Roses Among Thorns, Simple Advice for Renewing Your Spiritual Journey by St. Francis de Sales, published by Sophia Institute Press.
St. Jane de Chantal was the foundress of the Visitation sisters (Visitandines), along with St. Francis de Sales, her spiritual director. St. Francis is known for his keen counsels. This book contains 60 excerpts of some his most poignant and sweet advice, and it does just as the title promises: it renews your spiritual journey.
On the practical side, what I liked about this book, is that it is short, almost pocket size, so you can carry it anywhere. And, the excerpts are only a couple of paragraphs long so you can make a short meditation of it, or even read and re-read the same excerpt until the words really sink in. You can also read the excerpts as you wish: pick a topic per day; chose a topic at random; or read it cover to cover, it doesn’t matter – you will find it uplifting and full of hope.
On the spiritual side, I’ve always found St. Francis the Sales to be kind and honest, never condemning or harsh. If you’ve read “Divine Intimacy” or any other of his books you will realize why he is the model of spiritual directors. His style is personable, gentle and encouraging! It is as if a friend that knows you well was speaking with you.
For example under the topic: A Time of Depression, St. Francis writes:
“A melancholy humor has overcome you for a time, and from being sorrowful, you have become anxious. Do not let yourself become anxious. Do not lose your peace. Even though it seems to you that you do everything without any savor, feeling or strength continue to embrace our crucified Lord, and give him your heart, consecrate your mind to him with your affections just as they are…”
My humble and personal advice is that you pray to the Holy Spirit before reading any excerpt in this book, and imagine it is a good friend speaking to you. It will really soothe your spirit, it did mine. I am so happy to share this little gem with you. I hope you also enjoy it.
I would have been about twenty the first time I read Rumer Godden’s novel (actual quote from a friend: “You want to be a nun, and you haven’t read In This House of Brede?”), and at first I found it hard going. For one thing, there are a lot of characters. It’s easier the second time around, once you know that there are three main characters (Philippa, Cecily and Abbess Catherine) and three important secondary characters (Dames Veronica, Agnes and Maura), and that all the others are well-drawn but incidental to the story.
The main reason I struggled to read Brede, though, was that the things I was reading kept striking home too sharply, as the characters’ doubts and trials became a mirror for my own. There’s a scene partway through the novel in which one of the sisters is told by the abbess that – after her future in the abbey had been hanging in the balance – she will be permitted to make temporary vows. And this character, normally so efficient, cold and practical, feels the relief so deeply that she collapses in a faint. I knew that one day, I too would wait while the Council met to decide whether or not to admit me to profession: I, who desired the religious life with my whole being, could easily imagine collapsing with relief when accepted. Or trying to hold on to a vocation in the face of the same internal and external pressures faced by another sister throughout her novitiate. Rumer Godden writes her characters intensely and unsparingly, and just as in real life, their virtues can easily tip over the edge and become flaws. Philippa Talbot is a widow who gave up a high-powered government career to enter the religious life in her forties, and her drive and acute intelligence isolate her from the other novices. Cecily Scallon is a brilliant but fragile young musician whose family opposed her entrance into religious life, and her determination sometimes hovers at the edge of selfishness. But if virtues can become flaws then the reverse is also true, and the book’s most rewarding and beautiful moments come when, by the grace of God, a character is able to turn around and gain a true victory over self.
In This House of Brede is largely, as you will have gathered from my description above, a character-driven book, but character development is intricately woven through its layers of plots and sub-plots. In a nutshell, it is the story of an English Benedictine monastery in the early 1960s. The old abbess dies suddenly of a stroke, and her successor Abbess Catherine inherits a catastrophic financial situation that casts doubt on the future of the monastery, as well as a religious landscape that is changing beyond recognition with the opening of the Second Vatican Council in Rome. One of the main differences between the novel and its 1975 film adaptation starring Diana Rigg is that the latter chose to leave out these aspects of the novel, and to focus on the relationships between the nuns instead. The film is quite pleasant in itself and I’ve watched it a number of times, but the source material is so complex that, by simplifying it and stripping out the sub-plots, a lot of the most profound (and dramatic!) moments of the book were lost: the tense medical emergency that threatens to shatter the lives of several characters; the slow crafting of a new chapel that mirrors the nuns’ own growth in faith; and also the scene I had most looked forward to seeing on screen, in which the abbey’s most treasured possession gives up a secret it had held for over a century. Brede really deserves an adaptation into a television series, I think, to follow the author’s carefully balanced and layered plotlines fully, and most of all to do justice to the varied, struggling, loving and movingly human women who live within the walls of the abbey a life devoted to God.
