Such a hullabaloo, chaos, absolute bedlam, a confusion of robes, prayers and invocations. Everything topsy-turvy, an unholy mess in this most holy of places. Noel swayed from side to side, swinging a thurible, smoke clouds rising to the ceiling. The sweet woodiness of incense could not mask the sour sweat of the holy men or their fetid breath as they cried out their appeals.
James beat his chest as he read Psalm 56. Michael chastised his flesh with a hazel switch as Simon wept. Placid Daniel sat with his breviary open on his lap, head bowed solemnly. There was the click clack of beads as four brothers, kneeling in a row, recited the rosary.
Paul stood apart from the others and tried to figure out what it meant. They had been expecting a miracle, not this catastrophe. What were they going to do?
The sixteen monks lived in a house at the end of a peninsula on the west coast of Ireland, fifty feet above the roiling Atlantic. Three storeys of stone roasted red by the corrosive spray of the salt water. The rooms inside were no more than cells, six feet by eight. Each contained a rough-hewn cot with a hessian cover, a straight-backed chair and a small side table with a ewer for water and an earthen cup. A piss pot sat under the bed. There was a crucifix by the door and a peg to hang a cowl but no mirror.
Sixteen rooms on the top two floors and a meeting area on the ground floor with an oak table and benching on two sides. Adjoining rooms served as pantry, kitchen and washroom. Outhouses built onto the main building provided living quarters for the two servants who saw to the monks’ minimal needs.
The winds, icy even in July, whipped the skirts of the monks’ robes against their bare shins. An errant blast would lift the robe over the head of an unsuspecting brother and reveal once white underpants, perished from wear and grey from washing in cold water. The rain came in sheets or as bullets, from above, from below and sometimes horizontal.
The nearest civilisation was five miles away. A civilisation of sorts, a cluster of houses with a petrol station, a shop, three pubs and a church. A place where one could purchase a can of motor oil, a pint of stout, a packet of chocolate digestives and have a mass said for a loved one but not a place to buy a book.
The people in this isolated community tended to their cows and sheep, sowed and reaped a scant harvest and invested their money shrewdly. They spoke well of nothing and nobody and begrudged everything. Sitting on their bar stools, they connived and chuntered, spat out their grievances and farted in loud harrumphs or syrupy fizzles. The world turned and life was doled out in the same bitter instalments. They paid no heed to the abstinent and abstemious men in the big house who offered themselves to God to atone for the sins of man.
Brother Bartholomew was the head monk or elder. Fluffy white hair around his ears rimmed a broad dome like a round hill emerging from the clouds. There was not a wrinkle on his face, not a line on his forehead and his eyes were blue and clear. He would have been a boon for advertising men seeking to promote the anti-aging properties of face creams. Maybe not the ideal candidate to boost the sale of shampoo but Bartholomew had no time for frippery. This was not a man concerned with outer appearance.
Brother Dominic was second in command and something of an éminence grise. His skin was as lined as the hide of a crocodile, wrinkles that begat wrinkles in a network of junctions and tributaries. The high colour of his face was offset by tightly wound grey hair that clung to his head like ash on hot coals. Dominic had been a tax consultant in secular life and Bartholomew often drew comparisons with Matthew the Apostle, once a tax collector for Herod Antipas who refused to convict the famous Galilean. “Matthew converted from scoundrel to devoted disciple,” Bartholomew would remark in jest but Dominic never rose to the bait. He was a difficult man to read and his was a watchful presence in the house.
Brother Bernard was number three in the pecking order. Good natured and diligent, he served as general factotum and kept things ticking over. At one time a primary school teacher, Bernard drew on that experience to manage the thirteen junior monks. They were a mixed bag, much like liquorice allsorts, sweet with a bitter aftertaste. There was excitable Simon, impressionable Martin, flighty Leo and zealous Michael, always first with his hand up when the elder was handing out prayer duties.
Each day followed the same schedule of contemplation and prayer. They met first thing at five in the morning, came together for a meal at one and again at eight in the evening for the elder's homily, which was rounded off by a final hour of prayer before bed. These were not monks who brewed beer as others had done since the Middle Ages. "Alcohol," Bartholomew observed, "gives rise to flights of fancy through the distorting lens of intoxication and is not compatible with a life of meditation." Nor was there any place for sniggering or horsing around. They were there to seek guidance from God on how best to praise him and ensure salvation.
