Lecturing to a conference of American monastics, Dr. Luc Clement raises a femur above his head and waves it like a flashlight on a runway.
“You can see, yes?” he shouts.
“Yes,” a chorus of monks and nuns answers.
“And hear?” the tiny Frenchman adds. Something was wrong with the wireless earlier, but now everything seems in order.
“Yes, yes,” the audience calls.
“Good. Eleventh-century female,” he says, as if the femur were all she ever was. “Sixty or so, elderly for the time. Very, very, very likely a nun. Quite possibly, as found with an iron pectoral cross, quite possibly an abbess. Or else a very crafty corpse.”
As a group monastics have a rather macabre sense of humor. Doubting the permanence of the condition, jokes about the grave get them every time.
He reads from blue index cards: “As many of you know, she has been the focus of my study on the thinness of nuns’ kneecaps at the start of the last millennium. Pauvreté ou prière? we wonder. Poverty or prayer? Which is to blame for this medieval frailty? Prayer, of course. Eight offices a day, an hour or more at each ringing of the bell. Certainly malnutrition played a part. But more to blame is a lifetime on the ground, kneeling in stone churches, grinding bones to dust.”
There is a grumbling in the back of the auditorium. Clement did not suspect that an audience of religious would be as menacing as this mob seems. But here the risks of prayer is a touchy subject, like gun control at an NRA rally.
“The knees malheureusement I could not bring. They are on loan to Freiburg. But it is not just there that negative aspects of kneeling can be seen. The hips, to begin, are dislocated over time, pushed slowly, irreparably out of place like canyons carved by water. The spine too, kept erect without full support beneath, has such pressure put upon it that by middle age many of these women no doubt hobbled through the cloister. Tortured in body if rewarded in soul. Robbing Peter, as you say, to pay Paul.”
The grumbling continues and Clement fumbles with his cards. From the stage they look like mental patients, right down to the robes.
“The femur,” he says. “The femur I keep in my private collection. Here the effects are not as dramatic as with more delicate pieces. But still stress-related abnormalities can be detected.”
One hundred and forty monks and nuns in a dozen different habits – black, white, black and white, brown, blue, gray – look up to the podium and squint to see the old bone. Dirty white and pockmarked, anyone not paying attention might think, Looks like it’s been in the ground for nine hundred years.
“Doctor, a question,” one nun says. A modern Benedictine, short hair, no veil, she won’t take any crap. “You’ll have to forgive my ignorance, Doctor, but I just don’t see it. And I speak for many when I say, we are rather suspicious of your motives. Today the world is only beginning to recognize the medical benefits of prayer and meditation – something we’ve known about for years – and now you show up here and on television and in the news wagging a fossil and saying prayer may be hazardous to your health. But I’ve studied anatomy, Doctor, and I don’t see anything wrong with that bone. All I see is a scientist with a secularist agenda.”
To this accusation Clement listens and nods and smiles under his mustache. The crowd hushes and listens and waits.
“Les lumières,” he calls out when it seems the nun is finished. “The lights. Please unlight the lights.” Then, in the darkness, he explains.
“The abbess, ladies and gentlemen, the probable abbess, is only a, a, comme vous dites? A prop. A visual aid. A show and tell. Of course, of course, as your astute colleague tries to suggest, one artifact means nothing. Nothing. But the data, ah the data.”
With a hand held control, Clement clicks on a slide projector and finds himself suddenly standing before a wall of skeletons, crowded into a field-photo like a portrait of the Plague. He is featureless in the light of the projection, a shadow among the dead. A red dot from his laser pointer draws a line down the middle of the screen.
“On the left, we have fourteen nuns from the convent cemetery, including,” the laser makes a quick loop around a skull with a black iron cross at its side, “including our lovely abbess. On the right, we have ten more female skeletons, exhumed from a gravesite nearby. All have been preserved by the unique soil of the region. And here we have the femurs.”
The projector clicks forward and now shows only left thigh bones, two dozen of them. Clement hears a gasp from the audience and smiles knowing it is the modern Benedictine, who won’t take any crap but now is eating crow.
“Yes, yes,” he grins. “It seems someone has already noticed. These,” the laser sweeps over the top row of bones, “are your dear sisters. And these, these are the peasants down the road. As you can see, the peasant women’s femurs are more or less identical. They look, as our anatomy student would tell us, just as they should. But these. These. The nuns’ femurs are, are-”
From the crowd comes another monastic chorus, one hundred and forty monks and nuns calling out in unison:
“Oui,” Clement says. “Only slightly, most. But the older the nun when buried the more severe the arc of the bone. Look, look here…” The projector clicks back to the previous image and again the laser pointer finds the remains of the abbess. It highlights the femur, tracing it with a curving line.
“Compared to the others,” he says, “it is practically a moon.”
The new silence of the room tells the anthropologist he can continue his lecture, now heckle-free.
“Lights please,” he calls and suddenly sees his audience again. The aisle is clogged with wheelchairs and walkers. In the seats they are sagging, like robed sacks of dirt. How old they all are, he thinks. Those hoodless and veilless are bald or white haired, to a woman, to a man. Even the modern Benedictine. Would she be a great-grandmother, Clement wonders, were she not a virgin and a nun? His abbess, he decides, is the youngest one here.
“What interests me now,” Clement says, “is how similar your lives are to the lives of these nuns, now centuries gone. Still you pray, some of you, six or seven hours a day, yes? And still on your knees. But are there marked differences? Diet, for instance?”
The doctor smirks and many of the monastics blush when a chubby nun raises her hand.
“Please,” he says.
“When we’re not fasting,” she explains. “We eat quite well.”
“I see, I see,” Clement nods. “And when you’re not living, I should very much like to see your bones.”
The lecture ends soon after, cut short by the conference schedule and Clement’s strict itinerary. Tomorrow he is due at Georgetown in the morning and Catholic University in the afternoon. On to Boston the following day, to Harvard Divinity and Boston College, whose Jesuits, he imagines, will be his toughest audience yet. But the truth must be spoken to those who don’t want it. Such is the cross he bears.
A cab is waiting at the monastery gate. It takes him downtown where he catches a minivan shuttle to the airport. Check-in and boarding are easier than usual, no line at the ticket counter, no waiting in the lounge. But the plane is delayed an hour on the runway. Clement skipped dinner with the monastics to make the flight on time, and now, cramped in coach, crammed between seats D and F, he is queasy, hot and hungry.
When finally the runway is clear, the climb and acceleration of lift-off shift the organs in his belly and chest. His stomach, he is certain, is lodged in his rib cage; his heart is in his pants. Only when the plane has levelled off does he open his eyes and loosen his grip on the armrests. Soon a digital bell chime tells him he is free to move about the cabin. Clement unhooks his tray table, and sets it on his knees.
Peter Manseau is the author of Songs for the Butcher's Daughter, Vows: The Story of a Priest, a Nun, and Their Son and, most recently, Rag and Bone: A Journey Among the World's Holy Dead. He founded Killing the Buddha with Jeff Sharlet, and the two wrote Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible. Follow him on Twitter @petermanseau.