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  • Alaric Lewis

On Saint Norbert, Corpulent Monks, and the Baroque

“My name is Marton with an 'o,'” he said in heavily accented, though perfect English. “There is no 'i' in Marton,” he continued with a smile, and I was always reminded of my Gramps saying “Spark Plug: beware of people who smile with their lips but not with their eyes,” and I thought that this Marton with an “o” was perhaps in that camp. He then suggested we speak German, as it was, he said, a language of emperors. “My German is not as good as your English,” I said, thinking him the kind of person who would be susceptible to flattery, when I really wanted to say that there had been a rather significant empire which had English as its base as well, you know.

He was enormous. Pity Norbertines don't wear black – which is supposed to be slimming – because he could have used some slimming. His prodigious belly was so rotundly protuberant that it seemed he almost could not fold his arms over it. He liked using his arms, and after each series of regal waves he would pause to make sure that his French cuffs were visibly sticking out from underneath his habit, presumably to showcase his cufflinks which were crosses of shiny gold, a diamond in the middle of each where Christ's blood would have run.

He was far more interested in talking about his monastery than he was about Saint Norbert (which is about whom we were supposed to be speaking). It was baroque; everything in it was baroque; apparently nothing worthy of anything was ever even conceived after the baroque period. We were looked down upon by baroque angels, the candlesticks on the parlour's baroque fireplace mantel were baroque, the chair which creaked and groaned under him was baroque (mine was from the 1970's), the music playing in the background was baroque. I am fairly sure I had never heard the word “baroque” used so many times in succession in my entire life. I smiled and said, “Well, if it ain't baroque, don't fix it!” and he smiled (definitely not with his eyes) but maybe he didn't get the joke, since we were speaking in that ghastly un-imperial tongue of English, and all.

On and on it went like this: Marton with an “o” pointing out baroque treasures with the sausage-like fingers which sat just beyond his dimpled, diamond-decked wrists. At one point he even rang a bell (a little baroque thing sitting on a baroque table next to his baroque chair) and a young monk named Brother Tomas came in carrying two leather chalice cases which he proceeded to open carefully so that I could see the bejewelled chalices inside. “Baroque?” I asked with a smile, but Marton with an “o” didn't even respond; his lips weren't even smiling now.

A small silence ensued, which gave me the opportunity to ask Marton with an “o” once again about Saint Norbert; it was, after all, why I was there. “Well, you know the story,” he said dismissively which, I have to say, I didn't, really. “He was rich and connected, sought out by the Emperor Lothair himself. He was extremely influential.” Marton with an “o” looked away slightly; he seemed baroquely bored with me.

It seemed quite obvious that I wasn't going to get much to use from this abdominous monk, so I thanked him for the tea and his time. He nodded like a dismissive dowager, told me that Brother Tomas would show me out, hefted himself out of his chair, gathered up the two chalice cases as if he feared I would try and knick them, and left the room.

Brother Tomas smiled and rolled his eyes (which were smiling too). Walking through the cloister walk he told me his English wasn't very good, but he could tell me something about Saint Norbert. “He fell off a horse like Saint Paul,” he said, beaming, “and afterwards he changed his life. Isn't that wonderful!” That was obviously all he had memorised in English, because when I asked for more details he couldn't understand. I thanked him and left to walk out into the grey streets. I sat on a bench, extracted my journal and made some notes. From the point of view of the project, the visit had been a failure. “Baroque blunder,” I scribbled, manically mad about alliteration as I am. (And also assonance, apparently.)

But then, I thought of the words of the smiling Brother Tomas “He fell off a horse like Saint Paul, and afterwards he changed his life. Isn't that wonderful!” And what's the point of recalling and emulating saints, really, if not to learn from their examples. I can think of more than one metaphorical horse off of which I need to fall, can certainly think of ways I need to change my life. I suspect we all can. Maybe knowing that Saint Norbert did what we all need to do is enough in the end. Enough for all of us: paunchy, podgy Premonstratensians and ridiculously recalcitrant writers. Isn't that wonderful indeed.

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