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A Saint, More or Less
by Henry Grunwald
Random House, 2003

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Not another procession! This is the third in a month.”

“I love processions! I wish they had one every day.”

“This one is special. Why else would everybody have to close their shops? Lord knows how much business we will lose.”

“But what is it about?”

“It is about penance. The archbishop ordered it. But I will tell you who is really behind it. That girl from Reims.”

“The one who has been healing the sick and doing all kinds of miracles?”

“That’s the one.”

“Look, there is the archbishop walking behind the statue of the Virgin.”

“He does not seem very steady on his feet.”

“And there are all those other priests and monks. I have never seen so many in one place.”

“But where is she? The girl?”

“I see her now. There, after all those choir boys singing their hymns. There she is, walking by herself, all in white.”

“She looks like a bride.”

“Pray for us, blessed Nicole. Give us your blessing.”

“She is not looking at us. She is just looking up at the sky.”

“What did you say the girl’s name was again? Nicole?”

“Yes. Nicole Tavernier. The girl from Reims.”

A mysterious girl whom no one knew had been given a solemn procession in her honor with all of Paris at her feet. How had she come to this moment? She had appeared in the city only a few weeks before, in the spring of 1594.

Father Pacifique de Souzy had just finished hearing confessions at the Capuchin church on the rue Saint-Honoré when the sacristan approached him. He looked puzzled.

“Father,” he said. “There is a young woman who insists on seeing you. She says she has come with a very special mission.”

“What sort of mission?” asked the priest.

“I don’t know, Father. I am not sure what to make of her. She is very earnest and sure of herself and she has a kind of”—he groped for the right word—“a kind of authority.”

Before the priest could ask any further questions, a small, slim girl appeared from behind the sacristan. She wore a threadbare traveling cloak with a large wooden cross hanging around her neck. Her shoes were scuffed, her hair disordered. Her face was flushed. Her eyes were fixed on the priest. She stared for a few moments at his tonsured head, his narrow face with the small pointed beard.

“Yes,” she said. “It is you, Father. You look exactly as you did in my vision.”

“Your vision?”

“Two weeks ago, during evening prayer, my mind stood still. I saw your image. And a voice told me that you would become my spiritual director. Here I am. I ask your help, Father.”

De Souzy was baffled.

“Help you how, and to do what?” he asked.

“Help me to save the true faith and to bring all sinners to repentance.”

De Souzy knew well that the religious upheavals of the time produced a great many self-appointed saviors. He felt skeptical about this young girl, and yet there was something about her that drew him.

“I am extremely busy and I cannot give you any special attention. But of course, like everyone else, you are welcome to confess here whenever you feel the need.”

As Father de Souzy turned away, the girl said firmly, “You are wrong to refuse me, Father. God has given me rare powers and I believe you will yet recognize them.”

To de Souzy the words sounded almost like a threat, but he put the incident out of his mind. He was surprised the next day to see the girl again, standing on the church steps surrounded by a small crowd. She was speaking to them passionately.

“You have suffered great misery,” she was saying. “You have seen your wives and children cry with hunger and writhe in pain, you have seen death everywhere. War is destroying the country. Why is this happening? It is God’s punishment for your sins and iniquities. You must confess and repent, you must surrender your hearts and souls to the Lord. You must win over the heretics and prepare the path toward peace.”

De Souzy was irritated. Not that he disagreed with what she said. Pacifique de Souzy had been a firebrand in his youth, but lately his attitude had begun to match his given name. His own sermons, while full of the necessary condemnation of the Protestant heretics, always appealed for reconciliation and peace. To hear a woman preach, however, and in front of his church, was offensive. To his astonishment he noticed that the people surrounding her were rapt by her words. They looked at her with a radiance that seemed to mirror her own. Some even knelt.

De Souzy went on about his usual church business, but the next day he was amazed to see the girl in the same place preaching to an even larger crowd. Her words were much as they had been the day before, but de Souzy now became aware that she was supplementing her message with biblical quotations.

When at length she finished, he approached her and asked her to follow him into the church. She did so matter-of-factly, as if she had expected the invitation.

“What is your name,” he asked, “and where do you come from?”

“My name is Nicole Tavernier and I come from Reims.”

“How old are you?”

“I am nineteen.”

He recognized in her drawling speech, with its softly elongated words, the accent typical of that city.

“I have been traveling from town to town bringing His message to all who were willing to hear me.”

“And what gives you the right to do that?”

“I know in my heart that God wants me to do this. A voice tells me that it is so; the same voice that sent me to you, Father.”

De Souzy shook his head. “I noticed that you recite passages from scripture when you talk to people. Do you know what the words mean?”

