‘Mercy Within Mercy Within Mercy’
By James Martin, SJ
A few years ago, an elderly priest in my Jesuit community heard my confession after dinner one night. I can’t remember what I confessed, but after my friend gave me a suitable penance and pronounced the ritual words of absolution, he said, “I have a book that I think you should read.”
After rooting around in his overstuffed bookshelves, he produced a copy of Pierre de Calan’s novel, Cosmas, or the Love of God. It was a hardbound edition of the first English translation, masterfully done in 1980 by the English Catholic writer and journalist Peter Hebblethwaite, long out of print. And though I had read dozens of books on monastic life on my way to entering a religious order, I had never heard of the novel or its author.
“Please don’t lose it,” said my friend. His only copy, its pages yellowing with age, had once been lost in someone else’s collection for some time, and that he had taken great pains to retrieve it.
After finishing the book, the story of a young man’s passionate desire to enter a Trappist monastery in 1930s France, I wondered what prompted the priest to recommend the book. For the main character, Cosmas, a pious man with a painful family background, struggles mightily with trying to understanding his vocation. His tale is told by Father Roger, the monastery’s former novice master. Throughout the novel Cosmas questions not simply with whether he is “called” to monastic life, but also, more important, if he is called whether he can live out his vocation faithfully, or at all.
The question upon which the novel turns is: What is a vocation? Is a vocation something that you feel God is calling you to do? And, if you feel drawn to a particular vocation, but discover that you cannot do it, does it follow that God is now asking you not to do it?
Whole lives—single, married, vowed, ordained—have been spent pondering that difficult question. Does unhappiness in a religious community mean that one should leave? Or is fidelity and perseverance the answer? Likewise, does unhappiness in a job, or in a friendship, or in a marriage, mean that one should switch careers, sever a relationship, or even end a marriage? This is Cosmas’s dilemma.
As the narrator asks: “[W]as Cosmas really called to religious life? No other question has ever disturbed me so much.”
By the time I asked my confessor what about the book had reminded him about my own situation, he had already forgotten. (One grace of good confessors is the ability to forget the content of confessions.) So I was forced to seek meaning in the book on my own.
After several readings, with my appreciation for the book deepening each time, the tale of the young novice began to offer me new ways of understanding the mystery of living out a vocation, and, more specifically, living out a vocation in a religious community.
There is an irony here. Monsieur de Calan, who died in 1993, was neither a Trappist, nor a priest, nor a member of a religious order. Born in Paris in 1911, he studied philosophy and mathematics and worked for many years as a tax inspector, eventually becoming president of the French division of the prestigious Barclays Bank. And at the time of the first printing of Côme ou le désir de Dieu, in 1977, de Calan was married, with six children and eighteen grandchildren.
The story of the businessman publishing a timeless novel is reminiscent of the American poet Wallace Stevens who, when not writing poetry, worked as an executive in an insurance company in Hartford, Connecticut. As Peter Hebblethwaite says in the introduction to the original English edition, there is no reason that a businessperson cannot be literate as well as numerate. Still, Pierre de Calan’s achievement is as unlikely as a celibate priest writing a convincing portrait of married life.
M. de Calan knew that as late as the mid-twentieth century, life in a Trappist monastery varied little from what its medieval founders had intended. One window into this world is offered by the writings of the American Trappist Thomas Merton, who entered the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani monastery in the hills of Kentucky in 1941, just a few years after the fictional Cosmas entered his in La Trappe, the mother house of the Trappists, in France.
Merton’s autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, as well as the journal of his early years in the monastery, published as The Sign of Jonas, describe practices and procedures that are literally medieval. The monks work in the fields with the simplest of tools, their carts and plows drawn by horses. They eat plain food, fast for much of the year, maintain silence for most of the day, and sleep in unheated dormitories while fully clothed in their habits—made of wool, even in the summer.
And they gather to pray, something that Trappists still do around the world. The daily prayers of the Divine Office are still the mainstay of the church’s monastic orders. In the Trappist abbey in Kentucky for example, the first prayer of the day, Vigils, still begins at 3:15 am, and the last, Compline (so called because it “completes” the day) comes at 7:30 pm. Following the age-old patterns of the medieval life, tethered to the rising and the setting of the sun, the schedule is a rigorous one.
