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.
I experienced God’s indisputable sense of humour (hey – He’s the AUTHOR of humour!) on the day that I left the convent. Through a strange act of Providence, I was rostered to do the First Reading at Mass with the Community on the morning that I left. Attending Mass was my very last act in Community – afterwards, I was whisked away to gather my things, eat a quiet breakfast and prepare to leave for the airport, whilst the rest of the community all went to community breakfast.
The fact that I was the reader for the day meant that I absolutely couldn’t become distracted or zone out during the reading. The significance of every word I read is even still with me. But what has me gobsmacked (yes, even now!) is the particular reading it was that day – Is 62:1-5. Here is a snippet from it:
“No more shall people call you ‘Forsaken’ or your land ‘Desolate’, but you shall be called ‘My Delight’ and your land ‘Espoused.’ For the Lord delights in you and makes your land his spouse. As a young man marries a virgin, your Builder shall marry you; and as a bridegroom rejoices in his bride, so shall your God rejoice in you.”
I really don’t think it was an accident that this particular Scripture passage was the reading for my last day wearing a religious habit, responding to a religious name, and belonging to a religious community. I think He had a message of comfort, and hope and deep, intimate love for me that day, one to carry within my heart for the rest of my life. Perhaps He also intended this message for each of you – my brothers and sisters in Christ who have experienced similar life changes of late in “discerning out” of your religious order or seminary.
Those questions that so many of us ask upon returning to the world: does God still love me? Doesn’t He want me to have an intimate relationship with Him anymore? If I have to be out in the world, can I still make my life all about God? Can I still bring others to Him as a lay member of the faithful?
This reading is His answer to me…
… and maybe to you as well?
He calls each of us to intimacy with Him. And even if we are not being wed to Him in the same mystical sense described in Canon 607, there is still a spousal element to our relationship with Him, by virtue of our membership in the Church, His Bride, for whom He freely laid down His life.
“Religious life manifests a wonderful marriage brought about by God… a gift of self by which their whole existence becomes a continuous worship of God in love…” ~ from Canon 607
But aside from all of that, He is my Builder and my God, and HE DELIGHTS IN ME!! *shakes head* I still don’t get that! It’s a mystery, but I trust that it is true. He delights in you too.
To conclude, here are some passages to sit with; as scattered as they might seem at first glance, they unite in a very definite, and comforting, message of hope and promise:
Mt 28:20 | Songs 3:1-4 | Jer 29:12-13 | Is 54:4