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THE ROAD OF RETREAT.
MONG the roads of the forest of life, some to a European traveller are fraught, perhaps, with early recollections of having visited those shores "which have yielded us our religion, our arts, our literature, and our laws :" regions the most enchanting that the earth can boast of for their natural loveliness, and from which we have gained such things, that, as a celebrated English author says, "if they were erased from the memory of man, we should be barbarians now." The rugged track that mounts the steep before us at this turning will prove one of these attractive passes. Already we seem invited to pursue it by a certain cheerful southern light, towards which it seems directed; many poplars wave their heads here over a stream, which flows murmuring from some caves above-the chirping grasshoppers raise their voices amidst the sunny banks; the wood-pigeon coos; the yellow bees fly on all sides from flower to flower. Every thing, as the Sicilian songster says, is redolent of summer: πάντ ̓ ὦσδεν θέρεος μάλα πίονος*. Further on we shall enter the region of firs and pines, where rock-embosomed lawns and snow-fed streams are seen athwart froze vapours deep below; while, still further, the road winds upwards through overshadowing woods.
After advancing however only a few steps, perhaps some persons, who were merely attracted by the title of the road, and who are only anxious to breathe for a while the air of retreat beneath these solemn boughs, are seen to stop suddenly, as if startled at their own thoughts, and afraid to proceed further. Guided by a kind of instinct, and by the impressions resulting
from the scenery, they say, without intending to complain of any unfairness, but for the mere sake of truth, that it is to the monastery this alley must assuredly lead them. Well, in effect, without more words, it is plain they are right; for its name is only thus indefinite in order to express the common wants of those who enter on it, whom in general we suppose to wander through the forest without having at first any distinct idea respecting the end to which each road will lead them. Nevertheless, let them take courage, and walk on; for, unless they have been already in some especial manner drawn to admire the peculiar state of life of which we are about to witness the results, no one will seek to detain them. There is no design to make them contract a predilection for the immediate objects that will be seen; for our business is not to eulogize the monastery or recommend monastic life, which is a subject about which we should not presume to speak further than any wandering observer may have liberty; but merely to point out what directions can be gleaned from observing such institutions, in regard to the central truth, in the discovery of which we are all equally concerned. Our task is only to read in passing, as it were, the sign-posts which have been set up on the road of retreat to guide further than the monastery those who visit it either actually in person, or only mentally, in solitary study; viewing it on every side-in history, in relation to the present wants of society, or with regard to what the unknown future may require for the interests of mankind.
In their choice of a locality the trees sometimes can recal the men who seek retreat from the world, and from whose habitations the present road might, but for the reason just suggested, have derived its name. The cedar, the larch, the fir, and all the resinous family of the forest, love the sublime scenery of mountains; the chesnut, the ilex, and the cornel-tree can accommodate themselves to both mountains and valleys, the former tree, however, flourishing best when it is only half-way up the hills. At Engelberg you ask, How could even men, who sought to withdraw and hide themselves, select a spot so cold and barren? But the analogy of vegetable nature in the forest would prepare you for such a phenomenon; for some trees can only thrive in wild and desert places, such as this Alpine valley. The broad-leaved trees, corresponding to men of the same retiring family, prefer, on the other hand, a smiling scene, such as that described in the Virgilian lines :
"Gramineum in campum, quem collibus undique curvis
Circus erat *."
The wild service-tree of fowlers might represent the hermit, who is found in sequestered spots that seem unfitted for supporting life as in the deepest hollows, on the most precipitous rocks, and in the clefts of old trees-for it can grow any where ; and it has another analogy, too, with those who lead an eremitical life, being an especial favourite with many animals, and of great use to men from its medicinal properties. Pines are so associated in the mind of European travellers with the memory of monastic retreats, that they can seldom enter a wood composed of that kind of tree without thinking of them. As a mantle of pines is often seen to shelter woods themselves from the sea-winds, which would injure them, and which, in fact, have sometimes by degrees caused entire forests to perish, so these dark enclosures seem provided to screen the peaceful asylums of a retired religious life from the invasions and scrutiny of the world. Pines naturally belong to the elevated regions in which monasteries are often found; for when heath has taken full possession of a ground, it hinders the growth of all other trees. It is then only the pine which can master it, and cause it to disappear.
So, then, the road of retreat, winding through woods and mountains, leads men at first, by a natural and easy track, to those celebrated religious houses which have occupied more or less the attention of the world since the earliest ages of Christianity. We shall have to pass by the monastery, and interrogate its inhabitants as to what we shall find as we proceed beyond them. The stranger, for his part, must confess, that however disqualified his inclinations may render him for halting long at such a stage, he, for one, does not regret now having to stop for a short time at it; for, besides that this visit is unavoidable in order to fulfil the primary object of the present journey, which is to seek the natural centre for those thoughts that impel some men towards retreat, it seems to him that the monastery itself, more full of visions than a high romance, adds in general to the forest a great charm, an historical value, and even, in many places, a certain poetic interest, which few persons of any education can wholly resist. The building, too, attracts the eyes of all who pass. It is not a tower of strength, though with its height it overtops the woods; but for delight and piety some holy hands constructed it in days of yore. When you first behold those massive walls and picturesque turrets tipped with evening gold, you think of many things besides religious men upon their knees, and hands pressed in mute devotion on the thankful breast. All Christian history and philosophy, the whole literature of the middle ages, seem represented there. How many dim traditions of those grey old times rise in the traveller's memory. How pleased is he in Spain, when on his road between Torre
quemada and Duenas he sees on his left the great Benedictine monastery of San-Isidro; or when, after passing Burguelle, he comes to the plains surrounded by lofty mountains, Plaga des Andres Zaro, and to the village of Roncevaux, with the famous convent of St. Augustin, under the title of our Lady of Roncevaux, endowed to serve as a hospice for travellers by Don Sancho the Strong, who there lies buried.
