In the days when St. Hilarion was still alive, although far advanced in years, there lived in the city of Gaza a man named Josephus Famulus who until his thirtieth year or longer had led a worldly life and studied the books of the pagans. Then, through a woman whom he was pursuing, he had been instructed in the divine doctrine and the sweetness of the Christian virtues, had submitted to holy baptism, renounced his sins, and sat for several years at the feet of the presbyters of his city. In particular he listened with burning curiosity to the popular tales of the life of pious hermits in the desert, until one day, at the age of thirty-six, he set out on the path already taken by St. Paul and St. Anthony, and which so many devout souls have taken since. He gave his goods to the elders, to be distributed to the poor of the community, bade farewell to his friends at the city gate, and wandered out into the desert, out of this vile world, to take up the life of the penitent.
For many years the sun seared and parched him. He scraped his knees on rock and sand as he prayed. He waited, fasting, for the sun to set before he chewed his few dates. Devils tormented him with temptations, mockery, and trials, but he struck them down with prayer, with penitence, with renunciation of self, in the ways we may find described in the Lives of the blessed Fathers. Through many sleepless nights he gazed at the stars, and even the stars provided temptations and confusions for him. He scanned the constellations, for he had learned to read in them stories of the gods and symbols of human nature. The presbyters held this science in abomination, but he was still engrossed by fantasies and ideas he had entertained in his pagan days.
In those times eremites lived wherever the barren wilderness was broken by a spring, a patch of vegetation, a large or small oasis. Some dwelt entirely alone, some in small brotherhoods, as they are pictured in a painting in the Campo Santo of Pisa, practicing poverty and love of neighbor. They became adepts of a languishing ars moriendi, the art of dying: mortification of the ego and dying to the world, passing through death to Him, the Redeemer, to the inalienable reward. They were attended by angels and devils; they wrote hymns, expelled demons, healed and blessed, and seemed to have assumed the duty of making up for the pleasure-seeking, brutality, and sensuality of many past and future ages by engendering a mighty surge of enthusiasm and devotion, an ecstatic excess of renunciation. Many of them probably were acquainted with ancient pagan practices of purification, methods and exercises of spiritualization elaborated in Asia for centuries. But nothing was said of such matters. These methods and yoga exercises were no longer taught; they lay under the ban that Christianity more and more sternly imposed upon everything pagan.
In some of these penitents the fervor of their life developed special gifts, gifts of prayer, of healing by laying on of hands, of prophecy, of exorcism, gifts of judging and punishing, comforting and blessing. In Josephus too a gift slumbered, and with the passing years, as his hair began to gray, it slowly came to flower. It was the gift of listening. whenever a brother from one of the hermitages, or a child of the world harried and troubled of soul, came to Joseph and told him of his deeds, sufferings, temptations, and missteps, related the story of his life, his struggle for goodness and his failures in the struggle, or spoke of loss, pain, or sorrow, Joseph knew how listen to him, to open his ears and his heart, to gather the man's sufferings and anxieties into himself and hold, them, so that the penitent was sent away emptied and calmed. Slowly, over long years, this function had taken possession of him and made an instrument of him, an ear that people trusted.
His virtues were patience, a receptive passivity, and great discretion. More and more frequently people came to him to pour out their hearts, to relieve their pent-up distress; but many of them, even though they had come a long way to his reed hut, would find they lacked the courage to confess. They would writhe in shame be coy about their sins, sigh heavily, and remain silent for hours. But he behaved in the same way toward all, whether they spoke freely or reluctantly, fluently or hesitantly, whether they hurled out their secrets in a fury, or basked in self-importance because of them. He regarded every man in the same way, whether he accused God or himself, whether he magnified or minimized his sins and sufferings, whether he confessed a killing or merely an act of lewdness, whether he lamented an unfaithful sweetheart or the loss of his soul's salvation. It did not alarm Josephus when someone told of converse with demons and seemed to be on the friendliest terms with the devil. He did not lose patience when someone talked at great length while obviously concealing the main issue. Nor was he stern when someone charged himself with delusory and invented sins; All the complaints, confessions, charges, and qualms of conscience that were brought to him seemed to pour into his ears like water into the desert sands. He seemed to pass no judgment upon them and to feel neither pity nor contempt for the person confessing. Nevertheless, or perhaps for that very reason, whatever was confessed to him seemed not to be spoken into the void, but to be transformed, alleviated, and redeemed in the telling and being heard. Only rarely did he reply with a warning or admonition, even more rarely did he give advice, let alone any order. Such did not seem to be his function, and his callers apparently sensed that it was not. His function was to arouse confidence and to be receptive to listen patiently and lovingly, helping the imperfectly formed confession to take shape, inviting all that was dammed up or encrusted within each soul to flow and pour out. When it did, he received it and wrapped it in silence.
His response was always the same. At the end of every confession, the terrible ones and the innocuous ones, the contrite ones and the vain ones, he would tell the penitent to kneel beside him and recite the Lord's Prayer. Then he would dismiss him, kissing him on the brow. Imposing penances and punishments was not his business, nor did he even feel empowered to pronounce a proper priestly absolution. Neither judging nor forgiving sin was his affair. By listening and understanding he seemed to take upon himself a share of the transgression; he seemed to help to bear it. By remaining silent, he seemed to bury what he had heard and consign it to the past. By praying with the penitent after the confession, he seemed to receive him as his brother and acknowledge him as his fellow. By kissing him, he seemed to bless him in a more brotherly than priestly, a more affectionate than ceremonial manner.
His reputation spread through the whole neighborhood of Gaza and beyond. Sometimes he was even mentioned in the same breath as the great hermit and father confessor Dion Pugil. The latter's fame, however, was already some ten years older, and was founded on quite different abilities. For Father Dion was celebrated for being able to read the souls of those who sought him out without recourse to words. He often surprised a faltering penitent by charging him bluntly with his still unconfessed sins. Joseph had heard a hundred amazing stories about his acuity, and would never had ventured to compare himself with him. Father Dion was also a wise counselor of erring souls, a great judge, chastiser, and rectifier. He assigned penances, castigations, and pilgrimages, ordered marriages, compelled enemies to make up, and enjoyed the authority of a bishop. Although he lived in the vicinity of Ascalon, people came to him from as far away as Jerusalem and places even more remote.
