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
This weekend I will be releasing the Kindle version of my mystery novel, Hard Cider Abbey (the paperback is still caught up in production, but should be out next week some time). I’m doing this in a very relaxed way, a kind of “soft” release, since it will be on Amazon forever, and joined eventually with additional books in the ‘Barefoot Monk’ series. But I’m hoping to snag a few ‘beach’ readers, and also capture some of the reviews that are filtering in from NetGalley, which seem generally positive. Some seem not to understand the nature of the book, that’s it’s not a typical genre mystery or suspense thriller, but that’s okay. I know who my audience is. I do apologize in advance for the odd formatting of the chapter numbers, but that’s what happens when you let CreateSpace format your ebook from the printed version; still working on a fix for that.
I wrote most of Hard Cider when I was writing and researching my biography of Father Irenaeus—who was a Franciscan friar, not really a monk, although friaries are actually monasteries too--confusing, I know. When I visited the monasteries and talked with the monks there, and was genuinely surprised by their warmth and friendliness and sheer normalcy. They are simply men who have taken a different path, perhaps with more of an inclination toward the spiritual than the average guy. Yet they are an endangered species: A few young men enter each year, but I would say the general average age of an American monastic today is well over 50. This seems to reflect not only our modern high-tech times, but also the shift within the Church from clergy and hierarchy back towards the laity, both men and women. Still, I hate to see our monastic traditions fade away; I loved my stays at the abbeys, so peaceful and quiet and emotionally soothing. Also got a lot of writing done, and much of Hard Cider was indeed written within silent, cloistered (well, within the retreat houses) walls
The order to which my fictional monks belong to is inspired by the Rule of St. Benedict, but they are less strict than the Trappists and Cistercians, and perhaps have more in common with the mendicant orders, such as the Franciscans. Their motto is the same: Ora et Labora, prayer and work. I went back and forth on whether to make them take vows of silence, but this is a hard thing to pull off in a mystery novel, where interaction between characters is so necessary in pushing forth the plot. I decided that the Philbertines were not a ‘silent’ order. However, they are discalced (without shoes), a requirement you’ll notice that most of the book-monks ignore, except for my young (and hard-soled) protagonists.
Also thrilled, with this release, to promote the marvelous cover art by regional artist Will Harmuth, whose blue sky on my cover is the perfect metaphor for Heaven. You can see more of Will’s work at willharmuth.com. I’ve known Will and his equally talented wife Lisa forever—several decades, at least, and their commitment to their art is extraordinary.
This has been a very troubling summer for Catholics, particularly those of us in the Northeastern US: We’ve had to watch a trusted and beloved Cardinal and bishop taken down for his atrocious behavior with young boys and seminarians (I can’t even bring myself to type out his name); and are watching another pedophile scandal unfold in Pennsylvania, where the Diocese of Harrisburg has released the names of hundreds of priests credibly accused of molesting children. Hundreds. Hadn’t we already gone through this, years ago? How could we think it was all over? I wish I could ignore all this, and sit in my little monastic-cell office and keep churning out my faith-based books, but it’s impossible to ignore....
I’ve written a biography of a priest, for goodness sake. I checked his background rigorously as possible, always terrified I would find something that would halt the project in its tracks. And I would have halted it. I won’t make any apologies or defense for a bad priest. Publishing any kind of book is always a risk of some sort; I will simply have to continue to trust in my subject and hope that trust isn’t misplaced. I feel pretty confident nothing will emerge and moreover, feel compelled to push forward. While I don’t condemn the media and press for bringing such matters to light, there needs to be equal time for good and decent men. And perhaps this is the time for my story, after all, to show that most priests are probably good angels, and not Lucifers.
Still, I hate that all this is coming out at this particular moment, yet I know it needs to. The news media has been doing its part, even if it seems excessive and unrelenting. It’s like pouring hydrogen peroxide on a pus-ridden wound to clean it out completely. It hurts like hell, but absolutely needs to be done: It all has to be be made public, put out there in the open. Doesn’t matter how long you were a cardinal, or whatever good you did the Church. We have to know. NO more cover-up.
I have a lot of issues with my church, some of which I’m trying to work out in my fictional work. I haven’t left yet, because I still see a lot of good there, but something needs to happen, and soon. This may be where the church is finally forced to consider the ordination of women and married people to the priesthood, to widen the candidate pool for truly good priests and pastors. In any case, the future of the Church surely lies with its “sheep,” its laity, who until now have remained largely faithful and loyal, despite the indignities and sorrows thrust upon us all in recent times. There needs to be less distance, between priests and people; less intimidation from the former, less silent acceptance from the latter.