Read an Excerpt
James Martin, SJ
A few years ago, an elderly priest in my Jesuit community heard my confession one night after dinner. For the life of me, I can’t remember what I confessed, but after my friend gave me a suitable penance and pronounced the ritual words of absolution, he said, “I have a book that I think you should read.”
After rooting around in his overstuffed bookshelves, he produced a copy of Pierre de Calan’s novel Cosmas or the Love of God. It was a hardbound edition of the first English translation, masterfully done in 1980 by the English Catholic writer and journalist Peter Hebblethwaite. Though I had read dozens of books on monastic life on my way to entering a religious order, I had never heard of the novel or its author. The stark white cover, torn in places, showed a portrait of a sad-faced man clad in a brown habit, standing with hands outstretched.
“Please don’t lose it,” said my friend. He explained that his only copy, its pages yellowing with age, had once been lost in someone else’s collection for some time, and that he had taken great pains to retrieve it.
The book is the story of a young man’s passionate desire to enter a Trappist monastery in 1930s France. After finishing it, I wondered what prompted the priest to recommend the book, for the main character, Cosmas—a pious man with a painful family background—struggles mightily with trying to understand his vocation. His tale is told by Father Roger, the monastery’s former novice master, or person responsible for training the monastery’s newest members. Throughout the novel, Cosmas questions not simply if he is “called” to monastic life but, more important, if he is called, whether he can live out his vocation faithfully, or at all.
The questions upon which the novel turns are: What is a vocation? Is a vocation something that you feel God is calling you to do? And, if you feel drawn to a particular vocation but discover that you cannot do it, does it follow that God is now asking you not to do it?
Whole lives—single, married, vowed, ordained—have been spent pondering those difficult questions. Does unhappiness in a religious community mean that one should leave? Or is fidelity and perseverance the answer? Likewise, does unhappiness in a job, in a friendship, or in a marriage mean that one should switch careers, sever a relationship, or even end a marriage? This is Cosmas’s dilemma. As the narrator asks, “[W]as Cosmas really called to religious life? No other question has ever disturbed me so much.”
By the time I asked my confessor what it was about the book that had reminded him of my own situation, he had already forgotten. (One grace of good confessors is the ability to forget the content of confessions.) So I was forced to seek meaning in the book on my own.
After several readings, with my appreciation for the book deepening each time, the tale of the young novice began to offer me new ways of understanding the mystery of living out a vocation and, more specifically, living out a vocation in a religious community.
There is an irony in this. Monsieur de Calan, who died in 1993, was neither a Trappist nor a priest nor a member of a religious order. Born in Paris in 1911, he studied philosophy and mathematics and worked for many years as a tax inspector, eventually becoming president of the French division of the prestigious Barclays Bank. At the time of the first printing of Côme ou le désir de Dieu in 1977, Calan was married with six children and eighteen grandchildren. The story of the businessman publishing a timeless novel is reminiscent of the American poet Wallace Stevens who, when not writing poetry, worked as an executive in an insurance company in Hartford, Connecticut. As Peter Hebblethwaite says in the introduction to the first English edition, there is no reason that a businessperson cannot be literate as well as numerate.
Still, Pierre de Calan’s achievement is as unlikely as a celibate priest writing a convincing portrait of married life.
While the author has a firm grasp of the complexities of Trappist life, readers of his book may not be as familiar with them, so perhaps some background is in order.
In 1098, a group of monks left the Benedictine abbey at Molesmes, in France, to live a more stringent version of the Rule of St. Benedict. They continued to pray several times a day, lived in extremely simple conditions, and engaged in manual labor, typically on their own farms, to feed and support themselves. Their first community was located in the town of Cîteaux, and from the Latin version of its name, Cistercium, came the name of the new order: the Cistercians.
Over the next few decades the order established new communities across Europe, each headed by an abbot” (from the Aramaic word abba, meaning father). By the middle of the twelfth century, there were 333 abbeys for men; a century later there were 647. Houses for lay brothers and for nuns also became part of the larger Cistercian family.
By the seventeenth century, some Cistercians felt the need to return to the originally strict observance of the Rule. The most influential of these abbeys was headed by Armand Jean Le Bouthillier de Rancé, and located in La Trappe, France, the very same monastery where Cosmas is set. In 1893, three of these groups—“at papal insistence” according to the Encyclopedia of Catholicism—were gathered together as the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, popularly known as “Trappists,” after the abbey of Rancé.
As late as the mid-twentieth century, life in a Trappist monastery varied little from what Rancé had intended. One window into this world is offered by the writings of the American Trappist Thomas Merton, who entered the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani in the hills of Kentucky in 1941, just a few years after the fictional Cosmas entered his in La Trappe.
Merton’s autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, as well as the journal of his early years in the monastery, published as The Sign of Jonas, describe practices and procedures that are literally medieval. The monks work in the fields with the simplest of tools, their carts and plows drawn by horses. They eat plain food, fast for much of the year, maintain silence for most of the day, and sleep in unheated dormitories while fully clothed in their woolen habits. (Some of the bluntest passages in Merton’s journals come when he describes the torment of wearing those heavy woolen habits during the humid Kentucky summers.)
They also gather to pray, something that Trappists are still doing around the world. The daily prayers of the Divine Office, the combination of psalms and readings from Scripture that are mostly chanted, are still the mainstay of the church’s monastic orders. In the Trappist abbey in Kentucky, for example, the first prayer of the day, Vigils, still begins at 3:15 a.m., and the last, Compline (so called because it “completes” the day), comes at 7:30 p.m. Following the age-old patterns of the medieval life, which are tethered to the rising and the setting of the sun, the schedule is a rigorous one.
