THE SACRED FLAME *
LONG, long ago, in the days of brave knights and lovely ladies, men fought on horseback with sword and lance, and adventure seemed the business of life. In those far days, inspired by the teaching and preaching of earnest monks, was begun that wonderful series of pilgrimages to the Holy City of Jerusalem, called the Crusades.
Many brave knights travelled the weary miles with their trains of trusty followers. They forded deep rivers, climbed great mountains, and crossed the burning desert sands to rescue from the infidel Turks the tomb of Jesus.
But it was a cruel age and many of the knights were cruel, self-seeking men who pillaged, burned, and killed even while bent on so high an errand.
In one of the great churches of the beautiful city of Florence, in Italy, were gathered on a spring evening a company of knights, brave men all. They were clad in shining armor, with clanking swords and bright pennants, and had come for the blessing and benediction of the priests before starting on their crusade on the morrow. Among this company was Raniero de Raniero, a gallant figure and one whose beauty and fine bearing all must admire, but whose heart was cruel and selfish. He was feared and hated by those nearest him and he thought only of his own advancement and gain. Even his beautiful wife Francesca was perhaps secretly glad to see him start on this journey, for to her he was not loving, but heartless and unkind.
Raneiro knelt before the altar and vowed, not a secret vow in his heart, but so that all men might know and admire, to bring back to Florence from Jerusalem the most precious thing that he should find.
The Turks were rich in gold and jewels, and to the minds of all present came a picture of the glittering treasure which Raniero would bring to their church.
So on the morrow they started, amid the acclaim and applause of the citizens, and none rode his horse so straight or held his head so high as Raniero de Raniero. The way was long and hard, and many and bitter were the battles fought before even the land of Palestine was reached, but in all Raniero kept in the forefront of the fight and proved himself an intrepid warrior.
"When at last they reached Jerusalem and laid siege to the city, Raniero was second only to Godfrey of Boulogne, the leader, in deeds of prowess. On the night following their triumphant entry, all the proud knights, dressed in the long dark robes of penitents and with bare feet, inarched through the silent city streets to the church of the Holy Sepulchre, each carrying an unlighted candle in his hand.
To Raniero, as a reward for his prowess, had been given the privilege of being first to light his taper from the flame that burned before the sacred tomb of Christ. There was no clank of armor, only the soft footfalls of this company of knights penitant in garb but, oh! so many proud and hard of heart and Raniero, at their head, pacing up the dark aisle toward the sacred flame.
Suddenly to Raniero all the light of the world seemed to glow within that point of light, and he felt himself moving toward it through endless darkness and desiring it more than he had ever wanted anything before; and as he knelt and reached his little taper toward the flame he felt that he was about to achieve the most precious thing in the world. In the hush of that strange service came to Raniero the conviction that this was the gift which he had vowed to carry back to Florence.
In the morning Raniero announced to his followers that he was about to start for home and bear his sacred gift.
Loud and long they laughed! Why, the booty captured from the Turks was still to be divided turn their backs on that? No, indeed! There was still gallant adventure and much of pleasure. If he would start on such a fool's errand he must go alone! To carry a lighted candle from Jerusalem to Florence was an impossible feat, even without the dangers and hardships of the way.
Raniero heeded neither their jeers and laughter nor their advice and warning. The next morning, clad in armor, over which he had thrown a heavy cloak, with sword and battle-axe, and a great bundle of extra tapers to feed his flame, he started on the homeward pilgrimage with the burning candle in his hand.
He called a gay farewell to the amazed group gathered to watch his departure and galloped off. Very quickly he realized that he could not go very swiftly the little light wavered and he must need draw his horse to a walk that it might flare up again. "How strange," he said, "that this light when almost gone, will shine again in the stillness!"
One day when passing through a wild and lonely defile, he saw before him a company of rough men, clearly one of the robber bands with which the lawless country was infested. They were few and poorly armed and his first thought was to gallop through them, striking right and left with his huge sword, but no the little light was far too frail for such a venture, and proud Raniero rode slowly into the midst of the robber band and said, "Friends, take what you will, but do not harm my light."
Amazed, they followed his suggestion and took horse, money, armor, sword naught was left him but the heavy coat and the burning taper. On leaving, the leader of the band, touched perhaps by his sad plight, called, "Take my horse, 'tis fast enough to carry a candle!" and with mocking laughs they rode away.
