Plays of Roswitha (1923)/Abraham

For other versions of this work, see Abraham (Hrotsvitha).



The fall and repentance of Mary, the niece of the hermit Abraham, who, after she has spent twenty years in the religious life as a solitary, abandons it in despair, and, returning to the world, does not shrink from becoming a harlot. But two years later Abraham, in the disguise of a lover, seeks her out and reclaims her. For twenty years she does penance for her sins with many tears, fastings, vigils, and prayers.





ABRAHAM. Brother Ephrem, my dear comrade in the hermit life, may I speak to you now, or shall I wait until you have finished your divine praises?

EPHREM. And what can you have to say to me which is not praise of Him Who said: "Where two or three are gathered together in My Name, I am with them"?

ABRAHAM. I have not come to speak of anything which He would not like to hear.

EPHREM. I am sure of it. So speak at once.

ABRAHAM. It concerns a decision I have to make. I long for your approval.

EPHREM. We have one heart and one soul. We ought to agree.

ABRAHAM. I have a little niece of tender years. She has lost both her parents, and my affection for her has been deepened by compassion for her lonely state. I am in constant anxiety on her account.

EPHREM. Ought you who have triumphed over the world to be vexed by its cares! ABRAHAM. My only care is her radiant beauty! What if it should one day be dimmed by sin.

EPHREM. No one can blame you for being anxious.

ABRAHAM. I hope not.

EPHREM. How old is she?

ABRAHAM. At the end of this year she will be eight.

EPHREM. She is very young.

ABRAHAM. That does not lessen my anxiety.

EPHREM. Where does she live?

ABRAHAM. At my hermitage now; for at the request of her other kinsfolk I have undertaken to bring her up. The fortune left her ought, I think, to be given to the poor.

EPHREM. A mind taught so early to despise temporal things should be fixed on heaven.

ABRAHAM. I desire with all my heart to see her the spouse of Christ and devoted entirely to His service.

EPHREM. A praiseworthy wish.

ABRAHAM. I was inspired by her name.

EPHREM. What is she called?


EPHREM. Mary! Such a name ought to be adorned with the crown of virginity.

ABRAHAM. I have no fear that she will be unwilling, but we must be gentle.

EPHREM. Come, let us go, and impress on her that no life is so sweet and secure as the religious one.


ABRAHAM. Mary, my child by adoption, whom I love as my own soul! Listen to my advice as to a father's, and to Brother Ephrem's as that of a very wise man. Strive to imitate the chastity of the holy Virgin whose name you bear.

EPHREM. Child, would it not be a shame if you, who through the mystery of your name are called to mount to the stars where Mary the mother of God reigns, chose instead the low pleasures of the earth?

MARY. I know nothing about the mystery of my name, so how can I tell what you mean?

EPHREM. Mary, my child, means "star of the sea"—that star which rules the world and all the peoples in the world.

MARY. Why is it called the star of the sea?

EPHREM. Because it never sets, but shines always in the heavens to show mariners their right course.

MARY. And how can such a poor thing as I am—made out of slime, as my uncle says—shine like my name?

EPHREM. By keeping your body unspotted, and your mind pure and holy.

MARY. It would be too great an honour for any human being to become like the stars.

EPHREM. If you choose you can be as the angels of God, and when at last you cast off the burden of this mortal body they will be near you. With them you will pass through the air, and walk on the sky. With them you will sweep round the zodiac, and never slacken your steps until the Virgin's Son takes you in His arms in His mother's dazzling bridal room!

MARY. Who but an ass would think little of such happiness ! So I choose to despise the things of earth, and deny myself now that I may enjoy it!

EPHREM. Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings! A childish heart, but a mature mind!

ABRAHAM. God be thanked for it!

EPHREM. Amen to that.

ABRAHAM. But though by God's grace she has been given the light, at her tender age she must be taught how to use it.

EPHREM. You are right.

ABRAHAM. I will build her a little cell with a narrow entrance near my hermitage. I can visit her there often, and through the window instruct her in the psalter and other pages of the divine law.

EPHREM. That is a good plan.

MARY. I put myself under your direction, Father Ephrem.

EPHREM. My daughter! May the Heavenly Bridegroom to Whom you have given yourself in the tender bud of your youth shield you from the wiles of the devil!


ABRAHAM. Brother Ephrem, Brother Ephrem! When anything happens, good or bad, it is to you I turn. It is your counsel I seek. Do not turn your face away, brother—do not be impatient, but help me.