“I do.”

De Souzy decided to test her. “I will read you a passage and you will try to tell me what it signifies.”

De Souzy opened a Bible on his desk and leafed through it for a few moments. Then he read from the Song of Songs.

“ ‘Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth: for your love is better than wine.’ What does that mean to you?”

“It means God’s love for His Church. It also means that our love of Jesus is better than any earthly love.”

It was a good enough answer, but de Souzy asked, “Did someone, a priest, say those things and did you then commit them to memory?”

“I have heard sermons from many priests, but my interpretations came to me from the Holy Spirit.”

De Souzy was still doubtful.

“What does scripture say about the Trinity?” he asked.

“It says many things.”

“All right. What does Saint John say?”

“John says that there are three who in a common one are one in stateliness and therefore in power and will.”

There was no hesitation as Nicole answered. “This means,” she continued, but Father de Souzy held up his hand. He decided to try something trickier.

“What did Jesus say when He was taken to the temple? How old was He? How long did He stay?”

Nicole smiled.

“He didn’t say anything the first time; He was forty days old. That was the custom, to take children to the temple forty days after their birth. When He was twelve,” and she emphasized the number, “He was found in the temple after three days. When Mary and Joseph told Him they were worried”—she paused as she easily and correctly quoted scripture—“ ‘Son, why hath thou thus dealt with us? Behold thy father and I have sought thee sorrowing,’ Jesus said”—Nicole continued with a slight nod to the priest to signal that the rest of his answer was coming—“ ‘How is it that ye sought me? Wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business?’ ” She was looking at Father de Souzy and yet looking inward as well.

De Souzy was no scholar, but he realized that this young, uneducated girl had given very learned answers. He suddenly felt out of his depth and decided to temporize.

“I will consider your request,” he said.

“Thank you, Father, but I hope that you will not take too long to consider. There is much to be done.”

De Souzy was taken aback by such arrogance, but above all he was puzzled. He felt that he needed more information about this odd creature and some sound advice about how to treat her.

For that he turned to the Jesuits. Although they were widely distrusted, even their enemies agreed that they were the best- informed people in Paris. He sought out Father Pierre Coton, who had a reputation for shrewdness and good sense. Coton was a tall, lean man with a shock of brown hair that was prematurely turning gray, lending him a paternal air. He gave anyone he spoke to the feeling of being at the center of his attention, and he was unfailingly gentle.

After hearing Father de Souzy’s request for information about one Nicole Tavernier, Coton contracted his brow as if to retrieve an invisible dossier from his memory. Twice he repeated the name and then said, “Nothing comes to my mind but I will try to find out what I can.”

When de Souzy returned a few days later, Coton was ready with his report.

Glancing at a sheet of paper in front of him, he said, “Nicole Tavernier is a young woman from Reims. Nothing is known about her family. She has been roaming from town to town affecting the role of a wandering preacher. She has attended sick people and there have been rumors of miraculous healings. She seems devoted to helping the poor and she gives them food when she can. One story has it that some mysterious messenger gave her a loaf of bread that multiplied in her hands so that she was able to distribute bread continually. She lodges at the hospital of Sainte-Catherine.”

The nuns at this establishment were in charge of shrouding and burying corpses found in the street or in the river. The place also gave shelter for a short time to women looking for work.

“She wants me to help her and to be her spiritual director. What should I do?”

“God knows we have seen many visionaries and healers and wonder workers,” said Coton. “Some of them are pretenders and hysterics, and we must always be on guard against such persons. On the other hand they must not be lightly dismissed. Some may be genuine. And they may help fortify the faith, which is why the Holy League is always eager to take them up.”

“Ah yes, the League,” said de Souzy, sounding apprehensive.

The Holy League was a powerful combination of Catholic nobles and wealthy bourgeois who had banded together to fight the Huguenots, as the Protestants were called in France. They raised armies, subsidized preachers to denounce the heretics and bitterly attacked fellow Catholics who seemed insufficiently enthusiastic on behalf of the true faith.

It was now nearly eighty years since the German monk Martin Luther had posted his theses on the church door of Wittenberg, theses that attacked the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church, its greedy hierarchy, its practice of selling indulgences that sup- posedly shortened the time sinners would have to spend in pur- gatory. In the intervening decades Protestantism, as it came to be known, spread everywhere in various forms. Bitter wars between Catholics and Protestants followed, interrupted by peace treaties and short periods of uneasy calm, only to resume again. Christendom had once been united, more or less, under the vast dome of the Catholic Church. But that dome was now broken and every part of Europe claimed its own fragment of it. Catholic Spain, under the lugubrious Philip II, was in conflict with Protestant England, under the allegedly virginal Elizabeth. Most German princes had followed Martin Luther into the Protestant camp; Switzerland had become the Protestant fortress of John Calvin. France was still largely Catholic, but the Church was increasingly alarmed by the steady growth of the Protestant forces. Coton was pained by the continuous bloodshed among Christians. He was a moderate who had Protestant friends and did not share the Holy League’s zealotry, but it was his principle to be on good terms with all factions.

