The Passion of Dolssa by Julie Berry (2016)

passion-of-dolssa-cover

For those readers who might be tempted to skip this book because of its subject, setting, or designation as Young Adult…I implore you, do not. This book tackles an immensely complicated and dark subject with beauty, heart, and a clarity of voice that make it accessible — but never easy — for readers to love. Set in the mid-to-late 1200’s in the waning years of the Inquisition in the southwestern corner of France, The Passion of Dolssa tells a tale of a region and a people terrorized by the cruel and deadly Catholic church; a church concerned more for its totalitarian power than its parishioners religious faith.

“We must flee the treacherous heresy that entwined itself around our way of life — the false beliefs that slithered through the grasses of our fair Provensa, with false teachers leading people away from the true faith and toward unholy rituals and vows. Lucifer’s enticements were no less beguiling today that those he planted in the Garden.” 28

The Church’s campaign to root out and destroy any dissenting religious opinions, be they Christian or otherwise, has left young Dolssa de Stigata’s homeland — Tolosa — a landscape of ruins, and its people living in constant fear of being judged as worshiping outside the strict boundaries of the Catholic Church. Local clergy are constantly searching for men and women who they believe are living or worshiping outside the Church’s strict confines; those who deviate are labeled heretics. They and their families face cruel punishments, often death by torture, if they are found lacking in faithful rigor. Anything at all can arouse suspicion — and more often than not nothing at all other vengeful priest or terrified neighbor — and the line between acts of Christianity charity and heresy are nearly impossible to identify. Once accused, there is almost nothing stopping the Inquisitors from finding fault and issuing punishment in the name of God.

Enter Dolssa, a young noblewoman who believes that Jesus talks directly to her, whispering sermons about kindness, charity, and love to her; sermons that she feels to compelled to share with her family and neighbors. The words the Dolssa hears “her beloved” Jesus tell her contain messages that Jesus is there for everyone, he loves all without limits, and he can be prayed to by anyone in need and be heard. As word of her gospel spread, the local Bishop and his Inquisitors become enraged. Not only is she a woman who is claiming to talk to Jesus, but she is spreading the message that all Christians can talk directly to him, with no need to go through the Church’s established hierarchy.

Predictably, Dolssa is brought before her local Inquisitor and — when she refuses to stop her preaching or to stop worshiping Jesus without the Church as an intermediary — she is sentenced to death. This is not the end of Dolssa’s story however, but the beginning. It seems that a life filled with miracles awaits her, despite the intentions of the Church.

When she escapes from her funeral pyre to safety, she goes on the run from the Inquisitors, the Knights of the Church, and a powerful — and enraged — bishop who vows to make her an example by finding and publicly executing her.

Enter our second heroine, Botille, a poor peasant woman living in the seaside village of Bajas. Here in her small village, the reach of the Inquisition seems to be fading, largely because all there are too poor to pillage. This distance from the power of the Church, and the fact that the village is overseen by a kindly (if sinful) priest, some of the old ways still exist. Fortune-tellers, healers, and wise elders are still counseled in times of illness or disaster, although everyone is aware that it is risky to do these things as they are clearly at odds with the rules of the Catholic Church.

“Where we see neighbors being neighborly, the inquisitors see heresy spreading. We see a lad bow to an uncle; they see a sympathy forming that will damn the lad to hell when he’s grown. ‘Little foxes’ they call the heretics, ‘spoiling the vineyard of the Lord.’ What they don’t understand, they destroy. And they believe they please our blessed Savior by doing so.” 147

When Botille comes across Dolssa, weak and hunted by the Church’s enforcers, she must decide whether coming to her aid — an act she sees as a simple Christian charity — could be seen as an act of heresy. The fates have already set a course for Dolssa and Botille, it seems, and soon a series of miracles — miracles which the Church would call the work of the Devil — link the two women irrevocably together and bring very great danger to the village of Bajas.

Spell-binding and filled with historical details that were completely unknown to me, the combination of the two make the book as fascinating as it is haunting.