The post where I review the Pope’s book–and risk excommunication

Ok, so Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love) may not be your average new release: But I did buy it on Amazon, and the day I checked it out, there was only one 5-star review.  I felt sorry for the Pope, and decided I would buy it and try to leave an honest review, in an effort to bump up his sales.

The edition I bought—released just days after the official pronouncement—is very oddly formatted. It looks exactly like one of those do-it-yourself projects: There is no publisher listed, and  I can’t figure out what the hell is the deal with those super-wide margins. Are they intentional, to allow readers to make notes, or did someone forget to hit the margin tab?  But I can’t blame His Holiness, because I’m pretty sure Francis did not log onto Createspace and try to format his own book. I also see a number of small issues, like weird punctuation and space gaps, things which are not important, but which the evil empire Amazon is known to come down hard on with lesser known self-published writers, sometimes even pulling their books from sale. Somehow I don’t think they’re going to give the Pope a hard time on this one. But I’d only give it two stars for formatting.

I really should not make light of this work, because on the whole, I think it is a marvelous, even miraculous bit of work, coming from a sage old churchman, yet touchingly written and completely in step with the modern world. OK, maybe not with the idea of contraception and same-sex marriage and the role of women in the church, but at least with the concept of human sexual love and its realities. For example, this quote, which should prove dismaying to romance writers: “It is not helpful to dream of an idyllic and perfect love…a celestial notion of earthly love forgets that the best is yet to come, that a fine wine matures with age.” This book is certainly pastoral in tone, down-to-earth in places and is like attending the best pre-Cana session ever (When my husband and I had ours, so many years ago, old Monsignor Hague mostly told jokes about nervous bridegrooms. And he counseled me, privately, about the rewards and perils of marrying into a large Italian-Sicilian family. The Monsignor was a lovely man, but it’s hard to imagine him being frank about the earthier or more intimate aspects of marriage).

I think a crucial thing in the Pope’s book is his acceptance and tacit approval of sexual pleasure (in a marriage of course, but he is still the Pope). We Catholics often have the wrongheaded idea that sex is kind of a dirty,  necessary act we have to get through in order to continue the human race. Isn’t Lust one of the Seven Deadly sins after all? I have never understood this attitude, not in all the decades I’ve been alive and Catholic. Think of it: Who created sex, our bodies, our sex organs? Isn’t it a massive sign of disrespect to our Creator, to shun the gift he gives us in pleasure, and consider it something bad or evil? It is the ultimate life-affirming act, in whatever form it takes, and even if it does not directly lead to the creation of a child. Francis is never explicit about it, and the act is often referred to as ‘marital joy,’ which I find quite charming, even if sex is not always a joy. But he does identify  the key to great sex, that it must be firmly twisted into that greatest commandment of all, Love. Which is why one-night-stands and quickies are so profoundly disappointing: You have to have some real feeling for that other body besides yours in bed.

Amoris Laetitia is, of course, not all about sex; its main focus is the family, while acknowledging that very first step toward creating one. It is reassuringly warm and fatherly and the same times shows the Pope to be a true romantic, influenced by his South American upbringing, where love and sex and family are all accepted and essential facts of life (as opposed to the Vatican itself, where all that is an alien life form).  It is amazing to have a pontiff who understands marriage so well, particularly a long marriage (like mine! I’ll be married thirty-five years next month) without having actually taken the plunge himself. This is a very human and accessible encyclical, and at the same time spiritual, and it gives me great hope for Catholicism.

And for those who feel change is not coming quickly enough to the Church, be patient, and recognize this as the essential first steps in what could be a long, but ultimately successful journey in the Church’s recognition and acceptance of the way our lives here on earth are truly lived.

Leaps of Faith

This week in the Persistent Writer’s world, we find The Novice Master competing hotly with his older sister The Raven Girl in that cutthroat arena known as Amazon. This is a terrific example of how an E-book never has to die or be considered out of print. The Raven Girl is five years old next month, and like a reliable old jalopy, still jumps back to life every so often and surprises me. I decided to give it a little boost with a tiny ad campaign this month, and it’s working wonders: It’s already made several of Amazon’s rather dubious ‘best-seller’ lists, including the important-sounding Children’s Historical Fiction/Exploration and Discovery list where, for a while this morning, it climbed briefly to #5.  But the NM is holding his own with the adults, and both books were up in that near-mythical five-figure ranking today, out of 4 million other Kindle books, so not so bad.  Wish there was some way of just hanging out there, permanently…

When you’re an author, it’s hard sometimes to have faith in yourself and your work, particularly when you face those daunting sales figures. Which really should mean nothing, but of course they do. Glowing reviews are nice, but sometimes you just want to see people lay down actual money for your product—thus showing their faith in you.

