Archive for the ‘The Great Shadow of Death’ Category

The Great Shadow of Death (II)

Thursday, June 19th, 1079

The codex Renbaudus was found in 1962 in Southeastern France. It contains the memoirs in Latin of an 11th century Norman knight, Renbaudus of Bernay. The codex mainly narrates his pilgrimage to Jerusalem between 1095 and 1099.

Even though many pages of the codex have been lost, it is now understood that it originally contained different sections. In one of the few surviving ones, Renbaudus describes his childhood and the lessons he learned from the Benedictine monks who raised him at Cluny abbey.

As a codicologist, my aim is to translate and share with you what he wrote more than 10 centuries ago, hoping these timeless lessons will be useful. I have taken some stylish liberties and you can find a glossary at the bottom for place names, difficult words and Latin words. You may also hover over the dotted-underlined words to get the definitions.

G.B.

-IV-

The next time I met Father Eusebius, Henry was with me. The Great Abbot Hugh had authorized us to spend the night in Berzé. Delighted at the prospect of more freedom, we rushed there just after the None prayers.

Berzé was one of the barns around Cluny Abbey. Crop harvests were stored there waiting to feed the large population of the mother house. Its peaceful atmosphere and its proximity had made it a favorite of the Great Abbot.

At Berzé, the cena was, as always, pleasant. The harsh Cluniac monastic rules didn’t apply at the small church, and we felt good escaping the detailed rules of Cluny. Sitting among elderly monks, we could talk freely while eating, something that was not permitted at the mother house.

As we were enjoying a warm pottage with freshly baked bread, Father Eusebius looked at me. “Renbaudus, I am curious to know what happened to the Prime cleaning of your classroom.”

Henry turned to me before I could open my mouth. “Now I get it!”

The good Father looked puzzled.

Before he could say anything, I waved my hands. “Please Father, let me explain from the beginning.” I gave Henry a warning look. He shrugged and focused on his pottage.

“After our conversation, I gathered my six classmates who were supposed to do the cleaning of the classroom. I told them that I wanted to play Knights & Heathens. Everyone cheered. I said that I wanted to play in the morning. Josseran who, as you know. is the smartest of the bunch, asked me when we were going to play, as we had no time between Prime, the cleaning, and the start of the lectiones.”

Father Eusebius listened carefully and Henry slowly emptied his bowl.

“I asked my group if they had any ideas, but no one answered. I then suggested that maybe we could play and clean at the same time. They looked at each other and Guy asked how we could achieve that.”

Several other monks started to pay attention. Father Eusebius raised his white, bushy eyebrows. “I am curious too. What was your idea?”

“I explained that we would all be Knights and everything that had to be cleaned would be Heathens. Everyone thought it was a great idea. I asked if they would come next morning after Prime and I got a resounding ‘Yes!’ which pleased me.”

Father Eusebius looked around the table. “I think that was a good idea.”

Everyone agreed.

“So next day after Prime, did everyone come?”

-V-

“Every single classmate came. Even Hilduinus who is the youngest and we feel is still a toddler,” I answered, pulling off a big chunk of bread from the still-warm loaf. “I felt proud of myself.”

The good Father frowned.

“I am sorry. I shouldn’t have. Because then, we grabbed our brooms made of boxwood branches and started to feverishly attack the dust all around the room.”

“And this was when the Heathens started to win!” offered Brother Tolius, the prior of Berzé.

I looked down at my remaining pottage. “Yes. It sort of got out of hand.”

Father Eusebius looked around the table. “I think we should congratulate Renbaudus for his efforts.” Several heads nodded. His gaze returned to me. “Tell us what you learned from this first attempt.”

“We were so excited to fight the dust with our brooms that we didn’t notice we were not cleaning anything,” I said. “We were laughing and running all over the place. The dust flew everywhere. A few of us got hit by some else’s broom. And then Brother Servius opened the door.”

Around the table, most of the monks were smiling. Father Eusebius tried to remain solemn. “Was it time to start the first lectio?”

I nodded.

“You must have felt uncomfortable,” said the good Father.

“I thought I was going to die right there! Father Servius was furious. He kicked my butt out of the room and sent me to the Great Prior for punishment.”

Henry was laughing. “That story was very popular around the abbey for the next few days.”

Father Eusebius smiled. “Renbaudus, did you understand what was wrong with your agreement?”

“Yes. It should have been much more detailed.”

“What happened next?”

“The Great Prior, Father Odo, asked me a few questions and I explained about having people work in agreement with you. He then ordered me to clean the whole room by myself after the lectiones were over.”

“Fair enough?” asked Father Eusebius.

“Yes it was, and Henry was nice enough to help me.”

The good Father turned to my friend. “I know we can always rely on you, Henry.”