Spiritual life was about sacrifice, not hedonism and the pleasure principle. "You can forget about dissatisfaction, alienation and all that malarkey,” Bartholomew informed his acolytes. “Less soul searching and more soul affirmation.” They adhered to strict rules, codified in a weighty tome that was locked away in a trunk in one of the outhouses. Bartholomew kept the key in the voluminous pockets of his robe. What else did he keep there? More than likely beads and a prayer book, less likely loose change, a corkscrew or a comb.
The novices received absolution for their sins though they had little opportunity to commit any serious transgression. Bartholomew listened patiently to their litany of minor offences and handed out bespoke penance for each misdemeanour. James coveted Bernard’s onyx prayer beads. Leo was two prayers short of his assigned target. Simon borrowed Peter’s sandals without his permission. Michael laughed at Daniel when he tripped on the stairs.
There was no one better than the bald monk at holding forth on the ins and outs of sin and forgiveness. "There is nothing to be gained from ranking sins," he advised them. "Cardinal, venial, omission, commission, it's all a matter of semantics. Sin is sin, simple as that. Never denigrate those you think have fallen short of the mark for if you do, you are committing the sin of pride."
No visits were permitted from family or friends. The world beyond the house was off limits. The only lay people the young brothers encountered were the two servants, a rural salt of the earth and his wife. One day, Bartholomew saw the woman bowing and scraping before Peter who was the youngest monk with a face ravaged by ferocious acne. Bartholomew noted Peter’s look of smug satisfaction.
He tackled the issue head-on that evening. "So, our young votaries believe they should be held in high esteem as blessed oracles by the housemaid." Bartholomew laid it on good and thick, he was like a dog with a bone when it came to the monks' shortcomings. "If I've told you once I've told you a thousand times, there's nothing worse than the sin of pride." He slapped the table to emphasise his point. "It leads to daydreaming and feelings of self-importance." Peter’s pimply puss turned bright red with embarrassment. The others looked away, not wanting to catch the elder’s disapproving eye.
On the first Sunday of every month, Bartholomew played host to a select group of outsiders. As soon as the visitors arrived, the junior monks were confined to their rooms and told to pray for their souls. Businessmen, industrialists and aristocrats came from afar to prostrate themselves before Bartholomew, kissing his feet, his pink cheeks and bald head. They repented past wrongdoing and thoughtlessness, sobbing when they spoke of the innocent victims they had subjugated and oppressed. At the end of each session, the hem of Bartholomew’s robe was wringing wet with sinners’ tears. In return for his forgiveness, they handed him donations in brown envelopes.
It was a trial for the elder but he had to keep the show on the road. Otherwise, he would have to shut up shop and release Martin, Leo and the others into the wild. The hapless creatures would never survive the vicissitudes of an authentic life. Daniel didn’t know his right foot from his left. The boy often allowed an errant thread in his robe go untended until the cloth unravelled and he was half-naked. Imagine Simon trying to buy a loaf of bread; he was clueless. Money was needed, even a two-bit devotional operation required funds and robes didn’t grow on trees.
This particular Sunday had been a gruelling session. Bartholomew was dealing with the last penitent in the queue, a socialite caked in make-up. The woman was all over him. “Be sure Brother to put in a good word for me with The Redeemer.” She smiled slyly and handed him a package that he slipped into his robe with the other donations. There should be enough to patch the hole in the roof with money to spare.
Afterwards, Bartholomew was restless, bothered by the rotten deeds he had just forgiven. He checked the contents of the package the socialite had given him and felt the old pull. No, not now, he told himself, leave it until later. He locked everything in the small safe he kept under his cot and joined the others downstairs to give his sermon.
"Such humiliation," he began, "if you only knew the sort of people I have to deal with." Bartholomew never opened up like this about the visitors. The young brothers eyed him nervously, even Dominic looked surprised. The elder realised he was crossing a line. "We must love the sinner,” he said, “understand the depth of his degradation and love him all the more for his perversity.'' He scanned the faces around the table and knew he was back on track.