I’ve been hitting a hard patch—finally—with the novel-in-progress: I say ‘finally,’ because it was all going too well. I suddenly feel worried about the whole premise of it, and concerned about my characters seeming bland and not very interesting. Finishing it requires a certain amount of faith on my part, that it is a book worth putting out there, and for a moment or two, I was not sure. Still not ever sure what book is worthy of publishing or promotion, or what readers who matter really want, but–if only to continue with the metaphor of leaping I just set up–I’m going to keep jumping ahead regardless.


Writers! Do you ever wonder if you suffer from this? Hypergraphia, an abnormal compulsion to write, is a confirmed psychological disorder, though whether it is actually a blessing or a curse is not quite clear. Hypergraphics of the past would fill volume after volume of notebooks with fevered prose, relentless thoughts that demanded to be set down with pen and ink; but these days, the PC becomes the enabler, allowing those afflicted to fill up hard drives and the mysterious ‘cloud’. On the self-publishing forums, this kind of behavior is encouraged, perhaps to the detriment of readers everywhere, in order to maintain a stream of income and keep your name in front the reading public.

I found myself thinking about this disorder, now that I’m back at work: Scribbling down this very post in between pupils, on a sheet of student composition paper. My pockets and my purse are filled with pads and scraps of paper containing desperate scribbles, makeshift outlines, and endless lists: Groceries, character names, books I want to read, places I need to visit. I’m already halfway through a novel I only started writing two weeks ago. I’ve been a little worried about my prodigious writing output these past few weeks, which seems to me verging on the abnormal. Is it all due to inspiration from my recent trip, or is it some kind of certifiable craziness?

I do have a history of ‘binge’ writing, but it’s a fairly rare occurrence, and usually I’m pretty slow and steady, as writers go. I don’t really believe in inspiration as a writing tool, but I have experienced some pretty intense creative urges. I’m not bipolar, as far as I know, but I do wonder how close those urges are to a manic state. Is this healthy or unhealthy? Is it true writing?

I suppose what separates hypergraphia from sheer prolificacy is talent and intelligence, and, perhaps, a more refined thinking process. Maybe the test for hypergraphia is how it stands up to editing. No matter how writing is born and created, it still needs to be readable. I remember when my mother-in-law suffered a serious stroke: We found spiral-bound notebooks completely filled with handwritten gibberish–one page had nothing but the letter ‘g’ on it. When I asked her about these  later, she told me she believed she was writing down the story of her stroke and how she felt as it occurred.She  thought her writing was making perfect sense as she wrote it, and that haunts me now. Will that happen to me one day?  Will I actually begin writing nonsense or gibberish, without even realizing it? Even worse–will I try to publish it? Hopefully not!

Much of my crazier scribbling—the scraps and pads in my pockets, for example—are indeed desperate efforts to get things down before I forget them. I’ve become quite forgetful. My internist assures me my lapses are ‘normal’ for ‘my age,’ and dementia and Alzheimer’s seem unlikely, but this is little comfort when I forget words I want or need, or can’t remember a song title, or enter a room three or four times a day and can’t remember why. Or call my students by the wrong name. That, and the new teeth I had installed last year make me feel pretty old.

But then, it’s all justification for writing too much. Who knows how much longer I’ll be in the world? I hope another thirty or forty years, probably less, but…there won’t be any writing from the grave, so may as well get it all in now. Just try and bear with me!


And so my monastery retreat is over. As I write this, I am sitting in a hotel room in Elkview, West Virginia, in a kind of second, micro-retreat: It seems the Almighty thought it would be pretty funny to make me drive to and from Gethsemani Abbey in snowstorms, even though it is mid-April. Since the Cumberland Gap is expected to be hit hardest—and I’ve already had the scary experience of trying to maneuver my little toy car through those mountains in high wind and icy roads—I’m hunkered down here, in what seems like a luxurious parody of my little room at the monastery. A gigantic, soft comfortable bed, HD-TV with a zillion channels, and a big desk for my computer and papers. And the view: Lovely soaring West Virginia hills, still wintry brown and white, and at their base—A big ol’ shopping center, complete with a Dollar Store.

