When the first flames taste my flesh, I feel no pain. Eyes closed, I attend to the summer dawn: blossoms mingling with the wood smoke, birdsong greeting the sun. Ecstasy wells up inside me even as my robe ignites. Grace, gratitude, glory. I open myself to the agony, let the pain wash over me as the Master taught me.
The memories come unbidden, seasons of my life passing before my mind’s eye. I did not expect these recollections, but I welcome them as I welcome the fires swirling around me. My father’s keep, hung with brilliant tapestries to block the winter winds, and my mother’s hands, slender and sure at her needlework. My older brother, swinging a wooden broadsword with his groom.
When my brother’s life was spared by the wasting fever, my father consecrated me to the Church as his thanks for answered prayer. This was seven years ago, just after my first monthly bleeding. I did not mind being sent to the abbey; I was thus saved from the rough and grimy hands of the neighboring lord, to whom my father originally planned to wed me. “The claims of the Lord overrule the poor intentions of men,” he told me when he left me with the sisters at Thoronet. “May your virginity be a gift that forever glorifies God.”
When I was a girl, I found the simple, orderly life of the convent a comfort. The sisters were strict but never cruel. There was always work to do, but it was the sort of labor that satisfies: tilling the garden, tending the vineyard or the convent’s goats, baking bread. I slept well on my straw pallet, in the dormitory with the other novices.
Seven times daily, we knelt on the cold stone floor of the chapel and prayed. I loved the stark bareness of that sanctuary. The flickering light of the altar candles scarcely reached the shadows of the vaulted roof. The gold-encrusted crucifix on the altar shone as if lit from within. You are the light of the world, Christ had said, and there in the chapel I was suffused with that light.
I especially loved the Compline service, though sometimes it meant a rude awakening and a stumbling through midnight corridors. In the heart of night, the chapel was full of mystery. With the other women, I raised my voice to sing the hymns of praise. The soaring melodies made me ache with joy.
Our songs came, the superior told us, from Mother Hildegard, whose abbey on the Rhine was one of the centers of our Benedictine order and whose visions blessed us all. As I sang, I dreamed of mystic encounters, of being tested in my faith like the virgin saints.
As I grew to full womanhood and approached my final vows, however, I changed. I grew restless and distracted. I day-dreamed instead of attending to my tasks. The midnight service still had the power to move me, but I approached my other devotions mechanically, as duties to be executed rather than as the joys they had been. I slept fitfully; my slumbers were racked by vague, distressing dreams from which I woke with racing heart and damp brow.
I had not lost my faith, but I knew that I was full of sin. As one of the few novices who was literate, I was often asked to read from the Scriptures as we sat in the refectory over the evening meal. I began to feel prideful of my knowledge, to sneer inwardly at my less learned sisters and view them as inferior.
I was also vain. Though my hair was cropped short and hidden beneath my veil, though my body was swathed in voluminous homespun robes, I knew that I was beautiful. On the occasion of my brother’s marriage, I was allowed to return home for the festivities. In my drab brown habit, I sat among the bright, bejeweled ladies, and I knew that despite their velvets and furs, I was the most lovely woman in the company. There were no mirrors in convent, but when I bathed my own hands told me that my limbs were well-formed, my waist slender, my breasts smooth and full.
And here, perhaps, was the root of all my sins. When I touched myself, I could not help that touch becoming a caress. There was an ache in my loins that I knew was carnal desire, and it drove me mad. For that desire could never be satisfied; I was doomed to endure it, silent and unfulfilled, for the rest of my days.
Who knows what might have happened, where my waywardness would have led me, if the Master had not entered my life.
He came first in the winter, an itinerant priest seeking food and shelter. It was late afternoon, just before Vespers. I was sweeping the rear courtyard and opened the gate to expel the dirt and straw. My mood was darker than usual as I looked out over the yellowed fields, dank and bare in the chilly drizzle. A heavy mist hung near the horizon, obscuring the bulk of the massif that rises south of the Argens valley. No heights were visible, only the flat, featureless February landscape.
I was about to shut the gate when I saw him coming up the path, a slight, gray-robed figure in a wide-brimmed hat. “Good afternoon, Sister,” he called to me. “Might I impose upon the hospitality of your convent for a few days?” He entered the courtyard without waiting for my permission.
I recognized the marks of his vocation, the heavy crucifix around his neck and the tonsure that was revealed when he removed his hat. His hair was dark with moisture but nevertheless he covered it almost immediately with a black skullcap retrieved from his bag. He gazed at me with disturbing intensity. I noticed that his eyes were a bright, crystalline blue.