It is not the physical difficulties that plague Cosmas, however, as much as the spiritual ones. The young man enters the monastery joyfully, in the full bloom of what is often called “first fervor.” Nothing is too hard; all seems full of light. It is similar to the beginning of any relationship: a period of infatuation is perfectly natural. Gradually, though, most members of religious orders discover—as do couples and spouses—that the object of their affection is not perfect. For Cosmas, this recognition assumes an unusual form: he finds it unseemly that the monks are so concerned with the business end of running a monastery. (He seems to have forgotten that monks need to eat and earn a living like everyone else.)
“I expected,” Cosmas tells Father Roger with disappointment, “to find a greater difference between those who remain in the world and those who spend long hours in prayer and whose lives are dedicated to God’s service.”
There is something even more troubling for Cosmas and, by extension, for his novice master: Cosmas cannot accept the fact that his brother Trappists are so human. One quarrels loudly and violently with another; one pilfers chocolates from the common pantry. After just a few months in the monastery, Cosmas is tormented by the inadequacies—the humanity—of his fellow monks.
It was here, on my first reading of Cosmas, that I remembered my early need to confront this part of life in a religious community, which again mirrors a phenomenon encountered in all relationships. The person you love, the community you love, is always flawed. One person can be argumentative. Another can be lazy. Another can even be cruel at times. At first this was shocking. When I was a Jesuit novice, one of Thomas Merton’s comments helped me respond to the same emotions that Cosmas felt:
The first and most elementary test of one’s call to the religious life—whether as a Jesuit, Franciscan, Cistercian, or Carthusian—is the willingness to accept life in a community in which everybody is more or less imperfect.
Moreover, holiness, as Father Roger tells Cosmas, is not something that we attain instantaneously. The imperfections of the community and of the other person are to be expected, and are, since they reveal our weaknesses, reminders of our reliance on God. Nor does sanctity mean perfection: even the saints were not perfect. Rather, holiness, as the novice master explains, is “a distant goal toward which, day by day, they inch forward with humility and constant effort—rather like the mountaineer whose upward progress is so slow.”
While this realization eludes Cosmas, for the attentive and receptive reader it arrives as both a relief and a challenge. Sanctity is attainable even for flawed individuals. Holiness consists in becoming the person who God created, not some dry, desiccated copy of a plaster saint. As Merton wrote, “For me to be a saint means to be myself.” This realization also seems to elude Cosmas.
Pierre de Calan’s novel is not simply about Cosmas, however. In many ways, it is as much about Father Roger, the wise novice master, who acts as a foil for the young monk. Where Cosmas is impatient, the novice master is patient. Where he has little use for the inadequacies of others, the novice master is infinitely forgiving. And where Cosmas fails to trust, Father Roger invests others with complete trust.
In this way, the narrator embodies the second part of the book’s title, the Love of God. Indeed, one of the joys of reading Cosmas is that by the end of the book one feels that one has spent time with two superb spiritual directors and two loving men: Father Roger and the austere but ultimately compassionate abbot, Dom Philippe.
A further word about the title, Cosmas or the Love of God. In the end, Pierre de Calan’s book is really about the love of God: the love that seeks out Cosmas and urgently calls him to religious life; the love that impels the novice master to support Cosmas even when the novice seems deaf to his advice; the love that enables the abbot to give Father Roger the freedom to make his own decisions; the love that draws the young man back to the abbey, over and over; and the final and beautiful expression of love shown by the entire community to their wandering brother, Cosmas.
God’s love embraces all these characters in all these situations, as it does in real lives. “Mercy within mercy within mercy,” wrote Thomas Merton—and this, I think, is something of what he must have meant.
James Martin, SJ, is a Jesuit priest and associate editor of ?America magazine. His most recent book is My Life with the Saints, a memoir published by Loyola Press.
Cosmas or the Love of God
It is unnecessary and indeed presumptuous to come between the author and the reader of Cosmas or the Love of God. The book either speaks for itself or it does not. Having lived with it for well over a year, I believe that it does speak eloquently, soberly (to use one of the author’s favorite words), and effectively. To come across a French novel that is concerned neither with human love nor sexual combinations nor revolution nor the impossibility of saying anything, but with the quest for God in religious life, is in itself a sufficiently startling departure from convention to raise eyebrows and arouse interest. But a few words of explanation may be useful for those who are intrigued by the novel and curious about its author.
Pierre de Calan is not a Cistercian monk. Nor has he ever been a novice at La Trappe, which exists, just as he describes it, not far from Soligny in Le Perche. The Cistercians began in 1098 as a group of monks who wanted to keep the Rule of St. Benedict in all its rigor. They take their name from the Latin version of their first foundation at Cîteaux (Cistercium) in Burgundy. When St. Bernard joined the Cistercians in 1113 they began to expand rapidly all around Europe, and by his death in 1153 there were more than three hundred Cistercian houses. Decline, not in numbers but in quality of monastic life, set in as the Reformation approached. In France their post-Reformation reformer was the formidable Abbé de Rancé, who restored the ancient discipline in the seventeenth century. Chateaubriand wrote about his life on the orders of his spiritual director. It was his last, and most moving, work.
Pierre de Calan’s book shows so much insight into Cistercian life that many have concluded that he must have written from direct experience. At a presentation of Cosmas in Paris, Calan’s wife heard two army officers discussing him. They agreed that he must be an “unfrocked Trappist” and the only argument was about how long he spent there: estimates varied between three months and three years. False though this is, it is a tribute to the authenticity of his detail and atmosphere.