Godden was a Benedictine Oblate who wrote no fewer than three novels about nuns: Black Narcissus, written in thirty years before her conversion to Catholicism, examines the psyches of troubled missionary sisters from a cold and critical distance and was, I thought, very much an outsider’s view of the religious life, while Brede, written in 1969, has more balanced and mature characters, and shows a deeper, internalised understanding of the monastic vocation. The last, 1979’s Five For Sorrow, Ten For Joy, is a much darker book (the heroine, Lise, enters the convent straight out of prison), and certainly not for the fainthearted, but it too reveals the dignity and sacrifice of the religious life and those who live it. Black Narcissus is probably the most famous of the three to a secular audience, but it is the quiet and complex Brede that has won most admiration from the religious sisters I have known. If there is any book that can lay claim to being the novel about the contemplative religious life, it is surely In This House of Brede.
Given that Monica Baldwin’s I Leap Over the Wall is perhaps the most famous book ever about leaving the convent, it’s surprising that it took me so long to read it. Or perhaps not. I’d read Father Richard Butler’s analysis of it in his book Religious Vocation: An Unnecessary Mystery, in which he thoroughly criticised her understanding of vocation, and other authors I’d encountered had also written about its shortcomings. So it was with some trepidation that I picked it up in my local library, and made a startling discovery: this book is funny.
Perhaps I should qualify that. Episodes from the author’s post-convent life (especially her work in a camp for munitions workers) can be harrowing, but she brings to everything a wry, ironic, and exquisitely British sense of humour that keeps it from getting weighed down. Baldwin was a genteel young woman of twenty-one when she entered an enclosed monastic community in 1914, and she returned to secular life in 1941 to find the world turned upside-down by two World Wars. I Leap Over the Wall is the story of her attempts to deal with new social mores (“an object was handed to me which I can only describe as a very realistically modelled bust-bodice. That its purpose was to emphasise contours which, in my girlhood, were always decorously concealed was but too evident”), find paid work (“who, in these days of battle, murder, and sudden death, wanted illuminated addresses or initial letters from the Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berri, or the Book of Kells?”), assist in the War Effort (“nobody who was not actually fingered one can have any idea of the degree of iciness to which a brussels sprout can attain if it really makes up its mind; nor of the rapidity with which this iciness can be communicated to the hands of anyone who attempts to sever it from its parent stalk at half-past eight on a cold and frosty morning in the early days of March”) and to try to catch up with a society that had left her behind in every way.
Her narrative is carefully structured: she’ll begin with an episode from her post-convent life – for example, people-watching in a stuffy train carriage on the way to the latest in a string of job interviews – and then shift into a comparison with religious life. (In this case, it was a discussion of the conflict between the two types of nuns one finds in a monastery: the Fresh-Air Fiends who want the windows open in every sort of weather, and the Fug Fiends who always want them closed no matter what.) She writes about her time in the convent with a blend of warmth and tension that anyone who has faced a violent interior battle to stay in religious life will understand perfectly. Occasionally, her detached story-telling style will shift into something like poetry as she describes, say, the hand-woven lace on the altar linens used in her community: “cream, foam-colour, ivory, linen-white, ghost-grey or palest oyster – all the faint, indescribable quarter-tones between white and white that exist only in lace; most of it was well over a yard in depth” or the rich pigments which she laid out for the work of illuminating manuscripts.