Still, it’s quiet, almost as quiet as the abbey was, and my fellow retreatants here are a lot chattier and nicer.  There’s even a very friendly black Labrador retriever I keep encountering in the elevator. It’s actually a great place to sit and regroup, and think about what the last week has meant to me. But I’m not going to make any conclusions about it all just yet. I still don’t know what to make of it: Gethsemani was a beautiful place, very soulful, and I was thrilled to make a kind of quasi-mystical connection with Merton there. The liturgical experience was interesting and at times, moving. But I found myself constantly questioning the value of solitude and aloneness as a path to God. It just seems contradictory to all that I truly believe, that the path to God lies in love and in others. So how does closing yourself off to the world get you there? I need to think about that more. Ironically, as I was sealed away at Gethsemani, the Pope brought out his groundbreaking pronouncement on family life and love.  You might not think much of it, but I thought it was huge, and it seemed to support my own personal beliefs on the importance of love and family and connection in coming to God.

I suppose the value of the retreat was mostly as a temporary break, an escape from my very secular and unspiritual day to day world. A time to reflect, to read and to write with abandon. And in that respect, it was a complete success.

So here is the news: At Gethsemani I wrote four chapters of a novel that I had been thinking about at home.  I didn’t know that I would do another novel so soon, especially considering the mixed results I’m having with The Novice Master, but it all just came to me there in the monastery; it’s all plotted out, and it works, it is a real, viable thing: I will have a new work of fiction this year. Of course I think it’s going to be the best thing I ever wrote! I wrote much of it in the odd little library there, with its paltry little shelf of Mertonia and plentitude of moldering old Catholic ‘classics,’ plus some motley books obviously left behind by other retreatants. (Am kicking myself for not bringing along a copy of The Novice Master and sneaking it onto the fiction shelf there.)

The inspiration for this novel comes not necessarily from Gethsemani or Merton, but indeed, from my fellow retreatants. That tight-lipped, seemingly troubled bunch: I found myself covertly studying them, trying to figure out their motives for being there, trying to understand them as individual human beings and—Voila! I had some characters. Now, I did meet a few lovely people, exchanged smiles with a few shy souls, and even talked with a few monks. But now I am actually grateful to the majority of retreatants who kept to themselves (well, it was a silent retreat, after all) and regarded my smiles and conversational overtures with coolness and rejection. They actually did me a great service. So my stay at Gethsemani was humbling, and even a bit humiliating, but a lot of good is going to come of it, regardless.

My dearest friends in the blogosphere: You have been so patient and supportive despite my bombardment of posts these past few days, and thank you for putting up with it. My posts will likely thin out now for the next few months, as I work passionately on my next project, which I might start discussing when I am a little further along. I will be doing another chapter or two today, as I wait patiently for the snow gods to settle down.

And then I think I might just mosey down to that shopping center later…Supper at Bob Evans! Because good fiction requires a combination of the transcendent and reality, the nitty-gritty down-to-earth stuff. Yeah, the spiritual part of this pilgrimage is definitely over! Turn up the bluegrass…

The Gift

One of the reasons I came to the Abbey of Gethsemani was to encounter (confront, deal with) the writer Thomas Merton, who lived here as a monk and priest.  I  respect him tremendously, but I also have issues with him. I believe his talent and craftsmanship as a writer is unparalleled, but I found myself concerned about the strength of his spiritual commitment sometimes, particularly as he grew older: This is especially vivid in his journals, in which he was unguarded and excruciatingly honest, as opposed to his more polished ‘official’ works, the self-assured piety of The Seven Storey Mountain. He can come across as exasperatingly doubtful, questioning,  even neurotic. A most imperfect modern mystic.  I felt myself becoming very impatient with him in the weeks before coming here, thinking, what do you do you have to do with me, anyway? Why do you even matter?

This is his place, his home for so many years, though ironically he would die overseas. His bones are here now, only steps away from where I am sitting now. His grave is a touching, moving thing in its simplicity, no shrine there, but a simple cross in a sea of white crosses, for he is buried among his brother monks. Between Foxes, actually, right next to the abbot who gave him so much trouble, Dom James Fox. Wonder what he would think of that.

The monks do not use caskets to bury their dead, so when you stand at the grave of Merton, there is nothing between you and his remains but several feet of dirt. His bones lay at your feet. He is dead now nearly fifty years, a half century, and yet there is a curious timeline of people still connected to him in this world of the living. Yesterday I had the pleasure of meeting an elderly monk who had known Merton in his days as a novice. And I know, from all the books I read and lectures that I attend, that the woman Merton loved, known simply as ‘M.’ is also still alive, while his bones molder under the ground. That famous love reduced to an abstraction now, a few tortured chapters in his journal.