In fact, Pierre de Calan is president of Barclays Bank in France and has held important posts in the Patronat Français—the equivalent of the Confederation of British Industry. He finds it odd that people should wonder why a banker should publish his first novel at the age of sixty-six. “A man who lives only for his work,” he says, “leads a half life.” Apart from books on economic questions such as the cotton market and the perennial topic of inflation, he had already published a volume of short stories, Les cousins vraisemblables (H. Lefebvre), and in 1959 he worked with Michel de Saint-Pierre on the stage version of the latter’s novel, Les écrivains (Grasset). There is no reason why a banker should not be literate as well as numerate.
Calan’s fascination with La Trappe and monastic life dates back to his childhood, when he spent much of his time in the village of Bonsmoulins, not far from Soligny. The abbey, with its three lakes, its forests, its farm, its changing seasons, is not invented: it is La Trappe de Soligny. The three principal characters—Cosmas himself; Father Roger, the novice master; and Dom Philippe Jalluy, the abbot—are fictions. But the setting and landscapes are authentic, and the terrifying Brother Sébastien, who could thunder in silence, really existed. He is a boyhood memory.
In discussion, Pierre de Calan cleared up a number of points about the form of the book. It is a first-person novel, and the narrator, novice master at the time of the Cosmas episode, later becomes abbot—but we discover that only at the end of the book. We then learn for the first time his name: Dom Roger. He is of a working-class family from Cambrai in northern France. He is garrulous—a compensation for monastic silence?—occasionally repetitive, lyrical at times, inclined to embark on didactic digressions, easily moved by the beauty of nature, and above all obsessed by the mystery of Cosmas’s vocation, if it were a vocation. Can someone really be called by God and not have the right dispositions to answer this call? And, more generally, how does God regard those whom we are inclined to write off as failures? By using a first-person narrative, Calan adopts a limited point of view. This means that Father Roger should not be identified with Pierre de Calan; and that we only see events through the eyes of Father Roger. We do not, for example, discover what Cosmas really thinks “from the inside,” except through the letters that are quoted. I asked Calan why he had chosen this indirect form. Bernanos, he replied, might have written such a novel as a quasi-omniscient narrator, “but I, Pierre de Calan, could not say these things—I needed the intercession of a monk.”
Written, then, from the point of view of the novice master, the novel is also addressed to a specific individual. The addressee is an unbeliever, a friend who has spent some weeks at the guesthouse of La Trappe and who is fascinated by these lives lived wholly for God. Monastic life challenges the values and conventional wisdoms of the modern world. It presupposes that the monk is prepared to stake his entire life on the reality and overriding importance of God. In human terms it makes little sense. So either it points to God or it is an illusion. This is where the addressee comes in: we are never told how the two met. There is a hint that perhaps they were at school together (Father Roger recalls an experiment in physics class). But perhaps the “friend” just turned up at La Trappe. In any case it does not matter, for the function of the addressee is to represent the reader, without ever preempting his responses. The addressee also introduces the possibility of doubt. “You may find what I am saying exaggerated or mistaken,” says Father Roger more than once; but this allowing for skepticism serves to heighten the credibility of the novel.
Cosmas is set in the past, and February 1938 is given as the most probable date for Cosmas’s death. I asked Calan why he had chosen this distant, prewar setting. His answer was that he had not wanted to get embroiled in the postconciliar discussions on “changes in the church” that have not left monastic life unscathed. But since, however, the narrator is writing in the present or near present, the picture of monastic life is not notably out of date and the changes that have been introduced by the Cistercians are carefully noted. The main ones are that there is a one-hour discussion after the evening meal (more usually and accurately known as collation), that the chapter of faults at which one could accuse oneself and others has been abolished, that the distinction between choir monks and lay brothers no longer exists, and that attendance at Divine Office is no longer compulsory—though everyone continues to go. In short, the distancing in time permits a calmer approach to the abiding problem of a religious vocation, which is the central theme of the book.
One French publisher, who to his subsequent chagrin rejected the novel, complained that all suspense had been abolished by identifying the body and the approximate circumstances of death right from the start. A detective novel can have a body in its opening chapter, but too much should not be given away too soon, and the clues should gradually be laid before the reader. But Georges Simenon is not the only norm for the detective novel. Bernanos, in Un crime, had shown that one can start from an identifiable body and an identified murderer with no lack of suspense: but the interest then shifts away from whodunit to why he did it. The same principle holds here, and one could no doubt evoke Gabriel Marcel’s distinction between a puzzle and a mystery: a puzzle does not involve me or my feelings, it lies objectively there, and resolving it is not a matter of life and death; but a mystery engages my attention and my feelings in such a way that I have to respond to it. Seen in these terms, Cosmas is not so much a puzzle as a mystery, and a mystery that takes one into regions of the spirit that normally lie outside the confines of a novel. “The mind,” as Gerard Manley Hopkins sang, “the mind has mountains, dark sheer, no-man-fathomed.”
Many critics have been able to follow Father Roger into this mysterious realm. Some—including the most unlikely—have been enthusiastic. Thus, André Stil of the French Communist Party praised it for the way it made sense of “the search for the absolute.” Armand Salacrou, of the Académie Goncourt, confessed that he was bouleversé (overwhelmed) on reading it. When it appeared in 1977, Cosmas was considered for the Prix Goncourt and made the last selection of sixteen novels. But as Pierre de Calan remarked, not without humor, “it had little hope of winning the prize, since the Goncourt is meant to encourage young writers, and here I am with six children and already eighteen grandchildren.” But French television is making a film of Cosmas.
