A Saint, More or Less

A Saint, More or Less

by Henry A. Grunwald

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Henry Grunwald makes sixteenth-century France under King Henry IV come vividly alive in A Saint, More or Less, as he explores, through the story of two women, the still timely subject of how politics, power, passions, and religious belief can intersect with explosive results.

When Nicole Tavernier, a mysterious healer, arrives in Paris in the mid-1500s, the


Henry Grunwald makes sixteenth-century France under King Henry IV come vividly alive in A Saint, More or Less, as he explores, through the story of two women, the still timely subject of how politics, power, passions, and religious belief can intersect with explosive results.

When Nicole Tavernier, a mysterious healer, arrives in Paris in the mid-1500s, the lives of ordinary citizens, religious leaders, and members of the Parisian aristocracy are utterly changed. Taken under the wing of the pious and politically influential Acarie family, Nicole pursues her mission under the watchful eye and religious guidance of Barbe Acarie, a woman much admired in the Catholic community. When Nicole comes to the attention of Henry of Navarre, the future king of France, Barbe Acarie grows to distrust the younger woman, whose past is cloaked in secrecy. A silent struggle between the two leads to charges of demonic possession, an exorcism, and a climactic confrontation, each woman facing down the other and herself.

In A Saint, More or Less, Henry Grunwald writes with a keen understanding of church and state, of how religious belief can be manipulated by those in power to achieve their own political ends. This finely crafted novel also raises questions about the role in belief of passion and doubt. One of these two women is a candidate to become a saint - but which is the true one? A Saint, More or Less illuminates a rich period in history as two women struggle with doctrine, faith, belief, their own natures, and questions about religion and society that are still relevant today.