But it was not the physical difficulties that will plague Cosmas as much as the spiritual ones. The young man enters the monastery joyfully, in the full bloom of what is often called “first fervor.” Nothing is too hard, all seems full of light. It is similar to the beginning of any relation-ship: a period of infatuation is perfectly natural. Gradually, though, members of religious orders discover—as do couples and spouses—that the object of their affections is not perfect.
For Cosmas this recognition assumes an unusual form: he finds it unseemly that the monks are so concerned with the business end of running a monastery. (He has forgotten that monks need to eat and earn a living like anyone else.)
“I expected,” Cosmas tells Father Roger with disappointment, “to find a greater difference between those who remain in the world and those who spend long hours in prayer and whose lives are dedicated to God’s service.”
But there will be something more troubling for Cosmas, and, by extension, for his novice master. Cosmas cannot accept the fact that his brother Trappists are so human. One quarrels loudly and violently with another, one cadges chocolates from the common pantry. After just a few months in the monastery, he will be tormented by the inadequacies, the humanity, of his fellow monks.
It was here, on my very first reading of Cosmas, that I remembered my early need to confront this part of life in a religious community, which again mirrors a phenomenon encountered in all relationships. The person you love, the community you love, is always flawed. One person can be argumentative. Another can be lazy. Another can even be cruel at times. At first this was shocking. But when I was a Jesuit novice, one of Thomas Merton’s comments helped me to respond to the same emotions that Cosmas would feel:
The first and most elementary test of one’s call to the religious life—whether as a Jesuit, Franciscan, Cistercian, or Carthusian—is the willingness to accept life in a community in which everybody is more or less imperfect.
Moreover, holiness, as Father Roger tells Cosmas, is not something that we attain instantaneously. The imperfections of the community and of the other person are to be expected, and are, since they reveal our weaknesses, reminders of our reliance on God. Nor does sanctity mean perfection: even the saints were not perfect. Rather, holiness, as the novice master explains, “is a distant goal towards which, day by day, they inch forward with humility and constant effort—rather like the mountaineer whose upward progress is so slow . . . . ”
While this realization will elude the protagonist, for the attentive and receptive reader it arrives as both a relief and a challenge. Sanctity is attainable even for flawed individuals. And holiness consists in becoming the person who God created, not some desiccated copy of a plaster saint. As Merton wrote, “For me to be a saint means to be myself.” This realization also seems to elude Cosmas.
But Pierre de Calan’s luminous novel is not simply about Cosmas. In many ways, it is as much about Father Roger, the wise novice master, who provides a spiritual foil to the young monk. Where Cosmas is impatient, the novice master is patient. Where Cosmas has little use for the inadequacies of others, the novice master is infinitely forgiving. And where Cosmas fails to trust, Father Roger invests others with complete trust.
In this way the narrator embodies the second part of the book’s title, the Love of God. Indeed, one joy of reading Cosmas is that by the end of the book one feels that one has spent time with two superb spiritual directors and two loving men: Father Roger and the austere but ultimately compassionate abbot, Dom Phillippe.
A further word about the title, Cosmas, or the Love of God. In the end, Pierre de Calan’s book is really about the Love of God. The love that seeks Cosmas out and urgently calls him to religious life, the love that impels Father Roger to support Cosmas when the novice seems deaf to his advice, the love that draws the young man back to the abbey, over and over, and the final and beautiful expression of love (which I won’t reveal here) that is shown by the entire community to their wandering brother, Cosmas.
God’s love embraces all these characters in all these situations, as it does in real lives. “Mercy within mercy within mercy,” wrote Thomas Merton, and this, I think, is something of what he must have meant.
James Martin, SJ, is a Jesuit priest and associate editor of America magazine. His most recent book is My Life with the Saints, a memoir published earlier this year by Loyola Press. This essay is adapted from the introduction to Cosmas, or the Love of God, by Pierre de Calan, a new edition of Peter Hebblethwaite’s English translation, being published this month by Loyola Press.