More interesting than what literary critics or media types think about Cosmas is the response of the Cistercian monks themselves. They can say better than anyone else whether Calan has captured or travestied their way of life. For them the nature of a religious vocation is not an idle speculation or a literary poser: they are in it for real. Cosmas was submitted to the ultimate test: it was read aloud in the refectory at La Trappe de Soligny, and after the reading the monks discussed it with the author. A letter from Dom Marie Gérard, the real-life abbot of La Trappe, summarizes their impressions. The abbot was wholly delighted and quoted a theologian who said that so much theology could be conveyed through novels. Had not Hans Urs von Balthasar, one of the most outstanding Roman Catholic theologians of the century, written a fat volume on the novels of Georges Bernanos? “I am struck,” wrote the abbot, “by your literary success in holding the attention of the reader throughout the 219 pages of your book, and by the psychological and theological analysis of the criteria for a vocation. You tackle the subject head-on and maintain the interest in a way which theological textbooks signally fail to do.” Father Marie Gérard, like the narrator in Cosmas, was first novice master and is now abbot. This “ideal reader” concludes: “As I read your book, I have to admit that I kept saying, ‘Yes, that’s just the way it is.’?”
Only on two points is Dom Marie Gérard mildly critical. He finds Cosmas’s insistence on the certainty of his vocation slightly dubious, given that he is never prepared to consider what the abbot or the novice master think about it. He goes on: “It is true that those who have a genuine vocation feel quite sure about it and have an inner certainty, but paradoxically they need and want recognition on the part of those who are responsible for their vocation, and they remain unsure about the authenticity of their vocation so long as they do not have this recognition. It is an odd thing that those who are most sure of their vocation despite and against superiors are usually in illusion. To such an extent that obstinacy becomes evidence of a nonvocation. That links up with the theological pattern: God calls—and the church calls (the lives of saints always show a humility that makes them ready to question even their profoundest interior convictions).”
Dom Marie Gérard in his letter also reflected another criticism that came in the first instance from the novices at La Trappe. The emphasis on religious life as the fulfillment of the Rule seemed to them to be misleading. Although they conceded that the love of God in fact led to a passionate fidelity to the Rule of St. Benedict, they wanted to dispel the impression that “monastic life consists in obeying orders for the rest of one’s days. That is too much like the ‘military discipline’ that Father Roger wants to avoid. And that shocks young people: one does not come here in order to keep the Rule and to obey the orders of superiors. It is true that
‘regularity’ was at one time in the forefront of our spirituality, and of course it presupposed the love of God. But the framework and foundation of religious life must not become the most important aspect of it. Today we lay greater stress on the positive values lived out in monastic life than on the context of regularity in which they take place. ‘Regularity’ by itself seems cold and comes to resemble some kind of Kantian ‘duty’.”
But these two points aside—and by making them, the abbot showed that Cosmas was worth taking seriously—he congratulated the author on his perceptiveness and saluted him finally as “a monk and novice master honoris causa of La Trappe” (Letter to Pierre de Calan, 30 December 1977).
There could be no higher commendations. As a genre, the novel of monastic life has barely existed in France (or elsewhere for that matter). The reason is simply that monks are men of silence who do not feel impelled to write novels; and their “thoughts” or “lights” are confined to notebooks that are invariably destroyed on their death. The result is that religious life, when it has been considered at all, has been written about by outsiders with axes to grind. This is true whether one looks at hostile tracts from the eighteenth century, such as Diderot’s La Religieuse or Chateaubriand’s romantic conception of religious houses as hospitals for those bruised by an impossible love, or late nineteenth-century aesthetic Catholics such as Huysmans in Là-bas, who exploited monastic life as a stick with which to belabor the unheeding contemporary world. Even Bernanos, from whom Calan, with his conversations that are dialogues of salvation, is remotely descended, confined himself to studying diocesan priests whose lugubrious parishes were a microcosm of early twentieth-century France. To have written a successful novel about monastic life, a regional novel of the Spirit, is not the least of Calan’s achievements. There was a gap. It has now been filled.
But it would be mistaken, in conclusion, simply to reduce Cosmas to a novel about monastic life. It is indeed that, but it is something else besides. Monks are related to the rest of the Christian community. They are not isolated eccentrics. And an abbey is a place where the Christian life is lived to the full, with an intensity and an awareness not found elsewhere (which is why when it goes wrong, it goes tragically wrong); but a monk is no more than a Christian who has realized the full and stringent demands of his faith and whose life acts as an eschatological “sign” to the rest of the church. Pierre de Calan has something to say to those who live in “the world.” To the religious vocation corresponds the vocation of marriage, which has the same criteria of fidelity and perseverance. After the publication of Cosmas, Calan was asked by a Christian group to write about fidelity in marriage. He explained the outline of his paper as follows: “All choice involves the risk of error. Everyone starts out in marriage with great love, but after a number of years the marriage can seem empty and vain. Fidelity alone can cope and compensate for the absence of the right dispositions—and it can sometimes create them.” An austere doctrine, I remarked. “But,” said he, “it is fundamentally Catholic.”
Cosmas’s first cell was just here. He was baptized Jean and his surname came from an old Burgundy family of veterinary surgeons. No doubt it was this tradition that prompted him to take St. Cosmas as his patron when he began to serve God in the habit of the Reformed Cistercians. Cosmas was a doctor who emerged from Arabia with his brother Damien sometime toward the end of the third century. True, he was a doctor and not a vet. But when you are trying to heal and ease pain, it little matters whether it is men or animals who suffer . . .
