Book Review, Sarah style

Steve, aka Juror #2, is going to be out for a while. Since there’s just nothing we can do about that, I offer you this instead.

Go out and read The Hawk and the Dove. Then read The Wounds of God. Then, if you really like the characters and are up for some stories about them of a somewhat completely different nature, read The Long Fall.

When I first picked up this book (because my copy has all three books in one), I wasn’t too excited. I had heard about it, but Dan and Christa (who I borrowed it from) weren’t too excited about it, and I trust their taste. In fact, the fact that I like these books may confirm their taste and denigrate mine. Oh well.

I also wasn’t excited about it because it is Christian Fiction, a genre of books that, generally, doesn’t excite me too much. I either read too much of it as a child, or I realized, one day, that I could write at least as well as most of those people. Whatever happened, it happened, and I haven’t read much CF since.

The strange thing is, these books might fit into all of my CF prejudices, but they’re still totally worth reading. And they might, just might, be moving CF out of its rut and into something much, much better.

The first two of these books reminde me somewhat of a series I read as a child–the Grandma’s Attic books. In them, a girl related both her own life through the relevant stories her grandmother told her. These books are much the same–a searching, dissatisfied 15-year old finds comfort and peace in the stories her mom tells her about their ancient relatives, who happened to be Benedictine monks in the north of England.

“Great, more monk books,” you may be thinking. “What more do we need after Cadfael?”

But these stories are different. They are profoundly human, to the point of being painful, difficult, even open-ended sometimes, as well as joyful, profound, and uplifting at others. They do not sugar-coat life, like so much CF does, but reveal it in all its gradually untwisting glory. These stories highlight humanity, what it means to be human and to live together with other humans, what it means to be broken, physically, emotionally, and spiritually, before them, and what does and does not bring healing to that brokenness.

One of the most profound themes in these books are forgiveness–what it means to ask for it, to offer it to another, and the role it ought to play in daily life. In several of the most profound scenes in the books, one monk kneels before another to ask forgiveness. This particular abbey has modified the procedure from what the Benedictine rule requires, for the simple reason that an entirely prostrate monk was once almost stepped on and injured. Instead of prostrating, therefore, these brothers kneel before each other and say, “I humbly confess my fault of (whatever), and I ask forgiveness of you and of God.” The other brother says, “God forgives you and so do I,” and the one rises and they both continue on their way. Sometimes, one of the brethern has to be forced to offer this to another. More often, they offer it to each other like we offer our guests drink, as a regular part of daily life. Even their abbot, a strutting peacock of a man forced to learn humility when he is viciously attacked by some men seeking revenge on his father and is injured beyond his ability to heal, offers apologies to his men this way.

For these brothers, asking forgiveness is a part of daily life. It is hard for the novices, because they feel humiliated and embarrassed. They soon learn, though, that they are sinners, and that there is nothing they can do about this fact. Asking forgiveness, while it seems to highlight the sins they do commit, does not in fact mean that they are more sinful that they were before. In fact, as they experience forgiveness, the whole experience becomes less painful and more healing and whole-making. They learn to confess readily, as they embrace the feeling of a new beginning that being forgiven offers.

They also learn that true forgiveness requires true humility, but that the acts of kneeling and saying the words can bring humility to a heart that cannot find it any other way. When they are required to look humble and act humble and use the language of the humble, humility creeps into their hearts and through their very beings. They become humble men by acting like humble men, and thus learn to offer others humility even more readily.

These two books also highlight healing, though they almost always tie it to humility and forgiveness as well, thus providing a mirror with which to examine real life. The brothers find that much of the pain they carry comes from their not having forgiven others, or from others having not forgiven them. When the forgiveness is given or obtained, the heart’s wounds are slowly healed and the men become more whole, and thus more able to give themselves fully to the brotherhood.

The third book is different, both in style and in theme. While forgiveness might be an unintentional theme of the author in the first two books, it is a theme nonetheless. In the third book, the author drops the 15-year old narrator and tells the story herself. Her point in this story (particularly when one reads her letter in the back) is to talk about the struggles that a community goes through when one of its members becomes severely ill.

I felt somewhat betrayed by the author, given that it feels like she sacrificed her art to make what could be construed as a political point. The author and artist in me struggled to continue reading, and struggled to recommend it to you. In spite of the betrayal, though, I find myself drawn into the story. It shares the deeply personal and profound insights of the others books, and the characters remain true to themselves. They are matured (years have passed), but they are clearly the same people they were previously.

I actually have not finished this book yet, and I may have a better formed opinion when I have. It seems sufficient to say, though, that I recommend all the books, and I find myself a better person for having read and pondered them.

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