So Raniero on the raw-boned old steed travelled the weary miles resting when the wind was fresh and pressing on when the sun burned clear for so the light throve best. Raniero, who always had thought first of his own comfort, now gauged his actions by the little twinkling flame.
Once on a lonely mountain path a woman ran from a little cottage calling, "Stranger, give me, I pray you, a light from your candle! My fire has gone out and I can bake no bread for my children."
"No, no," said Raniero, "the light I carry is too sacred for common use. I cannot give you."
But the woman pled with him, saying, "The light I would guard is my children's lives it will not lessen your flame to give to me."
So Raniero listened to her pleading and lighted her lamp and it seemed to him that his flame burned more brightly.
In the night on the mountains came suddenly a terrible storm of wind, and rain and hail. Though Raniero struggled valiantly and was himself soaked by the rain and bruised and buffeted by wind and hail, the little flame went out! Utterly discouraged he sank upon the wet ground, incentive gone, a hopeless blank before him. Suddenly he sprang up, "The woman's light is the sacred flame!" he cried. "By giving I have saved it!" and he started at once in the dark and went down the mountain path to the cottage.
When he reached the little cottage, he saw the flicker of fire on the hearth, and he knew that it was the sacred flame which he had given the mother only a few hours before.
In the morning sun he started on again. The light burned brightly, the way seemed green and pleasant and the little birds sang.
Soon he met a party of knights who, seeing him guarding so carefully a lighted candle, called, "A mad man! surely a mad man!"
But their leader, one Robert Taillifer, bid them be silent and asked, "Have you travelled far so, my friend?"
"All the way from Jerusalem," answered Raniero.
"And how often has the light gone out?" he asked.
And Raniero answered, "Still burns the flame with which I rode from the Holy City."
Then Robert Taillifer bowed his head.
"I, too, am one who guards a sacred flame," he said. "Tell me, I beg thee, thou who hast kept thy light burning so long what must I do to keep mine shining always?"
"Master, it is a difficult task, though it seemed so easy at first. This must thou do to keep the flame thou must mind the light continually."
And Robert Taillifer smiled and answered, "What thou hast done for thy sacred flame I may do for mine!"
As Raniero de Raniero rode nearer and nearer to home his thoughts went back to Palestine and to his comrades fighting there, but he felt no thrill at the thought of many trophies or the call to arms. The quiet of the Italian hills and the golden sunshine filled him with a mighty peace as he looked at his candle burning brightly. "Surely this light hath recreated me!" he said.
As he came to the outskirts of Florence the inhabitants marvelled at the handsome, weather-beaten man on the gaunt, old horse. He was ragged and tattered and carried a lighted candle. A crowd followed him, growing larger, as crowds will,
and from laughter and wonder, changing to jeers, threats, and open hostility.
"Put out his light! Put out his light!" called the people, throwing stones and reaching for the candle. Raniero, desperate, struggled on. "Would no one recognize the gallant knight who had ridden forth so bravely from these same streets? He held the light high, searching the jeering faces before him for some understanding response.
Suddenly from a balcony above him a woman leaned over and snatched the burning candle, and the crowd, shrieking with laughter, hooted afresh.
Poor Raniero swayed in his saddle and fell to the street unconscious. The cruel crowd surged away in search of further excitement and the old horse stood in the deserted street by the side of the ragged man.
As Raniero wearily opened his eyes he saw, bending over him, his wife, Francesca, who of all the multitude had recognized him.
"I took the light," she said; "I am guarding it." So understanding love had once again saved the flame.
Together they took the candle to the church and Raniero recounted to the priest the tale of his long pilgrimage and had the joy of placing on the altar the little light he had grown so much to love.
After the service the priest said to the gathered people:
"This is the flame, taken from the sacred tomb of our Lord in Jerusalem, which Raniero de Raniero has carried all the long miles to Florence. The most precious thing he found!')
And the people remembering the proud and cruel Raniero doubted and could not believe.
"How do we know?" they asked.
The priest beckoned to Raniero, who stepped forward and took from the altar the light he had tended so long. His
whole being focussed in its brightness, he felt that the people must believe in his gift, that it could not be possible they should doubt so mighty a certainty, and as he stood before them, holding the precious flame, a wonderful thing happened.
In his face came a radiant light, reflecting and increasing the little light he held, till the dim chancel grew luminous, and the people fell upon their knees, exclaiming, "It is the Light! It is the Light! He carries it in his face!"
And the priest with bowed head said, "God grant we may keep the Sacred Flame burning in Florence!"