Faith, Hope and Charity...
By Father Luis Coloma S.J.
There once lived in the small town of Sigmaringen a couple happy in their poverty, loving God and practicing His Commandments. Christmas Day was approaching and Gretchen and Hans Wit, for these were their names, wished to surprise their daughter Zela with a beautiful Christmas tree.
The girl, three years old, had been the only fruit with which God had blessed the union of that happy couple.
On the afternoon of December 24, Hans set out for the woods to cut the pine tree on whose branches were to hang, along with bows, flowers, and lights, the gifts that the Infant Jesus would send Zela on the night of His birth.
There had been a heavy snowfall, so all the roads and pathways had disappeared beneath the deep mantle of snow that blanketed the whole valley.
Hans walked briskly, smiling to himself at the thought of the surprise being prepared for his dear Zela.
Suddenly, his foot slipped on a rock by the road and he tumbled down a steep cliff toward the river flowing at its base.
Three villagers, seeing him fall, ran to his aid, but it was too late. The torrential waters, swollen by the snowfall and aggravated by a terrible wind, swept away the unfortunate man as he shouted the name of Jesus and clutched a pine branch that was a last remembrance of his daughter.
Visited by Grief
Meanwhile, Gretchen, afflicted by her husband’s delay, had put Zela to bed, promising to wake her an hour before midnight to receive her gifts from the Infant Jesus. Zela was already asleep, smiling in her dreams at the Infant Jesus for whom she waited so impatiently, when the village priest and some of Hans Wit’s relatives arrived to tell Gretchen of the terrible tragedy. The poor mother fell on her knees by the crib where her daughter slept so far from even imagining that she would awaken fatherless. Gretchen’s tears fell silently on the girl’s face. Before long, this caused Zela to open her eyes. Raising her little head and smiling, she asked her mother, “Is it the happy night yet?”
“Bad night, my daughter, bad night!” answered the mother tearfully.
The smile instantly faded from the girl’s face. She fixed her eyes for a long moment on her mother’s countenance. Then, pushing away her mother’s hand, which held some fanciful clay figures that were to have adorned the Christmas tree, she said dryly, “I don’t want them.”
Burying her face in her mother’s breast, she began to cry, not with the noisy crying of children, but with the quiet weeping of maturity that leaves grooves on the cheeks. Her tender heart had perceived that she was fatherless!
Happiness retreated from Gretchen’s home with Hans’s death. Gradually, weakened by sorrow, Gretchen’s health gave way and, having no strength left for work, she saw her poor savings dwindle away little by little. Her neighbors, seeing her pale and thin figure going to the village market to look for miserable and meager nourishment, used to comment, “Gretchen has little life left! What will become of poor Zela?”
Zela, with her mother’s love and tenderness, grew physically and morally, lightening her mother’s sorrow. She was the first in school, and on her mother’s birthday she presented her, blushingly and with lowered eyes, a delicate piece of lace and a pair of stockings she had made herself. Two big tears filled the poor widow’s eyes. She pressed the girl’s head to her breast and whispered in her ear, “May God bless your effort, my child, but never forget that true wisdom is in loving God and that the best effort is that which virtue sanctifies.”
Beautiful Inside and Out
Zela always kept her mother’s words in her heart and, imitating her example, grew in virtue. She grew at the same time in beauty, a beauty that was grave and serene. Her skin was a beautiful rose and her hair golden blond. The composure and modesty of her face seemed more than human, and her big blue eyes seemed to have something of heaven, above all in their purity.
The time of Zela’s first Holy Communion approached. On the eve of that precious day, Zela went to church with the other girls to hear from the priest the last instructions and to receive the sacrament of Penance at his feet.
All these girls, daughters of prosperous farmers, had blue sashes and white dresses prepared for the coming day. Only poor Zela would have to go barefoot and unable to change her black and patched orphan’s dress for another. The poor girl felt a shadow of sadness slip in among the holy thoughts that filled her heart, like a poisonous serpent among the flowers of the meadow. Frightened by this, she turned with folded hands to the Virgin to beseech her help.
When going to bed that night she said to her mother, “How bad I am, Mother! This afternoon in church I wished I could receive Communion tomorrow with a white dress and blue sash like the other girls!” Gretchen answered sadly: “There is nothing wrong in desiring a white dress, my daughter, but to be envious and sad that the others have these, that would be a sin.”