Like most eremites and penitents, Josephus Famulus had lived through long years of passionate and exhausting struggle. Although he had abandoned his life in the world, had given away his house and possessions and left the city with its manifold invitations to the pleasures of the senses, he was still saddled with his old self. Within his body and soul were all those instincts which can lead a man into distress and temptation. At first he had struggled primarily against his body; he had been stern and harsh with it, subjecting it to hunger and thirst, to scars and calluses, until it had gradually withered. But even in its gaunt ascetic's shell the old Adam could shamefully catch him by surprise and vex him with foolish cravings and desires, dreams and hallucinations. We know well that the devil lays special siege to penitents and fugitives from this world. When, therefore, people seeking consolation and confession occasionally visited him, he gratefully acknowledged their coming as a sign of grace, and a consolation to him in his ascetic's life. For he had been given a meaning beyond himself. A task had been conferred upon him. He could serve others, or serve God as an instrument for drawing souls to Him.
That had been a wonderful and elevating feeling. But in the course of time he had learned that even the goods of the soul belong to the earthly realm and can become temptations and snares. For often, when such a traveler arrived, either on foot or riding, stopped at his cave for a drink of water, and asked the hermit to hear his confession, a feeling of satisfaction and pleasure would creep over our Joseph. He felt well pleased with himself. As soon as he recognized this vanity and self-love, he was profoundly alarmed. Often he knelt to beg God's forgiveness and ask that no more penitents be sent him in his unworthiness, neither from the huts of the ascetic brethren in the vicinity nor from the villages and towns of the world. But when for a while no one came to confess, he found himself not much better off, and on the other hand when the stream of penitents resumed, he caught himself sinning once more. After a time, listening to some confessions, he found himself subject to spasms of coldness and lovelessness, even to contempt for the penitents. With a sigh he accepted these struggles too, and there were periods during which he inflicted solitary humiliations and penances upon himself after each confession. Moreover, he made it a rule to treat all penitents not only as brothers, but also with a kind of special deference. The less he liked the person, the more respectfully he behaved toward him, for he regarded each one as a messenger from God, sent to test him. Belatedly, after many years, when he was already approaching old age, he arrived at a certain equanimity. To those who lived in the vicinity he seemed to be a man without faults who had found his peace in God.
But peace, too, is a living thing and like all life it must wax and wane, accommodate, withstand trials, and undergo changes. Such was the case with the peace Josephus Famulus enjoyed. It was unstable, visible one moment, gone the next, sometimes near as a candle carried in the hand, sometimes as remote as a star in the wintry sky. And in time a new and special kind of sin and temptation more and more often made life difficult for him. It was not a strong, passionate emotion such as indignation or a sudden rush of instinctual urges. Rather, it seemed to be the opposite. It was a feeling very easy to bear in its initial stages, for it was scarcely perceptible; a condition without any real pain or deprivation, a slack, lukewarm, tedious state of the soul which could only be described in negative terms as a vanishing, a waning, and finally a complete absence of joy. There are days when the sun does not shine and the rain does not pour, but the sky sinks quietly into itself, wraps itself up, is gray but not black, sultry, but not with the tension of an imminent thunderstorm. Gradually, Joseph's days became like this as he approached old age. Less and less could he distinguish the mornings from the evenings, feast days from ordinary days, hours of rapture from hours of dejection. Everything ran sluggishly along in limp tedium and joylessness. This is old age, he thought sadly. He was sad because he had expected aging and the gradual extinction of his passions to bring a brightening and easing of his life, to take him a step nearer to harmony and mature peace of soul, and now age seemed to be disappointing and cheating him by offering nothing but this weary, gray, joyless emptiness, this feeling of chronic satiation. Above all he felt sated: by sheer existence, by breathing, by sleep at night, by life in his cave on the edge of the little oasis, by the eternal round of evenings and mornings, by the passing of travelers and pilgrims, camel riders and donkey riders, and most of all by the people who came to visit him, by those foolish, anxious, and childishly credulous people who had this craving to tell him about their lives, their sins and their fears, their temptations and self-accusations. Sometimes it all seemed to him like the small spring of water that collected in its stone basin in the oasis, flowed through grass for a while, forming a small brook, and then flowed on out into the desert sands, where after a brief course it dried up and vanished. Similarly, all these confession, these inventories of sins, these lives, these torments of conscience, big and small, serious and vain, all of them came pouring into his ear, by the dozens, by the hundreds, more and more of them. But his ear was not dead like the desert sands. His ear was alive and could not drink, swallow, and absorb forever. It felt fatigued, abused, glutted. It longed for the flow and splashing of words, confessions, anxieties, charges, self-condemnations to cease; it longed for peace, death, and stillness to take the place of this endless flow.
That was it, he wished for the end. He was tired, had had enough and more than enough. His life had become stale and worthless. Things went so far with him that at times he felt tempted to put an end to it, to punish and extinguish himself, as the traitor Judas had done when he hanged himself. Just as the devil had plagued him in the earlier stages of his ascetic's life by smuggling into his soul the desires, notions, and dreams of sensual and worldly pleasures, so the evil one now assailed him with ideas of self-destruction, so that he found himself considering every free with the view to its holding a noose, every cliff in the vicinity with a view to casting himself from its top. He resisted the temptation. He fought. He did not yield. But day and night he lived in a fire of self-hatred and craving for death. Life had become unbearable and hateful.
To such a pass had Joseph come. One day, when he was again standing on one of the cliffs, he saw in the distance between earth and sky two or three tiny figures. Obviously they were travelers, perhaps pilgrims, perhaps visitors who intended to call on him for the usual reason. And suddenly he was seized by an irresistible craving to leave as fast as possible, to get away from this place at once, to escape from this life. The craving that seized him was so overpowering, so instinctive, that it swept away all the thoughts, objections, and scruples that naturally came to him for how could a pious penitent have obeyed an impulse without twinges of conscience? But he was already running. He sped back to the cave where he had dwelt through so many years of struggle, where he had experienced so many exaltations and defeats. In reckless haste he gathered up a few handfuls of dates and a gourd of water, stuffed them into his old traveling pouch, slung it over his shoulder, took up his staff, and left the green peace of his little home, a fugitive and restless roamer, fleeing away from God and man, and most of all fleeing from what he had formerly thought the best he had to offer, his function and his mission.
