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II ROME’S HOLY CHILD
On the summit of the Capitol stood a monastery occupied by Franciscan monks. It was, however, less a monastery than a fortress. It was like a watch-tower by the seashore, where watch was kept for an approaching foe.

Near the monastery stood the magnificent basilica “Santa Maria in Aracoeli.” The basilica was built because the sibyl had caused Augustus to see Christ. But the monastery was built because they feared the fulfilment of the sibyl’s prophecy; that Antichrist should come to be worshipped on the Capitol.

And the monks felt like warriors. When they went to church to sing and pray, they thought that they were walking on ramparts, and sending showers of arrows down on the assaulting Antichrist.

They lived always in terror of Antichrist, and all their service was a struggle to keep him away from the Capitolium.

They drew their hats down over their eyes and sat and gazed out into the world. Their eyes grew feverish with watching, and they continually thought they discovered Antichrist. “He is here, he is there!” they cried. And they fluttered up in their brown robes and braced themselves for the struggle, as crows gather on a crag when they catch a glimpse of an eagle.

[10]

But some said: “What is the use of prayers and penitence? The sibyl has said it. Antichrist must come.”

Then others said, “God can work a miracle. If it was of no avail to struggle, He would not have let the sibyl warn us.”

Year after year the Franciscans defended the Capitol by penitences, and works of charity, and the promulgation of God’s word.

They protected it century after century, but as time went on, men became more and more feeble and lacking in force. The monks said among themselves: “Soon the kingdoms of the earth can stand no longer. A redeemer of the world is needed as in the time of Augustus.”

They tore their hair and scourged themselves, for they knew that he who was to be born again must be the Antichrist, and that it would be a regeneration of force and violence.

As a sick man is tormented by his pain, so were they hunted by the thought of Antichrist. And they saw him before them. He was as rich as Christ had been poor, as wicked as Christ had been good, as honored as Christ had been humiliated.

He bore powerful weapons and marched at the head of bloody evil-doers. He overturned the churches, murdered the priests, and armed people for strife, so that brother fought against brother, and each feared his neighbor, and there was no peace.

And for every person of power and might who made his way over the sea of time, they cried out from the watch-tower on the Capitol: “Antichrist, Antichrist!”

[11]

And for every one who disappeared, and went under, the monks cried: “Hosanna!” and sang the “Te Deum.” And they said: “It is because of our prayers that the wicked fall before they succeed in scaling the Capitol.”

It was a hard punishment that in that beautiful monastery its monks could never feel at rest. Their nights were heavier than their days. Then they saw wild beasts come into their cells and stretch themselves out beside them on their beds. And each wild beast was Antichrist. But some of the monks saw him as a dragon, and others as a griffin, and others as a sphinx. When they got up from their dreams they were as weak as after a severe illness.

The only comfort of these poor monks was the miracle-working image of Christ, which was kept in the basilica of Aracoeli. When a monk was frightened to desperation, he went into the church to seek consolation from it. He would go through the whole basilica and into a well-guarded chapel at the side of the great altar. There he lighted the consecrated wax candles, and spoke a prayer, before opening the altar shrine, which had double locks and doors of iron. And as long as he gazed at the image, he remained upon his knees.

The image represented a little babe, but he had a gold crown upon his head, gold shoes upon his feet, and his whole dress shone with jewels, which were given to him by those in distress, who had called on him for help. And the walls of the chapel were covered with pictures, which showed how he had saved from dangers of fire and shipwreck, how he had cured the sick and helped all those who were in trouble. When the monk saw it he rejoiced, and[12] said to himself: “Praise be to God! As yet it is Christ who is worshipped on the Capitol.”

The monk saw the face of the image smile at him with mysterious, conscious power, and his spirit soared up into the holy realms of confidence. “What can overthrow you in your might?” he said. “What can overthrow you? To you the Eternal City bends its knees. You are Rome’s Holy Child. Yours is the crown which the people worship. You come in your might with help and strength and consolation. You alone shall be worshipped on the Capitol.”

