We are only weeks away from the big Crime Cafe crowdfunding campaign launch! So, what I’ll do is provide yet another sample of the project you’d be helping to support, if you choose to do so.
This time it’s the first chapter of An All-Consuming Fire by Donna Fletcher Crow.
“You’re going to be a movie star! Oooh! Can I ’ave yer autergraph?” Felicity struck a pose.
Antony frowned. “It’s a documentary for the televison. And I’m only doing the historical background.” For all his understatement, however, the gleam in his eyes showed how pleased he was for her support, in spite of the nagging voice inside his head that told him he was sure to make a dog’s dinner of it.
“Well, I think it’s as good as being a movie star.” Felicity leaned over and gave him a peck on the cheek—which made his eyes shine ever brighter. “After all, it’s the Beeb even.”
Antony held up his hand. “Not so fast. It’s an independent company who hopes to sell it to the BBC.”
“How can they miss with you in it?”
Antony wasn’t sure whether or not Felicity was teasing. After all, he had been the second choice for Studio Six, brought in at the last minute when Father Paulinus, an Ampleforth monk who was the acknowledged authority on the English Mystics, died so suddenly and tragically. And it all came at such an inopportune time with Christmas next week and then—“You’re sure it will be all right—my being away—with all you have to do?”
“Handling my mother, you mean?” Felicity grinned. “We’ll be fine. Really. Once I convince her she isn’t putting on a royal wedding. She brought this DVD of all the weddings—Charles and Diana, Kate and William and all the rest—I forget who all. I tried to tell her we’re getting married in a monastery.” Felicity threw up her hands.”
After waiting a moment to let her frustration subside, she continued with a sigh. “But, my love, you’re off on location early in the morning and I really should get back to Mother. Who knows—she might have taken it into her head to order a truckload of white roses while my back was turned.” She paused. “Although I think she was muttering about lilies being ‘more spiritual’. I didn’t want to hear, really.”
Felicity leaned toward him and Antony took his soon-to-be-bride in his arms.
Even after the door of his lecturer’s lodgings at the college closed behind her, he watched in his mind’s eye as Felicity strode down the dimly lit path through the chill December night, across the grounds of the Community of the Transfiguration, her long blond hair swinging behind her, toward the big iron gate and her bungalow across the street. In less than a month they would be living in that little cottage as man and wife. For probably the millionth time he breathed a prayer of thanksgiving that he hadn’t taken vows to be a monk before this maddeningly wonderful woman came into his life and turned his world upside down.
But oddly, the words of gratitude turned to a heartfelt plea for her safety.
Felicity’s anxiety increased when she entered the cottage and found her mother on the phone. “Well, several hundred, I should think. Beef Wellington would be lovely. And perhaps lobster?”
Felicity made emphatic gestures that Cynthia should end the call, then forced herself to speak in a level voice when she obeyed. “Who were you talking to, Mother?”
“Oh, just chatting with the caterer, darling. And it’s a good thing, too. She had some very odd ideas, I must say. Cold meats and boiled potatoes. Really, can you imagine? And what are eggs mayonnaise? Do we really have to offer a vegan option? I didn’t realize your friends were quite so eccentric.”
“You honestly don’t need to bother yourself about all this, Mother. Everything is perfectly well in hand. It’s going to be a fork buffet for one hundred people. Period. I told Suzette to plan whatever was appropriate.” Cynthia opened her mouth, but Felicity hurried on. “She was recommended by the bishop’s wife, Mother. She knows what they do at English receptions.”
“One of the royals had beef stroganoff. It was on the DVD.”
Felicity sighed. It was going to be a very long Christmas holiday.
“I was thinking a harpist for the reception. But maybe a string quartet would be better?”
“No?” Cynthia nodded. “No, you’re right. The harp will be best.”
“I mean no music. Not at the reception. The hall is too small and we want to be able to talk to our guests. We’ve hired a choir for the wedding mass. That’s the special music we want.”
Cynthia was speechless so Felicity took the opportunity to change the subject. “When do the others arrive? Do you have their itineraries?”
