and wicked men. It chanced one day that he was crossing the great square of the city, with a large following of friends and servants, when there met him a certain knight called Ugolino, who bore him a secret grudge and loved to vex him. This man began now in foolish sport to mock Galgano, for the fashion of his sword, which had a plain cross hilt. “Look you,” cried Ugolino, to the bystanders. “Now will he cheat the devil and turn friar, for he wears the cross at his girdle.” Then the youth, who was of a quick spirit and very prone to wrath, answered hastily, that cross it might be, but it could yet do devil’s work, and snatching it from its scabbard, he plunged it into the breast of the knight, who fell to the ground, and, uttering one long sob, died.

Then arose a loud clamour and noise of tongues, and the dead man’s servants came and lifted him up, and carried him with great lamentation to his house. But Galgano, casting a disdainful look at the still body, went on his way, surrounded by his companions, and feasted and played the livelong day, and sang wild songs far into the night. His friends departed one by one to their homes, and he was left alone, and being far from his house and very weary, he entered into the shop of a wool-stapler, and casting himself down upon a heap of fleeces, fell into a deep slumber.

As he slept he thought he was in a beautiful chamber together with his mother, the lady Dionisia, and by his side still hung the bloodstained sword. Suddenly there stood before them a warrior of very glorious appearance, winged with golden plumes, and his body clothed in armour of glittering scales. And in his right hand he carried a drawn sword, of very clean steel, and his face was so fair and terrible that the youth fell to the ground abashed. And he knew that it was the Archangel Michael. Then he heard that heavenly one ask Dionisia, with much instance, to give him her son, that he might make the youth a knight, and she, all joyful, bowed her head and consented. And it seemed to Galgano, in his dream, that he himself rose up very eagerly to follow this gracious prince; but suddenly the angel’s eye fell upon the bloodstained sword, and he lifted his finger and bade the youth stand still. Then Michael spoke again in clear tones, saying, “Thou wearest already the sword of my Master at thy side, but I perceive upon it the marks of thy brother’s blood. Behold, my Lord hath need of pure hearts and clean weapons. Thou canst not follow me.” Thereupon heavy shame and sorrow filled the heart of the youth, and an exceeding bitterness of longing after that glorious knighthood, which he had lost by his sin. He would fain have flung himself at the feet of the angel, but he could not move, for the sword at his belt held him back with its cold and cruel weight. Michael gazed at him with stern, sad eyes, and vanished. Then Galgano awoke, and seeing the sword by his bedside, he wept bitterly all night long.

Very early in the morning he rose, and mounting his horse, went home, and seeking his mother, he revealed to her his dream and the evil he had done. Dionisia, who was a widow, and had no other child but this one, lamented sadlyover his fresh crime, and implored him with tears to repent and lead a new life, that he might yet receive that heavenly knighthood. Galgano went out from her presence with a troubled heart. From that time forth he forsook his old ways, and went about with downcast eyes and bowed head, carrying ever the bloodstained sword by his side, and mourning heavily for his transgression. He ate little, and passed all his nights in prayer and weeping. He cared no more for his golden hair, which once had shone like the rays of the sun, the roses faded in his cheeks, and all his beauty consumed away, like a garment fretted by the moth. His friends, supposing him to be attacked by melancholy, plied him with merry tales, and proposed to him new sports and pleasures; but the youth fled from their company, and sought out instead the poor and the sick, whom he humbly endeavoured to succour. But his soul was ever heavy with despair, for he felt his sin to be too grievous for pardon.

After he had lived in this manner for two bitter years, he lay asleep one night on the hard floor, as was now his custom, with the sword still buckled to his side. Then the Archangel, once more stepping down from his place in the heavenly host, stood before him, and this time, calling him by name, bade him rise up and follow. All at once the burden was lifted from the young man’s heart. He leapt to his feet, no longer embarrassed by the sword, which now seemed light as air, and walked all joyfully beside the angel. And Michael led him into a dark forest, through which they proceeded by a narrow path, where the thorns and briars tore Galgano’s feet; but he heeded them not. Presently they came to a precipice, from the brink whereof a dizzy bridge was thrown to the opposite side, over a deep abyss, while far beneath, beside a fierce rushing torrent, there was a mill-wheel turning very swiftly. When he saw the bridge, and heard the water roaring, and the ceaseless beat of the wheel, Galgano shrank back afraid; but the angel, taking him by the hand, led him safely across, and brought him into a beautiful meadow, where a thousand flowers of divers colours refreshed and comforted the weary youth with their sweet odour.

