“How can you presume to do such deeds?” the monk asked suddenly, pointing solemnly and significantly at Lise. He was referring to her “healing.”
“It’s too early, of course, to speak of that. Relief is not complete cure, and may proceed from different causes. But if there has been any healing, it is by no power but God’s will. It’s all from God. Visit me, Father,” he added to the monk. “It’s not often I can see visitors. I am ill, and I know that my days are numbered.”
“Oh, no, no! God will not take you from us. You will live a long, long time yet,” cried the lady. “And in what way are you ill? You look so well, so gay and happy.”
“I am extraordinarily better to-day. But I know that it’s only for a moment. I understand my disease now thoroughly. If I seem so happy to you, you could never say anything that would please me so much. For men are made for happiness, and anyone who is completely happy has a right to say to himself, ‘I am doing God’s will on earth.’ All the righteous, all the saints, all the holy martyrs were happy.”
“Oh, how you speak! What bold and lofty words” cried the lady. “You seem to pierce with your words. And yet—happiness, happiness—where is it? Who can say of himself that he is happy? Oh, since you have been so good as to let us see you once more to-day, let me tell you what I could not utter last time, what I dared not say, all I am suffering and have been for so long! I am suffering! Forgive me! I am suffering!” And in a rush of fervent feeling she clasped her hands before him.
“From what specially?”
“I suffer… from lack of faith.”
“Lack of faith in God?”
“Oh, no, no! I dare not even think of that. But the future life- it is such an enigma And no one, no one can solve it. Listen! You are a healer, you are deeply versed in the human soul, and of course I dare not expect you to believe me entirely, but I assure you on my word of honour that I am not speaking lightly now. The thought of the life beyond the grave distracts me to anguish, to terror. And I don’t know to whom to appeal, and have not dared to all my life. And now I am so bold as to ask you. Oh, God! What will you think of me now?” She clasped her hands.
“Don’t distress yourself about my opinion of you,” said the elder. “I quite believe in the sincerity of your suffering.”
“Oh, how thankful I am to you! You see, I shut my eyes and ask myself if everyone has faith, where did it come from? And then they do say that it all comes from terror at the menacing phenomena of nature, and that none of it’s real. And I say to myself, ‘What if I’ve been believing all my life, and when I come to die there’s nothing but the burdocks growing on my grave?’ as I read in some author. It’s awful! How- how can I get back my faith? But I only believed when I was a little child, mechanically, without thinking of anything. How, how is one to prove it? I have come now to lay my soul before you and to ask you about it. If I let this chance slip, no one all my life will answer me. How can I prove it? How can I convince myself? Oh, how unhappy I am! I stand and look about me and see that scarcely anyone else cares; no one troubles his head about it, and I’m the only one who can’t stand it. It’s deadly- deadly!”
“No doubt. But there’s no proving it, though you can be convinced of it.”
“By the experience of active love. Strive to love your neighbour actively and indefatigably. In as far as you advance in love you will grow surer of the reality of God and of the immortality of your soul. If you attain to perfect self-forgetfulness in the love of your neighbour, then you will believe without doubt, and no doubt can possibly enter your soul. This has been tried. This is certain.”
“In active love? There’s another question and such a question! You see, I so love humanity that- would you believe it?- I often dream of forsaking all that I have, leaving Lise, and becoming a sister of mercy. I close my eyes and think and dream, and at that moment I feel full of strength to overcome all obstacles. No wounds, no festering sores could at that moment frighten me. I would bind them up and wash them with my own hands. I would nurse the afflicted. I would be ready to kiss such wounds.”
“It is much, and well that your mind is full of such dreams and not others. Some time, unawares, you may do a good deed in reality.”
“Yes. But could I endure such a life for long?” the lady went on fervently, almost frantically. “That’s the chief question- that’s my most agonising question. I shut my eyes and ask myself, ‘Would you persevere long on that path? And if the patient whose wounds you are washing did not meet you with gratitude, but worried you with his whims, without valuing or remarking your charitable services, began abusing you and rudely commanding you, and complaining to the superior authorities of you (which often happens when people are in great suffering)—what then? Would you persevere in your love, or not?’ And do you know, I came with horror to the conclusion that, if anything could dissipate my love to humanity, it would be ingratitude. In short, I am a hired servant, I expect my payment at once—that is, praise, and the repayment of love with love. Otherwise I am incapable of loving anyone.'”
She was in a very paroxysm of self-castigation, and, concluding, she looked with defiant resolution at the elder.
“It’s just the same story as a doctor once told me,” observed the elder. “He was a man getting on in years, and undoubtedly clever. He spoke as frankly as you, though in jest, in bitter jest.
‘I love humanity,’ he said, ‘but I wonder at myself. The more I love humanity in general, the less I love man in particular. In my dreams,’ he said, ‘I have often come to making enthusiastic schemes for the service of humanity, and perhaps I might actually have faced crucifixion if it had been suddenly necessary; and yet I am incapable of living in the same room with anyone for two days together, as I know by experience. As soon as anyone is near me, his personality disturbs my self-complacency and restricts my freedom. In twenty-four hours I begin to hate the best of men: one because he’s too long over his dinner; another because he has a cold and keeps on blowing his nose. I become hostile to people the moment they come close to me. But it has always happened that the more I detest men individually the more ardent becomes my love for humanity.’