Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Holy Thief

The Holy Thief: The Nineteenth Chronicle of Brother Cadfael, of the Benedictine Abby of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, at Shrewsbury
by Ellis Peters (pen name for Edith Pargeter)

The “holy” thief is a monk, a novice from another abbey, who visits Shrewsbury. His name is Tutilo. He is, as it turns out, a thief and a liar, but he also posses a certain sweet innocence, perhaps the kind that comes from shortsightedness.

Tutilo contrives to steal Shrewsbury’s prized possession, the reliquary containing the bones of St. Winifred. He smuggles the reliquary, protectively swathed, onto a cart of wood headed for his own monastery.

And here is where the story begins its slo-mo slide into farce. For the reliquary never reaches its destination. The men driving the cart are mugged, the cart is stolen, the wood scattered, and the reliquary ends up in the possession of a local nobleman. By the time it is tracked down, three parties have decided they have a claim to it: the monks from Shrewsbury, the monks from Tutilo’s abbey, and the nobleman to whose house it has come. One of the best scenes in the book occurs in Chapter Four, when the priors of the two monasteries are arguing with each other and with the nobleman. Each of the three is trying to press his own claim by speculating about St. Winifred’s intentions. One maintains that she orchestrated events so as to get stolen because she wanted to go to the new abbey. Another maintains that she orchestrated all the events, including the ambush, because she wanted to end up in the nobleman’s house. The prior of Shrewsbury, of course, maintains that she never wanted to leave Shrewsbury at all. The nobleman is half-teasing in this scene, but the two monks are deadly serious.

The scene, taken by itself, reads like a satire of medieval saint worship. There are several difficulties. First, they are trying to ascribe godlike knowledge and power to a dead woman. Yet somehow they realize that this is not quite right, that she is not all-knowing and all-sovereign like God. This allows them to ascribe to St. Winifred just the degree of sovereignty needed for their respective arguments. The issues raised are not so different from those that come up any time something happens that is clearly not in line with the revealed will of God. But the difficulties of St. Winifred’s sovereignty are even greater because in her we are dealing not with an omnipresent, invisible being, but rather with a being located in, or tied to, a block of wood. In short, with an idol. And idols, for all their purported power, can be stolen by people, knocked out of a wood cart, etc.

Faithful readers of the Brother Cadfael series are let in to an additional irony. Those who read the first book, A Morbid Taste for Bones, know that the reliquary everyone is now fighting over does not actually contain the bones of St. Winifred. At the time she (everyone, even Cadfael, refers to the bones as "she") was to be brought from her native Wales to Shrewsbury, St. Winifred’s actual bones were reinterred, and another body placed in the reliquary. Very few of the characters know this. Cadfael, of course, was involved in the switcheroo up to his eyeballs, and at the time did it because he thought it was St. Winifred’s will, just as Tutilo thought it was her will to get stolen.

And this is where the story steps back from being a satire. There is some lingering mystery surrounding the reliquary. Cadfael, for one, still refers to the reliquary as “she,” though he knows the actual she is back in Wales. He still prays (in Welsh) to St. Winifred at her altar in Shrewsbury, and does actually sense her presence there. Perhaps it is because her bones did rest in the reliquary for a few hours before being reinterred, or because she is “able to send her grace” over the distance from Wales to this place where she is also honored.

But it gets even worse. Not only does Cadfael subjectively sense St. Winifred at her altar in Shrewsbury, but “she” has actually done a miracle there. In one of the books between One and Nineteen, a boy with a deformed leg was healed when he knelt before St. Winifred’s altar and heard her saying to him, “Step forward, you know you can.” He did, his leg was straightened, and he is now her most passionate devotee at Shrewsbury.
And as the book progresses, it becomes evident that St. Winifred, in response to the pagan-like divinations of the characters, is perfectly able to make her will known.
So what Peters has done here is make St. Winifred like God, and the reliquary rather like the Ark of the Covenant in the Old Testament … St. Winifred’s power and presence are focused at the reliquary (by her own choice), but she is not bound to it.

In fact, Peters has drawn an excellent picture of God in her portrayal of St. Winifred in this book. It is much warmer, more nuanced, and more personal than the attitude in the series to God Himself. I think the reason for this is that Peters is basically a humanist, and St. Winifred is human. Peters does not love God, but she (and Brother Cadfael) do love St. Winifred.

Come to think of it, that was probably the attitude of many who participated in the saint cults. God was alien, distant, and probably hostile, but a local saint, one who speaks their own language and who was once human like them … such a person they can know and love. The saint cults were a sign that the Gospel had not really reached these people. The Gospel, among many other benefits, tears down the dividing wall of hostility between God and people. It enables us to really know and love God, to really come near. It tells us that He has been human like us, and He does speak our language. We need a God like this, and if we do not get the privilege of knowing Him, we will invent Him in a saint, a hero or a spirit.

I doubt that in real life Ellis Peters was a saint worshipper. But she knew her medieval history. She was steeped in the beauties, limitations and assumptions of the period. She writes about saint worship with great sympathy because it is such a human thing, and with belief because she was really able to become her medieval characters as she wrote for them. That is what makes this such an excellent series.