#40.5, Weds., Jan. 11, 2023

Historical setting: 590 C.E. The path back to Annegray

         Now we are discussing the possibilities that a new bishop of Rome will impose Roman rule on these outlands like Frankish Gaul. The monastic Rule of Benedict echoes Roman order and the Irish Rule has subtle distinctions that, in practice, make a big difference.

         I know this Roman kind of rule too well because so many centuries past I was a son of a Pharisee living in Bethany, a Judean settlement under the Imperial Roman rule. It was the heavy hand of empire that nailed Jesus to a cross. And now even these Christian monks are worrying over how they will be judged under an old Roman uniformity of order.

         Any measure rumored to be “perfection” is likely a human invention. First God said of all Creation “it is good.” So a hierarchy of humanity surely isn’t a God thing, even if rank and structure seem useful. God pronounced goodness but it took human minds to standardize and sort a perfection of it. It becomes a power play of one person over another.

         At Annegray now, I look up across the wooded hills, and sure enough, I see a building not quite hidden in the bare branches of winter. I ask if that is a church.

         Brother Servant affirms that it is a “barbarian church,” as he calls it. It is said to be “secular,” because it is not under a bishop or an abbot so the assigned priest is local. I ask him, maybe rhetorically, if barbarian Christians worshiping where the priest was not assigned by the strictures of the church are less than perfect Christians. “Are they flawed, being as they are, outside of the episcopal structures of Christianity?”

         “I don’t know. Father Columbanus has walked by that place and prayed only that God will sort it all out when it needs to be dealt with.”

         “See what I mean, Brother Servant?  Having a leader who looks first to God rather than speaking as God matters a lot. It matters to us, but also to other people going to a priest at that place, and yet they receive their baptisms and their spoken blessings from God even though it may seem to have no rule.”

         “You don’t know, Brother Ezra.  What if the priest there brings his followers false teachings?  I sometimes worry over the things the father leaves for God to decide.”

         Dear God, this question seems yours alone to answer. Amen.

(Continues tomorrow)

#40.4, Tues., Jan. 10, 2023

Historical setting: 590 C.E. The path back to Annegray

         As we walk the horses back we are discussing the plans for the new monastery. We’ve heard it would be a double monastery with both men and women.

         Brother Servant explains, “I’ve asked Father Columbanus about this because of my particular circumstance.” Brother Servant, it’s been noted before, is a eunuch. 

         He continues, “It’s well-known even by the Romans that men are men and women are distinctly different. But as for me, I was changed by the blade. So how will the Father decide who will live in the women’s community and who will live among the men?”

         “Brother Servant, surely you will be assigned to the men’s monastery, because you already live in a men’s community.” Of course, I can only guess.

          “But what of the one who now lives among us born as woman, but who lives as a man? We have such a monk so this isn’t just a theoretical question.”

          “Surely the father will consider everyone individually.” I feel confident that Father Columbanus won’t abandon his thoughtfulness of these monks. “I can offer this assurance because The Celtic rule begins with obedience to God, not to an abbot or bishop speaking for God. When God speaks for God, the Father can make decisions based on his own human care for his followers so he isn’t required to guess at some kind of holy judgment as though he had special knowledge.”

         The other monk gropes for clarity, but completely misses the point. “So Ezra, you think God would find the abbot’s answers contrary since the Father doesn’t speak for God?”

          “No, no, no.” How can I explain it?  “The Father’s authority doesn’t come from speaking the mind of God, but from his own love of God. He isn’t bound by old Roman ways where rule was once by human authority and authority was given only to men of proper lineage. Under that Roman rule women, children, slaves and servants and all non-Romans had a lesser place. So if one in authority intends to speak the mind of God but finds the love rule hard, he could be tempted to speak instead from the authority of traditions and old hierarchies. By pretending human authority is the same as God’s judgment, dichotomies of petty righteousness intrude and eschatological endings are punitive. But Father Columbanus, speaking only for himself, grapples with God’s love rule as a human being.

         Brother Servant fears, “What if the new Bishop of Rome doesn’t allow Father Columbanus’ rule?”

 (Continues tomorrow)

#40.3, Thurs., Jan. 5, 2023

Historical setting: 590 C.E. The path to Annegray

         On this very cold morning Brother Servant and another monk and I put the silks back on the four imperial horses and walk them back to Annegray. The ice on the creek is solid enough today even for the horses the walk over. 

