The Pilgrim (A Christmas Legend for Children)

A poem by Abram Joseph Ryan

The shades of night were brooding
O'er the sea, the earth, the sky;
The passing winds were wailing
In a low, unearthly sigh;
The darkness gathered deeper,
For no starry light was shed,
And silence reigned unbroken,
As the silence of the dead.

The wintry clouds were hanging
From the starless sky so low,
While 'neath them earth lay folded
In a winding shroud of snow.
'Twas cold, 'twas dark, 'twas dreary,
And the blast that swept along
The mountains hoarsely murmured
A fierce, discordant song.

And mortal men were resting
From the turmoil of the day,
And broken hearts were dreaming
Of the friends long passed away;
And saintly men were keeping
Their vigils through the night,
While angel spirits hovered near
Around their lonely light.

And wicked men were sinning
In the midnight banquet halls,
Forgetful of that sentence traced
On proud Belshazzar's walls.
On that night, so dark and dismal,
Unillumed by faintest ray,
Might be seen the lonely pilgrim
Wending on his darksome way.

Slow his steps, for he was weary,
And betimes he paused to rest;
Then he rose, and, pressing onward,
Murmured lowly: "I must haste."
In his hand he held a chaplet,
And his lips were moved in prayer,
For the darkness and the silence
Seemed to whisper God was there.

On the lonely pilgrim journeyed,
Nought disturbed him on his way,
And his prayers he softly murmured
As the midnight stole away.
Hark! amid the stillness rises
On his ears a distant strain
Softly sounding -- now it ceases --
Sweetly now it comes again.

In his path he paused to wonder
While he listened to the sound:
On it came, so sweet, so pensive,
'Mid the blast that howled around;
And the restless winds seemed soothed
By that music, gentle, mild,
And they slept, as when a mother
Rocks to rest her cradled child.

Strange and sweet the calm that followed,
Stealing through the midnight air;
Strange and sweet the sounds that floated
Like an angel breathing there.
From the sky the clouds were drifting
Swiftly one by one away,
And the sinless stars were shedding
Here and there a silver ray.

"Why this change?" the pilgrim whispered --
"Whence that music? whence its power?
Earthly sounds are not so lovely!
Angels love the midnight hour!"
Bending o'er his staff, he wondered,
Loath to leave that sacred place:
"I must hasten," said he, sadly --
On he pressed with quickened pace.

Just before him rose a mountain,
Dark its outline, steep its side --
Down its slopes that midnight music
Seemed so soothingly to glide.
"I will find it," said the pilgrim,
"Though this mountain I must scale" --
Scarcely said, when on his vision
Shone a distant light, and pale.

Glad he was; and now he hastened --
Brighter, brighter grew the ray --
Stronger, stronger swelled the music
As he struggled on his way.
Soon he gained the mountain summit,
Lo! a church bursts on his view:
From the church that light was flowing,
And that gentle music, too.

Near he came -- its door stood open --
Still he stood in awe and fear;
"Shall I enter spot so holy?
Am I unforbidden here?
I will enter -- something bids me --
Saintly men are praying here;
Vigils sacred they are keeping,
'Tis their Matin song I hear."

Softly, noiselessly, he glided
Through the portal; on his sight
Shone a vision, bright, strange, thrilling;
Down he knelt -- 'twas Christmas night --
Down, in deepest adoration,
Knelt the lonely pilgrim there;
Joy unearthly, rapture holy,
Blended with his whispered prayer.

Wrapped his senses were in wonder,
On his soul an awe profound,
As the vision burst upon him,
'Mid sweet light and sweeter sound.
"Is it real? is it earthly?
Is it all a fleeting dream?
Hark! those choral voices ringing,
Lo! those forms like angels seem."

On his view there rose an altar,
Glittering 'mid a thousand beams,
Flowing from the burning tapers
In bright, sparkling, silver streams.
From unnumbered crystal vases,
Rose and bloomed the fairest flowers,
Shedding 'round their balmy fragrance
'Mid the lights in sweetest showers.