EPHREM. Abraham, Abraham, what has come to you? What is the cause of this immoderate grief? Ought a hermit to weep and groan after the manner of the world?

ABRAHAM. Was any hermit ever so stricken? I cannot bear my sorrow.

EPHREM. Brother, no more of this. To the point; what has happened?

ABRAHAM. Mary! Mary! my adopted child!

Mary, whom I cared for so lovingly and taught with all my skill for ten years! Mary——

EPHREM. Well, what is it?

ABRAHAM. Oh God! She is lost!

EPHREM. Lost? What do you mean?

ABRAHAM. Most miserably. Afterwards she ran away.

EPHREM. But by what wiles did the ancient enemy bring about her undoing?

ABRAHAM. By the wiles of false love. Dressed in a monk's habit, the hypocrite went to see her often. He succeeded in making the poor ignorant child love him. She leapt from the window of her cell for an evil deed.

EPHREM. I shudder as I listen to you.

ABRAHAM. When the unhappy girl knew that she was ruined, she beat her breast and dug her nails into her face. She tore her garments, pulled out her hair. Her despairing cries were terrible to hear.

EPHREM. I am not surprised. For such a fall a whole fountain of tears should rise.

ABRAHAM. She moaned out that she could never be the same——

EPHREM. Poor, miserable girl!

ABRAHAM. And reproached herself for having forgotten our warning.

EPHREM. She might well do so.

ABRAHAM. She cried that all her vigils, prayers, and fasts had been thrown away.

EPHREM. If she perseveres in this penitence she will be saved.

ABRAHAM. She has not persevered. She has added worse to her evil deed.

EPHREM. Oh, this moves me to the depths of my heart!

ABRAHAM. After all these tears and lamentations she was overcome by remorse, and fell headlong into the abyss of despair.

EPHREM. A bitter business!

ABRAHAM. She despaired of being able to win pardon, and resolved to go back to the world and its vanities.

EPHREM. I cannot remember when the devil could boast of such a triumph over the hermits.

ABRAHAM. Now we are at the mercy of the demons.

EPHREM. I marvel that she could have escaped without your knowledge.

ABRAHAM. If I had not been so blind! I ought to have paid more heed to that terrible vision. Yes, I see now that it was sent to warn me.

EPHREM. What vision?

ABRAHAM. I dreamed I was standing at the door of my cell, and that a huge dragon with a loathsome stench rushed violently towards me. I saw that the creature was attracted by a little white dove at my side. It pounced on the dove, devoured it, and vanished.

EPHREM. There is no doubt what this vision meant.

ABRAHAM. When I woke I turned over in my mind what I had seen, and took it as a sign of some persecution threatening the Church, through which many of the faithful would be drawn into error. I prostrated myself in prayer, and implored Him Who knows the future to enlighten me.

EPHREM. You did right.

ABRAHAM. On the third night after the vision, when for weariness I had fallen asleep, I saw the beast again, but now it was lying dead at my feet, and the dove was flying heavenwards safe and unhurt.

EPHREM. I am rejoiced to hear this, for to my thinking it means that some day Mary will return to you.

ABRAHAM. I was trying to get rid of the uneasiness with which the first vision had filled me by thinking of the second, when my little pupil in her cell came to my mind. I remembered, although at the time I was not alarmed, that for two days I had not heard her chanting the divine praises.

EPHREM. You were too tardy in noticing this.

ABRAHAM. I admit it. I went at once to her cell, and, knocking at the window, I called her again and again, "Mary! My child! Mary!"

EPHREM. You called in vain?

ABRAHAM. "Mary," I said. "Mary, my child, what is wrong? Why are you not saying your office?" It was only when I did not hear the faintest sound that I suspected.

EPHREM. What did you do then?

ABRAHAM. When I could no longer doubt that she had gone, I was struck with fear to my very bowels. I trembled in every limb.

EPHREM. I do not wonder, since I, hearing of it, find myself trembling all over.

ABRAHAM. Then I wept and cried out to the empty air, "What wolf has seized my lamb? What thief has stolen my little daughter?"

EPHREM. You had good cause to weep! To lose her whom you had cherished so tenderly!

ABRAHAM. At last some people came up who knew what had happened. From them I learned that she had gone back to the world.

EPHREM. Where is she now?

ABRAHAM. No one knows.

