Henry Van Dyke Poems >>
The Toiling Of Felix
Hear a word that Jesus spake
Nineteen hundred years ago,
Where the crimson lilies blow
Round the blue Tiberian lake:
There the bread of life He brake,
Through the fields of harvest walking
With His lowly comrades, talking
Of the secret thoughts that feed
Weary souls in time of need.
Art thou hungry? Come and take;
Hear the word that Jesus spake!
'Tis the sacrament of labour, bread and wine divinely blest;
Friendship's food and sweet refreshment, strength and courage, joy and rest.
But this word the Master said
Long ago and far away,
Silent and forgotten lay
Buried with the silent dead,
Where the sands of Egypt spread
Sea-like, tawny billows heaping
Over ancient cities sleeping,
While the River Nile between
Rolls its summer flood of green
Rolls its autumn flood of red:
There the word the Master said,
Written on a frail papyrus, wrinkled, scorched by fire, and torn,
Hidden by God's hand was waiting for its resurrection morn.
Now at last the buried word
By the delving spade is found,
Sleeping in the quiet ground.
Now the call of life is heard:
Rise again, and like a bird,
Fly abroad on wings of gladness
Through the darkness and the sadness,
Of the toiling age, and sing
Sweeter than the voice of Spring,
Till the hearts of men are stirred
By the music of the word,-
Gospel for the heavy-laden, answer to the labourer's cry:
"Raise the stone, and thou shall find me; cleave the wood and there am I."
Brother-men who look for Jesus, long to see Him close and clear,
Hearken to the tale of Felix, how he found the Master near.
Born in Egypt, 'neath the shadow of the crumbling gods of night,
He forsook the ancient darkness, turned his young heart toward the Light.
Seeking Christ, in vain he waited for the vision of the Lord;
Vainly pondered many volumes where the creeds of men were stored;
Vainly shut himself in silence, keeping vigil night and day;
Vainly haunted shrines and churches where the Christians came to pray.
One by one he dropped the duties of the common life of care,
Broke the human ties that bound him, laid his spirit waste and bare,
Hoping that the Lord would enter that deserted dwelling-place,
And reward the loss of all things with the vision of His face.
Still the blessed vision tarried; still the light was unrevealed;
Still the Master, dim and distant, kept His countenance concealed.
Fainter grew the hope of finding, wearier grew the fruitless quest;
Prayer and penitence and fasting gave no comfort, brought no rest.
Lingering in the darkened temple, ere the lamp of faith went out,
Felix knelt before the altar, lonely, sad, and full of doubt.
"Hear me, O my Lord and Master," from the altar-step he cried,
"Let my one desire be granted, let my hope be satisfied!
"Only once I long to see Thee, in the fulness of Thy grace:
Break the clouds that now enfold Thee, with the sunrise of Thy face!
"All that men desire and treasure have I counted loss for Thee;
Every hope have I forsaken, save this one, my Lord to see.
"Loosed the sacred bands of friendship, solitary stands my heart;
Thou shalt be my sole companion when I see Thee as Thou art.
"From Thy distant throne in glory, flash upon my inward sight,
Fill the midnight of my spirit with the splendour of Thy light.
"All Thine other gifts and blessings, common mercies, I disown;
Separated from my brothers, I would see Thy face alone.
"I have watched and I have waited as one waiteth for the morn:
Still the veil is never lifted, still Thou leavest me forlorn.
"Now I seek Thee in the desert, where the holy hermits dwell;
There, beside the saint Serapion, I will find a lonely cell.
"There at last Thou wilt be gracious; there Thy presence, long-concealed,
In the solitude and silence to my heart shall be revealed.
"Thou wilt come, at dawn or twilight, o'er the rolling waves of sand;
I shall see Thee close beside me, I shall touch Thy pierced hand.
"Lo, Thy pilgrim kneels before Thee; bless my journey with a word;
Tell me now that if I follow, I shall find Thee, O my Lord!"
Felix listened: through the darkness, like a murmur of the wind,
Came a gentle sound of stillness: "Never faint, and thou shalt find."
Long and toilsome was his journey through the heavy land of heat,
Egypt's blazing sun above him, blistering sand beneath his feet.
Patiently he plodded onward, from the pathway never erred,
Till he reached the river-headland called the Mountain of the Bird.
