The Cloister, by James Carroll

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)

Four Letters of Love, by Niall Williams

This is a beautifully written 1998 novel that troubled me during the reading, but then was spellbinding toward the end, except a conclusion that seemed to be just but also arbitrary. Overall, this is a love story between Isabel and Nicholas, who never meet until the final forty pages—forty pages that are the highlight of the novel. They do not meet because Nicholas lives in a Dublin suburb with his father William Coughlin, a civil servant whom God told to become an artist, and his mother Bette; while Isabel lives on an island off the west coast of Ireland with her father Muiris Gore, the local schoolmaster, her mother Margaret, and her brother Sean.

I was troubled first because the lovers take so long to meet, but also because Isabel’s life is told in the third person and Nicholas’ in the first person. In an afterward, the author explains that Nicholas is really telling Isabel’s story; and that the lovers do not meet until late in the story because what interests him most here is the pattern or design in life that brings people together, not what happens afterward. Which I can certainly testify to in my own life, where the pattern of losing my parents and encountering my one love is far more interesting, to anyone outside my family, than the life that followed.

Another element that bothered me was the arbitrariness of the ending. Which the author also explains. I noted the significance of his line that “the plots of love and God are one and the same thing.” Meaning, I felt, that God is love, and that the love between humans is a metaphor for the relationship between God and all humans. But Williams also means that, despite all the obstacles, this love story was inevitable, “that loving Isabel Gore was what Nicholas Coughlin was born to do.”

Another aspect of the ending was also bothersome. There is almost unbearable tension in waiting for the outcome of the last four love letters that Nicholas writes—that is, learning the final destiny of these lovers, whether they will be together or apart—but that destiny reverses itself too many times. Indeed, the final answer seems almost arbitrary—until one realizes it fits the author’s theme. But I do question the need for so many reversals.

There is a spiritual magic that fits seamlessly into this novel, both because of its mystical Irish setting and because of the link it makes between the living and the dead. That is, Nicholas’ dead father, the creator of a painting that brings Nicholas to Isabel’s world, is very alive in the first part of the book, as Nicholas tries to connect with him; and then his father’s spirit does connect, appearing at crucial moments to aid his son’s pursuit of Isabel.

Another mysterious element is the stroke that early in the novel paralyzes Sean, Isabel’s brother. There is no explanation, but Isabel blames herself. And then Nicholas arrives on the island, to buy back his father’s painting as his own means of connecting with him. Whereupon, he takes Sean to the same site where Sean suffered the stroke, and the boy is cured—which is long before Nicholas meets and falls in love with Isabel.

Nicholas has no explanation for the cure, indeed denies he has done anything, but it as if he has brought a mysterious goodness to the family on this island, a goodness that will later impress Isabel. One can only suggest that this goodness comes from God, and is part of the destiny that moves all our lives.

While organized religion plays no role in this novel, the work is deeply spiritual, and God is present everywhere in the lives of these characters—in their loves, their dreams, their inspiration, and their fate. Indeed, early on, the narrator Nicholas writes about his boyhood. “It seemed to me, God came to live in our house. He was not often spoken of, and was never addressed. And yet we knew he was there. Not exactly holy, not exactly prayerful, but a kind of presence.” It is this presence, one senses, that follows Nicholas to the island and perhaps results in the cure of Sean.

Another mysterious element are the flies that inundate the island as the love of Isabel and Nicholas is challenged by Isabel’s mother. Except, they do not invade the cottage where the good Nicholas is staying—as if the evil of their separation exists elsewhere. And these flies vanish when the human obstacle to the couple’s love no longer exists.

As I approached the ending, this novel seemed to be leading toward tragedy, toward a death of one of these characters that so engaged me. But Williams’ interest is not in creating a literary impact; it is in portraying human fulfillment, in destinies he sees infused by love, and by the loving hand of God. And who am I to dispute the appropriateness of that approach in a work of literature?

When Williams writes, “the plots of love and God are the same thing,” he is writing about more than Nicholas and Isabel. For there are other love stories here, that of William Coughlin and his wife and how they met, that of Muiris Gore and his wife, both how they met and how Margaret sustains their love (whereas Nicholas’ mother Bette could not), that of Isabel and her brother Sean, that of Peader O’Luing’s pursuit of and appeal to Isabel, and that of Nicholas and his father William.

Williams also captures the many permutations of love in the thoughts of Isabel’s mother: ”If Margaret Gore had spoken to her daughter she could have told her. In love everything changes, and continues changing all the time. There is no stillness, no stopped clock of the heart in which the moment of happiness holds forever, but only the constant whirring forward motion of desire and need, rising and falling, falling and rising, full of doubts then certainties that moment by moment change and become doubts again.”

Despite my many criticisms of this novel, it confirms my interest in reading more of Williams. First, because of his beautiful, evocative style, and then because of the presence of many varieties of love, but mainly because the spirit of God impacts the lives of these characters. As Kathleen Weber wrote perceptively in the Times, this novel gives us “ a place devoted to the belief in miracles and the obsessive power of love.” (January, 2015)