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In light of Cubeland Mystic’s suggestion that we go back to the desert…

…here (again?) is my proposal for THE CLOISTER.  Think Duvall as the Rector, Malkovich as Tomaso, Kenneth Branagh as McManus.

The “one-strike” policy drafted by the U.S. bishops at their meeting in Dallas has become policy – all cases of sexual abuse by priests are now to be reported to the police.  The police and the courts, for their part, pursue these cases with vigor, and priests begin ending up behind bars.

Once there, they are treated very poorly – even by other sex-offenders.  They are at the very bottom of the prison’s social order, and more than one jailed priest ends up dead.  Nobody is especially upset by this – there is a general sense of justice being served, since the offenders went unpunished for so long.

The protagonist, Father McManus, is a priest in his late-30s who has sought to “hide” in the priesthood.  (As part of a class that never marries, he will never have to resolve any questions he might have about his own sexual leanings, which tend toward other men.)  Though promiscuous in his youth, he has taken his vow of celibacy seriously, and has sought to remain chaste as he serves as pastor in a SoCal parish.  But when a young Hispanic prostitute who has come seeking refuge offers himself in gratitude, the temptation proves too great.  Of course, McManus is caught – he’s one of those people who never gets away with anything – and soon finds himself before the bishop.

The bishop informs him that because there are no outraged parents involved, and because the prostitute is not interested in pressing charges, there may be a way to avoid prison and its attendant evils:  The Cloister.  The Cloister is a monastery in the California desert, long abandoned by the order that built it.  It is not officially inhabited – there is no power to the building, no water, no mail, nothing to place it within the grid.  But the diocese still owns the land, which it quietly acquired from the original order when it disbanded.

Since the adoption of the one-strike policy, the monastery has begun to serve a new purpose:  as an intra-Church correctional facility for sexually-abusive priests.  The bishop, reluctant to send his charges into the prison environment, has begun sending priests there whenever he can prevail upon parents/victims to permit it.  Parents/victims, while not told about The Cloister itself, are given every assurance that the offending priest will not be “shuffled” – sent to simply carry on being bad somewhere else.  Rather, they will be subjected to the Church’s own form of incarceration and rehabilitation – and kept isolated from underage youth – for a minimum of five years.  (If they slip back into their old ways after that, they are duly reported to the police.)

The cloister is run by a throwback – some would say medieval – rector:  a Jesuit who has been allowed by his now-liberal order to go where he pleases, as long as he stays out of their hair.  He is old-school, a big believer in penance, prayer and fasting, a disciplinarian who sees obedience as the first virtue for creatures under God and under him.  He is a tough old bird – he seems to enjoy his repudiation of “niceness” a little too much, and he is stubborn and hot-tempered – but he is not a monster.  He sincerely believes in what he is doing – attempting to get priests to master themselves so as to be better servants of God – and wills the good for those in his care.

Nor is he a hypocrite when he rages against The World, The Flesh and The Devil.  He punishes his flesh in an attempt to curb his temper.  He does not require the inmates to join him for 2 a.m. rosary in the chapel, but he is there every night.  And when a grateful bishop sends him a bottle of good Burgundy, he hesitates only a moment before sending it to the kitchen to be used as cooking wine.  (As for the inevitable charge that he preaches to sexual predators because he himself is sexually repressed, it will go unanswered here.)

The rector’s power comes from the fact that only he can determine that a priest is fit to leave The Cloister.  He is served by a cadre of monks – they wear black robes, as opposed to the gray robes of the inmates – who serve as a sort of prison guard, keeping an eye on things, making sure the life of The Cloister proceeds as it should.

Naturally, his strict discipline and emphasis on striving for old-fashioned holiness make him enemies among the inmates, particularly Father Tomaso, an intelligent old priest who was the rector’s classmate at seminary.  Tomaso’s faith has shriveled; he is a hardened predator who has no hope of ever leaving – he came only to avoid prison.  Another priest, Father Boudreaux, is one of a group that sees celibacy as outdated and damaging, part of an overall failure of the Church to deal properly with sexual matters.  They know they have sinned, but they see themselves as victims of a backwards institution.  They see the rector as a symbol of everything that’s wrong with the Church today, the biggest impediment to its being a true messenger of Christ’s love.  Boudreaux and his friends see themselves as banding together to become a force for change when they get out.

