Durtal – III

6 09 2021

Weathering the Storm

Sure I prayed, but not for safety. Whatever happens happens. I know better to ask God to alter His plans unless it’s very serious. Well, this might be serious. It started tranquilly enough. It was calm, the pressure dropped, it got a bit cooler. Then quiet and ominous. The first gust came, I anxiously looked at the news from the south, and saw what was coming: roofs coming off, rain slamming horizontally, trees swaying until they break. Water rising. By the time the sun was going down, the trees were moving in their Shiva dance of destruction. It would start and then stop again. The Internet went out, then the power. Just when you thought maybe the worst was over, then it would return: like incoming traffic, first distant, then growing to a pitch, the trees creaking. The biggest tree in the yard broke in two, and landed harmlessly on the other side of the yard, taking out the fence. By one in the morning, it still wasn’t over, but by then, I was tired of listening. Either something was going to happen, or it wouldn’t. The whistle of branches became fainter and the destructive gusts more spaced in time. At some point, I fell asleep…

I see the darkness coming in

And bells ringing, cutting through silence,

Solemn swinging in hidden twilight.

I see the darkness coming in

Swerving somber courtiers of

Seductive evening: processing jaggedly

Through howling pines and oaks in distant blue.

I see the darkness coming in

Tranquility like a swelling pain:

Sit and watch it cover me

Like a white sheet:

Martyrdom that ends only in

The sacred rapture of sundown

And the first hymn of dark firmament…

-Journal, December 15th, 2002

My first obedience in religious life was fishing a dead rat out of a swimming pool. That doesn’t sound particularly appealing, but I don’t think I will be that happy ever again. And that’s a problem. Not the “never again” part, more the whole idea of happiness in the first place. That was my first full day at the retreat center, and I was intent on “earning my keep.” I suppose they didn’t know what to do with me, so they sent to me to clean the swimming pool. The thing was, this was in late January, so the pool was full of brown leaves and one dead rat floating in it. I took the long net, fished the stiff dead animal out of the pool, and dumped it in the grass. From that vantage point, I looked out over the mountains topped with fingers of clouds like lines of frosting on a cake. “I made it,” was the only thought in my twenty year old head. As if Heaven were that easy, as if virtue was just about a change of scenery. More than two decades later, I am still trying to “make it,” if that’s even a viable goal to strive for.

Follow… follow… follow, without looking askance, eyes on the Cross of Jesus, the heart engulfed in love.

Follow without looking askance… Love does not permit delays… it does not see beasts, it doesn’t see the path… it does not see anything but Love of God that waits at the Cross, and beyond the Cross, Mary.

Follow… follow… without any other light or guide but Love… Love… Love.

-Fray María Rafael O.C.R. Quoted in Journal, April 30th, 2002.

My breakthrough in religious life was realizing that my prayer life was entirely dependent on the weather. It was Saint Therese who was asked at the end of her life what the greatest cross of religious life was, and she said: the cold. Being a nun in a small Carmel in France meant enduring winters in buildings not designed for human comfort, but for mortification. In my case, it was the heat. Okay, and also the cold. The construction of La Reja felt like it drew inspiration from a Third World prison. I would swelter under cassock and surplice serving Mass. I would sweat buckets washing the dishes, sweeping the floors, or just walking in the cloister. At night, I would take a shower, only to start sweating again once I turned the water off. And then I would just lay in bed, exhausted, almost unable to breathe: humid air so thick it felt like it had actual weight and heft. Then I would wake up again some hours later and do it all over.

The cold was humid as well, so it cut into your bones. It felt the worst at my feet, and it climbed all over like an unruly child. I shivered, I put on layers, and maybe I’d get an extra blanket at night. It felt like it would take an hour before I got to sleep, since my feet felt like ice. At some point, I dozed off. The bell would ring and I would have to face it again, mental prayer in a cavernous church, trying to meditate as I saw my breath in front of my bowed head.

“Lord, I can’t concentrate. Just get me out of here. I want it to stop…”

All the same, this was actually the happiest time of my life. I had not a care in the world. My sins, while still many, just seemed like minor nuisances I could work on. I ate little, and lost a lot of weight. I read the Scriptures kneeling. I tried to be as generous with my time as I could. It was as if I was a child and God was always watching over me. Sometimes I wonder where He went. Then I realize that I needed that time in my life, but not anymore. Now everything is different.


