The Hawker

One evening, an elderly man, with a sad weary‑looking face, and the bent shoulders that tell of carrying a constant burden, came to me after the service, and asked to be taught some prayers. He said he was a hawker by trade, and had travelled up and down the country with his pack since he was a boy. For the last twenty years it had been his custom to go on selling his goods until he had accumulated a considerable sum of money, and then to put up at some public house and indulge in a carouse of two or three weeks’ duration, until every penny was spent, when he would start again on his travels.

His parents, who died when he was quite young, were Irish and Catholic, and he had, of course, been baptized, and was nominally a Catholic himself; but he knew nothing of even the simplest elements of religion, and had never learned any prayers, nor had any instruction whatever. Occasionally he attended Mass on Sundays, because he saw that other Catholics did so, but he had not the faintest idea what it meant. He had been lodging for a short time at a public house in Pontypool, kept by Catholics, and there he had heard some conversation about religion which had induced him to come and ask to be taught.

He thought he should like to learn at least a few prayers, he said, as he was getting old, and did not feel very strong; but he seemed to regard the ‘few prayers’ as a sort of talisman, which would preserve him from harm, and benefit him in some mysterious manner. His ignorance was complete; he had not the vaguest idea of how he came to exist, or of the existence of God; and his faculties, poor man! were stupefied; moreover, he had no memory, as a child has, to help him.

The first few evenings I was almost in despair – it seemed so impossible to get any idea into his mind; but I made him kneel in the church before his lesson, and ask, as if he were asking for his life, that he might be able to understand. By degrees light dawned into his mind, his dormant faculties woke up, his dull eyes brightened, a look of interest shone upon his grey cold face, and in a few weeks– time he became earnest and interested. He prepared himself for the Sacrament of Penance with great apparent contrition, and when he had made his confession came every evening to be instructed for Holy Communion.

He received the wonderful tidings of Our Lord‑s great love in giving Himself to be the food of our souls with unspeakable amazement, asking again and again, ‘Is it really true?’ Not that he had any doubt in the ordinary meaning of the term; on the contrary, it was the simplicity of his faith that caused his wonder. He believed implicitly, but the greatness of the gift overwhelmed him.

He would sit stooping forward, his hands on his knees, his mouth open, and his eyes glistening. Now and then a tear would steal down his hard cheek, and when the lesson was over he would rouse himself with a deep sigh, and say slowly, shaking his head, ‘If I had but a‑knowed.’

The evening before his First Communion he spoke of his past life and his wasted years with a sorrow that was quite touching. He said he felt afraid to start again on his travels, but he knew no other way of getting his living, and he promised always to attend Mass on Sundays, and on other days when he could, to go regularly to the Sacraments, and to abstain altogether from drink. In fact, he seemed to have taken to drinking simply from weariness of life, and to have had no idea that he was doing any wrong except to himself.

The next day he came to say, ‘Good–bye,’ bringing five shillings as an offering for the altar where he had received his First Communion, and he promised that he would come again in the course of the following year, if he lived, to let me know how he got on. He went away looking happy and at rest, but pale and feeble; and I never saw or heard of him again.

Probably he died somewhere on his journey. He had nothing to live for – neither home, nor wife, nor child, nor any relations that he knew of; and I could not but hope that, since he had been spared to find his way from the far country, and from feeding on the husks of the swine, to his Father–s house, and the banquet of Divine love, his sad solitary life came to an end, and a brighter one began.

From the anonymous work, ‘Franciscan Missions among the Colliers and Ironworkers of Monmouthshire’, published in London in 1876 by Burns and Oates.

This extract was published in The Green Dragon No 4, Autumn, 1997.

Holy Communion – an ancient Christian tradition

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