I think I can say, after four decades of this writing business, that I’m finally a mature, bonafide writer—no longer an editor or English teacher who writes ‘on the side,’ not a would-be writer or writer-in-training anymore. My apprenticeship is over.
Some of this thinking is the result of my father’s death, just months ago (readers might notice I dedicated my last novel, Brother Rattlesnake, to him). My father was a professional (corporate) writer and editor, and you think he’d be proud that I followed in his profession, but in reality he was pretty harsh and critical with me in regard to all that. It was part of that old-school wisdom where you never offer praise or encouragement, and I get the logic behind that, but it did a number on my self-confidence, I can tell you. Eventually I stopped sharing my books and writing with him, because there seemed no point.
Last week, as my sister and I were cleaning out the apartment down in Florida, I scanned the wall of my father’s bathroom/dressing room, and saw right beside the mirror, a promotional postcard of a book I’d written about eight years ago: The Raven Girl, a historical novel set in Ireland. It was a bit yellowed with age, but there it was, posted up next to the mirror where he shaved everyday, where he could see it everyday. So finally, proof that something I wrote finally got through to him.
Then when I came home to New Jersey this week, I received a telephone call from one of those dubious marketing firms (likely overseas). My husband reported that they had been calling me all week while I was gone. The gist of it was that they wanted me to ‘interview’ with them, and sign away my book rights to them so they could market and promote them ‘more effectively.” I told them, in the politest possible terms, to go to hell.
I’m not done writing, but I am done with the Writing Business. I no longer need writing books, seminars, webinars, conferences, expensive classes by egotistical has-beens, writers groups, rigged contests which charge you a hundred bucks or more for a flawed and unreliable ‘analysis’ of your writing and all that other nonsense insecure writers (myself included, for too many years) rely on to keep themselves going in a monstrously stressful and demanding profession. After all these years, I finally figured it out: When you’re young, all you have to do is read. (And ignore your father.) And as you get older, all you have to do is write.
This is not to say I don’t need to keep honing and improving my art. I certainly do. But you do this by continuing to write and self-edit, every single day, not by spending money on that literary magic bullet. I don’t know where we get the idea that throwing money at something necessarily makes it better, when all you really need is time and thought.
Being an independent publisher, despite the many glitches and hard lessons and lack of prestige, has proven to be a Godsend for me. In the many years I’ve been blogging, I’ve gone back and forth on this issue, ‘traditional’ vs. self-publishing. In the beginning, back in 2010 or so, it was wonderful and revolutionary, then it was awful when everyone decided to jump into the pool. But now that it’s settling out, and losing its luster with other writers, it’s getting easier again for those of us who persevered. I don’t spend a fortune on promotion and advertising; I have a strict budget and try to use alternative means to get the word out. If I have any lessons to share with other writers, it’s these: 1) Write what you love, no matter what. 2.) Write every day. 3.) If you want to create an income, write a series, and build on it. 3.) Proofread and proofread and hire an editor if you feel you must, but don’t make yourself crazy: Nobody’s perfect, and when a critic says your book has too many typos, it’s not a valid criticism—it’s harassment. 4.) Don’t worry about reviews, professional or otherwise. I’ve sold plenty of books with and without them, it doesn’t seem to make much difference. If you get too many bad reviews, however, something’s definitely wrong. And finally: 5.) Don’t worry what your father (or wife, or children, or boss, or professor) says (or doesn’t say) about your writing! Just go ahead and do it anyway.
Brother Emerick sauntered down the long, dim north corridor of Holy Face Abbey, hands buried deep in the hip pockets of his monastic habit. He was on a casual sort of mission, checking in on a visitor to the abbey, but the sight of light at the end of the dark, tunnel-like corridor suddenly filled him with unease. He knew it was nothing more than the last ray of sunset, slanting in through the arched window of the back wall, yet he paused a moment, remembering a recent near-death experience—he’d had several—where a similar light tried to pull him from the dark and into the afterlife. It suddenly made him particularly nervous about what was waiting for him in that last room at the end of the hall.