Now Cynthia was in her element. Ever the efficient lawyer she had her family’s schedules at her fingertips. “Jeff will come up from London when he can get away from the office—so fortunate that McKinsey transferred him to their London office. And Charlie and Judy fly into Manchester on New Year’s Eve.”
Felicity nodded. That was her brothers accounted for. Might as well get on to the elephant in the room. “And Dad?” She held her breath. When she was a little girl and played brides her tall, handsome father had never failed to walk her down the imaginary aisle, even humming the Wedding March for her. And he always lifted the net curtain or lace tablecloth that was serving as a veil at the moment and gave her a peck of a kiss on her waiting cheek. But would he be here for the real event?
“Did I tell you he’s ditched his doxy? I’m sure you can count on him to show up in time to walk you down the aisle.” Felicity wondered just how rehearsed her mother’s offhand attitude was. She so hoped her parents would make another attempt at putting their wobbly marriage back together but at this point least said was undoubtedly best.
“Darling, are you quite sure about having Judy for your matron of honor—or whatever they call them here? She is six months pregnant, you know.”
“Chief Bridesmaid. And of course I know. That’s why I chose empire-waist dresses for my attendants.”
“The rose pink is a lovely color, dear. But mail order?” Cynthia shook her head. When Felicity didn’t respond she went on. “And about your dress—I understand not having a strapless gown—even though it is the fashion—being in a monastery and all that.” She made it sound like a prison, Felicity thought. “But it’s not too late to have some beading added.”
“Mother—” Felicity made no attempt to keep the threatening note from her voice.
“Just a few pearls? A sprinkling around the neckline, darling? It would be so lovely with your skin.”
“I’ll wear the pearls Father gave me for my sixteenth birthday.” Felicity closed that topic.
So Cynthia reverted to her earlier subject, “Well, I think it’s very loyal of you to have your sister-in-law and Antony’s sister. But only two attendants? You know, darling, this English tradition of using children for attendants—it’s really quite charming and it isn’t too late. There must be little girls at that church where you work. I was looking at some dresses online. Of course you don’t remember Charles’ and Diana’s wedding—it was before you were born—but the children were absolutely adorable. Here, I can find it on the DVD—” She reached for the television remote.
“Felicity didn’t know whether to laugh or scream. “I have to study, Mother.” She marched down the short hallway to her bedroom and shut the door none too quietly on the still-talking Cynthia. In truth, she did have that pesky essay on Richard Methley’s Latin translation of The Cloud of Unknowing to do, but she certainly wasn’t going to tackle it now. Felicity flung herself on her bed and pulled the pillow over her head.
She had relaxed just enough to emerge from under her pillow when the community bell began to ring. Ah, perfect. Now she could avoid her translation work without feeling guilty. She thrust her feet back in her shoes and hurried down the hall. Cynthia looked up from the wedding planner spread out over the coffee table. “Oh, good, I just wanted to ask you—”
Felicity forced herself to smile. “It’ll have to wait, Mother. The bell is ringing for evensong. It’s O Sapientia, so I don’t want to be late.” She pulled a coat off the rack by the door.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about but I would love some fresh air.” Cynthia likewise took a jacket off a hook and they went out together into the dark of the December evening. “Could you possibly slow down just a teeny bit, darling? This hill is steeper than it looks.”
Felicity slowed her long-legged stride fractionally. “I keep telling you high heels are totally impractical here, Mother. I don’t want to be late. Nor do I want you to break an ankle,” she added almost grudgingly.
Cynthia was panting when they reached the level area in front of the community church. “Now can you please explain to me what’s so special before we go in?”
Felicity could see Corin and Nick, two other ordinands who hadn’t yet departed for the Christmas holiday, approaching from the dormitory, so she knew she had a minute or so before the service began. “O Sapientia is Latin for Wisdom. The week before Christmas we chant one of the ‘O’ Antiphons each evening at evensong. This is the first one, so it’s special.”
