November 30, 2007

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

What a good read or two can teach us about life

Cynthia DewesKen Follett is a popular novelist whose work is familiar to many. One of his best books, made into a thrilling movie starring Donald Sutherland, was The Eye of the Needle about a German spy in Scotland during World War II.

Although I had not read many of Follett’s works, I was intrigued by a television interview he gave recently on his newest novel called World Without End. It’s a kind of sequel to an earlier work, The Pillars of the Earth, and they both sounded so good that I read them as soon as I could.

I was not disappointed in what turned out to be a couple of hefty volumes. Both books concern the same town in England during the 12th and 14th centuries, ­respectively. They furnish much detail about the Catholic Church in England, feudalism, medieval economies, medicine and more. They provide a great way to learn the history of those times.

This was England before the Protestant Reformation when the pope still resided at Avignon, and before Henry VIII left the Roman Catholic Church. Thus, in these books, we learn about orders of nuns and priories of monks which are overseen by local bishops and, ultimately, the pope. We learn how they operate in conjunction with the towns that grow up around them.

The hero of the first book is Prior Philip, a humble man who rises from being orphaned young and raised by the monks to becoming prior of a cathedral town. Because of his humility, intelligence and devotion to God’s will, he is instrumental in building the cathedral and making his town and the people in it prosperous and good.

In the second book some 200 years later, the current prior is selfish and wicked, and this results in the town’s decline and the corruption of its citizens. This time, a clever nun is the one who leads the town and its people out of its slump through her common sense and care for others. She also leaves her order to marry her true love, a singularly patient guy.

Along the way we learn fascinating historical tidbits, such as that of the “flagellants,” naked sinners who roamed the countryside whipping themselves raw and titillating the peasants, egged on by begging friars. They were denounced by the pope, but Rome was far away.

Besides Church history, we learn about the feudal system. The king was the head of the society, followed by the earls, their bailiffs, lords and squires, tenant farmers and finally serfs. Believe me, after reading these books you understand the reasons for the English class system, which still exists in some ways today.

The religious idea of the time, which supported this system, was that each of us is placed by God in a certain permanent situation in life. We can’t escape the status into which we are born so our job on Earth is to obey the rules and pray for salvation after death. The problem is, as these books clearly demonstrate, that some of the

so-called Christians decide to sin against others who are helpless.

This kind of system seems so ­

un-American. But, it’s also un-Christian because God gave us free will and faith that we can and should do better, no matter what life circumstance we are in.

That’s why I love to read a good historical novel like Follett’s now and then. It’s a fictional picture of truth. And Oprah thinks so, too!

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.) †

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