Chapter 3. THE DISCIPLE, HILARION
When she has disappeared, Antony perceives a child on the threshold of his cell.
"It is one of the Queen's servants," he thinks.
This child is small, like a dwarf, and yet thickset, like one of the Cabiri, distorted, and with a miserable aspect. White hair covers his prodigiously large head, and he shivers under a sorry tunic, while he grasps in his hand a roll of papyrus. The light of the moon, across which a cloud is passing, falls upon him.
Antony observes him from a distance, and is afraid of him.
"Who are you?"
The child replies:
"Your former disciple, Hilarion."
Antony--"You lie! Hilarion has been living for many years in Palestine."
Hilarion--"I have returned from it! It is I, in good sooth!"
Antony, draws closer and inspects him--"Why, his figure was bright as the dawn, open, joyous. This one is quite sombre, and has an aged look."
Hilarion--"I am worn out with constant toiling."
Antony--"The voice, too, is different. It has a tone that chills you."
Hilarion--"That is because I nourish myself on bitter fare."
Antony--"And those white locks?"
Hilarion--"I have had so many griefs."
Antony, aside--"Can it be possible? ..."
Hilarion--"I was not so far away as you imagined. The hermit, Paul, paid you a visit this year during the month of Schebar. It is just twenty days since the nomads brought you bread. You told a sailor the day before yesterday to send you three bodkins."
Antony--"He knows everything!"
Hilarion--"Learn, too, that I have never left you. But you spend long intervals without perceiving me."
Antony--"How is that? No doubt my head is troubled! To-night especially ..."
Hilarion--"All the deadly sins have arrived. But their miserable snares are of no avail against a saint like you!"
Antony--"Oh! no! no! Every minute I give way! Would that I were one of those whose souls are always intrepid and their minds firm--like the great Athanasius, for example!"
Hilarion--"He was unlawfully ordained by seven bishops!"
Antony--"What does it matter? If his virtue ..."
Hilarion--"Come, now! A haughty, cruel man, always mixed up in intrigues, and finally exiled for being a monopolist."
Hilarion--"You will not deny that he tried to corrupt Eustatius, the treasurer of the bounties?"
Antony--"So it is stated, and I admit it."
Hilarion--"He burned, for revenge, the house of Arsenius."
Hilarion--"At the Council of Nicæa, he said, speaking of Jesus, 'The man of the Lord.'"
Antony--"Ah! that is a blasphemy!"
Hilarion--"So limited is he, too, that he acknowledges he knows nothing as to the nature of the Word."
Antony, smiling with pleasure--"In fact, he has not a very lofty intellect."
Hilarion--"If they had put you in his place, it would have been a great satisfaction for your brethren, as well as yourself. This life, apart from others, is a bad thing."
Antony--"On the contrary! Man, being a spirit, should withdraw himself from perishable things. All action degrades him. I would like not to cling to the earth--even with the soles of my feet."
Hilarion--"Hypocrite! who plunges himself into solitude to free himself the better from the outbreaks of his lusts! You deprive yourself of meat, of wine, of stoves, of slaves, and of honours; but how you let your imagination offer you banquets, perfumes, naked women, and applauding crowds! Your chastity is but a more subtle kind of corruption, and your contempt for the world is but the impotence of your hatred against it! This is the reason that persons like you are so lugubrious, or perhaps it is because they lack faith. The possession of the truth gives joy. Was Jesus sad? He used to go about surrounded by friends; He rested under the shade of the olive, entered the house of the publican, multiplied the cups, pardoned the fallen woman, healing all sorrows. As for you, you have no pity, save for your own wretchedness. You are so much swayed by a kind of remorse, and by a ferocious insanity, that you would repel the caress of a dog or the smile of a child."
Antony, bursts out sobbing--"Enough! Enough! You move my heart too much."
Hilarion--"Shake off the vermin from your rags! Get rid of your filth! Your God is not a Moloch who requires flesh as a sacrifice!"
Antony--"Still, suffering is blessed. The cherubim bend down to receive the blood of confessors."
Hilarion--"Then admire the Montanists! They surpass all the rest."
Antony--"But it is the truth of the doctrine that makes the martyr."
Hilarion--"How can he prove its excellence, seeing that he testifies equally on behalf of error?"
Antony--"Be silent, viper!"
Hilarion--"It is not perhaps so difficult. The exhortations of friends, the pleasure of outraging popular feeling, the oath they take, a certain giddy excitement--a thousand things, in fact, go to help them."
Antony draws away from Hilarion. Hilarion follows him--"Besides, this style of dying introduces great disorders. Dionysius, Cyprian, and Gregory avoided it. Peter of Alexandria has disapproved of it; and the Council of Elvira ..."
Antony, stops his ears--"I will listen to no more!"
Hilarion, raising his voice--"Here you are again falling into your habitual sin--laziness. Ignorance is the froth of pride. You say, 'My conviction is formed; why discuss the matter?' and you despise the doctors, the philosophers, tradition, and even the text of the law, of which you know nothing. Do you think you hold wisdom in your hand?"
Antony--"I am always hearing him! His noisy words fill my head."
Hilarion--"The endeavours to comprehend God are better than your mortifications for the purpose of moving him. We have no merit save our thirst for truth. Religion alone does not explain everything; and the solution of the problems which you have ignored might render it more unassailable and more sublime. Therefore, it is essential for each man's salvation that he should hold intercourse with his brethren--otherwise the Church, the assembly of the faithful, would be only a word--and that he should listen to every argument, and not disdain anything, or anyone. Balaam the soothsayer, Æschylus the poet, and the sybil of Cumæ, announced the Saviour. Dionysius the Alexandrian received from Heaven a command to read every book. Saint Clement enjoins us to study Greek literature. Hermas was converted by the illusion of a woman that he loved!"
Antony--"What an air of authority! It appears to me that you are growing taller ..."
In fact, Hilarion's height has progressively increased; and, in order not to see him, Antony closes his eyes.
Hilarion--"Make your mind easy, good hermit. Let us sit down here, on this big stone, as of yore, when, at the break of day, I used to salute you, addressing you as 'Bright morning star'; and you at once began to give me instruction. It is not finished yet. The moon affords us sufficient light. I am all attention."
He has drawn forth a calamus from his girdle, and, cross-legged on the ground, with his roll of papyrus in his hand, he raises his head towards Antony, who, seated beside him, keeps his forehead bent.
"Is not the word of God confirmed for us by the miracles? And yet the sorcerers of Pharaoh worked miracles. Other impostors could do the same; so here we may be deceived. What, then, is a miracle? An occurrence which seems to us outside the limits of Nature. But do we know all Nature's powers? And, from the mere fact that a thing ordinarily does not astonish us, does it follow that we comprehend it?"
Antony--"It matters little; we must believe in the Scripture."
Hilarion--"Saint Paul, Origen, and some others did not interpret it literally; but, if we explain it allegorically, it becomes the heritage of a limited number of people, and the evidence of its truth vanishes. What are we to do, then?"
Antony--"Leave it to the Church."
Hilarion--"Then the Scripture is useless?"
Antony--"Not at all. Although the Old Testament, I admit, has--well, obscurities ... But the New shines forth with a pure light."
Hilarion--"And yet the Angel of the Annunciation, in Matthew, appears to Joseph, whilst in Luke it is to Mary. The anointing of Jesus by a woman comes to pass, according to the First Gospel, at the beginning of his public life, but according to the three others, a few days before his death. The drink which they offer him on the Cross is, in Matthew, vinegar and gall, in Mark, wine and myrrh. If we follow Luke and Matthew, the Apostles ought to take neither money nor bag--in fact, not even sandals or a staff; while in Mark, on the contrary, Jesus forbids them to carry with them anything except sandals and a staff. Here is where I get lost ..."
Antony, in amazement--"In fact ... in fact ..."
Hilarion--"At the contact of the woman with the issue of blood, Jesus turned round, and said, 'Who has touched me?' So, then, He did not know who touched Him? That is opposed to the omniscience of Jesus. If the tomb was watched by guards, the women had not to worry themselves about an assistant to lift up the stone from the tomb. Therefore, there were no guards there--or rather, the holy women were not there at all. At Emmaüs, He eats with His disciples, and makes them feel His wounds. It is a human body, a material object, which can be weighed, and which, nevertheless, passes through stone walls. Is this possible?"
Antony--"It would take a good deal of time to answer you."
Hilarion--"Why did He receive the Holy Ghost, although He was the Son? What need had He of baptism, if He were the Word? How could the Devil tempt Him--God?
"Have these thoughts never occurred to you?"
Antony--"Yes! often! Torpid or frantic, they dwell in my conscience. I crush them out; they spring up again, they stifle me; and sometimes I believe that I am accursed."
Hilarion--"Then you have nothing to do but to serve God?"
Antony--"I have always need to adore Him."
After a prolonged silence, Hilarion resumes:
"But apart from dogma, entire liberty of research is permitted us. Do you wish to become acquainted with the hierarchy of Angels, the virtue of Numbers, the explanation of germs and metamorphoses?"
Antony--"Yes! yes! My mind is struggling to escape from its prison. It seems to me that, by gathering my forces, I shall be able to effect this. Sometimes--even for an interval brief as a lightning-flash--I feel myself, as it were, suspended in mid-air; then I fall back again!"
Hilarion--"The secret which you are anxious to possess is guarded by sages. They live in a distant country, sitting under gigantic trees, robed in white, and calm as gods. A warm atmosphere nourishes them. All around leopards stride through the plains. The murmuring of fountains mingles with the neighing of unicorns. You shall hear them; and the face of the Unknown shall be unveiled!"
Antony, sighing--"The road is long and I am old!"
Hilarion--"Oh! oh! men of learning are not rare! There are some of them even very close to you here! Let us enter!"