nonfiction · religion

Stalking the Divine: Contemplating Faith with the Poor Clares- Kristin Ohlson

Another one bites the dust!

Another book that’s had a longtime place on my TBR list, that is. Fitting right in with my fascination with cults and closed groups is a fascination with nuns. I was raised Catholic and attended Catholic grade school. We were taught by regular teachers, but our school librarian was, until she retired after my third grade year, a nun (Sister Grace!), whom I loved- I even wrote her a goodbye letter and cried a little when she left. She was a dear, sweet lady. The only other nun we had at school worked in what I think was the religious education office, and she was…not so sweet. I was never, ever interested in becoming a nun, but as an adult, I’ve definitely been interested in their lives, and thus Stalking the Divine by Kristin Ohlson (Plume Books, 2003) ended up on my TBR list (and, uh, stayed there, for far too long).

One Christmas, when her children were visiting their father, Kristin Ohlson finds herself longing for…something. Something she can’t quite name. A lapsed Catholic, she decides to attend Christmas mass and ends up at St. Paul’s in downtown Cleveland, home of the Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration, an order of cloistered nuns whose mission it is to pray around the clock. She develops a deep fascination with the sisters, and though it takes some time, she’s able to gain access in order to write a newspaper magazine article on them, which becomes the basis of this book,

One by one, Ms. Ohlson interviews the aging sisters, whose order is shrinking. The sisters have faith, though; the Poor Clares have seen tough times before, and they know they’ll bounce back. Alongside her interview and writing, Ms. Ohlson involves herself in the life of St. Paul’s, attending mass, volunteering for different events and happenings in the parish, and contemplating her own faith- or lack thereof- the whole time. Ms. Ohlson isn’t quite a believer: she’s trying, and she hopes that her involvement with the sisters will help. Although she never quite reaches the level of true believer, the message from the sisters rings loud and clear to her: sometimes, you just have to keep showing up, even when the faith isn’t there.

Boy, this was captivating. It’s been a while since I read anything about nuns, and though I was a little nervous at the beginning about this being the right book at the right time (have you ever just not been able to read a book you really wanted to read, and it sent you into a reading slump? My brain’s been a little wonky lately, so I’ve been living in fear of this), but Ms. Ohlson’s light, yet informative style was exactly what I needed. Being able to slip behind the grates and listen to what life is like as a cloistered sister, living communally with vows of poverty and chastity, hearing about their struggles, their crises of faith, their difficulties living with one another, how they spend the majority of their days in silence, all of this had me absolutely riveted, and I blew through the book in less than two days.

Ms. Ohlson is honest about her struggles to believe; as someone who is fascinated by and drawn to religion as a whole without fully believing either, I found this refreshing and honest. She comes to a slightly different conclusion than I have in regards to the practice of faith (so far, that is; who knows what the future will bring?), but I enjoyed reading her journey and how she reached this place. I don’t have to share someone’s faith journey to appreciate and respect what they believe and how they come to believe it; reading about different beliefs never fails to keep me in a state of awe at what a wondrous place the world is. 🙂

If you’re interested in closed-off groups, this is a great read, and along these same lines, I highly recommend Unveiled: The Hidden Lives of Nuns by Cheryl L. Reed. This book covers many different orders of nuns, from the ones so service-oriented that they hardly find time to sleep or eat, to those who are so cloistered that they can barely manage to refuse an interview. I read this book back in…somewhere around 2005 and still think of it often.

Are you interested in closed-off, secretive groups? Do nuns fit into that category for you? As a child, I wouldn’t have believed that this would be a subject of interest for me as an adult, but, well, here I am. 🙂

Visit Kristin Ohlson’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · religion

Heretics Anonymous- Katie Henry

I read about Heretics Anonymous by Katie Henry recently on someone else’s blog (and for the life of me, I can’t remember who; if it was you, please leave me a comment and I’ll credit you with a link to your review here! This made me realize I need to start writing down where I find all these great recommendations). The cover alone made me laugh, and the premise made it sound like it was my kind of book. Religion in YA? Bring it on!

Thanks to his father’s job, Michael’s moved a lot throughout his life, and this time he’s landed at a private Catholic high school. Which wouldn’t be the biggest deal, except he’s an atheist, so it’s a little uncomfortable. Feeling out-of-place and friendless on his first day, Michael latches on to Lucy after her no-holds-barred response against the quote about well-behaved women rarely making history in theology class. Surely Lucy’s like him, not fitting in among all these sheeple.

Except Lucy does believe. Maybe not exactly the way the Church would want her to, but she still counts herself in. In spite of this, Lucy drags Michael with her to the group of friends who have dubbed themselves Heretics Anonymous, which includes a gay Jewish boy, a Reconstructionist Pagan girl, and a dresscode-flaunting Unitarian. Together, they decide to start shaking things up at the school. Rules, especially the pointless ones made by hypocrites, were made to be broken, right?

