Book Review: Amata Means Beloved

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 The cultural references in these books are sixty years or more out of date, the slang almost painfully quaint, but the charm of them is still there.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

Bush Whacker

By Pinkie.

It looked sad. Bare. Lonely. Exposed. Vulnerable. Near death. Like a phantom.

On my daily walk I noticed the neighbor’s bush had been seriously cut back. It was springtime and it had been pruned. It looked more like a collection of sticks than a living plant.

Would it survive after a hack job like that? It didn’t look like it to my untrained eye. Was the homeowner trying to kill his/her bush? Not intentionally.

Could he/she have made a mistake? Was it pruned too much? Possibly.

I know how I felt pruned too severely when I returned to the world from the convent. I could only moan, “Why Lord?”

I would meditate on John 15 (the vine and the branches) and wonder if I was the pruned vine or the rejected junk thrown into the fire. It felt as though I could be either and that was not comforting.

I continued to walk past this bush and I noticed its steady growth and recovery. Eventually it started sprouting buds so I took a picture. I wanted to be reminded of this rebirth, of this growth after looking utterly hopeless and forlorn.

By the end of the summer, the bush was massive and it was hard to believe it was chopped to nothing roughly six months ago. This change was gradual and happened over a long period of time. But it did occur, even though the changes day to day were imperceptible.

It is the same for me. I do not feel much different today compared to yesterday. Sometimes I even feel worse. Two steps forward, and one step back, etc. I am confident I do not look outwardly different today compared to yesterday, just like the bush. But that time period is too small.

God has given me glimpses of my growth and recovery from that extensive pruning when I look at larger chunks of time. Often I don’t recognize it but the reality is that I am trending upward. When I reach certain milestones they help me take a moment and do a direct comparison.

How about you? Do you try and stay focused on the bigger picture? How do you do that? How do you encourage yourself and others day to day?

A Year of Not Me?

By Mater Dolorosa

Hearing the announcement from Pope Francis that 2015 will be a year dedicated to consecrated life initially left me with mixed emotions. Obviously, this will be a great grace for the Church.  It will be beautiful to pray for those in the consecrated life and it will create more awareness about consecrated life.  And I am confident that my former sisters are very excited!

However, I can’t help but feel a little left out. You see, a few years ago I was in the convent going about my normal Monday when I was called into my superior’s office. To my great surprise I was asked to leave the community. And even though it’s been a few years, my heart is still confused by this. Initially, it seemed that hearing about this
special year reopened those wounds.

And yet, I don’t believe that is the entirety of what is going on in my heart…

Jesus always calls us to greater healing and wholeness. Yes, hearing this announcement did stir up feelings and emotions. But this “stirring” in my heart is also a beautiful opportunity to let God into those hurts and receive more healing. In these moments, when I feel left out and when my life feels meaningless, I have to reach out in faith. When I have the courage to let God be the only thing that I possess He fills my heart with the knowledge that I belong to Him.

He is enough for me.

Now I look back and see how much I have grown and healed. This announcement is not so much salt in a wound but rather a reminder of the healing balm the Lord has placed in those wounds.

How about you?  How does this announcement make you feel?  God bless!