Compline and evening prayers had just ended, but the sun still low hung in the sky as the solstice approached. The sticky heat of Appalachian summer had begun to permeate the stone walls of the abbey, prompting the monks to shed their cowls, roll up their sleeves and adopt Emerick’s personal habit of going barefoot. And it was the cool slate floor tiles that did, at last, ground Emerick, bringing him back to his senses, the stone soothing against his hot and blistered bare soles.
I’m just going to check on him, he told himself. Make sure he’s okay, not sick or anything, not gonna stick around for any of his chit-chat. Not even gonna step inside, just gonna peek in on him and leave…
The abbey was silent, but for the buzzing and chirping of outdoor insects and crickets, and some of the monks had already retired for the night, to get in a little sleep before the 2:30 am Vigil bell. So no one heard Emerick as he loped down the hallway, least of all his intended visitor: the disgraced former Archbishop of Massachusetts, Julian J. Gannone.
This particular corridor was a relic of the mid-twentieth century, when ‘Hard Cider’ Abbey teamed with men burning with monkish vocation. At that time there had been some fifty professed brothers, and another dozen ordained priests, completely filling the one-story, cross-shaped stone building that sat nestled into the eastern face of Stilton Mountain, above the old mining and manufacturing hub of Skerritville, West Virginia. Now all the monks—which, counting novices and priests, numbered a mere dozen—fit into a single wing of the building. The scandal-plagued visiting archbishop had been given his own lonely wing, to keep him in seclusion from the others, in an effort to encourage some repentance and humility on his part. This had not, however, kept him from trying to worm his way into the monks’ company whenever possible.
Hence, Emerick’s mission this evening: No one had seen Gannone—who they had been ordered to address as ‘Brother Julian’—since the evening before. He had not shown up at meals, nor at liturgy, and the monks had begun to hope, feebly, that perhaps he had fled the abbey for good.
Maybe last night’s noxious stew had done the trick, Emerick thought. A fat timber rattler had been caught near the cider barn, carved up and cooked into a concoction that curiously resembled canned chicken noodle soup. It was then served with great flourish as dinner to the former prelate—as chicken soup. When informed, after he’d eaten two bowlfuls, that it was actually snake-meat, Brother Julian had merely smiled in a bitter way. “Best damned meal I’ve had here yet,” he remarked, before stalking off.
And that was the last anyone had seen of him.
If the archbishop had indeed escaped, the Abbot would not be happy to hear it, from long distance. Dom Frederique was away tending to his elderly mother in France. He had specifically asked Emerick to keep an eye on the abbey, paying particular attention to their troublesome and uninvited ecclesiastic guest. Nothing could happen to Gannone, he had warned, as the bishop was only at the monastery for ‘safekeeping,’ awaiting a full Vatican tribunal into his alleged misdeeds. And if anything did happen…it would all be on Emerick’s head.
He stood now before the prelate’s door, listening for activity within. He could not be asleep already, could he, at only nine in the evening? Emerick knew Julian was something of a night owl, since the only liturgy he attended reliably was middle-of-the-night Vigil.
“Bish—I mean, Brother Julian?” He tapped lightly on the door. He waited a moment, and knocked a bit more forcefully. “Hey, y’all! You in there?”
None of the monk-cells had locks on the doors—not even so-called important visitors were given one—so Emerick carefully turned the doorknob and creaked the door open a bit, peering inside. The archbishop’s room was like every other dormitory cell in the abbey, small and narrow, the walls a drab green gray, a single window, single bed, desk, crucifix. Someone had dragged in an old armchair at Gannone’s request, so he could sit and read. Emerick saw first the bed, neatly made and empty. The remains of the day, filtering in through the single window, glinted off the gilt frames of the artwork Gannone had brought with him. Not just art, but jaw-dropping classic paintings, from distant centuries, filling nearly every inch the tiny room’s walls.
And then he saw the archbishop.
Sitting straight up in his borrowed armchair, dressed—not in the farm-laborer’s garb he wore by day in the fields, or the novice’s white robe the Abbot had ordered him to wear inside the monastery, but in the black clerical traveling suit he’d worn his first day at the abbey. He seemed to be in some kind of reverie, staring off into the distance, eyes glazed behind no-nonsense tortoiseshell spectacles.