At first he tore on frantically, as if those figures in the distance whom he had seen from the cliff were enemies who would pursue him. But after an hour of tramping, his anxious haste ebbed away. Movement tired him pleasantly, and he stopped to rest, although he did not allow himself to eat it had become a sacred habit for him to take no food before sunset. While he rested, his reason, skilled in self-examination, once more asserted itself. It looked into his instinctive action, seeking to form a judgment. And it did not disapprove, wild though the action might seem, but rather viewed it with benevolence. His reason decided that for the first time in a long while he was doing something harmless and innocent. This was flight, a sudden and rash flight, granted, but not a shameful one. He had abandoned a post which he was no longer fit for. By running away he had admitted his failure to himself and to Him who might be observing him. He had given up a daily repeated, useless struggle and confessed himself beaten. There was nothing grand, heroic, and saintly about that, his reason decided, but it was sincere and seemed to have been inescapable. Now he found himself wondering that he had attempted this flight so late, that he had held on for so long. It now seemed to him that the doggedness with which he had for so long defended a lost position had been a mistake. Or rather that it had been prompted by his egotism, his old Adam. Now he thought he understood why this obstinacy had led to such evil, to such diabolic consequences; to such division and lethargy in his soul, and even to demonic possession, for what else could he call his urge toward death and self-destruction? Certainly a Christian ought to be no enemy of death; certainly a penitent and saint ought to regard his life as an offering; but the thought of suicide was utterly diabolic and; could arise only in a soul no longer ruled and guarded by God's angels, but by evil demons.
For a while he sat lost in thought and deeply crestfallen, and finally, shaken and profoundly contrite. For from the perspective that a few miles of tramping had given him, he saw the life he had been living with fuller awareness, the miserable life of an aging man who gone astray, so much so that he had been haunted by, the gruesome temptation of hanging himself from the branch of a tree like the Saviour's betrayer. If the idea of voluntary death so horrified him, there certainly lingered in this horror a remnant of primeval, pre-Christian, ancient pagan knowledge: knowledge of the age-old custom of human sacrifice, whereby the King, the saint, the chosen man of the tribe gave up his life for the general welfare, often by his own hand. But this echo of forbidden heathen practices was only one aspect of the matter that made it so horrifying. Even more terrible was the thought that after all the Redeemer's death on the cross had also been a voluntary human sacrifice. As he thought about it he realized that a germ of this awareness had indeed been present in that longing for suicide: a bold-faced urge to sacrifice himself and thus in an outrageous manner to imitate the Saviour or outrageously to imply that His work of redemption had not been enough. He was deeply shocked by this thought, but also grateful that he had now escaped that peril.
For a long time he considered the penitent Joseph who now, instead of imitating Judas or Christ, had taken fight and thus once again put himself into God's hand. Shame and dejection grew in him the more plainly he recognized the hell from which he had just escaped. After a while his misery lumped in his throat like a choking morsel. It grew into an unbearable sense of oppression, and suddenly found release in a torrent of tears that miraculously helped him. How long he had been unable to weep! The tears flowed, his eyes were blurred, but the deadly strangulation was eased, and when he became aware of himself again, tasted the salt on his lips, and realized that he had been weeping, he felt for a moment as if he had become a child again and knew nothing of evil. He smiled, slightly ashamed of his weeping. At last he rose and continued his journey. He felt uncertain, for he did not know where his flight was leading him and what would become of him. He was like a child, he thought, but there was no longer any conflict or will within him. He moved on easily, as if he were being led, as if a distant, kind voice were calling and coaxing him, as if his journey were not a flight but a homecoming. Now he was growing tired, and reason too fell still, or rested, or decided that it was dispensable.
Joseph spent the night at a water hole where several camels and a small company of travelers were camped. Since there were two women among them, he contented himself with a gesture of greeting and avoided falling into talk. After he had eaten a few dates at sunset, prayed, and lain down to rest, he overheard the conversation between two men, one old and one somewhat younger, for they were lying close by him. It was only a fragment of their talk that he could hear; the rest was lost in whispers. But even this small passage stirred his interest. It gave him matter for thought through half the night.
"All right," he heard the old man's voice saying. "It's fine that you want to go to a pious man and make your confession. These people understand many things, let me tell you. They know a thing or two, and some of them are skilled in magic. When they just call out a word to a springing lion, the beast crouches, tucks his tail between his legs, and slinks away. They can tame lions, I tell you. One of them was so holy that his tame lions actually dug him his grave when he died, neatly scraped the earth into a mound over him, and for a long time two of them kept watch over the grave day and night. And it isn't only lions they can tame, these people. One of them gave a Roman centurion a piece of his mind. That was a cruel bastard, that soldier, and the worst whoreson in all Ascalon. But the hermit so kneaded his wicked heart that the man stole away frightened as a mouse and looked for a hole to hide in. Afterward he was almost unrecognizable, he'd become so quiet and meek. On the other hand, the man died soon afterward that's something to think about"
"The holy man?"
"Oh no, the centurion. His name was Varro. After the holy man gave him such a jolt, he went to pieces fast had the fever twice and was a dead man three months later. Oh well, no great loss. But still, I've often thought the hermit didn't just drive the devil out of him. He probably said a little spell that put the man six feet under."
"Such a pious man? I can't believe that."
"Believe it or not, my friend, but from that day on the man was changed, not to say bewitched, and three months later..."
There was silence for a little while. Then the younger man revived the conversation: "There's a holy man who must live somewhere right around here. They say he lives all alone near a small spring on the Gaza road. His name is Josephus, Josephus Famulus. I've heard a lot about him."
"Have you now? Like what?"
"He's supposed to be awfully pious and never to look at a woman. If a few camels happen to come by his place and there's a woman on one of them, no matter how heavily veiled, he just bolts into his cave. Lots of people have gone to confess to him thousands."
"I guess he can't be so famous or else I would have heard of him. What kind of thing does he do, this Famulus of yours?"
"Oh, you just go to confess to him, and I suppose people wouldn't go if he wasn't good and didn't understand things. The story is he hardly says a word, doesn't scold or bawl anyone out, doesn't order penances or anything like that. He's supposed to be gentle and shy."
"But if he doesn't scold and doesn't punish and doesn't open his mouth, what does he do?"
"They say he just listens and sighs marvelously and makes the sign of the cross."