We left Durtal at the end of The Cathedral on his way to Solesmes Abbey to try his vocation as an oblate, a “monk-lite” if you will. Being too old and perhaps too set in his ways to become an actual novice-monk, Durtal seeks refuge in a monastery in order to share in the life as much as he can, while remaining somewhat at the margins of the actual cloister. Solesmes, the monastic factory of Catholic renewal, turns out to be too bustling of a place for poor Durtal, with little countryside in which to live a contemplative life. He returns to Chartres dejected, but later finds a smaller daughter monastery in Burgundy, Vales-de-Saints, which proves more to his liking. Durtal moves there, only to be followed by his priest friend’s housekeeper, Madame Bavoil, after his death.

The town and countryside surrounding the abbey has a proverbial love-hate relationship with the monastery. The monastery already has two oblates, a Monsieur Lampre and his niece, Mlle. de Garambois, who struggles with the sin of gluttony and wears clothing of the appropriate liturgical color of the day. Besides these supporters, the monastery has a cool relationship with the rest of the inhabitants of the region. The mayor of the town is an anticlerical Socialist, and the peasants had come to believe much of the secular propaganda concerning the parasitical nature of monastics. Nevertheless, the town inhabitants appreciate the monastery as attracting tourists from nearby Dijon and adjoining regions. The monastery church also serves as the parish church with the monks baptizing the children and burying the dead.

The monks themselves range from elderly and saintly to young and psychologically damaged. One novice is stricken with a perfectionism that leads him to question even the foundations of the faith itself: a proto-modernist, if you will. Other monks specialize in chant, others keep the extensive library of the abbey, or its vineyard. At times, the relationship between the monks is far from ideal. One monk, Fr. Miné, serves as the pharmacist who cares for the monks and any peasants who have recourse to the monastery. When one monk comes to the pharmacist with a sore throat, he asks for something the pharmacist doesn’t have:

My voice is out of order,” he said to Father Miné, and as the latter shrugged his shoulders, he exclaimed: “Just listen!” and opening his huge mouth there came forth a fearsome wheezing.

“I saw in this newspaper,” he said, producing one, “an advertisement of pastilles that are supposed to strengthen the vocal cords and to cure singers’ sore throat. Could you get some for me?

“Pastilles!” exclaimed Dom Miné, scornfully. “Pastilles! What are they, do you suppose? Just creosoted sweets, that is all. I never keep such stuff, and on no account will I deal in it. But if you really wish to have your throat attended to, though I can’t see that there’s any need, I will make you up a mixture of nitrated lemonade.

“Do you imagine that I want to poison myself with your old nostrums?” cried Father Ramondoux.

Durtal struggles to find his place in the monastery as an oblate. He settles in a cottage nearby with the elderly Madame Bavoil, and he drinks in the elaborate Benedictine liturgy in the monastic church. Durtal also endeavors to find the meaning of what it means to be a Benedictine oblate, the tradition behind this vocation being somewhat unclear. Things come to a head when it is determined that a parish priest would have run of the monastic church as the parish church each Sunday, while the monks would be relegated that day to their cramped monastic chapel. The new Abbé Barbenton decides to upend the order of the village church:

On the very first Sunday he determined to wreck in a day the work which for several years the monks had patiently carried on; he told the peasant girls, who knew plain-song, that henceforth hymns would be sung, and he distributed hymn-books, whose cheap melodies rather pleased the singers.

Backed by his highly-placed friends, he deprived the village of that air of a medieval hamlet which till then it had possessed; and on Sundays, at the services, he transformed a church, which had hitherto been unique in its way, into a church like any other where they bellow out jaunty tunes.

Then, when he had trained his “Children of Mary” to squall more or less correctly, he proceeded to ask the monks to lend him their organist to play the accompaniments, for as there was no organ in the Abbey-chapel the organist was free on Sundays.

Fortunately the Abbot was absent, for, not suspecting any trick, he would certainly have consented. So Abbé Barbenton had to deal with Dom de Fonneuve, who, having his misgivings answered evasively :-

“That all depends. If you use plain-song, yes; otherwise, no.”

Durtal finally takes the habit of an oblate, but shortly thereafter an anticlerical law passes, and the monks decide to flee to Belgium rather than conform to the edict mandating government control over religious houses. The monks pack up as much as they can in great sadness, and even the anti-monastic curate and Socialist mayor are sad to see them go. Durtal is asked to stay on for a time to assist in a stripped-down version of the Office: a way to continue the opus Dei of continuous praise while the monks are settling into their temporary Belgian home. Everyone tearfully sees the monks off, and Durtal is once again faced with the prospect of returning to Paris, unable to continue in his vocation.