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times
For a book about the burden of faith, Grunwald's novel is wonderfully light on its feet, with characters that seem strikingly modern -- especially Henry, who exhibits a Clintonian mix of rakishness and earnestness, and Dr. Monnet, a humanist whose rational skepticism augurs the Enlightenment just around the corner. — Jeff Turrentine
The New Yorker
Grunwald prefaces his historical novel with an account of how he picked up a little book about miracles from a remainder table and came across a mention of Nicole Tavernier. A healer, vagrant, and self-proclaimed prophet in France at the end of the sixteenth century, Tavernier was championed, for a time, by the legendary Barbe Acarie, who founded the French branch of the Discalced Carmelites and was later beatified. Very little is known about Tavernier’s life, and this gives full rein to Grunwald’s inventive gifts. Ultimately, the novel is as much about doubt, fraud, cattiness, and superstition as it is about faith. Grunwald, himself thoroughly secular, seems surprised at his own fascination with Tavernier, and recommends her as a “patron saint of all those who want to believe but cannot.”
Publishers Weekly
The vexed intersection of religion, politics and personal life is explored in this engaging if somewhat didactic historical novel set during the French Counter-Reformation. The story is loosely based on the lives of two real-life religious figures: Barbe Acarie, founder of the French branch of the Discalced Carmelite order of nuns, and Nicole Tavernier, a street preacher, miracle worker and charismatic holy woman. As allies and then rivals in the effort to rejuvenate the Catholic faith, the two women interact with a number of historical and fictional personages, who hash out doctrinal disputes in occasionally stilted dialogue and sample the many varieties of 16th-century religious experience. Through them Grunwald, a former Time editor and author of the memoir Twilight: Losing Sight and Gaining Insight, explores tensions between the church establishment and popular religious enthusiasms, between male authority and women's tacit power, between religious intellectualism and mysticism and between Catholic pomp and sensuality and Protestant austerity and puritanism. Although the author's purpose is to explain an age "drenched in faith and blood" which is not so different from our own, he suggests the book is really about the rise of secularism: the hero is the liberal King Henry IV, whose Edict of Toleration ended France's religious wars, and the main point-of-view character is the fictional Dr. Monnet, a religious skeptic and standard-bearer of the scientific mindset. Although the characters' tendency to psychoanalyze their religious impulses gives the book a slightly anachronistic tone, the combination of rich period detail and three-dimensional characters helps bring this fascinating epoch to life. (Dec.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
France, late 1500s: endless wars between Catholics and Protestants have devastated the country, but the ascendance of Henry IV offers new hope for peace. Nicole Tavernier appears in Paris, searching for a spiritual director. Given her reputation as a faith healer with several miracles to her credit, she is invited to work with Barbe Acarie, a highly connected and well-respected "doer of good deeds." Soon, however, their work together is disrupted by competition, with each woman hoping to be more pious, more holy, and more miraculous than the other. Acarie and Tavernier were real people, and in this fiction debut, Grunwald, former editor in chief of Time Inc.'s publications, bases much of his story on fact. The result is an almost journalistic account of the culture in which the two women lived that aptly illustrates the inevitable outcome when power and wealth clash with religious belief and passion. Grunwald does make the characters live and breathe, but their development isn't overdone, leaving one with an overall impression of mystery. That, and the book's action, should make this an appealing read to anyone who likes historical fiction. Recommended for both public and academic libraries.-Joanna M. Burkhardt, Univ. of Rhode Island Coll. of Continuing Education Lib., Providence Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A first novel about the friendship of two remarkable Frenchwomen during the Counter-Reformation, courtesy of former longtime Time editor Grunwald (Twilight, 1999, etc.). In the aftermath of Luther's attack on the Catholic Church, Nicole Tavernier, a young Catholic from Reims, comes to Paris in 1594, preaching conversion from heresy and healing the sick. Little is known of her past life, but her devotion to the poor and sick as well as her reputation as a healer soon bring a following. Nicole is introduced by her parish priest to the wealthy and devout Barbe Acarie, the wife of the leader of the Holy League (which fought to prevent the rise of Protestantism in France), and the older woman becomes Nicole's most devoted friend and mentor. Herself a mystic given to prolonged religious ecstasies, Madame Acarie comes to rely more and more on Nicole's companionship after her husband is exiled from Paris by the Protestant Henry IV. Religious fervor is hardly without its dangers, and Nicole is eventually accused of witchcraft as a result of some of her more extravagant claims (e.g., that an angel had brought her Holy Communion). Nor is her case helped when Madame Acarie catches her out in a small lie and lost faith in her. When a skeptical Jesuit ask Rene Monnet, the Acarie family physician, to investigate Nicole's case, the good doctor makes his way to Reims and learns that the seer is not what she appears to be. Nevertheless, he manages in the end to reconcile her to Madame Acarie, who becomes a nun after her husband's death and is proposed for canonization after her own. Grunwald successfully evokes the strange, fervid quality of Madame's holiness, as well as the stranger, wilder charisma ofNicole. An odd tale, set in the past but not really historical: rather, an intriguing mystery of two very different women intent on the same goal of Divine Union. Agent: Lynn Nesbit/Janklow & Nesbit

Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
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6.62(w) x 9.34(h) x 0.98(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

Not another procession! This is the third in a month."

"I love processions! I wish they had one every day."

"This one is special. Why else would everybody have to close their shops? Lord knows how much business we will lose."

"But what is it about?"

"It is about penance. The archbishop ordered it. But I will tell you who is really behind it. That girl from Reims."

"The one who has been healing the sick and doing all kinds of miracles?"

"That's the one."

"Look, there is the archbishop walking behind the statue of the Virgin."

"He does not seem very steady on his feet."

"And there are all those other priests and monks. I have never seen so many in one place."

"But where is she? The girl?"

"I see her now. There, after all those choir boys singing their hymns. There she is, walking by herself, all in white."

"She looks like a bride."

"Pray for us, blessed Nicole. Give us your blessing."

"She is not looking at us. She is just looking up at the sky."

"What did you say the girl's name was again? Nicole?"

"Yes. Nicole Tavernier. The girl from Reims."

A mysterious girl whom no one knew had been given a solemn procession in her honor with all of Paris at her feet. How had she come to this moment? She had appeared in the city only a few weeks before, in the spring of 1594.

Father Pacifique de Souzy had just finished hearing confessions at the Capuchin church on the rue Saint-Honoré when the sacristan approached him. He looked puzzled.

"Father," he said. "There is a young woman who insists on seeing you. She says she hascome with a very special mission."

"What sort of mission?" asked the priest.

"I don't know, Father. I am not sure what to make of her. She is very earnest and sure of herself and she has a kind of"—he groped for the right word—"a kind of authority."

