O Filii et Filiae: O Sons and Daughters (Part I)

Tell me: Am I stale?
May 14, 2010
The beautiful catastrophe of my faith
May 17, 2010

Fr. Jean Tisserand

Fr. Tisserand bent in the damp dark of his cell. He hovered over a fraying parchment, its ends stubbornly rolling over his feverish scribbles. From the corner, light of a meager candle flickered, streams of hot wax trailing down its sides. All the while the stone walls emanated cold, their course faces brushed with blackened silt.

The old man was reserved by nature, preferring solitude to company. Downy white hair, damp from sweat, wrapped around the crown of his round head, and his backside protruded farther than normal beneath the dingy ropes that tied his midsection. In the simple dawn, risen by the faint stride of the sun in his room, he would hobble down the causeway with grunting obligation to the chapel where the brothers were already gathered. They stood, stolid, in a perfect circle without a link missing–except Tisserand.

When he finally arrived, his robes ragged from weeks of wear and lack of sleep, the Kyrie ushered through the silence. The first notes wobbled a bit on the cold air, but soon gained strength. For years the brothers had gathered together to sing, and so, meditating on the perfect tone, it wasn’t long before the Kyrie soared. In the perfect circle they stamped out the residual night with mass of the morning: Kyrie, Gloria, Benedictus. It rang deep into the stone, flew into the rafters, and pierced the sky.

But otherwise, Tisserand remained in his cell. Such a shadow of the man he was—it was said once that he scandalized the pulpits of Notre Dame with sermons that set ears on fire. He converted hundreds merely by his unorthodox passion, bellowing voices and singing praise in his deep tenor throttle, pulsed with fits of coughing. This, to the weary eyes and troubled heart, must have been the voice of God.

That was many years ago. The Penitent Sisters were now his only devout and loyal audience—and only by letters. Even when, on journeys abroad, he had occasion to preach in chapels and churches scattering the countryside, he did so with a bland resignation. Tisserand had long since accepted the truth of crucifixion and resurrection; interminable life weighed on him now. Death could not release him soon enough.

And so he spent many of his hours scratching out his passing thoughts illegibly, alone. He cared not to whom they would go once he finally passed; but the lingering need to immortalize the spirit working through his mind caused his feathered quill to rush with ink. In the far corner of his sparse cell were mounded these rolled thoughts, parchments with no intent or direction but the record of the monk’s busy mind. There they sat, without an audience, for the many years Tisserand was occupied in their production.

In his younger years, still a neophyte preacher, his superior once called on him to devote his study to music. He sang regularly about the gospels in his sermons, and the cadence of his voice—even when it was not set in song—was such that it held a musical quality. And so, for a span of years, he dedicated himself to the chants of the church, leading the brothers in hymn and song. But his lustfully creative mind was soon bored with the mundane repetition passed down from Gregory; it wanted the freedom to create new and ever-more exciting compositions for the church. His superiors forbade it, one after the other, urging him to perfect the music which had been set aside explicitly for the brotherhood. God needs not new, they chided—He demands constancy.

And in that constriction, he fell fast away from music. Though, not entirely, for among his scribblings in his own room were musical notations—frantic half-notes and chords which, according to the spirit that moved him, resonated most with the theologies he feverishly jotted. There was no cohesion to them, and he always intended to return to the notations so as to create a full score, though he never did. They were tossed, without exception, into the growing pile of tracts and treatises into the corner of that very small, dark cell.

Until, on the advent of Easter one uneventful year, the Abbot Father called him into his office to discuss the father’s limited responsibility in the monastery. Tisserand, bothered to all hell by interruptions which stunted the constant flow of thought, reluctantly set down his pen and made his way to the Abbot’s office. His gait delayed him in these later years; a lingering pain with no explicable origin came to rest on his left knee, leaving him to hobble wherever he went. He was somewhat glad for it, for while it never ceased to throb with the dull fire of a once-was wound, it excused him from appointments and responsibilities that would extract him from his cell and, therefore, from his writing. Nevertheless, he had occasion at least once a day to leave his room for meetings and prayer. This instance was beyond the usual treks about the monastery, and so it made him unusually grumpy.

