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Do you believe in miracles?
Sister Juliana does. She’s seen miracles happen as she tends Saint Catherine’s altar and guards her relic. Yet she doesn’t quite dare to believe th...
Do you believe in miracles?
Sister Juliana does. She’s seen miracles happen as she tends Saint Catherine’s altar and guards her relic. Yet she doesn’t quite dare to believe that even Saint Catherine could help her atone for her wicked past.
Anna does. And she so desperately needs one. In a time when a deformity is interpreted as evidence of a grievous sin, in a place where community is vital to existence, Anna has no family, no home, and no master.
Princess Gisele wants to. A miracle is the only thing that can save her from being given to a brutal, pagan chieftain in marriage.
For those who come in faith, saints offer the answer to almost any prayer. But other forces are plotting to steal Saint Catherine’s relic, to bend the saint’s power to their own use. Penitent, pilgrim, princess — all will be drawn into an epic struggle where only faith can survive. But in a quest for divine blessing, only the most ruthless of souls may win the prize.
Such a wretched way to die.
I watched from my knees beside the abbess’s bed, hands clasped before me, as she took a shudde...
Such a wretched way to die.
I watched from my knees beside the abbess’s bed, hands clasped before me, as she took a shuddering breath. Squeezing my eyes shut, I raised my hands to my brow, pretending to pray. But I could not do it; I had forgotten the words.
She could not die. I would not let her.
The abbess had been more of a mother than the woman who had raised me. Her heart had been more constant than the man who had once loved me. Was there nothing I could do to ease her pain?
Adjusting her counterpane, I shivered as an especially vicious draft stole in through the chamber’s high windows and swirled its icy tendrils about my knees.
I felt the heavy weight of a hand upon my veiled head. “Daughter.”
Looking up, I saw the abbess watching me. Grasping her hand, I kissed it. “Do not leave us.”
A ghost of a smile curled her thin, cracked lips. “I do not think I have any say in the matter.”
“What shall we do without you?” How would we go on? Who would lead us?
“Do not fear. God will provide.”
“How?” The word escaped my lips before I could catch it. I had not meant to give voice to my unbelief. Surely now she would regret asking me to attend her. “Without you, I do not know how we will…”
“Take heart.” She clasped my hand. “Without me, there will still be you.”
“Who am I but the least of all the others?” I had come to this mountain-ringed abbey seeking sanctuary, and even after all the years I had spent here, I felt myself a stranger still.
“Trust God. Seize the chance to serve.”
The chance to serve? Was I not already doing that very thing?
She released me from her grip, but left her fever-withered hand resting in mine. “Remember—” Her words left off as a spasm gripped her body.
I leaned closer.
After the seizure had passed, she lay back on her cushions, panting. “Speak truth. Stand for what is right.” Her hand twisted in mine as her face contorted with pain.
Looking straight into my eyes, she spoke again. “Lead them.”
“Lead them. There is no one else.” She clutched my hand with a strength that stole my breath. “You must do it.”
If she did not relinquish my hand, I feared she might wrench it from my wrist. “I will.”
“I promise.” If only she would lie down and spare her strength.
She searched my face for a moment, and then she smiled. After I had smoothed the counterpane around her shoulders, she closed her eyes, and she did not open them again. As she lay there, her breaths becoming more shallow and labored, I let her expire without doing the very thing she had made me promise. I did not tell her the truth: I did not intend to do as she had asked.
The abbess died along with the sun as the bell was tolling vespers. She went quietly, exhaling her last breath with a lingering sigh.
We mourned her for the required number of days. And then, secretly, I mourned her still. A message was sent to the bishop, informing him of her death. Though we would elect the new abbess, it was he who would induct her. And so we gathered in the chapterhouse one forenoon, after the day’s meal, to do that very thing.
As I looked up and down the benches that lined the walls, I did so with a growing unease. I could not see a clear candidate to lead us.