"Accept the sinner’s ingratitude for it reflects the torment of his soul and the self-hatred he must endure. Remember too that by forgiving, you set yourself above the sinner but do not be judgemental. Who among you is so virtuous that he can hold others to account. Everyone strays and evil is only good that has lost its way, its moorings untied so it drifts without guidance." His young charges stared at him in wonder.
Paul was in his room, thinking about Brother Bartholomew. He was a great man, could there be anyone greater? The elder's soul must be gleaming white, incandescent with holiness. Luke said you’d have to wear special protective glasses if you wanted to look at the elder’s soul. Luke bothered Brother Bartholomew all the time with requests for extra instruction. Noel and Michael were worse, trying to get into the elder’s good books, coming up with questions and doubts so they could spend more time with him. How can you know you loved God enough, they would ask, or how can you tell if your living sacrifice was good enough. It was disgraceful the way they behaved but Paul knew he shouldn’t think badly of them. The elder had no favourites, he loved everyone equally.
Brother Bartholomew must be worn out from all the confessions he heard. Brother Bernard said he was almost too forgiving, taking on himself all the failings of the unworthy and crippled in spirit. “The elder is like blotting paper for sins,” that’s what Brother Bernard said. Paul had learned a lot from the elder. He learned that the unenlightened were not wicked but worn down by failure and distracted by injustice and temptation. The elder was able to put himself in the shoes of the most humble. It wasn’t right that he was at the beck and call of Luke and the others.
“Do not look down on unbelievers or castigate the wealthy for their avarice,” Paul repeated the elder’s words as a mantra to cleanse his mind. Pray for the atheists, the ones who try to find holes and mock believers. There were no contradictions, only things beyond man's finite comprehension. The elder was the most positive man Paul had ever met but sometimes he seemed so sad. When he gave his sermons, he was animated and filled with enormous energy, his eyes gleaming with fierce intensity. “See how the elder has been transported to a heavenly state,” Brother Dominic would say to them. Paul hoped that one day he could reach such a state of sanctity.
Joining the order meant renouncing your will and Brother Bartholomew expected nothing less than total self-abnegation. That was fine with Paul, he was there to get away from himself. The monastic way of life took some getting used to but now he couldn’t imagine anything else. “Good job security,” his father had remarked. “Free accommodation and no deadlines to worry about.” The quietness and constant reflection may not be for everyone but it suited Paul well enough. The food was nothing to write home about unless you liked rice and beans, watery pea soup and boiled mackerel. That said, the outside world had been no picnic.
At school, he was picked on and bullied, his pocket money stolen and his head shoved down the toilet. He had one friend, Samuel, who made light of everything. When he told him he was planning on becoming a monk, Samuel had a good laugh. "Rather you then me," he said. "I have a fear of enclosed holy spaces, a case of cloister-phobia." Samuel was an unbeliever and Paul made sure to include him in his prayers.
He asked the elder how they were serving humanity in such an isolated place. "You have an enquiring mind," Brother Bartholomew replied, clearly impressed by Paul’s question. "Be patient and all will be revealed. When the time is right, you will go forth and save sinners but first you must know yourself for how else can you teach others?" That made sense to Paul who was in no hurry, happy enough to get to know himself.
Before joining Brother Bartholomew’s crew, Paul was in a different house. They were a queer lot, great men for fasts and silence, not a peep out of them. Textbook ascetics as thin as rakes. Paul was given instruction by Brother John the gimp who had only one leg. Brother John received visits from an angel who was a regular chatterbox. Paul asked what the angel looked like. "Oh, the angel takes on many forms," John said, "sometimes an aphid, sometimes a dust mote, a squirrel or a saucer." As for topics of conversation, they were diverse but a common theme was the nature of mystery. "We have discussed the rules of cricket, cubism, the economy, thermodynamics and electromagnetism." Paul wondered if they had got around to the mystery of three deities in one entity. "That never came up for it's not a mystery to those in the know," Brother John told him. Paul was glad to get out of there. He had landed on his feet in Brother Bartholomew's house and, every day, he counted his blessings.
