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.