The kingdom of God cometh not with observation: Neither shall they say: Behold here, or behold there. For lo, the kingdom of God is within you.
Gospel of St. Luke, 17:20-21.
July 4, 1327. Düngenheim, Germany
It was informally called the House of the Sisters, but only two of the four ladies who stayed there were sisters, Johann recalled as he approached. They were Beguines–one of many small, independent communities of women acting out their faith together, while not taking formal vows or joining an order.
Johann thought of Francis of Assisi as he came up to the house, the gentle soul who had died just over 100 years ago. He had sparked a movement with his desire to celebrate God in the natural beauty of the world around him. A part of his teaching was the calling to live a life of poverty, following after the apostles, as well as a dedication to the many poor he saw around him, who needed the Church’s help.
Since Francis’ passing, his cause had taken wing and attracted many followers–many working within the growing orders founded by Francis. Others worked outside of Church structures but they held his principles dear. Still others were attracted to these movements because of principles that were quite their own.
Johann knew that in many places the institutions of the Church in the cities were rich, and the contrast between that and the poverty of this age could be striking to some. There were those who raised their voices against the holy Church for its great structures, its prestige. To take the beliefs of Francis and twist them against his own faith was the direction of madness, Johann knew, but it was the spirit of the times, and it attracted a great many people who wanted to be against something.
The Beguines were just independent collections of women with some combination of these beliefs, and there were whispers and rumors that some were mystics and heretics but most were committed and spiritual women who served Christ, as these ladies in his village had always seemed to be to Johann.
Many Beguines lived in this way out of commitment, he knew, but also out of necessity. Causes, campaigns and plagues took many of the marriageable men away, leaving a good number of women to their own resources. Some would go off to join convents. Others would occasionally live together, like these, and pool their resources and efforts. Many might not have qualified for orders for whatever personal reasons.
In this rural village, though, the Beguines were comprised of a community of just four women in a house at the edge of town. They worked the land and helped some of the poorest of the town from their farm’s produce in return for some labor, great or small, and a similar commitment to help the poor that Christ had loved so dearly.
The ladies brought rosemary to the weekly Mass and feast days, which Johann loved for the fresh scent, but mainly they kept to themselves. Their house was larger and of higher quality than many in town, which were normally cramped, dark and dank. Their house had a wooden framework built off a beam across the top, balanced off two wooden arches at either end. The rooms were separated by daub walls of clay and ground straw. The roof overhead was a thick layer of rye. The front room served as an entrance and cooking area, and freshly pulled beets were scattered on the table. The whole room, he noticed, smelled intensely of lavender which was hung upside-down to dry in the corners. In the far corner was a small table with a cross and a small wooden statue of Francis on it.
Father Johann stayed by the front door, intending to speak only for a few minutes. The Sisters never chatted long.
“I recall a Dominican visited you last fall, but I cannot recall the reason. I have cause to ask now,” Father Johann said in a caring but curious tone. “Can you tell me why he came to you?”
Hilda, the elder of the two sisters there, looked at the others and somehow they decided that she would speak for the group.
“Yes, Father. He brought us a message about the death of our dear brother, who was a priest in the Dominican Order as well.” She paused. “It was a personal matter we did not wish to bother you with at the time.”
Hilda, while the oldest, was only in her late 30s with long, white hair. She had a pleasant enough demeanor but normally said no more to outsiders than was necessary. The Sisters, who had come as a group to the town shortly before Father Johann had arrived there, always seemed cautious to him. This was probably commendable. These were dangerous times, he knew, and caution was always a virtue—though this little village saw little of the more fearsome dangers loose in the world.
“Were you expecting, perhaps, another visitor in recent days?” he asked.
They shook their heads. “No, Father,” said Lily, another, who wasn’t a sister. He looked to her. She seemed anxious about the whole conversation, but he had never seen Lily when she did not seem anxious. After a pause in the conversation, she spoke again. “Has someone asked of us Father Schwall?”
“No, no,” Johann replied. “Another preacher of his Order has came to town, but the man passed upon his arrival.”
The sisters exchanged glances. “What did he want, Father?” Hilda asked.
“I cannot say, because I do not know,” he admitted. “You know nothing of him?”
“No Father,” Hilda replied. “We expected no visitors. Is there to be a Mass for this man?”
“Yes, this evening.”
“We will attend,” Josephine, the younger sister of Hilda, said speaking for them all.
Johann stood a moment at the door, but nothing more was said, so he bid his farewell and went off to his next task of the morning. His brother’s house was not far from here, and by now the ox and dray would be ready to move the body to the Church.
“Good morning, Peter,” he said, walking toward the barn house where the body had spent the night.
Peter nodded, “Almost set,” he said. His son Wilhelm, who looked to Johann like a mirror image of his father, was there next to him. The two looked as if they had been carved from large blocks of granite. Wilhelm had spent the last few hours of the night building the wooden casket, and it was quite respectable.
