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DEATH COMES AS EPIPHANY
The Convent of the Paraclete, Feast of St. Thecla, Saturday, September 23, 1139
[In the convent] ... it is proper for one sister to be over all, ... while all the rest are soldiers ... and shall fight freely against the evil one and his hordes.
--Peter Abelard The Letters of Direction
Catherine was working in the vegetable garden with the other novices on the morning Sister Ursula's family came to take her away. They could hear her pleading and crying all the way across the cloister.
"What could she have done?" Sister Emilie whispered as they continued hoeing the cabbages.
"I can't imagine," Catherine answered. "She always seemed so devout."
"Sh!" Sister Adeline warned. "Sister Bertrada is coming this way."
The novice mistress stepped carefully between the rows until she came to Catherine.
"The Abbess Héloïse wants you," was all she would tell the girl. "I've no doubt to punish you as you deserve."
"No doubt," said Catherine. "But for what?"
"More than impudence this time, girl," Sister Bertrada said grimly. "Go at once! The rest of you, get back to your work!"
She stalked away.
"Go on." Emilie nudged Catherine. "Try to find out what's happened to Ursula."
"I only hope it's not about to happen to me." Catherine put down the hoe and squared her shoulders to face her fate.
The prioress answered her timid knock instantly. Without speaking, she led Catherine into Héloïse's room and, with a reproachful glance, left, shutting the door behind her. Catherine stood motionless in the center of the room, eyes down, waiting for the abbess's reprimand.
Héloïse rose and gently lifted Catherine's chin so that the girl was made to look at her.
Heloïse, abbess of the convent of the Paraclete, was a tinywoman, with huge dark eyes. Twenty years of sorrow and self-control had not clouded them. She had long ago learned to compress the sensuality from her lips, to keep her expression calm, but those eyes would always betray her.
She smiled a brief reassurance, then stepped away. Turning to a table by the narrow bed, she picked up a roll of parchment. She seemed more nervous than Catherine as she opened the roll, glanced at it, then twisted it, crumbling the seal as she retied it.
Finally, she spoke.
"Child," she said, "you're covered with mud."
Catherine blushed. "Yes, ma'am," she said. "It's my afternoon to hoe the cabbages."
"Does one need to lie flat to do that?"
"No," Catherine admitted. "I didn't see the strings set out to mark the rows of new planting and tripped over one. Then, as 1 was getting up, I slipped on the mulch and ..."
Heloïse shook her head in awe. "Never mind what else. I suppose you are aware that one of our sisters has been taken from us."
"Her family arrived quite suddenly this morning. They brought me some information which, they said, made them doubt my suitability to oversee the spiritual welfare of their daughter."
Her fine-boned fingers crushed the rolled paper.
"I'm sorry," Catherine said. But she wasn't sure for what.
She waited for the abbess to begin again. Héloïse seemed in no hurry. She put the roll back on the desk and gazed for a moment out the window toward the river Ardusson. The afternoon light illuminated her face and Catherine thought how beautiful Héloïse was still, even after so many years in the convent. It wasn't hard to imagine how she must have looked when Peter Abelard had first seen and fallen in love with her. But that was long ago, and Heloïse had behaved with exemplary rectitude ever since. What could they be saying about her now? Catherine nervously brushed the mud from herskirts. Héloïse raised her eyebrows as the clods fell on the newly swept floor. Catherine blushed.
"I would have gone to the dormitory and changed," she explained. "But Sister Bertrada said it was urgent. Whatever I did this time, Mother, I truly regret it. I'll take any penance you set."
"My dear Catherine." Héloïse turned away from the window and embraced her, despite the grime on her face and clothes. "It's not a penance I am giving you, but a mission."
She studied Catherine's face. Catherine returned the look steadily, hoping that, whatever the task, she would be worthy of the need in those eyes. Héloïse reached up and gently pushed an errant curl back under the novice's wimple. The gentleness of the touch caused Catherine to fight back tears.
"I will do anything you ask, Reverend Mother," she promised. "In my whole life, the only place I have found love and acceptance is here, at the Paraclete. Just tell me what I must do."
Heloïse sighed sharply and turned away. She fumbled with her rosary a moment before answering.