She doesn’t shy away from spiritual depth, either. Though it’s only at the very end that she states directly why she left the convent, her detailed discussions throughout about mental suffering, the difficulties of conquering the self, and the Dark Night of the Soul, give more than a hint. On a happier note, Chapter 8 includes a fascinating description of the attrait, a concept I hadn’t previously encountered – for someone interested in religious life, it’s worth borrowing this book from the library for these couple of pages alone. Baldwin describes the attrait as “the special angle or aspect of the spiritual life towards which a soul feels particularly drawn,” and, for nuns, a vocation within a vocation: “there was a nun to whom the doctrine of Grace as revealed in the Epistles of Saint Paul was everything; and another who offered her life, with its prayers, works, sufferings, and joys, for the Sanctification of Priests. Another – an Apostolic Soul – lived only to win the graces necessary for the Conversion of Sinners; another for the Foreign Missions; yet another was wholly inspired by the idea of membership in the Mystical Body of Christ” – different “facets of the million-faced jewel of religious life.”
Not that she can’t speak eloquently about the hardest aspects of religious life, too. But she isn’t bitter; if she suffered from the cold as a nun, she also suffered from the cold as a farm worker in her post-convent life, and doesn’t see fit to say which experience was worse. And, always, her descriptions are handled with a touch of self-deprecating humour that lightens the tone.
I picked up I Leap Over the Wall expecting to hate it. Instead, I found a book that wasn’t perfect (you have to skim over paragraphs of irrelevant details sometimes!), but which turned out to be a perceptive and often charming account of life as a fish-out-of-water in the wild world of England in wartime, and an interesting look at the religious vocation “from the point of view of one who had no such vocation.”
A Grief Unveiled by Gregory Floyd
reviewed by Grace.
“There is a difference between early grief and later grief. Early grief is acute; later grief is more diffuse. Early grief smacks, stings, punches; later grief is more gentle. Early grief is a stalker; later grief is a companion. Early grief is crags and crevices; later grief is furrows softened by the passage of time” (Gregory Floyd).
Each of us experiences this mysterious phenomenon of grief in our lives, to which I am certainly no stranger. In the early months after leaving the community I had discerned with, my mom, who spent many years in the field of social work, gently said to me, “I think you’re grieving. You need to let yourself grieve. To cry. To work through what has taken place. You lived a very beautiful and yet difficult life and it is a loss for you.” To which I responded, “No, I’m not. I’m fine. The Lord called me to leave and there is grace for me to transition. I’ll get through this.” Little did I realize that while there was a tremendous amount of grace, that I was in fact certainly going through the grief process, but didn’t want to admit it.
A dear friend of mine passed away during my canonical year and as I was trying to make sense of it all, A Grief Unveiled was given to me. In my opinion, it is one of the best written works on grief available as it articulates the rawness of feelings and emotions one can experience as well as a magnificent integration of our Catholic beliefs to anchor and carry us through the storm of loss, whatever form it may take. As I read it again for the second time in the different context I now find myself in, I receive new insight to what often lies unable to be articulated by my heart. How grateful I am to the Floyds for writing their journey of the Cross so that others might be led to the glory of the Resurrection, the fulfillment of Calvary.
From the back cover of A Grief Unveiled: One Father’s Journey Through the Death of a Child
A candid account of sudden grief and recovery
It was a lazy afternoon in April, 1995, when the unthinkable happened. Six-year-old John-Paul, the youngest son of Gregory and Maureen Floyd, was playing in the front lawn with his brother David when both were struck by an out-of-control car. Rushed to separate hospitals, David survived with bruises, but John-Paul died instantly. In A Grief Unveiled, Floyd reveals with painstaking candor his journey through the sorrow of losing a young child – dealing not only with his own broken heart, but also with the struggle to reconstruct his role as husband, father and protector.
Unlike glossy modern libraries that boast about their Wi-Fi, iPads and e-books, the Catholic library in my city is tucked away on a mezzanine floor of a battered old building, has one old-fashioned monitor on which you can search the catalogue (when they remember to turn it on), and contains rows and rows of wonderful dusty books, many of which have faded “Date Due”stamps from a time before my parents were born.
My favourite books in this library are from a genre that boomed briefly in the 1950s, heyday of religious vocations in the Church, and disappeared without a trace after Vatican II: literature designed to give young women an “inside scoop” on life in the convent. Books like Everynun by Father Daniel A. Lord, a play about a nun who inspires a doubtful postulant to remain in the convent by relating the details of her own long and rich life, and What Must I Do? by Sister Mary Paul Reilly OSB, a novel written entirely in the second person: “you”are a confident young 1950s girl named Marilyn who goes through every step of formation up to the day of final vows. The cultural references in these books are sixty years or more out of date, the slang almost painfully quaint, but the charm of them is still there. The books themselves may be products of a particular era, but the genuine love for God and for the religious life, and the desire to share that love with others, is timeless.
