On a rainy day in New York in 1950, Father Michael Kavanagh seeks shelter from the downpour at The Cloisters, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s majestic hilltop collection of medieval religious art. There, Kavanagh strikes up a conversation with a docent, Rachel Vedette, a Jewish Frenchwoman who resettled in the U.S. after the war.
Kavanagh and Rachel form an immediate, though cautious, bond. Kavanagh realizes, from Rachel’s direct, precise way of talking, she was “a veteran of grim accomplishment.” Rachel senses in Kavanagh a spiritual malaise, “enough knowledge of the absolute to feel cut off from it.”
From this chance encounter emerges James Carroll's hauntingly beautiful triptych of a novel, “The Cloister.” The narrative moves compellingly forward in three distinct yet entwined storylines: how Kavanagh must redefine his faith when he encounters dreadful truths about his local church hierarchy; the shattering tale of Rachel and her father in Nazi-occupied Paris; and the tragic, real-life story of the 12th-century lovers Peter Abelard, the philosopher monk, and his student Heloise. Within each narrative, Carroll explores the dual-edged power of love, of religion and of personal transformation.
Carroll, a Massachusetts resident, is the author of an expansive range of deeply considered books: novels, poetry collections, religious histories and a memoir, as well as theatrical and cinematic works. His byline can be found in publications from the New Yorker to the Op-Ed page of the Boston Globe.
Now seems a particularly apt time to read a thoughtful novel about standing up to political and religious intimidation, when too many countries are beset with a rise in anti-Semitic hate crimes, and new scandals of sexual crimes and cover-ups by the Catholic church continue to unfold.
At that first meeting, Rachel is carrying a small leather volume, worn soft with use, of Peter Abelard’s “The History of My Calamities” ("Historia Calamitatum: Heloisae et Abelardi Epistolae"). It had belonged to her father, Saul, a religious scholar. Before the war, Saul had been working on a new interpretation of Abelard’s work, to showcase, as he saw it, Abelard’s “radically ecumenical attitude toward Jews,” a revolutionary view that “Jews were not condemned by God for murdering Christ,” that God is with Jews, “not with their attackers.”
In most things religious, Abelard was a radical: a teacher who preferred debate (“disputation”) over lectures, who called the then-new law of clerical chastity “empty” and who revered Jews and Muslims for their love of learning.
In his unassuming way, Kavanagh has a bit of Abelard in him. He feels connected to his parishioners more than to the church hierarchy, and he tries to preach love over discipline. As a chaplain during the war he had told soldiers they were not going to hell for having lustful urges before being married, and he was sympathetic to married couples doomed to using the faulty rhythm method of birth control.
Carroll imbues each era with wonderfully specific details, like a 1950s coffee shop with its "linoleum tiles, Formica tables … and round tin ashtrays" or how matins, vespers and compline define the daily rhythms of a 12th century French monastery.
Saul is a man of mighty spirit but frail health. Rachel, knowing his work helps to keep him alive, keeps them in Paris, the city that has the important archives for his work, even as the Nazis impose increasingly harsh restrictions on the Jewish population. Soon, it is too late to leave. They are taken to the Drancy internment camp, where Rachel resolves there are no limits to what she’ll do to keep them both alive. But from that trauma is the lingering question: Who is she?
Even in that hellscape, Saul believes, “The Lord’s silence is not His absence.” He runs a secret weekly havruta (discussion group) that is a balm to the inmates. Rachel is not so serene. Years later, in talking with Kavanagh, she bitterly notes “the twelfth century’s curse on the twentieth.” This is the fascinating point upon which so much of this novel is built. What if, during Abelard’s time, religious authorities had interpreted the Gospels as did he, and much later, Saul? What of history — the Crusades, the pogroms — might have been different?
For centuries, Abelard and Heloise have been celebrated in song and literature as one of history’s great romantic couples. Carroll’s depiction of them, based on their letters and Abelard’s works, highlights the spark and danger of the early romance, but focuses more on its long unhappily ever after. Heloise, portrayed as stronger and more farsighted, views her cloistered life through a practical more than idealistic lens. Ultimately, she wonders if their younger forbidden love had been as much about battling the world as cherishing each other. In fact, many of their conversations feel more academic than intimate. It’s when the modern characters speak Abelard’s ideas in the context of their own time that his arguments really come alive.
It was Heloise who helped to preserve those words. (Though at one point she had urged him to write less and teach more to fix his legacy, so fearful was she that the Church fathers would burn all his texts.) You can picture scribes in a scriptorium, painstakingly copying his words; those same words read and re-read centuries later, in a precious worn leather volume.