The monk saw the crown of the image turn into a halo, which sent out rays over the whole world. And in whatever direction he followed the rays he saw the world full of churches, where Christ was worshipped. It seemed as if a powerful conqueror had shown him all the castles and fortresses which defended his kingdom. “It is certain that you cannot fall,” said the monk. “Your kingdom will be everlasting.”

And every monk who saw the image had a few hours of consolation and peace, until fear seized him again. But had the monks not possessed the image, their souls would not have found a moment’s rest.

Thus had the monks of Aracoeli, by prayers and struggles, worked their way through the centuries, and there had never lacked for watchers; as soon as one had been exhausted by terror and anxiety, others had hurried forward to take his place.

And although most of those who entered the monastery were struck down by madness or premature death, the succession of monks never diminished,[13] for it was held a great honor before God to wage the war on Aracoeli.

So it happened that sixty years ago this struggle still went on, and in the degenerate times the monks fought with greater eagerness than ever before, and awaited the certain coming of Antichrist.

At that time a rich Englishwoman came to Rome. She went up to the Aracoeli and saw the image, and he charmed her so that she thought she could not live if she did not possess him. She went again and again up to Aracoeli to see the image, and at last she asked the monks if she might buy him.

But even if she had covered the whole mosaic floor in the great basilica with gold coins, the monks would not have been willing to sell her that image, which was their only consolation.

Still the Englishwoman was attracted beyond measure by the image, and found no joy nor peace without it. Unable to accomplish her object by any other means, she determined to steal the image. She did not think of the sin she was committing; she felt only a strong compulsion and a burning thirst, and preferred to risk her soul rather than to deny her heart the joy of possessing the object of her longing. And to accomplish her end, she first had an image made exactly like the one on Aracoeli.

The image on Aracoeli was carved from olive wood from the gardens of Gethsemane; but the Englishwoman dared to have an image carved from elm wood, which was exactly like him. The image on Aracoeli was not painted by mortal hand. When the monk who had carved him had taken up his brushes and colors, he fell asleep over his work. And when[14] he awoke, the image was colored,—self-painted as a sign that God loved him. But the Englishwoman was bold enough to let an earthly painter paint her elm image so that he was like the holy image.

For the false image she procured a crown and shoes, but they were not of gold; they were only tin and gilding. She ordered ornaments; she bought rings, and necklaces, and chains, and bracelets, and diamond suns—but they were all brass and glass; and she dressed him as those seeking help had dressed the true image. When the image was ready she took a needle and scratched in the crown: “My kingdom is only of this world.” It was as if she was afraid that she herself would not be able to distinguish one image from the other. And it was as if she had wished to appease her own conscience. “I have not wished to make a false Christ image. I have written in his crown: ‘My kingdom is only of this world.’”

Thereupon she wrapped herself in a big cloak, hid the image under it, and went up to Aracoeli. And she asked that she might be allowed to say her prayers before the Christchild.

When she stood in the sanctuary, and the candles were lighted, and the iron door opened, and the image showed itself to her, she began to tremble and shake and looked as if she were going to faint. The monk who was with her hurried into the sacristy after water and she was left alone in the chapel. And when he came back she had committed the sacrilege. She had exchanged the holy, miracle-working image, and put the false and impotent one in his place.

The monk saw nothing. He shut in the false[15] image behind iron doors and double locks, and the Englishwoman went home with the treasure of Aracoeli. She placed him in her palace on a pedestal of marble and was more happy than she had ever been before.

Up on Aracoeli, where no one knew what injury they had suffered, they worshipped the false Christ image as they had worshipped the true one, and when Christmas came they built for him in the church, as was the custom, a most beautiful niche. There he lay, shining like a jewel, on Maria’s knees, and about him shepherds and angels and wise men were arranged. And as long as he lay there children came from Rome, and the Campagna, and were lifted up on a little pulpit in the basilica of Aracoeli, and they preached on the sweetness and tenderness and nobleness and power of the little Christchild.

But the Englishwoman lived in great terror that some one would discover that she had stolen the Christ image of Aracoeli. Therefore she confessed to no one that the image she had was the real one. “It is a copy,” she said; “it is as like the real one as it can be, but it is only copied.”