Cynthia’s confused look told Felicity her explanation had gone over her mother’s head, so she tried again. “The ‘O’ Antiphons are ascriptions for the Messiah from the Book of Isaiah. Um, names for God, praising his qualities.”
“Yes, dear. I do know what an ascription is.” Cynthia sounded slightly miffed.
Felicity forbore replying that she had asked. “Oh, good. Well, they’ve been used since the early church. There are seven of them—one for each day of the last week of Advent. It’s a lovely way of keeping track of time.”
“Oh, something like an advent calendar.” Cynthia gave a satisfied nod and smiled. “Remember, I always bought the ones with chocolate in them for you?”
Felicity did remember, with an impact so strong that for a moment she could taste the chocolate on her tongue. For once her smile for her mother was unforced as she led the way into the vast Romanesque church. Candles flickering behind the purple-draped altar cast wavering shadows on the rounded arches of the chancel and behind the stalls of the choir.
Somehow the penitential seasons of Advent and Lent were Felicity’s favorite times in the church year. Counter-cultural though it was—or perhaps because it was counter-cultural—she had come to love this time and found that there was nothing else like it for relieving the frenzy of the run up to Christmas. The somber pageantry, the minor key hymns, the solemn reminders of the fleetingness of life and the need to prepare for the eternal always spoke to her at a deep level and then made the celebrations of the festive seasons that followed even more joyous.
She had found it hard to adjust when she first came up from London to study in this college run by monks on a remote hillside in Yorkshire. What could possibly be more unconventional than spending the week before Christmas praying in a monastery? Especially for the thoroughly modern American woman she believed herself to be. But she had learned a deep appreciation for this very uncommon experience. And an even deeper appreciation for the church history lecturer who had taught her the value of tradition by his quiet example.
Now her heart leapt as she spotted Antony sitting in the front row of the nave. Stepping as quietly as she could across the stone floor, she slipped into the row beside him with Cynthia following close behind her. Felicity flashed Antony a quick smile that she hoped didn’t show the lingering strain of her time with her mother. But there was no time to sit because the procession was entering. The black-robed monks, their hands folded in front of their grey scapulars, filed into their place in choir behind the processional cross and, since this was a solemn evensong, a white-robed thurifer swung a thurible emitting a cloud of spicy incense. The precentor and succentor, in purple copes, took their places on opposite sides of the choir and pronounced the opening sentence antiphonaly:
“Our God shall come,”
“And shall not keep silence.”
Felicity knelt with the others for the general confession, feeling squeezed between her mother and Antony, although, in truth, there was plenty of room. She and Cynthia had come to new understanding when they had been thrown together in a perilous situation just a few months earlier. She had hoped that this time of being together before her wedding would be a final healing, but her expectations were fading fast. Felicity mouthed the words of repentance, then caught herself up short when she realized she was thinking only of her mother’s need to ask forgiveness for following “too much the devices and desires of our own hearts…” Did she need to repent of that herself?
She was still attempting a somewhat reluctant self-examination when the words of the collect penetrated her consciousness. It was one she especially loved because it encompassed both meanings of Advent, of preparing for Christmas and for Christ’s second coming as well.
“…who at thy first coming sent a messenger to prepare thy way before thee: Grant that at thy second coming we may be found an acceptable people…”
Determined to try harder, she struggled to make her smile sincere as she helped Cynthia find her place in the prayer book for the readings.
After the New Testament reading the priest censed the altar while all stood for the highlight of the service. Choir and congregation chanted:
“O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High,
reaching from one end to the other,
mightily and sweetly ordering all things:
Come and teach us the way of prudence.”
Felicity felt her tension drain away and her breathing slow as the rhythms of the service continued. During the next seven days they would complete the list of appellations: O Adonai, O Root of Jesse, O key of David, O Morning Star, O King of Nations, O Emmanuel, each one building the intensity and longing of O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. Now her smile for her mother was relaxed. Yes, a better way to mark time even than chocolate.