EPHREM. What is to be done?

ABRAHAM. I have a faithful friend, who is searching all the cities and towns in the country. He says he will never give up until he finds her.

EPHREM. And if he finds her—what then?

ABRAHAM. Then I shall change these clothes, and in the guise of a worldling seek her out. It may be that she will heed what I say, and even after this shipwreck turn again to the harbour of her innocence and peace.

EPHREM. And suppose that in the world they offer you flesh meat and wine?

ABRAHAM. If they do, I shall not refuse; otherwise I might be recognized.

EPHREM. No one will blame you, brother. It will be but praiseworthy discretion on your part to loosen the bridle of strict observance for the sake of bringing back a soul.

ABRAHAM. I am the more eager to try now I know you approve.

EPHREM. He Who knows the secret places of the heart can tell with what motive every action is done. That scrupulous and fair Judge will not condemn a man for relaxing our strict rule for a time and descending to the level of weaker mortals if by so doing he can make more sure of rescuing an errant soul.

ABRAHAM. Help me with your prayers. Pray that I may not be caught in the snares of the devil.

EPHREM. May He Who is supreme good itself, without Whom no good thing can be done, bless your enterprise and bring it to a happy end!


ABRAHAM. Can that be my friend who two years ago went to search for Mary? Yes, it is he!

FRIEND. Good-day, venerable father.

ABRAHAM. Good-day, dear friend. I have waited so long for you. Of late I had begun to despair.

FRIEND. Forgive me, father. I delayed my return because I did not wish to mock you with doubtful and unreliable news. As soon as I had discovered the truth I lost no time.

ABRAHAM. You have seen Mary?

FRIEND. I have seen her.

ABRAHAM. Where is she? Come, sir, speak! Tell me where.

FRIEND. It goes to my heart to tell you.

ABRAHAM. Speak—I implore you.

FRIEND. She lives in the house of a man who trades in the love of young girls like her. A profitable business, for every day he makes a large sum of money out of her lovers.

ABRAHAM. Her lovers? Mary's lovers?


ABRAHAM. Who are they?

FRIEND. There are plenty of them.

ABRAHAM. Good Jesu, what is this monstrous thing I hear? Do they say that she, whom I brought up to be Thy bride, gives herself to strange lovers?

FRIEND. It comes naturally to harlots.

ABRAHAM. If you are my friend, get me a saddle-horse somewhere and a soldier's dress. I am going to get into that place as a lover.

FRIEND. Father, mine are at your service.

ABRAHAM. And I must borrow a felt hat to cover my tonsure.

FRIEND. That is most necessary, if you do not want to be recognized.

ABRAHAM. I have one gold piece. Should I take it to give this man?

FRIEND. You should, for otherwise he will never let you see Mary.


ABRAHAM. Good-day, friend.

INN-KEEPER. Who's there? Good-day, Sir. Come in!

ABRAHAM. Have you a bed for a traveller who wants to spend a night here?

INN-KEEPER. Why certainly! I never turn anyone away.

ABRAHAM. I am glad of it.

INN-KEEPER. Come in then, and I will order supper for you.

ABRAHAM. I owe you thanks for this kind welcome, but I have a greater favour to ask.

INN-KEEPER. Ask what you like. I will do my best for you.

ABRAHAM. Accept this small present. May the beautiful girl who, I am told, lives here, have supper with me?

INN-KEEPER. Why should you wish to see her?

ABRAHAM. It would give me much pleasure. I have heard so much talk of her beauty.

INN-KEEPER. Whoever has spoken to you of her has told only the truth. It would be hard to find a finer wench.

ABRAHAM. I am in love with her already.

INN-KEEPER. It's queer that an old man like you should dangle after a young girl.

ABRAHAM. I swear I came here on purpose to feast my eyes on her.


INN-KEEPER. Mary, come here! Come along now and show off your charms to this young innocent!

MARY. I am coming.

ABRAHAM. Oh, mind, be constant! Tears, do not fall! Must I look on her whom I brought up in the desert, decked out with a harlot's face? Yes, I must hide what is in my heart. I must strive not to weep, and smile though my heart is breaking.

INX-KEEPER. Luck comes your way, Mary! Not only do young gallants of your own age flock to your arms, but even the wise and venerable!

MARY. It is all one to me. It is my business to love those who love me.

ABRAHAM. Come nearer, Mary, and give me a kiss.

