The tale of Brother Thomas and the Chapel of St. Claire

[The calendar may have said that spring was just around the corner, but you would never know it from the weather. The last two days the rain had alternated drizzle with sporadic cloudbursts, and everyone in the castle was praying for a resumption of the warm, sunny days that had enticed them into thinking that spring was here.

The people who were praying most fervently were those who dealt with the castle’s smaller residents. The younger children had gotten it into their heads that the time was ripe for playing outside, and the cautionary words of their elders were not going to dissuade them that a shirt and breeks/skirt would be cover them adequately enough in a rainstorm. Parents and teachers racked their brains and came up with indoor activities that would siphon off enough youthful energy that would let the adults convince the children that they should wait for the rain to stop and the ground to dry; still, the new-sprouting green grass beckoned like a guiding star to the castle's children.

It was harder with the older children, though. A winter of being cooped up sat hard on them, and some left common sense behind, and turned to tricks and practical jokes. It started innocently enough, but one prank led to another, and soon the head housekeeper and the Page-master were forced to step in and end the children’s incipient revolt. A number of the known ringleaders of both genders were collected and sent for punishment, punishment which involved the Chief cook and her switch for the girls, and the leather belt of the blacksmith for the boys. Some protested their innocence but to no avail; the castle’s justice was blind and swift. Soon the antics of the younger residents of the castle were stilled, at least until the rain finally stopped.

The confirmation class that was scheduled to be taught started a bit late that week. It seemed one of the boys was seeing the blacksmith over a matter of discipline; Thomas arrived to the class a bit tear-stained, but with a defiant glare in his eyes. Roger their teacher had been apprised of the delay and the reason for it and so said nothing to the alleged miscreant as the boy gingerly took a stool in the back of the Herbarium. When the class was at last all present, the old monk spoke:

“This week we are going to discuss the history of the church. Now it is true that a complete and thorough discussion of the history of our faith would take years, and many men and women have devoted their lives to researching minute aspects of church history. I do not intend to be that thorough today, but for anyone interested in more, we can discuss later how and where you can learn as much as your mind can hold.

At that the old monk began to tell the story of the early church; how the Disciples of Christ went out and spread the good news that Christ had taught them. Soon, as in the previous week, one brave soul raised a hand to ask a question, and very quickly the monk was besieged on all sides by his students wanting more information. As Roger spoke of how the church grew best during adverse times, some of the students got confused. “Why would forbidding the church to exist make it more attractive to non-believers? Wouldn’t a church that was safe attract more people?” were two of the questions that faced the old monk.

“Those who joined when being a Christian was a crime were tested in their faith, and the passing of that test lead to many martyrs and saints. Those who join the church but are not so tested may find themselves falling away if suddenly belief in God is challenged. This idea of being tested is part of what you will hear in my story later; although there are other things to learn, also.”

“Why do you teach by telling stories?” one young maid inquired. “Would it not be easier just to tell us what you want us to know?”

Roger smiled, and turned to his class. “Why do I tell stories? Can any of you guess why? I will give you a hint; there are a number of reasons.”

“You tell us stories because you like to tell stories.” One brave miss stated.

“Well, I do like to tell stories, but that is not why I do so.”

One lad ventured; “Could it be that stories are easier to understand?”

“Very good, William! Yes, a story can often get across difficult ideas. One could say: ‘I want you to bake a pie,’ and leave everyone confused. If you were read the list of ingredients, and a short list of directions, you might fare better, but still end up with a rather disastrous attempt at a pie. But if I tell you the tale of ‘How Sally made the King a Present’ and you heard how she performed each task in detail, along with descriptions of what she saw and tasted, some of you just might be able to go to the kitchen and have a fair chance at constructing something worth eating. Excellent! What else?”

“I think stories are fun;” someone added.

“I think so too,” replied Roger. “And most of my audiences like to hear stories, and that is important. People who will not listen to a lecture will sit eagerly waiting for a story on the same subject. Now, I’m not saying that everything is suitable to be told as a story, but it is a good tool. You must, as with every tool, learn to use it wisely. Anything else?”

“Some stories teach me more and more, every time I hear them.”

“Precisely! Some of my stories are intentionally set up to tell different things to people of different ages. Children might not understand all the politics in a tale about warring countries, but will enjoy the action and adventure that is there. Their elders, having lived life, and perhaps been to war themselves, will hear much more, and consequently learn more. There are more reasons, but those are enough for now. Let us go on in our discussion, and then you can all sit and see if you can tell why I tell this particular story this particular way.”

With that, the class resumed their study of church history. As they went on, timed seemed to stop for them, and they got lost in their discussion. Finally, after another few hours of talk, Roger again raised his hand, and the class realized that they had talked through their mid-day meal again.

“I have fruit here in this basket,” their teacher spoke, “and a number of pitchers of fresh water. Get up and stretch your legs, and visit the necessarium if need be. We will resume after you all are ready.”

A few of the children giggled; Roger was the only one they knew who still called the privies by that archaic word. But soon the class was resettled, and the old monk started the next part of his lesson:

“It was in the days after the discovery of the child Helga’s body that a certain Friar, Thomas by name, was cleaning the Chapel of St. Claire . . .”]