But the true, questioning, wandering spirit of Merton is strangely elusive here at 21st century Gethsemani. I expected to be bombarded with it, even crushed by it. But the Abbey is oddly reticent about promoting its own son, perhaps to avoid seeming to favor one monk over all the others. There are his books in the bookstore of course, and in the library; and pictures of him in the visitors’ center. But I feel profoundly disappointed by my inability to feel any real sense of him, as I walk the monastery grounds, or attend the liturgies; even as I stand directly before his grave. I could be at any abbey, I feel, and I can’t connect the monastery with the man:  Gethsemani seems almost too tidy and perfect and a bit unreal. Or perhaps the true monastery lies behind those ‘God Alone’ gates, hidden from the view of curious retreatants. I felt, in truth, a bit alienated–from both Merton and his monastery.

I didn’t want to be focused on dead Merton in his simple grave, so I went out hiking into the grounds and fields around the monastery. Into the lands he mentions lovingly in his journals, the essence of his everyday when he was working in his hermitage.He mentioned a hike to Dom Frederic Lake, and so I decide to take the very same walk in the woods myself. It is a surprisingly cool spring morning, when I set out at 9:00 am—just after a lonely breakfast in the ‘talking’ dining room.  I have no problem finding the trail to the lake, which is quite undemanding as hikes go, just a little uphill climb toward the end. I see the row of pines Merton mentions, although they are quite elderly now and bare, like skeletons stretching up in to the sky. There is a smattering of redbud trees in bloom, and bits of purple amid the mosses and detritus along the path—tiny star-like flowers, but also deep purple violets, hugging the ground low. A timid spring, here.

But it is here, that to my surprise, I finally feel his presence. I feel it in the wind, which rushes around me and stirs up the dead leaves along the path. And I swear he is there, somewhere. It is inexplicable, since I am not that loopy visionary, mystical sort of person. I’d sooner walk through a shopping mall than a Kentucky forest. But I expect at any moment to suddenly come upon the man himself, loping along in plaid shirt and work pants, grinning. I want to converse with him. I want to apologize for my snarkiness and criticism of his work, and lack of respect. I’d tell him I understand his impatience and restlessness at the abbey, and that relentless need to escape through all that writing and writing and writing. I understand, why he fell in love. And now I’m ready to listen, to whatever more he has to tell me. Perhaps about the value of solitude, as creative aid and  pathway to God. He knows certainly about the potent spirituality of nature, for I feel the divine connection too, even if I can’t explain it.

And then I look down, and see, in the dirt by the lake, a perfect little circle of stone, about three quarters of an inch wide. It resembles a tiny millstone, with minute channels radiating out from the center. I dig it out, and see that it is actually a fossil, some strange long-ago sea creature who inhabited the great inland sea that once covered this whole area. Research later in the abbey library will tell me it’s Ordovician or Silurian, about 140 million years old, which makes the half century since Merton’s death seem like a grain of sand on a vast beach. The hole in the middle is perfect for stringing onto the leather lace I  happened to be wearing around my wrist. A gift, from Tom in heaven? Nah, I don’t believe in that stuff, even if the suggestion of a millstone is a perfect reminder to me to keep at my own work, grinding out that fiction. But if nothing else, the little fossil is a wearable reminder of the brief bit of communion I had here in the woods with an imperfect but wise, articulate, forever-searching man. And the ageless Creator of that little fossil. I am who am…

I pick up another fossiliferous stone, to bring back to Tom’s grave. It’s tiny, with the vaguest imprint of a cockleshell. It seems an appropriate offering for a man who is fading into a fossil of himself. I don’t mean that as a dismissal or insult. But he is disappearing from the world, both literally and figuratively, from our minds and the public consciousness, and soon there will be only the vaguest imprint of him; he will be nothing more than the quotes printed onto the holy cards the monks give out. I nestle the fossil there with other stones and shells in a little pile beneath his  cross. We exchange gifts, Tom and I: And for now, we’re good.

3:15 a.m.

The monastery’s Vigil bells awaken me at 3 am. The hour of souls. Coming in the darkest of night, they are persistent, haunting, urgent. To me they sound like the Bells of Death, summoning me to Final Judgement. The bells themselves will be a constant companion throughout the whole of my retreat, sounding every few hours or so, to announce the next event of the liturgical day: Vigils, Lauds, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, Compline.  This particular evening,  I try to ignore the call. I only want to roll over and sleep. But eventually something propels me out of bed: Sheer curiosity.

Prayer in the dead of night—what a concept. I’m curious to see who else shows up. I take my seat in the retreatants’ area of the church, along with three other brave souls. The monks filter in, one by one, all in white. I’m beginning now to tell them apart, and recognize them as individual men. There’s perhaps thirty or forty of them, and it seems as if they are all here, no sleepyheads among them.

