Sunday, April 23, 2023

The lesson stone teaches

Well, the important thing's not to grasp the rule but to obey it.

Emma Donoghue has written so many books, and I hadn't read any of them. Then Haven came along, and well, monks! and plague!, so I thought it was time. And in the beginning, it was boring. But I plowed on, and still it was boring. And so it went. For fifty pages it bored me, and yet I read on. I near abandoned it, but for an unexpectedly long metro ride and nothing else to read.  

It was boring until it was infuriating, and then I couldn't stop.

Artt, the traveling scholar priest has a vison, an instruction to withdraw from the world, accompanied by two monks, and found a retreat. He gathers up his chosen ones, and with some meager provisions they set out by boat, leaving Ireland behind them.

Artt may be a respected priest, but he is a terrible human being. He prioritizes God and their worship and suffering over food and shelter. Artt's faith beggars belief. That he sacrifices his own life to God's will is his own business, but he seems determined to wear down his monks for some obscure dogma. 

What penance should he set himself to make satisfaction? He could roll in nettles, except that he's seen none here. Lie in cross-vigil? No, stand — that's harder. Or kneel — that's even better punishment. Artt crashes down, in the middle of the Plateau, and holds his arms straight out from his sides, the position of Jesus on the cross. He starts his prayers of contrition. He waits for discomfort to ripen into pain.

The man who masters himself rules a mighty kingdom. Pain is one way to do it. Those who love Christ, he grants permission to suffer for his sake. Pain's a privilege, a gift, a grace. [...] 

He'd like to level the botched high cross, first thing tomorrow, but he won't. Let it stand as a warning to himself and his monks, a sign of their imperfection, the crippling weight of it. That's the lesson stone teaches: even after it falls, it endures.

A revelation toward the end of the novel is, I think, a cheap trick to propel their circumstances to some kind of resolution. While I appreciate its necessity as a plot device, I think the characterization was hasty and deserved more breathing space, but that could've been an entirely different book. 

If you're looking to feed your hate on seventh-century Catholicism, this is the book for you.