There the tribes of air assemble, once a year, their noisy flock,
Then, departing, leave a sentinel perched upon the highest rock.
Far away, on joyful pinions, over land and sea they fly;
But the watcher on the summit lonely stands against the sky.
There the eremite Serapion in a cave had made his bed;
There the faithful bands of pilgrims sought his blessing, brought him bread.
Month by month, in deep seclusion, hidden in the rocky cleft,
Dwelt the hermit, fasting, praying; once a year the cave he left.
On that day a happy pilgrim, chosen out of all the band,
Won a special sign of favour from the holy hermit's hand.
Underneath the narrow window, at the doorway closely sealed,
While the afterglow of sunset deepened round him, Felix kneeled.
"Man of God, of men most holy, thou whose gifts cannot be priced!
Grant me thy most precious guerdon; tell me how to find the Christ."
Breathless, Felix bent and listened, but no answering voice he heard;
Darkness folded, dumb and deathlike, round the Mountain of the Bird.
Then he said, "The saint is silent; he would teach my soul to wait:
I will tarry here in patience, like a beggar at his gate."
Near the dwelling of the hermit Felix found a rude abode,
In a shallow tomb deserted, close beside the pilgrim-road.
So the faithful pilgrims saw him waiting there without complaint,-
Soon they learned to call him holy, fed him as they fed the saint.
Day by day he watched the sunrise flood the distant plain with gold,
While the River Nile beneath him, silvery coiling, sea-ward rolled.
Night by night he saw the planets range their glittering court on high,
Saw the moon, with queenly motion, mount her throne and rule the sky.
Morn advanced and midnight fled, in visionary pomp attired;
Never morn and never midnight brought the vision long-desired.
Now at last the day is dawning when Serapion makes his gift;
Felix kneels before the threshold, hardly dares his eyes to lift.
Now the cavern door uncloses, now the saint above him stands,
Blesses him without a word, and leaves a token in his hands.
'Tis the guerdon of thy waiting! Look, thou happy pilgrim, look!
Nothing but a tattered fragment of an old papyrus book.
Read! perchance the clue to guide thee hidden in the words may lie:
"Raise the stone, and thou shalt find me; cleave the wood, and there am I."
Can it be the mighty Master spake such simple words as these?
Can it be that men must seek Him at their toil 'mid rocks and trees?
Disappointed, heavy-hearted, from the Mountain of the Bird
Felix mournfully descended, questioning the Master's word.
Not for him a sacred dwelling, far above the haunts of men:
He must turn his footsteps backward to the common life again.
From a quarry near the river, hollowed out amid the hills,
Rose the clattering voice of labour, clanking hammers, clinking drills.
Dust, and noise, and hot confusion made a Babel of the spot:
There, among the lowliest workers, Felix sought and found his lot.
Now he swung the ponderous mallet, smote the iron in the rock-
Muscles quivering, tingling, throbbing-blow on blow and shock on shock;
Now he drove the willow wedges, wet them till they swelled and split,
With their silent strength, the fragment, sent it thundering down the pit.
Now the groaning tackle raised it; now the rollers made it slide;
Harnessed men, like beasts of burden, drew it to the river-side.
Now the palm-trees must be riven, massive timbers hewn and dressed;
Rafts to bear the stones in safety on the rushing river's breast.
Axe and auger, saw and chisel, wrought the will of man in wood:
'Mid the many-handed labour Felix toiled, and found it good.
Every day the blood ran fleeter through his limbs and round his heart;
Every night he slept the sweeter, knowing he had done his part.
Dreams of solitary saintship faded from him; but, instead,
Came a sense of daily comfort in the toil for daily bread.
Far away, across the river, gleamed the white walls of the town
Whither all the stones and timbers day by day were floated down.
There the workman saw his labour taking form and bearing fruit,
Like a tree with splendid branches rising from a humble root.
Looking at the distant city, temples, houses, domes, and towers,
Felix cried in exultation: "All that mighty work is ours.
"Every toiler in the quarry, every builder on the shore,
Every chopper in the palm-grove, every raftsman at the oar,
"Hewing wood and drawing water, splitting stones and cleaving sod,
All the dusty ranks of labour, in the regiment of God,
"March together toward His triumph, do the task His hands prepare:
Honest toil is holy service; faithful work is praise and prayer."
