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.