The gracious become more gracious

By Curtis K. Shelburne: Religion columnist

How’s this for the setting for a series of mystery novels? It’s twelfth-century England. Following a long career as a soldier in the Crusades and later as a ship’s captain, a short but sturdy Welshman has “taken the cowl.” Kind and wise, he has taken vows as a monk in a Benedictine monastery where he is in charge of the “herbarium,” growing all sorts of herbs and vegetables from which he blends healing ointments and medicines. Often, he also finds himself playing the lead role in a medieval cross between Sherlock Holmes, CSI, and Law & Order as he becomes a kind of monkish detective.

I have just described the “Brother Cadfael” mystery series, written under the pen name “Ellis Peters” by Edith Pargeter. Many of the stories have been adapted for television by the BBC (starring Derek Jacobi as Brother Cadfael) and are available through Netflix, etc. They’re well done, though the best movie can never trump a book.

I love the series, and I love Brother Cadfael, a wise good-humored man with the kind of robust Christlike goodness that loves both the Lord and His gift of life. No surprise that Cadfael finds himself in hot water at times with the pretentiously pious “powers that be.” He is true to the Spirit of God and to what is best in his monastic order, but he has seen enough of both the world and his Lord to know that God truly does desire “mercy and not sacrifice.” I like spending time with him.

I was listening to the audio version of one of the Cadfael books the other day (The Holy Thief) when I came across a quotation that made me think. A servant girl has fallen in love with a young man about to take his vows as a monk but presently accused of murder and being dealt with sternly by a particularly self-righteous abbot. She says openly to Brother Cadfael, for anyone with a good spirit knows they can trust him, “These monastics! They are what they are born, only with a vengeance. If they come into the world hard and cold, they end up harder and colder. If they come generous and sweet, they grow ever sweeter and more generous. All one or the other.”

What do you think? I think she’s on to something not just about monks or pastors or other religious professionals. We note it in them particularly because we know deep down that following a gracious Lord should make us gracious people.

But don’t we often see in all people exactly what the girl describes to Cadfael? The gracious become more gracious until their winsome lives seem warmed within by deep joy. The critical and hard become harder and more critical until cold and alone, they break.

We see it happening, and I see in it both warning and hope. To choose to be cold and hard, or warm and gracious? It’s more important than we know to choose well. One day, sooner than we think, the die will likely be cast.