Excerpt 2

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Congregation for the Causes of the Saints

Cardinal Doggio turned his wrist. It was time as far as a Rolex Geneve Cellini, indifferent to his mortal body’s fear of every tick of the second hand, could warrant – he would prefer to languish elsewhere, simian-like beneath a tree, and not be a part of the inexorable march. He waited a few moments, musing upon the comforting gleam of gold that graced three fingers of his right hand. Frequent visitor that he was of the developing world, he liked to keep his left to itself although purely in memory of his youthful experiments. He was certainly not like one of those Anglo types who is apt to go native at the first opportunity. Neither, for that matter, was he of the American persuasion for whom only an unconscionable supply of toilet paper will do. He had seen enough to know when to trim his needs! Besides, when he proffered his hand, he wanted these marks of favor from the Holy Father to cluster together. Public displays like this do much to redeem an awkward presence on life’s stage. When he received the first gold band, power had flowed into him like water to parched land. Each subsequent ring added an equal splendor. So adorned, he never lacked for potency. He no longer needed to be demonstrative or have recourse to the rhetorical arts, with persuasion at his finger tips like this. A simple yes or no and his interlocutors could work out the reasonableness of the matter for themselves. Any protest or remonstrance left him unperturbed – just so many sounds of smothered hatchlings.

When he felt that he had sufficiently reminded himself as to who was in charge, he motioned to Father Florentino, who awaited in a state of abject contemplation and damp laundry with a small gold bell in hand to signal the Holy Judges. Apparently with great effort, the priest assumed the expression of faithful lackey and nodded as he produced three tinkles under Cardinal Doggio’s expectant and hooded gaze. Father Florentino directed his attention away to the double oak doors, his reverent look careful not to betray a show of impatience.

“Yes, the risotto was excellent but afterwards, mama mia, such a heart-burn all night I did not sleep.”

“In future, avoid the establishment just as I have learned to do. A rat’s nest! I can tell you the same happened to me. To abstain is not such a big tragedy.”

“A pity because I think it was the cheese, but how can you be sure? The cheese is everything after all and you can’t tell them to leave it in the kitchen. From the smell, it was cured in goat dung. ‘To be dipped in wine,’ the waiter said and provided a special bowl for it. Who heard of such a thing! But it seemed legitimate: a very old recipe from one of the Caesars -some archaeological dig, six months ago. These chefs so full of themselves, they can’t wait! I have a half mind to go back and tell him what I think of his shitty cheese.”

“Speaking of shitty, have you tried the coffee made from excreted beans. They follow about some wild cat or other who has a taste for them and gather up the results.”

“Oh, I’ve had it, it’s very … .”

“Shitty?”

“An acquired taste.”

“‘Natural fermentation’, I think they call it.”

“At least we have heard no more talk, after the Holy Father’s passing, of those relics with a similar provenance, and even He did not dare more than to make noises although, as we know, there was encouragement.”

“Really they went too far when they claimed the ‘true believer’ will venerate simply everything. Excreta of the saints! What next?”

“That would be the end of it, I should think.”

“It came down to analyzing the specimens, and what they might show.”

“Too much pasta!” added a cardinal who had been carefully listening.

“And too little fish. It put a stop to everything. I don’t like fish.”

“Yes, it shows, Cardinal Pimento.” Cardinal Fugione, who was possessed of two gold rings, made an effort to take the sting out of his gibe: “But it makes a good side dish,” he added.

At the summons, Cardinal Falcone stood up and, with a curt “Shall we?” took the lead.

The number of dull yellow bands each of the Cardinals boasted appeared to determine the order of their procession, for those who were without adornment made up the tail of it. Despite its being an august convening, this initial stage of the deliberations called for the wearing of only a modest surplice embroidered with a fine monochromatic thread according to preference. Later, if it should come to that, to mark the heightening degrees of solemnity, the more resplendent silver would be on show, and then the gold along with the donning of headgear to confer the ultimate gravitas.