He would fain have tarried here awhile; but his guide went ever onwards, till they were come to a little mountain, encircled by flowery hedges, which the angel climbed up with swift, strong steps. Galgano followed after, slow and breathless, for the ascent was very difficult. At the top stood a beautiful chapel, and they entered in at the open door. Immediately a blinding light smote the young man’s eyes, so that he knew not where to look. For there, on a great high throne, sat the Son of God Himself, and He was whiter than the whitest snow. And round about the throne stood the twelve apostles, and they did Him homage. The angel led Galgano to the foot of the throne, where he fell on his face ashamed, for he knew those merciful eyes were upon him. And presently he heard a clear voice speaking, which said, “Fear no more, Galgano, but be of good comfort, for the Lord hath heard the sound of thy much weeping, and now will thy repentance be accepted, and henceforth shalt thou serve Him, and do His work.” The voice ceased, and when, after a long space, the youth dared to lift his eyes, he was alone, in darkness.

Then he woke up with a glad heart, and as soon as it was day, he sought his mother and made known to her his resolve to abandon the world and all his worldly possessions, and to seek out a solitary place where he might serve God night and day. But to part from her child was too hard and bitter a thing for the weak mother’s heart, and she wept upon his neck and implored him not to forsake her. Finding she was not able to prevail with him by her entreaties, she dismissed him from her presence, and rising up in haste, betook herself to a neighbouring nobleman, who had a beautiful daughter, named Cecilia, and obtained the promise of the maiden’s hand in marriage for her son. When she returned and told Galgano what she had done, he was sorely perplexed, for this damsel was very dear to him, as his mother well knew; but remembering the sin he had committed, and the wonderful vision, he struggled long against the allurement. But Dionisia did not cease to importune him, and at length he yielded to her wish that he should visit the maiden.

As he rode on his way, he turned aside to enter a lonely chapel, which stood in the midst of a little grove of trees, and kneeling down, he listened to the chanting of the priest before the altar and prayed for help to do the will of God. Then he mounted again, and turned towards the little city where Cecilia dwelt. But his horse stopped short, and, heedless of whip and spur, refused to move, whereupon the youth, marvelling greatly, left the reins on its neck, and suffered it to follow its own will. Suddenly a great splendour shone out before him, and from the midst thereof stepped forth the angel Michael, who took the horse’s bridle and led it by ways unknown to Galgano to the top of a little mountain, all covered with the golden flowers of the broom, and bidding him dwell there and build a little habitation, wherein to praise God, straightway departed, and was seen of the young man no more.

Galgano leapt from his horse, and kneeling down under the wide sky, gave thanks to God that he was come thither. Then he rose and took the bridle from the animal, and suffered it to browse on the fresh pasture of the hill. He took off his gay cloak and richly adorned garments, till his only covering was a long smock, such as the peasants wear, and he laid the clothes aside in a little heap to be given to the poor. But the sword, with which he had so grievously offended God and his neighbour, he determined to bury deep in the earth, that it might never more do harm to living creature. Taking it by the hilt, he thrust it with all his might into the ground, and it struck upon a solid rock, wherein it entered more than halfway up, as into softest wax, and there stuck so fast that no man was ever able, from that time forth, to draw it out. The youth fell upon his knees amazed. And behold! Now was the sword become a cross, and his bloodstained weapon changed into the symbol of love. Galgano clasped his hands in adoration before it, and afterward kissed and embraced it with tears of joy. After a long time he rose up, and all at once he heard a loud rustling in the forest below, as of a mighty tempest, and on every side resounded the roaring of lions and tigers, and the bellowing of bulls. Then a multitude of wild beasts, with glaring eyes and foaming, bloodthirsty tongues, hanging out of their mouths, rushed from the wood and surrounded the young hermit, as if to devour him. His horse, which was feeding near by, seeing them approach, ran to its master of its own accord, and stood ready for him to leap upon its back, and flee to his home in safety. But Galgano, knowing the apparition to be a wile of the evil one, made the sign of the cross, whereupon the whole host of monsters turned and fled with the utmost speed, and the sound of their hideous cries reached more and more faintly to the ears of the youth, and soon ceased altogether.

