#36.10, Thurs., Sept. 22, 2022

Historical setting: 589 C.E. Poitiers

         Dear God let us feel your presence. And stay close to Ana. Amen.

         This afternoon I return to the work of helping Brother August and his apprentice. With three of us working, we have revealed the shoulders of the mother and the head of the infant is now emerging from the stone. Shall we set this child gazing at his mother, or does his face look out at the whole world of other human faces?

         “The infant eyes seek only purity and love of a mother.” Brother August listens to his apprentice’s input. And they decide on a tender Jesus, seeing only his mother while the rest of humankind may be mired in all these loveless sins of our own making, carving Jesus to be a mini-king, not a human savior.

         It’s that very brief sliver of darkness a monastery allows for sleep between evening prayers and the dark waking for morning prayers when those of us in the guest room by the stable are awakened by a fast horse arriving in the night. I look out on the courtyard, and there is Ana and another woman both on Teardrop. Ana sees me now, looking from the window and she gestures for me to come quickly.

         Her horse needs to be walked. So the young woman with her, Colleen, waits for us in the stable while Ana and I walk and she tells me of the danger they are in.        

         “There was no waiting for morning, Laz.

         “Colleen and I were called to the Lady’s chamber but were told Lady Elise had died, yet if we came quickly enough we would be able to deliver the baby. We went, and it was just as the journal had described. The mother was wrapped tight around the head and shoulders in a linen sheet that was spotted with blood. Colleen went to work immediately making her careful cut just as we had prepared, though I noticed their was more blood than I thought from a corpse. I didn’t mention that because I didn’t want to make Colleen feel she was doing anything wrong. Meanwhile, the earl was standing by wailing and crying, sobbing convulsively but with no tears. It was a disturbing distraction. At first I brought him a basin, thinking he was puking, but then I realized he is really only trying to pretend he is in shock. I lifted the sheet from the face of the dead woman and saw she had been beaten badly.”

(Continues Tuesday, September 27, 2022)

#36.9, Weds., Sept. 21, 2022

Historical setting: 589 C.E. Poitiers

         Ana is telling me that she and Colleen turned the previous midwife’s journal over to Lady Elise’s mother.

         “It affirmed the family’s worst fears. These childbirth deaths may not have been the natural consequences of difficult births, but something more sinister. The earl is one who seems the needy child, given to little fits of rage and grand displays in tears of sorrow. Of course that would be expected with his three wives passing. So he finds a new wife — one marriage happens after another always finding a young woman’s pity for him where marital love would be the better bond.”

         I asked Ana, with my thoughts absent of wealth and status, “What motive would a man have were this some nefarious pattern? It seems like he must be hateful of women.”

         Ana explains a whole insidious plot.

         “Caring or not caring has little to do with it Laz. Lady Elise’s mother quickly identified a familiar motive. She thought the earl was collecting this nursery in order to take over the inheritances of these children’s deceased, but noble-born mothers. So the wealth of several important families from whom this fellow reaps his wives will all end up at his estate. And ‘wealth is power,’ this very powerful elder woman told us.  Colleen was surprised by her cold calculations. Here we are, completely focused on the well-being of a young woman, and her own mother is seeing her child in terms of family fortune. Maybe it’s just the strange calculating nature of the aristocracy. 

          “Then there was something more we hadn’t thought of.  What happens after the mother is dead and the baby is safe?  Apparently the midwife is sent away so abruptly as to leave behind her personal things. And where does the midwife go? The wife’s body is taken away for burial in the midst of all the coming and going. Lady Elise’s mother was very concerned about the earl’s guards and servants. And who were these coroners? Who cared for the bodies? 

         “So first thing tomorrow Lady Elise’s parents will be sending their own guards to bring their daughter home to this estate for the birthing.”

         To me this seems like a good idea under the circumstances, but Ana and the midwife Colleen don’t know where that will leave them to stay.

         Our parting as usual is a warm embrace and words of encouragement and love.

