The Child with the wondering eyes sat on the doorstep, on either side of her a tramp cat in process of becoming a recognised member of society. On the flagged path in front the brown brethren were picking up crumbs. The cats' whiskers trembled, but they sat still, proudly virtuous, and conscious each of a large saucer of warm milk within.
"What," said the Child, "is a symbol?"
The cats looked grave.
The Child rose, went into the house, and returned with a well- thumbed brown book. She turned the pages thoughtfully, and read aloud, presumably for the benefit of the cats: "In a symbol there is concealment yet revelation, the infinite is made to blend with the finite, to stand visible, and as it were attainable there." The Child sighed, "We had better go to the Recluse," she said. So the three went.
It was a cold, clear, bright day, a typical Christmas Eve. There was a carpet of crisp snow on the ground, and a fringe of icicles hung from every vantage-point. The cats, not having been accustomed to the delights of domesticity, trotted along cheerfully despite the chill to their toes; and they soon came to the forest which all three knew very well indeed. It was a beautiful forest like a great cathedral, with long aisles cut between the splendid upstanding pine trees. The green-fringed boughs were heavy with snow, the straight strong stems caught and reflected the stray sun rays, and looking up through the arches and delicate tracery and interlaced branches the eye caught the wonderful blue of the great domed roof overhead. The cats walked delicately, fearful of temptation in the way of rabbits or frost-tamed birds, and the Child lilted a quaint German hymn to a strange old tune:-
"Ein Kind gebor'n zu Bethlehem.
Dess freuet sich Jerusalem,
The Recluse was sitting on a bench outside his cave. He was dressed in a brown robe, his eyes were like stars wrapped in brown velvet, his face was strong and gentle, his hair white although he looked quite young. He greeted the Child very kindly and stroked the cats.
"You have come to ask me a question, Child?"
"If you please," said the Child, "what is a symbol?"
"Ah," said the Recluse, "I might have known you would ask me that."
"The Sage says," went on the Child, "that it is concealment yet revelation."
The Recluse nodded.
"Just as a mystery that we cannot understand is the greatest possible wisdom. Go in and sit by my fire, Child; there are chestnuts on the hearth, and you will find milk in the brown jug. I will show you a symbol presently."
The Child and the two cats went into the cave and sat down by the fire. It was warm and restful after the biting air. The cats purred pleasantly, the Child sat with her chin in her hand watching the glowing wood burn red and white on the great hearthstone.
"The Recluse generally answers my questions by showing me something I have seen for a long time but never beheld, or heard and never lent ear. I wonder what it will be this time," she said to herself.
The grateful warmth made the Child sleepy, and she gave a start when she found the Recluse standing by her with outstretched hand.
"Come, dear Child," he said; and leaving the sleeping cats she followed him, her hand in his.
The air was full of wonderful sound, voices and song, and the cry of the bells.
The Child wondered, and then remembered it was Christmas night. The Recluse led her down a little passage and opened a door. They stepped out together, but not into the forest.
"This is the front door of my house," said the Recluse, with a little smile.
They stood on a white road, on one side a stretch of limestone down, on the other steep terraces with gardens and vineyard. The air was soft and warm, and sweet with the breath of lilies. The heaven was ablaze with stars; across the plain to the east the dawn was breaking. A group of strangely-clad men went down the road followed by a flock of sheep.
"Let us go with them," said the Recluse; and hand in hand they went.
The road curved to the right; round the bend, cut in the living rock, was a cave; the shepherds stopped and knelt, and there was no sound but the soft rapid breathing of the flock. Then the Child was filled with an overmastering longing, a desire so great that the tears sprang hot to her eyes. She dropped the Recluse's hand and went forward where the shepherds knelt. Once again the air was full of wonderful sound, voices and song, and the cry of the bells; but within all was silence. The cave was rough-hewn, and stabled an ox and an ass; close to the front a tall strong man leaning on a staff kept watch and ward; within knelt a peasant Maid, and on a heap of yellow straw lay a tiny new-born Babe loosely wrapped in a linen cloth: around and above were wonderful figures of fire and mist.
The infinite, visible and attainable.
