When I was an eighth-grader at the Cathedral of Saint Joseph’s grammar school, in Hartford, CT, I was asked—along with a handful of other female students in our graduating class—to assist our teachers, the Sisters of Mercy, in a singular, and poignant task. The old convent, which sat next to the Cathedral, was to be torn down that summer, the land made into parking space for the church, which sat on one of the busiest streets in Hartford, not far from the State Capital building. There were about half dozen of us girls, all twelve and thirteen, all good and polite students no doubt handpicked by the Sisters, and we were asked to help the Sisters pack up what remained of their belongings, empty the library and even sweep clean floors that would soon no longer exist. Our reward for this task was cake and tea at the end of the day, and the opportunity to pick some religious trinket out of a box. I don’t remember what I selected, perhaps a small medal or holy card, but I do remember the odd sweetness of that day, the opportunity to peek into the secret lives of the women who had taught us for the past eight years.
On the whole, our teachers had been gentle, wonderfully intelligent women who lived full and interesting lives: They traveled, they wrote, they had close friends outside the convent, and judging by their library, read ferociously. But they were also all women of a certain age, all well past fifty, still dressing in black robes that swept the floor, white wimples and veils. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was witnessing the end of an era—not really the end of American nuns, as we still have them today, but the end of their cultural popularity in this country. As children, we saw nuns in the movies, read books about them, listened to the ‘Singing Nun,’ and then, somehow, as I grew into adulthood, these women were transformed into victims and demons on the screen and in literature. But for me they had always been models of decency and caring, and I respected their long lives of holiness and hard work
What I remember about the convent building itself, which was of Edwardian or perhaps even Victorian vintage and sat directly facing busy Farmington Avenue, was how silent it was inside, quiet. Not a hint of the cars racing by outside, or the general roar of the city. It seemed a lovely kind of silence to me, like a pause in an engrossing conversation: It was silence that promised good things, of peace, not eeriness. When our chores were done—I worked mainly in the kitchen boxing silverware and cooking implements, then had an hour or two sweeping a dustmop through various rooms, the small but cozy mint-green rooms where my teachers slept and planned their lessons. Afterward, just before tea, I wandered with a friend about the rambling interior soon to fall victim to the wrecking ball. We came upon a distant hall toward the back of the building—halfway down this corridor was a door with a frosted glass window, through which sunlight shone from a hidden window in the back of the convent. In serious black lettering across this window was a single word: CLOISTER.
In the older days of the church, cloisters were places where monks and nuns completely withdrew from the world, sometimes behind stone walls and locked iron gates. They were compelled to stay in such places until their deaths. Now the Sisters of Mercy were not a cloistered order, but it was explained to me that sometimes the sisters felt the need to withdraw a little further from the world, even within their own building. It would be years before I understood the monastic tradition, but even as a very young teen, I saw the sense in this this: A break, to be quiet, and think. I remember my friend and I creaking open the door, and seeing another hallway, as ordinary and identical to the hallway we were standing in, with a high window at the end, letting in light from the sky, but no views of the outside world. It did not look like any place significant or awe-inspiring, but I did feel a bit of awe, just looking in. Looking at that line of tightly shut doors, and wondering what epiphanies or agonies or life had gone on behind each one. If walls could talk…
Those walls are gone now, but my interest in the monastic life has not waned, even after years of marriage and motherhood in a busy NYC suburb. I visit various monasteries and friaries whenever I can, and find I do my best writing on retreats. But all you need to create a cloister is a quiet room. A quiet room, maybe a chair and table, maybe a view of the sky; and a little time, for looking within.
I had the opportunity to visit the wild and wonderful mountains of West Virginia very recently, and was thrilled to be there in the heart of winter, which is when my last two Hard Cider Abbey stories (and the next as well) are set. But sadly, it was a very short trip, just a drive-through really, on my way from my daughter’s house in Nashville, TN, to my own home in northern NJ. The best route home from that part of Tennessee is generally to cross over to Knoxville then jump on Interstate 81 for that long, long, stretch up through western Virginia. But my initial trip down, eleven days earlier, had been marred by the sheer amount of tractor-trailer and heavy-equipment trucks clogging that road—in fact, I had a perilous near miss when a distracted double-trailer wandered abruptly into my lane, at 75 mph. I studied the map, and decided I would try a route through Kentucky and West Virginia, which combined both local roads and interstates. A chancy proposition, in a capricious winter full of sudden storms and ice, but I was eager for the chance to be in West Virginia again, and see if my winter depiction of it was accurate.
