Brother Morgan walked south along the River Kennet, away from the Abbey of Reading. He’d been struck by an alarming idea a few hours earlier and he had immediately needed some time - alone in the desert, so to speak.
His life so far at the abbey had largely mirrored his expectations – busy, routinized, with hardly any extra time to pray, much less think – but this new, cenobitic version of his former solitude had left him feeling socially overwhelmed, his humors black and biliary. Furthermore, his new appointment as the almoner of the abbey had exposed him to depths of human deprivation that he hadn’t ever considered previously, and this had worn on him greatly. He’d certainly encountered his own hardships living alone in his earlier years, of course, but how could that have prepared him for starving children? Missing limbs? Murderous fathers? The poor souls of Reading! The Church’s money couldn’t possibly meet the townspeople’s needs, even if twice the taxes were collected from them. It was as if each day brought a new vision of suffering, and in aggregate it created a spiritual puzzle in his mind that he was afraid to solve.
Lost in the newness of the idea he was forming, Brother Morgan approached the abbey’s wooden watermill. Abbot Cook had recently repurposed it: the flour for Reading was now ground by hand - in much smaller quantities, by every capable monk, no matter his position - and instead the mill was put to a higher use mashing pulp for paper. The abbey’s new printing press was in constant use making copies of collected Holy texts for submission to Westminster’s library, and although the paper-making process consumed what seemed like half the water in the Kennet, and although the town’s flour production was only a small fraction of years past, it was understood that much paper was needed for God’s work. The grumbling around town had largely subsided.
Brother Morgan came to an abrupt stop and raised his head to look toward the watermill. He couldn’t pinpoint what had drawn his attention, but as he stared blankly at the building it came to him: the usual churning sound of water splashing against the wooden blades of the giant wheel was missing. He stepped over the tall grass at the river’s edge, into the riverbed dirt exposed by the Kennet’s receding waterline and edged carefully around the side of the mill.
It was the daughter of a farmer named Holmes who had come to his almonry a week earlier requesting money for seeds. Brother Morgan had listened to the man’s story about not getting enough rain the previous year, and – as was his charge – he had determined that the Church’s money would serve God better elsewhere. He had ministered to the man’s soul, of course, offering him the Good News that God wanted him to have a bountiful crop and that it would require nothing more than his faith. He sent Holmes on his way with powerful prayers and witnessed him call his daughter by name from the abbey garden, this girl of maybe 12 years who was now seated atop the motionless waterwheel.
“Addie. What are you doing up there?”
“Hello, Addie. You’re Robert Holmes’ daughter, aren’t you? The farmer?”
“And may I ask once more what you’re doing?”
“Father sent me to get a few parts.”
“Is that so? And for what is he planning to use these parts that do not belong to him?”
Addie Holmes ignored the question and stared curiously at the monk.
“How long have you been walking, Sir?”
Brother Morgan put his hand to the back of his neck in confusion and could think of nothing to do but to answer her question.
“A few hours I suppose.”
“Oh. You’ve been out walking for a few hours. I see. Sir, my father is going to add these parts to an irrigation system he’s building.”
“He needs water to grow food.”
“Yes. Yes, that’s so, of course that’s so, but Addie. You shouldn’t be up there.”
She stared down at the monk in the half-empty riverbed.
“Sir, the people in Reading are very poor. We don’t have enough to eat. My younger brother is very sick from not getting enough food.”
The familiarity of this conversational tack jolted Brother Morgan out of his bewilderment. This he had the spiritual tools to reason with, this he could minister to, and what’s more, he had spent the last few hours formalizing a persuasive notion that he began to think might have been divinely gifted to him for this exact moment. He walked out into the shallow water beneath the wheel and grabbed one of the blades for stability.
“Addie, listen to me. I’ve met the people you consider poor, but they are rich! The entire Kingdom of Heaven is theirs if they would just reach out and claim it! I’ve had an epiphany today that I need to share with you. Since moving to your town, it’s true, I’ve seen suffering. But there is a purpose to this suffering, and I believe I may now understand what it is: all suffering can be grouped by quality! Yes, yes, there are types of suffering! In fact, I’ve modeled it out in my head based on the conversations I’ve had with people like your father. There’s loss, there’s isolation, there’s hunger, there’s physical pain… I haven’t uncovered them all yet, but I’m getting close to understanding how these categories of suffering function, and for what they might eventually be used! For example, those who’ve felt deep, bitter cold… those who have died of exposure to the elements… they will know better than anyone else the value of warmth! Perhaps they’ll be the architects in Heaven. Each of us will find our own unique experience of suffering to be relevant – divinely relevant! - to our duties in the Afterlife. This I can assure you!”
“And Addie, I’m going to write down the mathematics of suffering and I will print copies for anyone who needs them! I may print a copy and send it to the library at Westminster! Can you read, Addie?
He climbed up a few blades of the wheel and got nearer to the girl.
“I’m learning,” she said.
“Wonderful Addie! I’ll organize all the suffering in the world into a map and print a copy for you and when you read it you’ll no longer have any concerns about being poor because you’ll know what higher purpose your poverty serves!”
Brother Morgan climbed closer and closer, up the side of the wheel.
“Stay where you are, Sir. We don’t want maps. We want water for food.”
“Addie, I know this may sound strange, but let me wash your feet. It’s what I do for poor people in the almonry every Tuesday. I would have done it for your father, but he never returned to see me. I’d like to do it for you here, at this very moment. Please, I need to commune with my humility.”
He was practically upon her now, and as he reached for her outstretched boot, she pulled it back and heel-kicked him with the full force of her leg, square in the face. Brother Morgan tumbled off the wheel, landing in the knee-deep water.
“Go look and see what we’ve done to your abbey.”
Brother Morgan gathered his robes around himself and high-stepped out of the river bed. He didn’t stop to admonish the girl or even to look back at her. He was running now, towards the Abbey of Reading, in a fever dream of uncertainty.
When he reached the abbey, he saw a hoard of people pushing through the gateway with as many golden icons as they could carry. Burning triptychs and crosses were scattered across the grassy courtyard and townspeople were taking hammers to the stonework. Brother Morgan stared in disbelief as Abbot Cook emerged from the abbey church, being dragged by four men, screaming for his life. They strung the abbot up from the arch of the interior gate and tied each leg to a different horse. The riders set off in different directions, and Brother Morgan had just enough time to divert his eyes before the abbot was ripped apart.
The screams stopped abruptly, and Brother Morgan found himself looking instead to his left, at the farmer Robert Holmes, who was running across the lawn with a wheelbarrow overflowing with pieces of the disassembled printing press.
“Mr. Holmes! What are you doing with that?!”
He stared curiously at the soaking wet monk, and said:
“I’m building an irrigation system.”