He shrugged. “Renbaudus didn’t do anything wrong. He tried to make things better. It just didn’t go the way he wanted.”

“I thought the Great Prior would ground me for several days,” I said, “but he surprised me. He told me to gather my group in the afternoon, to review my strategy, and start the Prime cleaning again the next morning.”

“He gave you another chance? That was noble,” said Father Eusebius.

“Yes, but that gave me a lot of ‘Great Shadow of Death’ feelings because I didn’t want to mess up again. So I took a long walk around the walls of the abbey, thinking about what I could do.”

Everyone at the table was paying attention.

In the corner of my eye I saw Father Eusebius retreating a little bit and smiling to himself. That made me feel good. He trusted my abilities. He knew I couldn’t fail.

Brother Tolius couldn’t wait. “Did you find a new idea?”

I looked at Father Eusebius. I must have looked proud.

Of me.

Of him.

“Yes, I did.”

-VI-

The prior got excited. “So? Tell us!”

The other monks shushed him and they all looked at me.

“As I was walking, I thought the ‘Knights & Heathens’ idea was not good because it didn’t fit in a classroom. I had to find something, a reward within the setting of the room. But I couldn’t think of anything. What we usually like to do happens outdoors.”

Henry nodded. “It is so much fun to be running outside.”

Everyone shushed him.

“One thing I learned a while ago from Father Eusebius,” I said, “is that if you cannot find a good answer to your problem, try to reverse it.”

The good Father nodded in appreciation.

“So I asked myself, what could be helpful for them in the classroom setting?”

The grey-headed monks around the table suggested a few solutions:

“Reviewing lessons?”

“Correcting homework!”

“Tutoring?”

I turned to Henry. “You know what? Each time we have a problem, we should come here and ask them. They have all the answers. And fast!”

We all laughed.

Brother Tolius was still curious. “How did you convince them?”

“After None I gathered my group in the small cloister. They were not really eager to listen to me. They had endured the ire of Brother Servius while getting extra homework. The last thing they wanted to hear was one of my new ideas.”

I was getting thirsty from talking so long in front of such a wise assembly. Henry understood, and gave me a bowl of fresh grape juice. I quickly downed it, cleaned my mouth with the back of my hand, and went on with my story.

“I asked them, ‘Do you always have time to do your homework before the schola? Do you always understand the exercises?’ They shook their heads, not saying a word for fear of having to commit to anything I might offer. I then said, ‘Before the first lectio, we have plenty of time to clean the room. Then those who want to ask a question can do so. But you can only ask one question. If you want to ask a second one, you must first answer a classmate’s question.’ After thinking about it, they all agreed.”

“Very elegant solution,” chimed in brother Gregorius. “A perfect distribution of the weight in a very scalable way.”

I frowned, not understanding what he meant.

Father Eusebius helped me. “He means that you made sure that there were not only people asking questions, but also that everyone got the opportunity to ask at least one. Very shrewd indeed.”

Brother Tolius was again curious. “Next morning, how did it go?”

I smiled. “I had doubts, but everyone came. We quickly cleaned the room and then sat in small groups to help each other. When Brother Servius opened the door, he was astounded to see us, writing, reading, or talking quietly to each other.”

There was silence in the small refectory.

Father Eusebius slowly stood up, his joints creaking. “Thank you Renbaudus, for this enjoyable story. As I keep saying to you and Henry, there is always a way. Just think! There is always an answer. If we cannot see it, often it is because we don’t want to see it. But the solution is there, whether we like it or not.”

I didn’t grasp his cryptic words. I looked at Henry who shook his head, letting me know that he also could not understand what the good Father meant. But by then I was too tired to ask.

Maybe tomorrow.

Glossary:

Berzé: small village near the abbey of Cluny.
Cluny: abbey located in Burgundy, France. Cluny was the head of the most powerful monastic movement in the Middle Ages.
None: mid-afternoon prayer around 3 pm. It is supposed to be the ninth hour of the day, hence the name. It is interesting to know that the word “afternoon” comes from “after none.”
Cena, cenae: dinner, supper.
Lectio, lectionis: lesson, class, lecture.
Ire (from the Latin ira, irae): anger, rage. The words “irascible” or “irate” are derived from it.
Extra: believe it or not but this is also a Latin word meaning “outside of.” Here the meaning suggests “more than the regular homework. Outside of the regular amount.” Think also extraordinary, extraterrestrial, or extra time!

The Great Shadow of Death (I)

Thursday, June 19th, 1079

The codex Renbaudus was found in 1962 in Southeastern France. It contains the memoirs in Latin of an 11th century Norman knight, Renbaudus of Bernay. The codex mainly narrates his pilgrimage to Jerusalem between 1095 and 1099.

