The Little Barrel

April 9, 2012

(from an old French medieval tale)

Between Normandy and Brittany, next to the sea, in times of old there used to be a castle so strong and so well defended that it feared no king, prince or duke of any sort.

The lord that possessed it was robust, vain and powerful. Seeing him, one might think he had a good and gracious nature. However, he was proud and cruel, fearing neither God nor men. He had spread terror throughout the country, robbing travelers along the roads, promoting unjust wars, destroying markets, killing pilgrims. He never did any fasting or attended masses or sermons. I believe no worse man has ever existed. In his life he committed all the evil that can be done by thought, word and deed.

And so he lived for thirty years, without any repentance at all.

On a Good Friday, having risen very early, he personally went to the kitchen and told his cook: — “Prepare the quarry I hunted yesterday, for I want to have lunch early.”

Sad, and afraid to cross him, the cook answered: — “I will do your bidding, Sir.”

However, when his knights learned about that order, they went to him and said that it was opposed to the teachings of Holy Church. —“How can it be, Sir, today is Good Friday, the day Our Lord Jesus Christ died for us. Everyone fasts today, and even children do penance! And you, in besides not fasting, want to eat meat on top? Make no mistake, God will avenge himself on you!”

—“Never mind. By the time that happens I will have committed even more sins, ahahaha!”

—“Are you sure God will give you that time? You should beg for graces and weep.”

—“Weep, me?  That’s not my occupation! You weep, if you want! As for me, I’ll laugh at you! Ahahahahahaa!”

—“Listen, Sir, there’s a convent nearby where a holy man lives, to whom repentant sinners go to confession. Let us all go together and confess our sins to him. Why should we always do evil?”

—“Go to confession, me? It would be the same as seeing the devil! If your holy man had something that could be stolen, I would pay him a visit… But otherwise, no way!”

—“Come at least to keep us company, we bid you.”

—“Hummm…. well then, I’ll go. … But just to please you! Not for God, make no mistake! I’ll go with these holy-holies! I wouldn’t give a dime for all these confessions! But I’m going to have a little fun with them. Today you go to confession, tomorrow you steal even more! It a wolf’s confession, who goes on to devour the hare!”

—“Come anyway, Sir! May God grant you a little humility!”

—“That’s precisely what I do not want! If I became humble and meek no one would fear me any more!”

*   *   *

When they were ready, they all left together.

They were walking through the mountains as the morning mist was settling like white silk, speaking of goodness.

The knights move forward, crying and hitting their chests, asking God forgiveness for their sins. Cutting across the grove, where the morning penetrated, the cortege was followed by the sinner, his heart as hard as rock. He would sing and burst into laughter, mocking the tears of his fellow travelers.

The fields with golden vegetation announced that the holy man’s convent was drawing near.

Arriving at the convent from the solitary and still forest, the knights prepared to enter the abode of the virtuous monk. However, their proud lord stayed at the door, laughing at their stupidity.

—“Sir, come with us to beg for God’s mercy!”

—“Why should I pray to God when I have decided to do nothing for Him?! Do what you have to do and finish it quickly! I can see this affair will cost me the whole day! Merchants and pilgrims today have a good opportunity to travel in peace! May the devil take you and your confession!”

The knights, seeing they could expect nothing from him, entered the chapel and went to confession to the hermit as sincerely and as quickly as they could. He gave them absolution on condition that they abandon their bad life. They promised to do so and then told him:

—“Father, our master is outside and does not want to enter.”

—“By God, go call him!”

—“If you were to call him, perhaps he would heed your request! What a good action would have done the one who were to lead him back go God!

—“I would very much like to try, but my hopes are very slim…”

—“You are welcome, Sir! Today is a day when one must forsake all evil, repent, go to confession, and think about God.”

—“As far as I am concerned, I couldn’t care less! Do what you want with all this. I’ve got other stuff to think about!”

—“As a knight you should be more well-bred. See, I am a priest, and I ask you, in the name of the One who died for us on the Cross, that you come talk to me for a moment.”

—“What the devil would you talk about? What do you and I have in common? I want nothing better than take a distance from you and your dwelling!”

