So pass we now to that dear function of home-life in the good old Catholic times. And connecting here hospitality toward the poor with almsgiving, let us see what was in that respect the spirit of the ages of faith.
“Padua,” Digby informs us, “had forty-five houses for the entertainment of poor strangers; in Venice all comers were entertained by many Doges; and, above all, say the old Italians, Vicenza was distinguished for its munificence toward needy strangers.
At Venice, the senators who presided over the public administration were so hospitable that the whole city resembled a hotel for guests and a common home for all strangers coming to it.
At Cesena every one used to dispute for the honor of receiving the stranger, till, to obviate such quarrels, the pillar was erected; having a ring for each noble family, so that to whichever the stranger on arriving fastened his horse, to that family was he to repair.
‘Receive kindly whoever comes says St. Francis in his rule,—the spirit of which ruled many castles as well as cloisters—’ all, whether friend or foe, thief or robber.’
We read, indeed, of one proud castle standing near the road, over the portal of which the knight who built it, through the sole motive of vanity, caused lines to be inscribed . . . intending to signify that no one should be received but knights, philosophers, or clerks, or noble ladies.
But the ancient legend states that by a terrible vision this knight was converted, and so delivered from his former error that he resolved thenceforth to entertain rather the poor, effacing that inscription and substituting for it words which signified that the naked and poor, the sick and infirm, and the exile and the pilgrim, would be thenceforth his guests.”
In Brittany a most beautiful custom still exists, in spite of modern legislation, which tends to forbid almsgiving of every kind, and to prevent the poor, even when they have a hovel of their own, from leaving it and making their dire need known to their neighbors.
The day following marriage is “the day of the poor.” They troop from every side to the door of the happy pair, and find tables spread for them in the vast hall of the nobleman, when the bridegroom is such, or on the greensward when he is of inferior degree.
The tables for the men are set on one side, those for the women on the other, the bridegroom waiting on the former, and the bride attending to the comfort of those of her own sex.
When they have had their fill, all dance together, and then take their leave, pouring blessings on their kind entertainers.
Surely such blessings and the heartfelt wishes and prayers of the poor must be more profitable to young people entering on the married state and its doubtful fortunes, than the idle congratulations of a fashionable throng, and the selfish modern custom of hastening from the foot of the altar to the railway train or steamboat, in order to escape from the irksome duty of receiving friends or feasting the poor.
If from Brittany you cross in imagination the broad expanse of sea which separates the westernmost shores of France from Spain, you will find among another proud and ancient race, the Basques, with a faith by no means less deep than that of the Bretons, Catholic notions about poverty and almsgiving which are full of eloquent meaning.
Land at any point of that rock-bound shore, in any one of the fishing towns and villages so famous all through Christian history, and you will see how the few native poor, in a country where nobody is ever seen idle, are treated with a sovereign respect and tenderness.
A recent traveler landing at the little town of Elanchove—which clings with its one street to the almost perpendicular face of a mountain two thousand feet high—saw, as he toiled up that ladder-like street, “a poor old woman all bent double with age standing at a door and asking for alms.
A charming young married woman, her mouth all wreathed with smiles, hastened to come out. I saw her take from her pocket a small brass coin, kiss it, and then give it to the old woman.
The latter took the alms, made with it very devoutly the sign of the cross on herself, and then kissed it in her turn.
Such is the custom throughout the Basque country, and does it not add a touching grace to charity?”
Such noble and touching customs as this are not, however, confined to Biscay or to Northern Spain; they are everywhere characteristic of the Spanish Catholic. The lofty spirit of self-respect which is the soul of the Spaniard, is shown in the reverence with which he treats the poor, whom word or look of his will never humble; but as his faith teaches him to consider Christ himself present in the person of the beggar or of the sick man, his respect for them becomes downright and heartfelt veneration.
It will cheer and enlighten us to gather some of these choice pearls of Spanish custom to deck our own crown of merit withal.
“Cheating and extortion seem incompatible with the Spanish character. Even the poorest peasant who has shown us our way, and who has walked a considerable distance to do so, has invariably refused to receive any thing for his services; yet all are most willing and anxious to help strangers.
The same liberal spirit seems to breathe through everything, and was equally shown at our little posada (inn) at Elche, . . . where a number of maimed, blind, and halt collected daily to receive the broken viands from the table-d’hote, which the mistress distributed to them, and in the delicate blacksmith’s wife opposite, who keeps two lamps burning nightly at her own expense before the little shrine of ‘Our Lady of the Unprotected’ in her balcony.
The temporal works of mercy—to give bread to the hungry, and drink to the thirsty, to take care of the sick, to visit prisoners, and to bury the dead, these are the common duties which none shrink from.”
As I write, a handsome, dark-eyed brown boy in rags, who looks as if he had stepped out of one of Murillo’s pictures, is leaning against the opposite wall in the moonlight, watching a shrine of the Virgin.
It is a picture typical of Spain, ruined and superstitious, but still most beautiful— and so is the cry of the watchman which is ringing through the silent air, ‘Ave, Maria Santissima! It is a quarter to twelve o’clock!'”
Ah, give us back this superstition,—this living faith rather, which built up Spain and Portugal till they were the wonder of Christendom.
The ruin of the Peninsula is coeval, step by step, with the decline of that glorious spirit of “superstition.” But we can pardon this perversion of judgment in a Protestant who has the eye to see and the heart to appreciate so much that is beautiful in Catholic customs.
It is well known that from time immemorial the sovereigns of Spain visit the hospitals nearest to the royal residence once at least every year. The rule is to go there with the entire court.
On entering the sick ward royalty at once goes to the nearest bed and humbly kisses the hand of the poor patient. Then sovereigns and courtiers wait on the sick, performing in their behalf the most menial services, and addressing the sufferers with as much reverence as if they beheld the God of Calvary or the Divine Babe of Bethlehem visibly present in every sick-bed.