From Gene Logsdon
[When the merry oblates of Ascension Seminary put their minds to it, they too could make herbal remedies and medicinal spirits just like the alchemist monks of old. Another excerpt from the novel, The Lords of Folly, by Gene Logsdon.]
With four days off from classes over the Thanksgiving weekend, Melonhead and Clutch decided to give the alcohol still its maiden voyage. Prior Robert and the faculty would be fully occupied with the annual visit of the Minister General from Rome… The SBDC Boys would hardly have to worry about any of them barging in on their “medical research” at the barn.
Their first experiment in making what they called an anti-flu medicine, but which was really elderberry wine, elderberries being known in folklore as good for warding off colds, had ended in disaster. Most of the bottles of the potent liquid which they had hidden in the hayloft had exploded, sending the purple potion running down the white walls of the dairy barn and necessitating a quick new coat of whitewash to hide the streaks. Brother Walt had not cleaned out the manure gutters since then, hoping the smell of urine and manure would mask the smell of the spilled wine. What wine remained in intact bottles had turned to vinegar or to kerosene, depending on the opinion of the “researcher” who was tasting it.
“If you hadn’t insisted on squeezing the berries, stems and all, in that mop bucket wringer, the wine probably would have come out tasting better,” Melonhead scolded Blaze.
“But speed was of the essence,” Blaze replied, even now looking nervously up the lane from the barn to the main building from which the Prior, their very own version of a revenue officer, might appear at any moment.
But a batch of wild plum juice had fermented nicely with a generous addition of sugar spirited out of the seminary kitchen. Melonhead intended to make wild plum liqueur from it and infuse it with a concoction of herbs that included angelica, wormwood, chokecherry bark, and walnut husks. If nothing else, it would be very effective against intestinal parasites, he figured. Only he, Gabe, and Fen knew the exact formula and he was not really sure that Gabe and Fen remembered it, but “if three Carthusians can keep a liqueur recipe for Chartreuse secret, so can three Josephians ,” he said primly. After he had quaffed generously from a jug of the wild plum wine he added grandly: “We’ll be able to supply the poor with medicine enough to free them from the tyranny of high-priced doctors.
Gabe intoned a passage from Matthew in the New Testament that he had been saving for such an occasion: “And they brought to Him all the sick suffering from various diseases and torments, those possessed, and lunatics and paralytics, and He cured them.”
Blaze, getting into the mood, also with a little help from the wild plum wine, escalated the endeavor to even loftier heights. “Perhaps we shall, in this humble milkhouse, achieve eternal life, literally, by way of aqua vitae as the medieval monks dreamed.”
The hot plate was turned on, the pressure cooker full of herbs and wine set in place on it, the copper pipes all connected properly, and the New Religious Revolution began, as Blaze wrote that night in his The Story of My Weird Life.
In the meeting room of the priests’ residence, Prior Robert was making an impassioned plea before the Minster General…. For an hour, the younger professor priests, with much nodding of assent from Fr. Basil, the Provincial, had argued before the Minister General, Matix Suenarich, who was a Belgian by birth and of rather liberal leanings by Church standards, for a new approach to the education of seminarians and to religious life in general. It was time for the Church to rid itself of the last vestiges of medieval tradition and march resolutely into the 20th century. It was time to close down seminary schools like Ascension and send the seminarians into mainstream universities for their education. It was time to make celibacy voluntary not obligatory for priests. It was time to realize that seminary education was inbred, perpetuating a hopelessly outdated kind of religious life… Josephians with advanced degrees from universities would become educators out in the real world and bring prestige to the Order, — look what it had done for the Jesuits… [T]hese professors through their fame in the classroom, in scientific and philosophical research, in their writings, would command good salaries and bring in much needed money to the Order.
“All these points are well-taken,” Prior Robert said, when it came his turn to speak. “But may I plead for a little caution. Are we sure this is the true spirit of our religious life, as Josephians. We were founded as a mendicant Order to help ordinary laypeople, especially the poor. Will such a purpose endure once one Josephian after another starts making his own way among the educated and the wealthier levels of society, while our religious houses become merely places to sleep at night, if that? The Josephians are a community” — he repeated the word for emphasis, “a community of men living together. We have more in common with monasteries at a time when regretfully monasteries are in decline. We are men who are drawn to this life because we like living in a brotherly, secure haven, because, among other reasons, let’s face it, we don’t have to worry about the day- to- day burdens of making money and raising a family. Within our rules, we can follow our talents unencumbered by the commercial and social pressures of life out in the world. In such a community, we gain a rare kind of freedom in which to pursue ideas… [W]e can supply something unique to the intellectual and moral makeup of society. If we send our people out into the universities, or wherever, we will inevitably lose the ability to think differently from the world’s philosophies… [I]f we allow ourselves to be pressured by the same financial stresses that apply to the mainstream world, what will we have to offer intellectually that is any different from what the world offers? “…
The meeting shortly adjourned because the conferees were shocked at Prior Robert’s words… [But] after the meeting, the Minister General came over to Prior Robert and patted him on the back magnanimously. “I understand your fears, Robert,” he said in fluent English. Deep inside him, he had a troubling notion that the Prior was correct, but he had to be careful… Money always ruled, never more so than under what passed nowadays for the vow of poverty. “I found your remarks particularly interesting,” he said loud enough for all to hear.
