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The Knight of the Costrel

Hugh O’Reilly
In Egypt there was a rich and powerful knight, who lived in great luxury, lavishly maintaining a vast estate and rich table. But because of the ease and splendor he enjoyed, this grand lord forgot God and his duty, and went never to Mass, nor yet to confession. For he was proud of heart and held as fools those that told their evil actions to their curate or any other priest.

Long did he live in this error, and because he had a dread of the penance he should receive should he change his course and feared to face the mocking of his worldly friends, he neither made a confession nor left his bad ways.

knight luxury

A knight lived in great luxury and disregard of his duty to God

But he had one true friend of upright soul who grieved greatly for the hatred that his comrade had for the Sacrament of Penance. He determined he would make every effort to turn him from this course if he could.

Therefore, on a certain Good Friday, this friend met the knight and told him straight out that his ill doings were greatly displeasing to God and Our Lady.

"My sire," he said, "Easter Day comes, when every Catholic man should put himself in a state of grace so that he may have God's mercy. For on this Friday, Christ did suffer shame and pain upon the Tree of the Cross to save His people and rebuke the Enemy in Hell. For before His Crucifixion all were damned. And He won for us so great freedom that none can now be damned who goes to confession and repents.

"Therefore, each one must seek his soul's health in this Sacrament, both as a sign of our thankfulness that this day He did the penance of the world, and because our reason bids us to do so. Verily, he is but foolish who neglects it. "

Then he entreated the knight to go talk to the hermit who was living in the mountain, who was a good and discreet man of holy life who would confess him and make him healthy of soul.

A mysterious change of heart

Now the knight, who had so long been stubborn, was strangely moved by these words and felt great apprehension about his state of soul. Therefore, he answered meekly, saying, " I will go quickly, for indeed I see that I have held myself toward my Redeemer in an unknightly manner, and have repaid His bounty by discourtesy. And now I feel the load of my sins heavy upon me, which I will confess to this holy hermit."

holy hermit

The knight sought out a hermit to confess his sins

Then, without delay he set forth to the mountain, mounting with difficulty to the harsh rocks where the hermit dwelt. And, indeed, that hermit was exceeding glad of his coming, saying, "Gaudium erit in caelo super uno peccatore poenitentiam agente, quam super nonaginta novem justis, qui non indigent poenitentia." That is to say, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than for 99 who have no need of repentance."

Then, did the knight speak to him a long while confessing his sins, for indeed there was much to be told. And the hermit, who was expert in the cleansing of souls, knew well how to search and question him, so that presently he was acquainted with the whole of the matter.

And when all was told and confessed, he said to the knight very gladly: "Fair brother, rejoice, for that you shall be cleansed of your sins, and know that soon the love of God shall be engrafted in you, by the grace of the holy penance you will have to bear."

Now these words troubled the knight greatly, for he was of those that would have God's mercies while living softly and giving nought for that which he had got. Therefore, he said to the hermit :

"Alas, my father, in the matter of this penance, I know not how it may be. For I can in no wise bear a great one, nor set myself to fasting or mortification of the flesh, since I was bred softly, and love only to eat delicacies. All know it is my custom so to do. Therefore, because I live in the world, where all observe me, I must have a penance I can do at my ease; for great austerities will but cast me down quickly and throw me back into sin."

"Do not fear," answered the hermit, "you shall have so light a penance that none could refuse it."

Said the knight, "This is indeed what I request."

Then, the hermit said: "Mark well my words, for herein shall be proof of your contrition. You shall take this costrel which here you see, and shall go down to the stream that is below, and there you must fill it with water to the brim. And when that you have done so and brought it me again, you shall be quit of all your sins. But take heed that you sin not again."

A vow and a quest

"So will I do," said the knight, exceedingly joyous for this light penance. And he took the costrel, which was a vessel made in the fashion of a small flask, and ran quickly to the stream, and seated himself upon the bank. Then he dipped that flask into the stream to fill it. But the water, which was flowing swiftly, turned aside when it came near, and the flask remained empty.


A mysterious flask that would not fill with water

He did all that he could to fill his costrel, dipping it more deeply in the pools under the banks, but at the end of his travail it was empty still. He carefully inspected the flask, but it was sound of make with no holes or breaks, and yet something that was beyond his wit fought against him.

At first he was exceeding angry, imagining that there was witchcraft involved. But presently it came to his mind that it was but the vileness of his own soul that tormented him thus. For, the water, that was pure, fled from before him, making it impossible for him to do his penance.

Thinking this, he became greatly alarmed, realizing his evil state, and he swore and promised that he would set out in pilgrimage and not return to that hermit till his flask was filled and his penance accomplished so that he might have absolution for his sins.

And so with heavy heart he departed from that place, filled with doubts that he might ever accomplish this quest, for now he knew that God loved him not because there was no good thing in him. And leaving his wife and his estate, this great lord set out as a solitary penitent through the world, and whenever he came to a spring, or to any running water, there did he stop to dip his costrel therein.

