Henrietta Leyser

The Cistercian monk Caesarius of Heisterbach (C.1180-C.1250), scourge of the unchaste, tells the story of a 'libidinous' priest attempting to celebrate mass: at the moment of consecration a snow-white dove flies down to the altar and drinks up the whole contents of the chalice before flying away with the bread in its beak. This happens not just once but at the three consecutive masses the priest tries to celebrate. Terrified, and finally contrite, the priest confesses to his sin - he has had sex with a woman he happened to meet as he set off on his rounds at the start of the day. Once the priest is shriven, the dove returns the three hosts to the corporal and from its throat pours back all the wine into the chalice.1

Caesarius combines his relish in telling stories that discomfit priests with a knowledge, even an acceptance of human frailty. For Caesarius celibacy is indeed of paramount importance for both clerks and monks; nonetheless, even those who fail to observe it can count on forgiveness provided they truly repent. Thus a monk who had left his house to become a secular priest and who had taken a concubine 'as is the custom of many' and had had children by her, was led to see the error of his ways; in a state of remorse he asked St Bernard (his former abbot) to re-admit him. Bernard agreed but, since he had a pressing journey to make, he told the priest he must wait awhile. While he was away, the priest died. On his return Bernard ordered the priest's grave to be opened, and 'he appeared to all not in the secular dress in which he was buried but in the tonsure and habit of a monk'. True contrition, observes Caesarius, restores all.2

Behind Caesarius' particular mix of scurrility and compassion lie the deeply learnt lessons of the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215; the tale of the dove and

* My title is indebted to Gerd Tellenbach's characterisation of the Investiture Contest as 'a struggle for right order in the world'; see his Church, State and Christian Society at the Time of the Investiture Contest, trans. R. F. Bennett (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1938), 1.

1 Caesarius of Heisterbach, Dialogus miraculorum, ed. Joseph Strange (2 vols.; Cologne: Heberle, 1851; repr., Ridgewood, N.J.: Gregg, 1966), vol. 1, distinctio 2, ch. 5, 64-5.

2 Caesarius, Dialogus, vol. 1, distinctio 2, ch. 3, 62-3.

the eucharist make very particular sense in the light of the long debate, finally resolved by the Council, about the nature of the mass^ Its conclusion reflects the Council's rulings both on the necessity and efficacy of the sacrament of confession and on its insistence on clerical celibacy^ 'Chastity and knowledge', for Caesarius, 'were the glory of a priest's life'; and chastity (unlike knowledge) was attainable by all and mattered accordingly/ There is more than an echo here of one of Innocent III's sermons to the clergy of Rome:

we, constituted in holy orders, are necessarily obliged to guard chastity For it is written that when David fled the persecution of Saul, he came into Nob to Ahimelech the priest, asking that five loaves be given to him to drive out hunger The priest replied, 'I have no unconsecrated bread at hand, but only holy bread^ If the young men are clean, especially from women, they may eat it/ He did not say, if they have faith, hope and charity; if they have the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and fortitude, the spirit of knowledge and piety, and the spirit of the fear of the Lord^ But he said, 'If they are clean, especially from women, they may eat it', since they can not eat the holy bread worthily unless they are clean from the sexual union with

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment