Ælred



A fuller version of the story tells ...


The shadows of evening were failing upon the valley, and the outlines of the rugged, verdure-less hills were gradually becoming more and more indistinct, as Father Ælred, having passed out of his little chapel of St John the Baptist, where he had been performing the vesper service, proceeded to his lonely habitation, and after a simple meal of wild fruits and a draught of water from the little streamlet trickling down the hillside, sat him down to read for the hundredth time a transcript of a portion of Cædmon's Scriptural poems, after which he spent some time in prayer and self-communion, and then cast himself upon his sackcloth, which was spread over a layer of rough gravel, to slumber for a short time, in this mortifying and penitential fashion, to rise again at midnight for other devotional exercises.

Father Ælred was a man of thirty or thirty-five years of age, of pale countenance and emaciated frame, with sunken eyes and hollow voice, the result of rigorous fasting, long vigils, mortification of the flesh, and severe penitential exercises.

In his boyhood he had been regarded, from his gravity of aspect, love of learning, and incipient piety, as one who was destined to become a light of the church of the coming generation, and was sent for his education to the famous School of Streoneshalh [Whitby], established by the Lady Hilda, and at that time under the superintendence of her successor, the Princess Elfleda, where he imbibed Scriptural instruction from the lips of the then venerable Cædmon, a monk of the house.

He became a novice of the house, passed the requisite examinations satisfactorily, and was in due course admitted as a fully accredited member of the fraternity.

The strictness of his piety was such that he shortly found the life of a monk not to answer his loneliness for a higher life of holiness and a position where he could be of service to the souls of his fellowmen.

He therefore left the shelter of Whitby, and wandered about for some weeks, until he came into the wild and barren looking mountainous district of the west, and finding there a secluded valley, shut in by towering hills and frowning rocks a spot with a very sparse and scattered population, and removed far away from the noise and turmoil of the world – he resolved to make it his home, and to settle down in it as a hermit, shutting out all intercourse with his fellowmen and women, save in the way of imparting spiritual teaching and consolation to the few simple unsophisticated rustics who dwelt in the valley.

He found a cavern in the hill-side, which he enlarged and fashioned into a habitation wherein to live; fitting the entrance with a door, to shelter him from the cold winter winds and prevent the intrusion of wild animals, above which he made an orifice for the admission of light, which he glazed with a thinly scraped sheet of horn, such as King Alfred's lanterns were made of, and furnished the interior with two sections of a tree trunk, the larger to serve as a table, the smaller as a seat; a shelf on which he kept his eatables, with a knife, an earthen platter, and a drinking horn, a piece of rough sackcloth for his bed, and over it, fixed to the rock, a roughly shaped cross, the emblem of his faith, beside which hung a knotted rope for the purpose of penitential flagellation.

At a few rods distance he erected with his own hands, from timber cut by himself, a small chapel – a temple of God, sufficiently rude and unpretentious in point of architecture, but answering every purpose for which it was intended, that of a place of assembly for the simple and unlettered people of the valley, where they might join in the worship of God; and here Ælred every evening performed divine service and catechised the small flock of which he had constituted himself the pastor, and on Sundays performed three full services, with a sermon and the administration of the sacrament of the Lord's Supper.

And thus he came to be looked upon in the district as a most holy man, as indeed he was, and but little below a saint, who might be expected any day to commence the working of miracles, in the cure of the sick and afflicted.

There was one peculiarity about Ælred's character, which amounted almost to a monomania. He entertained a shrinking-horror of fair-featured, beautiful women – not that there were many such in his solitary valley, they being, as a rule, embrowned by exposure to the sun, and their features corrugated by marks of rough toil and the troubles of life even from girlhood, and as such they experienced his sympathy and Christian charity; and the little children were always treated by him with tenderness and love, in imitation of his Divine Master, who had said "for of such is the kingdom of Heaven." But for the vain and frivolous of the sex, who seemed to deem nothing of supreme importance save the adornment of their persons, he felt profound scorn and contempt, mixed with a modicum of pity, and marvelled why they were sent into the world at all, unless, it might be, to test the virtue of man by the temptation of their fascinating allurements.

It happened, however, that not far distant a benevolent and wealthy lady had established a religious home for females. It was not exactly a nunnery, although it possessed many of the features of one, the inmates not being debarred from matrimony, although absolute chastity was an essential while resident there; nor were they garbed in unbecoming costumes, nor compelled to sacrifice that pride and ornament of woman, her hair; besides which they were allowed a certain amount of liberty in the way of visiting their friends, which was not accorded to a regular nun.

