Brother Simple

(Christian / European)

Adapted from Anonymous (France), Walters Art Museum, public domain

Once long ago, there was a young soldier. He rode off to battle again and again. He fought bravely and lived to return with the heroes. Yet the joys of victory never lasted. In the dark of his dreams, rivers of garnet blood ran on without end. There was no peace in his soul. So one day, he set out to find it.

The way led him beyond the towns, through forests and fields and farther. Above a crag and around a hill, he heard a bell ringing. In the silence after, the blue robes of the sky seemed to bend over him. So he followed the bell and the silence until he came to a cloister. There he knocked on the door.

A monk let him in. The soldier did not even need to speak, for the monk could see he was weary of the world and its battles. “Come and rest,” the monk said, then offered him bread and wine, and led him to a room with a bed.

So the soldier slept.

In the dark before dawn, he heard the sound of monks chanting in the chapel. He lay on his bed as if in a valley, the slow river of voices washing over him.  When he rose at last and found his way into the chapel alone, even the emptiness seemed to welcome him. There he found a figure of Our Lady carved in moon-white stone. She looked upon him with kindness, her hands open, her face serene.

The soldier lay down his sword at her feet, and the clang of metal on stone pierced the silence with echoes. He would wash his blade clean with tears, if only he could.

Before long he had entered a new life. He gave his clothes and the gold he had left to the poor, and chose the plain woolen robes of a monk. The others put their arms around him, glad to welcome a new brother. But soon they found that the Latin prayers and divine books were all unknown to him. He could not read or write. So the monks set out to teach him. Still, no matter how hard they tried, the new monk was never able to learn more than two words.

These two words he found carved in the stone below Our Lady. Bending there, he traced every letter with his finger so often, he traced the two words into his heart. Then they came out of his mouth: Ave Maria.

When the bell rang the hours for prayer, he chanted Ave Maria. When the bell rang the hours for work, he scrubbed the floors until they shone under the brothers’ feet, Ave Maria. When the bell rang the hours for rest, he sat under a blossoming tree and hummed with the bees, Ave Maria. When the bell rang the hours of night, he cried out in the dark of his dreams, Ave Maria!

It was all he could say.

Sadly, the abbot sighed and said to the other monks, “Perhaps he suffered too many blows on the battlefield. Or he was born simple. But let us be patient. He is our brother.”

So they called him Brother Simple. And they grew used to his two words that ran like a stream day and night, and his odd ways. In time they did not notice anymore how he bowed to the well, Ave Maria, before he drew up the water, Ave Maria, and carried the bucket to the kitchen. How he spoke to the sacks of wheat, Ave Maria, and mixed the dough, Ave Maria. How he bowed to the oven, Ave Maria, and pulled out the golden loaves. How he served each of the brothers, Ave Maria, before he bowed to his own chair, Ave Maria, and sat at the table like a child in his mother’s lap.

Seasons and years came and went, and Brother Simple grew old. The others grew wise reading the divine books and copying out every word in the scriptorium. But he would be gazing up at the blue robes of the sky, Ave Maria, or catching the rain in his hands, Ave Maria. Or he would sit in a patch of sunlight, whispering until Ave Maria and every breath were the same. Then they would find him just sitting there, radiant and at peace.

That is how it was when Brother Simple died.

The monks missed him. Seasons passed and still the cloister held his absence in every corner. Then one day before dawn, when they had chanted their prayers and came out of the chapel, a fragrance came to meet them. It was of such a sweetness, that merely to breathe the air filled them with bliss. They followed the fragrance, hoping to find its source, until they came to the graveyard behind the chapel. A moon-white glow on their old brother’s grave pulled them closer. There was a lily rising up from the dark of the earth.

As they gathered around, the monks felt a sublime peace rising with the scent of the lily, opening in their own souls and bending over all the world.

The abbot whispered, “Look.”

Upon each petal, two words were written in gold, every letter made as if by the finest hand with a pen dipped in sunlight: Ave Maria.

Stirred by wonder, longing to know how the miracle of this lily came to grow here, the monks cleared away the earth with their hands. Soon they uncovered the bones of Brother Simple. The lily had bloomed from his mouth.

 

Commentary

The seed of this retelling appears in a thirteenth-century book known as THE GOLDEN LEGEND. Its author was Jacobus de Voragine, a Dominican monk in his native Italy. He also became an archbishop esteemed for his compassion and was later beatified. In THE GOLDEN LEGEND, originally called LEGENDA SANCTORUM, he compiled hundreds of stories the people relied on and loved about the saints. It became one of the most famous books of the Middle Ages.

During the Renaissance, when critical scholars and Reformers harshly denigrated its miracle stories, THE GOLDEN LEGEND fell out of favor and seemed to vanish. But later, in a time of greater appreciation for Medieval writings, it re-emerged. In 1892 William Morris printed an edition from an older English translation. In 1941 Granger Ryan and Helmut Ripperger made a new translation from the Latin that was published and later reprinted (Arno Press, NY, 1969). There—in a single paragraph on page 207—I found a small story that stayed with me. It tells of a nameless soldier who became a monk, but who never learned more than two words, Ave Maria, which he repeated all day long. After his death, a lily appeared on his grave bearing the two words in gold. The lily was rooted in his mouth.

Seven centuries after Jacobus de Voragine wrote that little story down, most likely on a page of vellum, the seed of it sank into the soil of another person’s mind. There it rested another twenty-five years before it stirred and grew again into another retelling. From the rich loam of generations, and an image planted in one more soul, stories too grow in this holy earth.
 

Image credit: Adapted from a Book of Hours, Anonymous (France), Walters Art Museum, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Story Retelling ©2007 Barbara Helen Berger

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