Cliff Fell

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Secret Vita

Ovid’s Amores were not yet on our lips
(they were to circulate a little later.)
It was Cicero’s kiss of friendship
that St. Aelred tasted, found the sweeter.

In the Vita Aelredi Daniel tells
how Rievaulx’s tall thin abbot strove
to sublimate his carnal
desire to God’s eternal love —

long hours of submersion
in the cold-plunge he had built
was how the young Cistercian
assuaged his body’s guilt.

The mortal fight against the flesh
was high on his agenda,
the strength of will to push
away nocturnal hands that wander:

swiftest smile, nod or sigh,
these were permitted signs of love;
yet in his heart he approved each happy lie,
and reasoned to forgive

his monks of fantasies
that were just the same as his.
Thus, in cloister or in Chapter House,
he deemed holding hands to be virtuous.

And he struggled on into middle age,
waging war against his vices:
the daily plunge to quell the urge
brought consumption, arthritis.

Yet Daniel says his body shone
as it was laid to rest—
except for one small cloud which hung
above the seat of lust.

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