Once inside the chamber, each of the Eminences proceeded to the representative of His Holiness, who had risen to his feet, and kissed the back of Cardinal Doggio’s furred hand limply held out to them. Of late, thanks to his mistress’s attentions, he was not as abashed by his physical characteristics and tended to take pleasure in their effect upon those rather more scrupulous than she. It had indeed been a remarkable transformation to see himself, once reliant upon services for hire – lump of unappeased flesh that he was – now as a romantic figure.

After these obeisances, the Cardinals picked their places at the table with a fine eye to the balanced disposition of status and alliance. Cardinals Doggio and Falcone faced each other from the opposite ends. Cardinal Zappa established a check on Doggio’s left but was matched by Cardinal Gagliano to the right. Similarly, Cardinals Sperito and Passolia flanked Cardinal Falcone. Also at a remove from their primary allegiances, Fugione, Blufi and Favarotta rounded off the gathering against Pimento, Pezzolo and Librizzi. Those yet to be demonstrably wedded to Papal favor contrived to conceal the fact within their sleeves while the blessed exuded limitless self-regard and gesture without restraint.

To the left of Cardinal Doggio stood Father Giusseppe Florentino on a platform, covered in red plush should one be in a position to appreciate it, some three feet high and accessed by a set of stairs at the back, that put him well within everyone’s sight lines and rendered him at least physically ascendant. Most of the Cardinals ignored the oppressive sight of him, abstractedly gazing elsewhere and involving themselves with their inner arguments while Father Florentino read from a prepared text. Other than from Cardinal Doggio, who nodded metronomically with each breath he took, not to approbate what he was hearing but simply to mark his own rhythm of the proceedings, a general stillness pervaded the room. For him, the text contained no surprises; he had approved it all much earlier and now noted Father Florentino’s discomfort for its entertainment value. He was also not above indulging himself with counting off the rings that Cardinal Falcone was able to muster: one, two, one, two. Nonetheless, for all his privilege and enjoyment, the dark circles about Cardinal Doggio’s eyes seemed only to deepen the effect of the dewlaps hanging alongside his chin.

For his part, Cardinal Falcone looked at his higher status rival and told himself that he scorned anyone who drew inspiration from a bully physique. He was, however, passingly perplexed as to how to respond to that hefty bulk proclaiming, “I am more than you!” Perched well back in his chair as he was, the tips of his banded fingers visible upon the table edge, the high polish of his precipitous, passerine forehead and aquiline nose highlighting the overall sharpness of feature, at any moment he might have yielded to an obsession for self-grooming, stick his beak in and root around, delouse and fluff up the glossy feathers beneath his surplice. Cardinal Doggio would have liked nothing better, he knew, than to have had him between his jaws.

“And when he was a young seminarian … ,” intoned Father Florentino, an air-conditioner’s hum accompanying him, although its operation proved ineffective against the perspiration that oiled a sugar-fed face. As all may have seen if they cared to look, Father Florentino had not been blessed with that lightness of touch that can render grace to the corpulent, for his baby limb fingers pawed and flailed at his papers. Their inflammatory content simply prevented his efforts at a measured reading! With what had that Canadian priest – was there such a creature? – afflicted him? That priest with his chocolate box! His voice had begun to crackle.

“Do go on!” growled Cardinal Doggio, hurrying him along as he noted the effect of his lector’s disarray.

“And when he was young seminarian, he was frequently discovered bedded with a fellow student – the night being very cold, as he explained, or they were studying for an exam.”

“Sensitive and industrious,” murmured Cardinal Librizzi, head thrust forward, his blue eyes rimmed with the table’s reflected light and badly in need of the proscribed sunglasses. He really ought to submit a new dress code motion – one had to make allowances after all.