“Load him up,” Peter told his son. The two gently lifted the body of the Dominican into the wooden casket, then lowered the casket onto the dray—a sled-like device which was attached by chains to the makeshift single yoke around the ox’s neck and shoulders.
Peter patted the animal on its back, “It won’t be a bad trip,” he told him. “Come on.”
He began the ox forward and the three men accompanied the ox as he pulled the dray out of the farmhouse and onto the road. The cool morning wind met them as they exited. The village tanner was strolling by and stopped to watch the procession come to the road.
“Is that the man who died?” he asked. News traveled fast in a small village.
“It is,” Johann said. The man fell into the line next to Johann.
“He’s a blackfriar?”
“Yes,” Johann nodded. Now on the road, they began heading toward the church.
“Why do you suppose he came here?”
“It’s a mystery, I can think of no reason.”
At that moment the ox simply stopped. The three men turned back to look at it.
“Come on ol’ Ox,” Peter said, tugging forward on the chain. The ox only seemed to dig deeper into the dirt and rocks of the road.
“What’s wrong?” the tanner asked.
“Not sure,” Peter tugged as hard as he could but the ox was enormous, and it refused to move forward.
Johann looked at the road, with the dark spots around the ox‘s feet. “This is where the man died,” he said, “Perhaps the animal is afraid.”
“I don’t know, just help me,” Peter replied, now tugging on the yoke to get it to move.
Johann went behind the animal while Peter began cursing it.
“Big dumb ole ox,” he continued, pulling with all his strength.
Johann pushed on the ox’s back with a steady hand and it stumbled forward and began moving again.
“Thank goodness,” said the tanner as the two Schwalls caught their breath. He peered into the open casket as they continued. “He’s an older man, isn’t he?”
Johann nodded, “perhaps 60 I would guess.” That made him quite a bit older than most live to.
“A violent end for someone of that age.”
Johann and Peter nodded at that. “It’s hard to imagine.”
“Did he say anything before he died?” the tanner wondered aloud.
Johann had been thinking about that a good bit since the previous evening. “He only spoke clearly after I had asked for his confession. I don’t believe I can in good conscience repeat it. He did not reveal his name or where he might be from.”
The tanner nodded. The church approached. “There’ll be a Mass?”
“This evening, yes.”
“I think I would like to attend,” the tanner said then nodded to the others and went back down the road toward his shop.
The blackfriar and the mystery he represented was a novel curiosity for the village, Johann knew. Everything about him was an unanswered question. Johann half expected someone to have come looking for him by now, but there had been no other visitors and no news from the surrounding towns.
As they reached the crossroads before the church, Johann looked down the eastern road and saw a figure in the distance. It appeared to be Lily, moving quickly away toward the next town, but he could not be sure as she faded into the distance.
After his visit they sent one of their group to the next town? Whatever for?
His thoughts turned to what he knew of the Sisters as they neared the church The women had been a fixture in the town when he got there five years ago, apparently arriving only a few years before him. They were left mainly on their own, and were generally respected because they helped others in the village when they had a bad season or bad times.
He had seen nothing from them that would cause him to question their faith. They came weekly to Mass, and to town events. They seemed to lead the simple, quiet life of the Beguines.
He had heard even here that some of those with a zeal for Francis’s cause had taken not only to taking voice against Church institutions, but actually in attacking churches and monasteries in recent years. Francis, he had no doubt, would have condemned such acts as the work of the devil, but these times were chaotic and disturbing.
The sisters showed none of that uncontrolled zeal, Johann knew, and that they were pure of heart, he was sure. But their desire to stay to themselves more than others suggested a past. Such a thing was not normally his concern, but Johann did wonder if they knew more about this Dominican. Odd too, he recalled, that women so dedicated to the cause of Francis had a brother who had been a Dominican.
He looked into the casket again as they neared the church. The corpse of the man from the night before seemed peaceful, though his eyes were still open and appeared as if he were looking a great distance away. He had a thin, plain face, clean-shaven and pale. He had only a few wisps of gray hair on his head. His clothing was just the simple hooded robe. He had carried nothing on him–no possessions.
The wounds at his side had been the slice marks of blades–the same as those on his horse. It all gave Johann the impression that he had been running from something, through Düngenheim, but to where? Masburg? Koblenz? These were still great distances from here. And from where? As far as Trier? Luxemburg? North from France?
His brother and nephew carried the casket into the church and departed so that Johann could prepare.
The funeral Mass for the mysterious blackfriar was unusually well attended. There seemed to be a lot of curiosity about who he might be, including a great deal of conversation outside the church beforehand. Was he a messenger from the powerful Louis IV the King of Germany and Italy, whom Pope John XXII had excommunicated three years ago? Or from the Pope himself in France to his agents in the free city of Cologne? Many far-flung places were spoken of, and more fanciful tales were told.
