As he munched an apple, Ralf saw before him, in blazing light so glorious, the angel. “Ralf, Ralf,” called the angel, “I have a message for you from the Lord. It is the Lord’s will that you leave your village and your friends and live here in the Blessèd Cave of St Alchmund the Undetected, where you shall pray for the people of Abney Dochemaneston and study the Holy Scriptures until the day the Lord shall call you to heaven.”
This vision and the angel’s words startled Ralf so much that he dropped his apple on the ground. Ralf watched it roll away from him, down the slope of the hill, where it came to rest against a large rock. Once more, the angel spoke: “The Lord has this to say: Just as the woman was tempted to eat the apple in the garden and was cursed, so now you must seek to eat again of your apple and be blessed.” Obediently, Ralf stood up and slowly climbed down the hill, taking hold of crags to steady his descent. He reached his fallen fruit, which was now bruised and gritty – but as he stooped to reclaim it, Ralf saw a hitherto hidden opening to what he presumed was the Blessèd Cave of St Alchmund the Undetected.
The angel appeared once more to Ralf, saying, “The Lord has provided for you! Inside the Blessèd Cave of St Alchmund the Undetected, you will find a copy of the Holy Scriptures, clothing, bedding, and illumination – for your eyes and for your soul. And on the first day of each week, you shall find here at the opening of the Blessèd Cave of St Alchmund the Undetected nourishment for your body to sustain you while you feed on the Holy Scriptures.” And the angel vanished; the vision ended; and Ralf, the pious man of Abney Dochemaneston, moved into the Blessèd Cave of St Alchmund the Undetected.
The angel’s words were true! There, at one end of the Blessèd Cave of St Alchmund the Undetected, was a copy of the Holy Scriptures placed on a plain wooden table beside two lit candles and a crucifix. At the other end of the Blessèd Cave of St Alchmund the Undetected, a simple bed and a few scraps of clothing were to be found. Ralf sat down, bit into another apple, and began to pray.
Ralf enjoyed his new life of devotion in the Blessèd Cave of St Alchmund the Undetected. He had been pleased to find a reasonably sized hole in the wall of the Blessèd Cave of St Alchmund the Undetected, which allowed his jagged surroundings to be bathed in sunlight. At night, or when it was cold or wet, Ralf was able to hang a curtain of animal skin, which he had found among his bedding, over the hole to maintain the warmth. And, on the first day of each week, Ralf was able to collect seven baskets of food and a barrel of fresh water from the entrance to the Blessèd Cave of St Alchmund the Undetected, just as the angel had promised. Lacking no good thing, Ralf devoted himself to study and to prayer, remembering the people of Abney Dochemaneston at daybreak, at noon, at evening, and at bedtime.
But one day, a tremor shook the foundations of Ralf’s rugged hermitage, and lo! – the opening to the Blessèd Cave of St Alchmund the Undetected was blocked by rubble! Ralf tried to clear the opening, but his attempts were in vain. He knelt in prayer, pleading, “Gracious Lord, who has called me to a life of prayer, I beseech thee: May the opening to this Blessèd Cave of St Alchmund the Undetected be scree-free, so that I might continue to devote myself to prayer and to study without worrying about my bodily needs.”
Ralf opened his eyes and looked up, expectantly. But the detritus was not cleared, and so Ralf prayed his prayer a second time, and then a third time. Still there was no response, and Ralf lay on his bed, weeping.
Suddenly, an angel, even the same angel, appeared to Ralf. “The Lord has heard your cry,” the angel said, “and the Lord will continue to provide for you. Each morning, you shall uncover the hole in the side of the Blessèd Cave of St Alchmund the Undetected, and blue tits shall feed you with all the food you need for the day. And a spring shall flow outside the hole, and you shall draw water from it to slake your thirst.” As soon as the angel disappeared, Ralf heard a trickling sound from outside the hole in the side of Blessèd Cave of St Alchmund the Undetected, and he knew that his request for food and drink had been answered. He knelt down once more in worship and gratitude.
Years passed, and Ralf continued faithfully to pray four times a day for the people of Abney Dochemaneston. He welcomed the company of the blue tits each morning, and ate and drank his fill each day. But one day, when he was old and grey, Ralf heard a strange tapping. The tapping was faint at first, and he thought little of it. A few days later, though, the tapping seemed to increase in volume. Again, Ralf thought little of it; but the sound eventually became so prominent that he could think little of it no more. He knelt in prayer.
“O Lord, the sound troubles me,” Ralf confessed, “and I cannot concentrate in prayer and study. If it is your will, may the sound cease and trouble me no more.” He opened his eyes, tilted his head and listened expectantly. But the tapping sound continued; indeed, it sounded even louder.
“O Lord!” Ralf cried. “Have I not served you faithfully all these years? Then why must I endure such violation of my ears? O Lord, is it your will to test me?” But still, the sound of tapping continued and again increased in volume.
“O Lord!” Ralf howled reverently. “I cannot bear this cacophony! Dear Lord, precious Lord, have you permitted the devil himself to snatch me from heaven to hell? Have I offended you, dear Lord? Forgive me!”
And suddenly, the tapping stopped. Ralf was elated; his prayer, it seemed, had been heard, and the devil departed. But before he could utter even a single syllable of praise and thanksgiving to the Lord, he perceived muffled human voices and then three clipped noises, far louder than any of the tappings had ever been, all culminating in a noise sounding for all the world like small pieces of stone or rock tumbling down a hillside and hitting the ground with a near-imperceptible patter. And finally, daylight began streaming through the area where the old opening to the Blessèd Cave of St Alchmund the Undetected once had been. More debris was pulled away from without, and Ralf shielded his eyes from the sudden brilliance threatening to disable his sight.
And what a sight Ralf saw! But it was not a vision of the angel in blazing light so glorious he had been privileged to receive occasionally in days past. Instead, Ralf saw a rather fubsy man standing at the newly excavated opening to the Blessèd Cave of St Alchmund the Undetected, dressed in a tunic as blue as the sky and garishly adorned with red and green flowers. The man wore a peculiar, peaked hood, the same shade of dirty white as his shoes, and his eyes were round and very, very dark. Before Ralf could retreat into the recesses of the Blessèd Cave of St Alchmund the Undetected, the unseemly man stepped towards him while reaching for a box hanging around his neck. And then: light, the brightest light, more dazzling, surely, than even the streets of heaven, flash, flash, flash!
“Howdy there, pardner,” drawled the man. “’Ahwabout ah take a selfie with y’all? One for the wahf ’n’ keerds.”