While he bore the heat and burden Felix felt the sense of rest
Flowing softly like a fountain, deep within his weary breast;
Felt the brotherhood of labour, rising round him like a tide,
Overflow his heart and join him to the workers at his side.
Oft he cheered them with his singing at the breaking of the light,
Told them tales of Christ at noonday, taught them words of prayer at night.
Once he bent above a comrade fainting in the mid-day heat,
Sheltered him with woven palm-leaves, gave him water, cool and sweet.
Then it seemed, for one swift moment, secret radiance filled the place;
Underneath the green palm-branches flashed a look of Jesus' face.
Once again, a raftsman, slipping, plunged beneath the stream and sank;
Swiftly Felix leaped to rescue, caught him, drew him toward the bank-
Battling with the cruel river, using all his strength to save-
Did he dream? or was there One beside him walking on the wave?
Now at last the work was ended, grove deserted, quarry stilled;
Felix journeyed to the city that his hands had helped to build.
In the darkness of the temple, at the closing hour of day,
As of old he sought the altar, as of old he knelt to pray:
"Hear me, O Thou hidden Master! Thou hast sent a word to me;
It is written-Thy commandment-I have kept it faithfully.
"Thou hast bid me leave the visions of the solitary life,
Bear my part in human labour, take my share in human strife.
"I have done Thy bidding, Master; raised the rock and felled the tree,
Swung the axe and plied the hammer, working every day for Thee.
"Once it seemed I saw Thy presence through the bending palm-leaves gleam;
Once upon the flowing water-Nay, I know not; 'twas a dream!
"This I know: Thou hast been near me: more than this I dare not ask.
Though I see Thee not, I love Thee. Let me do Thy humblest task!"
Through the dimness of the temple slowly dawned a mystic light;
There the Master stood in glory, manifest to mortal sight:
Hands that bore the mark of labour, brow that bore the print of care;
Hands of power, divinely tender; brow of light, divinely fair.
"Hearken, good and faithful servant, true disciple, loyal friend!
Thou hast followed me and found me; I will keep thee to the end.
"Well I know thy toil and trouble; often weary, fainting, worn,
I have lived the life of labour, heavy burdens I have borne.
"Never in a prince's palace have I slept on golden bed,
Never in a hermit's cavern have I eaten unearned bread.
"Born within a lowly stable, where the cattle round me stood,
Trained a carpenter in Nazareth, I have toiled, and found it good.
"They who tread the path of labour follow where my feet have trod;
They who work without complaining do the holy will of God.
"Where the many toil together, there am I among my own;
Where the tired workman sleepeth, there am I with him alone.
"I, the peace that passeth knowledge, dwell amid the daily strife;
I, the bread of heaven, am broken in the sacrament of life.
"Every task, however simple, sets the soul that does it free;
Every deed of love and mercy, done to man, is done to me.
"Thou hast learned the open secret; thou hast come to me for rest;
With thy burden, in thy labour, thou art Felix, doubly blest.
"Nevermore thou needest seek me; I am with thee everywhere;
Raise the stone, and thou shall find me; cleave the wood, and I am there."
The legend of Felix is ended, the toiling of Felix is done;
The Master has paid him his wages, the goal of his journey is won;
He rests, but he never is idle; a thousand years pass like a day,
In the glad surprise of that Paradise where work is sweeter than play.
Yet often the King of that country comes out from His tireless host,
And walks in this world of the weary as if He loved it the most;
For here in the dusty confusion, with eyes that are heavy and dim,
He meets again the labouring men who are looking and longing for Him.
He cancels the curse of Eden, and brings them a blessing instead:
Blessed are they that labour, for Jesus partakes of their bread.
He puts His hand to their burdens, He enters their homes at night:
Who does his best shall have as a guest the Master of life and light.
And courage will come with His presence, and patience return at His touch,
And manifold sins be forgiven to those who love Him much;
The cries of envy and anger will change to the songs of cheer,
The toiling age will forget its rage when the Prince of Peace draws near.
This is the gospel of labour, ring it, ye bells of the kirk!
The Lord of Love came down from above, to live with the men who work.
This is the rose that He planted, here in the thorn-curst soil:
Heaven is blest with perfect rest, but the blessing of Earth is toil.
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Based on Keywords: sea-like, priced, rafts, eremite, papyrus, uncloses, auger, sea-ward, cancels, chopper, saintship