Forgive me rambling on like this. We monks love the rule of silence: we love it because we need it. This holds for all the disciplines that we gladly accept when we come here: the strict timetable, the lack of freedom in the use of time, the uncomfortable broken sleep pattern, penances and fasting, work and prayer. All these are not self-inflicted punishments for their own sake—as some writers have suggested—nor are they a deliberate and masochistic attempt to win through to an antinatural mysticism.
The truth is much simpler, much more human. To welcome him who is the whole purpose of our lives, we do what the housewife instinctively does when she is expecting a guest: we tidy the place up, get rid of everything that is stained or dirty, make it spick-and-span. We know perfectly well that the complexes and obsessive neuroses by which some try to explain our lives on the human level really do exist in each one of us. And we know, too, that if we didn’t master them by keeping a tight rein over our body and mind, our thoughts and actions, we would be overwhelmed by ourselves. We would no longer be open to the search for God that is at the heart of religious life. You wanted to see this for yourself for a few weeks. Quite naturally, the lover banishes from his thoughts everything that would distract him from the object of his love; quite naturally, he avoids the occasions that would place too great a strain on his fidelity. And that is what we do, quite naturally, when we obey our Rule.
Since Cosmas was here there have been some modifications in the harshness of our life, and some things have been made easier: the public confession of faults in the chapter has been abolished; presence at all the hours of the Divine Office is less strictly insisted upon; and some parts of the abbey, notably the church, are now heated during the winter. These changes formed part of an attempt to adapt to contemporary developments and ways of thinking. Perhaps more important, they express a desire to enhance our life of sacrifice, prayer, and work by stressing the spirit rather than the letter, free consent rather than external compulsion. Yet obedience remains as important as ever. It is a form of discipline that we cherish.
The rule of silence has also been modified. But most of us make only sparing use of the freedom we have been given. We know that silence provides the privileged way and the best environment for encountering God, growing in intimate union with Christ, and hearing the voice of the Spirit. We know, too, that silence fosters community life. Those who have never lived a monastic life might suppose that we are isolated and separated from one another because we speak only rarely. Nothing could be further from the truth. We are united in and by silence, like travelers sharing the same shelter or children crouching in the same hiding place. And we feel that the more we tried to communicate, the less we would commune.
Yet we remain human beings—and that was something that poor Cosmas found difficult to accept. Our need and love of silence do not prevent it being a burden, even after ten, twenty, or thirty years of monastic life. At the first opportunity a torrent of words will gush forth from us, rather like springs in mountain villages that overflow with joyous abundance. Our brother porters are famed for their garrulousness, and even they are outstripped by portresses in convents of women. You will discover that superiors like myself have the same temptation and are no better at resisting it.
This, then, was Cosmas’s first cell. If you can call it a cell. This is where we sleep. The cells are no more than cubicles less than three yards long and two yards across, divided from one another by thin partitions that don’t reach the ceiling. During sleep they are shut off by curtains made of rough, striped tent cloth, rather like the material used to cover a mattress.
When we are not sleeping the cubicles remain open. The visitor can see for himself the poverty of our common life. A simple wooden bed with a headpiece that takes the form of a child’s crib—an unexpected tribute to elegance—a mattress and blankets beneath which we lie fully clothed. There is a crucifix on the wall, a clothes hook, a simple picture of Our Lady (a photograph of one of the innumerable statues carved by our Father Marie Bernard). There is no wardrobe, not even a box. The clothes we need are supplied by the brother in charge of the wardrobe. We have everything we need in the place where the Rule and the orders of our superiors prescribe that we will use it: so the psalter is in the church; books and periodicals are in the scriptorium, which is where we study; working clothes are in the changing room, where we leave our choir habits when we set off for the workshops or the farm; plates and cutlery are in the refectory. The monk not only has nothing of his own, he has nothing even entrusted to him. The only piece of furniture we have is a desk in the scriptorium.
All the cells look alike in their bareness and straight-line uniformity; if they did not have names inscribed above them, there would be no way of distinguishing between them. But after fifty years of religious life and having slept in a dozen or so different cells in this dormitory, I can assure you that most of them have some special feature. All the drafts from the staircase and corridor find their way into this cell, for instance. This one is always rather warm: even in the depths of winter it is the last to be reached by the rays of the setting sun, and it is assigned by custom to the oldest monk. When the moon comes up over the guesthouse, its first cold rays fall on the curtain of this cell. Here the partition unaccountably vibrates. And some cells have astonishing acoustic properties.
The directory of our order says that the monks of old used to consider the dormitory as an extension of the chapel. Compline, which we sing before going to bed, is the most restful of all our prayers. We offer to the Lord and lay before him the burden of the day that has just gone by. Like every other day, we have lived through it according to the prescriptions of our Rule. When Cosmas first came here, the timetable was very like the one you knew. We woke in the middle of the night, at three o’clock, for the office of Matins. We used to have prime and the chapter meeting. Then came a time for reading and private prayer, next the office of Lauds and the celebration of Mass. A couple of hours of manual work took us up to sext, just before lunch. Then in the afternoon, the same balanced life, governed by strict rules: the office of nones, then work on the farm or in the workshops, Vespers, a time for prayer, supper, another period for reading. When the Compline bell rings we come together in the church for the last time and peace descends, a reward for the austerity to which, throughout the long day, we have subjected our bodies and our minds.
You told me that you were very impressed by the solemn chant of the Salve Regina in the darkened church when only the statue of Our Lady, high above the choir, is illumined. What we are doing in fact is to entrust ourselves to the Mother of Peace for the coming night. Then we go to the dormitory in total silence and with souls gathered in complete peace and tranquility.
