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About the Author
James Carroll was raised in Washington, D.C., and ordained to the Catholic priesthood in 1969. He served as a chaplain at Boston University from 1969 to 1974, then left the priesthood to become a writer. A distinguished scholar-
in-residence at Suffolk University, he is a columnist for the Boston Globe and a
regular contributor to the Daily Beast.
His critically admired books include Practicing Catholic, the National Book Award–winning An American Requiem, House of War, which won the first PEN/Galbraith Award, and the New York Times bestseller Constantine’s Sword, now an acclaimed documentary.
Read an Excerpt
Not many miles from the hill on which I stood they were prying great chunks of concrete off the mangled bodies of children. They were picking up corpses from ditches but leaving severed limbs to rot in the vicious August sun. And suddenly they were dropping from the sky again in their flashing Phantoms, blowing balconies off tall buildings, twisting minarets and smokestacks apart and stripping the trees of branches. They were pumping rounds of fire at targets picked off maps at random; their long-range guns were almost never silent.
But I didn't hear them. And usually I did not think about Beirut. I had not concerned myself with Lebanon, though everyone in Israel, even the brothers there at our remote priory, had thought of little else all summer.
I pulled the hood of my cowl forward for shelter against the sun. The desert wind snapped at the worn gray fabric of my habit.
Yes, to my ever-increasing surprise, what those words — priory, cowl, habit — indicate is true. I was a monk.
As in monk's bread? you ask.
As in jam. We were a small herd of bull-nuns, though the canonical constitution preferred to call us English Benedictines. We were a teaching order, centered at Downside Abbey in England. My priory, Holy Cross, was our contemplative outpost in the Holy Land. Our angels' island, as it were. The monks came there from sister monasteries in Britain and the United States. They came for three months, six, a year; for retreat or sabbatical; to renew their vows or — and alas, these fellows were always better company — to finalize their decisions to breach them.
I was one of the seven brothers who were there permanently. As the monastic argot had it, I was a lay brother, which phrase had always called to mind, forgive me, the interrogatory — "Lay, brother?" — of a hustling Eighth Avenue pimp. You, of course, are thinking, since you know your Benedictine history, Ah, poor lame-brained bastard! Lay brothers were the enlisted men of monasticism, the serfs, the Little Johns, who praised the Lord in meniality — Scoop that slop! Knead that dough! Stomp those grapes! — while the tonsured, the clerical officer class, aired their manicures, thumbed their breviaries and their noses. In the new Church, lay brothers were to be treated with all the dignity due the sons of God, a return to Benedict who brought democracy to the West. Monks were all equal in the Lord, n'est-ce pas? Still, some were more equal than others. The shit-work always fell to us.
Myself, I did not complain. But then I didn't harvest olives in the sun or scrape the cistern free of algae on my knees. I served as librarian and sacristan; no heavy lifting, inside work, a desk of my own.
The care of books remained, in my opinion, a noble function. Even those books. The bulk of my library consisted of outdated tomes, manuals of Scholastic philosophy mainly, and commentaries on canon law. You would not believe the dry-rot, the trivia, the efflorescent casuistry. Dust rose off every page. Papa John flung open his famous aggiornamento window, I'm convinced, less to let fresh air in than to throw such volumes out. The Church was entombed in their heartless formulations.
We Benedictines did not believe in destroying books, any books; we invented them, after all, in our scriptoria. Books were our sacred totems, our sacraments. And so Brother Librarians in England and America, on the theory that desert monks would read any old shit, sent us their mush-spined copies of the Codex, the Devotio Moderna, the Imitatio, the Summa, the Oxoni ense, the Moralia and the Etcetera. Monk librarians on two continents knew of Brother Francis, bibliophile, fool and scholar manqué, who would receive each book gratefully, wipe it carefully and fondle it for a moment, even if for all the monk's bread in the world, he would never read it.
My duties as sacristan were less sacred. In fact they were mainly a matter of laundry. In the civilized world the sacristy, which is in effect the department of props and costumes, was always entrusted to Brother Swish, some monastic Edith Head. Not there. Me, I was an aesthetic minimalist. It was the desert after all, not Canterbury, and not Fire Island either. My simple responsibility was to see that Father Prior and each visiting priest had what they needed to concelebrate the daily liturgies. I spent much of my time therefore — this seems like an admission and would once have humiliated me to make it — ironing linens and vestments like a putzfrau. It would have humiliated me even more to confess, as I do now, that I had come rather to like it. There was a certain visceral satisfaction, one I could never have imagined in my previous life, in folding a Purificator precisely in thirds and creasing it with half one's weight on the old iron, transforming a balled, wrinkled cloth into a sacramental crisp and white enough to be worthy of the Sacred Species. As every housewife of the old school knew, and every confessor too, nothing pleases like making what was filthy clean.
"Ah, Durkin, you old fart!" I could hear my former colleagues bleating from the poker table in the faculty lounge, "And you hadn't even booze to blame it on!"