"Sounds like a quack saint to me. You wouldn't be so foolish as to apply to this silent Joe, would you?"
"Yes, that's what I mean to do. I'll find him. It can't be much farther from here. This evening there was a poor monk standing around the waterhole here, you know. I'm going to ask him tomorrow morning. He looks like a hermit himself."
The old man flared up. "You'd be wasting your time. A man who only listens and sighs and is afraid of women can't do or understand anything. No, I'll tell you the one to go to. It's a bit far from here, beyond Ascalon, but he's the best hermit and confessor there is. Dion is his name, and he's called Dion Pugil that means 'the boxer, because he piles right into all the devils, and when somebody confesses his sins, my friend, Pugil doesn't sigh and keep his counsel. He sounds off and gives it to the man straight from the shoulder. They say he actually beats some till they're black and blue. He made one man kneel bare-kneed on the rocks all night long and on top of that ordered him to give forty pennies to the poor. There's a hermit for you, my boy, he'll make you sit up and take notice. When he looks at you, you'll shake; his eyes go right through you. None of this sighing business. That man has the stuff. If a man can't sleep or has bad dreams and visions, Pugil will put him on his feet again, let me tell you. I don't say this on hearsay; I know because I've been to him myself. Yes I have I may be a poor fool, but I betook myself to the hermit Dion, the man of God, God's boxer. I went there in misery, nothing but filth and shame on my conscience, and I left clean and bright as the morning star, and that's as true as my name is David. Remember what I tell you: the name is Dion, called Pugil. You go see him as soon as you can, and you'll be amazed. Prefects, presbyters, and bishops have gone to him for advice."
"Yes," the younger man said, "next time I'm in that neighborhood I'll consider it. But today is today and here is here, and since I'm here today and the hermit Josephus is located in these parts and I've heard so much good about him...
"Good? What so commends this Famulus to you?"
"I like the way he doesn't scold and make a fuss. I just like that, I tell you. I'm not a centurion and I'm not a bishop either; I'm just a nobody and I'm sort of timid myself. I couldn't stand a lot of fire and brimstone. God knows, I don't have anything against being treated gently that's just the way I am."
"Treated gently I like that! When you've confessed and done penance and taken your punishment and purged yourself, all right, maybe then it's time to treat you gently. But not when you're unclean and stand before your confessor and judge stinking like a jackal."
"All right, all right. Not so loud the others want to sleep."
Suddenly the younger man chuckled. "By the way, I just remembered a funny story I heard about him."
"About the hermit Josephus. You see, after somebody's told his story and confessed, the hermit blesses him and before he leaves gives him a kiss on the cheek or the brow."
"Does he now? He certainly has peculiar habits."
"And, you see, he's so shy of women. They say that a harlot from the neighborhood once went to him in man's clothing and he didn't notice and listened to her lies, and when she was finished confessing he bowed to her and solemnly gave her a kiss."
The old man burst into titters; the other hastily shushed him, and thereafter Joseph heard nothing more than half-suppressed laughter that went on for a while.
He looked up at the sky. The crescent moon hung thin and keen beyond the tops of the palm frees. He shivered in the cold of the night. It had been strange, like looking into a distorting mirror, listening to the camel drivers talking about him and the office which he had just abandoned. Strange but instructive. And so a harlot had played this joke on him. Well, that was not the worst, though it was bad enough. He lay for a long time pondering the conversation between the two men. And when, very late, he was at last able to fall asleep, it was because his meditations had not been fruitless. He had come to a conclusion, to a resolve, and with this new resolve fixed firmly in his heart he slept deeply until dawn.
His resolve was the very one that the younger of the two camel drivers had not taken. He had decided to take the older man's advice and pay a visit to Dion, called Pugil, of whom he had heard for so many years and whose praises had been so emphatically sung this very night. That famous confessor, adviser, and judge of souls would surely have advice, judgment, punishment for him, would surely know the proper way for him. Josephus would go to him as a spokesman of God and willingly obey whatever course he prescribed.
He left while the two men were still asleep, and after a tiring tramp reached a spot which he knew was inhabited by pious brethren. From there he hoped he would be able to reach the usual caravan route to Ascalon.
The place he reached toward evening was a small, lovely green oasis. He saw towering trees, heard a goat bleating, and thought he detected the outlines of roofs amid the green shadows. It seemed to him too that he could scent the presence of men. As he hesitantly drew closer, he felt as if he were being watched. He stopped and looked around. Under one of the outermost trees, he saw a figure sitting bolt upright. It was an old man with a hoary beard and a dignified but stern and rigid face, staring at him. The man had evidently been looking at him for some time. His eyes were keen and hard, but without expression, like the eyes of a man who is used to observing but without either curiosity or sympathy, who lets people and things approach him and tries to discern their nature, but neither attracts nor invites them.
"Praise be to Jesus Christ," Joseph said.
The old man answered in a murmur.
"I beg your pardon," Joseph said. "Are you a stranger like myself, or are you an inhabitant of this beautiful oasis?"
"A stranger," the white-bearded man said.
"Perhaps you can tell me, your Reverence, whether it is possible to reach the road to Ascalon from here?"
"It is possible," the old man said. Now he slowly stood up, rather stiffly, a gaunt giant. He stood and gazed out into the empty expanse of desert. Joseph felt that this aged giant had little wish for conversation, but he ventured one more query.
"Permit me just one other question, your Reverence, he said politely, and saw the man's eyes return from his abstraction and focus on him. Coolly, attentively, they looked at him.
"Do you by any chance know where Father Dion, called Dion Pugil, may be found?"
The stranger's brows contracted and his eyes became a trace colder.
"I know him," he said curtly.
"You know him?" Joseph exclaimed. "Oh, then tell me, for it is to Father Dion I am journeying."
From his superior height the old man scrutinized him. He took his time answering. At last he stepped backward to his tree trunk, slowly settled to the ground again, and sat leaning against the trunk in his previous position. With a slight movement of his hand he invited Joseph to sit also. Submissively, Joseph obeyed the gesture, feeling as he sat down the great weariness in his limbs; but he forgot this promptly in order to focus his full attention on the old man, who seemed lost in meditation. A trace of unfriendly sternness appeared upon his dignified countenance. But that was overlaid by another expression, virtually another face that seemed like a transparent mask: an expression of ancient and solitary suffering which pride and dignity would not allow him to express.