         “It’s a good thing the messengers had a night to spend with Father Columbanus,” observes Brother Servant. “This envoy will be able to deliver a letter from the Irish father back to the new pope. It will help in our acceptance with the bishops to have the pope behind us.”

         My hope, “Maybe Father Columbanus will send along a scroll with the Irish rule.”

         “Why does the particular rule matter so much to you Brother Ezra?  You don’t even live by it here in your little cottage on the hill. And there is nothing in either of the rules about the proper tonsure or the correct date for Easter which seems to be the issue.”

         The other monk chimes in, “I can’t see how approving of a Rule would solve anything among the bishops.“

         “The distinctions between rules are subtle.” I defend. But when lived out the distinction is huge. Columbanus expects the required obedience to be to God, while Benedict’s rule directs the obedience to the bishop or abbot.”

         “But of course,” adds the monk “In one way or another that becomes the same thing because the one who oversees the activities of the monastery is doing so in God’s name while God is way off in heaven somewhere.”

          “Father Columbanus spends his hours in prayer begging the nearness of God and if God is present with us why would we need the father or some bishop in charge to stand in for God?” Brother Servant speaks my own mind on this and he asks,  “Is that what you were thinking Brother Ezra?”

         “Exactly, I only hope the new pope takes notice of that little nuance.”

         To change to a more agreeable topic I ask if the others have visited Luxeuil yet. “Have you heard it could be a double monastery when they are done?  With baths?”

         “Yes! I’d heard that” answers the second monk.

         “When our midwife spoke with the father he mentioned that they would have both a men’s monastery and a women’s, and I’ve seen the baths there for myself.”

         Brother Servant explains, “They are building separations and planning the divisions for everything but worship.”

 (Continues Tuesday, January 10)

#40.2, Weds., Jan. 4, 2023

Historical setting: 590 C.E. Cottage between Annegray and Luxeuil

         No sooner has the family of visitors left than here again are  monks from Annegray returning up the hill-path, this time leading four horses adorned in silk. We’ve seen this decoration on horses before. 

         “So the dead bishop of Rome sends another envoy and this time he remembered Annegray, I see.”

         “Brother Ezra, these horses bring a far better message than the death of the Bishop of Rome!” answers the Brother Servant.

          “The church of St. Peter in Rome sends word through the lands that God has appointed a new bishop as heir to St. Peter!”

         We walk the horses to the stable to bed them down for the night. We are told the Pope’s envoy will stay at the guest quarters of Annegray.

         “Though the Roman Empire fades,” I observe, “It’s so very Roman of a pope to dispatch messengers on imperial steeds. The face of Rome still shines through the Christian order.”

         “Indeed, Brother Ezra, Christians have a new papa now. He’s a Gregory who hasn’t forgotten to take all his little chicks under wide wings even here in Burgundy.”

         “Maybe, especially here,” I add. “It seems so Roman to consider the whole world near and far. In Rome they must think we are all just waiting to hear news of a new bishop rising.”

         Brother Servant catches my note of sarcasm. “Maybe you weren’t waiting Brother Ezra, but we were. We hope the new Bishop of Rome will put a rein on those troublesome bishops of Gaul.”

         The second monk adds, “as a mother hen gathers her brood under her wing…” [Luke 13:34]

         Brother Servant amends, “But a pope would be more like a father hen.”

         “A father ‘hen’? Is that even possible?  Don’t you see how this might turn, Brother? It may be only a matter of time before every monastery will be under a single Benedictine Rule.”

         “Not to worry,” says the second monk. “Pope Gregory has armies of heretics and a plague waiting at his door, and with no Roman Army left to save Rome he won’t have any time to spread rules and check on distant obedience.”

         The horses will stay for the night and the monks will stay as well, so we’ve the stable full tonight.  We put the horses’ silks aside and give them common woolen horse-blankets for the cold winter’s night. Colleen stretches the pot of porridge for these added guests.  So much hospitality makes a very thin soup.

(Continues tomorrow)

#40.1, Tues., Jan. 3, 2023

Historical setting: 590 C.E. Cottage between Annegray and Luxeuil

         Maybe they are neighbors. A family of hunters found our doorstep on their way home from somewhere they say is a church named after St. Martin said to be hidden in the woods behind the monastery. It seems legends of Christian saints left a sour taste with these neighbors even though they claim to be Christian.

