Wiseblood Books

De virtute cannibalismi

Eleanor Bourg Donlon

For Reverend Bruno Mary Shah, O.P.
Ordained to the Priesthood of Jesus Christ
May 29, 2009

Te ergo quaesumus, tuis famulis subveni:
quos pretioso sanguine redemisti.
Aeterna fac cum sanctis tuis in gloria numerari.

“Setting aside the moral question for a moment . . .”

“What do you mean setting it aside?”

“ . . . we can be as lucid as the Master from Aquino.”

“Is lucidity the primary virtue in such a question? I ask myself!”

“For me, lucidity is greatly facilitated by a rested mind and a full stomach.”

“Does that mean we must adopt a method of survival before we have determined its morality or intellectual efficacy?”

A chuckle broke from old, fat, rumbly Father Albert as he strolled beside the slowly-rolling gray car.

The day was beginning to wane and grow cool—a mercy after so much warmth, said Brother Jerome, always the merriest despite the fact that he had been suffering most brutally in the heat. (In spite of his every attempt at leanness, he was still too stout for such labors as pushing a broken-down car down a bleak desert road.) They had been struggling on manfully for many hours, ever since their engine expired in the middle of a Glorious Mystery.

Utrum cannibalismus virtus sit,” insisted Brother Augustine, the ascetic-looking young man with self-consciously gray hair at his temples, “That is what we must determine.”

“Would it not be anthropophagia, taken from the Greek?” inquired Brother Louis Bertrand solemnly, but with a hint of a smile around the edges of his mouth. “Anthropophagia nominari in virtutibus potest.

Bright-eyed Brother Enoch, who was a little afraid of Brother Louis Bertrand (as most of the younger novices were), eagerly took up the articles. “One: Jesus says: ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.’ Therefore it may be called virtuous.”

“Two:” added Brother Anthelm, who was of the same year as Brother Louis Bertrand, and like him preparing for ordination in a fortnight, “So spake the Lord God: ‘In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.’ As man is dust, there can be no objection to consuming him.” He grinned irrepressibly, “Beyond those of the gustatory sense, that is. Therefore it may be called virtuous.”

A small hillock materializing at their feet, they paused in the discourse only long enough to chase down the fleeing car.

“Three:” said Brother Jerome, between his panting breaths, “as all the powers of the soul are rooted in the essence of the soul, and as the soul will be divorced from the bodies of the dead, and as our resurrected bodies need not . . . or, rather . . . oh, you know what I mean.”

“Are we restricting ourselves solely to ready-made corpses?” asked Brother Enoch, who was too small and wiry to be easily winded by their sprint. “That seems to undermine the full breadth of the question.”

“It would be rather untidy,” noted Father Albert with another chuckle. “It would be sure to leave stains on my capuce.”

(The state of Father Albert’s capuce—which would have been tactfully ignored by all the younger men—was a source of infinite amusement to the old man.)

“Four:” announced Father Raymond with a wry smile, somewhat to the surprise of all of them, “Jesus says: ‘Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.’ And so has he commanded us. Therefore, it may be called virtuous.”

“Five:” said Brother Louis Bertrand (for not even Brother Enoch was confident enough to follow on the heels of the stately, though kindly, novice master), “It would seem that respect of persons necessitates respect of the person that is the self—this in distributive justice. Self-sustenance requires food, else death and seeming self-murder. Therefore it may be called virtuous.”

Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter!” murmured Brother Anthelm, who had once been a teacher of English literature, and was particularly fond of the more melancholic passages of the classics. For a moment his mind wandered from the conversation at hand as he indulged in some private Shakespearean reflections, but he restrained himself from further soliloquy.

“Suicide?” asked Brother Augustine with a sober shake of the head. (His cousin had killed himself at nineteen—over a girl, or a grade, or anything, or nothing at all.)

“I protest against the objection concerning self-sacrifice,” said Brother Jerome, laughing good-naturedly, “—not because of the moral question or even the philosophical but because I have the greatest mass to be put forward for consumption and would probably be the first one selected as sacrificial lamb.”