Of the several dozen sisters in the abbey, Sister Rotrude was the oldest and had been at the abbey the longest, but she seemed troubled in her spirit of late. I used to think her full of the joy of the Lord, since she had always been prone to laughter, but she had taken up the habit of laughing during meals at nothing any of us could see or hear. Her warbling, tuneless voice could often be heard singing during prayers, and increasingly, she asked after sisters who had already departed to receive their eternal reward.
Sister Berta should, perhaps, have been the obvious choice. She was sound of mind and body, and none could doubt neither her capacity nor her willingness for hard work. But she lacked a measure of joy. The tips of her mouth pointed toward her chin, and one could not be long in her proximity before being informed of everything that had been done wrong in the past and all that would most certainly be found wanting in the future. Even a dove of peace would soon find himself shooed away for want of a proper place to perch. Were Sister Berta appointed abbess, I feared the abbey would soon become a dull and dreary place.
Sister Amicia? Perhaps not. If Sister Berta dwelt too often on what was wrong, Sister Amicia trusted overmuch in Providence. To hear her speak, God would provide whether the workers tilled our fields or not. If she were to be believed, Providence might be depended upon to cook our food and feed us our meal as well. Although she never lacked a cheerful word, and a smile was constant upon her face, I could not see the abbey long surviving under her leadership, knowing from regrettable experience that great hopes came to nothing if they were not first founded upon practicalities.
Though in generations past, the nuns of Rochemont had been well and truly cloistered, hidden away from the world, we could afford the luxury of quiet contemplation no longer. Even at these perilous heights where we clung to our meager existence, pestilence and famine, cruel winters and wars, had long since thinned the ranks of our tenants. If there was work to be done, we too had to take part in the doing of it. The tasks, which in the abbey’s earliest years might have fallen to lay workers, we had taken upon ourselves. And so, I nearly overlooked Sister Sybilla entirely. It was not difficult to do, since she spent her waking hours at the hospice. Rarely speaking, rarely even moving among us, she had never done anything wrong that I had noticed, but I did not know that she could be counted on to encourage any of us toward righteousness either.
Sister Clothild, the abbess’s prioress, was kind of heart and beloved by all. A gentler soul I had never met, but for all her generosity of spirit, and despite the winsome way she had with the chaplain, the bailiff, and the household staff, she had never learned to read or write.
Sister Isolda was our librarian. Within her realm and with her long face and sharp features, she had always been quite fearsome. But books did not an abbey make. I had never seen her out among the pilgrims who made their way to Saint Catherine’s chapel. I did not think she had ever labored in the hospice or in the kitchens. She knew Latin, both written and spoken, but I could not say she knew anything else.
The other nuns being too young for the position, that left me.
I considered myself as the others might have. There was not very much to note. I had made such a habit of attaching myself to Saint Catherine’s relic, to spending my time interceding for the iniquities of my past, that any of the sisters might have taken me for a misanthropist. That I tended to my duties with great care was undeniable. That I greeted each pilgrim with God’s peace was, perhaps, commendable. For eighteen years I had been resident at the abbey, and in all that time, to my great shame, I had served no one’s interests but my own. Even the tending of the chapel was a selfish pursuit, so I did not think any of the sisters would hold me in greater esteem than Sister Clothild or Sister Isolda. Although I could write and I could read, none sitting here knew that, and it was too late to make it known now.
It was true I had made a promise to the abbess, but had she meant her words?
And if she had, would I not be remiss if I did not let the others know? Should I propose myself as a candidate?
My gaze swept our number again.
Though my sisters’ failings be great, was not God greater still? And why could His strength not be evidenced through their weaknesses?
As I had told the abbess, I was least among them. I knew some of my sisters were not virgins, but at least they had the sanction of wedding vows. When they had joined their flesh to another’s, they had been given the blessing of the Church. Widowed now, some still had the comfort of their children’s love.
Not I, who had abandoned a daughter. Not I, who had indulged in the sins of the flesh.
