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A Book Review… A Story Of Universal Truths For All Times

January 6, 2018 Featured Today No Comments


The Time Before You Die: A Novel of the Reformation, by Lucy Beckett (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2016), 355 pp.; $16.95. Available from or call 1-800-651-1531.

This moving historical novel with intense drama and great moral depth is based on the story of a Carthusian monk in Mount Grace Priory in York. He witnesses the turbulent, revolutionary changes of King Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, the schism of the Anglican Church’s separation from Rome, the terror of Queen Mary’s reign, and the birth of Lutheranism that divided England into Catholic and Protestant enemies. This riveting book views these cataclysmic events through the span of Robert Fletcher’s life from his entrance into the monastery to his death.
Confused and troubled by all the religious controversy of the day that leads him astray from his vocation, Fletcher fluctuates from a committed Catholic monk to a Lutheran heretic to a skeptic doubting the existence of truth to a lost soul who rediscovers his Catholic faith because of the special kindness he receives from Cardinal Pole, the last Catholic archbishop of Canterbury.
After twenty years of living in simplicity and serenity under monastic rule separated from the politics of the nation, Fletcher receives the shocking news that King Henry has abolished monastic orders and confiscated all the property.
Disoriented and homeless, he begins a new life with no direction or purpose. Leaving the contemplative life of the cloister to pursue a livelihood, Fletcher earns his living as a tutor, marries, fathers a son, suffers the death of Alice after childbirth, and leaves the baby to the care of the grandparents.
However, England’s descent into Protestantism that undermined the authority of the Catholic Church was not a fait accompli. Though Robert Fletcher, now no longer a celibate monk but hired tutor, married man, and father, identified the new religion of his nation as a source of freedom, he soon suffered the stigma of heretic during the reign of Queen Mary committed to the restoration of Catholic England. Thus begins Fletcher’s intellectual confusion that tortures his soul throughout the political violence of the sixteenth century.
From Catholic to Protestant to heretic to skeptic to Catholic again, Fletcher suffers the moral anarchy of the time that makes him question the existence of absolute truth or final authority because of the ever-changing political climate and the rivalry between Catholic and Protestant monarchs contending for the rule of England.
Early in the novel when Cardinal Pole visits Fletcher’s monastery for Easter, he praises the life of a monk, assuring Fletcher of his holy vocation: “You are very fortunate. . . . And indeed, such a life, far out of the world. . . . Nothing can touch you here, your books, your peaceful days.”
However, as Fletcher learns after a period of twenty years of monastic life, his life does not lie far out of the world, and the world outside the cloister affects his life and destroys the life of prayer and contemplation. On a winter morning, a commissioner from the king’s court arrives at Mount Grace to announce King Henry’s demand for an oath of loyalty from the monks.
While many sign the document declaring their fidelity to the king and approving of his divorce from Queen Catherine of Aragon and accepting his unlawful marriage, a few protest and refuse allegiance to the king. This provokes the king’s retaliation.
Fletcher signs the oath, despite the warning of fellow monk Master Leighton who remains loyal to Rome. While Fletcher does not consider the matter of supreme importance (“What is it to us if the king should choose to alter his inheritance?”), Leighton decries the cowardice of monks who succumb to the world:
“Following one another like sheep through a gap in the wall, and for what cause? Like sheep you have no minds of your own and run where you are led.”
The news soon reaches Mount Grace that three priors of Carthusian monasteries, refusing the oath of loyalty, have been hanged and quartered for treason. Fletcher, however, argues that Henry VIII is no heretic, that the issue of temporal power belongs to the decision of Parliament, and defends obedience to civil power.
In the meantime dissenters like Master Leighton, Bishop Fisher, and Sir Thomas More have all been executed for their defiance of the king’s orders. Cardinal Pole’s mother and brothers have also paid the ultimate price for their loyalty to the ancient faith of Catholic England.
Robert Fletcher had naively underestimated the larger agenda behind the politics of Henry’s controversy about divorce and remarriage. Four years after the king’s demand of an oath of fidelity, he orders the wanton dissolution of the monasteries and the confiscation of land and possessions by the government. Any resistance to the king’s policies of establishing the Church of England and banishing the Catholic faith from England provokes the charge of treason punishable by death.
Fletcher, assuming that the oath of fidelity would appease the king and permit the monasteries to continue their religious vocation, discovers that the Church sold her soul in its compromise with the king. Removing his habit and leaving the cloister, Fletcher ponders his original decision to acquiesce in the king’s orders. He and all the monks “were to be loosed into the world in a terrifying freedom that had about it none of the warmth of obedience.”
The shocking sadness of profound loss that afflicts him as he watches the king’s minions remove the bell, chalices, and patens brings him to tears “as the magnitude of his loss poured over him.” As he walks in the direction of the home he left twenty years ago, Fletcher feels “as if the priory of Mount Grace had never been.” The destruction of custom, tradition, peace, and civilization unleashes moral anarchy.
Heartbroken, disoriented, and homeless, Fletcher learns that his father, a notorious drunkard, does not welcome him as a beggar. The parish priest who taught Fletcher Latin, now blind in old age, does not remember him and soon dies. Fletcher cannot locate his two half-brothers to renew any family relationships. Living temporarily with other priests at Williams College, Fletcher witnesses a cart dragging an outstretched man on the pavement to be burned for heresy and thinks of “A martyr’s death,” a fate he hoped to avoid by his willingness to obey the king’s orders.