Even though many pages of the codex have been lost, it is now understood that it originally contained different sections. In one of the few surviving ones, Renbaudus describes his childhood and the lessons he learned from the Benedictine monks who raised him at Cluny abbey.

As a codicologist, my aim is to translate and share with you what he wrote more than 10 centuries ago, hoping these timeless lessons will be useful. I have taken some stylish liberties and you can find a glossary at the bottom for place names, difficult words and Latin words. You may also hover over the dotted-underlined words to get the definitions.

G.B.

-I-

Whenever I went to Berzé, I could tell that Father Eusebius was excited to see me. I took this feeling for granted, but as I matured, I came to have much more respect for him.

He was a treasure trove of uncommon ideas. His travels and his contacts with different cultures had made him a cultivated man. The time spent with the Saracens had a major influence on him. In their wonderful libraries he had read books from their greatest thinkers and from ancient civilizations.

Even though, in my child’s mind, I couldn’t understand why he had lived among heathens, something must have been good, because he was now such a wise man.

I came to him one day, and started complaining about my classmates of the schola at Cluny Abbey. He stopped me right away, raising his hand.

“Renbaudus,” he said, as he sat in the shade of the huge barns, “please be silent.”

“I am sorry, Father, if I interrupted you,” I said, annoyed at being rebuffed. I sat too on the bench next to him.

“You are not interrupting but I think I heard the voice of the Great Shadow of Death.”

I winced. I knew right away what he meant. The Great Shadow of Death was something he had already explained to me.

“Whenever we are feeling bad, sad, disappointed, angered, or jealous,” he had told me, “anything that makes us uncomfortable, you must know that the Great Shadow of Death has taken you over.”

The first time he had explained that to me, I got really scared. “But Iesu will save me?” I’d responded, panicked.

“No, Renbaudus, He cannot help. Nobody can.”

Tears welled up in my eyes. “Father, this is worse than hell!”

He nodded. “Yes, because you burn. From the inside.”

“But I’ve never smelled smoke coming from my insides!”

“It is because the Great Shadow of Death burns very slowly. You won’t smell it, you won’t see it but you will feel it, especially in your stomach or your heart. Sometimes your eyes will get blurry and that is the smoke of the Great Shadow of Death.”

He paused, giving me time to absorb what he had just said. “It is called Great Shadow because it clouds your judgment, and Death because this repetition of burning from the inside will slowly kill you.”

That was awful!

In my child’s mind, I thought for a while. True, when I was angry my stomach would churn and my eyes would get teary. I hated this feeling! And it was going to kill me insidiously. That was not fair. I looked at Father Eusebius. “If I pray faithfully, can I get rid of it?”

“No. God cannot help. It is inside you, creeping out at the slightest hint of anger.”

His answer left me scared and helpless. I lowered my head.

We stayed silent for a while.

“I can feel it, Father. The Great Shadow is burning here,” I said pointing to my stomach.

“Good, my son. It is important to become aware of it. A lot of people don’t even notice it.”

Father Eusebius took a deep breath. “Can you keep a secret?”

I nodded.

“There is a way to fight the Great Shadow of Death.”

-IJ-

My spirits quickly lifted. “How can I?” I asked.

Father Eusebius put a finger on his mouth while looking around suspiciously. He moved closer and whispered, “Don’t talk too loud. If the Great Shadow can hear you, it’s over,” he said dramatically.

“So what should I do?”

“God doesn’t leave us naked to face our challenges. He always leaves a solution. If you let the Great Shadow of Death take you over, then the fire and the smoke will burn your body and your judgment. You must get higher. Above the smoke.”

I nodded, not really understanding what he meant.

“It is like a ladder leaning against a fortification. If you stay at the bottom of the ladder, you have no chance of survival. If you climb up quickly and surreptitiously, you can reach the top of the wall and may beat your enemy. Right?”

“Yes, Father. Climbing a ladder on a rampart I understand. But how do you climb the ladder inside your body?”

“Primo, by understanding that the Great Shadow has taken you over.”

“I just did, Father!”

“Good! Secundo, you must discover what kind of feeling the Great Shadow is using.”

“Right now, I guess it’s fear. Fear of the Great Shadow.”

“Well done, my son. Tertio is to go higher on the ladder. You have to know that the highest level of this ladder is pure happiness.”

“Happiness? How do I get happy if I am scared like I am now?”

Father Eusebius smiled, and then said, “Climb the ladder. Go higher. Change what is in your mind.”

I cannot!” I blurted.

“Yes you can. You just don’t know that you can,” laughed the good Father. “It will take some time but I swear to you, in the name of the Holy Spirit, that you can. Any of us can. We just don’t know it!”