Usually a few noises will disturb this blessed calm. Familiar noises, almost liturgical in their predictability: Father Louis de Gonzague clearing his throat, Brother Jean de la Croix dropping his sandals on the floor, the two deep sighs that announce that Brother Paul Albert is dropping off to sleep. Monks usually sleep soundly. The limited time for sleep, the fatigue that comes from manual work, the tranquility of a life in which everything is foreseen, the deep inner peace that fills us—all these mean that once we lie down, we do not long remain awake, and insomnia is almost unknown. But it can sometimes happen that the abbey is disturbed by the noisy breathing of monks with flu or by the unconscious groanings of some of the brethren or by the creaking noise of the boards when an uneasy sleeper turns over. Every religious house knows the menace of snorers or that—fortunately less frequent—of monks who talk in their sleep.
Whenever possible the noisiest monks are given a dormitory of their own. And novices usually sleep apart, because we realize how difficult getting used to unwonted noises can be. When Cosmas came here, rebuilding work meant that only one common dormitory was available and he was assigned the noisiest of all the cells—a misfortune that was my fault.
Father Jacques Marie called it Denys’s Ear. You have probably seen him and noticed his sharp features and hawklike look: he left my office just as you arrived. He’s a former naval officer. He told us about the vast natural cavern at Syracuse in Sicily where prisoners were once kept. To please Denys the Tyrant, Archimedes had hollowed out a sort of tube halfway up the wall; and through it could be heard the slightest sigh, the most private whisper, and even the prisoners’ breathing. In this way the tyrant could eavesdrop on confessions, plans for escape or flight, rumors of conspiracy. He was believed to be a magician.
Now Cosmas’s first cell has the same odd acoustics. Whereas sounds reached most of the cubicles only after they had been muffled and hushed, Cosmas’s cell was exceptionally noisy. He suffered a great deal from this, partly because he found it difficult to sleep, but even more, perhaps, because these sounds were for him a revelation of the minor defects and physical weaknesses of the monks. When he came to La Trappe his idealism made him imagine that we were disembodied spirits.
At that time I was what we call the novice master; that is, the monk who has charge of the novices’ formation. During my time in the abbey I had twice lived in that cell and knew what it was like. I ought to have realized that Cosmas, with his extreme sensitivity and his unrealistic vision of monks and monastic life, would be disturbed by this excessive noise. Perhaps a quieter cell would not have enabled him to avoid the first breakdown, but it was certainly made worse by a lack of sleep. It was a bad blunder to put this sensitive novice, who depended so much on his environment, into Denys’s Ear. I was fully responsible for the decision and take the blame.
Now here is Cosmas’s last resting place: the small rectangle of consecrated ground where all that remains of his mortal flesh mingles with the clay of the earth.
You know that monks are buried without a coffin, on the clay, just like that, in their choir habit. Their bodily remains are unprotected against water, worms, underground rodents, and the infinitely small creatures that quickly turn into humus whatever is buried in the soil. Some people are horrified at the thought of this return to the earth by way of gradual decomposition. We think of it as normal. At funerals we pay respect to the body because it has been the dwelling place of the soul and the instrument of a human will. But we know that our earthly husk has fulfilled its task by the time we come to die. Why should we delay our return to dust by means of a few planks coated with zinc or lead? There is a strength and an ordered beauty in natural processes: it is good that matter should return to matter. The cross on which the name of each monk is inscribed is not put there to stand guard over a body that is of no more use to him; it hints at the truth that the dead live forever only in virtue of our redemption.
Toward dusk on a gray day like today you can hardly see our cemetery. You need to be up at dawn on a clear day when the rising sun bathes the apse and the side chapels with burnished mauve, and prolongs the shadow of the crosses on the brown earth still dank with dew. One understands why the Germans call a cemetery a Friedhof, a field of peace.
Our graves are as identical as our cells. Just a slightly raised mound of earth beneath a cross that bears the name the monk had in religion: here Brother Clement, there Father Bonaventure. A monk does not break all the bonds of love when he enters La Trappe: all his life long, he will remain a son, a brother, an uncle, a cousin, an affectionate friend. But henceforward, his real family is the Cistercian family. Anonymity makes each one of us a stone in the building, a handful of flour in the dough . . . Under the dead monk’s name, his status in religious life: priest, lay brother, novice, oblate. And then a single date: the date of death, which is for us the moment of being born to real life.
As you can see the cross that marks the place where Cosmas is buried is rather vague: February 1938. We never knew the exact day of his death. Above the date: Brother Cosmas, novice. At that time some thought the inscription went too far: strictly speaking, Cosmas was not a member of the community when his corpse was discovered.
Father Abbot had at first obtained permission to have Cosmas buried in the parish cemetery: this was a provisional arrangement, so long as his family did not ask for his mortal remains. His body had been moved into the abbey church for the vigil. He was to be placed in his coffin next morning, the coffin having been hastily ordered from Brother Paul, the joiner. Six monks were appointed to accompany the body to the parish church of Soligny, where they would sing the Office of the Dead before the funeral.
We took it in turns, two by two, to watch over him throughout the night. The candles cast a hesitant light on the body, which lay on a trestle table covered with a black cloth. Specks of gold flickered on the brass candlesticks of the altar. As the wind caught the candles, the seat rests in the nearest choir stalls gleamed briefly. A shifting frontier of shadow enfolded this pool of light, merging into total darkness toward the end of the nave, behind the altar, and in the arms of the transept. It was a starless, moonless night toward the end of winter, damp and cold, and one could scarcely make out the frame of the stained-glass windows.
Between the recitation of the psalms there were long pauses for silent prayer. It must have been about midnight, the time when Father Emmanuel and I were due to be replaced and to return to the dormitory. I was asking God to welcome our deceased brother and, in his mercy, to make allowances for all his sufferings and disappointments—especially for the dream-vision of religious life, pursued since childhood, which Cosmas could neither abandon nor realize.