“The League must be reckoned with,” he told Father de Souzy. “They are bound to hear about this girl. They may try to use her to stir up fervor among the faithful who may be tiring of this endless war. My advice to you is to move first and arrange for this Nicole Tavernier to meet some of the leaders of the League and especially their pious ladies. It would be interesting to see what they make of her.”

Thinking aloud, Coton pronounced several names but dismissed each, until he finally said: “The Acaries. Yes, I believe they are the right family for this.”

Pierre Acarie was one of the leaders of the Holy League distinguished, rich and active. Moreover, his wife, Barbe, was celebrated everywhere for her good works, her piety and her shrewdness.

“I even know some priests who have gone to Barbe Acarie for advice,” said Coton.

De Souzy nodded. “I know her, yes. She has sometimes attended my church.”

“Good,” said Coton. “I suggest that you arrange for the Acaries to meet the girl. And keep in mind that Madame Acarie’s opinion will count as much as her husband’s, if not more.”

De Souzy wanted to know if Father Coton would be present if and when the meeting took place. “I would rather stay in the background for now,” replied Coton.

That afternoon Coton went to the Golden Racket, an establishment on the Left Bank, where he regularly played tennis, a game highly popular among gentlemen of the time. He faced his usual opponent, Dr. René Monnet, having tied his cassock around his waist so as not to be hampered in his movements. The priest beat the physician handily. After the match they talked over a cooling drink. They had met at the Golden Racket some years before and had become friends. They had several things in common, including a Jesuit education and an abrupt change in their careers. Father Coton had started out as a lawyer but had become increasingly disgusted with what struck him as the inhumane pettifoggery of the law. He realized that he had been drawn to the Church all along and he entered a Jesuit seminary.

It had been the opposite with René Monnet. His devout parents had wanted him to be a priest and he persuaded himself that he had a calling. He too had entered a Jesuit seminary, at a much younger age than Coton, and he proved to be an excellent student. But he discovered that he was not cut out for the religious life. René Monnet developed too warm a feeling toward the gardener’s voluptuous daughter and an unusually strict prefect abruptly ended his clerical career. He decided to take up the study of medicine, turning from the care of souls to the care of the body. The dividing line between the two, he thought, might not be all that clear. He always remembered something written by the great François Rabelais, who was a physician as well as a priest and believed that body and soul, virtues and vices, appetites and dreams, are all mingled together in God’s human creatures. As Rabelais’s character Pantagruel said: “Everything we are and that we have is made up of three things: the soul, the body and our property.”

Monnet became a well-respected physician in Paris but was always ready to discuss religion.

“I have great difficulty with this business of celibacy,” he told Father Coton when he described why he had left the seminary. “Priests commit themselves to chastity because the Church demands it and that, one could argue, is a form of duress. Moral philosophers tell us that no oath taken under duress is binding.”

“I am afraid that is what people call a Jesuitical argument,” said Coton. But he was tolerant of Monnet’s foibles and his skepticism. He liked him and trusted him. Now he said, “I believe you are friendly with the Acaries.”

“Yes, I have been their doctor for several years and I can say that I am also their friend.”

“I arranged for them to meet a young woman who has begun to make a stir in Paris.” He summarized briefly what little he knew about Nicole Tavernier.

“Father de Souzy will bring her. I myself do not yet want to be identified with her, but as a friend of the house you could easily be present at this meeting. If you agree, perhaps you could let me know later what the girl is like and what sort of impression she made on the Acaries. Or on you, for that matter.”

René Monnet was a wiry man in his middle years with reddish, bristly hair. His left eyelid drooped slightly, which gave him a deceptively sleepy appearance. It was always a little surprising when he flashed out with a sharp look, as he did now.

“Why are you interested in her?”

“My instinct tells me that eventually a great many people may be interested in her.”

Dr. Monnet promised that he would try to attend the meeting and to let Coton know how it went. He pulled out a timepiece, an extraordinary watch made of silver and shaped like a death’s-head.

“Do you have time for another game?” Monnet asked.

“I do. But put away that awful watch of yours. In these times we hardly need a reminder of death.

Excerpted from A Saint, More or Less by Henry Grunwald. Copyright © 2003 by Henry Grunwald. All rights reserved. Excerpted by permission of the publisher. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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