A long time passed before the old man's eyes returned to him. Then he again scrutinized Joseph sharply and suddenly asked in a commanding tone: "Who are you?"
"I am a penitent," Joseph said. "I have led a life of withdrawal from the world for many years."
"I can see that. I asked who you are."
"My name is Joseph, Joseph Famulus."
When Joseph gave his name, the old man did not stir, but his eyebrows drew together so sharply that for a while his eyes became almost invisible. He seemed to be stunned, troubled, or disappointed by the information he had received. Or perhaps it was only a tiring of the eyes, a distractedness, some small attack of weakness such as old people are prone to. At any rate he remained utterly motionless, kept his eyes shut for a while, and when he opened them again their gaze seemed changed, seemed to have become still older, still lonelier, still flintier and long-suffering, if that were possible. Slowly, his lips parted and he asked: "I have heard of you. Are you the one to whom the people go to confess?"
Abashed, Joseph said he was. He felt this recognition as an unpleasant exposure. For the second time on his journey he was ashamed to encounter his reputation.
Again the old man asked in his terse way: "And so now you are on your way to Dion Pugil? What do you want of him?"
"I would like to confess to him."
"What do you expect to gain by that?"
"I don't know. I trust him, and in fact it seems to me that a voice from above has sent me to him."
"And after you have confessed to him, what then?"
"Then I shall do what he commands."
"And suppose he advises or commands you wrongly?"
"I shall not ask whether it is right or wrong, but simply obey."
The old man said no more. The sun had moved far down toward the horizon. A bird cried among the leaves of the tree. Since the old man remained silent, Joseph stood up. Shyly, he reverted to his request.
"You said you knew where Father Dion can be found. May I ask you to tell me the place and describe the way to it?"
The old man's lips contracted in a kind of feeble smile. "Do you think you will be welcome to him?" he asked softly.
Strangely disconcerted by the question, Joseph did not reply. He stood there abashed. At last he said: "May I at least hope to see you again?"
The old man nodded. "I shall be sleeping here and stay until shortly after sunrise," he replied. "Go now, you are tired and hungry."
With a respectful bow, Joseph walked on, and as dusk fell arrived at the little settlement. Here, much as in a monastery, lived a group of so-called cenobites, Christians from various towns and villages who had built shelters in this solitary place in order to devote themselves without disturbance to a simple, pure life of quiet contemplation. Joseph was given water, food, and a place to sleep, and since it was apparent how tired he was, his hosts spared him questions and conversation. One cenobite recited a prayer while the others knelt; all pronounced the Amen together.
At any other time the community of these pious men would have been a joy to him, but now he had only one thing in mind, and at dawn he hastened back to the place where he had left the old man. He found him lying asleep on the ground, rolled in a thin mat, and sat down under the trees off to one side, to await the man's awakening. Soon the sleeper became restive. He awoke, unwrapped himself from the mat, and stood up awkwardly, stretching his stiffened limbs. Then he knelt and made his prayer. When he rose again, Joseph approached and bowed silently.
"Have you already eaten?" the stranger asked.
"No. It is my habit to eat only once a day, and only after sunset. Are you hungry, your Reverence?"
"We are on a journey," the man replied, "and we are both no longer young men. It is better for us to eat a bite before we go on."
Joseph opened his pouch and offered some of his dates. He had also received a millet roll from the friendly folk with whom he had spent the night, and he now shared this with the old man.
"We can go," the old man said after they had eaten.
"Oh, are we going together?" Joseph exclaimed with pleasure.
"Certainly. You have asked me to guide you to Dion. Come along."
Joseph looked at him in happy astonishment. "How Kind you are, your Reverence!" he exclaimed, and began framing ceremonious thanks. But the stranger silenced him with a curt gesture.
"God alone is kind," he said. 'let us go now. And stop calling me 'your Reverence.' what is the point of civilities and courtesies between two old hermits?"
The tall man set off with long strides, and Joseph kept pace with him. The sun had risen fully. The guide seemed sure of his direction, and promised that by noon they would reach a shady spot where they could rest during the hours of hottest sun. Thereafter they spoke no more on their way.
When they reached the resting place after several strenuous hours in the baking heat, and lay down in the shade of some vast boulders, Joseph again addressed his guide. He asked how many days' marches they would need to reach Dion Pugil.
"That depends on you alone," the old man said.
"On me?" Joseph exclaimed "Oh, if it depended on me alone I would be standing before him right now."
The old man did not seem any more inclined to conversation than before.
"We shall see," he said curtly, turning on his side and closing his eyes. Joseph did not like to be in the position of observing him while he slumbered; he moved quietly off to one side, lay down, and unexpectedly fell asleep, for he had lain long awake during the night. His guide roused him when the time for resuming their journey had come.
Late in the afternoon they arrived at a camping place with water, trees, and a bit of grass. Here they drank and washed, and the old man decided to make a halt. Joseph timidly objected.
"You said today," he pointed out, "that it depended on me how soon or late I would reach Father Dion. I would gladly press on for many hours if I could actually reach him today or tomorrow."
"Oh no," the other man replied. "We have gone far enough for the day."
"Forgive me," Joseph said, "but can't you understand my impatience?"
"I understand it. But it will not help you."
"Why did you say it depends on me?"
"It is as I said. As soon as you are sure of your desire to confess and know that you are ready to make the confession, you will be able to make it."
Astonished, Joseph stared at the quiet old face.
"Is it possible?" he cried, overwhelmed. "Are you yourself Father Dion?"
The old man nodded.
"Rest here under the trees," he said in a kindly voice, but don't sleep. Compose yourself, and I too will rest and compose myself. Then you may tell me what you crave to tell me."
Thus Joseph suddenly found himself at his goal. Now he could scarcely understand how it was that he had not recognized the venerable man sooner, after having walked beside him for an entire day. He withdrew, knelt and prayed, and rallied his thoughts. After an hour he returned and asked whether Dion was ready.
And now he could confess. Now all that he had lived through for years, all that for a long time seemed to have totally lost meaning, poured from his lips in the form of narrative, lament, query, self-accusation the whole story of his life as a Christian and ascetic, which he had intended for purification and sanctification and which in the end had become such utter confusion, obscuration, and despair. He spoke also of his most recent experiences, his flight and the feeling of release and hope that this flight had given him, how it was that he had decided to go to Dion, the encounter of the previous evening, his feeling of instant trust and affection for the older man, but also how in the course of this day he had several times condemned him as cold and peculiar, or at any rate moody.
