HOW A POOR WOMAN THAT WAS A WIDOW DID TAKE FROM GOD'S MOTHER HER CHILD, FOR HER OWN THAT WAS CONDEMNED TO BE HANGED
IN the city of Rome there lived a poor labouring man, the which had to wife a woman of good countenance that lived as religion ordaineth us, doing her duty towards all. These two gained their bread by the labour of their hands as best they might; but a child they had that was all unlike them, for he was of a nature so evil and perverse that he would learn no trade nor craft, nor do aught that a good child should do. And the older he grew the greater grew sinfulness within him: he sought the company of the idlers and the libertines, and of those that take their ease in taverns, and no woman was safe from his insults, were she wife or maid. Thus growing in evil, as those must ever do that will not grow in good, he became at last a robber and a murderer, feared of all in the night, fearing all in the day; for well he knew that should the law but overtake him, he would go not to prison but incontinent be hung for his deserts.
Now his father fell sick and died, and therefore must his mother, that was made a widow, get her livelihood alone; for her son helped her not at all, but that which he gained by villainy he spent in villainy again. Therefore this poor woman would earn her bread by spinning and by such travail as she might, and hard indeed did she labour from dawn to eve. But on a Saturday she would not work at all, because it is Our Lady's day, for she had been accustomed all her life to serve and honour Saint Mary with exceeding great devotion, being bred to pious uses when that she was yet a child. And near to the place where she lived there was a great and fair church of Our Lady, and therein an image of God's Mother set upon an altar, in the likeness of a woman that nursed her child. It was finely gilt and of right fair device. This poor woman loved that image so well that she could not take her heart from it, but whether she were at her prayers or at her spinning, she yearned with a great desire toward that Mother who held alway her Baby at her breast.
"Even thus," said she, "did I hold my boy, that was once but simple and weak." For truly every mother has once nursed the Holy Child.
And every Saturday, because of this devotion of hers, she made herself ready at the hour of None and came to the church with a gift of green herbage, the which she took and spread before the altar. And she was accustomed also to offer two candles, having fasted the Friday on bread and water that she might give them. The other
women, her neighbours, mocked at her, for knowing that she lived in poverty they held that she was a fool and wastrel thus to do. Nevertheless, so soon as None sounded on Saturday, she lit her two candles and placed them before the image of the Virgin Mary, whom she honoured with words of very loving devotion, and the grasses she spread upon the floor; and there she would kneel at prayer before that glorious Lady, nor would she move from her place until nightfall, no, not for any necessity. Verily, she was a woman of pure and spiritual heart, and God did great favours to her, and showed Himself to her, as He doeth to all them that love Him truly and serve Him well. Many a time did she feel about herself all the sweetness of Paradise, so that had she done what she would, she had stayed for ever with such blessed thoughts.
Yet was this widow greatly condemned of her neighbours, that held her to be a dissembler and an hypocrite, for they said: "Better doth her spinning wheel profit her than her prayers, for God feedeth her not, nor payeth her any wage for these hours that she gives Him." Thus do the wicked alway toward them that would do well, for the fool ever willeth that all men should be like to him. But the wise man heedeth not his words, and for his part the wicked heedeth not the words of the good. Thus doth each according to his part, one good and the other evil.
This wise woman did well, thus to serve Madame Saint Mary in faith and in peace, and
greatly did she profit of her love. For it fell out on a certain Saturday, as she was at prayer before the image, that her son, the which lived so evil a life and governed himself so ill, was taken for thieving. Then was the reward that his acts had earned meted to him quickly, for the provost of the city took him, and tied him to a horse's tail, and so dragged him through the streets toward the gallows, that there he might be hanged. And great company of people came after, mocking and reviling him, and shouting one to another of his capture full gladly, for he had been greatly feared.
Then one cried to other, saying:
"Is not this the son of that old witch that prays in the church continually?"
And others answered them: "Yea, and well have her prayers been answered. Great joy must she have this day of her devotion, when her child, that is all she has, is dragged to the gibbet!"
And whenas the company that was with the young man came past the church where she was, an old woman that was one of her neighbours saw her through the door, where she knelt and made her supplications before Our Lady's image: and she called her, saying: " Hay, gossip, come hither!"
When that she had come, "Hahay! " said that neighbour, "dost know what has befallen? What a miserable woman art thou, and how little does God love thee! Verily, thou hast grief and ill-fortune in all things. Behold, at
this moment thy dear son is dragged through the streets to the gallows, and there shall he be hanged without delay, for the people are inflamed against him; and whilst thy child goes to his damnation (for very surely Sathan waits his soul) thou kneelest before this dead image as if it might aid thee! Now give up this folly of thine, and this wasting of thy substance, for thou seest thou gettest no help, but rather hast lost all thy care and pains."