 The church itself is astonishingly simple, stark, almost Shaker-like. Soaring white-washed brick walls and thin slats of stained-glass windows, in muted shades of gray and beige and opaque white, a modernistic design. Mary, the Virgin, holding her child, presides up front, and seeing her reminds me of all those middle-of-the-nights nursing my own baby, all that long-ago exhaustion and joy and frustration. I’m surprised to be the only woman present: this service seems tailored made for mothers, who are no strangers to interrupted-sleep activities. Are there no other moms on this retreat?

The monks sit in pale-wood pews facing each other across the aisle. Every day, seven times a day, they must face their brother monks no matter what; every day see the same forty other faces or so, and yet they all look serene, almost nonchalant, striding to their seats in clunky athletic shoes, or sandals with socks. They are endearingly normal men, with a variety of features: None stand out as particularly handsome or striking, and their singing is touchingly imperfect—many are laborers, they work as farmers and bakers, ordinary men, and yet touched by the extraordinariness of their call. I think of my newly found friend, the West Virginia priest, and reflect on the mystery of vocation.

The prayers begin: Songs and psalms, plaintive calls to the Lord in the night. My female voice sounds strange  mingled with theirs, as we sing alleluias. How extraordinary to be the only woman among forty or so men in the middle of night, and yet feel so completely safe and unthreatened…indeed, genderless, if for a moment. Also a bit joyful and calmed now, my physical distress melting away with the music and prayer. I belong here now, I think, my doubts and concerns also fading away into the dark. I am letting go of my clenched, tense inner self and easing gently into the rhythm of the monks’ cycle of daily life. And the only question now is how to bring it all home with me.

There is a small price to pay: In the morning I sleep right through the Lauds bells…and breakfast. I struggle groggily downstairs to the kitchen, and find that the kind souls there have left the coffee machine on, along with some fruit. I encounter some of the others who had joined me earlier in the day at prayer, exchanging sheepish, sleepy smiles: We share a secret, linked to the dark sky of a Kentucky night, and heaven above.

The Abbey (my version)

Oh my God, I’m here. I’m here at the big white abbey in the Kentucky hills, and I’m adjusting, I’m struggling, this first day. I am the fish out of water, to use one of the idioms my students hate. After the long drive, the roar of the highway, the bluegrass I had blaring on the radio…after my entire life on the noisy and crowded East Coast…my God, is it quiet here! And no one is talking…

Can I survive four whole days?

My room is simple and spare, a monk’s room, but cozy. It’s my nest, my own tiny hermitage, within the mother abbey. It’s actually attached to the chaplain’s office, and right off the library, which I like very much. I consider the library part of my own quarters, and mock-glare at anyone who comes to use it.  The room itself is basic college-dorm style, circa 1960s. The bed is quite narrow and hard, and would not be conducive to illicit lovemaking. Of course that’s the way my thinking naturally goes. I just hope I can get some licit sleep in it. The closet is very nice and surprisingly roomy, as if the person who planned it anticipated a crazy woman from New Jersey who brought too many clothes and shoes and accessories. I have a little hallway, and a Spartan bath, just a shower and a toilet. I laid out my health and beauty aids along the marble sill, and they look quite ridiculous there. As if a monk would have a curling iron and exfoliating cream.

There are two good-sized windows, with a lovely view: Mine overlook a small sitting garden and patio, with multiple birds flitting about. Spring is well underway here. There are lilacs in bud; the redbuds in full frenzy. I’m looking forward to walking the grounds…maybe tomorrow. I sit down at my tiny desk, and read the ‘rules.’

Breakfast is at 7:00 am. Dinner is at 12:30 pm. Supper is at 6:00 pm. No lunch, no brunch, no midnight snacks. This is definitely not a cruise ship. Prayers are as followed: Vigils at 3:15 am; Lauds at 5:45am; Terce at 7:30 am; Sext is at 12:15 pm; None at 2:15 pm; Vespers at 5:30 pm; Compline at 7:30 pm. At 8 pm begins the ‘Great Monastic Silence’, which sounds absolutely terrifying to me, lasting until 8:00 am.

More rules: Be quiet! Keep yourself open to God. Allow others the space and silence they need to be open to God and receive those graces He may wish to give. Stay out of other people’s rooms! Be silent in designated areas (Like, almost everywhere). Try to use the ‘speaking’ dining room only once a day. Have a grace-filled retreat.

And so it begins…