“Omnia munda mundities” (“To the pure all things are pure”), Cardinal Fugione whispered in the ear of Cardinal Falcone, who folded his arms and nodded in agreement.

Encouraged by the air of appreciative irony among his listeners, Father Florentino did not feel quite so isolated and, in a somewhat more bonded mood, read on.

“Invariably on such occasion, the Holy Book would be present and open to suggestive and ambiguous passages. For these all too common misbehaviors, he received reprimand and solitary penance that included deprivations of food and drink.”

Despite Cardinal Doggio’s by now palpable impatience, Father Florentino could not help but pause at the young seminarian’s suffering before, remembering himself, he hurried on.

“These disciplines, however, did not succeed in curbing his
animal appetite. The subsequent complaints of the Brothers, but not all of them, produced a divisive strain on the economy of the communal bath.”

Again he stopped, this time to puzzle over the implications, and then, with a shrug, continued, “The Head Seminarian, one Father de la Visitation, although possessed of an intellectual curiosity for what he called ‘root causes’, did not endorse a universal toleration. In the chronological report is an addendum where he gives his ideas on what he calls ‘the most flagrant example of fallen man in our circle of devotees’, and he goes on to make an argument that sounds quite desperate. He observes, ‘It is not the sins of the fathers, but those of the mothers, their sins of omission that visit the sons. Better to initiate them young in the ways of the flesh, as a Greek father does his daughters, than to confuse and frighten them with warnings and overprotections. Preferable to be on the instructive side of the parents’ bed than the other’ – he means underneath it, I think we can say.” Father Florentino’s bonding appeared to have taken full hold.

“’And a greater concern for personal appearance and hygiene on the part of these women,’ Father de la Visitation adds, ‘will help to counter such waywardness.’ He illustrates his meaning with the example of the seminarian LeBoeuf’s mother whom he surmises must have been ‘a woman lost to all sense of what brought her to conceive a child in the first place or her duty to it afterwards. It is certain that a repeat blessing will not visit her present bloatedness, her husband the haberdasher manifesting an unnatural interest in his sheep that is above and beyond an appreciation of their wool.’ He give this on the basis of the appearance of said LeBoeuf.”

Father Florentino tilted his head in a display of scorn for such outdated, phrenologically inspired claims where he might well have shuddered at the possibility of any truth at all to them.

A ripple of amusement brought a temporary halt to the reading as the Cardinals, who equally could not afford to entertain doubts, considered the merits of their seventeenth century colleague’s philosophy as a parental corrective to aberrant behavior.

“There is a priest who was ahead of his time.”

“Today, it is too late, the ‘sins of the mothers’ would be behind the times.”

“Our friend the haberdasher would be behind bars for a long time.”

“What is this thing for sheep?”

Cardinal Doggio signaled Father Florentino to continue.

“It would be desirable if Father LeBoeuf’s voyage to the New World was due to some supernatural calling but, alas, he does not even boast of any personal impulse. The record shows it to be due to ‘special orders’ that put him on the boat.”

In an impenetrable manner, Father Florentino again paused to consider any possible relevance to himself in such exercise of earthly power – something Cardinal Doggio had said to him when he mounted those stairs to his sanctum.

“Father Florentino,” admonished the Cardinal, “you will stop your starting and stopping! No more interruptions!”

The lector hurried on.

“But in his scholarship as seminarian, it cannot be denied that he possessed skills of exegesis that allowed him to be considered for The Holy Office of the Inquisition, were it not for the salience of his problematic character.”

On paper, Father Florentino had been pleased with the polish of this turn of phrase but now it slithered worm-like away. He risked an upward glance only to meet the narrowing of Cardinal Doggio’s eyes, while at the other end of the table, Cardinal Falcone’s gaze flashed – surely not with nictating membrane – and Florentino considered it wise to continue apace.

“In the natural course of his progress, Father LeBoeuf left the seminary to join the Order of the Brothers of the Cross, defunct since Napoleon’s time, and there he came under a much harsher regimen.”