Silent white blotting out

All moments between now

And the beginning

Bend in glass and

Twisted metal, smoke, the eye

Of this morning

Is bleak…

From afar I see once more

Those great clouds

One giant dove descending

Or falling as if to land

Somewhere in this wreck

The lost years

A life found

Too late, again, a loud noise

The turning and now I possess

Only that which is everything

Slight breeze bending the heads

Of weeds – they go by mockingly

And frantically freeze –

I am mutilated

And unharmed

-Journal, May 12th, 2003

I didn’t cry when I left the monastery. The morning I shaved my beard and took off the monastic habit, I spoke to no one. Finally, I said goodbye to some. I remember Fr. B., who had otherwise been distant to me in the last few days, finally rekindling his fatherly affection for me. With tears in his eyes, he wished me good luck. I got in the car with my family and drove away. I felt nothing. I was numb.

No doubt I thought back to the last departure some years before. When someone left the seminary, there were no dramatic goodbyes. Leaving because you didn’t have a vocation was normal, and there is no use pretending that departures aren’t part of the discernment process. I said goodbye to some, trying not to cry. I remember that one seminarian from Colombia owed me fifty dollars. I think he approached me, and I told him not to worry about it, that he should just pray for me. He was eventually ordained a priest. I wonder if he still prays for me.

When I took off the cassock and got in the car, I was still trying to hold back tears. But then I turned around for one last look at the seminary and started sobbing. Two years, I thought. Two years when I was the happiest I had ever been, and now I faced a world I had turned my back on. What was I going to do now?

 I felt sorry for the seminarian driving me. After I composed myself, I tried to keep the conversation as frivolous as possible.


From Huysmans’s Durtal, we learn is that our modern crisis has been going on for quite a long time. There was no Age of Faith, or “Catholic societies,” but merely enclaves where one could be godly in the midst of the ungodly. The urge to bring the world into the Church has always been there, and it crept in through very subtle means. Take the feud throughout these Durtal novels between monastic ceremonial and its secular alternative. A modern Catholic would not see the big deal in someone wanting to hear Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem Mass or having a Mass entirely consisting of plain chant. Most contemporary traditionalists mix and match the two. Come to think of it, there isn’t even a place for sacred polyphony in Durtal’s liturgical ideal. Durtal and his monastic confreres are buried in old medieval tomes while the rest of the world is advancing swiftly toward mass democracy and full electrification. While modernity races to cover the entire globe, Durtal is left contemplating how many liturgical commemorations are appropriate for any given Church feast.

It would be easy to draw analogies between the contemporary Catholic Church and the Church that Huysmans saw at the beginning of the 20th century. Those who wanted secular tunes in the Church in 1900 might be akin to those who now want church music now to sound like folk music from the 1970’s. Or better, contemporary praise music from the Protestant megachurches, complete with light show. Gregorian chant, in the modern era an artificially-imposed reconstruction of historians, always had an uphill battle in becoming the “official” music of the Church for the few decades that it indisputably held the title. Now, it’s at best an anachronism. Perhaps just as in fin-de-siecle France, the sudden imposition of Gregorian chant during any moment of the parochial liturgy in the current year would just draw puzzled looks from the laity and possibly angry calls to the bishop. Plus ça change

As for the monastery itself, that is even more of a dubious curio from a bygone age. Even if orthodox liturgical praxis has given way to logistics (“get ‘em in and get ‘em out in an hour or less,”) there was always contingent in the Church that would take its time, a group that would “live for prayer.” There were a chosen few that embodied prayer, poverty, chastity, and obedience, for whom “going to church” wasn’t a burden keeping them from “more important” things. The demographic collapse of the monasteries in the Roman Catholic Church is no doubt the worst case scenario for J.K. Huysmans.

Durtal (and thus, Huysmans) dreamed of a monastic basis for a cultural revival. For him, an oblate might be a sort of lay / civilian go-between facing an increasingly secularized world. Art might be able to spread the Faith in this age as it did in previous ages: making the message of the Gospel beautiful and real to the modern person. Some attempted to do this since the publication of Huysman’s last novel, some would argue that the Church is still trying to do this. Others (myself included) would say that the Church threw in the towel some decades ago, content to accept the few scraps of attention that fall from the table of postmodern indifferentism.

Durtal does in the end get an explanation of what it means to be a Benedictine oblate from a monk prior to his taking the habit:

“First of all,” he would say, “we must resign ourselves to the conviction that the oblatehood of St. Benedict will never become widely popular; it will never appeal save to a chosen few; indeed, it requires so much of candidates that is difficult to fulfil. The sole reason for its existence is the Liturgy; the life of a monk is the praise of God; the life of an oblate will also be the praise of God, reduced, however, to as much as he can give; to be a true oblate it is not enough to perform one’s duties faithfully and communicate more or less frequently; one must also have a taste for the Liturgy, a love of ritual and of the symbolical; an admiration for religious art and for beautiful Services.

One wonders what that can possibly mean today, when the liturgy has been denatured even in the monasteries.

… What is victory, Lord, that I might drink of its cup?