Before the priest could ask any further questions, a small, slim girl appeared from behind the sacristan. She wore a threadbare traveling cloak with a large wooden cross hanging around her neck. Her shoes were scuffed, her hair disordered. Her face was flushed. Her eyes were fixed on the priest. She stared for a few moments at his tonsured head, his narrow face with the small pointed beard.

"Yes," she said. "It is you, Father. You look exactly as you did in my vision."

"Your vision?"

"Two weeks ago, during evening prayer, my mind stood still. I saw your image. And a voice told me that you would become my spiritual director. Here I am. I ask your help, Father."

De Souzy was baffled.

"Help you how, and to do what?" he asked.

"Help me to save the true faith and to bring all sinners to repentance."

De Souzy knew well that the religious upheavals of the time produced a great many self-appointed saviors. He felt skeptical about this young girl, and yet there was something about her that drew him.

"I am extremely busy and I cannot give you any special attention. But of course, like everyone else, you are welcome to confess here whenever you feel the need."

As Father de Souzy turned away, the girl said firmly, "You are wrong to refuse me, Father. God has given me rare powers and I believe you will yet recognize them."

To de Souzy the words sounded almost like a threat, but he put the incident out of his mind. He was surprised the next day to see the girl again, standing on the church steps surrounded by a small crowd. She was speaking to them passionately.

"You have suffered great misery," she was saying. "You have seen your wives and children cry with hunger and writhe in pain, you have seen death everywhere. War is destroying the country. Why is this happening? It is God's punishment for your sins and iniquities. You must confess and repent, you must surrender your hearts and souls to the Lord. You must win over the heretics and prepare the path toward peace."

De Souzy was irritated. Not that he disagreed with what she said. Pacifique de Souzy had been a firebrand in his youth, but lately his attitude had begun to match his given name. His own sermons, while full of the necessary condemnation of the Protestant heretics, always appealed for reconciliation and peace. To hear a woman preach, however, and in front of his church, was offensive. To his astonishment he noticed that the people surrounding her were rapt by her words. They looked at her with a radiance that seemed to mirror her own. Some even knelt.

De Souzy went on about his usual church business, but the next day he was amazed to see the girl in the same place preaching to an even larger crowd. Her words were much as they had been the day before, but de Souzy now became aware that she was supplementing her message with biblical quotations.

When at length she finished, he approached her and asked her to follow him into the church. She did so matter-of-factly, as if she had expected the invitation.

"What is your name," he asked, "and where do you come from?"

"My name is Nicole Tavernier and I come from Reims."

"How old are you?"

"I am nineteen."

He recognized in her drawling speech, with its softly elongated words, the accent typical of that city.

"I have been traveling from town to town bringing His message to all who were willing to hear me."

"And what gives you the right to do that?"

"I know in my heart that God wants me to do this. A voice tells me that it is so; the same voice that sent me to you, Father."

De Souzy shook his head. "I noticed that you recite passages from scripture when you talk to people. Do you know what the words mean?"

"I do."

De Souzy decided to test her. "I will read you a passage and you will try to tell me what it signifies."

De Souzy opened a Bible on his desk and leafed through it for a few moments. Then he read from the Song of Songs.

" ‘Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth: for your love is better than wine.' What does that mean to you?"

"It means God's love for His Church. It also means that our love of Jesus is better than any earthly love."

It was a good enough answer, but de Souzy asked, "Did someone, a priest, say those things and did you then commit them to memory?"

"I have heard sermons from many priests, but my interpretations came to me from the Holy Spirit."

De Souzy was still doubtful.

"What does scripture say about the Trinity?" he asked.

"It says many things."

"All right. What does Saint John say?"

"John says that there are three who in a common one are one in stateliness and therefore in power and will."

There was no hesitation as Nicole answered. "This means," she continued, but Father de Souzy held up his hand. He decided to try something trickier.

"What did Jesus say when He was taken to the temple? How old was He? How long did He stay?"

Nicole smiled.

