On a rainy day in November 1950, Father Michael Kavanagh seeks refuge in New York’s famed Cloisters Museum of medieval art at the northern tip of Manhattan. There he meets a mysterious woman who turns out to be a Jewish historian and Holocaust survivor. One of the few possessions she managed to salvage from the ravages of the war is an old copy of a medieval love letters collection between Abelard and Heloise titled Historia Calamitatum.
The woman, Rachel Vedette, is still grieving the loss of her father, a scholar who died in the Nazi internment camp at Drancy. In the final prewar years, he had been working on a book that would recast Abelard, a medieval philosopher and a Christian monk, as a friend of Jews who sought to persuade the Church to embrace them as brothers in faith rather than “Christ killers.” Rachel’s father, in the middle of the twentieth century, saw that as a way to save the Jewish people from the disaster that was about to befall them. But, much like Abelard a thousand years earlier, his efforts were swept away by the ruthless forces of history, beyond the control of any one individual.
As the unlikely friendship deepens between Kavanagh and Rachel, the priest begins to question some of the doctrines of the Catholic Church. He starts wondering whether violence against Jews – beginning with pogroms and culminating with the horror of the Holocaust – has not been made possible by the Church’s dogmatic stance on their culpability in Christ’s death.
In parallel with that, the reappearance of an old friend from the seminary leads Kavanagh to discover a case of sexual abuse and coverup in the diocese. This further erodes his confidence in the Church and his own institutional allegiance to it. What results is a crisis, if not of faith then of vocation.
Meditative, unhurried, and deeply philosophical, The Cloister proposes a rethinking of some of the fundamental tenets of Catholic theology and Christian teaching toward a more expansive and inclusive religion, and a religion where reason plays as much of a role of set belief. For conservatives within the Church, it is sure to be controversial. But it is an interesting contribution to a debate that has raged for a millennium, and no doubt will continue for another.
If you enjoy medieval historical fiction, check out The Greenest Branch, my novel based on the life of Hildegard of Bingen, Germany’s first female physician. It is FREE to read on Kindle Unlimited, and available in ebook and paperback on Amazon US, Amazon UK, and several other Amazon marketplaces.