“Welcome, Father,” I said, dropping my own eyes in confusion and an attempt at modesty. For when he looked at me, I had the strangest feeling that he was looking through me, into those black depths of my soul that I tried to hide from my sisters. “I am sure that the Mother Superior would be happy to have you reside within our precincts for as long as you desire. If you follow me, I will take you to her.”
“Thank you, Sister...” He paused.
I curtseyed. “I am called Sister Ursula, Father. Though I have yet to make my final vows.”
“Thank you, Sister Ursula.” He seemed to linger over my name, savoring it on his tongue. I blushed. “I am grateful for your hospitality. I am called Jerome.” In my confusion, I did not answer, but led him silently to the superior’s chambers.
We were not a cloistered order. Occasionally, we offered shelter to a weary traveler who found himself in our remote corner of the land. These voyagers provided welcome relief from the ordered monotony of convent life. After the twilight orisons, we all gathered for the evening meal. Instead of my reading, Mother Superior asked Father Jerome to select a passage.
“With your permission, Mother, I would rather tell a story. A parable if you will.”
“Of course, Father. Whatever you wish.”
The priest settled himself in his chair and surveyed us with those unsettling blue eyes. I do not know what the other sisters felt, but when his gaze lit on me, I began to sweat beneath my robes, though the stone-walled refectory was chill as it ever was in winter.
“You all know Christ’s parable of the talents of silver,” he began. “This tale is its companion, though it was never recorded in any of the Gospels.
“A prosperous merchant called his steward to him. ‘I am going away on business for a short while,’ he told the servant. ‘Here are the keys to my treasury and my wine cellar. I expect that you will manage my house, my affairs, and my other servants as I would, until I return.’
“The servant was honored by his master’s trust. ‘Of course, Master. I will keep all in order for you.’
“For the first two weeks, the steward meticulously fulfilled his promise. The great mansion was spotless. The staff went about their duties, efficient and content. Tradesmen were paid; provisions were ordered; the tasks of the changing seasons were all accomplished simply and promptly. The steward was pleased and proud.
“When his master did not return after a third week, the servant began to be concerned. The house still ran smoothly, but there was often a frown of worry on his face. ‘Perhaps his ship has been wrecked,’ thought the servant. ‘Perhaps my master has been waylaid by bandits.’ These thoughts chilled him, for in truth, he loved his master well.
“A month went by, and then another, and still the master of the house had not returned. The servant was on edge, nervous and short with the staff. Several of the household resigned after he upbraided them for imaginary shortcomings. There was dust on the furnishings, and mud on the floors. The steward’s fear and concern turned to despair, and then to anger.
“‘My master has deserted me,’ he thought. ‘Well, I will at least take advantage of his wealth.’ He opened the vaulted room that held the master’s treasures. He used the gold he found there to buy himself rich attire and lavish jewelry. He spent it in the taverns and in the brothels, carousing and wallowing in concupiscence. Each dawn he would stagger back to the mansion and open a bottle from the wine cellar, gulping the rare vintage until he fell into a stupor.
“The staff fled. The servant wandered alone in the mansion, alternately cursing his master and bemoaning his fate. His debaucheries affected his health. Finally, all he could do is lie abed, sweating and shivering by turns, his vision blurred and his tongue thick with thirst.
“He lay there, moaning, ill and nearly blind. ‘Master!’ he cried out into the night. ‘Why did you forsake me? Oh, how I have betrayed you!’
“A hand touched his, curling his fingers around a goblet of wine. ‘Drink, my son,’ whispered a voice. ‘I know your thirst is terrible.’
“The servant knew the voice as well as his own. He raised himself with difficulty, peering through the shadows closing around him. ‘Master! You are safe! You have returned!’ He fell back onto the bed, exhausted.
“‘My faithful servant, I never went away. I have been here in the house the whole time.’”
The priest paused, allowing the silence to lengthen until we squirmed on our benches. “Who can tell me the lesson of this parable?” he asked finally. None of us dared speak, not even elderly Sister Marie or Mother Superior.
He laughed, a strange ringing laugh that sent a shiver up my spine. “Well, I would ask you to meditate on this tale, which provides some insight into the nature of sin.” He stood and shook out his robes. “It is late, Sisters. I will retire now, if you will excuse me. Tomorrow morning I will hear your confessions, and tomorrow at midnight, I will celebrate the Mass.”
He gave us one last look as he headed down the corridor to the guest cells. “God be with you,” he said.
“And also with you, Father,” we responded in automatic unison. His odd manner seemed to disturb the other sisters as much as it did me.
