A Splendid Mystery


As I pondered the subject for my next article, I was also reading a Louise Penny novel entitled The Beautiful Mystery. Penny has a popular detective series starring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and his second-in-command, Inspector Jean-Guy Beauvoir. They work for the Sûreté du Québec station in La Mauricie, Canada, the Provincial Police Station of Quebec.

This particular novel appealed to me because its plot involves a monastery of Gilbertine monks who had fled Europe to escape the Inquisition. Until recent times, no one knew they had survived to build their monastery hidden in the deep forests of Canada. They not only lived under the rule of silence but also had achieved the unparalleled reputation as the most spiritual vocal choir of Gregorian chants in the known world.

The monastery admitted no one through its gate. That changed one morning when the abbot discovered his choir master lying dead in the abbot’s private garden. He recognized the choir master’s death as an obvious murder, so he had no choice but to notify the police and allow them into the sanctuary of the monastery.

Before his death, the choir master’s talent was unparalleled, giving him influence in the monastery. He had persuaded his abbot to allow the monks to record a CD of their chants that had become world famous. Ironically, this fame had brought much needed funds to the monastery for essential infrastructure repairs while also revealing the monastery’s existence to the world.

This same fame had created a schism within the monastery. Until this schism occurred, the monks had lived in quiet harmony and unity. The CD’s success caused some monks to enjoy their success while others rued the unwanted attention. 

As often happens with money and power, people (including the monks) begin to take sides. Some of the monks pledged loyalty to the choir master who wanted to produce another CD for continued monetary needs while others remained loyal to the abbot who wanted to resume their quiet, harmonious existence before the CD made them famous. 

As you might imagine, the book contains many philosophical and spiritual discussions. I found one particularly eloquent discussion between Chief Gamache and Frére Charles, the monastery physician, as they discussed the nature of death.

Gamache asked Frére Charles if he thought the choir master had died immediately upon being struck on the head or had lived some seconds or minutes beyond the attack. Frére Charles said that most people don’t die at once but bit by bit during a dying process.

He called these bits of death petites morts, the small deaths before the grande mort, the final end. He explained it as the aging process killing bits of us—our eye sight, our hearing, our independence—before the final strike such as a stroke, cancer, or heart attack takes us completely.

As I grow older, I notice many other petite morts in my life. The hardest for me has been the loss of my perceived control and power in my own life. Even as a teenager, I possessed exceptional self-discipline. 

I managed to lose a large amount of weight as an overweight teenager, and I learned about dental hygiene when my first trip to the dentist at age twelve revealed several cavities. The dentist explained the importance of dental health to me, and I never had another cavity.  I also excelled in academics with no encouragement from my parents and won several honors during my formal education.

I shared those examples to explain some of the petite morts in my own life. I didn’t realize that my control regarding my own habits would not transfer to others whom I love. At various times during my forties and fifties, I experienced extreme angst when I could not influence the choices of those I love.

Acceptance of that petite mort has been the hardest battle in my spiritual life. Just as with other deaths, recognizing my own limitations grieved me greatly. I equate that loss with the surrender of arrogance and pride in my life, recognizing that these faults may reappear at any time. After all, the Christian walk admonishes us to die to self daily.

Moving from the personal morts to a broader application, I see many elements of my childhood dying as society operates in different ways from when I formed most of my values. I have witnessed the demise of the old neighborhood structure in which people knew the people who lived around them and formed friendships with them. 

Those neighborhoods provided safe havens for children to play outside unsupervised, visit other children, and even walk to nearby stores and schools. Those days seem over now. Parents today must be ever vigilant to guard their children from predators who take many forms.

We have lost an innocence, perhaps a naiveté, that we used to have. We no longer assume shared values with others. We cannot afford to trust too freely because the world contains threats in every place—even places where we used to feel safe.

Every aspect of life evolves through time. Even our globe changes dramatically as we deal with radical climate changes. Our seasons have become extreme as parts of the country experience severe drought while others wash away in mammoth floods. The arctic regions melt with rising temperatures, causing changes in weather and animal life.

No one can know what lies ahead as we all await our own grande mort. Whether we live long or short lives, whether scientists find ways to alleviate global warming, or whether our lives fulfill our dreams, we do know as Frére Charles told Gamache, death comes to all and everything. It may come in petite morts or grande morts, but it comes. 

Nancy Patrick is a retired teacher who lives in Abilene and enjoys writing

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