*

circa 1656 A.D.

Under Father de la Visitation, the liberal atmosphere at the seminary had no doubt led to Brother LeBoeuf’s lapses of judgment; it also engendered in him the conceit that he could “handle” the monastic life and it was time to test his mettle further. Although less severe than the Jesuits, the Brothers of the Cross were close enough in outlook that Rome might take notice and, if not, possibly Paris would. The spartan conditions were just what he had been expecting and suited him. His first appointed duty of the day was to rise early and prepare the breakfast gruel. Wooly with sleep and a first overlay of grey prayer in the charcoal dawn, he would take charge of the spacious empty kitchen and light the cooking fire beneath the full pot of soaking oats – sufficient to feed his thirty-five brethren.

The infiltrating light would gloss the curve of the giant metal container as he stirred the contents above a bright red flame and stared through the oblongs of thick glass upon the pasture outside where low mists retreated against the enclosing, barely discerned flint walls. A brother would already be working the milk-flecked dugs of the cows and he registered, without paying much attention to the sound, bovine waves of satisfaction and complaint. LeBoeuf timed it so that when the animals lumbered out to the fields, he would be ready to clang the bell and end the prayers that were deep into their second hour, summoning the brothers, possessed as they were by the spiritual light they had been harvesting, to come and sit at their steaming bowls. After an adoration of thanksgiving, they would toss back their hoods, and Brother Claude, returned laden from the barn, would puddle fresh, warm, frothy milk onto their porridge.

Father Durelle, at the head of the refectory table, set the tone.

“Another day for the Saints! Think, brothers, what they would do with such a morning! It is raw silk to be spun. However humble be your task, add prayer to the blessed time and strive always to be worthy of it and what is to come as it surely will. Trust in your sense of faith that it do the work of preparing you for all of your acts and, most especially, your utterances. And, remember, in silence and in stillness none will condemn you.”

Father Durelle delivered his confident exhortations like a choir conductor imparting his interpretation of a musical score, his choice of register leavening what were no more than servings of received orthodoxy, each of the brothers well-practiced in it and drawing much of their rightfully sublimated joy and gaiety from its command. His admonitory current eased into them as a river into the relenting sea, his close-cropped head bobbing up and down from his porridge bowl, his spoon raised to commend Brother LeBoeuf’s contribution as well as to mark his points of emphasis:

“It is no easy matter, brothers, to subdue the flesh, we all know it, but porridge well-prepared goes a long way to strengthen us and satisfy our needs. I do not say completely, but where would we be without this sound and healthful meal? Would we sweep clean our living quarters and present them a pleasure to both mind and heart? Would we maintain suppleness of limb through our husbandry and the harvesting of our crops? Would we be careful in our calligraphy to preserve worthy knowledge and not be a shame to future generations? And, ever uppermost, would we rejoice in our songs and prayers to the Everlasting in all that we do so that our doing is itself transformed and found acceptable?”

A star left over from the night would sparkle in his eye during Father Durelle’s list of reminders as he varied the content and arrangement of his address like a composer his score. More emphasis to one part and modifications were in order; complete omission suggested satisfaction. Regaled in this manner, the rest of the brothers dined, as decreed, in silence, but not somberly, exchanging broad smiles that showed them content although sometimes they looked pensive. All knew that the Enemy was personal and subtle, and they were confident that Father Durelle’s prescription established the true domain and strengthened them to confront the Devil’s guile.

 

“I trust in the Lord, not Satan.”