During this period of confusion Fletcher acquires a copy of Luther’s On the Liberty of a Christian Man and imagines that he has emancipated himself from the dead past and entered a new world of great promise. Intoxicated by the lure of newfound freedom and Luther’s doctrine of “justification by faith alone,” Fletcher rejects an offer to live with former fellow monks in a cottage to resume a monastic life, once again taking the path of safety and disappointing the prior who had counted on his allegiance. A fellow monk angrily remarks, “You were always for the winning side, that I do recall. God grant our paths do not cross again.”
The way of compromise does correspond to the love of God.
Abandoning his monastic vows and embracing Lutheranism, Fletcher joins the Protestant Revolt, preaching the benefits of all the revolutionary changes from the loss of Latin and the use of the vernacular to the unimportance of fasting, almsgiving, prayers for the dead, and pilgrimages — all the innovations that ultimately provoke riots in York quelled by smashing altars with hammers and discarding old Latin Psalters into the streets.
As a devout Catholic woman says to Fletcher, “They’ve emptied the abbeys and taken the saints out of the churches and broken the chantry door to pieces. It’s them that’s shown the way to waste and spoil.” She also looks at Fletcher with disdain, remarking “You look at that and tell me if that’s the will of God.”
Infatuated by all the novel doctrines of the day, Fletcher remains untouched by the burning of Catholics and the image-smashing of the iconoclasts as he grows more worldly, opportunistic, and undisciplined, even rejecting his vow of celibacy when Alice, a younger woman, tempts him with her desire for love despite his protest that he is a priest: “You are alive, and free, and so am I. . . . The archbishop himself has married.” A life without the integrity to honor vows never leads to freedom or peace.
This heady revolutionary fervor that has incited England to reject her Catholic heritage, however, soon reverses its course after King Henry VIII dies and Queen Mary assumes the throne. Fletcher’s “wild glee” in the passionate love he exchanges with Alice in the name of freedom reflects the frenzy of the moment and the madness of the rioters asserting their independence from the dead past. Under her rule Protestants now are burned at the stake for heresy and imprisoned in the Tower — a fate that also threatens Fletcher in the new regime determined to extirpate Protestantism from England.
Fletcher cannot return to his priestly vocation unless he disavows his “unlawful” marriage to Alice and promises to “live apart from her and never more to seek her company” — a choice he refuses to make. Now Fletcher suffers the greatest crisis of his life, loss of belief in the existence of truth: “A priest and not a priest, a monk and not a monk.” Once a Catholic and now a Lutheran, once a heretic for his Catholic faith under King Henry VIII and now a heretic for his Protestant belief in the reign of Queen Mary: “He could no longer tell the good from the bad in what he himself had done.” The name of evil is legion as it mutates into new shapes.
Apprehended by soldiers and imprisoned in the Tower and later confined in the stocks, Fletcher resigns himself to his fate of burning at the stake, yet he refuses to recant. Of all of the certainties he had embraced in his life — his religious vocation, his marriage to Alice, his commitment to Lutheranism — “each one had gone down before the next.” Interrogated by Bishop Bonner and accused of blasphemy, apostasy, and heresy, Fletcher offers in his defense the confusing radical transformations in the nation — the law that “has changed and changed about these twenty years.”
The mad world of Tudor England has left him in doubt and despair about the truths of the Christian faith and the nature of authority.
As he ponders the possibility of confessing his errors, recanting, and acknowledging the authority of the bishop and Pope, Fletcher writes a letter to Cardinal Pole who intervenes on his behalf and releases him from prison. Inviting him to an audience to discuss religious questions, the kind, gentle cardinal, who disapproves of burning heretics, advises Fletcher with patience and humility. He admonishes him, “Outside the Church there is no firm ground for any man to stand on. . . . Outside her there is only a pathless fen.”
He explains to Fletcher his great error, not with the vehement denunciation of derogatory language but with a simple correction, the mistake of following the wrong path and leading others into the darkness instead of following the light.
The story ends with the cardinal leading the monk to see the truth that has been mutilated and shattered into many fragments in this time of division. He reassures the doubting, disoriented monk of a simple, unchanging truth that the religious wars have shattered: the sun and the Earth remain the same, only the shadows change: “You do not have to choose between one way of seeing all these things and the other, because both are truth. The truth is in the whole, Master Fletcher, in the whole.”

The Light Of God

As Fletcher is reading the first chapter of St. John’s Gospel in the library, the holy words penetrate to the depths of his soul: “And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness understood it not.” The English word understood translates the Latin word comprehend. However, in the original Greek the word means “seized,” “grasped,” and “held down.” Darkness cannot hold down the light or put it out: “The light shines in the present, always, in darkness, and the darkness did not hold it down.”
Before Cardinal Pole dies, he reminds Fletcher that a man living in the darkness of the world receives the light of God through the sacraments and the word of God spoken by His Holy Church: “If a man rejects the authority of the Church, where else can he look, in the world, for that light?”
This is a story not only of a chapter in British history, but a book of universal truths for all times, especially the twenty-first century, when darkness, moral disorder, and conflicting ideas of good and evil destroy the notion of truth “as a whole” and when many are tempted to accommodate the world and pay the price that nearly destroyed Robert Fletcher

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