I was terribly nervous about confessing to this Father Jerome. Still, I could hardly forego the opportunity. In our remote abbey, it might be weeks or even months before another priest would visit, with his promise of absolution and his gift of the Sacrament.
He set up his curtain in an alcove of the chapel. I tiptoed into the sanctuary an hour after Matins, hoping to find him available. Cold winter light poured through the arched windows. I could see his feet behind the drapery; I knelt on the floor before him.
“Bless me Father, for I have sinned. It has been forty days since my last confession.”
“I know your sins, Sister Ursula. You need not recite them.”
I was shocked. “Father...”
“Be silent, Sister. I will tell you your sins. You are proud and vain, knowing that you are gifted with beauty and intelligence beyond those of your sisters. You are rebellious against the discipline of the Order, wishing another, worldly life for yourself. Do I speak truly?”
I bowed my head in shame. “Yes, Father.”
“Furthermore, you have unclean thoughts and desires. Your young body burns with need. You dream of many hands, stroking and caressing your flesh.”
I never recalled my dreams, but as he spoke, I remembered, or imagined, the scenes he described. I felt dampness on my thighs beneath my habit. The ache there was a hundred times stronger than I had ever felt before.
“You feel that you have been abandoned here in the abbey, left to languish here, unnoticed and ultimately alone, for all your days. That is the worst, is it not?”
His perceptiveness astonished me. I had not consciously realized how much I missed the feeling of belonging that I had enjoyed when I was younger.
“Yes, Father. Can you forgive me, Father? Can you give me absolution and peace?”
“I can, but only after you have done penance. Meet me at sixth hour in the stables.”
“I will be there, Father. Thank you. Should I say any prayers?”
I could swear that he laughed to himself. “I will teach you to pray this afternoon.”
The air in the stables was cold, but ripe with animal and vegetable smells. Father Jerome was waiting for me. In his hand was a whip of braided leather. He ran his palm over its length as he watched me approach.
“Kneel before me, Sister Ursula.”
Puzzled but strangely pliant, I followed his instructions, my eyes cast down. The straw tickled my nostrils.
“Sister, the heart of sin is the feeling of separation from God. The remedy is total surrender to His will and a return to communion with Him. Do you understand?”
I nodded, though I hardly grasped what he was saying.
“No, you do not, not yet. But you will. Remove your habit.”
Once again, he shocked me. I looked up, into those azure eyes of his. “Surely, Father, this is not proper...”
“We are all born naked. The flesh is glorious, not shameful. Do as I say.”
He spoke with such authority that I could only believe and obey. Unknotting the cords around my waist, I pulled the bulky wool robe over my head, then folded it neatly and placed it beside me. Now I wore only my rough linen shift, my crucifix, and my wimple and veil. I shivered in the February chill. Yet at the same time my cheeks, my earlobes, my fingers and toes, all grew warm, pulsing with some inner heat. My breasts felt heavy; my tightening nipples scraped against the homespun fabric.
Father Jerome paced a circle around me. “How do you feel?” he asked me.
“Embarrassed,” I replied. “And strangely free.”
He nodded, apparently satisfied. “I will beat you now. Not as punishment for your sins, but to teach you to surrender. When you surrender, your sins will evaporate like dew in the morning sun.”
Before I could respond or even comprehend his words, he stepped behind me. He tore open my shift. There was cold air on my naked back, and then, the searing trail of his whip.
I cried out, in surprise as much as pain. He lashed me again. The leather bit into me, teeth of a wolf tearing at my flesh. Sharp, deep, prolonged: the pain echoed through me long after the leather left my skin.
At first, Father Jerome’s strokes were slow and measured. He gave me long moments to reflect on the way the pain flowed through me, ripples of anguish spreading from my back through all my limbs. Soon, though, he increased his pace, stalking back and forth behind me like a tiger, slashing at me with all his strength. I was panting and moaning under his assault; I could hear him panting, too.
“Live in the pain, Ursula. Revel in it. Welcome it. Let it wash through you. Let it drown you.”
His words were a chant, soothing and hypnotic. The sting and burning ebbed, transformed themselves to something quite different. Dimly, I realized that the familiar throbbing between my legs was more intense than ever. Each time the lash cut into me, something swelled inside, pulsing with a power that I did not understand.
“Give your self to my lash. Release your self. Let the pain release you, open you, free you.”
My breathing changed, became deep and regular. I sensed his rhythm, knew before the leather touched me where and when it would land. I felt his crystal eyes on me, stroking my bare flesh along with his whip. I heard his voice, all around me in the flame-tinged darkness behind my closed eyelids.
“Ursula,” he seemed to whisper. “Sweet sister, surrender. God. Blood. Peace. Power. Pain. Surrender. Now.”