The sun was already low by the time he had finished speaking. Old Dion had listened with unflagging attentiveness, refraining from the slightest interruption or question. And even now, when the confession was over, not a word fell from his lips. He rose clumsily, looked at Joseph with great friendliness, then stooped, kissed him on the brow, and made the sign of the cross over him. Only later did it occur to Joseph that this was the same brotherly gesture of forbearance with which he himself had dismissed so many penitents.
Soon afterward they ate, said their prayers, and lay down to sleep. Joseph reflected for a while. He had actually counted on a strong upbraiding and a strict sermon. Nevertheless he was neither disappointed nor uneasy. Dion's look and fraternal kiss had comforted him. He felt inwardly tranquil, and soon fell into a beneficial sleep.
Without wasting words, the old man took him along next morning. They covered a good deal of ground that day, and after another four or five days reached Dion's cell. There they dwelt. Joseph helped Dion with his daily chores, became acquainted with his routine and shared it. It was not so very different from the life he himself had led for so many years, except that now he was no longer alone. He lived in the shadow and protection of another man, and for that reason it was after all a totally different life. From the surrounding settlements, from Ascalon and from even further away, came seekers of advice and penitents eager to confess. At first Joseph hastily withdrew each time such visitors came along, and reappeared only after they had left. But more and more often Dion called him back, as one calls a servant, ordered him to bring water or perform some other menial task; and after this had gone on for, some time Joseph grew accustomed to attending a confession every so often, and listening unless the penitent himself objected. But most of them were glad not to have to sit or kneel before the dreaded confessor Pugil alone; there was something reassuring about the presence of this quiet, kind-looking, and assiduous helper. In this way Joseph gradually became familiar with Dion's way of listening to confession, offering consolation, intervening and scolding, punishing and advising. Only rarely did Joseph venture to question Dion as he did one day after a scholar or literary man paid a call, since he was passing by.
This man, as became apparent from his stories, had friends among the magi and astrologers. Since he was stopping for a rest, he sat for a while with the two old ascetics, a civil and loquacious guest. He talked long, learnedly, and eloquently about the stars and about the pilgrimage which man as well as all his gods must make through all the signs of the zodiac from the beginning to the end of every aeon. He spoke of Adam, the first man, maintaining that he was one and the same as the crucified Jesus, and he called the Redemption Adam's passage from the Tree of Knowledge to the Tree of Life. The serpent of Paradise, he contended, was the guardian of the Sacred Fount, of the dark depths from whose nightblack waters all forms, all men and gods, arose.
Dion listened attentively to this man, whose Syrian was heavily sprinkled with Greek, and Joseph wondered at his patience. It bothered him, in fact, that Dion did not lash out against these heathen errors. On the contrary, the clever monologues seemed to entertain Dion and engage his sympathy, for he not only listened with keen attention, but also smiled and nodded at certain phrases, as though he were highly pleased.
After the man had left, Joseph asked, in a zealot's tone, with something bordering on rebuke: "How could you have listened so calmly to the false doctrines of this unbelieving heathen? It seemed to me that you listened not only with patience, but actually with sympathy and a certain amount of appreciation. How could you fail to oppose him? Why didn't you try to refute this man, to strike down his errors and convert him to faith in our Lord?"
Dion's head swayed on his thin, wrinkled neck. "I did not refute him because it would have been useless, or rather, because I would not have been able to. In eloquence and in making associations, in knowledge of mythology and the stars, this man is far ahead of me. I would not have prevailed against him. And furthermore, my son, it is neither my business nor yours to attack a man's beliefs and tell him these are lies and errors. I admit that I listened to this clever man with a good measure of appreciation. I enjoyed him because he spoke so well and knew a great deal, but above all because he reminded me of my youth. For in my younger days I devoted a great deal of my time to just such studies. Those stories from mythology, which the stranger chatted about so gracefully, are by no means benighted. They are the ideas and parables of a religion which we no longer need because we have acquired faith in Jesus, the sole Redeemer. But for those who have not yet found our faith, perhaps never can find it, their own faith, deriving from the ancient wisdom of their fathers, is rightly deserving of respect. Of course our faith is different, entirely different. But because our faith does not need the doctrine of constellations and aeons, of the primal waters and universal mothers and similar symbols, that does not mean that such doctrines are lies and deception."
"But our faith is superior," Joseph exclaimed. "And Jesus died for all men. Therefore those who know Him must oppose those outmoded doctrines and put the new, right teaching in their place."
"We have done so long ago, you and I and so many others," Dion said calmly. "We are believers because the faith, the power of the Redeemer and His death for the salvation of all men, has overwhelmed us. But those others, those who construct mythologies and theologies of the zodiac and out of ancient doctrines, have not been overwhelmed by that power, not yet, and it is not for us to compel them. Didn't you notice, Joseph, how gracefully and skillfully this mythologist could talk and compose his metaphors, and how comfortable he was in doing so, how serenely he lives in his wisdom of images and symbols? That is a token that this man is not oppressed by suffering, that he is content, that all is well with him. Such as we have nothing to say to men for whom all goes well. Before a man needs redemption and the faith that redeems, before his old faith departs from him and he stakes all he has on the gamble of belief in the miracle of salvation, things must go ill for him, very ill indeed. He must have experienced sorrow and disappointment, bitterness and despair. The waters must rise up to his neck. No, Joseph, let us leave this learned pagan in the happiness of his philosophy, his ideas, and his eloquence. Tomorrow perhaps, or perhaps in a year or in ten years something may happen that will shatter his arts and his philosophy; perhaps the woman he loves will die or his only son will be killed, or he will fall into sickness and poverty. Should that occur and we meet him again, we will try to help him; we will tell him how we have tried to master suffering. And if he then asks us: 'Why didn't you tell me that yesterday or ten years ago?' we will reply: You were too fortunate at the time.'"