“Julian? Brother?” Emerick set foot into the room, his toe hitting a pair of packed suitcases set by the door. “Hey! Are you planning on leaving us? Are you…” When the man did not respond, Emerick inched closer to him. “Hey! Bishop!” He waved a hand in front of the man’s face. No response.
Panic ripped through Emerick: He had seen years ago in the Army, in combat and later at the Veteran’s Hospital, men die with their eyes wide open. He grabbed the man by his shoulders, and found him warm to the touch, not cold or stiff. But he didn’t seem to be breathing… Emerick shook him frantically. “Hey, Bishop, wake up! Wake up now, this isn’t funny!” But the bishop’s only response was to pitch forward toward Emerick, his eyes still wide open. Emerick pushed him back into the chair and grabbed his wrist, struggling to feel a pulse.
He then grabbed his cellphone from the pocket of his habit, punching in a single digit. The infirmary monk, Gabriel, answered right away.
“Gabe! It’s the archbishop! He’s…he’s…dead! But he’s still warm! Either he’s dead…” His eyes fell to the nightstand table, where he saw a half-finished glass of wine along with…a small hypodermic needle. “Or someone went and turned him into a zombie!”
Want more? Hang in there: I’m hoping to have this up for sale on Amazon by July 15th, in both Kindle and paperback format, and as always, at an affordable price.
dWhy did you self-publish this series—especially since you’ve had books published by ‘traditional’ publishers in the past?
This is a question most frequently asked at cocktail parties and big gatherings, usually by published literary writers, and usually with a look of peevish disdain and disapproval. Well, I had no choice. I have been published by traditional publishers, and I did seek the traditional path with Hard Cider—starting with a lengthy canvassing of literary agents. Unfortunately my timing was dreadful, querying my faith-based novel series just as the Church’s pedophilia scandal decided to erupt yet again. Long story short, the very few agents who actually responded to me felt compelled to point out the bad press the Catholic Church was getting. They could not imagine such a book selling in such a climate, and of course for agents and publishers it’s all about money. So I knew I’d have to self-publish. I had a hunch that despite scandals and bad publicity, there was a definite audience for my work; and thankfully, it turns out I was right. It seems to be a gradually growing readership, but it does keep growing and hasn’t nose-dived yet, so I must be doing something right.
Now I’ve been self-publishing since 2011, having had some limited success with a historical young adult series I wrote, but I really don’t like doing it, to be honest. It involves a lot of work that is not writing, as well as copious amounts of self-promotion, which I HATE, and a certain amount of skill and research to make it all work the way it’s supposed to. Generally it does not work well for my kind of book, which deals with faith and edges toward the literary; well-defined hard-core genres such as science fiction and romance do amazingly well. Mystery is a bit of a mixed bag: the thrillers, if well-written and well produced, do very well for their authors; the cozy mysteries (which alas, is my Amazon-designated category, even though it really doesn’t belong there; I think anything without excessive sex or violence gets automatically dumped in there) seem to do a little less well, and quirkier, literary stuff just drops off the sales algorithm. So I’m walking the tightrope here, writing what I hope is high-quality fiction, while staying within the strictures of my chosen genre. I relaxed a lot after the first book, when I realized all I had to do was tell the story, and not worry about perfect sentences, literary allusions or any of the other bunk you pick up at writers’ workshops. I don’t get a lot of reviews and the ones that come in are all over the place, from hate-filled one stars to glowing and loving constellations, and a lot of in-between, but I like this, because I feel it’s honest and authentic, and helps prospective readers decide if they want to take a chance on my book.
One of the more painful aspects of self-publishing is that it is still largely reviled by the media, libraries, academia and by traditionally published authors, although this is abating somewhat, as overall quality improves among us 'independents.' However, it has become massively harder to self-publish, as the competition is incredibly fierce for visibility on the biggest player, Amazon. The best formula seems to be: Write a good, good book
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.