         Colleen was the one of us most wanting neighbors, but now that they’ve heard her Irish twist of words they see her as a foreigner and assume she is here to object to their Pagan glint.        

          The older woman rages, “You think you are the righteous Christian who comes from far away sneering at Mother Nature and claiming only the cross of Christ can bring victory in the war between gods no one wants to fight!  Some monks from the south come with Christ but no Jesus, and some from a western island have a Jesus and a Christ but no Diana. They would all just smash our treasured gods of the forest and give us only the Christian icon of a bleeding man.  When the ancient goddess takes to the realm of the skies, they say, that proves she is evil because only witches fly.  And yet, Spirit is a god in Christian.  It makes no sense.” She abruptly concludes, “There I’ve said my piece.”

         I have to ask it, “Does the priest at the Christian church practice the veneration of the goddess Diana?”

         The visitors talk among themselves in the barbarian language of Pagan hunters. They decide to go on their way peacefully, and never to return here. This “peaceful exit” will take a little while though, because each of the children needs to be bundled back into boots and firs.

         In Ana’s room where the children have gathered Ana is in her bliss, with children all around. The whole wide-eyed brood is captivated by her stories. And now Colleen has a warm pot of gruel and biscuits ready to share, even with the scowling adults.

         The younger of the men takes me aside to ask of my variety of Christian which allows me two wives.

         “No really I have only one wife, Ana, and she is with child so..”

         “I understand, no need to tell me more, my friend.”

         “Really, Colleen is the midwife; I have only one wife.”

         “No need to apologize to me; I’m no priest. But it is a very resourceful plan.”

         “No, it’s not what you think…”

(Continues tomorrow)

#39.13, Thurs., Dec. 29, 2022

Historical setting: 589 C.E. cottage between Annegray and Luxeuil

         I can understand our visiting neighbors are not favorable to Christian Saints and foreign missionaries murdering sacred trees of Pagan worship. And it doesn’t take very much chatter to discover our guests are not the variety of Christians who would make a pilgrimage to a monastery. They’ve just explained that there is another church, the bishops of Gaul would call “secular,” but it is a Christian church with a local priest rather than an assigned abbot or bishop. And I learn that these hunters have simply added Christianity onto their own pantheon of Pagan gods. Clearly they aren’t of a mind to accept the kind of exclusive Christianity that conjures sainthood from chopping down the sacred oak. It’s a strange warp of irony that the church in the woods is named for Saint Martin who was said to have put the ax to the most attributed of the Pagan sacred trees.

         The older man who speaks for the group affirms my guesses. “We aren’t Pagans. The children are all baptized Christian. But sometimes Christian comes with fires smoldering into ashes to the old gods.  If someone would tell the monks something is sacred immediately Christians call it a Pagan idol and it is gets a Christian curse. It’s never a good thing. We hide the charms we keep from saints and monks who are glad to eat the meat we offer, but they would never let us pray to Diana for the bountiful hunt.”

         The younger of the men abruptly asks the yet unspoken question. “You aren’t Christian here, are you?” Then he answers my telling silence.  “I mean, we aren’t talking about all Christians. Only those from far away places. They come here with their foreign monks to change us from our old ways.”

         Colleen is listening to all of this neighborly talk then speaks in her relentless brogue, “But you don’t mean the Irish Christians surely? The Irish Christians surely wouldn’t smash and curse Pagan idols.”

         The silent glances and the scowls make it clear these new neighbors don’t much like Colleen’s ruffling of the shared language.

         “Did you come here with those monks, Girl?”

         Colleen is obviously distraught and excuses herself to go check on Ana and the children.

         So let me intervene for her.  “Colleen isn’t with the monks of Annegray she is of our household. That monastery has only men. I think she was hoping to find neighbors who would be accepting of her.”

(Continues Tuesday, January 3, 2023)

#39.12, Weds., Dec. 28, 2022

Historical setting: 589 C.E. a cottage Between Annegray and Luxeuil

         No sooner were the monks on their way down the hill than a group of people, several children, some women, an old man and a younger man, trudged up the hill through the snow and stopped at our door.

         “Good morning Friends, have you lost your way?”