—“Well then, you need to do nothing for me. Do it for God alone!”

—“How truly impertinent you are! If I go in I will do no good and say no prayer.”

—“Enter regardless! You will see my house and chapel.”

—“Well, then I’ll go, but on the condition of saying no prayer, not even an Our Father.”

—“Come! If you don’t like it, you don’t have to stay.”

He entered with a lot of bad will, saying to himself: —“Ahhhh! To the devil with this outing! What need did I have to get up so early! Aaarrhgghh!”

The hermit led him into the sacristy.

—“Sir, here you are my prisoner. For this is my house; and a knight worthy of the name does in everything the will of the house lord. And you will not escape from me until you have told me your whole life.”

—“Ahhhhrrgghhhh! I will tell you absolutely nothing! Let me go!”

—“You will not go without first telling me your sins!”

—“Are you crazy or what? Do you want to force me to say what I don’t want to? I don’t know what prevents me from killing you!”

—“May God, Who died for us, inspire you to repent! Let’s go! I’m listening! Begin to tell me your sins! Come, my son, tell me only one sin… if you begin, God will help you to continue. On this day when God died for us, I conjure you for His death, and for the saints and martyrs, to tell me your sins without further delay.”

—“Violence, without a doubt, is what you’re doing to me! And since it has to be this way, well then, I will tell you. But expect nothing more of me!”

So, with a soul as agitated as a stormy sea, he began telling the sequence of all his sins, hiding not even one.

—“Very well, I’ve told you all my actions. I’ve made great progress! What have you gained from it? All I ask now is to go away. And never see you again!”

The hermit sobbed sadly on seeing that, though saddled with so many sins, the man had no repentance at all.

—“Sir, you have made a sincere confession to me. But you are missing a penance. If you wanted to do one, it would be a great consolation to me.”

—“Me, do penance? You’re kidding! What penance would you give me, ahhahahaa!”

The one you pick.

Let’s see, tell me a few…

—“Gladly. In order to pay for all your sins, you will fast every Friday for seven years.”

—“Seven years! There’s no way!”



—“All the Fridays of one month?”


—“You will walk barefoot for a whole year.”


—“Then you will wear wool on your skin without a shirt.”

—“Absolutely not! That would make me miserable!”

—“You will give yourself one lash with a whip every morning.”

—“Are you crazy? I don’t want to hurt myself!”

—“You will go to the Holy Land.”

—“No, I don’t like the sea.”

—“To Rome or Santiago de Compostela.”


—“You will go to church every day, attend Mass and be on your knees for the time it takes to say one Our Father and one Hail Mary.”

—“Hum, that would make me quite upset!”

—“So you don’t want to do anything? Well then, render me only one service. Fetch my little barrel that you see over there and take it to the little brook down the slope. Fill it with water and bring it back to me. That shouldn’t be too difficult. And by doing this all your sins will be forgiven without any other penance.”

—“What I want most right now is to get out of here! So I’ll do this penance right away! I take this barrel on condition that I will not rest until I return it to you full of water. This is my knightly word!”

—“It is on this condition that I give it to you, my friend.”

While the monk stayed behind praying, the knight left the chapel with the little barrel in his hands and bid his men not to follow him. He went down to the brook and sunk the barrel in the water. But not even one drop would go into it! He tried and turned it in every way, to no avail. He got furious and started cursing, saying to himself: —“This has got to be filled, aaarrrrrhrhtht!” He plunged the little barrel real deep in the water but it stayed completely empty. —“Aarhrhrhrtghgh!” He did it again, but no water would go into it.

—“By God! What does this mean?!” Again he plunged it into the water…

—“Aaarahrhhr! Aahhrhrhrh!…” without success. He was gnashing his teeth with anguish.

So he went back to the convent and told the monk what had happened. And he added:

—“I promised to bring you the little barrel full of water. And I will not rest day or night until I have filled it. Now you’re the one who put me in this bind. Go to hell! I will not wash my head, I will not shave or cut my nails until I have fulfilled my promise! I will go on foot, taking neither money nor bread or other foods! Arrhhrhrhrhr!”