I could almost see him in the same church, right at the start of his novitiate, keeping watch over the body of Father Élie, whose face had taken on a waxlike transparency and whose forehead, in the candlelight, gleamed like old ivory. Something prompted me to turn and observe Cosmas: his gaze seemed to be riveted on the face of the dead monk, and his expression was a strange mixture of fascination and contentment. I noticed the same expression when the body of Father Élie was placed in his grave and gradually buried. Cosmas seemed to fear neither death nor burial. That same evening he said to me:
“What a grace it is, Father, to think that my body will be buried like that.”
Was this perhaps the memory that came back to me at that precise moment? Or was it a deeper inspiration? . . .
The presence of the Holy Spirit is such a living reality for us and it lingers within the walls of the abbey so much that our first thought is to attribute to him any idea that occurs to us. But while our life of penance and prayer and the intimacy that we strive for in our relationship with the three persons of the Trinity make us tend to detect the influence of the Spirit in the workings of our minds, humility and the wisdom of experience prevent us from attributing to him our every whim. My imagination could have been overstimulated through lack of sleep, the deep upset caused by the death of Cosmas and the tragic circumstances of his discovery, and by the strain of a prayer in which I was desperately trying to commune with the soul of Cosmas, now in the hands of God.
The brothers who were to take over from us came into the church. When I got back to the dormitory and had drawn the curtain of my cell, I was afraid I might be unable to sleep. In fact I fell immediately into a deep and peaceful sleep for the short period that remained to me.
A few hours later, after Matins in the middle of the night, I met Father Abbot just outside the cloister, which is for us, as the Rule splendidly says, “the workshop of the spiritual life.” I bowed low before him and said “Benedicte.” He looked at me for a moment before answering, “Dominus.”
“Reverend Father,” I said, “an idea has been on my mind throughout the night.”
He looked at me again for some time, as was his custom. My predecessor, Dom Philippe Jalluy, was tall, austere, and intimidating. He had the drawn features and the slim, tall appearance that I lack and that people instinctively expect to find in a monk, especially in an abbot. When he turned his head, his shoulders moved as well: although this seemed to us to manifest his concern for dignity, it was in fact due to a spinal defect. His face was one of the most motionless I have ever known, and only his eyelids seemed to move, ever so slowly, and the movement of the eyes was slower still. It was only toward the end of his life that we finally grasped that he had undergone great suffering, and that his impassivity was the mask of heroism. Simply by seeing him kneeling at the altar, most of the monks were persuaded that he enjoyed mystical experiences. We felt guided by him, caught up in the perfection that the Rule enjoins. But it took courage to approach him: he was an awesome figure, and he did not exactly inspire plain speaking.
Was it perhaps true that over and above his physical suffering, he had also had to undergo deep spiritual trials? Some of the greatest monks have known fearful difficulties and almost unbearable doubts concerning faith or hope. Dom Philippe never confided in any of us, except perhaps in Father Laurent, who was his confessor. He was one of those heroic souls who have not the slightest trace of self-pity and who put into practice the tough maxim of Clotilde de Vaux: “It is unworthy of heroic souls to spread abroad the distress they feel.”
On his father’s side he came from a rich and traditionally Jansenist family of Lyons. His Parisian mother had a very liberal background, and there were writers and musicians in the family. The sensitivity that came from his mother undoubtedly made the lack of human love in religious life a cause of suffering. But he had opted once and for all for his father’s austerity. To seek to please would have seemed to him cowardice. The way he announced his decisions—and they were usually right—was disconcerting: he never felt he had to give the reasons for them. Though his psychological grasp could be penetrating, his temperament inclined him to rapid black-and-white judgments. Not that he ever lost his temper, unlike some of the most famous Cistercian abbots. But the curtness and—often—the irony of his remarks kept us at a distance, “at barge-pole length,” said Father Jacques Marie.
Death alone seemed to release him from his sense of being the abbot and to allow him to become a father and a friend, for in death the soul of the deceased monk passed out of his hands and was entrusted to the judgment of God. More than once at the deathbed of one of the monks I saw him shed tears, reveal his humanity, or say a few words of infinite gentleness.
He had a splendid singing voice, and his questions rang out like assertions. And so on that morning, when he had surveyed me with his pale blue eyes, he asked, “It’s about Cosmas?” I knew that I had no need to answer.
Dom Philippe led me to his office and nodded for me to sit down and then to speak. He paced up and down in silence while I told him about my feeling, my conviction that the mortal remains of Cosmas should be buried not in the parish graveyard at Soligny but in the monastic cemetery, next to the church and alongside Brother Thaddée, whom we had buried just a few days before.
Dom Philippe seemed taken aback by this suggestion. After a pause he pointed out that our cemetery was part of the monastic enclosure: it was open only to monks or oblates or very close friends whose lives had been entirely devoted to the community or who had shared in its atmosphere. Cosmas had died almost two years after leaving the abbey, to which he had never returned, and therefore he could not in the ordinary way take his place among the monks. Then he said:
“If you really want it, Father, we could treat him as a friend of the abbey, although . . .”
It often happened that Dom Philippe left his sentences trailing in the air, and this gave an added sense of remoteness to what he said.
