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Space to Think, a new book celebrating ten years of the Dublin Review of Books More Information 



There was a man, long ago, who was a great thief. He was always steal­ing and robbing and making off with anything he could lay his hands on. Anything he put his eye on, he had to have it one way or another. He wasn't afraid of God or eternal damnation; he didn't care what happened his soul as long as he wasn't caught in the act of crime. He went on like that for a long time and as he got older he only got worse.

He went out, this night, and brought his axe with him and he didn't stop at all until he went in to the domain of a gentleman in the neigh­bourhood to cut down a big tree that was growing there and take it home with him. It was the dead of night when he got to the place where the tree was growing. He took off his coat and rolled up his sleeves and went to work, felling the tree. He was hacking away until he was nearly at the heart of the tree. He stopped to wipe the sweat from his face and while he was doing it a voice spoke from the middle of the tree and said:

'Shame on you! What are you doing to a poor soul that needs only another hour to complete its Purgatory?'

The robber began to shake with fear and the axe fell out of his hand from the fright he got.

'Who's that talking to me? Are you living or dead?' said he, when he came to himself.

'I'm a child,' said the voice, 'that was born at the first crow of the cock, was baptised at the second crow of the cock and died at the third crow of the cock. When I went to eternity, I was told that I wasn't yet fit to be in the presence of God, may he be ever praised, nor to go with the just into the City of Heaven; that I'd have to come back to this world again and spend twenty-one years in purgatory here to cleanse my soul of original sin. I was condemned to spend my purgatory in this tree that you are cutting down. I had to spend seven years between the bark and the wood on the cold, windward side of the tree, seven years more between the bark and the wood of the tree on the sunny side of the tree and the last seven years here in the heart of the tree. I've done the whole term except for one hour. When the cock crows my soul will go from this place and go into the presence of God and the just. Have patience for a while now and let me finish my purgatory!'

The man threw himself on the ground and beat his breast with remorse.

'Musha, God help the poor unfortunate sinner like me whose soul is covered with sins! What chance have I of going into the presence of God and the just when I leave this world, when an innocent little child, who never committed any sin, has to spend twenty one years in purga­tory in this world before he can see the delights of Heaven?'

'You're not too late, yet,' said the voice back to him, 'better late than too late. It's for you and your likes that Our Saviour was crucified on the Cross. He'll forgive you if you repent. Go on your way now and give up your stealing and thieving forever, as long as you live, and God will reward you. You'll see His kingdom and His almighty power when you come into His presence.'

The man arose and put on his coat and took his axe off home. And from that day till the day he died, he did no more thieving or stealing but completely changed his ways. He gave back, as far as he was able, everything he ever stole, and he lived in the love of God and in peace with his neighbours from that day on.29