The ladies of this establishment were wont to go to Father Ælred to confess their little peccadilloes, to which he saw no reasonable objection, as they were generally very homely, ill-favoured specimens of the sex, as is usually the case with the inmates of nunneries, and thus were in no way perilous to his chaste soul and holy communings. Had they been otherwise, it is probable that he might have declined the office of father confessor to them, and closed the door of St John's Chapel against their intrusion.

It is a well-known psychological fact that the body and the mind act and re-act upon each other to their respective well-being or detriment, and that if the one is neglected or abused the other suffers in proportion; and this fact was evidenced in the case of Father Ælred. As we have observed, he was a man of intense and fervid piety, the whole of his thoughts being concentrated on one sole object – the salvation of his own soul and that of his fellow-creatures. Hence he fasted for prolonged periods, denied himself a sufficient measure of sleep, such as nature demanded, subjected himself to severe self-flagellations, and in other ways outraged nature, fancying that by these mortifications of the flesh he was promoting the health of his soul.

But the laws of nature are never broken with impunity, and he had to pay the penalty instead of invigorating he impaired the powers of the spiritual portion of his dual entity, which, although distinct from, is essentially interwoven with the material half.

At first, he merely experienced lassitude, depression of spirits, and a harassing dread that after all his religious aspirations and rigid observance of the duties of the Church, he might find himself cast into the bottomless pit at last. These were followed by distressing dreams and visions of the Judgement Day. The frown and sentence of the arbiter of his eternal destiny, and the jeering scoffs of the enemy of souls, as he passed into the region of everlasting weeping and wailing. Deeming these to be proofs of the weakness of his faith and the languor of his religious life, he was led to redouble the rigour of his asceticism, the natural result being to intensify the malady he sought to cure.

From seeing fearful visions in his dreams at night, he began to see horrible figures of demons by day, who crowded about him, with scoffing grimaces and leering looks, sometimes, as it seemed to his ears, as if uttering threats and sarcastic allusions to his assumed piety, or anon indulging in demoniac yells of laughter.

Of course, he attributed all these to the machinations of the devil, and prayed for deliverance from them; but he was haunted by them day and night, with increasing persistency, until at length the sanity of his mind gave way, and he became in fact a maniac, not, however, so pronounced as to render it evident to others, or prevent his performance of his priestly offices, nor did he relax his private devotional exercises.

On the evening above mentioned, when the holy father returned home from the chapel and sat down to the perusal of the transcript of Cædmon, which he had brought from Whitby. He was particularly disturbed in mind, and could not concentrate his thoughts upon what he was reading, which perpetually recurred at the evening service in the chapel and the advent of a new member of his congregation ;besides which an imp had squatted himself on the table opposite him, and sat there grinning at him in a most diabolical fashion. It was the usual custom of the sisterhood of the religious house of which mention has been made to attend his evening service; and on this occasion a new member of the sisterhood was present for the first time. She had been just admitted as a novice, and was young and beautiful, with the fair, clear complexion, blue eyes, and long flaxen hair of the Anglian race, a striking contrast to the elderly, homely-featured spinsters whom she accompanied.

The moment he caught sight of her face, Ælred experienced a species of fascination, similar to that of the bird in the presence of the serpent, and although he battled with the feeling, he could not shake it off.

To his eyes, she seemed like an angel come down from heaven, and the more he struggled to avert his thoughts from contemplating her celestial beauty, the more he felt impelled to turn his eyes again and again to where she sat. He felt it was wrong, so he brought the service to an abrupt close and hastened home to purify his soul, by prayer, from what he deemed the lust of the eye. But the vision was ever-present in his mind's eye, so much so that he scarcely heeded or was conscious of the grinning imp on the table. He had retired to his sackcloth couch, after a wholesome application of the knotted rope and a prolonged prayer before the cross, and eventually fell asleep, but his dreams were all of the fair vision lie had seen in the chapel, and for that night he was not haunted by his usual demon visitants.

A few days afterwards, the Mother Superior of the little convent came to the chapel for confession, and brought with her her new daughter, to whom she introduced Ælred as her future father confessor, and it was with a strange unusual throbbing of his heart that he looked upon her fair form, as she bowed herself beneath his paternal greeting; but when he listened to her soft, silvery accents as she told him in confession her little sins of thought, his heart softened as it had never done before to any woman. These feelings, however, involuntary as they were, caused him much alarm, and he strove to banish them as being perilous to his soul, but it was impossible to drive the fair, and as he thought, angelic, image from his mind.