The mystery which is the greatest possible wisdom.
* * * * *
"Come, Child," said the Recluse.
The fire had burnt low; it was quite dark, save for the glow of the live embers.
He threw on a great dry pine log; it flared like a torch. The cats' stretched in the sudden blaze, and then settled to sleep again. The Child and the Recluse passed out into the forest. The moon was very bright and the snow reflected its rays, so that it was light in spite of the great trees. The air was full of wonderful sound, voices and song, and the cry of the bells; and the Child sang as she went in a half-dream by the side of the Recluse:-
"In dieser heil'gen Weihnachtszeit,
Sei, Gott der Herr, gebenedeit,
and wondered when she would wake up. They came to the old, old church in the forest, and the pictured saints looked out at them from the lighted window; through the open door they could see figures moving about with tapers in their hands; save for these the church was still empty.
The Recluse led the way up the nave to the north side of the Altar. The Child started a little; she was really dreaming then a kind of circular dream, for again she stood before the cave, again the reverend figure kept watch and ward over the kneeling Maid and the little Babe. The sheep and the shepherds were not there, but a little lamb had strayed in; and the wonderful figures of fire and mist--they were there in their place.
"Little one," said the Recluse softly, "here is a symbol-- concealment yet revelation--the King as servant--the strong helpless--the Almighty a little child; and thus the infinite stands revealed for all of us, visible and attainable, if we will have it so. It is the centre of all mystery, the greatest possible wisdom, the Eternal Child."
"You showed it me before," said the Child, "only we were out of doors, and the shepherds were there with the sheep; but the angels are here just the same."
The Recluse bowed his head.
"Wait for me here with them, dear Child, I will fetch you after service."
The church began to fill; old men in smock frocks and tall hats, little children wrapped warm against the cold, lads, shining and spruce, old women in crossed shawls and wonderful bonnets. The service was not very long; then the Recluse went up into the old grey stone pulpit. The villagers settled to listen--he did not often preach.
"My brothers and sisters, to-night we keep the Birth of the Holy Babe, and to-night you and I stand at the gate of the Kingdom of Heaven, the gate which is undone only at the cry of a little child. 'Except ye be converted and become as little children, ye shall not enter.'
"The Kingdom is a great one, nay, a limitless one; and many enter in calling it by another name. It includes your own hearts and this wonderful forest, all the wise and beautiful works that men have ever thought of or done, and your daily toil; it includes your nearest and dearest, the outcast, the prisoner, and the stranger; it holds your cottage home and the jewelled City, the New Jerusalem itself. People are apt to think the Kingdom of Heaven is like church on Sunday, a place to enter once a week in one's best: whereas it holds every flower, and has room for the ox and the ass, and the least of all creatures, as well as for our prayer and worship and praise.
"'Except ye become as little children.' How are we to be born again, simple children with wondering eyes?
"We must learn to lie in helpless dependence, to open our mouth wide that it may be filled, to speak with halting tongue the language we think we know; we must learn above all our own ignorance, and keep alight and cherish the flame of innocency in our hearts.
"It is a tired world, my brethren, and we are most of us tired men and women who live on it, for we seek ever after some new thing. Let us pass out through the gate into the Kingdom of Heaven and not be tired any more, because there we shall find the new thing that we seek. Heaven is on earth, the Kingdom is here and now; the gate stands wide to-night, for it is the birthright of the Eternal Child. We are none of us too poor, or stupid, or lowly; it was the simple shepherds who saw Him first. We are none of us too great, or learned, or rich; it was the three wise kings who came next and offered gifts. We are none of us too young; it was little children who first laid down their lives for Him; or too old, for Simeon saw and recognised Him. There is only one thing against most of us--we are too proud.
"My brethren, 'let us now go even to Bethlehem, and face this thing which is come to pass, which the LORD hath made known unto us.'"
The lights were out in the church when the Recluse came to fetch the Child. She was still kneeling by the creche, keeping watch with the wonderful figures of fire and mist.
"Was THIS a dream or the other?" said the Child.
"Neither," said the Recluse, and he blessed her in the moonlit dark.
The air was full of wonderful sound, voices and song, and the cry of the bells.