The Cloister, by James Carroll

by Robert A. Parker

This 2017 work is the novel by a priest that I have been waiting for. Except, as in this case, it is by an ex-priest. That is, a novel that blends human life with spiritual life and extends their interaction across history. As well as a novel that explores both the conflict and the balance between the human and the spiritual, and presents man’s obligation toward each one.

Indeed, this is a novel that one thinks could have been written by only an ex-priest, by a man who had lived in both worlds, the spiritual world and the human world, the world of philosophy and the world of politics, the world of transgression and the world of love.

This is also a novel that, for the first time in a long time, I have read slowly. This was, in part, because of the richness of the writing, in part because of the philosophical depth being explored in the conversations among its intelligent characters, and in part because I simply wanted the novel to last for a long time.

There are three stories being told here simultaneously, and we move back and forth among each one. First is the story of Heloise and Abelard, the twelfth century lovers and Catholic intellectuals, who are introduced in a Prologue. Next is the story of Jewish philosopher Saul Vedette, who is fascinated by the story of Heloise and Abelard; and his daughter Rachel, who encourages him to continue his research into Abelard while they are living in France under German occupation in the 1940s. And finally, there is the story of Michael Kavanagh, a New York parish priest who casually encounters Rachel, a docent, in the Cloisters shortly after World War II. She is a woman who, because of her own experience, recognizes the intellectual and spiritual uncertainties she senses in him.

The story of Heloise and Abelard is basically a story of rebellion. A rebellion against their vows, yes, when they fall in love and marry, but more significantly a rebellion against Catholic teaching of their time, which Carroll suggests applies to our time as well. For Abelard, sworn to his earthly love for Heloise, believes that God is also driven by love, a love of all the creatures He has created. And this love includes the Jews, who were even then being slaughtered by Crusaders heading east to reclaim the Holy Land from Muslim control.

Professor Vedette of the Sorbonne is writing about these beliefs of the Christian Abelard because he and his daughter are Jews. And he wishes to show that, even now, centuries later, Jews are unjustly persecuted for their role in Christ’s life. His daughter not only agrees with him but also believes she can extend her elderly father’s life by supporting his effort to complete his treatise about Abelard’s defense of the Jews.

As readers, we are drawn into all three stories. We read about Heloise and Abelard, as much to have an insight into their lives as to learn about their destiny when the Church turns against them. We read about Professor Vedette and Rachel in order to learn about his fate as a Jew under the German occupation and what happens to his treatise about the persecution of Jews under a just and loving God. And we read, most of all, about Father Kavanagh, about his personal doubts and about what his final relationship will be with both Rachel and, in his vocation as a priest, with God.

The story of Abelard parallels in some ways the story of Father Kavanagh. Both become rebellious against Church teaching. Indeed, Father Kavanagh becomes convinced that Abelard was correct when he emphasized that God’s entire relationship with his creatures is based on love. And he sees how this particularly applies to the Jews. Indeed, author Carroll’s opposition to discrimination against Jews throughout history has appeared in other works of his, particularly the historical work Constantine’s Sword. So it is no coincidence that he has chosen Abelard to be the fulcrum of this fictional exploration of the Church’s relationship with Jews and with history.

The effectiveness of this novel lies in two factors. First, Carroll successfully transports us back to the twelfth century, from its physical environment and its culture to its clothing and its furnishings. And does so again with France under German occupation and mid-century New York. We see and feel each scene that he creates. And second, he captures the tension in each century between human and divine needs and between the conservative and liberal positions. Indeed, these discussions, taking place at a deep philosophical and theological level, are often not easy for a reader to follow.

Carroll explores most deeply the uncertainties in the priest’s mind. They arise particularly when Kavanagh encounters a former seminarian who has been drummed out of the priesthood, and the bishop seems to lay the blame on Kavanagh himself. It becomes even more complicated when the priest learns the true reason the seminarian was evicted. How far, we now wonder, will Kavanagh follow his doubts about his own role as a priest? How much will his reading of Abelard influence him? And how much will Rachel do the same? All three, Abelard, Rachel, and now Kavanagh, are confronted by the abuse of power. Both Rachel and Kavanagh, moreover, face their own uncertainties. In fact, as each decides where the future lies, it will not always be what the reader expects.

But back to the novel’s basic theme, which is God’s love. At the heart of this novel is a belief that God was not being a cruel God when his Son was tortured and killed to redeem mankind’s sinful lives. This is held by Abelard, by Father Kavanagh, and by James Carroll. They believe that a God who loves his creation, both this world and its humanity, does not have the capacity to treat that world with violence.

This contrasts to the twelfth century, when conservative philosophers said that God the Father proscribed a violent death of his Son on the cross in order to redeem mankind. Whereas, Abelard believed that any cruelty committed in the name of God, and justified by the cruel death of Christ on the cross, is illicit. (“Any theology that says so is wrong.”) For cruelty cannot have been willed by a loving God as the means to redeem mankind.

And yet, this reviewer has long been taught that Christ’s suffering is what earned mankind’s redemption. Whereas, Abelard’s thesis is that a loving God could not have required this of His son. But Christ does say that “not my will but thy will be done.” So he does accept it. And my understanding has long been that physical suffering was needed to compensate for all the physical actions than mankind is responsible for, from the actions of our first ancestors until today. The only answer that comes to me is that Christ was God, and that therefore God was inflicting cruelty on Himself, not on any of His creatures on this earth. It was a demonstration of His love of them.

And so, I do believe that God, in his deepest recesses, represents love, and that, like the Vatican II declaration, Jews should not be denied that love because of their role in Christ’s death. Indeed, I have long held that Jews, as the Chosen People, were meant to represent all mankind when they betrayed Christ. It was not as Jews they did so, but as human beings. That is, we all are the guilty ones. And so we all needed to be, and were, redeemed. Moreover, Christians, those who accepted Christ, are not special, and cannot use that acceptance to believe that only they are relieved of mankind’s guilt. Or to believe that Christians are the only ones who deserve reaching heaven.

In an interview, Carroll has said that violence is built into our culture today, even though God does not in any way support violence. This began, he suggests, back in the time of Abelard, when civilization, as represented by the Church, faced a fork in the road, and it chose the fork of what he calls sacred violence, the violence that still exists today against both Moslems and Jews.

Carroll has often written of the unjust persecution of Jews, and he felt that the story of Abelard, in fact, illustrated the point in history where Christians became responsible for much of that persecution. And he turned to fiction, a novel, as the best way to show how that decision of the Church long ago has resulted in constant persecution, up to the Holocaust in Germany this last century—and extends today to the mistreatment of other religions. He created the story of Rachel Vedette and Father Kavanagh, he says, to give contemporary relevance to the Church’s handling of Abelard long ago.

While there is no clear correlation among the characters in the three stages of history covered by this novel, both Heloise and Rachel are women who inspire and challenge the men in their lives, with Rachel also persuading the naïve and troubled Father Kavanagh that he has to determine his true calling. Carroll adds, however, that while Kavanagh “is not myself,” his own experience did serve to introduce questions that Kavanagh faces as a priest.

If Carroll, now in his seventies, does not write another novel, this will be his crowning work of fiction. In a sense, it will justify that entire branch of his career. He has used his life experience, even if not his personal experience, to explore the spiritual world that all readers live in. A world most novelists ignore, both because it is unimportant to them or does not interest them and because it is a difficult world to explore in the earthly terms that a novel requires. (September, 2018)