McManus, on the other hand, resents the rector the way a child resents the parent who disciplines him.  He believes the parent is right, but he feels shame at being corrected, and so resents the one doing the correcting.  He is also attracted to the rector (called ‘ the rectum’ by more than one inmate) because the rector is a forceful, confident personality who seems to know something.

One day, waiting in line for mandatory weekly confessions and late for kitchen duty, McManus notices that the line for the rector’s box is all but empty.  When he asks why, his question is met with knowing chuckles.  Unwilling to be cowed, he steps into the box and begins his confession, only to be interrupted by the rector, who lays out the sins of McManus’ life for him.  (It is the rector’s gift to be able to read the souls of other men when they come to him in the confessional.)

The story would spend some time documenting the life of a monastery/prison functioning without any modern amenities, and illustrating the tension between ruler and ruled.  A clipboard hangs next to the bus delivery platform (the bus arrives with necessities once a week); anyone who wishes to leave and face the authorities is free to sign up.  The various factions would be introduced, along with the Cloister policy on sexual congress:  anyone caught having sex spends a week in the caves in the surrounding desert.  (“Nothing between you and God out there except your own ugly self,” comments the rector.)  Basic needs are provided for, and one of the brother-guards visits regularly, but it’s still a harsh experience.

Things begin to go sour when a frail young offender – a weak man like McManus – enters the Cloister. Tomaso immediately seduces him, the two are caught, and both are sent to the caves.  But the frail young man is found dead after only two days – snakebite.  Tomaso seizes the opportunity to foment rebellion against the rector, whose hard policy is surely in some way to blame for the man’s death.

The rector, unnerved by the event, begins to falter, and eventually collapses at Mass.  He leaves McManus – who has become something of a disciple – in charge while he is taken to the hospital to recover.  Once the rector is away, the rebellion gains force.  McManus resists, but eventually wavers out of fear and uncertainty.  By the time the rector returns, there is open revolt:  howls during the consecration at Mass, subtly defaced icons, the meat locker raided on Friday, etc.  Fido, the rector’s dog, is found slaughtered.  None of the rebels seem to care that the rector will never let any of them go – because plans are afoot to eliminate the rector altogether.  (Church officials would have a hard time opening the investigation to the public eye, since The Cloister isn’t supposed to exist.)  Again, McManus wavers, and tries to warn the rector during confession, but the rector will not acknowledge him.  (He knows what is coming – he can read McManus’ sin of intent – but he is ready to let it come because he feels it will expiate for the death of the novice.)

In the end, McManus steps in to thwart the attempt on the rector’s life, draining a consecrated (and poisoned) chalice at Mass before the rector can drink it.  He collapses on the altar, and the rector, after closing McManus’ eyes and saying a prayer, continues with the Mass.  The scene ends with the rector staring out at the congregation and saying, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.  Happy are we who are called to his supper.  Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.”


Act I:  Introduction to McManus, his fall and introduction to the Cloister

Act II:  Introduction to the life of the Cloister, the factions, and the rector, culminating in the death of the novice.

Act III:  The rebellion, McManus desertion of the rector and subsequent repentance, culminating in his death on the altar.


  1. Jonathan Webb says

    That…is…fantastic. I think that even people who have disdain for Catholics will be interested. Great concept Matthew.

  2. Cubeland Mystic says

    Is this the one with Richard Johnson spokesperson for the diocese?

  3. Cubeland Mystic says

    I think you opened that with a murder of a priest in Prison. One idea that came to me is to make it plausible in today’s climate you might need the state in on the game. In other words the state asks the diocese to handle their “rehab” quietly at the cloister because the state can’t really protect them in the prison. Also they should have wear those tracking bracelets so they cannot flee the cloister. It is a form of house arrest. Perhaps some or all of them are on probation from the penal system? It seems more plausible if the state is in on it.

    The other problem to overcome is none of these characters seem likeable. I realize it is not that kind of story, but these dudes are sexual predators. I think the connotation is child abuse or other deviant sexual behaviors about an ill favored segment of our society. What if you mixed it up and some of these priests were embezzlers, convicted drug addicts, womanizers etc etc. Perhaps some of the priests were theological dissidents who needed a roof, some were alcoholics where this was their last hope for recovery. Maybe some dudes wore the tracking bracelet and others like dissident theologians did not.

