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 The cultural references in these books are sixty years or more out of date, the slang almost painfully quaint, but the charm of them is still there.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.