But in no wise could he fill it, and his heart was often wrathful because of this burden that had been set on him. Thus did he go many months, by dust and heat, by rain and wind, by snow and frost, ever on foot and companionless. And it came that he wandered for two years and more, searching for the means by which his penance might be done.

How that haughty knight had changed! Now he was become poor, thin, and ragged, suffering cold and weariness, but still his vow was unfulfilled. And a great desire drove him, namely, that he might have peace with God. But no help would he ask, for by his own strength he was resolved to achieve his aim.

The intercession of Holy Mary

But it happened one winter's day that he wandered into a great and thick forest. Weary and full of melancholy, he began to bewail his misery.

" Alas!" he said, " how foolishly have I lived, that I have brought myself to this wretchedness, robbed of all ease and likely to die without honor upon the road! Was ever there such an unhappy knight?

our lady mercy

Our Lady, merciful to all who implore her help

"And yet, if at last I can accomplish this quest, I shall have great blessedness, for then I shall be acceptable to God. Let me wander therefore in patience, for, by my own ill-doing, am I thus exiled from all joy. And verily he turns from good to evil who turns from the fulfillment of a vow he has made, for this is a disloyal act."

And his heart being softened, he cried out also to Our Lady, saying, " Alas! dear Lady, sweet Holy Mary, how greatly discourteous have I been to your Son, that He turns from me thus!

"Most glorious Virgin, will you not intercede for me? For indeed I stand in great need of your compassion, and I know that you do most powerfully plead for sinners before God. By my own grace I may never be relieved from my sufferings, for well have I deserved them. And this no man knows better than I."

When the Blessed Virgin, who is full of pity and kindness, heard this poor knight thus entreat her, and saw that he wandered solitary through the world because he had not the friendship of God, her heart was grieved for him. For she knew him to be a right loyal knight who would never forsake the accomplishment of his quest.

Therefore, she came to him in that dark forest, and she gave him counsel that he should return to the holy hermit and confess with humility his failure to fill that costrel, asking his help for he had grown old and weary in this pilgrimage.

When that knight heard these words of the glorious Virgin, his heart became exceedingly glad. And he took up the costrel and returned to his own country as quickly as he could, and to the cell of the hermit who still lived among the rocks.

The vow is fulfilled

And the hermit received him with great joy, as he did for all travelers, although he knew him not because of his thinness and sorry clothes.


The knight, much changed, returns to his country to find the hermit

But when that the knight made himself known, showing the hermit his costrel into which no drop of water had yet come, then that good and holy man did indeed recognize him. And he gave thanks to Jesus Christ and to His glorious Mother with tears and clasped hands, because this penitent had returned in safety.

Then he bid the knight to sit down near him, and heard most gladly the life he had lived and how that he had been brought to discipline his flesh on this quest. And that knight told him all he had suffered, confessing very meekly that his penance was yet undone, for no water would come into the costrel.

The hermit tried to comfort him, assuring him he would grant him another penance and then absolution because of all the griefs he had borne that had gained him great merit. But the knight, who now had a most ardent and humble heart, and was altogether dedicated to Our Lord and to Our Lady, said to him:

"Nay, good father, this cannot be. For I have sworn to fulfill this penance. Of a surety I may not leave a quest that is not ended. I know that God will by His grace enable me to do it when my penitence is pleasing in His sight. Therefore, when I have rested a bit and heard your good words, I will commend myself to Our Lady's guidance and go again into the world."

Then, the hermit, exceeding joyful, praised God most heartily and spoke many words of encouragement to the weary knight. And he did so until the hour came when the penitent prepared to set himself upon the road again.

So they made their farewells. And now the hermit wept greatly, being full of pity, and the knight wept also, for his heart was moved by Our Lady's grace so that he knew his evil state and had great grief over it. And he had still, slung over his shoulder, that costrel which he carried for his penance through the world.

And it happened, by the sovereign mercy of the Blessed Mary and of her Son Jesus Christ, that one of the tears that he shed fell by chance into that costrel.

Then, God, Who hates no contrite sinner, did do for him a great marvel: For that tear of penitence which he had shed grew so greatly that it filled the costrel to the brim. And so his penance was accomplished before he set foot upon the road again.

When the knight saw this miracle, he was amazed and fell down upon the ground, giving thanks and praise to God and His Mother. And the hermit took from him his costrel that now was full, and absolved him, saying:

"Go back now to the world, and to your estate and to your wife. For by Our Lady's intercession you are made clean and shriven. And do good in remembrance of the grace that Our Lord her Son has shown to you here. For to the one tear of your penitence He hath added the ocean of His Love."


Blason de Charlemagne
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Adapted from Evelyn Underhill, The Miracles of Our Lady Saint Mary,
NY: EP Dutton & Co, 1906, pp. 49-61

Posted January 14, 2017

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