I began by following a small road, Route 31E north, which I picked up just a mile or so from my daughter’s house. After a dispiriting twenty or thirty miles or so of suburban traffic and endless shopping malls and retail, I found myself at last on a lovely single-laned road winding through picturesque Wyeth-like landscapes of vast harvested cornfields and beautifully weathered barns. I took 31E intentionally, for I knew it would take me very close to the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani, near Bardstown, which in some ways is the inspiration for my series. Though Hard Cider Abbey in no way resembles the more pristine and larger abbey of Gethsemani, I did have the chance, on a past visit there, to meet a monk of Appalachian heritage, which was reflected charmingly in his speech patterns (That fellow, along with my old friend the West Virginian Catholic pastor, were inspirations for my characters. It’s true, as some have pointed out to me, that there are very few Catholics in Appalachia, but the ones you find there are utterly fascinating.) I also passed the boyhood home of Abraham Lincoln, very close to the abbey—closed, alas, due to the government shutdown. I paused for a short while at Gethsemani and soaked in some of its austere peace; then continued on my way, up and round Lexington, hunkering down for the night just west of the state line into West Virginia.
The drive up and across the state, begun early on a Saturday morning, was like a mobile sort of meditation—there was virtually no traffic between Charleston and Morgantown, and the snow-covered mountain vistas were amazing and inspiring. The highway here is like a bit of a roller-coaster, and I was mindful of the frozen slush along the edges, that could easily send a car skittering off the edge and into a ravine. Of course, they’re not huge magnificent landforms like the Rocky Mountains, but extremely impressive hills. On my various stops for food and gas and bathroom breaks, I made a point of talking with the locals, to hear their accents and dialects. I didn’t have much time for shopping but did purchase a dried dipper gourd at an antique shop next to a gas station, and it turned out the proprietor had grown it himself. I was surprised, however, at the development and retail build-up growing around many of the smaller and remoter towns, which is good, I know, for local economies, but does seem a bit sad to me. When all the small towns in America start to all look like each other, it does seem that something’s been lost.
Once past Morgantown, I had one last roller-coaster stretch, which took me into the panhandle of Maryland, past Cumberland, where my hotel room overlooked the busy set of railroad tracks that cut through that city. Endless freight trains woke me every half hour or so—which was comforting in a way, since my childhood home, too, sat beside railroad tracks and I remembered how the house shook whenever they passed by. All in all, an interesting winter adventure, which served as a potent booster-shot for my writing. I made a promise to myself to return very soon to the locale of my fiction, and stay put for a good while, perhaps when the weather grows a little warmer.
I have to say, the general reception for the Hard Cider Abbey series has been positive, despite the gray cloud of Church scandal that hangs over it and everything I write. But every once and a while, I get a puzzling review that focuses on the quality of the editing. I say ‘puzzling,’ because all my books are rigorously edited; I’ve been writing and teaching English grammar for well near four decades now, so I’m not apt to suddenly become remiss in that area. Moreover, Hard Cider Abbey was pretty much vetted, quality-wise, in the process of being reviewed for Publisher’s Weekly. It is a very rigorous process, especially for self-published authors, which is why so few get reviewed in that publication. It takes place in stages, and if it were indeed lacking in any way or contained more than the usual number of typos (every book has them), it would have been dropped immediately. But in my case, the review made it to the printed page, on September 10, 2019: And they liked it!
But a recent (reader) review haughtily called me to task for errors, typos and editing lapses, and it felt to me like a form of literary gas-lighting. I’ve noticed on the writer-forums, this seems to be a growing “thing”—calling out an independent writer based on alleged typos or grammatical mistakes. This kind of criticism is especially and exquisitely designed to assail a writer’s sense of confidence and well-being. I try to ignore this sort of pettiness—it generally says more about the reviewer than the work—but I was genuinely puzzled about the reviewer’s motives. Was it a competitor of mine? A failed novelist? An editor looking for work? Maybe, a disgruntled monk!
