“Ah, Brother Michael, come in, come in.
Let us dispense with formalities; you know why you are here? Yes” The abbot paused “Brother Michael, you are a good monk, a good man -”
“Please my Lord Abbot, I am no better than others, do not build me up with false pride. I pray”
“-of course, yes. I mean you try hard to serve our Lord as well as any monk. How can I say this? You have one flaw ... you tell the truth, unvarnished, to all”
“And that is a flaw my Lord Abbot?”
“It is when the person you spoke to is the son and heir of Earl Winstock. He is our sponsor and benefactor. And he is offended!”
“Should I speak falsely?”
“NO, no, no. Oh this is difficult. You are unworldly. Perhaps you could moderate; season, yes, season your truth with the salt of diplomacy?”
Arthur, Lord Winstock was a weedy, annoying, lying, snide, spoilt, and stupid heir to the Winstock estate. He was not the right person to speak truth to. When he asked the room whether his fashionable and wholly impractical puffle pants were not the best thing any had seen all said “Yes” with one accord, except the monk serving wine (whose opinion was probably not wanted anyway). The “No” was plain to hear. When Arthur demanded to know who spoke, Brother Michael could not lie by staying silent; when he was asked to explain, he did so. Since his explanation included the words ‘ridiculous’, ‘pathetic’, ‘foolish’ and ‘moronic’, it might be understandable why the son of the great Lord Winstock was angry. And when the doted-upon son is angry, so father is angry. And when the father is angry the tower he is paying for at the monastery may not get finished.
“Punish the little turd! Whip him, beat him. Thrash him. Make that bastard piece of rotting meat suffer!”
“I shall, I shall, my Lord. I promise”
“Swear it, on this bible” Winstock knew monks could be slippery.
“I do so swear”, and he had, the Abbot had to make good his promise. He may not be a good man, or even a good monk, but he was still afraid of going to hell and if he broke a solemn promise sworn on the bible he would be heading for fire.
When Michael had joined the order, many had resented him. He was always up first for matins, always last in the queue for food; regularly berated himself with whippings and even once stood for a whole day in winter in the mill pond to mortify his flesh. Slowly the monks realised that his holier than thou attitude was not an attitude. He really was the holiest man any of them knew. He helped feed the sickest, most pestilential beggar, he prayed for his enemies (including Arthur, Lord Winstock). He bore no grudges, forgave all, loved all. He had one flaw, as the Abbot had said, he told the truth as it was. The Abbot once asked if he over-ate in a jest, a voice from the back said “Yes”. The Abbot could forgive that, Michael was not spiteful (and the Abbot knew he did over eat).
But Abbot St John had promised to punish Brother Michael. How could he do this? A whipping would be welcomed by this ascetic. Bread and water? In Lent Brother Michael subsisted on water alone all day and then only crusts at night. What punishment do you give someone who punishes himself even more?
They talked some more, but there was no way to avoid the problem. He had promised to punish and he must “I shall obey you Lord Abbot, whatever you decide” was the brother’s patient reply.
“Leave now, I shall pray for guidance” Which he did, to no result.
“Abbess Hilda, you bless me with your generous welcome”
“Ah, Abbot St John, it is no more than we would offer any traveller, I do assure you.” They both knew that the next homeless beggar that passed by and begged a room would not be given roast suckling pig, mulled mead and honey tarts; but they each maintained the artifice that the welcome was offered to travellers irrespective of standing or wealth. “And how are your monks? Delivering good deeds I hear?” This was true, the monks provided the local health service, some education, and the requirement to furnish labour – to work in the abbey fields – had provided local farmers with some modern ideas on horticulture and animal husbandry. All in all, the cost of maintaining a monastery or nunnery could be balanced by the good they brought, if they were a beneficent establishment.
“My Lord Abbot?”
“Oh, it is nothing to trouble yourself with Abbess Hilda” Hilda wasn’t sorry not to hear, she had troubles of her own, but she knew what would come next “But I will tell you. I have a monk, Brother Michael by name, who has offended our Lord, I mean our earthly Lord. He requested, and I promised, that the monk be punished. My problem, you see, is that this monk is the most godly, most ascetic, most abstemious monk. There is no normal punishment that I can offer that Brother Michael will not regard as a godsend. He would revel in being beaten. If I branded him he would carry the mark with, if not pride, at least humble pleasure. He is not someone one can punish. I even thought of removing his tongue, but he would see that as enabling him to study the Lord’s words in peace from his own prattling. Yet I swore I would punish him”
“The Lord moves in mysterious ways. I have a nun, Sister Michaela but name; who is also giving me great sorrow. Our coming together must be a sign from God that we should find some way to solve this together must it not?
Sister Michaela is a different case, she steals. Every time her time comes”
“Her ... time?”
“Her womanly time. We are not freed from Eve’s curse by being nuns, more’s the pity. She has returned from the village with all sorts; a blacksmith’s hammer, a jug of ale, even “ here she dropped her voice “the prostitute’s ‘equipment’” The Abbot was a man of the world enough to know what that was “It was very embarrassing having to return it to that harlot!
I have tried all punishments, I have beaten her, whipped her, starved her, confined her to her cell except for meals – she stole a pewter plate, nothing stops her repeating the act. And my problem is I cannot confine her for all time, she is a good and loving healer. It is most vexing. I have prayed for an answer and received no reply until now. We must think and pray together for a way to punish Michael and Michaela. There must be something”
Perhaps it was a divine intervention, perhaps it was merely coincidence; whatever the reason, the solution was agreed. It took time, at first they did not wish to bring it up, both hesitated. It was as if they were dancing round a behemoth. Yes, perhaps they were guided by God, they had the same idea, Hilda had a dream, St John just started thinking in reverse. But they were decent, respectable clerics, neither wanted to be first to mention such a solution.
But they came round to it slowly and finally agreed a plan.
“Come Brother Michael, we are nearly there. Do not hang back”
“Sorry, Abbot, it’s just that ... well I...”
“I know, I know. But you can see my problem. Any normal punishment would be entirely no difficulty for you; this is a genuine punishment for you I think? Perhaps it will teach you to mind what you say in future”
“Yes, Abbot, it will. And yes, it is real punishment. Oh my, dear Lord, let me not enjoy it!”
“No no! That is the punishment I lay upon you, since you reject all pleasure, it is my punishment that you MUST enjoy this”
Brother Michael looked down red faced. He had given a vow of obedience to the Abbot and so he would obey; it would be hard, but he would repent long and long after.
“Here we are, the visitors lodge. Ah, and here is Abbess Hilda.”
“Welcome, welcome Abbot and this is Brother Michael? Yes, welcome both of you. I have taken the decision to house you in my Abbess’ house my Lord Abbot, that the lodge might be empty, but for the two miscreants”
“Where will you sleep?”
“Oh, I shall be content to sleep in a nun’s cell and pray for the souls of our two”
“Quite right. You are most commendable” The Abbess gave a little curtsey to the Lord Abbot, her social superior even if he was her ecclesiastical equal.
“Come, come” The three walked in and opened the chamber door, where a nun’s habit was carefully draped over the chair. In the bed, hands held the bedclothes up to the neck of a pretty, young nun’s head, still cloaked in her coif and veil. “Oh, no Sister Michaela, no, no, no. I think I made it quite clear what was required. Remove that now” Reluctantly the nun removed the final symbol of her office and handed them to the Abbess who placed them on the chair.
.... There is more of this story ...