He subsided into a grave silence for a while. Then, as if rousing himself from reveries of the past, he added: "I myself once amused myself with the philosophies of the fathers, and even after I was already on the way of the Cross, playing with theology often gave me pleasure, though grief enough too. My thoughts dwelt mostly on the Creation of the world, and with the fact that at the end of the work of Creation everything in the should have been good, for we are told: 'God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.' But in reality it was good and perfect only for a moment, the moment of Paradise, and by the very next moment guilt and a curse had entered into the perfection, for Adam had eaten of the tree which he was forbidden to eat of. There were teachers who said: the God who made the Creation and along with it Adam and the Tree of Knowledge is not the sole and highest God, but only a part of him, or an inferior god, the Demiurge. Creation was not good, they said, but a failure; and therefore created being was accursed and given over to evil for an aeon until He himself, God the One Spirit, decided to put an end to the accursed aeon by means of his Son. Thereafter, they taught, and I thought as they did, the Demiurge and his Creation began to perish, and the world will continue gradually to fade away until in a new aeon there will be no Creation, no world, no flesh, no lust and sin, no carnal begetting, bearing, and dying, but a perfect, spiritual, and redeemed world will arise, free of the curse of Adam, free of eternal damnation and the urges of cupidity, generation, birth, and death. We blamed the Demiurge more than the first man for the present evils of the world. We thought that if the Demiurge had really been God, he would have made Adam differently or have spared him temptation. And so at the end of our reasoning we had two Gods, the Creator God. and God the Father, and we did not blanch at passing judgment on the first. There were even some among us who went a step further and contended that the Creation was not God's work at all, but the devil's. We thought all our clever ideas were going to be helpful to the Redeemer and the coining aeon of the Spirit, and so we reasoned out gods and worlds and cosmic plans. We disputed and theologized, until one day I fell into a fever and became deathly ill. In my deliriums the Demiurge continually filled my mind. I had to wage war and spill blood, and the visions and nightmares grew more and more ghastly, until one night when my fever was raging I thought I had to kill my own mother in order to undo my carnal birth. Yes, in those deliriums the devil harried me with all his hounds. But I recovered, and to the disappointment of my former friends I returned to life a silent, stupid, and dull person who soon regained physical strength but never recovered his pleasure in philosophizing. For during the days and nights of my convalescence, when those horrible fevered visions had vanished and I was sleeping almost all the time, I felt the Redeemer with me in every waking moment. I felt strength pouring in and out of me from Him, and when I was well again I was aware of a deep sadness that I could no longer feel His presence. I then felt a great longing for that presence, and regarded this longing as my most precious possession. But as soon as I began listening to disputations again, I could feel how this longing was in danger of vanishing, of sinking into thoughts and words as water sinks into sand. To make a long story short, my friend, that was the end of my cleverness and theology. Since then I have been one of the simple souls. But I do not despise and do not like to bait those who know how to philosophize and mythologize and play those games I myself once indulged in. Just as I had to rest content with letting the incomprehensible relations and identities of Demiurge and Spirit-God, Creation and Redemption, remain unsolved riddles for me, so I must also rest content with the fact that I cannot convert philosophers into believers. That is not my province."
Once, after a man had confessed to murder and adultery, Dion said to his assistant: "Murder and adultery it sounds atrocious and grandiose, and certainly it is bad enough, I grant you. But I tell you, Joseph, in reality these people in the world are not real sinners at all. Whenever I attempt to put myself entirely into the minds of any of them, they strike me as absolutely like children. They are not decent, good, and noble; they are selfish, lustful, overbearing, and wrathful, but in reality and at bottom they are innocent, innocent in the same way as children."
"And yet," Joseph said, "you often belabor them mightily and paint them a vivid picture of hell."
"Exactly. They are children, and when they have pangs of conscience and come to confess, they want to be taken seriously and reprimanded seriously. At least that is my view. You went about it differently; you didn't scold and punish and deal out penances, but were friendly and sent the penitents off with a brotherly kiss. I don't mean to criticize you, but that wouldn't be my way."
"No doubt," Joseph said hesitantly. "But then tell me why, after I made my confession, you did not treat me as you would your other penitents, but silently kissed me and said not a word about penances?"
Dion Pugil fixed his piercing eyes upon him. "Was what I did not right?" he asked.
"I am not saying it was not right. It was surely right, for otherwise that confession would not have done me so much good."
"Well then, let it be. In any case, I did impose a long and stern penance on you, without calling it such. I took you with me and treated you as my servant, and led you back to your duty, forcing you to hear confessions when you had tried to escape from that."
He turned away; the conversation had already been too long for his liking. But this time Joseph was pressing.
"You knew in advance that I would follow your orders; I'd pledged that before the confession and even before I knew who you were. No, tell me, was it really for this reason that you treated me so?"
Dion Pugil took a few steps back and forth. Then he stopped in front of Joseph and laid his hand on his shoulder. "Worldly people are children, my son. And saints well, they do not come to confess to us. But you and I and our kind, we ascetics and seekers and eremites - we are not children and are not innocent and cannot be set straight by moralizing sermons. We are the real sinners, we who know and think, who have eaten of the Tree of Knowledge, and we should not treat one another like children who are given a few blows of the rod and left to go their way again. After a confession and penance we do not run away back to the world where children celebrate feasts and do business and now and then kill one another. We do not experience sin like a brief bad dream which can be thrown off by confession and sacrifice; we dwell in it. We are never innocent; we are always sinners; we dwell in sin and in the fire of conscience, and we know that we can never pay our great debt unless after our departure God looks mercifully upon us and receives us into His grace. That, Joseph, is the reason I cannot deliver sermons and dictate penances to you and me. We are not involved in one or another misstep or crime, but always and forever in original sin itself. This is why each of us can only assure the other that he shares his knowledge and feels brotherly love; neither of us can cure the other by penances. Surely you must have known this?"
Softly, Joseph replied: "It is so. I knew it."
"Then let us not waste our time in talk," the old man said curtly. He turned to the stone in front of his hut, on which he was accustomed to pray.
Several years passed. Every so often Father Dion was subject to spells of weakness, so that Joseph had to help him in the mornings, for otherwise he could not stand up by himself. Then he would go to pray, and after prayer he was again unable to rise without aid. Joseph would help him, and then Father Dion would sit all day long staring into space. This happened on some days; on others the old man would manage to stand up by himself. He also could not hear confessions every day; and sometimes, after Joseph had acted as his substitute, Dion would want a few words with the visitor and would tell him: "My end is nearing, my child, my end is nearing. Tell the people that Joseph here is my successor." And when Joseph demurred at such talk, the old man would fix him with that terrible look of his that penetrated like an icy ray.