LeBoeuf winced at the firmly lodged memory of the two village boys, strapping lads were he free to bring merely an objective eye to bear, who had proffered their cheese-fed buttocks to him and, for the nonce, had given him back his youth – a gift whose aura lingered. For the most part – he had to attend to his receptivity that the rest of it might come – his conscience was clear, for he had made no demands nor submitted coy suggestions. He admitted it to have been foolish to have the lads in his cell for the practice of their sums and letters, and he should examine more closely his fondness for private engagements, but there had been no innocence to violate that he could see, instead an innocence to express that had carried him away and rendered rather too late the thought of wrongs he must correct. There was more to life, after all, than considering which side to butter one’s dry bread in a monastery. Most hard to swallow, however, was Father Durelle’s referring everything to the bishop’s bloody-minded edicts instead of effecting a simple transfer to Paris or Marseille. Not dramatic enough and too close for comfort.

“A man who steals a fish out of greed is guilty as stated, but if the man steals out of hunger, what then is to be said of him?”

“It is written that the law is made for man, not man for the law,” admitted Father Durelle, “but we are speaking of lust and its satisfaction, and not of a fish, Brother LeBoeuf.”

“I have always trusted the spirit to guide me in my appetites. I seek the spirit but, like all men, I must eat.”

However much it ran counter to the ascetic life of the Brothers of the Cross, Father Durelle sympathized with this naked plea from one who claimed power over the objects of temptation and didn’t simply give in to them. And so it was with a measure of misgiving that he replied: “Never will you free yourself from Satan, if you feed from His hand. For to whom else can you give thanks for this latest transgression? The Enemy is subtle and makes good use of such self-deception that you would call trust, Brother LeBoeuf. The matter is settled. The bishop has decided there can be no accommodation for these excesses.”

“Then I am to be ejected from the Order?”

“From France. It is for the best, Brother LeBoeuf: keep in mind the burnings – who knows if they will begin anew?”

“Whatever may come, my faith will be as strong as ever!”

LeBoeuf reached across to accept the sealed envelope and small coin purse. (‘Sufficient for your supplementary needs.’) Without the Church’s authorization and means, he could go nowhere in an ecclesiastical capacity. At least he would retain the raiment and not give up his quest for integrity where temptation was held to be one thing and necessity quite another although they apparently both went hand in hand. He bowed to Father Durelle and could do no other than submit to his exit from the Old World, already on the outside of an impenetrable wall.

*

Cardinal Doggio raised a peremptory hand.

“That will suffice for now, Father Florentino. What remains?”

“One more session should complete it, your Eminence.” The priest riffled through the remaining text. “Easily,” he added, reverting to his earlier, expansive show of pride. “With your permission, Eminences.” And, with a tilt of the head, he made his exit.

When their lector had departed, Cardinal Doggio looked for preliminary reactions and nodded to Cardinal Falcone, his intention being to flush him out early. All heads turned to the other end of the table as Falcone drew from his stock of preemptive oil:

“It is the prerogative of Holy Mother Church to choose whatever means necessary to attain her goals and conform them to the unassailable teachings. The denial of astronomical science over the centuries and beyond its proper time has served Her purpose until weaker minds could come to distinguish between the geographic and the spiritual. More is the pity that Her patience has proved to be misplaced. Nonetheless, we cannot contemplate heresy as a means to counter heresy. Although the Holy Scriptures contradicted the burning of the insufficiently reverential, where Christ, as we all know, has some negative things to say on such subjects, it is one thing to condemn and another to approve. The Church survived the manner of Her rightful discriminations and prospered with the same enduring appeal among the faithful and little in the way of repercussive ill. Time and intention are Her trusted servants. She need not alter for any purpose outside Her own. Being infinitely slow to adopt the world’s changes, where some may see painful progress, She demonstrates Her unutterable transcendence to the rest. And so, given time, we can imagine even these pedophiliac bones may find accommodation and purpose. Another half-millennium would be generous in my humble view.”

Dangerous though the waters might be on which he had set his dismissal adrift, Cardinal Falcone had reminded them of the endless sweep of time they controlled and, under Cardinal Doggio’s gaze, they took a moment to indulge in the contemplation of themselves within its broader perspectives. With an eye attending to one Cardinal and then another, Doggio drew them back through force of will into his orbit, his reassuring but ponderous tones uncomfortably affecting them.