Night now began to fall, and Galgano, having supped off a few wild herbs and drunk of a springing fountain, began to consider how he might shelter himself from the cold of the mountain air, for it was the winter time. Having neither axe nor knife, he broke branches of the broom with his hands, and carried them in bundles to the rock where the sword stood, that he might build a habitation. But each time that he was gone to fetch more wood the evil one came and carried off his sticks, and scattered them all about, and the new hermit, finding his labour was made vain, became downcast, and at length, when it was now quite dark, he gave up the task, and went and knelt down before the sword. Then the little trees which stood around seemed to whisper awhile over his head, and presently they bent their tops towards one another, and weaving themselves together made a little roof to shelter him. The youth, perceiving this to be the doing of the Lord, gave fervent thanks; then, lying down on the hard ground, with a stone for his pillow, he slept sweetly till dawn, when, awakened by the song of the birds, he rose up and joined his morning hymn to theirs. Presently there came by a poor man, who was gathering wood upon the mountain. When he saw Galgano kneeling before the sword he was afraid, supposing that it was a spirit, but venturing nearer he recognized the youth, who was well known to him. Not daring to address him, the fellow was about to pass on, when Galgano called him, and charged him to give the bundle of garments to the poor, and afterward to go to the Lady Dionisia, and bid her wait no longer for her son’s return, and to refrain from grieving, and he sent her a ring from his finger, to give to the damsel, his promised bride, in remembrance of one whom she must never see again. Whilst he talked with the peasant, his horse came up, and suffered itself to be caught, and the youth, caressing it for the last time, committed it to the man to take to a certain good priest. Then the peasant departed, and went and did as he was bid.

Now, when Dionisia heard her son’s message, she became very sorrowful, and resolved to go to him and compel him to return home. She fetched the beautiful Cecilia, and arrayed her in gorgeous robes, and decked her hair with pearls; then mounting a palfrey, she caused the maiden to be set upon another, and led her, amidst an honourable company of relations and friends, to the mountain, guided by the peasants. When they were come to the top she left Cecilia with the rest of the company, and, going forward alone, she found her son, and fell upon his neck, and, weeping bitterly, besought him to come home. The youth sought to comfort her, though he could not yield to her will, whereupon she grew angry, and threatened him with her sore displeasure. Galgano sighed, and held his peace. Then Dionisia turned and called the maiden, who advanced and stood before the young man, appearing more beautiful than the full moon at midnight. But Galgano kept his eyes jfixed upon the ground, not daring to look upon her. Then, in a low voice, he began gently to upbraid the women, and to show forth the vanity of earthly things, and the enduring joy of the heavenly life, till they were both moved to tears, and agreed to renounce their desire and leave him for ever. And when they had bid him a last farewell and embraced him many times, they departed to their own homes.

Then Dionisia sent masons from the city to build a little chapel and cell for her son, and here Galgano dwelt from that time forth, close to his sword, in continual prayer and adoration. Multitudes came to visit him, and he gave sweet counsel to all in distress and difficulty, and to the sorrowful consolation. Moreover, when he heard of any sick persons in the country round about, he would descend from the mountain and minister to them in their need, so that his name was blessed far and wide. And it came to pass after a time that a certain great city, at many days’ journey from his dwelling, was visited by a terrible pestilence, and Galgano was warned by the angel in a dream that he should go and succour the people in their trouble. He set forth very early one morning, staff in hand, walking barefoot, and clothed only in a poor shepherd’s dress. And Michael went before him all the way, and brought him safely to the city, where Galgano abode many days, tenderly caring for the sick, whose friends had fled from them for fear of the malady, and with his own hands burying the dead bodies which lay in heaps in the streets. At length the plague was stayed, and Galgano, worn and faint with much labour, rose up to return home.