And then, while editing my upcoming book, it hit me: I’m not the ungrammatical one. My characters are! Brothers Emerick and Odo may be great guys, but their English does leave much to be desired: Emerick with his relative lack of schooling and Appalachian dialect, and Odo, hampered by being a native French/Quebecois speaker. Odo tends to omit words, articles such as “a” and “the”, and uses the wrong tense, defaulting often to present tense. I learned from teaching ESL that these are all errors common to students struggling to learn English; verbs especially are killers. But these mistakes in grammar are what help define these characters. It’s who they are. It’s their truth. And if certain readers and reviewers want to get huffy about it…there’s nothing I can do about that. You’d think an enlightened reader would realize the difference between a character being ungrammatical and an author being so, but some folks will find any excuse to be ornery.
That said, it is a tricky thing, writing true-to-life characters. It’s very easy to go overboard, and I think I did, a bit, in book one; but I struggled to not to make anyone a caricature. It’s not satire, after all. I have spent a fair amount time in the South and Appalachia, and as a lifelong student of language, couldn’t help but pick up on unique speech patterns and pronunciations. The dialect of Appalachia is extraordinarily rich and inventive, and just full of history and life. No one is apt to wax so rhapsodically over my central-Connecticut brand of English!
I’ve made a vow, for 2019, to avoid certain forms of stress, which for me means to stop reading my reviews, or at the very least, taking them to heart. I’m just going to write what I’m meant to write, and in the way it’s meant to be written. Happy New Year!
I rejected, several times, the idea of writing about a foundling baby left at a monastery doorstep. It seemed too risky a subject in these cynical, scandal-worn days, and, in historical and period books, it’s just a tiresome trope. But I really wanted to explore the idea of a modern, 21st-century foundling, and see how it would play out at my Hard Cider monastery.
True foundlings are exceedingly rare these days, even with the advent of new, heated, super-modern “hatches” designed to anonymously accept unwanted or unplanned-for children. Inconvenient babies—those who make it to full term—are likely to be kept by their mothers without stigma, or entered into adoption agreements. But perversely, infants are still found discarded in dumpsters and rivers and trashcans, usually with tragic consequences, the motives or mindset of their parents unknown. And as pointed out in my Christmas story, such babies are not likely, amid the widening Church pedophilia scandal, to be left at a religious institution.
Ironic, when you consider that in medieval times, taking in foundlings and discarded children was a main function, even mission, of many monasteries and convents. Some parents simply went right to the monastery, and donated the child outright—not foundlings but ‘oblates,’ loosely translated as ‘offerings.’ This more genteel form of abandonment was meant to ensure the child would be raised to serve the Church and God, and indeed, in some strict orders, the child was obliged to become a monk and remain at the monastery the rest of his life. And this is, in a way, what happened to my character Brother Odo, who was not exactly offered to the church (he had been one of those harshly discarded babies left to die), but raised to take his place among the monks, whether he desired to or not.
According to John Boswell’s excellent book on abandoned children in the Middle Ages, The Kindness of Strangers, (Pantheon Books, 1988) discarded babies were a big issue in the Dark Ages, and even in earlier antiquity: You can blame famine, disease, wars, or even less dramatic issues such as shame, guilt, or poverty. Likely, many of us have orphans and foundlings occupying the furthest reaches of our family trees, because so many did manage to survive into adulthood. In the beginning, it seems that babies were simply “exposed” or left in random places, perhaps at a well or side of the road. But things took a kinder turn in later centuries, when it occurred to desperate folks to leave their babies at hospitals and churches and convents, where they might reasonably have a chance to be cared for. Eventually institutions grew up, starting in Italy and spreading through Europe, designed specifically to take in homeless babies. You may have seen, in some old films, the “foundling wheel,” a kind of cylinder with an opening where a child was safely placed, and then turned, so that the cylinder opened on the cloister side. Sometimes there were little doors, windows…sometimes the visitor’s bell out front was simply rung, and the baby left on the top step. All this forms the tradition behind my modern story.