Bartholomew folded his hands behind his head and stretched out on the cot. Love the sinner. How often had he preached that? If the sinner is covered in dripping sores, wash his wounds and apply ointment. If foul and malodorous, embrace him closer and breathe in his halitosis as if it were the sweetest smelling perfume. Love all the vicious and self-serving sinners, every last one of them, in their thousands and millions for each one is precious.
What could you do but laugh? The piffle he had spouted beggared belief. Hugging the diseased, smooching psychopaths and poltroons. He felt giddy and let himself really go with an attack of the giggles. Of course, he omitted the important proviso. He never said, "It’s all in the abstract so there's no need to worry boys, you’re safe here cut off from the real world. There’s no question of putting any of this guff to the test."
He didn't have to tell Dominic; the tight-lipped old dog knew the score. Even amiable Bernard, maybe the kids too, all of them in on the act and staying schtum. But that was going too far, those dunderhead novices needed someone to do their thinking for them. Maybe not Paul, he was different from the rest of them. Paul had his head screwed on straight. But the day would come, even for the other saps, when the penny dropped as it had long ago for Bartholomew. When reality and all its harsh truths had to be faced.
In one of his sermons, Brother Bartholomew said the believing fool attained the highest calling. Paul didn't get what that meant and brought it up with Brother Dominic. Instead of providing an answer, the older monk asked, "What is it you want to achieve in this house?" Paul was not expecting this and didn’t know what to say.
Brother Dominic had more questions. What did Paul think was the purpose of continual contemplation? Was it a placebo? Was the menu of devotion so bland there was nothing he wouldn’t swallow, even a main course of unjustified guilt with a dessert of eternity in paradise? Surely generosity was better than charity and tolerance preferable to forgiveness. Where was the logic, the rationale beyond belief? Perhaps the only realistic belief was belief in sin itself. Was it an experiment? Was Paul going along out of curiosity? "Without faith," he concluded, "you're on your own. Do you think you can handle that?" Paul decided Brother Dominic had been testing him.
It was only natural for the young monks to think Brother Bartholomew was a saint. He was so wise and emanated such calmness and certainty. They often discussed it among themselves. "Brother Bartholomew is definitely a saint," Luke said. Noel and Michael nodded their agreement, "The best saint ever." When Brother Dominic got wind of this, he set them straight. "In order to be considered a saint, it’s necessary to perform a miracle." Then Brother Bartholomew would perform a miracle, that shouldn’t be a problem for him. "A miracle, a miracle," they begged him. The elder demanded that they be quiet. "Which miracle will you perform?" Noel asked. "Go to your rooms and pray," he ordered. Paul had never seen the elder so cross.
Bartholomew flung open the door to his room. He was beside himself with rage. The resounding crash as the door slammed shut did nothing to quell the violence erupting within him. He upturned the chair and the table with the ewer, spilling water everywhere. They wouldn’t leave him alone with their “show me Brother Bartholomew”. “Show me how to pray.” “Show me how to honour God.” “Show me how to tie the belt on my robe.” I’ll show them all right. That simpering Simon, he was simple all right, as simple as they come. And Martin with his puppy dog moon face. “How should we praise the Lord?” Don’t bother, it won’t do you any good. They wanted a miracle did they? He stood in front of the crucifix and glared at the pendant figure.
That two-faced conniving Dominic had put them up to this, the sly snake was stirring the pot. So he was expected to magic something up, sleight of hand, a conjuring trick. Pull a rabbit out of a hat; is that what they wanted? Maybe he would saw Noel in half, it would serve him right. “Which miracle will you perform Brother Bartholomew?” The ungrateful wretches.
He had to get a grip. This was a cushy number and he mustn’t do anything drastic. Dominic was a chancer, barely in the door and on the make. What could you expect from a tax consultant? “I heard the call later in life,” Dominic claimed. Pull the other one. He hadn’t put in the time like Bartholomew, a career monk, forty years in the business. The elder wasn’t getting any younger and there weren't many options on the outside. He hadn’t put enough aside and now he would have to give Dominic a cut. That wrinkled so-and-so, they would have to come to some agreement. It wasn't time to pack it in yet.
The kids though were an awful pain, buzzing in his ear non-stop. Fobbing them off with a devotional dozen didn’t work. Tie them up in cycles of rosaries and they came back looking for more. All that inadequacy and neediness, there was only so much he could put up with. Thanks be to God for the pills. Where would he be without the pills?