"I want you to leave here, Catherine, and return home in disgrace." She held up her hand to stop Catherine's cry. "And, moreover, I want you to appear bitter and angry toward me and to be prepared to lie to your family and to officers of the Church. You will have to keep your own counsel and trust no one. There may even be some physical risk involved. Although I pray that won't be necessary," she added quickly.
Catherine felt the room lurch beneath her. This couldn't be. She swayed dizzily. With a startled exclamation, Heloïse grabbed her arm and guided her to a wooden stool. Catherine sat and wobbled. The legs were uneven. After a moment, she pulled herself up.
"Is this a punishment, Mother," she asked, "or a test?"
"Oh, Catherine, neither," Héloïse answered. "I'm not doing this well. I felt you should understand the gravity of the matter before I explained in detail."
She unrolled the crumpled parchment again and handed itto her. Catherine read the letter with increasing confusion and anger.
"But this is impossible!" she cried. "How could anyone accuse you of such a thing? I helped copy and bind that psalter. We put nothing heretical in it."
"Yes, I know," Heloïse answered. "But the man who wrote Ursula's father says he saw it himself. He swears that not only did several of the commentaries 'reek of dualism and denial of the sacraments' but that they 'clearly show the perversive influence of Abelard.'"
She paused. Catherine finished reading.
"These are lies, Reverend Mother!" she said. "We used only orthodox sources. Part of the book was compiled from the Cistercian psalters sent to us from Clairvaux as well as the one Master Abelard sent. Who could possibly misinterpret them so grossly?"
Héloïse sat again, on her hard and narrow bed. She leaned forward, eyes closed. In her three years at the Paraclete, Catherine had never seen the abbess so vulnerable. She came and knelt by the bed, her head resting on the older woman's skirts. Heloïse continued, speaking from some point in weary memory.
"Adam Suger drove me and my nuns from Argenteuil with accusations not half as fearful as these. I sent him the psalter as a symbol of my forgiveness and respect. I hoped we had made our peace. But it would not take much, I fear, to create another coolness. Do you know, child, what Abelard did when he was given refuge at Saint-Denis?"
"Yes, Mother." Catherine smiled in spite of herself. "He decided to research the founding of the abbey and discovered that they had been worshiping the wrong Saint Denis."
"And he was fool enough to tell them." Héloïse smiled too, then sighed. "To him it was an intellectual discovery. To them it was a matter of honor. He never understood why they were so furious."
"But that was before Suger became abbot. Surely he doesn't still resent Master Abelard."
"No, probably not, but Suger has no cause to defend him,either. There have been rumors lately that William of Saint-Thierry has been writing letters bringing up the old accusations against Abelard. That he analyzes things man was not meant to understand. That he denies the power of Our Lord and says the Holy Spirit was created by Plato."
"It doesn't matter. It's all words. Abelard has made many enemies in his life. William is one of them. They will never let him be. But of all the things Abelard has made, the Paraclete is the one he has given into my care. It is our refuge, and his. I will not let us be used to defeat him and I will not allow his enemies to drive us from here."
"Oh, Mother! Surely that won't happen!"
Héloïse drew herself up. "I don't know, Catherine," she said firmly. "And that is why I am forced to ask so much of you. I need someone who knows what the psalter looks like, who will recognize any changes in it. You are the most brilliant scholar here ... you know it. You love your books more than your Maker. That's why you haven't made your final vows, isn't it?"
"How did you ..." Catherine was too stunned to dissemble.
"Furthermore," Héloïse continued, "your family has connections with Saint-Denis. And, since you have not yet officially renounced the world, it is not quite as much a sin for me to send you back into it."
By now, Catherine was becoming excited. Of course, her true vocation lay in the convent. Her doubts were minor ones. Where else could she be free to study? But her adjustment to the discipline of the order had been hard. Her conscience reminded her of that every day, even when Sister Bertrada didn't. To be able to serve the Paraclete and Héloïse and, at the same time, to taste the freedom of life in the World again. She could almost smell the attar of roses on her mother's dressing table. Perhaps she could even go to the debates on Le Petit Pont. She had missed the intellectual stimulation of Paris.
"I will do whatever you ask," she said.
Héloïse shook her head. Catherine blushed. The abbess always seemed able to read her mind.