So my story is really a little parable of what could happen, what would probably happen, in real world today, were a child to be left at a monastery of good and decent men with a reverence for life; a tale of trust and simple human kindness. Some readers have already voted, with one-star reviews, which I see as more of a vote against a genre (or Church) they find distasteful. Fair enough; bad reviews build character. Thankfully, though, there seems an audience for this story, based on my sales, and that’s all I really want to do, is build my community of readers.
Note: Some new readers have asked if I have a mailing list, and some have even sent emails unbidden. I confess that I don’t, as I have an aversion to pestering people with promotional email, which I don’t think gets read much anyway. But you are welcome to write with questions or comments, but no snark please, I'll just trash it. I do update this blog and site on a weekly basis, so be sure to check back again soon for news and other feaures.
I’ve received many compliments on the cover of my biography, Called to Serve: The Untold Story of Father Irenaeus Herscher; and how we came up with it is an interesting story. The Franciscan Institute kindly allowed me to submit my own cover idea, and I knew, of course, that it had to be a photograph of Father. Fortunately there were plenty to chose from, in his archives, at St. Bonaventure University’s Friedsam Library. But which one? I was so tempted to choose one from his handsome younger days, grinning at the camera with so much enthusiasm and confidence. But most of us remember him as the older white-haired sage bustling about the library, so that’s what it had to be.
But perusing the hundreds of photos of him, I couldn’t seem to zero in on just the right one. Most of them caught him at an odd angle, or with a background that wouldn’t reproduce well. Moreover, I wanted the cover to add some kind of meaningful information about Father, in a short-hand kind of way, something that would add a touch of symbolism about his life. I found at last a nice photo of him, posing outside around campus: In it, he’s good ol’ Father Irenaeus, smiling, arms crossed, his habit a bit rumpled and his spectacles a bit askew, but it captures the essence of him, pure and simple.
Now behind the campus of St. Bonaventure, sits the “mountain” we call Merton’s Heart. It is more of a large hill, with a copse of fir trees, which, in my student days, had a heart-shaped clearing in the middle. Sometimes you might even see cows grazing up there. I was able to document, in my book, that Merton did indeed hike up to this spot, to reflect, to write and pray, and I believe it was Father Irenaeus who named the spot for him. I said to my husband—the graphic artist—“I wish he had posed in front of Merton’s Heart!” To which my husband replied: “We can make it happen!”
And so, he created on his computer, a photo “collage,” of two separate black-and-white photos—one of Merton’s Heart from the old days, and the picture of Father himself that I had selected. He then gave it a sepia overtone—Bonaventure and Franciscan Brown—and when I looked at it, I would swear it was an actual photograph, from Father’s archives. I like to think Father would be amused by this inventiveness, and pleased to be sharing the cover with that spot of nature he himself loved so dearly. It represents his connection to Merton, in a spiritual way, and I think he would have like that too. Although, being so modest, he might balk at the idea of an entire book being devoted to his life…
Though my novel Hard Cider Abbey is based on the tradition of clerical and monastic sleuths such as Father Brown and Brother Cadfael, they aren’t really the inspiration for my monks. The real spark of inspiration comes from St. Francis and his original followers, a ragtag band of oddballs with a fierce devotion to both God and poverty. In particular is goofy Brother Juniper, who was always trying to give away pieces of his own clothing to the poor; when his superiors forbade this, he cheerfully advised the poor to just pull the clothes off him. Maybe he was secretly a nudist! But I like to think that my Brothers Emerick and Odo are modern-day descendents of those delightful men of Francis.