         Man answers man. “We were walking home in the snow when we came upon these fresh tracks that led us up this hill. We thought it would be a shorter way home except the tracks seem to stop here.”

         “You must be neighbors to us then?”

         “Our house is in the forest near the bogs. It’s a good hour’s walk to the church following the creek.  But maybe it’s shorter crossing over the hills. Do you know of a path?”

         “I know of very little beyond our door.” I notice, “That child seems to have a very wet boot. Did he slip into the creek?”

         The man answers, “I told him his foot won’t freeze up if he just keeps on walking.”

          “You should all come in by the fire, get his foot warm and let his boot dry a bit before you go on your way.”

         There is no argument or hurry among them; they come in. I suggest the children go on into Ana’s room by the warming fire there where this little one can dry his sock and boot. And I know Ana would welcome a visit from children.

         Colleen is especially pleased to learn we have a family of neighbors. She scurries around to prepare a soup from the broth in the cooking pot after the monks left.

         These neighbors are dressed in the furs of the forests not in the fleeces of farmers, so they seem to me to be hunters. They said they’d been to church so I assumed they’d been at Annegray for the Christmas; but that was wrong.  Now we learn there is a Christian church in the hills hidden in the wood not far from Annegray, but apparently I never noticed it for all the trees.[footnote] I’m sure Brother Servant and Father Columbanus know of it as they often wander the forests for their solitude.

         “Has that church a priest?” I ask.

         “Yes of course, but not one of those dreary monks all walled up with their wrath ready to curse the ways of the wood and murder our trees.”

[footnote] Bloggers notes, and sources.  It is the opinion of this blogger that the firm lines drawn between one religion and another are kept by edicts and edits which is how we know history; while the reality of the lives of people would probably reflect fuzzier lines between one religion and another. Irish scholar Alexander O’Hara documented the notes of an 18th Century archeological find of statuettes of Diana and Mercury at this secular church overlooking Annegray. The reference to these tangible artifacts is documented but the purpose for them can only be guessed at. O’Hara, Alexander, Columbanus ad Locum: The Establishment of the Monastic Foundations Perita 26 (2015) © Medieval Academy of Ireland & Brepols Publishers                    

(Continues tomorrow)

#39.11, Tues., Dec. 27, 2022

Historical setting: 589 C.E. a cottage between Annegray and Luxeuil

         We’ve been contemplating the Christmas story with our guests.

         Colleen seems miffed by the ignorance of her own countrymen with their thought that a virgin who could give birth would not then be able to produce milk for the baby.

         “How is it possible that you could be human without knowing the gift of a mother’s milk is from God and not caused by the sinful intercourse with a human? Of course the Virgin, Mother of Jesus, fed him with her milk.”

         One monk asks her then, “So why is there a cow in the story?”

         “There is no cow in the story!” I can attest as one who is actually familiar with the gospel. I know it feels like there should be a cow in the story. And what would be the use of saying Mary lay the child in a manger if there was no cow in the stable to offer a humble gift by sharing the manger with a human or with God?

         Brother Servant mentions, “Whatever happened then, we’re just glad you also have a cow here. Your stable seems so much nicer with a cow even if it isn’t needed to complete the story.”

         Ana offers reason. “Our cow was a gift from a Pagan village. Some Pagans raise these white cattle for gifts and sacrifice.”

         A posset of wine and warm curdled milk is passed around among us all once again. With our cups filled, now we have Christmas with gratitude for a cow even though we aren’t sure why. Some gifts are just like that. Thank you God.

         Our three guests step out into the glistening stillness of this winter’s morning and though we’ve never actually heard this, we all know it is a silence now. In these hills there is no bell to announce the Christ mass.  But at Luxovium the bell will ring these same monks to prayers very soon.  I wonder if we will hear it too in this far distance up the valley.

         Colleen longs for neighbors. I think she finds our little cottage a lonely place even though Ana and I are always here. Having this little visit from the three monks with her same pattern of speech brightened this place into a celebration. She did say she is hoping to find Luxeuil like the monasteries of her homeland where a whole community of people settle around it.

(Continues tomorrow)


#39.10, Thurs., Dec. 22, 2022

Historical setting: 589 C.E. a cottage between Annegray and Luxeuil

         The stories that seem to go array in the worst ways are those that are most often told. So here we are, three Irish monks, Colleen and Ana and I, gathered around the hearth in Ana’s little room.