“I am happy,” replied Zela, gazing at her mother with her pure eyes, “but a white dress and a blue sash would be so nice!”
“Don’t be ashamed of being poor, my dear daughter,” said the mother, kissing her forehead. “Do you not see that the Infant Jesus goes barefoot like you? His tunic is purple and around His waist He wears a rough cord.” Zela nodded, prayed for her father’s soul, and tranquilly fell sound asleep with her hands in her mother’s.
Gretchen, remaining a long time watching over her child, heard her murmur with a sweet smile, “The Infant Jesus walks barefoot also. His tunic is purple and full of patches like mine.”
Little by little, it seemed to the girl that she was being transported in her dreams to the foot of an old apple tree at the back of her house. Leaning against the tree was an Infant more beautiful than the angels. His white tunic emitted a most brilliant light, pleasing to the eyes and not hurting them. The fragrance of His breath was sweeter than a field of violets, and His feet and hands bore marks of wounds.
Around His neck hung a necklace of pure gold with three pearls that seemed to have taken their colors from the rainbow itself. One was as green as the first leaves of spring, another was as red as a fiery ruby, while the third was as blue as a cloudless sky.
Zela looked for the most beautiful apple on the tree and, kneeling, presented it to the Infant. The Infant placed His hand on her head as if to bless her and, with a smile, accepted the apple she offered. On touching that wounded hand,
Zela felt that her whole being was transformed into the being of that Divine Infant. She saw her shabby dress transformed into a tunic as white as snow, while shining on her breast was a necklace with three pearls, exactly like the one adorning the Infant’s neck. At the same time, there sounded in the air the mellow tones of a voice as sweet as the notes of a harp: “The dress of a just soul is Faith, Hope, and Charity.”
Zela felt in her heart an unknown joy and awoke excitedly in her straw berth. Poor Gretchen lay asleep at her feet, her head resting on the girl’s patched dress. The morning’s soft twilight illuminated the room, and the church bells were already ringing, announcing the joyous feast and sounding God’s praises in the highest.
Zela noted with fright that a deathly paleness had spread over her mother’s features and that her breathing sounded like a moan. Shaking her by the arm, Zela called to her in a voice full of anguish, “Mother! Mother! What’s wrong?”
“Nothing, nothing,” responded her mother, awakening with a start. “Let us prepare for church, for the bells are already calling us.” Trying to get up, she fell heavily into her daughter’s little bed. “Are you feeling ill, Mother?” pleaded Zela, kneeling by her side. “Stay here, don’t go out. I will go to the church by myself, and when the Infant Jesus comes to my heart, I will ask Him to make you feel well again.” Having said this, poor Zela wept bitterly.
“It is nothing, my daughter,” protested Gretchen as she finally raised herself up. “Let us go to the church. I do not want to deprive myself of the greatest joy of my life.”
Leaning on one another, the two walked to the village church, a church as simple as the inhabitants of Sigmaringen. The modest altar in the center of the sanctuary served as a throne for a statue of Our Lady, surrounded with wreaths and bouquets of flowers. Six candles burned before the Blessed Sacrament, as the souls who really love God burn before Him.
The girls who were to receive their first Communion stood in line near the sanctuary, all wearing white dresses and blue sashes. Zela walked up, with her little bare feet and her patched dress, and took her place among them. Her serious face, the intensity of her countenance, and her innocence and simplicity gave her the aspect of a heavenly being as she waited in sublime expectation for the Sacrament she was about to receive.
The solemn moment finally came. The organ began to play the chords of the Pange Lingua, and clouds of incense rose up, as if to show the girls the way to heaven. In her turn, Zela approached the altar rail to receive Our Lord Jesus Christ, and everyone saw her bare feet and her black dress.
Gretchen, praying fervently, followed her with her eyes. Suddenly, the poor widow’s eyes opened wide, and she put her hands to her heart as if to hold in her very life. She saw Zela receive Our Lord dressed in a white tunic of such brilliance that outshone all the dresses of her companions. On her breast glistened a necklace of the most pure gold and three suspended pearls, one green, another red, and the third blue.
Gretchen extended her arms toward the altar and exclaimed with joy, “Who has dressed my daughter like the soul after the resurrection! “ She then slumped to the floor, never to rise again. Some neighbors gathered up the motionless body and took it to her house.