In many working monsteries through the ages, many of the inhabitants were not lofty ordained priests, but simple, uneducated working monks or friars. And traditionally, this is how it was set up to be: Ordained priests, with their years of training and study, were meant to be working in towns and cities (or universities) among the laity, leading parishes, while ‘ordinary’ men or “brothers”, who were nonetheless drawn powerfully toward the divine, were encouraged to labor at simple tasks in cloistered communities away from the world, where their prayers and work could be “purer.” Somehow, it evolved that anyone in religious or clerical garb was to be venerated and revered and respected almost as saints and so leading to criciticism I’ve had that my portrayal of authentic working monks is somehow disrespectful. But it’s not—it’s a nod to ancient tradition. Now to drag in my non-fiction subject, Father Herscher, I would never classify him as a ‘holy fool;’ however, I would like to point out that his original desire was not to be a priest or even an academic, but to be a working brother-friar in a hospital. That humble position was, to him, the height of earthly perfection. Still, we are grateful for the wise mentors who pushed him into ordination and academia, where he found his true calling.
Unfortunately, this tendency to over-revere and worshipfully respect our priests, bishops and other tiers of hierarchy, has, in a way, led to the current crisis in the Church. Many priests used their positions of authority and power to coerce children and adolescents into immoral activity. Parents and family, long used to respecting pastors and priests, were reluctant to accuse or call out such priests. The bishops and others, in turn, who were respected and trusted to be truthful, honest and wise leaders, in some cases were not. I’m not urging a mass disrespect and trolling for all clergy now, but respect needs to be earned, not doled out automatically at ordination.
That said, I would add that the majority of current Catholic clergymen (and some day, I hope I can add, clergywomen) are worthy of respect and admiration; some go above and beyond, and that’s what my biographical project was all about. And so along the same line, men and women who even in these days choose the cloister and monastery, aren’t necessarily weirdos or strange, dysfunctional folk who can’t deal with modern reality, but just humans like us seeking a different kind of life and goal.
I have a profound sensitivity to gluten, and so, have no business writing about bread; however, this is the industry at the Trappist Abbey of the Genesee in western New York, where I recently spent the better part of a week in peaceful retreat from the world. They make excellent bread at this abbey, which is sold far beyond the gates of the monastery; you might even find it at Wegman’s, if you have one of those supermarkets nearby. But I didn’t come here for the bread, just as I wouldn’t go to Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky just for their fudge (which is fabulous, by the way, and alone just might make the trip worthwhile). I always allow myself a single slice of the monk’s fine bread whenever I’m here, and consider whatever discomfort that follows as my penance. It’s worth it!
It all reminds me that, much as we regard abbeys and monasteries as places of silence and prayer, they are also places of work. Ora et Labora. If your only experience of priests and brothers is through diocesan parishes, you would be surprised to learn that most of the monks, except the extremely infirm, do indeed work at their humble industries, sometimes the most august members in the most mundane positions. The great writer Henri Nouwen was a visitor to this very abbey, and if you read his account of it, in The Genesee Diary, he even writes about how difficult he found some of his chores, moving rocks and mixing dough, as well as a small mishap with a backhoe. While I was there, the retreat-master asked at dinner for male volunteers to work a shift at the bakery to help the monks—apologizing quite profusely to the women in the group, who could not be allowed inside the monastery. I would have loved the opportunity to work in the kitchens, alongside the monks! But it probably would not be a good idea for me to be around all that flour, which could trigger a nasty auto-immune reaction. Which saddens me, because bread is such a perfectly essential symbol of faith—not only does it play a role in our liturgy, but it takes a great deal of faith to believe that lump of gooey dough is going to turn into anything substantial: When it does, it’s a triumph, something to celebrate. And the monks make very good bread; they also very kindly make treats for the retreatants, cookies and cakes and such, which I can’t eat but can admire from afar.
But women are not completely excluded from the lives of the monks. In the bookstore/breadstore (combined for now while the Abbey continues its renovation of visitor spaces), I met a lovely woman, Minh/Clare (Huynh), who has been working with the monks for some time now, and finding spiritual enrichment with them. She has a ministry with children as well. Her spiritual mentor here is Father John Eudes Bamberger, with whom I have met and spoken in the past: Bamberger, the former acting Abbot, had been at Gethsemani with Thomas Merton and knew him well. I did see Father Bamberger on this visit, still participating in the liturgies, but he is quite frail now. But Minh is also a gifted artist; when she learned I was continuing on to Allegany and St. Bonaventure, she told me to go and “visit” her artwork at the Regina Arts Center on campus. Indeed, it is there, hanging on the wall of the theatre section, bigger than life, a vivid and modern take on the San Damiano cross, quite lovely. We also had a wonderful conversation about the connection between the Trappists and the Franciscans. I ignorantly thought it began with Merton, but no, Minh enlightened me, it began centuries ago with Bernard of Clairveaux.