"He didn't say anything the first time; He was forty days old. That was the custom, to take children to the temple forty days after their birth. When He was twelve," and she emphasized the number, "He was found in the temple after three days. When Mary and Joseph told Him they were worried"—she paused as she easily and correctly quoted scripture—" ‘Son, why hath thou thus dealt with us? Behold thy father and I have sought thee sorrowing,' Jesus said"—Nicole continued with a slight nod to the priest to signal that the rest of his answer was coming—" ‘How is it that ye sought me? Wist ye not that I must be about my Father's business?' " She was looking at Father de Souzy and yet looking inward as well.

De Souzy was no scholar, but he realized that this young, uneducated girl had given very learned answers. He suddenly felt out of his depth and decided to temporize.

"I will consider your request," he said.

"Thank you, Father, but I hope that you will not take too long to consider. There is much to be done."

De Souzy was taken aback by such arrogance, but above all he was puzzled. He felt that he needed more information about this odd creature and some sound advice about how to treat her.

For that he turned to the Jesuits. Although they were widely distrusted, even their enemies agreed that they were the best- informed people in Paris. He sought out Father Pierre Coton, who had a reputation for shrewdness and good sense. Coton was a tall, lean man with a shock of brown hair that was prematurely turning gray, lending him a paternal air. He gave anyone he spoke to the feeling of being at the center of his attention, and he was unfailingly gentle.

After hearing Father de Souzy's request for information about one Nicole Tavernier, Coton contracted his brow as if to retrieve an invisible dossier from his memory. Twice he repeated the name and then said, "Nothing comes to my mind but I will try to find out what I can."

When de Souzy returned a few days later, Coton was ready with his report.

Glancing at a sheet of paper in front of him, he said, "Nicole Tavernier is a young woman from Reims. Nothing is known about her family. She has been roaming from town to town affecting the role of a wandering preacher. She has attended sick people and there have been rumors of miraculous healings. She seems devoted to helping the poor and she gives them food when she can. One story has it that some mysterious messenger gave her a loaf of bread that multiplied in her hands so that she was able to distribute bread continually. She lodges at the hospital of Sainte-Catherine."

The nuns at this establishment were in charge of shrouding and burying corpses found in the street or in the river. The place also gave shelter for a short time to women looking for work.

"She wants me to help her and to be her spiritual director. What should I do?"

"God knows we have seen many visionaries and healers and wonder workers," said Coton. "Some of them are pretenders and hysterics, and we must always be on guard against such persons. On the other hand they must not be lightly dismissed. Some may be genuine. And they may help fortify the faith, which is why the Holy League is always eager to take them up."

"Ah yes, the League," said de Souzy, sounding apprehensive.

The Holy League was a powerful combination of Catholic nobles and wealthy bourgeois who had banded together to fight the Huguenots, as the Protestants were called in France. They raised armies, subsidized preachers to denounce the heretics and bitterly attacked fellow Catholics who seemed insufficiently enthusiastic on behalf of the true faith.

It was now nearly eighty years since the German monk Martin Luther had posted his theses on the church door of Wittenberg, theses that attacked the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church, its greedy hierarchy, its practice of selling indulgences that sup- posedly shortened the time sinners would have to spend in pur- gatory. In the intervening decades Protestantism, as it came to be known, spread everywhere in various forms. Bitter wars between Catholics and Protestants followed, interrupted by peace treaties and short periods of uneasy calm, only to resume again. Christendom had once been united, more or less, under the vast dome of the Catholic Church. But that dome was now broken and every part of Europe claimed its own fragment of it. Catholic Spain, under the lugubrious Philip II, was in conflict with Protestant England, under the allegedly virginal Elizabeth. Most German princes had followed Martin Luther into the Protestant camp; Switzerland had become the Protestant fortress of John Calvin. France was still largely Catholic, but the Church was increasingly alarmed by the steady growth of the Protestant forces. Coton was pained by the continuous bloodshed among Christians. He was a moderate who had Protestant friends and did not share the Holy League's zealotry, but it was his principle to be on good terms with all factions.

"The League must be reckoned with," he told Father de Souzy. "They are bound to hear about this girl. They may try to use her to stir up fervor among the faithful who may be tiring of this endless war. My advice to you is to move first and arrange for this Nicole Tavernier to meet some of the leaders of the League and especially their pious ladies. It would be interesting to see what they make of her."

Thinking aloud, Coton pronounced several names but dismissed each, until he finally said: "The Acaries. Yes, I believe they are the right family for this."