Brother Enoch (who had once been enigmatically compared to the proto-arsonist canine in the legend of Saint Dominic) tsked lightly at his round fellow. “You must use the proper form,” he said with mock-severity.

“Well then,” retorted Brother Jerome, still laughing, “Sed contra as Augustine—not that Augustine,” (indicating his brother, who acknowledged the clarification with a profound bow) “the other one—or the Philosopher ought to have said, this is all bosh and I’m still hungry.”

Respondeo,” said Father Raymond with authority. “It is time for Mass.”

And so they settled themselves.

It was as appropriate a place as any. The back of the car opened up in a perfect frame for the altar. Candles and pure white linens were fetched from a large black leather briefcase—worn but with the aspect of inanimate reverence about its hinges—a crucifix was produced, kissed, and set at the head, and golden vessels, wrought with tiny gems, were lain out with gracious care.

Flippancy had vanished with their master’s words. Brother Jerome wiped the perspiration from his face with a solemn finality that really had little effect (the sweat dripped down his face like a torrent even through the liturgy) and Brother Augustine’s look of concentration became so intense that his lean forehead rippled like pale, crinkled velvet. Brother Enoch, looking like a child playacting, stood as acolyte, eagerly waiting, gazing with longing towards that sacred space where his elder brothers—Louis Bertrand and Anthelm—stood in their deaconate authority. The face of Brother Louis Bertrand often drew the gaze of the younger man, so keen and effortless did his reverence appear. A quiet, serious man, not much older than Enoch in years and yet strangely old; a one-time professor, called a genius by colleagues; a Cistercian monk for six years; now a young friar, in his final days of prayer and waiting until he too would stand before the altar, held in affection and awe by the novices of every year.

Brother Anthelm stood by, silent and watchful, and very still indeed. Perhaps too still.

Father Raymond was celebrant, with Father Albert beside him, and it was Brother Louis Bertrand’s turn to preach (he spoke of sacrifice, sacrament, and Manichaeism). Elderly Father Albert was as disorganized liturgically as he was in the keeping of his habit, and needed to be reminded several times of his place in the Eucharistic prayer.

Brother Enoch bit his lip once when the old man stammered and garbled up the names of ancient saints.

It was a strange picture—or so the desert itself might have told them. Barren vastness, sand, and the sinking gloom of the evening. And seven men in white robes, moving with cold precision, chanting in some strange tongue to the empty skies.

Brother Anthelm thought of the poet Shelley and wondered why.

They purified the vessels in the waxing darkness. There was nothing more to eat and the night grew colder, so they moved gracefully from sacrifice to Office. Vespers was sung, and once more the chant fell heavily on the silent air.

“We will walk again tomorrow,” said Father Raymond.

They resettled themselves in the immobile vehicle.

Father Raymond and Father Albert fell asleep almost immediately. So did Brother Jerome, who was thoroughly exhausted from the unexpected exertion of the day and was, moreover, as happily partial to sleep as he was to food. It would be difficult to say when Brother Louis Bertrand fell asleep; his eyes were certainly closed and his body appeared to be in repose. Brother Enoch remained awake for several minutes—meditating upon a very minor detail of a pending scholarly ordeal, and wondering if the placement of a parenthetical observation in a recent essay had been impertinent. Brother Augustine, who was an avid reader of news reports, fretted quietly over some minor tragedy that had unfolded several continents away.

Brother Anthelm, who was strangely unsettled—he knew not why—wrapped up in his cappa and, after a momentary panic familiar to the sometime insomniac, fell quickly and deeply to sleep.

 