It was a balmy 86 degrees during my stay there, a bit unusual for Western New York in mid October. I found myself sharing an exceedingly warm little attic room with some frantic shield bugs, obviously unsettled by the unseasonable heat. I simply picked them up and tossed them back out the window. These are not luxury accommodations, but I liked that; I liked to imagine it was as close to monastic living as I could get. And who needs luxury when there is so much natural beauty about, for miles and miles. There seemed an odd, spring-like atmosphere there during the whole stay; the abbey chickens frolicking in the yards and wandering about—we had some of their eggs for dinner; the chipmunks who kept running over the tops of my shoes as I sat on the front porch, writing in a notebook. It was in all a good week to go. I reveled in all the lovely silence, silence that never felt weird or lonely, but as nourishing as I imagine the monks’ fresh baked bread must be.
So this week I’m just going to share some of the photos I took, as I ambled along the shore, trying to work out knotty plot points and wordy problems. The temperature was crisp and cool, but storms and dark clouds were continually threatening at the edge of the horizon. Someday I hope to live near the sea, but for now, I have to content myself to the occasional visit, and spiritual recharge.
These were taken near Point Pleasant, New Jersey, but some distance from its famous boardwalk—there were very few people around to share the beach with, but plenty of curious shorebirds. Sky and sea—what more do you need?
As the current crisis in our Church continues to unfold, even I ask myself: Why am I writing about clergy, both in fiction and non-fiction? Well, I wrote about Father Irenaeus, because he is the seeming exception to the rule, a shining example of a virtuous ordained man. And I write about monks and abbeys because, in my mind, monasticism and contemplation are among the very few ancient traditions in the Church that still work, and remain relevant. Monastics rarely have access to power, huge sums of money or (it has to be said) children and impressionable youths, so there is little opportunity for corruption.
I wish I could say the modern-day manifestation of monastic life is healthy and facing a bright, strong future. Alas, the population of many abbeys, male and female—and particularly in the United States—is dwindling, with many monasteries disproportionately filled with the elderly and the infirm. Young novices are few and far between, as a quiet, simple life of work and prayer struggles to compete with a high-powered digital world with endless possibilities for entertainment and employment.
And yet…We live in such a difficult time now, an age of meanness and stupidity. Even the most benign age requires an occasional retreat, time to reflect and examine the meaning of life and love; we need such retreats now more than ever. And this may be where the future of monasticism lies: With ordinary, non-professed lay people, seeking a soothing and uncomplicated connection to the Divine. But keeping the tradition alive, in the midst of everyday living.
Fortunately, most monasteries offer retreats year-round. And I sometimes create my own, DYI getaways: This coming week, for example, in a borrowed house at the seashore. It takes discipline not to turn on the TV or the computer, to put the phone away, and just be still. Reading, writing and walking, of course, are always allowed. But it does have to be alone, you can’t take your best friends along, or your kids, or even your spouse, and that’s a very hard thing to do. But the resulting spiritual benefits are endless, although the “real” world is always a lot harder to come back to, in the end. Next month, I will be making an “official” monastic retreat, and plan to post a blog entry describing that.
Here are some books I would recommend, to learn more about monastic life and spiritualism, in the Christian tradition (I’m still studying the Eastern and Buddhist ways): Anything by Thomas Merton, but start with “Seven Storey Mountain,” and work your way from there; also, a book with a wonderful title, written by a monk and student of Merton’s, Brother Paul Quenon, “In Praise of the Useless Life;” Kathleen Norris’ “The Cloister Walk;” and I also like very much layman Frank Bianco’s book on the Trappists, “Voices of Silence.” Of course there are hundreds more, but those are good starters. Best of all is simply to try a retreat at a monastery or convent, and see how it goes. But you may have to do some traveling, as such places are scattered about and sometimes hard to find. But you can consider the travel part of the monastic adventure