“Eminences, we are here to unburden ourselves, and I thank the Cardinal for doing his duty. Are there other voices that wish to sound forth? Let us have no rebuttals but, instead, give ourselves the time between sessions properly to consider each other’s views!”

To everyone’s amazement, however, Cardinal Falcone thought to set alight his particular proposal.

“With respect, Cardinal Doggio, let my meaning be clear: truly to be unburdened we should require half a millennium give or take a hundred years! And so my suggestion would be to call back Father Florentino, while there is still an opening in the calendar, and make a reservation for those who come after us to carry on this particular argument.”

The rings about Cardinal Doggio’s eyes widened and darkened; he had lost sleep over the pope’s enterprise and did not mind showing it. Still, his response at Cardinal Falcone’s show of plumage surprised everyone.

“For once, we are of one mind,” he allowed, settled back in his seat while keeping a tight grip on the scruff of their necks. He waited, baleful, teeth closing together; he gave a little shake.

“Well?!”

The demand hung above the table. The Cardinals relaxed; they were firmly in the parental jaw and, save for Falcone, who was now content to allow his eye to speak for him, voices dared to support the apparent bias:

“The proposition is incredible!”

“Scandalous!”

“Not even a millennium!”

“The Church could never defend it!”

“Irreparable harm will be done!”

“Where did this proposal come from?”

“Canada, he said?”

“Where?”

“Good Lord!”

It was as he’d imagined. There would be dissension.

“Eminences!”

Could it be any other way when he had not made privy those he could count on? They too would have to suffer what he was about to drop and that should take care of Cardinal Falcone’s laudable sally. This was not a question for the ages to decide. He stood up, blinking, showing the broken veins in wide open eyes.

“It is the Holy Father who signed off on this! Let us continue to be of one mind when we next convene! Possibly Father Florentino’s narrative will take a turn for the better.”

He stretched his wide mouth into the semblance of an embrace and, before turning to leave the room, contemplated the power that flowed through him and across their stricken, upturned faces. Naturally, he kept to himself, the Holy Father would find a way to commend them should they rebel, but the poison had begun to drain, they had become very still and perhaps he would not yet find himself on an endless mission to South America, with influence plummeting and favors withdrawn. If so, that Florentino will find himself equally and suitably discommoded.

He passed through them. Cardinal Doggio’s incendiary stratagem had welded the Cardinals into a clump about the smoldering Falcone.

“What can be the reason for this abomination?”

“We shall all be soiled by it!”

“This Yankee shit-disturber will get us all hung!” cried Cardinal Gagliano. He looked about, appalled at himself.

“Cardinals!”

The time had come for Falcone to remonstrate, what with Gagliano dragging them all across the Rubicon, and none thinking to rebuke him. He singled out the malcontented Cardinal with an open lens stare, showing himself ready to close the shutter and file the shot for later, less sympathetic consideration. Still, he was not displeased at the weakness of their hand; as for himself, he well knew how to deflect the assault and would swiftly recover. His conscience was not porous, worm-eaten, no longer able to defend at the gate and he knew when the fix was in and why Doggio had played his cards the way he had. It cut him not to have been consulted, but he was quick to understand that, presiding over Church dogma, he needed to be compelled along with the rest. Favor remained to be granted; it had not been withdrawn. The Holy Father wanted to remain above the fray, that was all. For that, the pontiff needed an enforcer.

“Cardinals, I submit to you, let us give further mind to this, keeping our counsel until its fulness is known. Believe me, I am at one with you in these first feelings. Be at peace!”

Pope Julian’s more usual procedure was to confide individually in his intended delegates, make the business personal and yet, in this instance, he had gone against form and kept his distance. Why? Cardinal Falcone was convinced He wished to be approached. He would seek an audience and offer his services.

***

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