    Maybe there is another theme running through the story of unsolved murder committed shortly after the rector and Tomaso were ordained. Maybe it was one other their fellow seminarians. Maybe Tomaso is a dissident theologian without a bracelet, and McManus discovers that there is something darker he is hiding. Maybe to make it interesting the rector is covering for Tomaso. Maybe Tomaso has some dirt on the rector and the rector suspects that Tomaso killed the seminarian way back when etc. I suggesting this only because the it would be hard to generate any sympathy for a bunch of sexual deviants run afoul of the law for their proclivities.

    I think it is super original. It’s certainly more original than a remake of Conan the Barbarian.

  4. I hope you don’t think this is Pile On Time for Matthew’s story – I actually came with these comments before reading Cubeland’s (good suggestions, CM, rather intriguing) – but here’s my two cents.

    Maybe, as the action of the story opens, have McManus already at the Cloister as a sort of trustee (you can retain the entree plot line about the priest caught with the prostitute and transfer it to the one (Jim Caveziel?) who eventually dies of snakebite). The fact that McManus has spent so much time at The Cloister would make the bond between McManus and the rector more believable. In fact, make both Tomaso and McManus trustees – lifers for reasons which unfold over the course of the story. Also, to echo Cubeland, make at least one sympathetic heterosexual? We can only take so much sodomy in one sitting, after all…

    Also, I disagree in part with Cubeland’s suggestion that the state shoudl be involved with the Cloister’s operations. I say in part because there could be room for a government official serving as clandestine liaison for the governor (Paul Giamatti?) who is both sympathetic to (because Catholic) and not altogether thrilled (because a lifer bureaucrat) with the project. (You could have the liaison as the governor’s son, with his own issues to deal with, but perhaps that’s for your second novel – a political thriller – something along the lines of Advise and Consent meets King Lear).

    But its a big pill to swallow to think the government would be involved in any way that wouldn’t spell out I-N-T-E-R-F-E-R-E-N-C-E. “Keep us briefed but keep us out of it,” I think would be the best route for government inclusion.

    One final note: It ought to be a novel first and foremost. Really. And a greater one to cut your chops on I can’t think of. Think Canticle for Leibowitz without the science fiction. I say novel first, because that’s where I believe your heart lies, but also because God knows what Hollywood will do to it if it ever gets its hands on it. (Vide: Children of Men). With a novel, the story of record is out there, no matter how Sodomyville tries to manipulate it. Of course, perhaps Icon Productions might still be in business by the time you’re done fiddling with it…


  5. cubeland mystic says

    JOB, Without the ankle bracelet from the gov what is to keep the dudes on the property? Why go sit in a cave when you can just walk to El Centro in 6 hours in the winter with a couple bottles of water? Going to the pen equals certain death for some of these dudes.

    No piling on here, it’s really interesting. It makes you think about all these details and plot twists.

    Maybe there is a sypathetic character who may have started out bad but was saved out there in the caves. Now he is a spiritual giant. A real desert father. Think St Mary of Egypt here but a man.

    • I would think the desert itself was discouragement enough (there would be enough wiggle room for disbelief’s suspension, no?) – and that’s something the expository can get into. Maybe even have an escape attempt – the escapees thinking they’re making some headway – until they come across the robe-and-cinctured bleached skeleton, etc. at the akaline spring that rumor said was a FRESH spring at the half way point, his hands strethcing BACK toward The Cloister, etc. At any rate, there’s nothing a guvmint can do that nature can’t do better…

      Nah, I know it’s not a real Pile-On. And it IS fun, isn’t it? – racing around and kicking up dust like Bo and Luke through the Hazard County of Matthew’s imagination…


    • I thought what kept them there was simply the threat of being sent to a real prison. That seems simple enough. It also makes it more plausible, as the Church doesn’t have the legal right to incarcerate anyone, but the “inmates” could choose to stay there lest they be delivered to the authorities.

  6. cubeland mystic says

    It’s not that scary. Illegal Aliens do it all the time. Go at night in the winter you’re more likely to freeze to death than die of heat. Plus walk five miles in Cali in any direction and you run into a road. I think returning to prison is a better escape deterant than nature. Now if we are in the wastes of Alaska and you have to fly in provisions once a month different story. I get your point on the guv. They suck. But the only way to get me to beieve the story is some plausible reason that this is going on in this day and age. Other than the guv doesn’t want these guys mixed into the prison population, I can’t think of a better way. Another way is to make the time before Y2K. Like late 80’s early 90’s.