To which I'd have replied, better break your elbow than your knee. Better waste your liver than your soul. Ah, dear reader, what you'd never believe is that over those years at Holy Cross my gratitude at being there moved me more than once to tears. Of course it wasn't the laborare that did that, the menial work. I had not lost my mind. It had been an act of profound self-preservation when I took a lifelong vow of Stability to the Priory of the Holy Cross near the village of Tantur on the West Bank of the Jordan River. Once I'd had a thousand problems. But there I had only three: poverty, chastity and obedience.
You see, all I have to do is begin to sketch this story and I resort to self-sealing irreverence, the fake cynicism we came to expect of each other when the subject at hand was serious. But it can't be helped. My story begins in that monastery, and my own impulse, now, to be chagrined by that, is absolute. Still, I refuse it.
To put it as forthrightly as I can, I, together with my brothers there, had accepted the call to build, day in and day out, a living edifice of prayer.
"Come, come, Durkin!"
Let me say it, for my sake if not yours. My life's meaning had become, despite itself — what else to call it? — holiness. Shrinks say "wholeness" but miss by a mile what I'm talking of: prayer, the desert life, spiritual existence, the Eucharist and a strict observance of the monastic hours, from Matins to Compline. How can I describe the life to you and not sound addled, inane or, worse, sincere? Words fail me perhaps because in that setting and throughout my years in it we didn't use them much. Except for Sundays and feast days we continually maintained the Great Silence. In lingua that's Magnum Silentium, which sounds like a weapon, and of course it is. Silentium is the great enemy of Sardonius.
So there I was, in a monastery. And, offered with some embarrassment but no apology, here is the meaning I began to uncover there, but only on that day which would be, though I didn't know it yet, my last.
It distracted enormously when events outside our enclosure intruded. Like, if you will, the war between Israel and the Palestinians. Not a week had passed that summer in which one monk or another hadn't homilized about it at liturgy, and every day someone prayed for peace with justice if he was for the Palestinians, or for the survival of God's Chosen People if he was for the Jews. I was known to pray for help in bearing with special burdens, by which my quibbling brothers no doubt knew I meant them.
A mere distraction? you say. That vicious, unending conflict? That slaughter? Yes. For me, I admit it, until then. But then, suddenly, for once it was not "distracting" me. It was obsessing me. I had the eye all at once of a worried parent in time of war, and I didn't miss a thing.
I saw, especially, Beirut. It was a city without windows. I imagined all that glass in shards, a crop of blades, sprouting underfoot. I imagined all those panicked sleepers running from their tin bungalows without sandals, slicing flesh from bone, dancing on the streets, not in them. In the howl of wind that afternoon, for a change, I did hear them, wailers, gunners, dive bombers. I saw children. I saw girls. I saw one in particular pressing her entrails back into her stomach, but her wound was like the mouth of a shrieking Arab. And whom should she have hated? That wily devil Arafat, hiding in his sewer until the river of babies' blood overspilled a gutter on cue for television? Or should she have hated our own beloved Begin, more popular than ever, leader at last of the cossack charge of his dreams? Would he have known a pogrom if he was the one who ordered it?
I lived in Israel, but I was not a Jew; among Englishmen, but I was an American; as a monk, but I was not ordained. Once a scholar of some repute, I was the custodian of cast-off books and I did laundry. Therefore my opinions were so much sand in the brain. I tried to live without them, but on that day the war had begun to frighten me, and I knew why.
The sun was setting. The shadow of evening had already fallen across the distant desert valley. Beyond, on a butte just visible in the east, was the ruin of Herod's palace — Antipas, the Herod who beheaded John because his daughter asked him to. The ruin sat on a lonely pinnacle from which its privilege was to bathe in the golden light some moments longer.
I understood Herod better than the celibate exigetes did because, before I was a laundress-monk hidden in Judea I'd had my measure of prominence too, and more to the point I'd had a daughter of my own. I'd held her in my arms before her mother did. Those few moments after her birth — a tough cesarean; I'd thought they both were dying — remained for me the very definition of happiness, wholeness, peace. As she'd grown older and of necessity away from me, my devotion to her had only intensified. If she had asked for some crazed prophet's head on a plate and I could have given it to her, I might have once. Why then, you might well ask, had I abandoned her more than a decade before when she was seven years old and needed me more than ever? It will take all these pages to explain, and in a way they are addressed, first, to her, the long and complicated confession of a parent who lost his way. Let me say now only that she was the last of my loves whom I betrayed.
I faced the thing itself, the sun, and stared at it, which one never did in the desert, even at that moment when its lower edge was slicing into the earth like a saw blade into pulp. I turned slightly and faced Bethlehem two miles to the south. Behind me, eight miles north of a line of hills, lay Jerusalem. I was desolate but still pompous, and made much of that geography; a monastery between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, between birth and death, between the beginning and the end. As if it were the vision Jesus had from a hill like that — or from that hill — I had seen in that plain a literal army massing during the Yom Kippur War; hundreds of tanks, thousands of soldiers and in the darkness the blinking light of countless campfires spread across the valley like a reflection of the stars. It had become every army to me, a permanent vision, as the Arabs had become the Jews, permanent victims, and I had become inured to every plight but Herod's — who couldn't refuse his daughter. His Salome wasn't a seven-year-old; all my child wanted was her Daddy.