Few men are so harshly treated by nature as not to feel a certain pleasure in beholding the vast and noble buildings of the monks, in exploring the treasures of art and erudition contained in them, and in surveying the solemn memorials of departed greatness which they so often enclose. Beauty," says a great writer, "is the mark God sets upon virtue." Every thing natural is graceful. Without exaggeration, one may add, that every creation of man, produced by means of principles which centre in Catholicism, is also beautiful, and “causes the place and the bystanders to shine." It is observers from without its influence who remark, with the author of "Venetia," that among the charms of those golden plains of Italy must be ranked the hallowed form of the cupola'd convent crowning the gentle elevation of some vine-clad hill, and flanked by the cypress or the pine." Such edifices as St. Scholastica, Monte Cassino, the Grande Chartreuse, Engelberg, Hauterive, St. Urban, Einsiedeln, and Montserrat, enhance the beauty of the world. What must it have been before the destruction of others, the mere ruins of which attract so many strangers to the wilderness! "I am sure," says an English writer, "that not the faintest idea is generally prevalent of the contrast in appearance between England before and since the dissolution. Try to imagine the effect of thirty or forty Chatsworths in a great county, the proprietors of which were never absent. There were on an average in every shire at least twenty such structures *." It was the same on the continent. The Basilica of the monastery of Cluny in Roman architecture surpassed in its dimensions all churches then existing. The architect was the monk Hezelon. It comprised one vast church opening into another. In size it would have been only surpassed by the present church of St. Peter at the Vatican f. The monks were great preservers of ancient monuments, which have been often destroyed by the more elegant and pretentious men who succeeded them, as in the recent instance at Aix, in Provence, where the venerable oratory of St. Saviour, to which the city owes its existence—as it was only in consequence of the monks returning to it after the ravages of the Saracens in the eighth century that the city was rebuilt, and which even the French Revolution respected-has
* Disraeli's Sibyl.
Lorain, Hist. de l'Abbaye de Cluny.
been demolished, for the reason that it obstructed the view of one of the lower aisles of the church, an inscription actually attesting this incredible act in the words, "ob offendiculum asymetriamque diruto *."
In general, travellers of all classes are favourably impressed on beholding the edifices raised and preserved by religious men. "Within these vast walls," says one eminent observer, gazing on the Escurial, "pierced with 1140 windows, of which threefourths are now broken, the Court and the Hieronymites used to collect formerly, the world and contempt for the world." Another wanderer, speaking of the admirable beauty of the courts and cloisters in Santo Domingo at Antequerula, says, How wonderfully is all this disposed for reverie, meditation, and study! what a pity that convents have been inhabited by any men but poets."
In general, monasteries were so constructed that they could be distinguished at the first glance from other kinds of building,\ feudal or commercial. What was this style of architecture? It combined utility with beauty. No doubt the monk imprinted on his very dwelling an ascetic physiognomy; but it is no less certain that he did not build it, as some at present would prescribe, like a melancholy prison, where no more light is known but what may make you believe there is a day; where no hope dwells, nor comfort but in tears; a darksome habitation, like some cavern which the sun never durst look into, made in contempt of light by nature, which the moon did never yet befriend with any melancholy beam. He seems, on the contrary, in most cases, to have borne in mind while constructing it the definition of man by Strabo, who calls him "a land and air animal who requires much light." One of the complaints of Charles V.'s Flemish attendants against the monastic buildings of St. Yuste, which they were determined to dislike, was that the windows were too large for the size of the rooms. The monastic churches at least were not dark. There is a window at Tintern Abbey which measures ninety feet in height, and twenty in breadth. Vasari, it is true, being invited to paint the refectory of a very ancient monastery at Naples, built by King Alfonso I., found that its arches and low ceilings almost deprived it of light, insomuch that he was for declining the work till the monks permitted him to make certain modifications in the architecture, which rendered the room less gloomy. But in general, at least as soon as the invention of glass and the progress of art permitted, neither cheerful galleries, nor spacious windows, nor lofty and noble apartments, were excluded from the type of monastic architecture. "Our monasteries," say the monks of Camaldoli, whose little book of constitutions seems quite perfumed with the wild flowers of the desert, "should be so constructed as to have their pros*Mon. sur l'Apost. de S. M. Mag. en Provence, 508.