No. How could I do it when my heart still yearned for another, different, more temporal groom? I had pledged myself to Christ, but I had done so as a last resort, with a faithless heart and suspect intentions.
Surely if I were to be the new abbess, then the sisters would come to that decision on their own, prompted by the spirit of God, without my interference. Was that not the way it should be?
If we were to pray to discern the will of God, then I was content to let His will be discerned.
Sister Clothild stood. “Are there any who would recommend a sister to be abbess?”
There was no sound save the cheerless laughter of Sister Rotrude.
Sister Clothild’s smile faltered as she looked at each of us in turn. “No one?” As she waited for some response, even Sister Rotrude fell silent.
“Surely someone would like to propose a sister. We must not look to the bishop to do it on our behalf…”
Sister Isolda stirred. “I would propose myself then.”
“And I would propose myself.” Sister Berta did not look pleased at the prospect, and in truth, neither did anyone else.
“Sister Berta and Sister Isolda. Is there no one else?” Did I detect a plea in her voice?
I put a hand to my mouth, feigning a cough to keep myself from speaking.
“Is there no one?” Her eyes seemed fixed upon me. “We ought all of us, then, to meditate upon these candidates and pray that God would make His will be known.” Was it disappointment that had drawn those lines at the sides of her mouth? “We will choose the abbess here, after our meal, on the morrow.”
I tried not to think about the selection of the new abbess as I greeted pilgrims that forenoon and assisted them at the chapel, but the more I tried to concentrate, the more my vow weighed upon my soul. Surely there is a place in hell reserved for those who made promises they did not intend to keep.
In the ancient cavern that was Saint Catherine’s chapel, all was light around me. A radiant, flickering, golden light. The glow reflected off the rocks and from the rise of my cheeks, warming the air about me and causing a halo to encircle everything I saw. After our chaplain took pilgrims’ confessions and gave them Holy Communion, they stepped forward, one by one, from the newly built wooden church. As their steps left the smooth, earthen floor for the timeworn stone that sloped toward Saint Catherine’s chapel, the light embraced them.
Rich and poor; the young and the aged; both the whole and the sick.
Saint Catherine welcomed them all.
“After receiving the mysteries of eternal salvation, we humbly pray thee, that as the liquor that continually flowed from the limbs of Saint Catherine, virgin and martyr, did heal languishing bodies, so her prayer may expel out of us all iniquities.” I murmured the prayer in welcome as a weeping woman dropped an enameled cross that had been edged with gilt-work into a chest piled with pilgrims’ gifts. She turned with a wail to cast herself before the altar. As she lifted her face toward the rock-hewn roof, the candles’ light shone in starry points from her tears. Extending her hands, she whispered a prayer, and then she placed her hands on the golden casket containing Saint Catherine’s relic and leaned forward to kiss it.
After caressing the carnelian cabochons that had been polished by the touch of a thousand hands, she rose and stumbled back toward the church as the next pilgrim came to take her place.
“After receiving the mysteries of eternal salvation, we humbly pray thee, that as the liquor that continually flowed from the limbs of Saint Catherine, virgin and martyr, did heal languishing bodies, so her prayer may expel out of us all iniquities.” I spoke those words over and over again. A hundred times a day I might say them in the warmer months. Now, as winter threatened to blow its hoary breath down our backs, only a score of pilgrims still braved the mountains to access the valley in which the abbey had been secreted. The time of silence would soon descend. Once the snow began, we could expect no visitors until the melt came in spring.
I helped an aged man to his knees and waited for his toneless prayers to cease.
The sword that from her neck the head did chop, Milk from the wound, instead of blood, did bring; By angels buried on Mt. Sinai’s top; From Virgin Limbs a Sovereign oil did spring.
The rustle of pilgrims’ tunics, the chaplain’s murmurs in the church, the clap of shoes against the stone floor had almost ceased. The candles’ glow had gone hazy from the censers’ incense, and the air was heavy with expectation and hopes near extinguished. The hour of vespers was near, and the sun would soon be lost to us. Any pilgrim who had meant to reach our walls this day had already come.
