It is my pleasure to once again bring the beautiful and haunting words of Lisa Smith. This piece sees God's grace in human creation, which Lisa exemplifies. Be transported.
Oh in the green woods he did sing,
His soul a tattered rag to bring…
A little light lying just so, and here, and Brother Matthew was nearly done.
Oh in the green woods he did sing….
He paused, lifting his brush, the song almost tuneless in his low bass rumble.
He pushed his eyes-glasses back on his broad nose, squinting in the poor light at the canvas, wondering, as he always did, who’s death it was he was painting.
God have mercy. Christ have mercy.
He said the same prayer over every painting, over every soul whose last sights of this earth God had compelled him to paint.
The Abbot thought painting an odd hobby, and had forbade him it. As God had not given him leave to explain the nature of his calling it was hard to argue with the Abbot, and Matthew had put away his paints for a time, for he was a simple soul, and always did what he was told.
But God afflicted him with pleurisy and various boils for his disobedience and so being held under such severe conviction he had no choice but to pick up his brush again to paint the visions he was given.
The Abbot was enraged, but a visiting noble had walked in on the fuss and had liked the painting so much he bought it for 3 gold pieces, which went a long way to replenishing the monastery stores and gave the Abbot a conciliatory heart towards the paintings.
Matthew was allowed to continue to paint, which gave him great relief. The easing of his boils also brought him great relief.
He could not sell all the paintings, of course. Some people’s last visions of earth were full of the evils of mankind and devilish horrors, such that it was nearly impossible for Matthew to paint them. Those he did in secret, at night, and hid in the monastery crypt when finished. Some things were too dark for others to see.
But this painting, of the green woods and the lovely light and the interlocking trees – this one Matthew thought would sell, and he applied his brush to the canvas with diligence.
His soul a tattered rag to bring.
Matthew sang, and prayed, as he plied his brush. He never knew who the person was when he painted what their eyes saw last. He was simply given the vision and sometimes a fragment of a song. He thought perhaps the song was one the angels sang as they carried the soul to Heaven.
Sometimes he had a feeling about the person. This time Matthew knew it was a man, this one who died with his eyes on the line of trees with their overarching branches, the late afternoon sun gracing them with light. There was an odd blurriness to the scene – Matthew wondered if perhaps the man had been crying, and felt bad for him, lying alone there amongst the leaves.
It felt to Matthew that it was a soldier who gasped his last breath there on that leaf-littered ground; the lovely trees and light not a bad thing to fill your eyes with as your life ended, of so Matthew thought, and he gave thanks to God for His mercy.
This soldier must have got separated from his comrades, or maybe he had got fed up with all the death and blood and pain and had left the battleground.
Maybe he had been injured and, like a wounded animal, had crawled off by himself to die.
The thought gave Matthew pause, another spear of emotion breaking his concentration. He rubbed his arm, which had grown stiff and sore over the hours of painting. He composed himself, reciting the psalm from the morning Office.
Matthew had learned not to ponder the deaths as he painted them, for doing so brought a certain feel of melancholy to his work that he felt was a disservice to the life that had ended. Surely life was good, and rich, and full, bless God, and death a mere opening of the way to a greater life beyond, no matter that the way be violent or dark at times. Even his darkest paintings held some of that goodness, or so Matthew dared to hope.
He didn’t know the reason why he had been given this calling, but he did not question the ways of God. An ass spoke to Balaam, after all. Why did God have that story in His Word if not to show that anything was possible?
Oh in the green woods he did sing.
He daubed the last bit of green on the green woods in the painting, and just like that, he knew it was done, the compulsion that had driven him over the past hours fading away.
It was God’s own timing, for just then the Abbot came into his cell and gave him a mission; to take another painting to the estate of Conte Guiseppe Albani, three miles away. The Conte especially wanted to meet the famous painting monk, and had asked for him specifically.
Matthew blushed. He promised God he would do two novenas when he returned as penance for the rush of pleasure the words of praise had brought him.
He bundled up the Conte’s painting but before he left, he paused before his latest creation, and as was his wont, bowed once to it, in homage to the soul whose death it represented and to God who was ruler over all.
His soul a tattered rag to bring.
He was singing the song when he rounded the path and saw the trees lined up in front of him, the branches arcing high overhead. He had time for only a brief delighted surprise that he had captured the scene so well before the bright pain speared through his heart and he fell to the ground on the leaf-littered path, his eye-glasses falling from his face, the song lifting up through the high, winding branches as he breathed his last.