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Where There is Nothing, There is God

The little wicker houses at Tullagh, where the Brothers were
accustomed to pray, or bend over many handicrafts, when twilight had
driven them from the fields, were empty, for the hardness of the
winter had brought the brotherhood together in the little wooden
house under the shadow of the wooden chapel; and Abbot Malathgeneus,
Brother Dove, Brother Bald Fox, Brother Peter, Brother Patrick,
Brother Bittern, Brother Fair-Brows, and many too young to have won
names in the great battle, sat about the fire with ruddy faces, one
mending lines to lay in the river for eels, one fashioning a snare
for birds, one mending the broken handle of a spade, one writing in a
large book, and one shaping a jewelled box to hold the book; and
among the rushes at their feet lay the scholars, who would one day be
Brothers, and whose school-house it was, and for the succour of whose
tender years the great fire was supposed to leap and flicker. One of
these, a child of eight or nine years, called Olioll, lay upon his
back looking up through the hole in the roof, through which the smoke
went, and watching the stars appearing and disappearing in the smoke
with mild eyes, like the eyes of a beast of the field. He turned
presently to the Brother who wrote in the big book, and whose duty
was to teach the children, and said, 'Brother Dove, to what are the
stars fastened?' The Brother, rejoicing to see so much curiosity in
the stupidest of his scholars, laid down the pen and said, 'There are
nine crystalline spheres, and on the first the Moon is fastened, on
the second the planet Mercury, on the third the planet Venus, on the
fourth the Sun, on the fifth the planet Mars, on the sixth the planet
Jupiter, on the seventh the planet Saturn; these are the wandering
stars; and on the eighth are fastened the fixed stars; but the ninth
sphere is a sphere of the substance on which the breath of God moved
in the beginning.'

'What is beyond that?' said the child. 'There is nothing beyond that;
there is God.'

And then the child's eyes strayed to the jewelled box, where one
great ruby was gleaming in the light of the fire, and he said, 'Why
has Brother Peter put a great ruby on the side of the box?'

'The ruby is a symbol of the love of God.'

'Why is the ruby a symbol of the love of God?'

'Because it is red, like fire, and fire burns up everything, and
where there is nothing, there is God.'

The child sank into silence, but presently sat up and said, 'There is
somebody outside.'

'No,' replied the Brother. 'It is only the wolves; I have heard them
moving about in the snow for some time. They are growing very wild,
now that the winter drives them from the mountains. They broke into a
fold last night and carried off many sheep, and if we are not careful
they will devour everything.'

'No, it is the footstep of a man, for it is heavy; but I can hear the
footsteps of the wolves also.'

He had no sooner done speaking than somebody rapped three times, but
with no great loudness.

'I will go and open, for he must be very cold.'

'Do not open, for it may be a man-wolf, and he may devour us all.'

But the boy had already drawn back the heavy wooden bolt, and all the
faces, most of them a little pale, turned towards the slowly-opening

'He has beads and a cross, he cannot be a man-wolf,' said the child,
as a man with the snow heavy on his long, ragged beard, and on the
matted hair, that fell over his shoulders and nearly to his waist,
and dropping from the tattered cloak that but half-covered his
withered brown body, came in and looked from face to face with mild,
ecstatic eyes. Standing some way from the fire, and with eyes that
had rested at last upon the Abbot Malathgeneus, he cried out, 'O
blessed abbot, let me come to the fire and warm myself and dry the
snow from my beard and my hair and my cloak; that I may not die of
the cold of the mountains, and anger the Lord with a wilful

'Come to the fire,' said the abbot, 'and warm yourself, and eat the
food the boy Olioll will bring you. It is sad indeed that any for
whom Christ has died should be as poor as you.'

The man sat over the fire, and Olioll took away his now dripping
cloak and laid meat and bread and wine before him; but he would eat
only of the bread, and he put away the wine, asking for water. When
his beard and hair had begun to dry a little and his limbs had ceased
to shiver with the cold, he spoke again.

'O blessed abbot, have pity on the poor, have pity on a beggar who
has trodden the bare world this many a year, and give me some labour
to do, the hardest there is, for I am the poorest of God's poor.'

