Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Book Review: Cosmas or the Love of God

This novel--which is really almost a novel of suspense--is set in a French Trappist Monastery. The narrator tells the story of a young man who believes he has a vocation to the order but cannot commit to the stability of the monastic life. The story begins with the narrator telling a visitor about Cosmas's death and burial in the monastery graveyard, even though he was not really a member of the community. The narration and pacing of the novel really hold the reader in suspense--what happened to Cosmas? How did he die? Did he have a vocation?

The narrator is the novice master and he describes in detail Cosmas's struggles in the community: Cosmas is very enthusiastic about the Divine Office and totally dedicated to the Rule of St. Benedict. But he is frustrated and outraged by the human weaknesses of the monks and even more by the novice master's advice to him to be more accepting and understanding of human frailty. Cosmas wants to commit to the monastery only if he can leave the community periodically when he finds it difficult to accept some behavior of his fellow monks' behavior. He leaves the monastery the last time because he thinks the other monks are mechanical in their celebration of the Divine Office; that while they are chanting they show no emotion or transcendence. The novice master reminds him that he cannot use feelings to judge the effects of Grace.

Cosmas or the Love of God reminded me of Rumer Godden's In This House of Brede, with its testing not just of religious vocation but of love and self-giving. The author of Cosmas was Pierre de Calan (1911-1993) a Paris banker (president of the French division of Barclays Bank). The novel was published in French in 1977; I read the Peter Hebblethwaite translation in the Loyola Classics edition.

I was reading the book in the context of preparing for my discussion of the dissolution of the monasteries during Henry VIII's reign last Saturday. In his book, The Tudors: The Complete Story of England's Most Notorious Dynasty, G.J. Meyer provides an excellent overview of their development in the centuries before their destruction. He notes that "British conventional wisdom" about the monasteries in the sixteenth century was that they were corrupt and needed destruction. Meyer argues, however, that the monastic movement falls and rises, grows stagnant and revives constantly. A ridiculously simplified example: The Benedictines become unbalanced toward elaborate ritual with the Cluniac movement, so St. Bernard of Clairvaux and others develop the Cistercian reform; the Trappists (as in Cosmas or the Love of God) take the reform a step further--revising and perfecting the way of life to more faithfully follow The Rule--and Meyer points out, I believe correctly, that all these efforts of reform took place inside the Order, not from without. So, yes, the monasteries in England were on a downward slide in some ways but they were also on an upward arc in others. Some orders had still not recovered in numbers from the Black Death.

To me, the clincher of an argument against this "British conventional wisdom" is that Henry VIII's first targets in destroying the monastic (and mendicant or religious) foundation in England were in fact the rising stars and the best of the monastic and mendicant orders: The Carthusians, the Bridgettines, and the Observant Franciscans.

I was trying to remember or find other novels set in monasteries (not mysteries or thrillers) and came up with another: Sylvia Townsend Warner's The Corner that Held Them. If you think of any others, let me know--does Walter Scott's The Monastery count?

1 comment:

  1. Duh! "The King's Achievement" by Robert Hugh Benson!