A week passed by, to him a week of sad spiritual tribulation, for when in prayer his mind wandered away; nor was he able to fix his thoughts in contemplation, the angelic vision ever rising up to distract and perplex him.

One day when she came to confess she said to him "Holy father, I have fallen into grievous sin; I have made the probationary vow of abstraction from the world and of devotion to the sole service of God." to which Ælred replied "That is well, my daughter, persevere in that resolution, and God will bless you both now and for ever"

"But, father," she continued, "I have suffered a fearful lapse; I have looked back upon the world, and have almost regretted having taken the vows."

"Backsliding," said Ælred in reply, "is, as you term it, a grievous sin; but it is remediable by prayer, penitence, and fasting. But tell me more in detail the evil thoughts which have assailed your soul." "I almost fear to tell you," she answered. "Then can I not advise you in the matter excepting in general terms. Confide in me; it is but speaking to God through me, and he will inspire me with words of remedial comfort; otherwise I cannot grant absolution."

Thus urged, she stated that previously to entering the convent she scarcely knew what the passion of love meant, but since then it had sprung up in her heart with a vehemence that it seemed to be impossible to suppress. She had seen one since she came into the valley, a pious and godly man, who had at the first sight animated her breast with the passion in so intense a degree that it Mowed and raged within her like a furnace. The holy man at once concluded that he himself was the person she referred to, and he felt his heart beating wildly with a hitherto unexperienced emotion, and at the same time his brow became bedewed with perspiration, caused by an apprehensive terror of the dangerous position in which he found himself placed. He stood silent and almost paralysed, looking down upon her with fearful forebodings as to what she would confess further, when she, wondering at his silence, cast a furtive glance upward from her hitherto downcast eyes. Everyone knows that there is wondrous eloquence in the glance of a female eye, and as hers met his, he felt at once that it meant impassioned love -lawless love, and it stirred up within his disordered mind all the narrow bigotry of his sentiments in respect to sexual love. He still stood silently gazing upon her, when all at once a fearful idea flashed across his mind, which caused him to pass at once from a person of slightly distempered intellect into a perfect madman. The idea was that the person before him was none other than Satan himself, who, not having been able to tempt him to sin by means of his imps in their repulsive demoniac forms, had assumed the semblance of a lovely virgin to allure him to carnal sin. Rising up to his full height, with eyeballs glaring and features distorted with indignant rage, he cried, "Satan, I know thee, and I defy thee; but no more shalt thou tempt man in that shape at least," and with that he dealt her a violent blow, and she fell senseless on the floor. "Ah!" cried he, "thou hast found thy match in me, but my work is not yet completed; thy head shall be placed aloft as a warning to others," and with that he procured a knife and severed her head from her body, which he then took out and fixed on the trunk of a yew tree, just where it begins to ramify, and when that was completed he rushed up the mountain with wild shouts of triumph and maniacal gesticulations. The young novice not returning to the convent, search was made for her, and her head-less body was discovered in the chapel, lying in a pool of blood, but it was not until the following day that the head was found fixed in the yew tree. On attempting to remove it, it was found that the long hair had taken root in the tree trunk, and was spreading downwards in thin filaments, and as this was looked on as a miracle, it was left there. Suspicion of the murder attached itself to the hermit-priest, and as he had been seen going up the mountain in a distraught state of mind, search was made for him in that direction, and his body was found at the foot of a precipice down which he had fallen, but whether through accident or for the purpose of suicide could never be known.

Camden says – "Her head was hung upon an ewe-tree, where it was reputed holy by the vulgar, till quite rotten, and was visited in pilgrimage by them, every one picking off a branch of the tree as a holy relique.

By this means the tree became at last a mere trunk, but still retained its reputation of sanctity among the people, who believed that those little veins, which are spread out like hair in the rind between the bark and the body of the tree, were indeed the very hair of the virgin.

This occasioned such resort of pilgrims to it that Horton, from a little village grew up to a large town, assuming the name of Haligfax, or Halifax, which signifies holy hair

 


See The Halifax Coat of Arms, The Halifax Seal and Seal of the Waterhouse Charity



© Malcolm Bull 2018
Revised 08:52 /5th March 2018 / html / 20028

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