Something tore through me like a whirlwind. That constant ache shattered into a million shards of pleasure. I heard my own voice, keening, as I shook in the gale that emanated from my own flesh. I felt the leather kiss of the whip again, each stroke a new convulsion of delight. I breathed a silent prayer of gratitude.
Moonlight streamed, glorious, into the chapel that night, as Father Jerome celebrated the Mass. The familiar Latin words of the liturgy, intoned in his strong and resonant voice, held new power for me. I thought that I understood the true nature of the Lamb of God.
I was pure and free, full of light again, as I knelt before the rail and received the Body of Christ between my lips. My back was raw and sore, but my spirit soared as never before with Hildegard’s melodies.
My master Jerome left the next morning, but the peace he brought me stayed for many weeks. I was kind to my sisters, meek and obedient, and took joy from the smallest things. I felt an urge to do service, and so with the convent’s permission, began to visit the sick and the destitute in the nearby village, bringing them material and spiritual comfort.
Mother Superior sensed the change in me, and we spoke about my final vows. We agreed that I would make them at Easter.
The days warmed and lengthened. The fields were green with fresh growth and sometimes one could see the purple bulk of the massif rising in the distance. My heart was light as I went about my work, anticipating the day when I would belong wholly to Christ. The village folk whispered about me, saying that I had the spirit of a saint. My pride was not completely vanquished. I felt sharp delight when I overheard such things.
The Master came again on Maundy Thursday. I was returning from the village with my empty basket, and found Sisters Madeleine and Louise huddled together in the herb garden. “What news, good sisters?” I asked.
“That strange priest, Father Jerome. He has come back. He has promised to stay and officiate at the Easter Mass.”
Something flared in me at this news, totally consuming my tranquility. I had to see him. Shame and excitement warred in me as I recalled my punishment in the stables. I understood that I wanted it again: the pain and the glory of surrender.
“Where is Father Jerome now?” I struggled to keep my voice calm and even, though my heart was beating so hard I could scarcely speak at all.
“In his cell in the visitors quarters, meditating. He asked that we not disturb him until Vespers.”
He was my Master. I should have obeyed, bowed to his wishes. But my need to see him, to look into those luminous eyes, was too great. I knocked softly on the rough plank door.
“Who is there?”
“It is I, Father.” My voice was so soft, he must have barely heard. “Sister Ursula.”
I half-expected him to send me away. Instead, he opened the door. I was astonished to see that his torso was bare, and criss-crossed with the raw stripes of a whip. “Come in, Sister,” he said shortly, and swung the door shut behind us.
Without being told, I knelt before him. “Father, bless me, for I have sinned.” He smiled a bit grimly, and raised me up.
“No, Sister, it is I who have sinned. I should not have come back to this convent.”
“It is Easter-tide, Father. You do us honor and service by spending it within our walls.”
“True. I came for Easter, because I heard that it was then you would seal your vows. I came to see you, one last time.”
My heart leaped in joy. My master had returned for me. He loved me. The traces of the lash on his chest were the badges of his love.
“Punish me then, Father, for I have tempted you. The Bible tells us that man’s flesh is weak, and susceptible to the wiles of women.”
Father Jerome laughed. There was a desperate edge in that laugh. “So, you would have me beat you again?”
“Yes, Father. Master. Teach me more of the joys of surrender.”
His eyes searched mine. I smiled up at him, modesty abandoned, burning with desire.
“Very well, Sister Ursula. Remove your clothing. All your clothing.”
I did not mind baring my body for him. I reveled in the thought that he would find me beautiful. I hesitated, though, in removing my veil. Somehow, being bare-headed made me feel more naked than being bare-breasted.
“Stand by the cot, with your palms against the wall.” The stone was cool despite the April sunlight streaming through the slit-like window.
“Breathe,” he whispered, and then I felt once again the glorious bite of his whip.
This time, he concentrated his attack on my buttocks. He did not begin slowly as before, but immediately began to thrash me with all his strength. Each stroke sizzled like a lightening bolt, straight to my swelling loins.
“Oh, yes,” I moaned. “Beat me, Master. Teach me.”
I could sense his passion, and his agitation. His lashing hurt far more than the first one, and yet, I would have endured it forever. Just as the throbbing in my sex rose to crescendo, however, he stopped. The whip clattered on the slate floor.
“I will teach you indeed, Sister, a new lesson,” he growled. He grabbed my hips roughly. Terror shot through me. My virginity was for God, not for man, not even for my Master.
As if he heard my thoughts, he laughed, mocking.