Amata Means Beloved is the same kind of book, written for our time. The author is Sister Mary Catharine Perry OP, a cloistered nun who published this, her first book, in 2003. At 101 pages, it’s an easy read – I finished it in a one-hour train ride home from work – and it has the same simplicity, earnestness and sweetness as its 1950s predecessors.
The story follows Emily Barone, an American in her early twenties who enters an enclosed Dominican monastery (presumably based on the author’s community in Summit, NJ), and must overcome an enormous internal struggle in order to stay. Anyone who has lived in a religious community will recognise the way that the contemplative life brings her suffering to the surface: old grief and anger that she has forced down in order to give the appearance of tranquillity force their way back up again during her novitiate, and must be dealt with if she is to remain. What exactly happened to her brother that she can’t come to terms with? And why do cracks start appearing in Emily’s facade every time she catches sight of the community’s new bell?
This novella is set in the early years of the 21st century, and clearly written in the immediate wake of 9/11 when so many lives were ended or damaged forever by terrorism. In that, Amata Means Beloved deserves a second reading: Emily’s grief process can easily be read as a metaphor for the struggle of America as a country to cope with the wounds inflicted on its soul by an unfathomable loss of innocent life. And yet, it’s a humorous and hopeful book. She is not left to battle her demons alone, but accepted and prayed for within the community – the most touching moments throughout, particularly the scene where Emily’s novice mistress explains the meaning of her new name (and thereby the book’s title), are the times when her sisters in Christ quietly reach out to her.
Like the books I’ve dug up from long ago, Amata Means Beloved is stylistically a product of its time, with contemporary references and language that will eventually become dated, but its deeper themes – specifically, the ways that a religious vocation both demands and shapes the growth of personality in community life – will endure, and young women many years down the track who find a battered old copy in the library will see in it a reflection of their own uphill path to God in discerning a vocation to religious life.
It sounds like a spoiler to say that the title character of Pierre de Calan’s 1977 novel Cosmas, or the Love of God is dead, but it isn’t: we find that out within the first two chapters of the book. Father Roger, the talkative novice master, begins the narrative by giving us a tour of his Trappist monastery, and points out a simple grave in their cemetery:
Brother Cosmas, novice.
Strictly speaking, Father Roger points out, Cosmas was not a novice at the time his life abruptly ended. Convinced beyond doubt of his vocation, but unable to bear the difficulties of monastic life, he had left the community twice, the second time seemingly for good. Why, then, has he been laid to rest among the brothers, wearing the habit of the community?
This is the force that drives de Calan’s story: the character study of a devout, sensitive and lonely young man, and the battle that he fought with himself in seeking the religious life. We know from the outset that Cosmas is dead, but it is the state of his soul and vocation at the moment of death that the reader must wait to discover. As writer Patricia Snow comments in an article entitled “Dismantling the Cross,” novels by Protestants tend to end with the neat conclusion of marriage, while “the Catholic novel, whose proper subject matter is the relationship of the individual to God, can only be finally consummated outside the bounds of the novel and even of life itself.” The ultimate moment of failure or redemption cannot be achieved during the hero’s lifetime, and so only in death can we find out whether or not his vocation was a true one.
I first read Cosmas while discerning a possible call to the religious life, and donated my copy to the convent library when I entered. After borrowing it herself, the Prioress instructed all the Sisters to read it, and Cosmas made it onto the community’s short list of novels that gave an accurate impression of the religious life. (To give an indication of how short this list was, the only other book on it was In This House of Brede.) Unlike Rumer Godden’s novel, Cosmas was originally written in French, and has a self-conscious European literary approach that may seem stilted to some readers (if you have read Song at the Scaffold by Gertrud Von Le Fort, you’ll be familiar with this style), but Father Roger is a likeable and engaging narrator, and he draws the reader slowly into the story of a determined, exasperating, struggling young man who will come to fulfil his vocation, one way or the other, in the final moments of his life.