The Chapel was located in a forest not too far from the castle of King Henry, but the path to the Chapel was twisted and narrow, and few people visited it. While exploring the forest Friar Thomas had chanced upon the Chapel, and seeing it in need of repair, set to work cleaning and mending what he could. The roof leaks were not too difficult to patch, although the patches were not pretty, but to the inside of the Chapel he gave a scrubbing that left not a speck of dirt within. Unfortunately, there were some repairs that Thomas could not do. He had a particular problem with the altar, for it looked as if some animal had bled upon it, but good, old-fashioned elbow-grease removed every last stain.

But after all his hard work, Thomas was not satisfied. “If only I could get new altar cloths, the forest animals have destroyed the existing ones.” Friar Thomas thought that his friend, the Chaplain at the King’s Castle could help him, for Thomas knew his own sewing skills were very poor, and besides he had no cloth to make anything suitable. So making sure that the door to the Chapel could not be opened by the forest wildlife, Thomas set off for the Castle of Good King Henry.

As he approached the Castle, he noticed that the people in the courtyard seemed unusually somber. Suddenly seeing his old friend, Thomas went up to Edward, the Chaplain of the King, and asked why all the people looked so saddened.

“Ah, I see you have not heard of our loss; one of the Castle cleaning maids was found slain in the forest,” was the reply from Edward. “We mourn her passing, especially since it appears that it was no accident; she was most foully murdered.”

“When and where did this happen? Has anyone any idea why she was killed?” Friar Thomas could not conceive of such a wicked act. As the Chaplain told Friar Thomas the tale of Helga’s demise, a growing horror clutched his soul. “I fear I have news that you do not; I must go before the King forthwith!”

As the good Friar told his friend about what he found in the Chapel, Edward’s face grew pale. Quickly entering the Castle, the two clerics sought out the King’s Chancellor and begged leave to go before the King. As they started to tell the Chancellor what Thomas had found in the forest, the Chancellor stopped them abruptly, and told them to wait until the King could hear them.

The King was at his meat, but as he saw the faces of the men who approached him, he lay down his fork and knife. “What is the matter, Father Edward? Do you have bad news?”

“My King, this is my friend, Friar Thomas. He has come to me seeking aid for the Chapel of Saint Claire, and I think the story that he told me of what he found there answers some of our questions of what happened to poor Helga.”

Bidding the three men to join him at table, goblets were quickly brought forth, and as victuals were laid out before the two clerics, Friar Thomas started to tell the King what he had found. As he told of the bloody altar, the King’s face grew grave, and all within earshot fell silent. After a moment, the King asked the good Friar if he had left any of the altar cloths untouched at the chapel, and the Friar told the King that the cloths were with him; he had stopped at a stream to wash them as best he could, but thought that whoever were to craft the new altar cloths would need the old ones, torn as they were, to aid in calculating the proper dimensions.

“I almost wish you had left them uncleaned,” muttered King Henry; “My Constable Siegfried would have wanted to study them for any information that could aid his search. Still, he must be apprised of this, as must the Bishop of the Cathedral. I fear that the death of Helga is a darker deed that anything we had imagined!” So saying, the King sent word to the Cathedral, and had two of his men-at-arms seek out the good Constable, who had been sent into the forest to search out information of the child’s death and of those who might have murdered her. Soon, the Bishop entered the King’s presence, dressed not in his usual finery, but in the robes of a simple monk.

“I have not seen you dressed so in many a year,” the King told the Bishop; “But I realize it makes sense; you could not be expected to wear your vestments all day and night.”

“I had been preparing for bed when your message reached me,” answered the Bishop; but seeing the King’s face, he quickly added, “No, do not be disturbed at that, I tend to rise early, and so take to my rest sooner that others, but this is much more important that an extra hour’s sleep.”

After the good Friar retold his story to the Bishop, King Henry and the good Bishop discussed what steps needed to be taken next. “The Chapel has undoubtedly been desecrated, and I will have to re-consecrate it. Before I do so, it will need to be ceremonially washed. Friar Thomas,” the Bishop turned to the Friar; “You are ordained, are you not? Yes, that’s right, I did ordain you myself last spring. Would you be willing to go back to the Chapel an prepare it for me? I will send you with the proper supplies, and I’m sure that the King will ask some of his Queen’s Ladies to sew new alter cloths.”

“I will do more than that,” said the King. “I will send workmen and supplies to repair the roof and other damage that the Chapel has endured.”

“Thank you, Sire,” spoke the Bishop; “May I ask you to also spare a guard or two to watch over them all as they work? I do not want the evil ones who did this to return and find just some helpless workmen.”

The King agreed with the Bishop, and said he would send men-at-arms forthwith, to watch over the Chapel until the workers could get there. “Now Edward, I suspect your friend here is tired from all his efforts; why not take him back to your rooms, and let him get some rest.” The Chaplain and Friar Thomas got up, and as the Bishop started to rise, the King spoke, “Wait, my friend, I have a question.” When the two clerics had left, the King spoke softly to his Chancellor and the Bishop. “What do you think of this Friar Thomas, is he to be trusted?”

