Friday, December 27, 2013

A Survivor of the English Monastic Tradition: Brother Petroc

A dear friend gave me, as a birthday present, Brother Petroc's Return, a historical fantasy novel by S.M.C., Sister Mary Catherine Anderson, first published in 1937 by Little, Brown and Company. It was also published as an Image Books paperback:

The current edition is from the Dominican Nuns of Summit (New Jersey). The convent's website is down until January 2, 2014:

S.M.C. was born in Cornwall (an Anglican clergyman's daughter) and became a Catholic with her family while still a young girl, according to the biography at the back of the paperback. She wrote several historical novels set in Cornwall, especially about the Prayer Book Rebellion. I think the Dominicans in Summit intend to publish more of her works, but only the coming of the new year will confirm that information, since they have shut down their website during the Octave of Christmas ( does offer another work, The Chronicles of Thomas Frith, O.P.). I would be pleased to read S.M.C.'s historical novels.

She is a sophisticated and brilliant historical novelist based on my reading this book, at least. Using the "Hypothesis" as she calls it of a miracle, she demonstrates some great changes in religious life from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries.

Brother Petroc dies on August 14, 1549 in the midst of the Prayer Book Rebellion after learning that his two brothers have died fighting against Edward VI's imposition of the Book of Common Prayer. The Benedictine monastery in which he professed was saved from the Dissolution of the Monasteries because it was so hidden and unknown, perched at the top of a cliff on the Atlantic coast. He is buried in haste since the monks must flee from Edward's troops.

Four hundred years later, Benedictines have purchased and restored the ruined monastery and then the Abbot, Prior and Subprior discover Brother Petroc, not just incorrupt, but alive! S.M.C. carefully details the long recovery of the man who was buried 400 years before, and along the way, as this review from The Tablet in 1937 notes, reveals what really separates him from his Benedictine brothers, in spite of the fact they are living according to the same Rule:

The process of adjustment, as Brother Petroc again takes his place in his community, gives the author her opportunity of showing the great changes which have taken place in spiritual method during the last four hundred years. Before the Reformation, in the ages of Faith, the Christian, and especially the contemplative, thought more directly in terms of God's Will and less directly in terms of his own soul ; today, in Petroc's words, "People of this generation seem to place themselves in the centre of their universe, and to look at life from that standpoint." The pre-Reformation attitude is extrovert, the post-Reformation introvert. . . .

And the kindly but unimaginative Dom Maurus, who unwittingly did so much harm by bringing Petroc too suddenly into contact with a flood of new impressions, expresses the point well : "St. Benedict and the older Masters of the Spiritual Life had started with God and viewed the soul from that standpoint. Self-knowledge came through a comparison of their own souls with God, at Whom they were looking, and the desire that arose therefrom of rendering themselves as little unworthy of Him as possible. . . . Now the later exponents started with the soul itself and cleansed and disciplined it systematically, in order to make it fit for the entrance of God."

When I say that S.M.C. is a "sophisticated and brilliant historical novelist" I mean that she conveys this rather abstract and even academic fact through character development and plot. It is worked into the story as Brother Petroc amazes the Novices with whom he studies with his calmness, understanding, and holiness. Among those who think him merely simple and slow, the Prior comes to appreciate his wisdom and even his gifts as a poet, as he finds one of Brother Petroc's poems by chance:

Of winter-thorn and white-thorn
Fain would I sing,
Of Marye Flower of Heaven,
Of Chryste our King.

It fell about the Yule-tide,
When winds are starke and wilde,
That of a mayden stainless
Was born a littyl Child.

It fell about the Spring-time,
When flowers are freshe to see,
That Chryste, the Sonne of Marye,
Did die uponne a tree . . .  (pp. 147-148)

Not wishing to spoil the plot, I won't offer any more synopsis. Reading Brother Petroc's Return allows the reader, like the Novices, to be "in contact with a survival of the ages of faith, the great ages of the world", and like them will find it "so unusual and interesting" (p. 73). Highly recommended. As The Tablet reviewer said in 1937:

Brother Petroc's Return is a book of quite exceptional merit, for it shows not only a profound and deep comprehension of the ways of the Christian spirit, but is in itself a book of great beauty, a joy to read, and a profit to study.

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