ST. PETER'S THREE LOAVES .
IN THE days when our Lord and Saviour walked this earth with His apostles, it happened one day that He was passing, with St. Peter for His companion, through a secluded valley, and that discoursing, as was His wont, of the things of the Kingdom of God, and raising the mind of His disciple from the earthly to the heavenly, they noticed not how the hours went by. Nevertheless, they had been walking since daybreak over rough mountain tracks and across swollen torrents many a weary mile, and had eaten nothing all day, for their way had led them far from the haunts of men; but as noon came down upon them they approached the precincts of a scattered hamlet. The bells of all the large farm-houses were ringing to call in the labourers from the field to their midday meal, and announced a community of sensations in the world around akin to those with which St. Peter had for a long time past been tormented. The heat increased, and the way grew more weary, and St. Peter found it more and more difficult to keep his attention alive to his Master's teaching.
The merciful Saviour was not slow to perceive what ailed His disciple, and kept on the look-out for any opportunity of satisfying him as anxiously as if the need had been His own; and thus, while St. Peter was still wondering how long he would have to go on fasting, He remarked to him the smell of fresh-baked loaves proceeding from a cottage at the bottom of the valley.
St. Peter could as yet perceive neither the scent nor the cottage. Nevertheless, used as he was to trust his Lord's word implicitly, he started at His bidding, following the direction pointed out just as if both had been patent to himself.
The way was so steep and rough that St. Peter, in his eagerness, had many falls, but at last, without much damage, reached nearly the foot of the mountain range along the side of which they had been journeying; and then suddenly the smell of a wood fire, mingled with the welcome odour of fresh-baked bread, greeted him. The roof of the cottage was just beneath his feet, and the smoke was curling up through the chimney, telling of a well-provided stove, burning to good purpose, close at hand. One or two more winds of the road, and only one more slip over the loose stones, brought him to the door.
A comely peasant wife opened it at his knock with a cheerful greeting: "Gelobt sei Jesus Christus !"
The apostle, having given the customary response, "In Ewigkeit! Amen," the peasant wife asked him to come in and rest--an offer which St. Peter gladly accepted.
The peasant woman wiped a chair, and presented it to him, and, with some pleasant words about his journey, returned to her occupation at the fire. The moment had just arrived when she should take her loaves from the oven, and nothing could smell more tempting to a man whose appetite was seasoned by a long walk in the fresh mountain air.
"Good woman, I come from far, and the whole of this blessed morning," he exclaimed, speaking as one of the people, "I have tasted nothing! ... nor my companion," he added, with some embarrassment lest he should seem encroaching, yet full of anxiety to provide for his Master's needs as well as his own.
"Tasted nothing all this morning!" exclaimed the compassionate peasant wife, scarcely leaving him time to speak; "poor soul! Why didn't you say so at first? Here, take one of these loaves; they are the best I have, and, if humble fare, are at all events quite fresh. And your companion too, did you say? Take one for him also;" and then, as if she found so much pleasure in the exercise of hospitality that she could not refrain from indulging it further, she added, "and take this one too, if you will; maybe you may want it before the journey is out."
St. Peter thanked her heartily for her generosity, and hasted to take the loaves to the Master, that He might bless and break them. But as they were hot, being just out of the oven, he had to wrap them in the folds of his coarse grey mantle, to be able to hold them without burning his hands.
As he toiled up the steep, the thought came to him, "It will most likely be long before we have a chance of meeting with provisions again, and I always seem to want food sooner than the Master; I might very well keep this third loaf under my cloak, and then in the night, while He is lost in heavenly contemplation, and I am perishing with hunger, I shall have something to satisfy it. I do Him no wrong, for He never feels these privations as I do--at all events," he added, with some misgivings, "He never seems to."
With that he reached the place where he had left the Saviour. He was still kneeling beneath the shade of a knoll of pines. As St. Peter approached, however, though He was not turned so as to see him coming, He rose, as if He knew of his presence, and, coming to meet him, asked him cheerfully what success he had in his catering.
"Excellent success, Lord," replied St. Peter. "I arrived just at the right moment. The woman was taking the loaves out of the oven, and, being a good-hearted soul, she gave me one; and when I told her I had a companion with me, she gave me another, without requiring any proof of the assertion; so come, and let us break our fast, for it is time." But he said no word about the third loaf, which he kept tight in a fold of his mantle under his arm.
They sat down on a rock by the side of a sparkling rivulet, hasting along its way to swell the far-off river, and its cool crystal waters supplied the nectar of their meal.
St. Peter, who had now long studied in the school of mortification of his Master, was quite satisfied with this frugal repast, and, no longer tortured by the cravings of nature, listened with all his wonted delight and enthusiasm to every word which fell from the Lord's lips, treasuring them up that not one might be lost. It was true that he could not suppress some little embarrassment when the thought of the third loaf occurred to him; "But," he said, to himself, "there could be no possible harm in it; the woman had clearly given it to him; his Lord didn't want it, and he was only keeping it for his needs. True, if He were to suspect it, He would not quite like that; but then, why should He? He never suspects any one."
Never had the Saviour been more familiar, more confiding. St. Peter felt the full charm of His presence and forgot all his misgivings, and the cause of them, too, in the joy of listening to Him. Then came a friendly bird, and hopped round Him, feeding on the crumbs that had fallen. The Saviour, as He watched its eagerness, fed it with pieces from His own loaf. Another bird was attracted at the sight--another, and another, and another, till there was a whole flock gathered round. The Saviour fed them all, and yet He seemed to take His own meal too.
"It is just as I thought," St. Peter reasoned with himself; "His needs are not as our needs. Decidedly I do Him no wrong in keeping the loaf for my own." And he felt quite at ease.
The simple repast was at an end; the birds chirped their thanks and flew away; and the disciple and the Master rose from their rocky seat.
St. Peter, leaning on his staff, set out to resume the journey, but the Lord called him back.
"Our Father in heaven has fed us well, shall we not thank Him as is our wont?"
St. Peter laid aside his staff, and cheerfully knelt down.
"But as He has dealt with particular loving-kindness in the abundance with which He has provided us this day, let us address Him with arms outstretched, in token of the earnestness of our gratitude," continued the Saviour; and as He spoke He flung His arms wide abroad, as if embracing the whole universe and its Creator, with an expression of ineffable love.
He knelt opposite St. Peter, who was not wont to be slow in following such an exhortation.
"He only suggested it; He didn't command." reasoned St. Peter to himself. "I need not do it."
But a furtive glance he could not repress, met the Master's eye fixed upon him with its whole wonted affection--there was no resisting the appeal. With the spontaneity of habitual compliance, he raised his arms after the pattern of his Lord; but the loaf, set free by the motion, fell heavily to the ground beneath the Master's eye.
The Master continued praying, as though He had perceived nothing, but St. Peter's cheeks were suffused with a glow of shame; and before they proceeded farther he had told Him all.