Everyone wanted to get a look at the Dominican. For all anyone knew he may have been killed over a debt or judgment he had made that irked a family in a nearby town. But the mystery had built on itself, with each speculator trying to top the last, and so the end result was that Johann would have a full house to send this poor soul on his way,
People filed in, taking a look in the casket at the side before they sat themselves. The reactions were interesting, given that the man was plainly adorned. Some people seemed surprised, perhaps at his age, others nodded as if they saw something they expected there.
The church now full, with a few people at the back, the incense was lit and the procession approached the altar, and Johann began the missa sicca, the dry, shorter mass of an early evening funeral, largely in Latin.
The Mass went without incident, the attendants pious and respectful. The Gospel was read, and the Nicene Creed was begun, with the people joining: “Credo in unum Deum, Patrem omnipoténtem,” the creed had been a part of the Mass all of their lives, and they repeated the Latin even though many knew it better in German. “Factórem cæli et terræ, Visibílium ómnium et invisibílium.”
A loud clamor could be heard outside the walls at this point. He paused only briefly to note the sounds of horses and continued the creed. About a minute later three men in gray came into the Church through the door at the back. The two at the sides wore gray woolen robes with the hoods up, which they lowered upon seeing the Mass. The center man had a full gray beard and a stern look. He wore a silken cappa–a long burgundy cape and hood, which he wore down, over gray vestments. The colored cappa signified his rank as being something more than just a priest. Johann knew not what. The man’s expression was stern. The creed continued, with the crowd glancing as subtly as they could at the visitors.
“Et resurréxit tértia die, secúndum Scriptúras,” they muttered.
The men noticed the open coffin near the side and pointed to it amongst themselves but they then quietly moved to seat themselves in the back while the Mass proceeded. As they were moving into the row, Johann noticed, Hilda, one of the Sisters, turned behind her to looked at the visitors. She and the tall, bearded man shared a look—not a pleasant one, more one of surprise. It seemed to Johann that they stared coldly at one another for just a moment before Hilda looked back to Johann and bowed her head to resume reciting the creed: “Iudicáre vivos et mórtuos,”
The visitors sat respectfully through the remainder of the Mass, ignoring the occasional looks their way.
“Ite missa est,” Johann said, the Mass is ended. The procession then went to the back of the church for Johann to speak with the people as they left.
The caped man prayed a moment quietly then stood, the men on either side of him rose as he did, and they walked slowly toward Johann. The parishioners looked back at them.
“Father,” the man said. “A beautiful Mass.”
Johann nodded his thanks. “I would ask your name and how I may be of help to you gentlemen?”
“My name is Monsignore Stefan, and I was sent by Heinrich the Second of Virneburg, archbishop of Cologne, to find that man,” he said, pointing to the casket. “Please tell me what you know of him.” The tone was somewhere between polite request and demand. This Stefan, Johann noticed, was used to having his questions answered.
“I know only that he was discovered here, having died in the night riding his horse. “May I ask why you are so curious of him?”
Stefan pondered that a moment.
“I am charged with identifying the Fraticelli,” his tone implied that was the only explanation anyone should need.
This, though, was Johann’s parish and he did not like the attitude of these men for some reason.
“You are Franciscans as Heinrich is?” he asked.
“We are,” Stefan replied. “The Order has taken it upon itself to try to bring the Fraticelli back into the fold. Many have taken violence into their souls and carried St. Francis’s faithful teachings too far. We try to convince them of their error. To keep them from causing harm.”
Johann nodded to himself. The Fraticelli he knew of. It was a name that summed up many of the religious on the edge between fidelity to the Church and heresy. Those who took the cause of the poor as their own, but who might also use it to stir violence and discontent, even to create followings for themselves for purposes of pride and mischief. Watching over them, Johann thought, was not a bad thing, even a necessity. But one thing was not right.
“Perhaps,” he said, “but this man is a Dominican.”
Stefan smiled. “You would agree, Father, that a man may dress as a bear, but that does not make him such.” He paused again, thinking. “Did he speak to you, Father?”
“You are saying he is not a Dominican? That he, also, is Franciscan? And this, perhaps, should allow you to take him away?”
Stefan smiled patiently. “He spoke with you?”
“He did,” said Johann, speaking too loud, too defensively. These men had a certainty about their mission here that upset him. Perhaps it was the sin of pride, Johann thought, that angered him when they came to his town, his Church and implied they would do as they will. Perhaps he felt a certain protectiveness to this stranger who had so clearly been attacked. Regardless, they would not simply leave here with the blackfriar–or whomever he was–without providing many more answers.
“May I ask what he said, Father?”
“He spoke within the seal of confession,” Johann responded.
Stefan clearly had not expected this. He stood a moment with a furrowed brow and said nothing.
Johann glanced at his parishioners who no longer pretended to be looking around the room, and were outright watching the back and forth between himself and the Franciscan. He noticed that Hilda stared at the man with an unforgiving gaze.
Stefan, apparently done considering alternatives, raised a finger and the two men on either side of him came to life.
“I’m sorry, Father Johann,” he said, “but I’m afraid I must require that you come with me.”
Copyright 2012, JD Pierce, Traditium.