         Colleen savors the brogue of her native land so it doesn’t matter to her whatever the monks may say. And I wasn’t present for the birth of Jesus so who am I to correct the story they are telling, but it already seems they’ve let go of gospel just to nurture traditions and old, old stories that never even made it past the patriarchs of cannon.

         Ana finds the donkey legend added to the story very disturbing.

         “She rides into town on a donkey when she is going to give birth nearly immediately?” Ana complains, “Now my same kind of guessing that tells me John was written by a woman is a sure bet that these miraculous birth stories were invented by men. What woman would make poor Mary ride on a donkey?”

         We can all concur, surely, a woman in her last month of pregnancy would choose to walk rather than take a long donkey ride. But these stories of a birth are all told in symbols, not sense, and maybe not even fact, though they do keep the truth of it.

         Brother Servant offers sense. “That donkey is there to remind us of Jesus’ humble entry into Jerusalem in his last week when he rode on the back of the donkey instead of a horse while the children shouted Hosanna.”

         The frustration comes from too much sorting out of detail while groping for truth. Maybe it was the monk’s long night in the stable that gave them such a partiality to the presence of a donkey and of course there also seems to have been a cow.

         “So, what about the cow?” asks the same monk who couldn’t let go of the idea of a donkey. “Surely they would have had a cow there.”

         “There was no cow mentioned.”

         “Mary needed a cow to provide milk for the baby.”

         “Milk for the baby,” answers Colleen “would, of course be provided in the very nature of the mother.”

         The monk argues, “But Mary was a virgin.”

         Everyone looks to Colleen, the experienced midwife among us, to answer the burning theological question just posed.

         “Can the mother provide milk in the case of a virgin birth?”

(Continues Tuesday, December 27)

#cow, #Virgin birth issues, #donkey, #Christmas stories,

#39.9, Weds., Dec. 21, 2022

Historical setting: 589 C.E. a cottage between Annegray and Luxeuil

         Maybe Pagan magic was left in the fragrant wood I’ve gathered for our fire here, or maybe it is the warm spirit that is a Christian thing about this season. But today, celebration seems overwhelmed with the Creative Spirit of love. The only words that can speak of it are already worn soft-edged and sticky sweet. It seems almost wonderful to share our fire with these three dower monks. And wonderful too, is this gift of a wineskin they’ve brought and now poured through the kettle of hot milk to curdle a posset [footnote1] for the joyful celebration of the Christ Mass. And we have nuts and fruits, sour in the summer, but dried to sweetness in this season. The large pot has the venison stew all flavored with herbs. We have plenty in our stores this winter so our guests can stay this night in our stable loft and dream all night in the long, warm, sleep of wine.

         Thank you God, for friends, for all the people gathered here. Amen.

         Christmas morning, after the chores, Colleen thinks they have brought the empty bowl to fill up with cheese to take back and share with the others.  Maybe she’s right, but the cheese she started isn’t hardened yet.  Surely they must know these things would take time. When the three guests come in from prayers for the breakfast they seem to have left the proper silences of matins at the monastery. They are babbling on and on. We gather at the hearth in Ana’s room. They are going on incessantly about the wonders of the mysterious night when they were privy to a stay in the stable with a cow and a donkey just as it was in the bible story.

         “So what bible would that be?” I ask.

         “The Christian gospels of course!”

         “Don’t you know that story Brother Ezra?” One monk who doesn’t know me well asks. And then he goes on to tell it exactly like it isn’t written in Luke.

         “Joseph was a very old man and Mary nearly a child so of course she was a virgin.” [footnote2]

         “But not just any virgin,” adds another. “A virgin herself born sinless of immaculate conception.”

         “She was with child so Joseph got her a donkey for the journey.”

         Ana has heard enough of this story. “Laz, tell them how it really was.”

[footnote] The definition from “Oxford languages” for posset is “a drink made of hot milk curdled with ale, wine, or other alcoholic liquor and typically flavored with spices, drunk as a delicacy or as a remedy for colds.”

[footnote2] Apocryphal books circulating in the 1st and 2nd centuries C.E. are not in the cannon of Gospels but continue into religious legend detailing the life stories of Mary and Joseph and Mary’s mother. Does Christianity have Midrash?

(Continues tomorrow)