Now, the abbot and sacristan of a monastery not far from the mountain were envious of the fame of Galgano and the reverence in which he was held, whereas they themselves were despised for their unworthy lives. So they took counsel with a wicked priest to drive the hermit from his dwelling and destroy the cell and the sword; and one morning, not knowing he was absent, they armed themselves with iron bars and spades, and set out boldly to the mountain, encouraging themselves with jests and oaths as they went along. The priest, when he reached the little stream at the foot of the mountain, perceiving the water to be but an inch deep, cried out, laughing, “May I be drowned here to-day if I do not drive away Galgano, and root up the sword.” The abbot, glancing round at the serene and cloudless sky, said, “May the lightning strike me dead to-day, if I do not the same, and more also.” Then it came to the turn of the sacristan, who added, feeling very bold and lusty, “And may the wolves gnaw off my arms, if I do not wrench the sword from the rock, and compel that hypocritical fellow to fly.”

Being come to the top, these mad and unhappy men ran to the hut, and, finding it empty, they supposed that Galgano must have hidden himself. Without let or hindrance they began to smite the sword with the iron bars and to try and dig it up. At length it yielded to their blows, and broke into three pieces, but the point remained immovably fixed in its place. To lose no more time, they left the sword, and, lighting a fire, burnt down the hut. Then, highly pleased and satisfied with themselves, the miserable creatures thought to return triumphant to their homes. But suddenly the sky darkened with heavy clouds, the thunder rolled and crashed, and the terrible lightnings flashed forth. Then, struck with terror, the evil-doers began to flee, but scarce was the abbot gone a stone’s throw from the ruined cell when a thunderbolt smote him, and he was stretched dead on the ground. The priest, flying at full speed, came to the stream, and in leaping across it fell into the swollen waters, and was miserably drowned. The terrified sacristan was now beginning to repent of his wicked deed, when a pack of wolves ran out of the forest, and, falling upon him with cruel fangs, tore off his arms from the shoulders; but, nevertheless, he remained alive, and, fleeing home to the monastery half dead with fear, he related all that had passed. Then many people, hearing of this thing, went to the mountain, and seeing the burnt hut and broken sword, and the bodies of the abbot and priest, they wondered exceedingly, and before long they found the arms of the sacristan in the wood, untouched, which being restored to him, the penitent man tied them with a cord round his neck, and carried them in this manner till his death in remembrance of his sin.

And now Galgano, journeying home, footsore and very weary, came at length to his mountain. From far off he perceived the smoke of the fire which had destroyed his dwelling, and, hurrying onwards, he climbed up and arrived breathless at the place. When he beheld the broken sword and a heap of smouldering ashes where his cell had been, his distress was very sore, and he wept bitterly. But presently his trust in God returned. He searched diligently among the ruins, and found the pieces of the sword, which he carried to the rock where the other part remained, and humbly besought the Lord to join them to the rest. Then he set them one upon another in their right places, and behold! they were immediately united into one whole, and the sword appeared again in the form of a cross, as if it had never been broken. Thereupon Galgano, beyond measure joyful, knelt down in his old place, and gave abundant thanks to God.

The relations and friends of the saint, hearing of his return, flocked to visit him, and to behold the sword which had been made whole. Then they caused another hut to be built, wherein he dwelt in the same manner as before. But now his body was become very weak, and his only desire was to die and be with his Lord. One evening, when he was yet in his youth, as he was kneeling before the sword, there came a voice from heaven, which said, “It is enough, Galgano; greatly hast thou wearied thyself, sufficiently hast thou battled on the earth, and now, within a few days, thou shalt wear the victor’s crown.” Then a heavenly consolation filled the heart of the saint, so that all who came to look on him thereafter were astounded, for he seemed no longer a worn, pale hermit, but a beautiful youth, as of old. The roses bloomed afresh in his cheeks, and his long hair, falling upon his shoulders, shone once more like fine gold. After a few days he fell ill of a fever. Growing ever worse, he knew that his hour was at hand, and one evening he knelt before his sword, and, unseen by mortal eye, passed into eternal life.

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