MARY. I will give you more than a kiss. I will take your head in my arms and stroke your neck.

ABRAHAM. Yes, like that!

MARY. What does this mean? What is this lovely fragrance. So clean, so sweet. It reminds me of the time when I was good.

ABRAHAM. On with the mask! Chatter, make lewd jests like an idle boy! She must not recognize me, or for very shame she may fly from me.

MARY. Wretch that I am! To what have I fallen! In what pit am I sunk!

ABRAHAM. You forget where you are! Do men come here to see you cry!

INN-KEEPER. What's the matter, Lady Mary? Why are you in the dumps? You have lived here two years, and never before have I seen a tear, never heard a sigh or a word of complaint.

MARY. Oh, that I had died three years ago before I came to this!

ABRAHAM. I came here to make love to you, not to weep with you over your sins.

MARY. A little thing moved me, and I spoke foolishly. It is nothing. Come, let us eat and drink and be merry, for, as you say, this is not the place to think of one's sins.

ABRAHAM. 1 have eaten and drunk enough, thanks to your good table, Sir. Now by your leave I will go to bed. My tired limbs need a rest.

INN-KEEPER. As you please.

MARY. Get up my lord. 1 will take you to bed.

ABRAHAM. 1 hope so. 1 would not go at all unless you came with me.


MARY. Look! How do you like this room? A handsome bed, isn't it? Those trappings cost a lot of money. Sit down and I will take off your shoes. You seem tired.

ABRAHAM. First bolt the door. Someone may come in.

MARY. Have no fear. I have seen to that.

ABRAHAM. The time has come for me to show my shaven head, and make myself known! Oh, my daughter! Oh, Mary, you who are part of my soul! Look at me. Do you not know me? Do you not know the old man who cherished you with a father's love, and wedded you to the Son of the King of Heaven?

MARY. God, what shall I do! It is my father and master Abraham!

ABRAHAM. What has come to you, daughter?

MARY. Oh, misery!

ABRAHAM. Who deceived you? Who led you astray?

MARY. Who deceived our first parents?

ABRAHAM. Have you forgotten that once you lived like an angel on earth!

MARY. All that is over.

ABRAHAM. What has become of your virginal modesty? Your beautiful purity?

MARY. Lost. Gone!

ABRAHAM. Oh, Mary, think what you have thrown away! Think what a reward you had earned by your fasting, and prayers, and vigils. What can they avail you now! You have hurled yourself from heavenly heights into the depths of hell!

MARY. Oh God, I know it!

ABRAHAM. Could you not trust me? Why did you desert me? Why did you not tell me of your fall? Then dear brother Ephrem and I could have done a worthy penance.

MARY. Once I had committed that sin, and was defiled, how could I dare come near you who are so holy?

ABRAHAM. Oh, Mary, has anyone ever lived on earth without sin except the Virgin's Son?

MARY. No one, I know.

ABRAHAM. It is human to sin, but it is devilish to remain in sin. Who can be justly condemned? Not those who fall suddenly, but those who refuse to rise quickly.

MARY. Wretched, miserable creature that I am!

ABRAHAM. Why have you thrown yourself down there? Why do you lie on the ground without moving or speaking? Get up, Mary! Get up, my child, and listen to me!

MARY. No! no! I am afraid. I cannot bear your reproaches.

ABRAHAM. Remember how I love you, and you will not be afraid.

MARY. It is useless. I cannot.

ABRAHAM. What but love for you could have made me leave the desert and relax the strict observance of our rule? What but love could have made me, a true hermit, come into the city and mix with the lascivious crowd? It is for your sake that these lips have learned to utter light, foolish words, so that I might not be known! Oh, Mary, why do you turn away your face from me and gaze upon the ground? Why do you scorn to answer and tell me what is in your mind.

MARY. It is the thought of my sins which crushes me. I dare not look at you; I am not fit to speak to you.

ABRAHAM. My little one, have no fear. Oh, do not despair! Rise from this abyss of desperation and grapple God to your soul!

MARY. No, no! My sins are too great. They weigh me down.

ABRAHAM. The mercy of heaven is greater than you or your sins. Let your sadness be dispersed by its glorious beams. Oh, Mary, do not let apathy prevent your seizing the moment for repentance. It matters not how wickedness has flourished. Divine grace can flourish still more abundantly!

MARY. If there were the smallest hope of forgiveness, surely I should not shrink from doing penance.