    I agree this is fun.

  7. Hush up there, Matthew, we’re trying to think here.

    CM – well, then, why not Death Valley, somewhere in Nevada, hell, even the NJ Pine Barrens? – there has got to be a place left in the US that is that uninhabitable to serve as a disincentive to flee.

    At the risk of sounding doctrinairre (“What? You? Oh, perish the thought!”), I stand firm, not on political but on common sense principles. When’s the last time you heard about the government getting invovled in a program that didn’t ere long become a government program? Along with the food stuffs, instead of religious items, the government would be shipping porn and condoms into The Cloister …. pretty much putting us back where we were with the prisons. Unless of course the action opens with government involvement in its infancy – but that’s why I proposed the Giamatti-like character. (The infancy could serve as an additioinal entree for tension in the novel – The Rector fighting off the temptation to take the guvment’s money to improve conditions, etc.)

    At any rate, there is a priest friend of mine which the author could interview to find out more about the Nevada desert. He spent sometime discerning a monastic vocation in Caliente, Nev. It sounded pretty barren.

    And besides, what’s wrong with taking a page from the Melville school of geography: “Queequeg was a native of Kokovoko, an island far away to the West and South. It is not down in any map; true places never are.”

    I think in the fictionist’s art, making it a true place is the prime directive – if not the pryme korrektiv.


    • Cubeland Mystic says


      He opens with the one strike policy and dead priest in a prison cell. Then he’s got Dick Johnson giving a press conference. No one cares enough about the church to be sympathetic toward something that resembles perv hiding. It’s clandestine and about deviant priests.

      The state does this all the time with programs to off load prisoners to various private programs like half-way houses and such. You have Dick Johnson meeting with someone from the Dept of Correction and the Bishop telling them that Cali cannot afford the extra security to keep minimum security prisoners away from the regular prisoners. It’s totally plausible to have the state request the church keep them at their Cloister. Giamotti can come check on the bad ones with the bracelets. What’s that thing the Opus Dei people put around their thigh? There are allusions to that with the bracelets. Old means of mortification. Tomaso could compare his bracelet to dark ages versions of those things. (Sorry in a hurry to look it up.)

      I don’t care for guv programs either and I totally agree with your assessment, but that is not the story. It’s a fig leaf. Your idea about the Giamotti character adds a ton of depth. A lot of the story could be from his eyes not McManus’s eyes. Think about it a secular dude confronting a spiritual discipline. There is a ton of tension in that plus murder etc.

      I think it is a super good story. (Matthew if you like these ideas feel free to use them.)

  8. Jonathan Webb says

    Sorry Matthew, but my people tell me that Tomaso has to be the hero and he gets poisoned by the Jesuit at the end. The good news is that we can still give you solo credit on the screenplay, but we’ll take it from here. I know that we said we wouldn’t touch it. You must know that these things take on a life of their own. If you play ball we have a Patterson adaption waiting with a six-figure advance.

    I hope that we can all stay friends.

  9. Now, just give me a little space to run with this – hear me out. Could – could the priests be Smurfs?

  10. (Meaning, it should most definitely be a novel first, so that when/if it is completely destroyed by Hollywood and The Man, there’s a built-in “this was such a betrayal of the source material” fan base.

    Possibly related media:

    • Matthew,

      What I’m sayin’, what I’m sayin’! Huh? Huh? Get a load of this, get a load of this! Huh? Huh?

      So now you got four of us pushing as midwives for you, Matthew – I’m taking it Webb’s acerbic wit is serving its usual function – in this case as a kold-water korrektiv to your pie-eyed Hollywoody.


  11. Jonathan Webb says

    Admit it S.E., YOU were one of the disappointed Smurfgoers. The filmmakers broke your heart.

  12. This was the best gut-split I’ve had in a loooong time:

    >>The upcoming “Red Dawn” remake just digitally switched the villains from Chinese to North Koreans. The North Korean army couldn’t conquer the Purdue football dorm, much less the entire center of the country. How convincing a movie is that going to be? If they’re going to do a comedy, they might as well go all the way and imagine the heartland being ransacked by Luxembourgian paratroopers.<<

  13. Jonathan Webb says

    You’re kidding right? Chinese would actually be realistic. Who got to who?

  14. Brilliant. I’d totally watch this if it was ever filmed.

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