(Continues tomorrow)

#36.8, Tues., Sept. 20, 2022

Historical setting: 589 C.E. The road to Ligugé

         Today I meet Ana for our ride and ask her if she and Colleen have a plan if they find the same circumstance as described in the midwife’s journal.

         Ana tells me, “It’s very helpful to know what happened in that instance, though it doesn’t offer any medical information we can use. Now we’ve decided that when we are called to the chamber if we find Lady Elise partly wrapped for burial I will follow Colleen as a student would, letting her deliver the child alone with a blade in the center of the abdomen where the baby is usually most easily heard to be living. We’ve been pretending a practice of this with an oat bag as the mom. She will use the smallest cut she can to remove the baby, and as soon as the baby is delivered she will turn her attention completely to the father and the living baby for the purpose of letting me work alone on the corpse. She will have him focus all of his attention on the good fortune of a living son; but also, hopefully she can take him from the room, while I stay with the body. I will have a chance then to examine the remains and learn what I need to know of a woman’s anatomy.

         “But Lady Elise seems so healthy and well-prepared for this, and with two midwives, we hardly can imagine there would be any need to make this my opportunity for a lesson. We are prepared to meet this either in a normal way with no deaths at all, but also, if Lady Elise is found to have died as described in the journal, I will be able to learn from it. Whatever happens, at least something good can come of it.”

         Ana continues, “Lady Elise’s family is prominent in Poitiers, and her family’s estate is also on the river near the earl’s villa. We knew that Elise’s mother knew the tragic history of young brides coming to death in childbirth at the earl’s villa, and she feared for her daughter’s safety. That was why she chose a midwife carefully and gifted Colleen to Elise. So, on finding the journal, Colleen and I took a walk up to Elise’s family with our concern.  Her mother was outraged.”

(Continues tomorrow)

#36.7, Thurs., Sept. 15, 2022

Historical setting: 589 C.E. Poitiers

         While I stay as a guest at Ligugè I appreciate the hours for prayer and psalms with these few elder brothers.  I help some with the work on the statue that Brother August and his young apprentice are doing. And as close as we are, with Ana at the villa, and me here, nearly everyday Ana rides down here and she and I go riding together.

         Ana discovered that one of the recent midwives who lived in the servant’s quarters of the villa was literate. She left a journal among with her personal belongings when she was hastily sent away after the last wife of this earl died in childbirth. At this villa the nursery raises this nobleman’s three sons of various ages. There is no mention of daughters, but through all these years the cemetery fills with women, and the bed in the earl’s marriage chamber is rarely shared. Ana is hoping to find the cause of so many mysterious deaths of first time mothers; they happen so consistently it hardly seems normal. Of course it’s true that women often die in birthing children, especially when it’s the woman’s first child. Mothers who birth several children just have some mysterious gift of their good natures that allows for both lives to be safe. But even considering that, these deaths seem unusual. The nuns at the convent want nothing to do with the goings on at the villa.

         I asked Ana if the journal is helpful. She said no one else even knows of this. So few servants are literate and it was stuck away in the servant’s quarters so no one has given it any attention. But it might be very helpful as she and Colleen are making a plan.

          Apparently the mother described in this journal died before the labor even began. The journaling midwife wasn’t called until the mother was already mostly wrapped in linen grave cloth. The husband was grieving at her side, and the only urgency seemed to be to rescue the infant who was alive, but not yet delivered. So of course, the midwife immediately used her blade and rescued the infant.

         As I return to the stable at the monastery I can attest to the fact that it is much easier to deliver a mother and child from a block of marble, than into life itself.

(Continues Tuesday, September 20, 2022)

#36.6, Weds., Sept. 14, 2022

Historical setting: 589 C.E. Poitiers

         Ana and I have found a cozy quietude in the haymow of this villa stable. I asked her if Colleen, the midwife/servant-slave here is a good teacher.