—“Sir, what a sad fate you’re facing! If a child had plunged the barrel into the brook it would be overflowing back to the surface! But with you, not even one drop would go into it! This is because God is furious at your sins! However, in his mercy He wants you to do penance and tire yourself for his sake. Accept His will humbly!”

—“I will not do it for Him but only because I am intrigued with this game and want to keep my position. I will do it neither for God nor for anyone else!”

. . .

—“My friends, this is where we part. If they ask you about me, tell them you have no news. Live as you wish. As for me, I anticipate having quite a few hardships because of this darned little barrel! I think it is under a spell; but even if I have to visit all the world’s rivers, I will return it full to its owner!”

—“Yes sir! Yes sir! Goodbye. Goodbye! May Our Lady go with you! May God protect and help you! And illuminate your paths!”

And thus he departed, with the little barrel attached to his chest, taking no more than his clothes and having God as his escort. He would try plunging the little barrel into all the rivers along his way, always in vain. More and more, his heart was filling with wrath.

For a few days he didn’t bother about eating. But when hunger really came knocking, he had to sell his rich attire and replace it with rags. As promised, he stopped cutting his hair and shaving his beard. He would always walk under wind and rain. His face, handsome and golden, became totally dark. And his shoes gave up on him. Barefoot, he would walk incessantly in heat or cold through valleys, mountains, shrubs and thorns that cut his flesh and hurt his feet, making his blood drip. His days were miserable, his nights even worse. He had to put up with mockery and insults and not always would find shelter, as people, seeing how big, rough, strong and sunburned he was, feared to receive him. So they showed themselves tough and cruel: “Get a life, vagabond!”

Over and over again he had to sleep in the open air, with the sky as his roof and a stone as his pillow. And so he continued to walk without anyone being able to diminish his pride or soften his miserable heart. And without repentance he would complain to God for all he was suffering. Having spent all the money earned from selling his clothes, he was forced to beg for alms. And it so happened that he had to fast for two or three days in a row. And when hunger became too much of a torture, only with great difficulty he would obtain a piece of hard bread.

So he walked all over Poitiers, Touraine, Normandy, Ile de France, Burgundy, Provence, Gascoigne, and Spain. Then he left to Savoy, Tuscany, Milan and Rome. He crossed Hungary, Germany, Portugal, Alsace and Lorraine. What can I tell you? I can’t recount in one day all his journeys and sufferings.

Later he crossed England, surrounded by the sea, all the way to the port of Barletta. I could not name a country he did not visit or waters he did not try to get into the barrel. Fountains, creeks, rivers, lakes, marshes, he sunk his little barrel everywhere but drew not even one drop of water. Yet he persisted, and his rage was constantly on the increase; but the little barrel remained mysteriously dry. Dry!

It is worth noting that nowhere did he find a man who had a good word to say or who did him some good. Everyone showed him hatred; and even beggars would be harsh to him. He was mistreated in town and countryside; yet no matter what the humiliation might be, he never placed himself on the same level as the person insulting him. He would not answer them but was content with hating and despising all men.

He was so fatigued and exhausted that he could no longer be recognized. His long hair fell disorderly over his shoulders. His eyebrows were thick, his eyes sunken, his skin sunburned and glued to his bones. His nerves and veins popped out of his skin. He was so weak that holding the little barrel to his chest became a heavy burden.

In one of his endless walks a terrible storm broke out on him as night fell. Amid the mountains he found a small chapel in which to take refuge. Entering it, he saw on the altar a graceful statue of the Virgin holding the Child Jesus. As he took a closer look, she seemed to have unequalled goodness and sweetness. The Mother of God appeared to smile and invite him to make her a request, a supplication. Perhaps, in his deplorable state, that sinner might decide to ask for help. He knelt down and, overcome with fatigue, fell asleep. Who knows if, during his sleep, a request to the sweet Virgin Mary for help might come out of that impenitent heart? I know nothing of it. All I know is that often times Our Lady acts without anyone perceiving. And I also know that the next morning, he decided to go back and see the monk once again.