This poor mother, hearing thus of her child's extremity, felt her heart so greatly moved with grief and anguish that she knew not what to do: for though her son had brought her much wretchedness, still she loved him, being even as other mothers are, the which are turned no wit from their great love because their children be perverse. Nevertheless, though her pain was exceeding great, she hid that which was in her heart discreetly. "For," said she, "if I go out from the church and cry my sorrow in the streets, all the people will rail against me and set upon me to hurt me, and I shall accomplish nothing. It is better that I stay here where I can have the ear of our Merciful Mother, that can do all things if she will."
Therefore did she remain standing before the image of Our Lady, gazing upon it and thinking full bitterly of that child of hers that was in peril, and of her helplessness. And as she so stood and so gazed there came into her heart so great an ardour of supplication and of
love that she burst into tears and flung herself down before that image, crying:
"Dear Lady, Holy Mary! I ask your help in my necessity! Lady, who didst conceive the Son of God in pure virginity (and this is true, I know it well), keep now for His sake Who did save the thief of Calvary, the soul and body of my poor son, that I have conceived and borne. Lady, you knew the death of your Son: will you not give me for His sake the life of mine?"
But the image was silent.
Then cried she again with a loud voice ; and so greatly was she moved by her passion of asking that she was near to swoon.
" Sweet Lady!" she said, "can you not do it? Shall my child be lost? Not so, for I will in no wise consent to it. My very sweet Friend and dear sister in motherhood, child I must have, for I cannot live without it. Therefore give back to me my son that is lost, or verily I will take your Baby from you, and will hold Him as hostage and pledge in place of mine."
And this spoken she seized the Child of Our Lady where it was in the arms of that image, and with great force she tore it from its place and held it in her arms full closely, and, "Lady," said she, "let my child come back to me, or give me your Son in his place; for truly He gave Himself for the comforting of the sorrowful, and died that sinners might be
saved. Therefore will I hold Him as hostage for this poor child of mine."
Now the Blessed Virgin Mary, who saw that the young man, the son of the widow, went to his death, would not suffer this disgrace; for she could in no wise endure to go without her Baby, and further this poor woman served her well. Therefore did she come from Heaven full swiftly, that she might save this sinner and have her Child again; and when the young man was come to the gallows whither he was led, and when that the hangman already had put the rope about his neck, and he was uplifted in the air that all the people might see how he died at that hour great miracle was wrought before them that stood there, and he was brought alive out of his extremity. For it was seen of all that this malefactor, as he hung on the gibbet, was lifted up, all bound and helpless, and was carried through the air, and so out of their sight. Of a surety it was Our Lady that succoured him and had him in her keeping, but none saw her: for the light that was about her was so fair and bright that they could not endure its shining to gaze upon it, and in that shining she was hid. And she brought the young man safe and sound into the precinct of that church where his poor mother was, that still held the Christ-child to her bosom, and kept Him from His Mother's arms because of the rage and anguish she was in for her own child's sake.
Then came to her that young man her son, whom Saint Mary had brought hither, and he
put his arms about his mother, and drew her to him, and said :"Fair and dear mother, leave, leave this Child Whom you withhold from His mother's arms, and be at peace; for the Mother of God hath most marvellously succoured me for your prayers, and that she may have again her Baby that you have held hostage for my soul. Yea, she hath brought me from the power of Sathan, though my bed was already made in hell, for well I saw it as I hung; but the Holy Virgin would not suffer my damnation, and she took me from the hand of them that had seized me, even from the Clutches of the Enemy, who called me to Hell for the sins I had done. I had put myself within his power, but the Lady whom you serve has ransomed me. Therefore have I vowed my life to her, to do her bidding without fantasy, and ever will I remain her loyal and devoted servant; for though great has been my sin, greater far shall be my labour in well-doing. And it is in my mind that I would enter an abbey and put on me the habit of religion, the better to be taught the love of God; thither will I straitway go to make my peace with Him, if that it be your will."
"Of a good heart, dear son," said his mother, "for I am altogether of your mind."
Then this good woman did bow down her body before the altar, and with clasped hands gave thanks to God and to His glorious Mother, for she was filled with an exceeding joy. And so greatly did she weep for the
delight she had, that the ground was wet with her tears. "For," said she, "my son that was lost is found."
Then went she out from the church with her child, that had escaped this great peril both of body and of soul, and they betook them to an abbey; and the Abbot received the young man much willingly, and vested him as was right. And the mother went back to her house, praising God; nor did she forget her duty, for she served the Lord Christ and His sweet Mother ever more devoutly till her death.
And her son governed himself so well in that abbey to which he was come, that he was made priest, and at last Abbot. And all his life he loved Our Lady and served her with a special diligence, so that all who knew him held him to be a very holy man. And when he had lived many years he went from this world, and Saint Mary led him straight to Heavenly Syon, and there was he crowned exceeding gloriously by her dear Son, even Our Lord Jesu Christ, "qui dixit: Non veni vocare justos, sed peccatores ad poenitentiam."