I am currently engaged in working my way through all 20 of the Chronicles of Brother Cadfael of the Benedictine Abbey of St. Peter and St. Paul of Shrewsbury, in England. The action of the novels begins circa 1110 and continues for many years. I fear I will blow through them much too soon for my liking. They were written by Edith Mary Pargeter under her pen name Ellis Peters. For a woman who was apparently Church of England, she understood religious life better that most contemporary Catholics.
The Cadfael Chronicles are mysteries of the historical novel genre. There’s usually a dead person who entered eternal life under suspicious circumstances and Br. Cadfael, warrior and adventurer turned monk, is fully engaged with the local sheriff in deducing who did it and why. I love a good mystery and these are very good mysteries. But they are so much more.
The period milieu of England, just half a century after the Norman conquest, is carefully described and forms a background we, as contemporary Catholics, can only pine after. Everyone and everything is Catholic. The air the peasants and the nobles breath is catholic. There is a civil war being waged throughout the chronicles and both sides are Catholic. There is a chapel in every castle, whether controlled by Empress Maud or King Steven who are contesting the throne.
There are plenty of sinners and lots of sinful actions. But every one knows (even the most evil of actors) that there is a higher Authority to be feared more than either King or Empress that will adjudicate all past actions when acts are no more.
As the hero is a monk, there is much written about the life of a monastery and its occupants, as well as monastery’s importance to the nearby town and townspeople. If you desire to know how religious life works, you could do a lot worse than reading these novels.
What is even more impressive is how much one can learn about discernment through these stories. In the last number I read (The Potter’s Field), a young man is concerned about whether he has a vocation. He has been trying his vocation at another Benedictine monastery which has
been overrun by a renegade noble who claims allegiance to the Empress. As all the brothers are dispersed, his abbott sends him to Br. Cadfael’s monastery (6 days travel on foot) into the care of Abbott Radulfus. Here we have Abbott Radulfus’ advice to the young man:
“Many have entered for the wrong reasons, and later remained for the right ones, but to remain against the grain and against the truth, out of obstinacy and pride, that would be a sin. … I do not ask why you entered, though I think it may have been to escape the world without rather than to embrace the world within. You are young, and of the outer world you have seen as yet very little, and may have misjudged what you did see. … For the present take your full place here among us … Rest some days, pray constantly for guidance, have faith that it will be granted, and then choose. For the choice must be yours, let no one take it from you.”
As much as this is good advice to a fictional character of the 12th century it is also good advice to real men and women of our time.
Katherine and I meet our casual reading needs by frequenting a used book store. We treat it like a library with infinite checkout periods. We return with armloads of read books and exit with armloads of yet unread books and a slightly lighter pocketbook. The Cadfael mysteries will not be making the return trip. I hope I may have enough years left to enjoy reading them all again when my failing memory capacity makes them all new