‘Fra Celeste’ by Ricarda Huch – Part Seven

Fra Celeste, whom I now informed of all that had occurred, immediately declared himself ready to travel to Rome, but we thought it best that I go on ahead to prepare for the proceedings.  In Cardinal San Fiori, to whom I introduced myself on my arrival, I found a man of the most courteous and delightful manners, a man you could at first glance see enjoyed the finer things in life, but who also treasured the divine, so that it was almost a necessity for him to associate with ascetics, or at least those following an austere lifestyle.  He was able to persuade them to attend the feasts he gave for the bons viveurs among the high clergy without causing offence, and even the most exquisite of dishes would have failed to satisfy him had they not been consecrated by a celestial touch, whether that involved metaphysical discussion or the presence of spiritual guests; indeed, I have no doubt that he would have felt most at ease among the anchorites in the desert if only he had been able to take an experienced chef and all the conveniences of a modern home along with him.  In short, he played the role of a noble prince of the church with reverence and skill, his solid frame of average height and his regular face with its straight nose, lit up in different ways by a pair of quick, artistic eyes, enhancing the effect.  He received me in a most delightful manner, took care of my needs and conversed with me for a while on amusing trivial topics until he eventually began to sound me out about all my master’s doings.

I was happy to tell him all I knew, with the exception of anything to do with Aglaia; I expounded upon my master’s heavenly meekness, on his sublime indifference towards the temptations of this world, on his divine rage against all that was base, supporting this claim with numerous examples, and also remarked that if it were possible to recognise an angel by the love that compelled all hearts that sensed his presence to serve him, then he could undoubtedly be counted among the angels, or even as a child of God.  The Cardinal never tired of listening to my tales; while I spoke, he repeatedly stroked my hair and cheeks and, before allowing me to leave, bestowed upon me a diamond-encrusted brooch.  From that time on, he had all my needs taken care of and frequently invited me to dinners, which many other cardinals and clergymen also attended.  Everyone treated me most favourably, and Cardinal San Fiori could speak of nothing but the saintliness of Fra Celeste, which moved the speaker himself so much that it was no rare sight for tears to stream from his eyes.

When it came to the matter of the Count, the Cardinal didn’t hide the fact that he would be happy to find a way to silence this nuisance; I found the money problems far more difficult to solve, for it was unlikely that the Holy Father would rule against the Abbot, but he was also hardly likely to meet the monk’s expenses out of his own coffers.  After the Cardinal had repeatedly inquired as to why Fra Celeste had need of such enormous sums, I brought up his family, poor and numerous, whom, for just this purpose, I had invented, also mentioning his extravagant caritative activities, and as even that didn’t quite seem to suffice, I revealed that he was raising money to found a state in Africa where his divine ideals could be brought to life in the form of an enormous national monastery.  This plan intrigued the Cardinal to such an extent that my imagination was stretched to its limits in satisfying his inquiries as to every detail of this African kingdom of God.  Despite this, I made no real headway in the matter, for as the Cardinal said, the Holy Father reserved for himself the right to talk the monk down from his demands in person.

However, it was Fra Celeste who was to have the first opportunity to speak.  The Pope had come up with the ingenious idea of having the monk preach his first sermon on the sanctity of marriage, which information I immediately conveyed to him on his arrival in Rome late one evening.  He said that he would have preferred a different topic and appeared dissatisfied with the disruption to his plans.  The next morning, however, he awoke in an excellent mood and insisted on giving his sermon immediately, before he had even presented himself to the Holy Father and before any notice of the talk could be given.  The news of when and where the talk was to be given spread so quickly, though, that there was no shortage of listeners, on the contrary, people even massed outside the marketplace gates in the hope of catching a few words.  This sermon, just like his others, acted like an old, heavy wine, one drop of which could imbue the blood of an old man with the fire of youth.

Usually, he began, we regard the love parents have for their children as the most unselfish kind, but this is wrong, for in their children parents merely love themselves, whereas husband and wife often strive more to come together the more different they are.  In such circumstances, we learn what it means to be human: delivering one’s self up to another.  To do so, there is no need for the beloved to be perfect, but they should be regarded as such.  “I am no animal or slave,” he seemed to say, “who is bound by my senses: if I wish her to be as wonderful and angelic as I saw her in the first flush of my love, so will it be.  And the fact that the power of my love makes her so means her hand is irrevocably joined with mine.”

He went on to speak of infidelity, of frivolous debauchery and all the opulence of hedonism with such disgust and impatient scorn that those concerned almost visibly winced under his words.  But after then speaking of the wonders of conjugal love and fidelity, his words streaming out of the quiet, cool church into the golden midday air of the marketplace like exalted peals of joy, he suddenly stopped as something, whether the sight of a weeping widow or a gravestone on the wall, or a sudden sensation from within his own breast, had awoken the dark thoughts inside him.  There followed a pause, which everyone welcomed, using the time to allow what they had heard to slowly fade away inside their hearts, then suddenly, in a rather different tone, he slowly said: “I will now reveal a secret.  God created marriage for his people, but blessed are they who can go without love.”

It may have been the dark, trembling rhythm of his words, but to all of us listening, it now seemed as if a cold shadow had fallen upon our colourful bed of roses from a black cloud, slowly rising and expanding, from which there was no escape.  “Is it even possible,” he said, “to give myself to another?  Imagine a father with a son in prison.  He visits him, but is only permitted to see him through a barred window.  That, too, is something to be happy about, but he would like to be closer to his beloved child and kiss his dear face.  However, this is impossible as the son is bound to the back wall of his cell, and the father presses his face right up against the bars as if he wished to shatter them so as to be closer to his child.  That is the nature of love, there is no path leading from one soul to another.  A soul cannot touch another soul, cannot caress it, cannot hear it; walled up behind solid stone, they only sense each other’s presence from a muffled cry or a tear that flows though the slightest of gaps.  How can this hidden soul, this prisoner, be mine?  But here is the worst part of all: if I were to destroy this prison and were able to set this beloved soul free, who knows if my heart would even recognise it?  You see, I have never seen it, never felt it, never heard it, only dreamed of and longed for it.   Would it have the tender gaze that wandered so warmly and lovingly over my body, would it speak with the laughing voice that showered me with rose petals?  While I strove to obtain the soul that I was unable to find, I became accustomed to the fragile image that concealed it.  Yet transience bears the trace of God’s finger, as he cursed with a touch all that we should not covet, lest we fall into death.”

With these and similar words, he nailed love, which he had previously exalted, to the cross, and he seemed to look upon this martyr with eyes brimming with divine compassion.  What impressed me most, however, was that Fra Celeste did not leave his audience with this bleak image.  Driven either by an artistic, or perhaps a pious impulse, he ended on  an uplifting note, saying that these pains and disappointments were only to be found in Earthly love, which sought to possess.  Whosoever might overcome this, who sought people out only to do good for them but were otherwise contented with themselves and God, would discover a love without end and without bitterness.  And the true holy sacrament of marriage consisted in each of us being entrusted to a companion within our breast who would remain loyal until death, and beyond; a celestial seed or guardian angel that all are born with, which must be nurtured, cared for and loved so that, just as the marriage vows decree, you might both become one body and one soul.

← Part Six     Part Eight →

Translation © 2020 by Tony Malone. All rights reserved.

2 thoughts on “‘Fra Celeste’ by Ricarda Huch – Part Seven

    1. Kaggsy – Ah, well spotted 🙂 In fact, looking back at this today, the sermon that finishes this section is perhaps one of the key parts of the whole story…


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