Not without difficulty, he reached the door of the convent on the anniversary of the day when, three years earlier, he had gone there on a Good Friday. As he entered, the monk was completely alone. As could be imagined, the monk was not expecting him at all. Seeing him in such a strange state, he did not recognize him. However, he did recognize the little barrel held to his chest and said,

—“My son, what has brought you here? And who gave you that little barrel? Three years ago I gave it to the strongest and most handsome man I had ever seen. I don’t know if he is dead or alive. He never came back. Who are you, poor man? I see you’re in a sad state. You look like you’ve been a prisoner of the Turks!”

—“Well, Sir, you’re the one who put me in the state I’m in!”

—“Me? How can that be? I don’t think I’ve ever seen you before!”

—“I’m the one whose confession you heard three years ago; and you gave me as penance to fill up this little barrel. And this is the cause of all my ills. Sir, I have tried every which way; I have plunged your little barrel in all the waters I’ve seen; but not even one drop ever entered it! Now I can’t do it any longer, and I feel as if I am going to die!”

—“Ahh, poor man! You are worse than an animal! If a dog had carried it for that long he would have filled it! But you couldn’t even get one drop into it! Your penance has been to no avail whatsoever! Because you did it without love and without repentance! O my God, thou who knowest and seest all things, behold this creature thou hast formed, now losing body and soul in this way. Holy Mary, do beseech God, thy Son and Father, to look upon him with mercy! O sweet Jesus, if I have ever done anything pleasing to thee, I beg thee to have pity on this man. If he is lost because of me, I will be responsible! Oh God, if thou hast to choose between one of us, save him, by taking into account any good I’ve done, and leave me to my fate!”

In silence, and scared, the miserable sinner gazed at the monk for a long time and thought: “I see here a marvel that befuddles me. This man means nothing to me and has no bond with me other than God; and yet he is deeply afflicted for my sake. It is for my sins that he cries and sighs in this way. I must be the worst and greatest of all sinners. This man finds himself in such an affliction for my sins while I, who have committed them, am not moved and have no pity for his soul…  oh God, give great repentance so this man who is suffering for my sake may receive some consolation. I beg thee, sweet Lord, true God… I recognize myself guilty and implore thy mercy!”

God heeded this supplication and freed this heart, which implored Him, from the pride that hardened it. And He replaced that pride with humility. That man, until then so rebellious, began to sigh very deeply. He was unable to speak; but in his heart he promised to God never to sin again. His heart was about to burst with emotion. God showed him great mercy and raised up from his heart, water to his eyes; and a great teardrop arose and, like a straight shot… that one teardrop filled up the little barrel in such a way that it overflowed!

Seeing that, the monk turned to the penitent and said,

—“My son, you are saved! God has forgiven your sins.”

—“Yes, Sir, it is a miracle! I feel my lost strength returning, my wounds have disappeared, look! Father, I told you all my sins but without love or repentance; allow me today, this time with true devotion, to confess them again.”

—“It was God, my son, who gave you this idea. Speak, I am listening.”

And on his knees and with hands together, always weeping, he confessed all his bad actions with great compunction. When he finished, the hermit gave him absolution and asked:
—“Do you want to receive the Body of Our Lord Jesus Christ?”

—“Yes, Father, it will be the greatest honor of my life! And let me make you a request: that you dub me a knight of Our Lord Jesus Christ; and please also give me your blessing; for from now on I want to make reparation for the evil I’ve done. I want to fight for the good, for the Holy Catholic Church, defend pilgrims, help orphans and widows, and above all to combat the enemies of God and of Holy Church as never before!”

And so the knight went back to his castle causing great astonishment among his own, who saw how totally changed he was. He told everywhere what had befallen him; and everyone who heard his story would be deeply impressed and grow even more in their fervor, Faith and confidence in God!

Later he went to the Crusade and, with his soldiers, joined Godfrey of Bouillon. And while fighting the Mohammedans in Jerusalem, the Holy Land, he gave up his soul to God.


Short Stories on Honor, Chivalry, and the World of Nobility—no. 167


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