Zela remained long in prayer, unaware of her mother’s death. When leaving the church, she still did not know. No one, certainly by Divine permission, had remembered the poor orphan girl.
As Zela stepped through the church’s door, she saw a handsome lad sitting on the stone wall. His head was leaning on a cross as if in rest, and His wheat-golden hair was parted on His forehead in the style of the Nazarenes.
Zela recognized Him as the Boy she had seen sitting under the apple tree in her dream, although His attire was now very different. A purple tunic, old and patched covered His body, and the same rough cord that was around His waist also encircled and cruelly wounded His neck, which was as white as a swan’s.
Zela, absorbed at the sight of Him, found it quite strange that the men and women passing by did not look at Him. The Boy fixed His beautiful tear-filled eyes on Zela and asked her tenderly, “For whom are you looking, poor Zela?” “I am looking for my mother,” the girl answered as she fell to her knees though she knew not why.
“Come with Me and you shall find her,” said the Boy.
Lifting to His shoulders the cross on which He had been leaning, He set off in silence. Both children walked, one after the other, He in His tunic of penance and she in her humble orphan’s dress.
Little by little, the way became narrower and narrower, and thorns began to prick and wound the bare feet of the two travelers. The Boy suffered without complaint, and even though His wounds bled, He bore this without any sign of affliction.
On the contrary, Zela, wincing with pain, extended her little hands to try to brace herself on the rocks by the path.
The Boy then turned His most beautiful face to her and said with infinite tenderness, “Place your feet in my footsteps and you shall not weaken.” Zela followed her guide’s counsel and, although the pain tormented her, strength and fortitude never abandoned her soul.
Sometimes the Boy disappeared, so Zela would follow His bloody footprints full of anxiety. But soon she would see Him again and her alarm would cease.
The Blue Pearl, Symbol of Faith
Suddenly, Zela was in a dense forest. At the foot of an oak tree some distance away sat a young man of good appearance, holding in one hand a book that he read with great attention.
His lips were parted with a skeptical smile and his already weakened face showed the marks of vice.
A huge owl hooted now and then from a branch of one of the trees nearby.
The young man suddenly cast the book aside and, gesticulating with despair, blasphemed against God.
“What is Faith,” he asked, “and where can I find it?” Filled with terror, Zela fell on her knees and prayed for the man. The owl hooted still more dreadfully.
“Let us enjoy life today because we die tomorrow,” continued the young man as he walked toward the forest edge.
Coming upon Zela kneeling in the middle of the path, he suddenly halted. “Who are you?” demanded the impious lad.
Then fixing his astounded eyes on the girl’s breast, he added: “Give me, O angel of God, give me this blue pearl that hangs around your neck and I shall recover the Faith I lost through my worldly ways! “
Perplexed, Zela put her hand to her breast but could not find any pearl there. “Take it if you want it,” said she without understanding the meaning of the man’s words.
She then felt the man take from her neck a pearl as blue as the sky. Touching it to his lips with a most profound emotion, the faithless man fell on his knees and blessed the name of God. The owl let loose a frightful screech and flew off into the darkness on its heavy wings.
Zela then understood the excellence and preciousness of Faith.
The Red Pearl, Symbol of Charity
Meanwhile, a dense fog had enveloped the whole region. Zela walked on, searching the ground for the bloody footsteps of the mysterious Boy. Then a sad wailing reached her ears and, seized with fear, the orphan hurried for, in the distance, she could distinguish the Boy’s footprints. She soon came to a miserable hut built against a rock. A young girl was sobbing bitterly, her little head leaning on the doorstep.
“Why are you crying, little girl?” asked Zela through her own tears.
“My father has died,” replied the girl without ceasing to cry. Zela stepped into the hut where a terrible scene met her eyes. The still warm corpse of a man lay on a heap of straw.
Five small children huddled at his side, crying. Seated nearby, their mother held a newborn child to her breast. Zela noticed in all of their grief-stricken faces a twinkling of the beauty of the Boy who had been guiding her, and tears filled her eyes. So she did not notice the impression her presence had caused in that miserable abode where nothing disguised the horror of death.
The children continued crying, and the poor widow threw herself at Zela’s feet, exclaiming almost in delirium:
“Who are you? Are you my husband’s angel who has come to bring me consolation? Ah, give me that red pearl that shines on your breast like a burning flame. Then my children will have bread, my sorrow will be relieved, and my husband’s soul will have eternal rest.”