Robert’s countenance brightened. Did the Minister General really understand what he had tried to say? “Would you like to see some of the things we have been doing here?” he asked, with almost boyish enthusiasm…
Robert took the Minister General through the buildings, pointing out the carpentry and stone masonry that the oblates had done themselves to make the residences livable and attractive. “Is it not extremely helpful to be able to base intellectual decisions at least partly on experience gained from practical skills?” he asked. The Minister General said nothing. Prior Robert showed him the new stone-walled reservoir that the oblates had built to hold the spring flow from the swamps for their water supply, replacing the one dating back to Mudpura times. “Where will metaphysics lead a student not grounded in concrete experiences?” Again the Minister General said nothing. “Look at their carvings on the altar front. They exhibit amazing talent, don’t you think? The seminarians didn’t realize they could do this kind of art until they tried. Is that not a valuable kind of education?…” The Minister General still remained silent… “Look how the oblates jacked up this foundation and reinforced it. To do such work without collapsing the building required much intellectual thought as well as mechanical knowledge. Oblates gaining experience in work like this will be in a much more informed position when making decisions about church and school and hospital structures which they inevitably will have to oversee…” The Minister General was still not talking but some of the alarm in his countenance faded away. Prior Robert showed him the walk-in freezer. “Look at all this food. It was produced right here on our farm”… The Minister General did not have the heart to tell him that this business of raising food was an activity that the young professors had singled out as being particularly dinosaur-like.
Perhaps the Minister General would like to see the barn where the oblates were breeding up a nice herd of Jersey cows and also raising the seminary supply of pork, processing all the meat and milk themselves. The Minister General brightened. He had not been in a barn since he was a boy half a century ago, and he would indeed like to see one in America. He beckoned the Provincial to accompany him, and Fr. Abelard decided it was a good time for him to tag along and surreptitiously spy for signs of suspicious behavior without drawing attention to himself.
It was possible to get into the barn without going through the old milkhouse, but Prior Robert, now in a hopeful mood, believing he had impressed the Minister General, decided that Oblate Mel’s research into herbal remedies was precisely the kind of work he had been arguing for during the meeting. Leading the way, he pushed open the door to the lab and found himself confronted by six of his seminarians who appeared to be frightened out of their wits. Or five anyway. Who the old fellow was he had no idea. They had obviously been so absorbed in their work that they had not noticed the entourage walking towards the barn. Prior Robert decided that the presence of the Minister General and the Provincial must have awed them…
Oblate Mel has been working hard at learning which of the old herbal remedies might truly be effective,” Prior Robert explained breezily. “He has discovered for example that milkweed juice does indeed seem to have healing properties. And the peat from the swamps that surround us makes a good poultice to stop bleeding.
While he was talking, Blaze, Gabe, Melonhead, Fen, Clutch and Axel, the latter still confused about kissing the fat fellow’s ring and if he should have done it, had shuffled themselves together into a sort of knot blocking the eminent visitors’ view of whatever was bubbling away on the hot plate on the table. Fr. Abelard could have sworn he smelled something strangely like, but not quite like, whiskey, and realized, with a start, that his breath must still be heavy with Jack Daniels. Oh God, had the Minister General detected it?
“And what have we here?” Prior Robert continued with fatherly pride, pushing the group aside so that all could have a better look at the pressure cooker on the hot plate. “Don’t tell me you are canning peaches.” He had hoped to make a joke to relieve the dread that his seminarians appeared to be gripped by. He thought it strange that at that remark, Blaze clamped his hand over his mouth so hard that tears formed in his eyes.
It was Fen, good old reliable in situations of panic, who rose first to the occasion. “We are making an herbal tea from angelica, Gubanosa ferferalis,” he said. “A big batch actually.” Why he had felt compelled to add the fake Latin name he did not know. How many times did he get in trouble because he went too far.
“It is slightly toxic and must be used carefully,” said Melonhead, having recovered his wits and deciding that Fen’s idiotic answer could be made more legitimate with some actual information about angelica. “I’m interested in it because among other beneficial possibilities, it is supposed to create a revulsion for alcohol. Think of how beneficial that would be to the Jo — er, in today’s society.”
The Minister General and the Provincial were fortunately not quite listening and wanted to move along. They had more important things to think about that some idiot seminarian interested in herbal medicine, although it was impressive that at least one of them knew a little Latin. But proud father, Prior Robert, forged on where angels and devils both feared to tread.
“And what is this clear liquid coming out of this spigot over here?” he asked, beaming again, thinking that for once his most problematical seminarians might do him honor. He could not understand why their faces reflected grave dread instead of pride.
But Clutch was now back to being the Engineer of Ascension. “It’s an intriguing experiment,” he explained. “I got to thinking about all the herbal teas and tinctures and such that Oblate Mel was boiling and how I might make the process more efficient. Why not, I thought, capture the steam from the boilings and make distilled water from it. For Oblate Mel’s potions yes, but also for the car, tractor and truck batteries.”
The Minister General nodded gravely as if he understood what Clutch was saying. Then he indicated that he was ready to move on to the barn. It must be getting near the time for Matins and Lauds. Fr. Abelard fished a handkerchief from his pocket and, affecting a cough, covered his mouth and nose with it. Might block the odor of liquor on his breath as well as the smell of manure from the barn.
Brother Walt was putting the Jerseys in their stanchions. The Minister General remembered his own father’s barn. Tears came to his eyes either from memories or the rank odor of urine in the gutters. Fr. Abelard was sure that now he could detect a more winey smell than what came from his breath, and he sniffed around for a source. He might have noticed some faded purple stains in cracks and crannies of the walls that the last coat of whitewash had missed but just then a cow raised her tail and arched a stream in his general direction. He clamped his handkerchief tighter and backed out of the barn followed closely by the others.
Gene and Carol Logsdon have a small-scale experimental farm in Wyandot County, Ohio.
All Flesh Is Grass: Pleasures & Promises of Pasture Farming
The Lords of Folly (novel)
The Mother of All Arts: Agrarianism and the Creative Impulse (Culture of the Land)
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