Bending down, he opened the safe and took out the package. He righted the table and sat on the chair. The package was flat, only one plastic bag left and that was half-empty. No matter, he had a session with the rich hypocrites the following week and would get another supply. He shook the bag into his cupped hand. Two, no he needed three, this was a crisis. He was sorry now he knocked over the ewer, it was easier to swallow the pills with water. If it was a miracle they wanted, then a miracle they would get.
Paul would never forget that morning as long as he lived. They were sitting at the table when Brother Dominic entered the room. "The elder is dead," he announced. How could that be? "But he’s immortal," Luke cried. "No, you're wrong there," Brother Dominic corrected him, "it’s the soul that’s immortal." Why was he saying this? Brother Dominic pointed to the pantry, "If you need proof, go inside."
They were in a tizzy and couldn’t stay still, scurrying back and forth. Peter clung onto Noel’s belt, Luke was shaking like a leaf and held the hem of Michael’s robe. They sidled in a line towards the pantry and turned away, squealing with fear. Simon fell to his knees, howling with pain and grief. Paul put his fingers in his ears to block out the noise, went to the open door and looked inside. Brother Bartholomew was laid out on a blanket, arms folded across his chest, rosary beads wrapped around his hands. His eyes were closed, his mouth slack and his face so terribly pale. Brother Dominic put a hand on Paul’s shoulder and led him away. "You must tell the others."
Later, the young monks were upstairs, packed into two rooms, not wanting to be alone. Bereft of initiative or common sense, they were helpless. All they had was the reassurance of familiar psalms and prayers. Paul felt a great sadness. There was no point staying, he decided, it was good while it lasted but now he had to find another house.
The sound of doors banging came from below. Somebody was climbing the stairs. Paul went to see what was happening. One by one, the others followed. Brother Dominic was standing at the top of the stairs. His arms were raised and he began reciting adjurations in Latin. He stepped aside and all was revealed. Brother Bartholomew came forth, eyes flashing, messianic. “Yes boys, I’m back, back from the dead. It’s the miracle you wanted. I’m here to lead you on the path of discovery”.
Paul was sitting at the table with Brother Dominic. It was nearly ten o’clock, long past their normal bed-time but these were exceptional circumstances.
“That was a turn-up for the books.”
“Yes, it was,” Paul agreed.
“And I would say it satisfies the requirements of a miracle. What do you think?” Dominic was back to asking questions.
“I would say so,” Paul answered.
“A toast, then.” Dominic raised his cup of water. “To Saint Bartholomew.”
“There’s going to be some changes around here,” Dominic continued. “You can’t expect to keep a bona fide saint locked away in this back of beyond. Bartholomew will be moving on, not immediately but soon enough.” This was a relaxed Brother Dominic, not the saturnine figure who had put the wind up the junior monks. “Yours truly will be taking over the reins and I’ll need a good man as my lieutenant. What do you say, are you up to the task?”
“What about Brother Bernard?”
“Ah, good old Bernard.” Dominic nodded, his lined face giving nothing away. “Bernard will always be a water carrier, I’m looking for someone with a bit more get up and go.”
The first thing that came into Paul’s head was his father’s advice to never look a gift horse in the mouth. Was it right to look on a miracle as a gift horse? He felt Dominic’s eyes on him. “Brother Bartholomew said I was to prepare myself for going forth and saving sinners.”
“Leave the saving of sinners to others.” Dominic waved his hand dismissively. “Your place is here, helping me turn this place into a going concern. Time to tone down the preachiness. We need to focus on increasing the returns from forgiveness.”
Paul was not sure what to make of this.
“Don’t worry my boy, all will be revealed in the fullness of time.” This pally version of Brother Dominic was going to take some getting used to. “As for the food in this gaff, I don’t know about you but I’m sick of rice and beans. No reason why management shouldn’t eat from a different menu.” The elder-to-be leaned forward in his chair. “Come on now, I need an answer. Are you ready and willing?”
Paul took his time before committing himself. What had he to lose, it wasn’t as if there was anything better on offer. “I believe I am, Brother Dominic,” he said.
“Glad to hear it.” Dominic raised his cup. “Welcome on board, Brother Paul.”