Pierre Acarie was one of the leaders of the Holy League distinguished, rich and active. Moreover, his wife, Barbe, was celebrated everywhere for her good works, her piety and her shrewdness.

"I even know some priests who have gone to Barbe Acarie for advice," said Coton.

De Souzy nodded. "I know her, yes. She has sometimes attended my church."

"Good," said Coton. "I suggest that you arrange for the Acaries to meet the girl. And keep in mind that Madame Acarie's opinion will count as much as her husband's, if not more."

De Souzy wanted to know if Father Coton would be present if and when the meeting took place. "I would rather stay in the background for now," replied Coton.

That afternoon Coton went to the Golden Racket, an establishment on the Left Bank, where he regularly played tennis, a game highly popular among gentlemen of the time. He faced his usual opponent, Dr. René Monnet, having tied his cassock around his waist so as not to be hampered in his movements. The priest beat the physician handily. After the match they talked over a cooling drink. They had met at the Golden Racket some years before and had become friends. They had several things in common, including a Jesuit education and an abrupt change in their careers. Father Coton had started out as a lawyer but had become increasingly disgusted with what struck him as the inhumane pettifoggery of the law. He realized that he had been drawn to the Church all along and he entered a Jesuit seminary.

It had been the opposite with René Monnet. His devout parents had wanted him to be a priest and he persuaded himself that he had a calling. He too had entered a Jesuit seminary, at a much younger age than Coton, and he proved to be an excellent student. But he discovered that he was not cut out for the religious life. René Monnet developed too warm a feeling toward the gardener's voluptuous daughter and an unusually strict prefect abruptly ended his clerical career. He decided to take up the study of medicine, turning from the care of souls to the care of the body. The dividing line between the two, he thought, might not be all that clear. He always remembered something written by the great François Rabelais, who was a physician as well as a priest and believed that body and soul, virtues and vices, appetites and dreams, are all mingled together in God's human creatures. As Rabelais's character Pantagruel said: "Everything we are and that we have is made up of three things: the soul, the body and our property."

Monnet became a well-respected physician in Paris but was always ready to discuss religion.

"I have great difficulty with this business of celibacy," he told Father Coton when he described why he had left the seminary. "Priests commit themselves to chastity because the Church demands it and that, one could argue, is a form of duress. Moral philosophers tell us that no oath taken under duress is binding."

"I am afraid that is what people call a Jesuitical argument," said Coton. But he was tolerant of Monnet's foibles and his skepticism. He liked him and trusted him. Now he said, "I believe you are friendly with the Acaries."

"Yes, I have been their doctor for several years and I can say that I am also their friend."

"I arranged for them to meet a young woman who has begun to make a stir in Paris." He summarized briefly what little he knew about Nicole Tavernier.

"Father de Souzy will bring her. I myself do not yet want to be identified with her, but as a friend of the house you could easily be present at this meeting. If you agree, perhaps you could let me know later what the girl is like and what sort of impression she made on the Acaries. Or on you, for that matter."

René Monnet was a wiry man in his middle years with reddish, bristly hair. His left eyelid drooped slightly, which gave him a deceptively sleepy appearance. It was always a little surprising when he flashed out with a sharp look, as he did now.

"Why are you interested in her?"

"My instinct tells me that eventually a great many people may be interested in her."

Dr. Monnet promised that he would try to attend the meeting and to let Coton know how it went. He pulled out a timepiece, an extraordinary watch made of silver and shaped like a death's-head.

"Do you have time for another game?" Monnet asked.

"I do. But put away that awful watch of yours. In these times we hardly need a reminder of death."

Meet the Author

Henry Grunwald was the managing editor of Time magazine from 1968 to 1977, and from 1979 through 1987 he was editor in chief of all Time Inc.’s publications. He subsequently served as U.S. ambassador to Austria from 1988 to 1990, and has since written his autobiography, One Man’s America, and the memoir Twilight: Losing Sight, Gaining Insight, about his struggle with macular degeneration. Born in Vienna, Grunwald came to America at the age of seventeen and enrolled at New York University. He began his career at Time in 1944 as a copy boy while completing his education. He lives in Manhattan with his wife, Louise, and their Australian terrier, Harry.

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