         “Teacher, no. She’s more like me as an eight-year-old than she is like my teacher. Lady Elise is due any day now, — a good reason for me to be here — so Colleen and I have been preparing the tools and going over the procedures. Colleen’s blade and needle were thoroughly rusted. We could use mine from my kit if we need to use a blade immediately, but I thought it best to teach her to clean her tools and polish them bright.

         “Clean, clean clean, Eve always told me. Before every birth, or any kind of procedure in fact, I needed to prepare three wash basins with warm water and cleansing herbs for the prayers. With the first prayer wash hands and tools in the first basin as preparation and if we are in a Christian home, we say ‘Dear Father, guide us.’ When we know what we are going to do to help, we wash in the second bowl and we say ‘Dear Christ stay near us,’ and at the third bowl, when all is done that can be done, wash everything clean and ask the breath of Spirit to continue. Even though Colleen is Christian all the time, and Eve only when it was needed, Colleen had never heard of this Christian washing Trinity.

         “Eve told me that even though it sounds superstitious it really seems to work for healing. Whenever she used the three cleansing prayers she saw faster healing and less infection.

         “So there we were sanding and polishing Colleen’s tools by candlelight, deep into the darkness of last night. But now everything is ready.”

         This afternoon Ana and Colleen plan to examine Lady Elise so Ana thinks she will have a better idea of when that birth might be, though she adds, it’s always in God’s time so no one really knows. I suggest Ana take a ride when she has time and we can see if the hay is as soft in the mow at Ligugè, as it is here. Hay always seems as fine as eiderdown when it is shared.

         Thank you God, for Ana, for the hay, for the beasts beneath us, so patient and gentle. Thank you for more beauty than we can even speak when we are in love.  Thank you God.

(Continues tomorrow)

#36.5, Tues., Sept. 13, 2022

Historical setting: 589 C.E. Poitiers at a noble villa

         I asked for Ana at the gate of the convent and I was given the name of a noble household where she was sent. Finding that place was easy. It’s a villa on the riverbank overlooking the city. It is the residence of an earl.

         Ana sees me coming and meets me in the stable. She looks like a splash of sunshine on a gray morning cloud.

         “So you find me wherever I hide.”

         “The nuns told me where you were, but nothing about why you came here.”

         “This place is known because the earl has had several wives who  died in childbirth but the baby boys always seemed to survive. I was asking about rescuing both mother and baby so they sent me here to shadow the midwife because the earl has a new wife due to give birth very soon.”

         “And how is this place for you? Do you have food and good sleeping quarters?”

         “Probably as fine as yours at a monastery that’s on the wane. I’m staying in servant’s quarters. So I think our beautiful moments together are only likely in the hayloft of this stable.”

         “Ligugè has a fine stable also you know, but probably not enough regard over there for women.”

         “This stable is quiet and secluded.”  And Ana goes on, “My sleeping mat in the servant’s quarters may not be better than a guest room at a monastery but at least sins are less original here. I’m assigned to the young midwife, so when you want to find me ask the servant at the gate for the midwife Colleen’s assistant.”

         “Colleen, that sounds Celtic.”

          “Yes, it’s Irish as is she. It means girl.”

         “Just girl; so her parents couldn’t think of a name?”

         “I thought that too. I’m not even sure if she’s a slave or a paid servant. The mother of the earl’s new wife gave Colleen to her daughter as a wedding gift, knowing of the gossip about this villa.”

         “Which is?”

          “That every wife of this earl dies in childbirth and when the child is born alive the blame is laid on the midwives, so when Lady Elise was first betrothed to the earl her mother searched the markets for an able helper, and thus gifted Colleen as the new midwife.”

         “Is Colleen a good teacher for you?”

         “I think it will be an opportunity to learn what I need to know.”

(Continues tomorrow)

#36.4, Thurs., Sept. 8, 2022

Historical setting: 589 C.E. Poitiers

         Brother August has already dealt with my obstinate little heresies, nitpicking substance of Trinity and plundering creed, calling it a human appeasement and not the true nature of God.  And now I’ve added a wife to my list of sins.