He was a young man again—very young. Serious and melancholic—or was that too fine a word? Jesus, meek and humble of heart, hear me. His books, his papers. His dog. Somewhere in his house, there was a book, but he couldn’t remember the title of it. I met a traveler from an antique land who said . . . Where could it be? From the desire of being honored. And there was old, addled Father Simon—funny old man—giving a dreary homily. All about the Sermon on the Mount. Or was it the Dream of Gerontius? No, that couldn’t be. The Song of Somebody? From the desire of being preferred to others. Somebody singing. Who was it? Of course, it was his mother. She shouldn’t be singing during a homily, however boring it was. Shh! What was that song? How did it go? My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and . . . Something like . . . oh, yes . . . that was it. Lord I believe, help my unbelief. He could still whistle with the best of them, and why shouldn’t he, when he was in his own backyard? Dies irae, dies illa. Was that the pretty little girl from next door? Sweet thing. A bit stupid, but pleasant enough. That others may become holier than I, provided that I may become as holy as I should. They shouldn’t leave chalices on the floor. He would speak to Mother about it. Nothing beside remains. Here was the book—of course! Confutatis maledictis, flammis acribus addictis . . . And it was his book. Melchizedek of old. The book he would one day write. Sumptuous green for the binding. And gold lettering. There must be gold lettering. A great book—hence the magnificence. Tu devicto mortis aculeo . . . If he could just reach it—straining, reaching—what was that in the way? The lone and level sands stretch far away. What . . . ?

 

He awoke to darkness and cramp. Where was he? Was that the sound of his own breathing echoing back eerily at him? His breath came out in thin, chilled wisps that were almost visible—like ghosts swirling about his sleeping head.

Brother Anthelm shook himself to expel sleepy confusion and peered into the softening blackness, waiting for his eyes to clear. Shapes materialized—black and gray against the dusky, cold light—and soon he could distinguish figures and walls—the limits of his nighttime universe. That hulking lump of dusky white, curled up and snoring lightly with obvious satisfaction was Brother Jerome. There was no mistaking that happy bulk. Brother Enoch—that was he with his head nestled against the window—looked even more like a childish sprite in the antique light. Thirty-two? He couldn’t be. Silent Brother Louis Bertrand, almost hidden in the darkness. Father Raymond, rigid and stately even in sleep, watchful from the front of the car. Father Albert mumbling and sputtering—garbled prayer. Brother Augustine, long and lean and curled in a ball of attempted warmth, purring like an overworked carburetor.

Brother Anthelm opened the car door gently, almost noiselessly. Only Brother Jerome started restlessly at the sound, then fell back into slumber with his head resting upon his hand and the rest of him pressed against the door opposite.

Brother Anthelm walked a few steps from the car and stood, testing his aching muscles. It was cold and dead—grim, almost grotesque in the darkness. There were no stars in the sky, and no sign of pending day beyond a pale glow in the horizon that might well have been his imagination.

Wrapping the cappa about him, Brother Anthelm sat in the sand, watchful and still. Disjointed thoughts and phrases from his dreams came to him, disquietingly. He shook away some, and gathered up others together. Nothing beside remains.

He gazed out across the eerily blank landscape as if expecting a vision of the future.

He thought of his brethren, still sleeping, and wondered. Could he have seen the grizzled face of an elderly Father Enoch, thought by some serious and a bit dull, but with a twinkle in his eye that young men would attribute to senility? Father Jerome dead young of a heart attack or living on as a sort of mascot for rotundity jokes about the entire Order? Father Louis Bertrand terrifying students and yet capturing their attention, giving them pause amidst the foolish profligacy of youth? Father Augustine so serious and studious he is called Jesuitical? Father Raymond, passing from authority to quiet brotherhood, day after day spent in passing as gently from chapel to garden and back again? And old Father Albert, his habit ridden with crumbs hours after a meal, his face an abstracted mass of bewildered flesh as he sleeps in the garden?—Don’t wake him. Dear, silly old man, with his stories of the saints so tangled together.

And what of Brother Anthelm?

Bloody travail in a foreign land? A grueling martyrdom of white—no glories, no epic scene? No great book, no great deed, no greatness at all. Only that same unbloody sacrifice. Only.

Once again, his memory worked playfully within the muddle of his drowsy brain: Some are born great . . .

He yawned. He was sleepy and cold. It was odd, but he dreaded going back to the car—even with its relative warmth and shelter. The beads came easily to his hand and his fingers caressed them with metronomic gentleness.

The solitary figure wrapped himself more closely in the cappa. Unaccountably, he thought of Brother Enoch’s facetiousness of the preceding day. He wondered how much of the world Enoch had seen before his entrance—“the world.” He shook his head and smiled at that. As if he were so great an authority on worldliness and experience.

