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The Texts - John Constable

The Confessions Of St Benedict

'So now I'm in the Holy Hole, as close to St Swithun as I'll ever be, and for all the crush and the stink and the moaning and mumbling, it's as if his Spirit is somehow draining down, decanted into us, and we all fall silent. And then, it's as if I'm seeing with his eyes, his Spirit eyes: the Holy Well, with the arches of the crypt - then the Minster, the Cathedral -branching up around it like a living forest. I see the hands of countless men, carving buds and leaves and birds and faces. It's as if they are breathing life into the wood and stone, filling the Cathedral with living forms? so that now Christ and the Virgin and the Saints and Bishops and Kings and all the Company of Heaven are here with us. For a moment, which seems to last an Eternity, I see the sun burst in through the west window, flooding the Cathedral with light. I see their stone faces softening, flushing and filling with blood, all shining and glowing with life.'

The Prior shifted awkwardly in his chair. He didn't doubt the boy's sincerity, or that he had somehow connected, communed with the spirit of the Cathedral. Benedict's vision of the Company of Heaven seemed to accord with the Church's teachings, yet the Prior sensed that it was fragile and mutable - it lacked grounding. And there was something not entirely right about a prospective novice initiating him into the esoteric secrets of the holy shrine. The Prior had spent years in Swithun's presence, without being troubled by a mystical visitation. He reminded himself to guard against the Sins of Pride and Envy.

'Only it wasn't Eternal. The moment passed. The sun went out and the life seemed to drain from their faces. They were cold stone, gathering dust and cobwebs. Then men with hammers came and started smashing the faces, and knocking off arms and legs. They broke open the caskets and stole the bones, St Swithun and the other Saints, and used them to smash the windows?'

The hoarse caw of a crow marked the silence. Still, the Prior resisted the urge to interrupt.

'I saw the full moon shine in through a broken window, and the Cathedral like a hollow shell, filled with rubble and broken pews? and the bats? and the owls?'

The Prior stood up and walked over to the window. He was at a loss, struggling to find the wise words that would set this young man's agitated soul at rest. He found himself rehearsing a speech about how sacred images are like portals, windows into the world of the Spirit, but that, if we become fixated on them, they may become opaque, blocking out the Light, and that, perhaps, we may eventually find it necessary to destroy them.

It was no use. Even unspoken, his words sounded leaden, inadequate; his metaphor no match for the savage intensity of Benedict's vision. Worse, his own thoughts seemed to have become infected. He saw himself smashing the idols, clawing at their broken shells, groping for the unmediated touch within, to find only cobwebs bejewelled with dead wasps.

The boy couldn't be more than twenty. What could have put such thoughts into his head?

Two crows now, squabbling over their roosts on the tower. Their harsh cries only seemed to extend and deepen the silence.

'I was told you wanted to join our Order.'

'Yes, Father. At the shrine, I heard Swithun calling me. I spoke of it with Brother Godwin. Last night I stayed in the Pilgrim's Hall, with the hammer-beam roof, but, yes, I want to enter the monastery. Godwin says there's room in the monks' dormitory?'

'I'm afraid Brother Godwin has been taken ill.'

'But? I was with him only...'

'It was most sudden.'

'May I see him?'

'I'm afraid not. He is in the infirmary. As soon as he is well enough to travel, I have granted him leave to return to his family. I would expect him to be gone for a month or more.'

'Not... plague?'

The Prior shook his head: 'I fear poor Godwin has been working himself into the ground. You have to understand, a place like this, it weighs heavy on all of us. The Sins of the Fathers... things that were done in the past, before we were even born... such things are not easily healed.'

'True, Father, and the things that come back to find us, from the future, the Sins of the Unborn...'

The Prior was struggling with the irrational feeling that this conversation had been conducted in this very room - not once but many times - and would happen again. It was if this strange, troubled boy had the ability to conjure the states that he invoked in words.

'And you think there might be something for you to do here?'

'Truth to tell, Father, I've always felt drawn to the Life of the Spirit. Since I was a child I have spoken with God and his Angels. And I see things, Father?'

The Prior made a supreme effort to suspend his own misgivings, to consider, even for a moment, that Benedict had indeed been chosen, sent by God to test them. Yet an inner voice warned him that the would-be monk would never learn to submit to the Rules of the Order, least of all to the Rule of Obedience. He pursed his lips:

'In these dark days, I fear we may have need of more mundane skills.'

'Yes, Brother Godwin was saying how the Black Death has depleted the Order.'

'Indeed! We lost half the population of Winchester. And the Brothers suffered most of all, because they had to tend the dying and deliver the Last Rites, and even bury the dead. That's why Bishop Wykeham founded the College, to train a new generation of scholars.'

'I can read and write.'

'Then, you see, there's the market gardens to tend, the kitchens...'

'I'm not afraid of hard work, Father.'

'Oh, I see you're a good soul. What if you were to find work in the town, and lodgings? That shouldn't be so difficult. So many houses fallen into disrepair, or falling down. When you're settled, you could come and help out here, on a voluntary basis. We always welcome lay friends of the Order. You could join in some of the services. And, in time, who knows, eh? Yes, I think that's the way to proceed.'

He stood up with an expansive gesture intended to usher the supplicant out. Benedict showed no sign of moving. The Prior had a sinking feeling that the matter was far from settled.

Cathedral I am, a very

English Body of Christ.

Johnny Foreigner could easily miss

The violence contained in my politeness.

Cathedral I am, Old Man wryly

Recalling my colourful youth

When I posed for icons then ripped them apart

In search of my inner truth.

Cathedral I am, Catholic

Libertine and Puritan scourge

Locked in amorous congress, mortal combat,

In love-song, battle-hymn? and dirge.

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