         From this monk’s point of view it’s only a gracious yield to the practical, that marriage of man and woman can exist at all. The virtuous sexuality is no sex at all — chastity. So if a man can’t really be chaste, then, the rules say, he can be married to one, and only one woman and The Church seems to let him call that “chastity” also. But by this doctrine we are all born in Original Sin, no exceptions, well except for Jesus. Sex is the one big necessary evil. Augustine agreed with Origen on that one.  Even though Origen was dismissed as a heretic for his extreme Gnostic actions, Augustine took one thread of O. Sin and knitted it back into the Latin dogma. So it is that people who read rules more and listen less for the Jesus love come to the conclusion that patriarchs define what virtue is; while tempting, menstruating and birthing women are the sin source. In short: men-good, women-bad. So of course Jesus born of Virgin explains why he was so good after-all. [Footnote] Apparently all that hard to do love your enemy thing, and God loves universally, all those things Jesus taught and died saying are easily dismissed as too hard for humankind to do because Jesus was just born different.

         So what of my little thought that God, Spirit, Creator of all Creation, gave human kinds and maybe other creatures too, sex as a physical metaphor for spiritual love? In Roman Christian order it sounds pantheistic — another Pagan heresy.

         Dear God thank you for your continuous shower of love on me and all of us. Please help me through my human ways — be they virtue or heresy — to follow the one commandment of love you have laid before us. And stay close to Ana also. Amen.

         So today, by hammer and chisel, the face of the Virgin emerges from stone. The artists chip a nose like a nose on familiar barbarians, and they polish the gazing eyes to holy until earthly people can reach into her embrace and find Heaven.

         Tomorrow I will take the short ride into Poitiers to find out what Ana has learned of women.

 [Footnote] (Erickson, Carolly The Medieval Vision:Essays in History and Perception New York: Oxford Unisversity Press 1976) This author offers a clear overview of the history of this Medieval view of women. (Chapter 9 The Vision of Women pp181—212)

(Continues Tuesday, September 13, 2022)

#36.3, Weds., Sept. 7, 2022

         This morning after prayers and prayers again I find Brother August and his new apprentice at work on the great stone of marble.  It’s in this state of creation where a halo is emerging from the center at the top, and it seems affixed to a head that is bowed. Already I can see Brother August’s artist’s eye has wandered from the standard. Art in a world where rule is rule and everything is either right or wrong there would be no nuance for a Virgin with a bowed head. In these times when original sin is sex which implies that sin pervades every birth except that of Jesus (and a Caesar or two claimed to have been birthed by virgins), it would seem to be the rule that such an otherworldly Virgin would have a gaze fixed on anything but the child.

         “Brother August, my friend, I’m so glad to see this new art as it emerges.”

         “Brother Lazarus! So good to see you again. Did your family win that war against Pagans?”

         “I suppose you would say we won. We had a victory feast. But mostly we learned it wasn’t the Pagan tribe that came onto our land killing and burning. It was pirates.”

         “Then did you battle the pirates?”

         “No. The young woman they captured escaped on her own. So I can continue with pacifism as my truest virtue.”

         “Pacifism, a virtue?  What about celibacy?”

         “No, not so much of that.  I’m married now. And I see the Virgin of your art still bows her head so her’s will still be a humble prayer also.”

         “Change the subject if you wish. But I want to know what woman could woo you from your holy commitment.”

         “She’s one who knows she is loved by God and yet she allows me my heresies.”

         The young apprentice looks shocked at my mention of heresy.

         “Brother August knows of my obstinate resistance to Trinity and creed.”

         “No wonder you have fallen under temptation by a woman,” assesses this youth.

         I choose not to argue sin and redemption with a novice.  I’ve seen it myself; the innocent parental-love of God for all of Creation has been unspooled and wound into a complicated web of sin and salvation by men. I would say “by humans,” but really it was a patriarchal thing. It was an obstacle course set out by men to make a journey to God into a trial. I don’t have to answer to the youth.