He gazed across the silent desolation and thought of another quotation—something older, once less familiar to his trained mind, and yet more beautiful: and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind.

He had fought no wars and loved few women. His sins were meager according to some epic scale, but they were his, and in the wide expanse of that place they sometimes seemed heavy—not too heavy, for they were not of that breed with which a man blackmails himself into despair, and not that night.

Suddenly the little Dominican grinned wryly to himself, and rolled a set of ten beads across his hand. It was a notable achievement, he thought, to make it through an entire decade without concentration.

He looked down the long stretch of sand and dust. A nonchalant breeze swirled here and there, stirring up clouds of startled powder that fell back and resolved as quickly into nothingness. And after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake.

He felt peaceful, yet strangely disquieted; himself, yet strangely not himself. Conscious . . . but that was sleep coming again.

Something howled or cackled or whimpered far away.

Would the shortcuts of sanctity be his? Martyrdom? Eccentricity? To do some great and lasting work. Work to linger and engage future generations—boyish dream, rekindled in this quiet wasteland.

Brother Anthelm thought of a man he had seen die—an old man in a dirty home. Old milk bottles and the stubs of stagnant cigars.

“Where’s Janey?” he’d asked—not piteously or emotionally, but absentmindedly—and then he died.

Janey was a cat, long dead.

Brother Anthelm looked at the starless sky and wished morning would come.

Moments passed. Nothing changed.

The Aves came sotto voce, the warm air whistling through his lips and curling up in delicate strains of mist.

Then, with unprompted slowness that was nearly startling, came the realization of an almost inhuman calm, as if he were growing distant from himself once more. Or was that just the cold freezing his senses? Was this sleep? Sleep, Death’s counterfeit—Shakespeare again.

He sang the Salve lightly.

A shiver passed through him, like dew settling into his spine. And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire.

He shivered again.

And after the fire . . .

Brother Anthelm grew still.

 

The moment came and passed, and he sat once more in silent thought. “Who is the poet?” he suddenly demanded of no one, and settled back into wordless rumination. The sun was rising before he moved again.

Nodding a quiet rhythm in his head, Brother Anthelm leaned forward and wrote in the sand with his index finger.

***

“The question then becomes . . .” murmured a voice, breaking Brother Anthelm out of a vague and inconstant doze. He looked up from his place in the car and into Brother Enoch’s impishly grinning face.

“The question?”

“If we are not to turn cannibals.”

Brother Jerome groaned faintly and rolled—or tried to roll—away from that persistent voice. Brother Louis Bertrand looked up for a moment, then returned serenely to his devotions. Brother Augustine smiled indulgently at the other novice, as if at a younger brother, although they were the same age and of the same year. Father Albert was well and truly asleep, making wet, wheezing noises through his half-open mouth. Father Raymond was riding in the cab of the long orange tow truck, hearing the driver’s confession.

“If we shall not turn cannibals,” Brother Enoch repeated, easily satisfied with any audience at all—even a slightly patronizing one—if he could not gather in everyone’s attention, “the question then becomes: Utrum corporibus humanis alimentae uti virtus sit. And not just fodder for a campfire. You could use the bones for the spine of a tent. And the skin . . .”

“One:” said Brother Augustine, like a man who concedes much to please a small child, “It seems that as man has been given the created world as under his guardianship, it is wasteful to neglect so valuable a resource when it is a question of preserving the sanctity of life. Therefore it may be called virtuous.”

“Two . . .” began Brother Louis Bertrand without looking up from his book.

They rode without fanfare from their sandy limbo into a gaudy sunrise, and winds came and swirled the dust, until no trace was left behind.

Eleanor Bourg Donlon, assistant editor of Dappled Things and the Saint Austin Review (StAR), does not advocate cannibalism, Manichaeism, or Percy Bysshe Shelley. She does, however, passionately advocate Thomism, Transubstantiation, and dominicans in general. Her work has also appeared in Touchstone and at the First Things blog. She is editing the forthcoming Ignatius Critical Edition of Mansfield Park. Read more from and about her at www.eleanorbourgdonlon.com.

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