"I haven't given you a present, child," she said. "This is a serious matter. If the Paraclete were a normal convent, a few noncanonical pages would be dismissed as an example of the inability of women to understand theology. But we were founded by Peter Abelard and many people believe that means we knowingly wallow in dissent and corruption."
"I know," Catherine said. "It is good that we learned of this before the book was produced at a council to condemn you."
"It would not be me they judged, Catherine, but Abelard. William is even now trying to convince Bernard of Clairvaux to take up the matter. If he does, we are all in danger. During the battle between Pope Innocent and the antipope Anacletus, people became accustomed to letting Bernard settle their disputes. Abelard still believes that, if he simply explains his statements logically, everyone will see the truth. He can't imagine that people will agree with Bernard just because that is what they are used to doing. Catherine, you must find out what is in that psalter. The future of the Paraclete depends on it."
"But I know there is nothing!" Catherine insisted.
"Then find out who wants to destroy us so much that they would forge heresies and make it appear to be our work."
Catherine nodded. "Mother Héloïse," she began. She stopped. It was not her business. The question was unforgivably rude. But she had to know.
"Mother," Catherine said softly, "which is more important to you, to protect the Paraclete or Master Abelard?"
Unexpectedly, Héloïse laughed. "I have never made a secret of it, Catherine. I love Peter Abelard more than my life, more than God, more than you love your books. I would see the convent emptied and beg in the streets for my bread if I thought it would keep him safe."
"After so many years?" Catherine blurted.
"Love has nothing to do with time," Héloïse answered. She closed her eyes. "It has nothing to do with logic or dialecticor even common sense. And, if you wish to enjoy a life free of turmoil, I suggest you devote yourself exclusively to Our Father in heaven and learn from my example."
Her voice became brisk and Catherine knew the subject was closed.
"Now, if you were sent home, do you think you could manage a trip to the library at Saint-Denis?"
"Yes, Reverend Mother, I think so. Abbot Suger allowed me to study there before, when I visited with Father."
"Good. If the book is unaltered, find out who has been spreading these slanders. If it has been changed, copy out the relevant passages."
"And then what?" Catherine asked. "Shall I try to discover the person responsible?"
"Of course not. That would be both dangerous and inappropriate. Bring the copy to me. I will see that it reaches those who will defend us."
Héloïse paused, tapping her foot. "If I could go myself, I would. But I can manufacture no excuse for leaving. Still, I am uneasy. You may become involved in old resentment, even hate."
"Then I must ask Our Lady to watch over me," Catherine said.
"Of course. And tonight we will both ask an extra petition of Saint Thecla as we celebrate her feast day." Heloïse went to her breviary and opened it to the day's reading. "She is not a saint often celebrated in the west. Do you know her story?"
"Oh yes. She was a Greek who heard Saint Paul preaching from her window one day and was converted. She ran away from her family and her betrothed and dressed as a man to follow Our Lord's apostle. She preached herself, and converted many people even though the devil sent wild animals and depraved men to torment her." Catherine paused.
"She might be a fit guardian for you as you reenter a world where there are still many wild beasts," Héloïse said.
"Not in Paris, Mother."
"Especially in Paris. I lived there once, you know."
"Very well," Catherine agreed. "I will make a special devotion to Saint Thecla."
"I will write to your parents tonight," Héloïse said. "I will tell them only that you have found yourself unable to submit to authority with proper humility but that, perhaps, if you show sincere repentance, you may return. I will suggest that you might benefit from a few months of parental discipline and the guidance of mature minds."
She took out her writing materials. "They won't beat you, will they?" she asked.
At the door, Catherine stopped and considered. "I don't think so, Reverend Mother." Suddenly she grinned. "Father said he couldn't stand my forgiving him so fulsomely every time he punished me. Mother ... I don't know. She was pleased when I decided to enter the convent. I think she may be very angry."
"I see. If you should decide in the next few days that the shame and deception are too much for you to bear, I will not reproach you," Héloïse said.
"I won't. I am honored you chose me," Catherine answered. "After all, it is all too believable that I should be sent home for the sin of pride. It will be good for me to have to hold my tongue for once."
"You must, Catherine," Heloïse said firmly. "Better that than be silenced forever."
Catherine felt suddenly chilled.
"I understand, Mother Héloïse," she said. "I won't forget."
Copyright © 1993 by Sharan Newman