“Come!” Tisserand had not even had an opportunity to knock on the door. But his hobbled gait was easily identifiable, and he was accustomed to making his presence known far in advance of arriving anywhere. He pushed the rotting door with a slight jab of his fist; it squealed, slowly opening to reveal the Abbot Father sitting in a rough-hewn chair behind a cracked wood table. The sun, still strong in the sky, pierced the open window behind him, flooding him with light. For a brief moment, Tisserand thought the scene something akin to the Last Supper—though perhaps, with only the Abbot Father to illuminate, the apostles had forgotten to attend.

“Reverend Father,” Tisserand bowed slightly as he punctuated each word in reverence. It was fringed with sarcasm, but not enough to be obvious. The ailing monk was none too fond of authorities.

“Ah, Father Jean, please, sit down.” Tisserand wanted to remain standing, but he obliged the Abbot and sat slowly down on a wooden bench to the side of the table, using his hands to lower his plump body to the wood. Whatever ill he did suffer because of his age, he exaggerated tenfold in the company of others so as to excuse himself more quickly. The Abbot Father, however, paid no notice.

“As you know, Easter is almost upon us. Ordinarily, I would advise the same celebrations we usually perform, but there is a different circumstance this year.” The Abbot had a habit of calling the holy services “performances,” and while Tisserand had grown quite used to this strange affectation, it nevertheless troubled him. As he spoke, the Abbot shuffled through papers on his desk, busying himself as he carried on. He never looked at Tisserand.

“What would occasion a different celebration, Abbot Father?” Tisserand practiced a true concern as he asked it, but his primary interest was added responsibility. He smelled a request—that which was never truly a request, but an order disguised as a request. The business of diplomacy in a monastery was beyond him; wasn’t the business of a House of God to do away with contrivances and façades?

“Glad you asked it, Father. The Bishop of Lyon will be staying with us for a few days over Easter and I thought it an opportunity to offer a new set of hymns for Eastertide.”

“A new hymn?” Tisserand squirmed on the bench. The jagged ends of wood pressed into his butt and aggravated his sciatica.

The Abbot paused, squinting at some tuft of papers to which he was clearly paying more attention. He pulled himself away, reluctantly. “Ah, yes, a hymn. That would be excellent. Nothing, too inventive, eh, Father? Something fitting for the solemnity of the feast day, yes?”

“Of course, Reverend Father. But, did you have a theme in mind? Should I see to a gospel reading from the Triduum?”

“No, no, nothing so specific. Lord knows the bishop has had enough of the passions. Something summarial perhaps? And in chant mode, of course. You understand? We’re monks, Father Jean, let’s remember that.” Tisserand smiled weakly and shifted his weight on the bench again. The movement shot a sharp pain through his leg and he winced. The Abbot took no notice.

“I mean, Gregorian, you know,” the Abbot Father continued. “We have the Missa already—something a bit more in tune with the resurrection, yes? Ummm…” he paused again, lifting his head to block the light from the window. His dark figure seemed suddenly less Christ-like and more the feeble figure of a weighted down old leper. There was a hunch in his back that the light could not avoid catching.

“I have some thoughts,” Tisserand muttered, unsure of whether or not the Abbot Father was listening.

“Good! I suspected you still had an interest in composition. Keep it simple, will you? The Bishop is never too fond of embellished hymns.”

Tisserand culled a smile. “I’m sure I’ve heard as much before, Reverend Father.”

“Well, then, set to it. I’d like you and the brothers to begin rehearsals before Lent. Send me the music as soon as it’s completed.” He scribbled something feverishly one one of the fraying parchments in his hand, his eyes squinted in deep concentration.

“As soon as I have it set to paper, Reverend Father.” Tisserand hefted himself off the bench and made for the door, still ajar. The Abbot Father made no motion of dismissal, nor did he pretend a good-bye. Tisserand, accustomed to this lack of courtesy, slowly hobbled through the arched door frame, grabbing the occasionally protruding stone in the wall for support, and made his way back to the dully lit confines of his room.

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