St Anthony of the Desert

Orthodox Christian Mission

Las Cruces, New Mexico

Fr Gabriel

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Learning from the Chronicles of Cadfael

I love the Cadfael series of BBC television movies based on the novels of Ellis Peters, whose real name was Edith Pargeter.  I love the novels as well. Pargeter is famous for these twenty-one medieval mysteries about the monk Cadfael of the Benedictine Abbey of SS Peter and Paul, Shrewsbury England.  The series is set during the Civil War between Empress Maud and King Stephen, after the First Crusade in which Cadfael served, and near the Welsh-English border.  Some of the monastic buildings remain as an historic site.

Ms. Pargeter was a meticulous researcher who wound her stories around an armature of true events, beliefs, and persons from that time period.  Cadfael, besides skills gained as a Crusader, gathered an enormous body of knowledge about herbs and their medicinal use, so he serves as a pharmacist-physician for the community.  But his real genius is as a detective investigating local murders and skullduggery.

The Sixteenth Chronicle of Cadfael is The Heretic’s Apprentice, and it explores medieval Christian theology in the British Isles.  The story takes place in June 1143.

The book shows the ongoing relationship between Celtic-British Christianity and the Orthodoxy of the Eastern Roman Empire.  In the early middle ages, the British Isles were an arena where Rome and Constantinople vied for supremacy in commerce and also belief.  One key figure in this was Pelagius, remembered chiefly because Augustine of Hippo savagely opposed him, but whose views appear in The Heretic’s Apprentice to ultimate vindication by the (historical) Bishop of Coventry and Lichfield, Roger de Clinton.

The heretic’s apprentice is a young man who accompanied his master’s body back to England for burial at Shrewsbury monastery after a long pilgrimage to the Holy Land.  Conversation reveals that the master may have held heretical views; these must be refuted before he can be buried in hallowed ground.  He is vindicated and buried, but the apprentice falls under the same charge and must defend himself.

The argument:  if you deny original sin, why baptize, especially infants who are innocent of committed sins?  If you are not saved through this sacrament, what purpose does it have?  What place has free will, what grace, in the grand scheme of things?  These views occasion the accusation against master and apprentice.

Christianity remains divided on these matters.  The dominant western faith focused on original sin as a hereditary flaw in human character connected with sex, a view which rests on the teachings of Augustine (mentioned often in the book), who taught that our will is bound and not free.  Baptism overcomes original sin and restores a certain amount of free will.

Eastern Christianity sidestepped Augustine’s idea of inheritance, choosing instead to emphasize that we are born into a world where it is impossible to escape sin.  It’s all around us and we become infected with it so that we make sinful choices.  There is empirical evidence!  But we have free will.

Baptism is, on this view, entry into the community of faith so that we may walk with others in spiritual strength to attempt to remain innocent of sin.

The ultimate point is free will.  Today, scientifically-oriented atheists like Sam Harris want us to deny free will, but this means that we must choose, based on something like free will, to say free will does not exist.

Orthodox theologians always held that we are responsible for our actions. Grace is available to us naturally by virtue of our creation in the image of God.  This grace cannot be taken away from us, neither is it some gift added beyond our essential humanity, as Augustine taught.  We work together with God’s grace to make right choices.

And this book was supposed to be a light diversion!