I waited for a moment, just to make sure that Dom Philippe had nothing more to add. Then I explained that what I had in mind went further than what he was suggesting. I did not want Cosmas to be buried in the monastic cemetery as a friend, but as a member of the community, as the novice that he intended to be once more when death had taken him away from us. Had we not given him permission to return and to have one last chance of trying to fulfill what he believed to be his vocation? If he had not mysteriously died on the way to La Trappe, if he had once more put on the novice’s habit, and if he had died only a few days later, then we would have buried him among the monks. Was it altogether fair that death should have prevented him from realizing our agreement?
Father Abbot smiled vaguely as he interrupted me:
“Why do you speak of our agreement? You have a short memory, Father. You presented me with a fait accompli, and as you will remember, all I said was, ‘Let God’s grace take its course.’ . . .”
I accepted this. It was perfectly true that after a conversation with his friend, Dominique, I had agreed without consulting anyone else that Cosmas should return. Father Abbot went on:
“Let’s not go back over the past. Your question is perfectly straightforward. Ought we now to treat Cosmas as though he were a member of the community? This was his intention, and you had given your approval . . .”
After a pause for thought he said:
“This boy, you know, has always been something of a mystery for us. I would like to discuss the matter with the council.”
If I did not mistrust the military metaphors that have abounded in spiritual literature for so long, I would describe the abbot’s council as a sort of general staff—or, if you prefer a civilian comparison, a board of management. Nowadays one or two members are elected as representatives of the whole community. At that time they were all appointed by Father Abbot. They included the prior and the subprior; the cellarer and the secretary, who were in charge of the material life of the abbey; and sometimes one or two monks whose judgment the abbot trusted. I was a member as novice master.
Father Abbot summoned us just before the office of prime.
All the details of the scene come back to me with astonishing clarity. Father Abbot asked me to sit down by his desk, while the other members of the council sat opposite in a semicircle. Surveying the group, I marveled once again at the effects of religious life. Just like brothers and sisters, and despite obvious differences in appearance, members of the same religious order come to have a family likeness. It is not explained simply by their dress or attitudes. It has a deeper cause: it expresses the inner illumination that comes from a life of prayer. But far from stifling personality and making everyone look the same, this family likeness enhances the difference. One thinks of paintings by old masters where the uniformity of dress heightens the diversity of faces and character.
Father Léon, the prior, was at that time the only choir monk who wore a beard—a broad, white, fanlike beard. He reminded me of St. Peter, but of St. Peter in old age when he had mellowed and was writing those letters that are so full of gentleness. The subprior, Father Athanase, was a very different character: he was much younger, had rather a stiff military bearing, and was later deported to Germany for his active involvement in the resistance. There he died. The appearance of the cellarer and the secretary matched the work they did. Father Cellarer had the jovial and energetic look of a commercial traveler or small businessman. Although Father Secretary had been a carpenter before entering religious life, in his steel-rimmed spectacles he looked the perfect administrator. Nearest to me, finally, were the two wise men appointed by the abbot, although they had no official position: the enigmatic and highly intelligent Father Marie Silvestre, and dear Father Emmanuel, with the profile of a stained-glass saint and a look of great gentleness—of all my brothers in religion he was the one closest to my heart.
Father Abbot asked me briefly to run through the argument I had put to him an hour ago. My proposal seemed to be greeted with a combination of indifference, surprise, and weariness. Cosmas had been the unwitting cause of a lot of trouble. The great charity of the men gathered around Dom Philippe did not stop them thinking that the time had come, now that Cosmas was at rest, for them to share in his repose. Father Subprior repeated the objections of principle that the abbot had at first put to me. Father Secretary pointed out that if Cosmas were to be buried without a coffin, like a monk, it would be difficult to return the body to his family later, should they request it. The other members of the council indicated by a gesture or their silence that the whole matter seemed trivial, that my suggestion failed to arouse their enthusiasm, and that they would abide by the decision of Father Abbot. Father Emmanuel was the only one to use the word compassion: he looked at me briefly, and I understood that he was thinking of me as much and perhaps rather more than of Cosmas.
Dom Philippe pondered this for a moment, slowly turned toward Father Emmanuel, and then said:
“You are right. Cosmas will be buried this evening in the community cemetery. We will say the Office of the Dead immediately after nones.”
Then he turned toward me:
“Father, you will cancel the ceremony arranged for tomorrow and offer my apologies to the parish priest of Soligny. And you will ask Brother Gabriel to clothe the body in a novice’s habit.”
Father Abbot’s decision took everyone, including myself, by surprise; I had not dared hope for it; the others expected him to give reasons for this waiving of our customs. But as usual he did not explain his decision. The council was at an end.
After prime, Father Abbot informed the chapter of the arrangements for Cosmas’s funeral, still without justifying his decision. The sense of surprise and the need for some explanation were just as strong as they had been in the council. But none of the monks dared to question Dom Philippe. And monks are so inclined and trained to obedience that the funeral service and the burial took place not superficially but sincerely, as though we were burying and commending to God the oldest member of the community.
According to custom the body had been washed and clothed, as Father Abbot had prescribed, in a novice’s habit, with the hood drawn down over the face to conceal the marks made by the animal bites. When Dom Philippe cast the first spadeful of earth on the body, and when the bearers filled in the grave, the devout calm on all sides made it clear that we were indeed burying our brother Cosmas, novice, by the apse of our church, beneath the wooden cross, and under the barely perceptible mound of earth.
Great joy and gratitude came over me. I could hardly put it into words, but in the depths of my being I felt, gently and ceaselessly, an invasion of light. At that moment it seemed as though the clouds that had darkened Cosmas’s life were now dissipated, and that joy and order once more prevailed. As for the reasons that had led Father Abbot to accede to my last request on behalf of Cosmas, I only understood them, in all their depth and richness, many months later when Dom Philippe and I had a conversation beside de Rancé Lake.