The last of them, a round-eyed matron, approached with trepidation as she clutched a gilded leather girdle to her chest.
I gestured toward the pile of gifts.
She started, and then a flush lit her face as she placed it atop all the others. She watched me, waiting I suppose for some sign. But it was not me to whom she needed to make her appeal. I was not the one who could grant her soul’s request.
I nodded toward the altar, while keeping my gaze fixed to the floor.
The pilgrim bowed and then, casting a worried glance at me, she knelt. When she did not pray, I said the prayer for her, and when it was over, I touched her hand and then pointed toward the relic.
It surprised me no longer how many pilgrims, after having journeyed all this way, feared to do what it was they had come for. In hope of persuading Saint Catherine to take up their cause, to heal them, to intercede on their behalf, some of the pilgrims came into the church and kept here a night-long vigil. Others prostrated themselves on the floor as they prayed one prayer for every year of their sin-filled lives.
In all of my thirty-three years, there were only two that I cared to remember. The first was stolen, its pleasure tainted by the fact that I had tasted, devoured, and then savored forbidden fruit. The second was bought and paid for with all of the years, all of the days, all of the hours that had followed after it. I was paying for it yet.
Two years, two people.
The first, beloved and complicit in my great sin. The second, wholly innocent and precious beyond measure. The loss of both, I constantly mourned.
But if Providence decreed I must live my life again from the start, I would make those same choices and love those two people in the very same way without once pausing for regret. I would do everything just as I had done it at first. No matter how many times I examined my actions, no matter the perspective from which I viewed my sins, I could discover no other path than that which I had taken. If I had been wicked, if I had taken pleasure in my iniquity, at least I had done so honestly.
Virtuous in my vice; noble in my depravity.
What further evidence did I need of my wickedness? What more proof did I need to doubt the salvation of my eternal soul? Perhaps this is the mercy in God’s great plan: that we have life but once for the living.
After the woman left, a clerk stepped forward to make a record of the pilgrims’ gifts. The pile had been built earlier in the day upon a foundation of linens with a length of shining silk wound through the folds. It was buttressed by a few pouches filled with coin and a small jeweled coffer, and it was weighted by a gold chain or two. The clerk clucked with satisfaction as he pushed aside the textiles and pulled several candles from the fabric.
Turning my back on such luxuries, I wrapped a fold of my sleeve about my hand and then went around to each censer, lifting the perforated lid and adding incense to fortify them against the coming night. Then I went to each of the lamps and used a pair of snips to trim the wicks. Next came the candles. There were a hundred of them. And just when I despaired one would melt into oblivion, a pilgrim always seemed to present a new one. The wax, which puddled on the prickets and cressets, I peeled up and kept for the abbey. They would be remelted and reformed and put to use once more. The smallest of the splatters and drips I collected in a leaf of my Book of Hours, and then emptied into a handkerchief when I retired to my cell after compline.
Over the course of a year, I could collect enough to make one small candle. I heated the drippings in a small bowl over the top of one of the censers, and once they had melted, I added one precious drop of perfume.
It was a scent come from the Orient, my lover’s gift. The one thing I had managed to keep when I came into the abbey. I might have felt it deceitful, except that I did not use it for misbegotten purpose. Each night before I left the chapel, I lit the candle and burned it for an instant as I prayed one last prayer to Saint Catherine. If I closed my eyes at that moment and concentrated, I could discern its smell before the thin trail of smoke commingled with the incense and disappeared into the hazy, golden light.
There were too many memories. Too many things I wished to forget.
But beyond those, there were an eternity of things I wished to remember.
The clerk closed his book with a satisfied grunt and placed all of the pilgrims’ gifts into a basket. A second clerk grasped it at the handles and hoisted it to his hip. It would be taken to the treasury to be stored with all of the others. All those lengths of fabric, all the collected jewels, all of the crosses and chains and coins that had been brought to invoke Saint Catherine’s favor.