What is defeat, Lord, that I might pick myself up?

What is a face, Lord, that it might soften and move me?

What is a voice, Lord, that it might gently soothe me?

What is passion, Lord, that I might be caught in its gaze?

What is an embrace, Lord, that I might mourn at its grave?

What is life, Lord, that it might dwell in my heart?

What is death, Lord, that it might tear all apart?

I lie encased in black, but not at rest.

A longing turns through memories,

Immersed in my chest.

Have I really lived, Lord, or am I

In a walking sleep until I die;

As a stone unmoved or log slowly charred,

From Love’s battle having been so kindly barred.

Let me feel, Lord, like all humanity,

For my heart is hard, cold, and

Does not see.

Let me suffer with my brother

In the depths of the night,

Grant me the sword of prayer

And lead me to the fight.

-Journal, c. 2004

In the end, what is the goal? Remember that pharmacist, Fr. Miné? Later, he has a stroke and loses his senses. Huysmans states that he began a “second childhood,” only comfortable around the novices and still faithfully showing up to the offices. The monks attempt at times to rekindle his memories, to no avail:

His pharmacy, which, when he was in his right mind, had interested him so much, was nothing to him now. One day, thinking to please him, they took him there, but he blankly stared at it, apparently unable to recollect that in that cell, littered with bottles, he had spent his whole life. His memory was completely wiped out. In the midst of that mind in ruins God alone remained; sometimes, when sitting with the novices, he would stammer out a few unintelligible words. Thinking he was asking for something, they would make him repeat, only to find that he was murmuring the names of our Lord and of His Blessed Mother.

There is a reading of this passage (let’s call it an “incarnational” point of view) that would protest that Fr. Miné’s career as a pharmacist gave glory to God. It was not contrary to his monastic vocation, but an integral part of it. I quote often the Scholastic axiom, “grace does not destroy nature, but rather perfects it.” The contention of modern Catholicism, both liberal and conservative, is that the world is good, pleasure is good, and everything can be done to the glory of God. Only, in doing those things, often God is put on the back burner, and then wholly forgotten. And yet we can tell ourselves that He is still there somewhere, even though we have put Him in some drawer in our mind where we don’t have to deal with Him. The Christian monastic contention parallels the Vaishnava understanding: in the end, that which isn’t for the Lord’s service is false ego, and it is very, very easy for the false ego to take over. It is a great mercy that everything Father Miné had worked for his whole life faded away due to illness except for the thought of God. Even Aquinas wanted to burn everything he wrote when faced with the truth of the Lord’s visage.

Durtal, in his last words to us readers, reinforces the monastic death to self that holds all other things but God to be mere straw:

“O, Dear Lord, grant that we may not barter our souls thus; grant that we may forget self once and for all. Grant that we may live, no matter where, so long as it be far from ourselves, and close unto Thee!”  

“Do you want to come in, kitty?”

I grabbed M. and brought her inside, but I didn’t close the door. I know M. doesn’t like being inside. As a kitten, we kept her in for a few months, but it became evident that she wanted to be on the other side of the window. With some trepidation, we let the still-kitten sized M. outside, and she has endured ten summers and winters outdoors, with no interest in coming back inside. This time was different. This storm was too big, we thought, so I brought her inside, but didn’t close the door. As soon as I put her down, she ran out again. She sat again by the window as things deteriorated, and then disappeared. After the ordeal of that night, I didn’t know if I’d see her again.

Then, while I was seated by the window, at about six the next morning, she jumped on the ledge and meowed. We were happy she survived, but part of me knew she would. Houses may have been destroyed and infrastructure taken out, but the Supreme Lord sitting in the heart of this small cat protected her. I don’t want to hear ever again that animals don’t have souls. Like Odysseus’s dog or Noah’s dove, do you have a better explanation for such courage and loyalty?

And now, it’s five thirty in the morning, and M. is seated on the ledge outside the window again. As it is the weekend, I am finishing my japa, the tree-silhouetted sky slowly turning from colorless black to a dark, dark blue. It’ll be day soon enough. I think of the last couple of years, how much the world has changed, and how much my life has changed with it. This wasn’t the right time to start a new spiritual journey, I think to myself often. Life is becoming more isolated, things we once took for granted seem no longer possible. Like Durtal, exiled again to Paris from his monastic refuge, in an hour or so I will begin the process of enduring a million distractions leading me away from Krishna. And it seems that these godless days will keep hitting me like waves on a tumultuous sea. Only now, in this time before others wake up, or in those “in between” episodes during the day when I can remember Krishna, I find a port where I can dock my ship and be refreshed by the Holy Name. It will have to do for now. I know the Lord accepts my service, even if my service now is merely to wait. I will weather this storm.



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