“I have met the man only once,” replied the Bishop, “when I and the Bishop from Canterbury ordained him. His youth would make it seem that he has only been a religious for a short time before that, but he was spoken of well by the others of his order. I do not think that he had anything to do with the child’s death.”

“I suspect you are right, my Lord, but just to be safe, perhaps you could ask him to stay at the Chapel after his re-sanctification efforts are completed. You may say it would be to watch over the Chapel, lest it fall into the hands of the evil ones again.”

“His Order is not known for staying in one place for very long, but I think I can convince him to do this for us. And I will talk to your Chaplain; it seems that they know each other, and Edward can tell me more about his friend. Mayhap your workmen can add on a small room next to the sacristy, where the good Friar can have a bed and a fire to cook on.”

With that, the Bishop begged the King for leave to depart, and as the Bishop left the hall, the Chancellor spoke up, “I understand why you have questioned the Bishop about Friar Thomas, but I doubt that someone involved in Helga’s death would dare to come here and do what he has done, said what he has said.”

“The fact that someone would dare to desecrate a Chapel, and murder a child on the altar is unbelievable to me; that fact that it happened fills me with dread; if they would do this, knowing we would find out, what else are they capable of doing?”

“Evil has few limits, Sire; and it is aided in our disbelief of what they are capable of doing. I trust the good Friar, but agree it is best if we limit his wandering for a while.”

[. . . and so plans were made to rebuild and re-sanctify the Chapel, and word of what had been found by Friar Thomas spread through the Castle and the surrounding villages.”

After a long drink from his mug of cider, the old monk went on. “Now then, my question for you all this week is: ‘Was the King correct to doubt the word of Friar Thomas?’”

His audience sat still for a moment, and then Thomas spoke up. “The King was correct, for in not knowing the Friar, he had only his word, and in so important a matter, a man’s word may not be enough.”

“Do you all agree with Thomas? Yes, I see by your faces it is so. It is a sad state of affairs when a man’s word can not be trusted, but I am sure that we will find that next week when Edward the Chaplain talks to his Bishop, the Bishop will report back to the King that Friar Thomas is a man of his word.” The monk paused, looked around at his students, and concluded, “ I think then that we can say this class is ended for today, be sure to be on time next week!”

After the noises of his class exiting the room ended, Roger looked up and saw that Thomas was still present.

“Roger, may I please have a moment or two extra?” the lad inquired of his teacher and friend.

“Well, supposedly class is over, but as you and I have not actually left the room . . . What can I do for you?”

“I have another answer to the first question you asked, the one about why you tell stories, but first I need the answers to a few other questions.”

“Ask them.”

“Did the Friar in the story really have the name Thomas?”

“No.”

"Is any of the story true?"

"Most of it; just some names get changed, as needed. The basic facts really did occur."

“Did you know why I was late to class?”

“Yes.”

Thomas paused, and then suddenly looked shocked. “When you were taught the story, many years ago, was the Friar named ‘Roger’?”

The old monk smiled. “Good guess, but no; he was named Gregory, a lad in my class who had been known as a troublemaker, and had a hard time convincing anyone he had reformed.” After a pause, the monk added, "You might be surprised, but when I was a lad, I was actually quite well behaved; at least I was rarely caught in doing mischief."

“Do you think I have reformed?”

“I think you are on that path, yes. Now, what is the other reason I tell stories?”

“You tell stories so you can teach different things to different people. You told this one in this manner because you had a message you wanted me to learn, and used the lesson to teach it to me.”

“I think one or two of your classmates had a dim understanding of what I was saying, but you are correct; I had a message I thought you needed to hear.”

“Do you know why I want to reform?”

“I think so; but you can tell me if you want.”

Thomas looked at his friend. “Do you think I would make a good monk?”

“Thomas, I think you will be good at anything you set your mind to. I can help in this; I have some books that can tell you about the different choices you would have; there are more kinds of religious than just monks.”

“I want to be like you.”

Roger smiled. “There are some who might say that you are aiming too low, but I understand what you are saying. In my youth, I had a teacher, Father Ambrose, and I wanted to be like him at your age. I used his name in the first week's story to honor him.” The old monk ruefully added, “I failed miserably at being like him; he was thin as a rail, and I’m rounder than anyone else in the Castle."

The old monk paused a moment, and then went on. "Thomas, my beloved friend, don’t be like me, be yourself. If your path is that of a Monk, all well and good. There are other paths that are just as good. But be open to the Lord’s leading, and you will not go wrong often, and when you do, He will lead you back on His path. Now it is time for you to go to your labors. I shall have a word with the Housekeeper and the Blacksmith, to ask them to give you another chance to prove yourself. Unfortunately, they have memories of the youth who led the younger boys down the path of mischief. Mind you do not squander this opportunity!”

Roger waited and watched as the boy went to his chores, and then gathering up his mug and books, the old monk went off to his rooms to seek a bit of rest before dinner.]



To Be Continued. . .



By
Roger of Belden Abbey
Copyright © 2006, Daniel A. Thompson, Jr.

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