The clerk paused in his leaving, and then he too knelt before the altar.
I tried to find a shadow in which to hide myself. One place where that golden light would not reach me, but I could not. The glow of grace was everywhere and illuminated everything. I feigned indifference and did not move until he left my sacred stone-walled fortress and walked out through the church.
The chill night air snuck in before he closed the door. It raced down the nave and into the chapel, poking at the candles’ flickering flames. The light faltered for a moment, plunging the altar into relative darkness, but then the flames rallied with a triumphant flare.
With the wind came a memory, and the sound of a dying breath.
The abbess’s words haunted me. Would that I had promised to gouge my own eyes out or stab myself with a hot poker. The abbess could not have known that on my journey to the abbey, I had promised I would never raise myself beyond what God had intended. That I had sworn not to take for myself any position that belonged to another.
A girl like you has nothing to offer at all. A girl like you can never come to anything. It’s simply not ordained.
I gnashed my teeth at the memory of the woman who had spoken those words. But had she not been right about me? I pulled my candle from my sleeve and lit it. With my eyes closed, I saw the abbess’s face; I felt the grip of her hand on mine. What if—what if I did propose myself? Surely the others would not elect me. And if I did it, if I put my name forward and the nuns did not choose me, then perhaps I would be released of this great burden.
“Please, Saint Catherine, show me what to do.”
As I crossed the courtyard toward the church the next morning, the door of the hospice opened, spilling the sounds of its children. So many of them there were. The healthy and the ill. Both the sound of mind and the dull of wits. Those no parent wanted, or those they could ill afford to keep. Eventually all of those who were scorned by the world passed through our gates.
It was the greatest of mercies the abbess had never directed me to care for them. I could not have done it. Not when I still mourned the loss of my own precious child. As it was, I had not asked to tend Saint Catherine’s chapel either. When I had come to the abbey, once I had taken my vows, I had been the youngest of the nuns. Although tending the chapel was a more public task than the other nuns had been given, it was not at all important in this place where the sacred was far more valued than the secular. The other women sought positions that kept them within the walls of the cloister—librarian, scribe, lecturer, teacher, prioress, or sacrist. Although pilgrims may have been the lifeblood of our community, they were a poorly tolerated distraction from prayer, fasting, and contemplation. But it did not matter to me. I reveled in the hours I spent in the chapel-cavern.
How easily we lie to ourselves. How quick we are to believe our own falsehoods. Those first few years in the abbey, after having spent my grief in a frenzy of novenas, I told myself my wounds were salved. I declared myself beset by grace. I renounced the world and everything in it, and I made myself into the image of the perfect nun. One who never complained, never questioned, never doubted the goodness of God’s great love. What were wars, what were famines, what was pestilence compared to the Almighty’s infinite wisdom and power?
I think I had managed to convince even the abbess of my great faith when a message arrived that scuttled it all. The king was coming to the abbey that summer. And he was bringing his daughter, our daughter, the princess, with him.
“A well-paced and interwoven story… Anthony creates a narrative that subtly educates, poses stimulating questions and entertains.” - Kirkus
“A well-paced and interwoven story… Anthony creates a narrative that subtly educates, poses stimulating questions and entertains.” - Kirkus
“Fast-paced and engrossing, Iris Anthony’s The Miracle Thief is a delightful tale of medieval pilgrimage, told from the points of view of three very different women — a poor orphan seeking healing, a princess fleeing a dreaded marriage, and a nun who must guard the relics of St. Catherine against pagan invaders. The book’s wealth of historic detail will transport you back in time, and Anthony's plucky heroines will have you alternately biting your nails over their plights and cheering over their triumphs. Hope, faith, courage, inspiration, love — this book has it all. Highly recommended!” - --Sherry Jones, author of The Sharp Hook of Love
Length: 8.25 in
Width: 5.5 in
Weight: 0.00 oz
Page Count: 384 pages