The wind picked up and I tugged at my robe absently, as if it were a blanket under which I had been sleeping badly. I shivered. I had been there, where to you the virtue of detachment would have looked very much like the vice of indifference, for a fifth of my entire life, and all at once I was afraid. How did Eliot put it? I had seen birth and death, but had thought they were different.
I slid one hand inside its opposite sleeve and my fingers touched the paper I had hidden there. The note was folded neatly as it was when handed to me by Brother Porter just before Vespers. Once in the chapel, in my stall, I had opened it inside the psalter and while my brothers had chanted, "Praise is rightfully yours, O God in Zion, Vows to you must be fulfilled," I had read my contraband message in a swirl of happiness and terror that nearly toppled me. "Jerusalem," it said.
Jerusalem! Not the ancient heartbreak, secret or memory. Not the city Jesus would have gathered to himself like a mother her child. Another Jerusalem than these, a mundane one in which traffic gets snarled, taxi drivers grunt at the size of tips, and tourists check into hotels.
I pulled the folded paper out of my sleeve and in the wind prepared to open it again. My fingers were trembling.
I remembered taking her into my arms, no, hands; she was too small for arms. The doctor had barely wiped her clean of blood, Carolyn's blood. Carolyn was my wife whom I worshipped, considering my worship a higher form of love when, really, much later, it was what drove her away. If I had left too it was only when I understood that she would never be mine again. I must have traveled in a trance. I had come to that monastery. I had presented myself to Father Prior who must have taken my derangement for devotion. I had been completely disoriented, but for one thing. I knew enough right from the beginning not to tell him the truth. If I had told Father Prior the truth, he'd never have let me stay.
"Truth? What is truth?" said jesting Pilate — Bacon's line — as he washed his hands. And I wonder now, sitting here, rubbing at the skin of my own truth, was it the question of a sophist or was he really tormented?
My anguish was permanent, but I had long deflected it. But that afternoon I couldn't. I opened the square of paper and in the day's last light, with my back to the monastery, read it for the second time. "I must see you tonight. I am at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. Your Molly."
I flagged the rattling Arab bus that shuttled between Bethlehem and Jerusalem. The bus stopped for me as if it picked up vagrant monks at twilight all the time. With apologetic shrugs and my few words of Arabic I made the driver understand that I had no money for the fare. He waved me on. Mendicant Christians! What were our bizarre abnegations to him? I was grateful not to have the language. How could I have explained that a man of fifty, not perceptibly retarded, was violating a sacred vow by going into town without permission? Sometimes I saw my situation from the outside and it made me dizzy.
The bus was moving slowly. The road, winding up into the hills on top of which the city sat, was crowded with traffic. I had forgotten that, since sunset, it was Tishah-b'Ab, the late summer feast which drew Jews to Jerusalem from all over, including the controversial West Bank settlements. But this bus was nearly empty because it was for Arabs. There were a pair of old women in black shawls, three slouching youths in Banlon shirts and jeans, and a thin, hawk-nosed man seated by the door wearing, defiantly it seemed to me, the flowing Arab headdress. West Bank Arabs tended not to show themselves on Jewish feast days, and for good reason. The fanatics on both sides came out like goblins. They were the sensitive ones who were like the rest of us, but with less tolerance for life's cowshit. They'd rather be up to their asses in blood.
And so Israeli security was even more rigorous than usual. In Jerusalem, particularly in the Old City near the shrines, body-searches would be aggressive. Even monks got their flesh pressed on holy days, but I would not complain that night.
From the bus window I watched as the bleak dark desert landscape gave way to clusters of tall concrete apartment buildings which monotonously but so effectively surrounded Jerusalem. These apartment houses, hundreds of them filled with immigrant Jews, were the "facts" which bolstered Israel's resolve never to return East Jerusalem to Jordan. Since their strategic purpose was clear and crucial — and justified, I'd say — it didn't matter that the housing blocks, even at night, were unbearably ugly. The gray half-light of television glowed eerily in countless windows, and as we passed I wondered why those Jews were not going up to the city for devotions too. Was it Beirut? Were they watching the siege of the PLO stronghold on their little Sonys? Or did each apartment have its guard, its volunteer who stayed behind to resist when the Arabs finally came? "Remember," they would whisper to each other on that holy night, "the dogs attacked the last time on the Day of Atonement."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Prince of Peace"
Copyright © 1984 James Carroll.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Excellent story of an idealistic priest from NYC. who tries to stop the war in Vietnam and finds himself in a love triangle with an ex-nun and his best friend.
Absorbing reading, had to make myself quit to eat and do other trivial things. The heart-wrenching situation of the 'Trinity' tore me up. I sympathized with all three through the life-long love and friendship, the daily agony of watching that horrible war, and the betrayals that made them so very human. Praise God that He does forgive and restores us to Himself. Thank you, Mr. Carroll, for this insightful book.