Rich and gorgeous was the altar,
Decked it was in purest white.
Mortal hands had not arrayed it
Thus, upon that Christmas night.
Amid its lights and lovely flowers,
The little tabernacle stood;
Around it all was rich and golden,
It alone was poor and rude.

Hark! Venite Adoremus!
Round the golden altar sounds --
See that band of angels kneeling
Prostrate, with their sparkling crowns!
And the pilgrim looked and listened,
And he saw the angels there,
And their snow-white wings were folded,
As they bent in silent prayer.

Twelve they were; bright rays of glory
Round their brows effulgent shone;
But a wreath of nobler beauty
Seemed to grace and circle one;
And he, beauteous, rose and opened
Wide the tabernacle door:
Hark! Venite Adoremus
Rises -- bending, they adore.

Lo! a sound of censers swinging!
Clouds of incense weave around
The altar rich a silver mantle,
As the angels' hymns resound.
List! Venite Adoremus
Swells aloud in stronger strain,
And the angels swing the censers,
And they prostrate bend again.

Rising now, with voice of rapture,
Bursts aloud, in thrilling tone,
"Gloria in Excelsis Deo"
Round the sacramental throne.
Oh! 'twas sweet, 'twas sweet and charming
As the notes triumphant flowed!
Oh! 'twas sweet, while wreathes of incense
Curled, and countless tapers glowed.

Oh! 'twas grand! that hymn of glory
Earthly sounds cannot compare;
Oh! 'twas grand! it breath'd of heaven,
As the angels sung it there.
Ravished by the strains ecstatic,
Raptured by the vision grand,
Gazed the pilgrim on the altar,
Gazed upon the angel band.

All was hushed! the floating echoes
Of the hymn had died away;
Vanished were the clouds of incense,
And the censers ceased to sway.
Lo! their wings are gently waving,
And the angels softly rise,
Bending towards the tabernacle,
Worship beaming from their eyes.

One last, lowly genuflection!
From their brows love burning shone --
Ah! they're going, they've departed,
All but one, the brightest one.
"Why remains he?" thought the pilgrim,
Ah! he rises beauteously --
"Listen!" and the angel murmured
Sweetly: "Pilgrim, hail to thee!"

"Come unto the golden altar,
I'm an angel -- banish fear --
Come, unite in adoration
With me, for our God is here.
Come thy Jesus here reposes,
Come! He'll bless thy mortal sight --
Come! adore the Infant Saviour
With me -- for 'tis Christmas night."

Now approached the pilgrim, trembling,
Now beside the angel bent,
And the deepest, blissful gladness,
With his fervent worship blent.
"Pilgrim," said the spirit, softly,
"Thou hast seen bright angels here,
And hast heard our sacred anthems,
Filled with rapture, filled with fear.

"We are twelve -- 'twas we who chanted
First the Saviour's lowly birth,
We who brought the joyful tidings
Of His coming, to the earth;
We who sung unto the shepherds,
Watching on the mountain height,
That the Word was made Incarnate
For them on that blessed night.

"And since then we love to linger
On that festal night on earth;
And we leave our thrones of glory
Here to keep the Saviour's birth.
Happy mortals! happy mortals!
To-night the angels would be men;
And they leave their thrones in heaven,
For the Crib of Bethlehem."

And the angel led the pilgrim
To the tabernacle door;
Lo! an Infant there was sleeping,
And the angel said: "Adore!
He is sleeping, yet he watches,
See that beam of love divine;
Pilgrim! pay your worship holy
To your Infant God and mine."

And the spirit slowly, slowly,
Closed the tabernacle door,
While the pilgrim lowly, lowly,
Bent in rapture to adore.
"Pilgrim," spoke the angel sweetly,
"I must bid thee my adieu;
Love! oh! love the Infant Jesus! --"
And he vanished from his view.

* * * * *

All was silent -- silent -- silent --
Faded was the vision bright --
But the pilgrim long remembered
In his heart that Christmas night.

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