“Fear not, sweet Ursula. I will leave your maidenhood intact. You will consummate your vows a virgin still.”
He pulled my globes apart and without a moment’s hesitation, plunged his maleness into my bowels.
I thought I knew pain before. That was like a mild itch compared to this agony. I felt myself stretch to breaking as he worked his organ inside me. Blood trickled down my thighs from my torn flesh. The smell rose, hot and shameful, blood and excrement, as my Master plowed my rear hole again and again.
“This is the ultimate surrender, Ursula,” he growled. “Open yourself, you most hidden and secret self, to me. Receive me, honor me. Now, Ursula!”
I felt his member swell and burst within me, spattering my bowels with burning seed. Until that moment, I had felt nothing but the pain of his ripping violation. Yet when I sensed his climax, my own body convulsed in answer, muscles contracting to grip him and hold him within me.
Later, I lay with him on his pallet, aching inside and out. He stroked my cropped hair out of my eyes.
“I must leave, Ursula. Right away.”
“Do not forsake me, Master. I need you to teach me.”
“I am not the Master, Ursula. I am no more than His representative, and a poor one at that. I have given you my last lesson. I have nothing more to teach.”
He stood up and donned his robe, wincing as the rough fabric brushed over his welts. “You will never see me again. But I will always be with you. Remember what you have learned.”
I fell to my knees before him in tears, circling his knees with my arms. “Please, Master, do not go. Or if you must, leave me some token. A piece of your clothing. A lock of your hair.”
He looked down at me for a long moment. Then he sighed. Reaching into his bag, he extricated a short leather-sheathed knife. He removed his skullcap. I was astonished to see that his hair was a fiery red, the color of maples in autumn.
Roughly, with no concern for his own comfort, he hacked at his tonsure until he had a thick lock in his hand. He placed it in my palm and closed my fingers around it. “Here you are, girl. Keep it safe, and remember me.”
He slipped his feet into his boots, donned his wide-brimmed traveling hat, grabbed his bag, and was out the door before I could even rise from my knees. Looking out the narrow window, I saw him striding away.
As if in a dream, I dressed myself. The bells called me to chapel. Detached, but strangely at peace, I knelt on the stone with my sisters and asked the Lord to bless me.
On Easter morn, I made my final vows and became a bride of Christ. The sisters whispered together about the strange priest’s sudden departure. As far as I could tell, no one connected this event with me. We had no Mass, but we sang our hymns to the Risen One, songs so lovely they seemed to pierce my heart. There were tears in my eyes. Yet I had never felt such joy.
After my consecration, I wandered through my days in a kind of peaceful trance. I felt no shame, and strangely, little longing for my Master. He was with me, I knew.
My sisters sensed a change in me, though. I was as pliant and obedient as ever, but there was a new distance between me and them. The people in the hamlet sensed it too, though I still brought them bread from our ovens and apples from our orchard, still asked them for news of their children and their crops. I made them nervous, with my deep quiet and my bright eyes that seemed to look into their souls. I overheard no more discussions of my saintly spirit.
In May, the wasting fever broke out in their cottages. Many died, most especially, it seemed, in the houses that I had been wont to visit. There were whispers then, rumors of witchcraft and evil spells. I went about my work, strangely immune to the gossip and the danger.
Mother Superior called me to her. She asked me about incantations, potions, contracts with the Evil One. I smiled and told her I knew nothing of such things. Then she sent Sister Marie to produce the lock of red hair they had found pressed between the pages of my breviary.
The bishop came, all the way from Avignon, to try me as a sorceress. The inquisition was held in the chapel. The golden light of summer streamed through the narrow windows, lighting the concerned and frightened faces of my sisters. I found it difficult to concentrate on the proceedings; I wanted to walk barefoot in the newly-green fields and rejoice in the sun.
Again and again the bishop questioned me about the lock of hair. I was silent. What could I say? I could not speak falsehoods, yet I would never betray my Master. The sisters stripped me in order to confirm that I was still virgin. They found me intact. However, the lingering traces of my last beating they denounced as the mark of Satan’s talons.
So it is that I came to this pyre, condemned for sorcery when all I sought was peace and service. I do not blame the villagers, the sisters or the bishop who pronounced me guilty. My soul is clean of sin. My heart is full of love.
The flames lick at this vessel of flesh, reminding me of my Master’s lash. There is the smell of charred meat, now, but I ignore it, focusing instead on the flowers. I feel His eyes upon me, luminous and powerful, and I release everything to Him, knowing at last the full truth He was trying to teach me. I am incandescent with joy.
Like Christ Himself I am a bright torch of sacrifice, burning for my Master, and his.