Brother Jude hacked at the sod with his hoe; his sweat-stained tunic was pulled up between his legs and tucked into his belt.
“What crime has the ground committed, that you pummel it so forcefully?” Brother Umfrey asked.
“Its only offense is that it is clay, like me. I am in great turmoil, Umfrey.”
“Aye, that much is clear. Your face is as gloomy as the clouds.”
“I’m thinking of leaving the monastery.”
Umfrey straightened and pressed his gnarled fingers against his back. “Lord keep us, Jude, have you lost your faith?”
“On the contrary, I have discovered my faith. Let’s hurry, before the sky opens on us.”
It had been a heart-rending decision to become a monk, as it must be, but also as natural to Jude as breathing. Painful to walk away from his mother, so proud of his calling, yet weeping and challenging God at his leaving. Tibby, who’d begun to give him shy glances.
Yet, so easy to relinquish a world filled with temptations, fleshly endeavours, and disappointments, to embrace a life where every heartbeat, every breath, would be in devotion to God.
Then, in the year before his final vows, a merchant passed through with a load of wool, seeking shelter in the monastery’s hostelry, and Jude learned from him that his father had died months before. Jude’s mother was failing, reduced to begging.
Jude asked for an audience with the abbot, his heart sorrowful.
“You are ready to take your final vows and you speak of leaving?”
“What brought on this denial of God?”
“I’m not denying God. My mother is widowed and destitute.”
Abbot Osbert leaned forward, his fingers forming a steeple. “We’re to follow in the steps of our Saviour and forswear our families, even our beloved mothers. Forsake her, as our Lord commanded.”
“To do so would render me worse than an infidel.”
“You are foolish and rebellious, kicking against the will of God and your calling. God did call you, did He not?”
“Yes, but . . .”
“Silence! You need discipline, to wrench this wickedness from you. You shall not attend prayers for seven days.”
Each day, from Lauds through Compline, Jude heard the soft rhythmic chanting of the Psalms coming from the chapel, and in his heart stirred a whisper that steadily grew stronger, “O Lord, Almighty God, Gentle Shepherd, hear me . . .”
His soul was comforted.
“Have you come to your senses?” Abbot Osbert asked at the end of the week.
“I believe so.”
“You believe so? Are you ready to renounce your foolhardy plan to rejoin the world?”
“I must go home.”
“Home! Remember, even the Son of Man had no place to lay His head. Tell me, did you learn anything at all from being denied the sweet fellowship of prayer with your faithful brothers?”
“I learned God hears my prayer whilst I hoe the potatoes, when I sleep in my cell, when I walk to the . . .”
“Blasphemy and insolence!” The abbot’s eyes bulged and his face reddened. “Your flesh must be mortified, conquered.”
Brother Umfrey gently applied a soothing salve to the welts on Jude’s shoulders.
“Jude, you’re being tested, having doubts as your final vows draw near. You must stand fast in your faith.”
“I shall, with God’s help,” Jude moaned.
Abbot Osbert drummed his fingers on the oaken desk. “Ah, Brother Jude. Have you gained any wisdom after your . . . scourging of the soul? Are you ready to serve God with a devoted and undivided heart?
“Is it serving God if I am serving myself?”
“Fulfilling God’s holiest work, embracing purity and piety, is serving yourself? In this blessed place where you have freedom from worldly distractions?”
“I fear it is but freedom to contemplate Him in sheltered seclusion. My faith shall prosper in the world’s mire. I abandoned the world once; in turn, I wish to resign from this sanctuary.”
“Then, did God lie when He drew you apart to be a monk?” Spittle speckled the abbot’s lips.
“No, Father. He used the opportunity to teach me of His spirit within, and that caring for others, outside these walls, is also God’s calling.”
“Heresy. You are not worthy.” The abbot clenched his hands and turned away. “I withhold my blessing from you, and you leave as a disgrace. Begone. Tend to your mother.”
Brother Jude relinquished his tunic and cowl, said good-bye to the brothers, and walked through the gate into the sunshine.
Yes, Heavenly Father, I hear You.
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