Now it happened that she had a little Italian servant girl. One day when the latter went through the room she stopped before the image and spoke to him. “You poor Christchild, who are no Christchild,” she said, “if you only knew how the real child lies in his glory in the niche in Aracoeli and how Maria and San Giuseppe and the shepherds are kneeling before him! And if you knew how the children place themselves on a little pulpit just in front of him, and how they courtesy, and kiss their[16] fingers to him, and preach for him as beautifully as they can!”

A few days after the little maid came again and spoke to the image. “You poor Christchild, who are no Christchild,” she said, “do you know that to-day I have been up in Aracoeli and have seen how the true child was carried in the procession? They held a canopy over him, all the people fell on their knees, and they sang and played before him. Never will you see anything so wonderful!”

And mark that a few days later the little maid came again and spoke to the image: “Do you know, Christchild, who are not a real Christchild, that it is better for you to stand where you are standing? For the real child is called to the sick and is driven to them in his gold-laced carriage, but he cannot help them and they die in despair. And people begin to say that Aracoeli’s holy child has lost his power to do good, and that prayers and tears do not move him. It is better for you to stand where you are standing than to be called upon and not to be able to help.”

But the next night a miracle came to pass. About midnight a loud ringing was heard at the cloister gate at Aracoeli. And when the gate-keeper did not come quickly enough to open, some one began to knock. It sounded clear, like ringing metal, and it was heard through the whole monastery. All the monks leaped from their beds. All who had been tortured by terrible dreams rose at one time, and believed that Antichrist was come.

But when they opened the door—when they opened it! It was the little Christ image that stood on the threshold. It was his little hand that had[17] pulled the bell-rope; it was his little, gold-shod foot that had been stretched out to kick the door.

The gate-keeper instantly took the holy child up in his arms. Then he saw that it had tears in its eyes. Alas, the poor, holy child had wandered through the town by night! What had it not seen? So much poverty and so much want; so much wickedness and so many crimes! It was terrible to think what it must have experienced.

The gate-keeper went immediately to the prior and showed him the image. And they wondered how it had come out into the night.

Then the prior had the church bells rung to call the monks to the service. And all the monks of Aracoeli marched into the great, dim basilica in order to place the image, with all solemnity, back in its shrine.

Worn and suffering, they walked and trembled in their heavy homespun robes. Several of them were weeping, as if they had escaped from some terrible danger. “What would have happened to us,” they said, “if our only consolation had been taken from us? Is it not Antichrist who has tempted out Rome’s holy child from the sheltering sanctuary?”

But when they came to set the Christ image in the shrine of the chapel, they found there the false child; him who wore the inscription on his crown: “My kingdom is only of this world.”

And when they examined the image more closely they found the inscription.

Then the prior turned to the monks and spoke to them:—

“Brothers, we will sing the ‘Te Deum,’ and cover the pillars of the church with silk, and light[18] all the wax candles, and all the hanging lamps, and we will celebrate a great festival.

“As long as the monastery has stood it has been a home of terror and a cursed dwelling; but for the suffering of all those who have lived here, God has been gracious. And now all danger is over.

“God has crowned the fight with victory, and this that you have seen is the sign that Antichrist shall not be worshipped on the Capitol.

“For in order that the sibyl’s words should be carried out, God has sent this false image of Christ that bears the words of Antichrist in its crown, and he has allowed us to worship and adore him as if he had been the great miracle-worker.

“But now we can rest in joy and peace, for the sibyl’s mystic speech is fulfilled, and Antichrist has been worshipped here.

“Great is God, the Almighty, who has let our cruel fear be dispelled, and who has carried out His will without the world needing to gaze upon the false image made by man.

“Happy is the monastery of Aracoeli that rests under the protection of God, and does His will, and is blessed by His abounding grace.”

When the prior had said those words he took the false image in his hands, went through the church, and opened the great door. Thence he walked out on the terrace. Below him lay the high and broad stairway with its hundred and nineteen marble steps that leads down from the Capitol as if into an abyss. And he raised the image over his head and cried aloud: “Anathema Antikristo!” and hurled him from the summit of the Capitol down into the world.
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