Carroll’s new book is an extremely powerful adventure into human emotions experienced by two members of the Catholic clergy. They are separated by 1000 years but are subject to similar doubts about their vocations and their stories tied together.
The first to enter the narrative is Father Michael Kavanagh,the Priest presiding over a congregation in Inwood New York, part of the borough of Manhattan. The time frame for Father Kavanagh is shortly after World War II. During a Sunday service he sees an old classmate of his, “Runner” Malloy, come into the church. It has been years since they saw each other but strangely Malloy doesn’t stay and wanders away.
Perplexed by his old friend’s conduct, Father Kavanagh begins thinking and almost subconsciously wanders into the “Cloisters,” a museum which was a gift to New York by the Rockefellers. There he bumps into a beautiful guide and without much thought begins to talk to her. Rachel Vedette is a French Jew and cames to the United States after surviving the horrors of a concentration camp during the war.
Rachel is by education and interest a medieval scholar and is attempting to continue her late father’s academic study of Peter Abelard, a great teacher and thinker living in the 11th century. Abelard was also a Priest and famous for his logical approach to everything, never accepting something as given without subjecting it to logical scrutiny. There was an historical connection between him and Jewish scholars which ran against than current doctrine of the Church.
For some reason, Rachel feels instinctively that Father Kavanagh might share her interest in Abelard and freely starts to talk with him about the subject. One of the factors important in this novel is that Peter Abelard, contrary to the rules of celibacy enforced by the church, fell in love with a woman named Heloise, cohabiting with her through his life. Some historians indicate that he actually married her although the novel indicates that they only pledged their vows. What he did do was set her up as the Mother Superior in a convent close to where he was based.
Father Kavanagh is aware of Abelard and allows Rachel to lend him the manuscript she has been working on. Possibly due to reading the manuscript, conversations with her, and the subsequent finding of his old friend Malloy and learning why he left the church prompt Father Kavanagh to begin to question his place as a Priest, and if he would be better off leaving the Priesthood.
The research done to allow Peter Abelard to come to life in the book is incredible. The actions and supposed conversations could be the actual ones experienced by this important scholar. In addition, Heloise is threshed out as the intellectual equal of Peter and a helpmate and councilor to him even without living together as man and wife. What Father Kavanagh eventually decides is discussed and analyzed and a logical decision for the man.
3/18 Paul Lane
THE CLOISTER by James Carroll. Nan A. Talese (March 6, 2018). ISBN 978-0385541275. 384p.