Father Eusebius looked deep into my eyes. “Do you think God would leave us helpless? He gave us everything we need. We just forgot how to use this divine tool that is our mind!”

“My mind? A divine tool?”

“Yes, Renbaudus. Let me prove it to you by doing a little experiment. Can you remember a happy moment in the last few days?”

“Yes, I can!”

“What was it?”

“When I played Knights & Heathens with my friends.”

“Can you describe what you see in your head?”

“We are running around, laughing, and pushing each other.”

“Do you feel good, thinking about this moment?”

“Yes!”

“See: the Great Shadow of Death is gone.”

I was astounded. He was right. I had no more fear. “This is incredible, Father!”

“I told you. It is a divine tool. You must be the master of your mind. Not the other way around. Your mind shouldn’t dictate your thoughts.”

“Dictate?”

“Decide for you. Renbaudus, you must be the master in your head.”

That’s why I winced when Father Eusebius told me he had heard the Great Shadow of Death coming when I was complaining about my classmates. And I knew what he meant.

I had to be the master. In my head.

-IIJ-

“Let’s start again from the beginning,” said Father Eusebius. “What was the reason you came to see me today?”

This time, I carefully chose my words. “I wanted to have your advice about something that is happening at the schola.”

The good Father nodded, listening.

“Our magister, Brother Servius, has asked me to supervise my younger classmates and have them clean the classroom after Prime, before we start the lectio in the morning.”

Father Eusebius raised his white, bushy eyebrows attentively.

“I asked them to come to the classroom when the bells are ringing the end of the Prime prayers but, besides Josseran, very few of them show up. Often, I end up sharing the cleaning with one or two classmates instead of six. They are not serious, they are a problem.”

Father Eusebius grinned. “No Renbaudus, you are the problem.”

His answer took me by surprise. “I am the problem? But I am in the classroom after Prime. They are not!”

“You expect them to be there?”

“Yes, I do. I asked them.”

“That’s why you are in trouble. If you expect something from someone and if that person doesn’t live up to your expectations, you are disappointed.”

“Of course.”

“Renbaudus, never expect anything from anyone!”

“Really? But how do I get things done? How can we clean the classroom together?”

“If your classmates are not coming it is because they don’t have a reason to. If you tell them to be there after Prime, why should they come? That’s why you are the problem.”

“I still don’t understand. What else can I do? Threaten them with my sword?”

Father Eusebius laughed. “You could. But I am not sure you would get great results. Anyway, as soon as you would stop threatening them, they would not come. Think some more.”

I scratched my head. “I could pay them.”

“It is possible. Let me ask you: where is this money coming from? If one day you don’t have any, they will not do the job. Agreed?”

I crossed my arms, unhappy. “Things are complicated. Why didn’t God make our world simpler?”

“Because he wants you to learn. Use your brain. Think my son, think. Can you give me an example from your life in Cluny where things are simple?

I didn’t hesitate. “When we play Knights & Heathens!”

“Why is it so? What’s the difference with cleaning the classroom?”

I laughed out loud. “Father, you’ve never played Knights & Heathens? It’s a great game. There is a lot of action. It’s fun! But cleaning the classroom…”

“I see. Do you have rules when you play Knights & Heathens?”

“We do.”

“Everyone agrees with the rules?”

I smiled. “I know you Father, you always do like Socrates. With your questions, you are helping me find the right answer!”

The good Father chuckled. “My son, you are getting too smart for me.”

“Now I can see why cleaning the classroom is not successful. When I required them to come after Prime, they didn’t agree. I just made up my rules and expected them to follow me. This is why it is not working. This is why I am the problem!”

“Wonderful, Renbaudus!”

“We have to agree on the rules,” I said. “Maybe we can even make them entertaining. That would be a great reward.”

Father Eusebius patted my back. “Ah, this is getting interesting,” he said. “I would be curious to know how you could do that.”

“I will tell you as soon as I…sorry, as soon as we implement those rules.”

“Well done, Renbaudus. You thought hard and found new keys to unlock a difficult situation.”

Glossary:

Berzé: Small village near the abbey of Cluny.
Saracens: Name given by Europeans in the Middle Ages to all who professed the religion of Islam.
Heathens: In the Medieval era, a person who did not hold Christian beliefs.
Schola, scholae: school.
Cluny: Abbey located in Burgundy, France. Cluny was the head of the most powerful monastic movement in the Middle Ages.
Magister, magistri: teacher, tutor.
Prime: Early morning prayer rung by the bells around 6 am.
Lectio, lectionis: lesson, class, lecture.
Socrates (469BC-399BC): He was one of the founding fathers of Western philosophy along with Plato and Aristotle. He is famous for his “Socratic Method” where he would ask a student a series of questions to help stimulate thinking and find ideas.