Then the Brothers discussed together what work they could put him to,
and at first to little purpose, for there was no labour that had not
found its labourer in that busy community; but at last one remembered
that Brother Bald Fox, whose business it was to turn the great quern
in the quern-house, for he was too stupid for anything else, was
getting old for so heavy a labour; and so the beggar was put to the
quern from the morrow.

The cold passed away, and the spring grew to summer, and the quern
was never idle, nor was it turned with grudging labour, for when any
passed the beggar was heard singing as he drove the handle round. The
last gloom, too, had passed from that happy community, for Olioll,
who had always been stupid and unteachable, grew clever, and this was
the more miraculous because it had come of a sudden. One day he had
been even duller than usual, and was beaten and told to know his
lesson better on the morrow or be sent into a lower class among
little boys who would make a joke of him. He had gone out in tears,
and when he came the next day, although his stupidity, born of a mind
that would listen to every wandering sound and brood upon every
wandering light, had so long been the byword of the school, he knew
his lesson so well that he passed to the head of the class, and from
that day was the best of scholars. At first Brother Dove thought this
was an answer to his own prayers to the Virgin, and took it for a
great proof of the love she bore him; but when many far more fervid
prayers had failed to add a single wheatsheaf to the harvest, he
began to think that the child was trafficking with bards, or druids,
or witches, and resolved to follow and watch. He had told his thought
to the abbot, who bid him come to him the moment he hit the truth;
and the next day, which was a Sunday, he stood in the path when the
abbot and the Brothers were coming from vespers, with their white
habits upon them, and took the abbot by the habit and said, 'The
beggar is of the greatest of saints and of the workers of miracle. I
followed Olioll but now, and by his slow steps and his bent head I
saw that the weariness of his stupidity was over him, and when he
came to the little wood by the quern-house I knew by the path broken
in the under-wood and by the footmarks in the muddy places that he
had gone that way many times. I hid behind a bush where the path
doubled upon itself at a sloping place, and understood by the tears
in his eyes that his stupidity was too old and his wisdom too new to
save him from terror of the rod. When he was in the quern-house I
went to the window and looked in, and the birds came down and perched
upon my head and my shoulders, for they are not timid in that holy
place; and a wolf passed by, his right side shaking my habit, his
left the leaves of a bush. Olioll opened his book and turned to the
page I had told him to learn, and began to cry, and the beggar sat
beside him and comforted him until he fell asleep. When his sleep was
of the deepest the beggar knelt down and prayed aloud, and said, "O
Thou Who dwellest beyond the stars, show forth Thy power as at the
beginning, and let knowledge sent from Thee awaken in his mind,
wherein is nothing from the world, that the nine orders of angels may
glorify Thy name"; and then a light broke out of the air and wrapped
Aodh, and I smelt the breath of roses. I stirred a little in my
wonder, and the beggar turned and saw me, and, bending low, said, "O
Brother Dove, if I have done wrong, forgive me, and I will do
penance. It was my pity moved me"; but I was afraid and I ran away,
and did not stop running until I came here.' Then all the Brothers
began talking together, one saying it was such and such a saint, and
one that it was not he but another; and one that it was none of
these, for they were still in their brotherhoods, but that it was
such and such a one; and the talk was as near to quarreling as might
be in that gentle community, for each would claim so great a saint
for his native province. At last the abbot said, 'He is none that you
have named, for at Easter I had greeting from all, and each was in
his brotherhood; but he is Aengus the Lover of God, and the first of
those who have gone to live in the wild places and among the wild
beasts. Ten years ago he felt the burden of many labours in a
brotherhood under the Hill of Patrick and went into the forest that
he might labour only with song to the Lord; but the fame of his
holiness brought many thousands to his cell, so that a little pride
clung to a soul from which all else had been driven. Nine years ago
he dressed himself in rags, and from that day none has seen him,
unless, indeed, it be true that he has been seen living among the
wolves on the mountains and eating the grass of the fields. Let us go
to him and bow down before him; for at last, after long seeking, he
has found the nothing that is God; and bid him lead us in the pathway
he has trodden.'

They passed in their white habits along the beaten path in the wood,
the acolytes swinging their censers before them, and the abbot, with
his crozier studded with precious stones, in the midst of the
incense; and came before the quern-house and knelt down and began to
pray, awaiting the moment when the child would wake, and the Saint
cease from his watch and come to look at the sun going down into the
unknown darkness, as his way was.

William Butler Yeats