One day, when he had been able to stand without help, and seemed stronger, he called Joseph and led him to a spot at the edge of their small garden.
"Here is where you will bury me," he said. "We will dig the grave together; we have a little time, I think. Bring me the spade."
Thereafter he had Joseph dig a little early in the morning every day. If Dion was feeling stronger, he would himself scoop out a few spadefuls of earth with great difficulty, but also with an air of gaiety, as though he enjoyed the work. All through the day this gaiety would persist. From the time he started the project, he remained in continual good humor.
"You will plant a palm on my grave," he said one day while they were working. "Perhaps you will even live to eat its fruit. If not, another will. Every so often I have planted a tree, but too few, far too few. Some say a man should not die without having planted a tree and left a son behind. Well, I am leaving behind a tree and leaving you also. You are my son.
He was calm and more cheerful than Joseph had ever known him, and he grew more and more so. One evening as it was growing dark they had already eaten and prayed he called out to Joseph and asked him to sit beside his pallet for a while.
"I want to tell you something," he said cheerfully. He seemed wakeful and not at all tired. "Do you remember, Joseph, the time you were so miserable in your cell near Gaza and tired of your life? And then you fled, and decided to find old Dion and tell him your story? And in the cenobite settlement you met the old man whom you asked to direct you to Dion Pugil? You remember. And was it not like a miracle that the old man turned out to be Dion himself? I want to tell you now how that happened. Because you see, it was strange and like a miracle for me too.
"You know what it is like when an ascetic and father confessor grows old and has listened to so many confessions from sinners who think him sinless and a saint, and don't know that he is a greater sinner than they are. At such times all his work seems useless and vain to him, and everything that once seemed important and sacred the fact that God had assigned him to this particular place and honored him with the task of cleansing human souls of their filth all that seems to him too much of an imposition. He actually feels it as a curse, and by and by he shudders at every poor soul who comes to him with his childish sins. He wants to get rid of the sinner and wants to get rid of himself, even if he has to do it by tying a rope to the branch of a tree. That is how you felt at the time. And now the hour of confession has come for me too, and I am confessing: it happened that way to me also. I too thought I was useless and spiritually dead. I thought I could no longer bear to have people flocking to me so trustfully, bringing me all the filth and stench of human life that they could not cope with, and that I too could no longer cope with.
"I had often heard talk of a hermit named Josephus Famulus. People also flocked to him for confession, I heard, and many preferred him to me, because he was said to be a gentle, merciful fellow who asked nothing of them and did not berate them, but treated them like brothers, merely listened to them and dismissed them with a kiss. That was not my way, as you well know, and the first few times I heard stories about this Josephus, his method seemed to me rather foolish and infantile. But now that I had begun to doubt my own, way, it behooved me not to pass judgment on this method of Joseph's, or to set up my own as superior to it. What kind of powers did this man have, I wondered. I knew he was younger than I, but still ripe in years. That reassured me, for I would not have found it easy to trust a young man. But I did feel drawn to this Josephus Famulus. And so I decided to make a pilgrimage to him, to confess my misery to him and ask him for advice or, if he gave no advice, perhaps to receive consolation and strength from him. The very decision did me good, and relieved me.
"I set out on my journey and made my way toward the place where his cell was said to be. But meanwhile Brother Joseph had been having the same experience as myself, and had done exactly what I was doing; he had taken flight in order to seek advice from me. When I ran into him, under to be sure odd circumstances, he was enough like the man I had expected for me to recognize him. But he was a fugitive; things had gone badly with him, as badly as for me, or perhaps worse, and he was not at all inclined to hear confessions. Rather, he was all agog to make a confession of his own, and to place his distress in another's hands. That was a singular disappointment to me, and I was very sad. For if this Joseph, who did not recognize me, had also grown tired of his service and was in despair over the meaning of his life did that not seem to mean that both of us amounted to nothing, that both of us had lived uselessly, were both failures?
"I am telling you what you already know let me brief. I stayed alone that night while you were shown hospitality by the cenobites. I meditated, and put myself into Joseph's mind, and I thought: what will he do if he learns tomorrow that his errand is in vain and he has vainly placed his faith in Pugil; if he learns that Pugil too is a fugitive and subject to temptation? The more I put myself into his place, the sorrier I was for Joseph, and the more it seemed to me that God had sent him to me so that I might understand and cure him, and in doing so cure myself. After coming to this conclusion I was able to sleep; by then half the night was gone. Next day you joined up with me and have become my son.
"I wanted to tell you this story. I hear that you are weeping. Weep on; it will do you good. And since I have fallen into this unseemly talkative vein, do me the kindness to listen a little longer and take what I now say into your heart: Man is strange, can scarcely be relied on, and so it is not impossible that those sufferings and temptations will someday strike you once again and threaten to overcome you. May our Lord then send you as kindly, patient, and consoling a son and disciple as He has given to me in you. But as for the branch on the free and the death of Judas Iscariot, visions of which the tempter sent you in those days, I can tell you one thing: it is not merely a folly and a sin to inflict such a death on oneself, although our Redeemer can well forgive even such a sin. But it also a terrible pity for a man to die in despair. God sends us despair not to kill us; He sends it to us to awaken new life in us. When on the other hand He sends us death, Joseph, when He frees us from the earth and from the body and summons us to Himself, that is a great joy. To be permitted to sleep when we are tired, to be allowed to drop a burden we have borne for a long time, is a precious, a wonderful thing. Since we have dug the grave don't forget the young palm you are to plant on it ever since we began digging the grave I have been happier and more content than in many years.
"I have babbled on long, my son; you must be tired. Go to sleep; go to your hut. God be with you!"
On the following day Dion did not appear for the morning prayer, nor did he call Joseph. When Joseph grew alarmed and looked into Dion's hut, he found the old man in his last sleep. His face was illumined with a childlike, radiant smile.
Joseph buried him. He planted the tree on the grave and lived to see the year in which the tree bore its first fruit.
|The Indian Life||Herman Hesse (1877-1962)
«The Glass Bead Game», The Father Confessor, 1943
Translated from German by Richard and Clara Winston