ABRAHAM. Have you no pity for me? I have sought you out with so much pain and weariness! Oh shake off this despair which we are taught is the most terrible of all sins. Despair of God's mercy—for that alone there is no forgiveness. Sin can no more embitter His sweet mercy than a spark from a flint can set the ocean on fire.

MARY. I know that God's mercy is great, but when I think how greatly I have sinned, I cannot believe any penance can make amends.

ABRAHAM. I will take your sins on me. Only come back and take up your life again as if you had never left it.

MARY. I do not want to oppose you. What you tell me to do I will do with all my heart.

ABRAHAM. My daughter lives again! I have found my lost lamb and she is dearer to me than ever.

MARY. I have a few possessions here—a little gold and some clothes. What ought I to do with them?

ABRAHAM. What came to you through sin, with sin must be left behind.

MARY. Could it not be given to the poor, or sold for an offering at the holy altar?

ABRAHAM. The price of sin is not an acceptable offering to God.

MARY. Then I will not trouble any more about my possessions.

ABRAHAM. Look! The dawn! It is growing light. Let us go.

MARY. You go first, dearest father, like the good shepherd leading the lost lamb that has been found. The lamb will follow in your steps.

ABRAHAM. Not so! I am going on foot, but you—you shall have a horse so that the stony road shall not hurt your delicate feet.

MARY. Oh, let me never forget this tenderness! Let me try all my life to thank you! I was not worth pity, yet you have shown me no harshness; you have led me to repent not by threats but by gentleness and love.

ABRAHAM. I ask only one thing, Mary. Be faithful to God for the rest of your life.

MARY. With all my strength I will persevere, and though my flesh may fail, my spirit never will.

ABRAHAM. You must serve God with as much energy as you have served the world.

MARY. If His will is made perfect in me it will be because of your merits.

ABRAHAM. Come, let us hasten on our way.

MARY. Yes, let us set out at once. I would not stay here another moment.


ABRAHAM. Courage, Mary! You see how swiftly we have made the difficult and toilsome journey.

MARY. Everything is easy when we put our hearts into it.

ABRAHAM. There is your deserted little cell.

MARY. God help me! It was the witness of my sin. I dare not go there.

ABRAHAM. It is natural you should dread the place where the enemy triumphed.

MARY. Where, then, am I to do penance?

ABRAHAM. Go into the inner cell. There you will be safe from the wiles of the serpent.

MARY. Most gladly as it is your wish.

ABRAHAM. Now I must go to my good friend Ephrem. He alone mourned with me when you were lost, and he must rejoice with me now that you have been found.

MARY. Of course.


EPHREM. Well, brother! If I am not mistaken, you bring good news.

ABRAHAM. The best in the world.

EPHREM. You have found your lost lamb?

ABRAHAM. I have, and, rejoicing, have brought her back to the fold.

EPHREM. Truly this is the work of divine grace.

ABRAHAM. That is certain.

EPHREM. How is she spending her days? I should like to know how you have ordered her life. What does she do?

ABRAHAM. All that I tell her.

EPHREM. That is well.

ABRAHAM. Nothing is too difficult for her—nothing too hard. She is ready to endure anything.

EPHREM. That is better.

ABRAHAM. She wears a hair shirt, and subdues her flesh with continual vigils and fasts. She is making the poor frail body obey the spirit by the most rigorous discipline.

EPHREM. Only through such a severe penance can the stains left by the pleasures of the flesh be washed away.

ABRAHAM. Those who hear her sobs are cut to the heart, and the tale of her repentance has turned many from their sins.

EPHREM. It is often so.

ABRAHAM. She prays continually for the men who through her were tempted to sin, and begs that she who was their ruin may be their salvation.

EPHREM. It is right that she should do this.

ABRAHAM. She strives to make her life as beautiful as for a time it was hideous.

EPHREM. I rejoice at what you tell me. To the depths of my heart.

ABRAHAM. And with us rejoice phalanxes of angels, praising the Lord for the conversion of a sinner.

EPHREM. Over whom, we are told, there is more joy in heaven than over the just man who needs no penance.

ABRAHAM. The more glory to Him, because there seemed no hope on earth that she could be saved.

EPHREM. Let us sing a song of thanksgiving—let us glorify the only begotten Son of God, Who of His love and mercy will not let them perish whom He redeemed with His holy blood.

ABRAHAM. To Him be honour, glory, and praise through infinite ages. Amen.