(Continues tomorrow)

#36.2, Tues., Sept. 6, 2022

Historical setting: 589 C.E. Ligugè near Poitiers

         It’s nearly dark when I reach Ligugè after getting Ana settled in as a guest with the nuns. I arrive for vespers and stand in the back near the door. It is only the abbot and few monks here now.  The abbot sees me immediately and at first his surprise shows as a smile, then he finds his composure and turns toward the altar to continue the blessing of the host.

         Tonight I share the guest room with a very young layman who wears a laborer’s simple tunic; but he seems refined, not as a worker.  So I ask. He says he was assigned by his own father to work on the commissioned piece of art.

         “I’ve always wanted to be an artist. My father hopes I will become a monk. Here I can taste life both ways.”

         “So you are working with Brother August?”

         “You know Brother August?”

         “I was here once, all tonsured and ruled. But I believe I had a holy purpose with family, so I left with the abbot’s blessing. How about you? Are you seeking holy orders?”
          The boy answers, “Even the abbot doesn’t think Ligugè is a good fit for me. It has so few monks now and they are all so old. He suggested I would fit another community. But I fear the boys would just pick over me for my frailties.”

         “Everyone has frailties. Maybe some will be kind. Caring for one another is always the rule in a Christian community.”

         “Did my father send you here to sway my intentions?”

         “No, no. I have no sway at all, with anyone’s father. Believe me.”

           “My father is the one who commissioned the work in marble for our own courtyard. He thought owning a statue would satisfy my longing for art. But having art and doing art are not always of the same spirit.”

         “Is Brother August a good master?”

         “He’s a very good master. He allows me to step back with him and consider the possibility for the whole large work.”

         “That makes him a good master?”

         “My first teacher would just tell me where to lay the chisel, and how hard to tap. But Brother August talks with me and allows me to recognize the purpose of each cut. Here I can learn to discern the art, not just do it.”

         Someone outside the door reminds us of the required silence.

(Continues tomorrow)

#36.1, Thurs., Sept. 1, 2022

Historical setting: 589 C.E. Toward the Monastery of the Holy Cross

         We ride in silence for some hours, I, on a familiar road, Ana, always in wonder of the new places.  It’s been a few generations for me, and some deaths since I attuned myself to the patterns of woman. As the pure pale haze of a moon rises in the late day blue we near Poitiers, I suggest we stop before we arrive there.

         “Ana, I need to know if I am being thoughtless of your needs.”

         “What are you saying? Are you looking for an argument that we aren’t having? I just don’t need to talk all the time. Quiet is good.”

         “No, no. I’m not being critical of all this quiet. I just don’t want to be ignorant of your needs and oblivious to something important.”

         “Whatever are you talking about?”

         “I’ve noticed you are not eating a morning meal these days, and now the gibbous moon is rising and we’ve barely stopped.”

         She laughs. She laughs at me for asking. Then she looks away toward the moon in the daytime sky. Then she looks at me.

         “Oh, so you suppose something. But you don’t know. One of the rules of all women is you can’t make a certain plan by phases of the moon. Early is one worry and late another.”

         She puts another silence between us and changes her demeanor toward me.

         “Laz, I really don’t know. You are right this is different. I don’t want to let myself hope. And were I pregnant just now what a messy plan it would make for us so far from home.”

         “We will just take it as it comes, Ana. Whatever it is, long waiting or messy plan it will come to us and we will meet it with the help of God.”  Dear God stay close, Amen.

         We do need to have this moment to embrace before we come to the cloister without those thousand eyes living under the Rule for Virgins, watching us.

         So this late afternoon we arrive at the Monastery of the Holy Cross in Poitiers where Ana hopes to be taken in as a guest. Here she can read any books about birthing babies that were ever written, and she can ask questions of midwives regarding possible options and hopes for Thole’s and Tilp’s baby. 

         This evening I plan to continue on to Ligugè to visit where I once lived as a monk.

(Continues Tuesday, September 6, 2022)