At the end of the service Antony gave Felicity’s hand a quick squeeze before he departed into the shadows. He had sensed her stress easing during the service and for that he was grateful, but at the same time he felt his own anxieties mount. Tomorrow he would face rolling cameras in front of an audience of professionals. This would be a far cry from the classroom where he was so comfortable. And he felt woefully unprepared.
It had been several terms since he had lectured on the mystics and his classroom notes would need considerable polishing to get them up to production standards. What a pity that Father Paulinus’s notes had been burnt in the freak fire that killed him. Antony shuddered. What a terrible way to die. And how odd that there should be an electrical fault in such a well-maintained monastery as Ampleforth.
Antony started to run his hand through his hair, then stopped himself—he hadn’t done that for ages. He mustn’t let himself do it on camera. After all, it was a tremendous honor to be asked to take Paulinus’s place and he certainly didn’t want to let anyone down. Fortunately Father Anselm, the Superior of their community, had already faced the cameras yesterday, explaining, in his poetic way, the distinctive mystical fervor that developed in the north of England in the fourteenth century. In his winsome way Anselm had clarified the highly personal and intimate relationship with God experienced by the mystics. This, so very unlike the more rigid intellectualism of the scholastics who ruled the Church and universities at that time.
Antony had been invited to Anselm’s book-lined office to observe the interview and he could still see it sharply in his mind.
Anselm had given the camera a gentle smile and mused in his soft, almost ironic voice, “No one has ever been a lukewarm, an indifferent, or an unhappy mystic. If a person has this particular temperament, mysticism is the very centre of their being. It is the flame which feeds them.”
Joy Wilkins, the twenty-something presenter, had wrinkled her forehead beneath her sleek blond fringe and asked a rather vague question about the theology of mysticism.
Again, Anselm’s slow smile, emphasized by a twinkle in his eyes. “Mysticism is a temper rather than a theology, a complete giving of oneself to God in contemplation of Him, seeking unity with Him.
“The mystic is somewhat in the position of a man who, in a world of blind men, has suddenly been granted sight, and who, gazing at the sunrise, and overwhelmed by the glory of it, tries, however falteringly, to convey to his fellows what he sees.”
Antony shook his head and stared at his stale notes. It was all perfectly true. But how was he to convey all that to, hopefully, several million viewers through the cold facts of history and biography? Why had he ever agreed to do this? It hadn’t seemed that he had an alternative when Father Anselm asked him to take on the challenge. But now a dozen excuses filled his mind.
Well, at least Richard Rolle was a good place to start. Not only was he the first of the English Mystics, but he was also one of the most fervent. Rolle had even titled his crowning work Incendium Amoris, The Fire of Love. And the producers, it seemed, could do no better. The television series was to be titled “The Fire of Love”.
Antony forced himself to focus on the page before him: Born into a small farming family and brought up at Thornton-le-Dale near Pickering, Richard studied at the University of Oxford. He left Oxford at eighteen or nineteen—dropping out before he received his MA.
Antony smiled to himself. At least he was all right there. They were to begin filming tomorrow in the woods beside the Beck, the pretty stream that ran through the village of Thornton-le-Dale, reportedly one of the most picturesque villages in England—although how picturesque it would be in mid-December, Antony was unsure. But at least he could tell the story of Richard’s unorthodox entry into the life of a hermit; he had recounted it often enough for his students.
Then they would move on to Pickering. It sounded like a rather grueling schedule to him, but apparently the producers were determined to work around the Christmas holiday. It would set Antony his paces to keep ahead of them. He turned to the filing cabinet under his window to dig out his information on the Pickering church.
He switched on a table lamp and as the light streamed across the lawn outside, a movement in the garden caught his eye—a furtive motion that struck him as uncharacteristic of any of the monks or the few students still there during the Christmas holiday. Surely no one else would be about in the gardens at this hour, though. He had heard the bell for Compline when he settled at his desk so all the gates would be locked. The peace of the Greater Silence reigned over the grounds.
He was turning back to his file when the world exploded. A loud bang was followed by balls of fire hurled against his window and sizzling on the stones of the building. Antony flung an arm protectively over his face and staggered backward.
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