It sounds like a spoiler to say that the title character of Pierre de Calan’s 1977 novel Cosmas, or the Love of God is dead, but it isn’t: we find that out within the first two chapters of the book. Father Roger, the talkative novice master, begins the narrative by giving us a tour of his Trappist monastery, and points out a simple grave in their cemetery:
Brother Cosmas, novice.
Strictly speaking, Father Roger points out, Cosmas was not a novice at the time his life abruptly ended. Convinced beyond doubt of his vocation, but unable to bear the difficulties of monastic life, he had left the community twice, the second time seemingly for good. Why, then, has he been laid to rest among the brothers, wearing the habit of the community?
This is the force that drives de Calan’s story: the character study of a devout, sensitive and lonely young man, and the battle that he fought with himself in seeking the religious life. We know from the outset that Cosmas is dead, but it is the state of his soul and vocation at the moment of death that the reader must wait to discover. As writer Patricia Snow comments in an article entitled “Dismantling the Cross,” novels by Protestants tend to end with the neat conclusion of marriage, while “the Catholic novel, whose proper subject matter is the relationship of the individual to God, can only be finally consummated outside the bounds of the novel and even of life itself.” The ultimate moment of failure or redemption cannot be achieved during the hero’s lifetime, and so only in death can we find out whether or not his vocation was a true one.
I first read Cosmas while discerning a possible call to the religious life, and donated my copy to the convent library when I entered. After borrowing it herself, the Prioress instructed all the Sisters to read it, and Cosmas made it onto the community’s short list of novels that gave an accurate impression of the religious life. (To give an indication of how short this list was, the only other book on it was In This House of Brede.) Unlike Rumer Godden’s novel, Cosmas was originally written in French, and has a self-conscious European literary approach that may seem stilted to some readers (if you have read Song at the Scaffold by Gertrud Von Le Fort, you’ll be familiar with this style), but Father Roger is a likeable and engaging narrator, and he draws the reader slowly into the story of a determined, exasperating, struggling young man who will come to fulfil his vocation, one way or the other, in the final moments of his life.