“Take it. Take my heart if it will be of help to you! “exclaimed Zela, inclining her neck to the widow.
The woman drew from the girl’s breast a ruby-red pearl whose brilliant and resplendent rays gave the hut a note of consolation.
“How sweet it is to love God in souls,” exclaimed Zela as she dried the children’s tears. At the same time, a Divine light made her soul understand the beauty of Charity.
The Green Pearl, Symbol of Hope
Leaving the hut, Zela took a very narrow path that quickly descended the side of the hill. A strong wind had dissipated the fog so that only wisps of it lingered among the trees, like the torn strips of a light dress.
Little by little, the trees disappeared, and the meadows in the valley and the green of the mountains were left behind. An immense desert extended all around before her eyes and met the horizon like a sea of fire. A scorching wind hampered her breathing and raised thick whirlwinds of sand, roaring at intervals like a chained demon. Zela felt a terrible anguish wringing her heart and an ardent thirst burning her throat. Around midday, she saw a large steep rock rising out of the sand in the far distance. In front of it, in its shadow, grew a palm tree.
“There I shall find water,” thought Zela, making an effort to reach the crag. But it was steep, jagged, and without vegetation, and the palm tree was dry as the cursed fig tree in the Gospel.
Her strength gone, the orphan girl fell on the sand with a moan. Crossing her hands on her breast, she prepared to die.
“I believe in God, I love God, I hope in God,” she murmured sweetly.
Then, from a cave hidden in the crag there emerged an old man of sinister appearance. His eyes were ferocious and grim looking, and in his face there could be seen, along with signs of despair, the marks of crime. In his hand he held a rope, and his bared neck seemed ready to receive it.
“Who hopes in God, when for me there is no hope?” exclaimed the man, looking all around with his serpentine eyes.
“I hope in God,” murmured Zela in even sweeter and firmer tones. The desperate sinner approached her, and a strange emotion took possession of him. He wanted to cry and could not; he wanted to curse and his lips refused to move.
“I hope in God,” repeated Zela in a voice so low that it sounded like a sigh. A tremendous sob finally escaped from the old man’s breast. “Pray for me, divine angel,” he exclaimed as he fell to his knees.
With great effort, Zela put her hand to her breast and pointed out to the old man a beautiful green pearl that shone there. He took it with an infinite longing, and two streams of tears sprung at last from his eyes, while his thin bony hands beat his now contrite breast.
“I hope in God,” said Zela for the last time, and her soul understood the sweetness and sublimity of the virtue of Hope.
At that moment, the Divine Infant whom she had first seen at the foot of the apple tree reappeared before her. His white tunic shone like the sun in all its might, and on His breast shone that same pearl necklace.
At His right, Hans Wit, wearing a white tunic and a necklace like that of the Infant, extended his arms toward Zela; at His left stood Gretchen dressed the same way and motioning to her with her hand.
Heavenly voices sang in magnificent harmony:
“The dress of the just soul is Faith, Hope, and Charity.”
The old man buried Zela’s body at the foot of the palm tree. A waterfall springing from the craig enabled fresh violets and lilies to grow continually on her grave, just as the virtues of humility and purity had grown together in her soul.
About the author:
Luis Coloma was born of a distinguished family in Jerez, Spain, in 1851. From his youth he showed signs of a brilliant intelligence and a great aptitude for literature. He studied law at the University of Seville and received his doctorate in 1874, but his career was not to be in law. Having felt for some time a strong religious call, he entered the Society of Jesus in that same year. His life as a Jesuit was spent, among many other things, in teaching, sickness, and writing. Father Coloma occupies an eminent place in Spanish literature as a novelist and biographer. A great part of his work was written in the form of short stories that he used as an efficacious tool in his apostolate. The stories, animated and laden with moral significance, reflect a keen psychological sense. In 1908 he became a member of the Spanish Royal Academy of Letters, a much belated honor according to some. He died in 1915 at the age of 64. “The Three Pearls,” one of his many children’s stories, is taken from Obras Completas de P. Luis Coloma (Madrid: 1960).
DAILY QUOTE for July 12, 2020
SAINT OF THE DAY
St. John Gualbert
John shared with me the story of his conversion from Protestantism: about fourteen years ago he was visiting one of the 21 Spanish missions in California