At first, exposing the school’s hypocrisy merely triggers debate amongst the student body, but when Michael’s family situation causes him to make a few decisions based on anger, the real-life repercussions begin to fall outside of the group. It’s no longer fun and games when everyone’s getting hurt, and Michael will have to use what he’s been learning at St. Clare’s Preparatory School in order to make things right.

This is a laugh-out-loud book (I figured the people sitting by me in the library were going to think I was nuts, with my constant chuckling as I turned the pages) with themes of justice, redemption, and self-reflection. Ms. Henry never gets in the reader’s face with a message; rather, she lets the group of friends’ actions and emotions speak for themselves. The friends are able to engage in spirited but productive debate over issues such as dress code and the school’s firing of a married lesbian teacher, defending each other when appropriate, telling each other to back off when necessary. While they may not always agree perfectly with each other or with the Church and school, their ability to express their feelings on each matter at hand and make the others understand the importance of their position is invigorating. Far from being a heavy-handed morality message, I think Ms. Henry has written a great example of what a cohesive friend group should look like here.

I attended Catholic school from two years of preschool all the way up until eighth grade graduation, and while I no longer consider myself Catholic, a lot of this rang true for me, particularly the religious jokes (I think we all made the joke about cannibalism at one point in our many, many hours of religion class) and the seething debate over religious issues and doctrine (I don’t remember one girl in my class who was okay with the idea of never using birth control, and you better believe we pushed back on that one). I do remember a few students who were more pious than others, but none quite as extreme (or as snotty about it) as Theresa…but then again, we were a pretty small school, so I’m sure students like her exist somewhere.

There was a moment that stopped me in this book, that surprised me. Close to the end of Chapter 14, Lucy brings up the Magnificat. *(If you’re not familiar, it’s from the Gospel of Luke, 1:46-55, where Mary sings after she’s been told she’s going to give birth to the son of God.) It’s Lucy’s favorite because it’s revolutionary, and she tells Michael about how it was banned in Argentina in the 1970’s after being used by mothers of people killed by the military, and how it was banned in Spain in the 1930’s by Francisco Franco. This all struck a chord with me, not because I was familiar with it (I can’t remember if we were taught the significance of the Magnificat or not), but because I’d recently read something about it and couldn’t remember where. When I got home, to my surprise I actually found it again, a Washington Post article titled ‘Mary’s ‘Magnificat’ in the Bible is revolutionary. Some evangelicals silence her.’ Up until the point I read this article back in December, I had no idea how revolutionary or subversive these verses have been considered, and it was fascinating to me to see this pop up again in my life.

This was really a fun, funny, thought provoking book. I see that Ms. Henry has another book coming out in August of this year, titled Let’s Call It a Doomsday; you better believe I’ll be breaking down the library door to check out a copy!

Visit Katie Henry’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction

The Magdalen Girls- V.S. Alexander

My first fiction of the year, and it was everything I look for in a novel.

The best kind of fiction, in my opinion, makes me feel something. It entertains, of course, and it educates, but above all, it stirs up deep emotion. The Magdalen Girls by V.S. Alexander does all of that.

Narrated by several characters, The Magdalen Girls is set in Ireland in the early 1960’s. Teagan Tiernan is 16, navigating life with an alcoholic father and a doormat mother, only to find herself the object of the new parish priest’s lustful attention. Nora Craven, a more headstrong teenager, throws herself at the boy who just dumped her, meeting the wrath of her sharp-tongued parents when they walk in on her. Through no real fault of their own, both girls end up tossed away like so much garbage at the Magdalen Laundry of the Sisters of the Holy Redemption, forced to slave away in silence in terrible conditions, with no pay, inadequate food, where every last bit of their identity is stripped away and they are reminded of their status as sinners at every step. Teagan and Nora befriend each other, bringing another girl, Lea, a favorite of the nuns, into their confidence as well.

Escape plans are hatched, implemented and foiled; the entire community and all of society views them the same way as the Sisters do, as irredeemable trash whose only hope is to work themselves to the bone in order for God to forgive them. They’re starved, beaten, burned, sprayed with freezing water, all in the name of God and redemption. Tragedy follows the girls at every corner, and while redemption does finally come for one, it’s at a terrible, terrible cost.

The Magdalen Girls brought tears to my eyes and made my hands shake with rage. I’d known about the laundries before I read this book, but not quite the full extent of their horror. Full disclosure: I was raised Catholic and attended Catholic school growing up, but- shocker- we were never taught about these. I first learned of them when they were discussed on a parenting messageboard I participated in in my early 20’s (at that point, I hadn’t considered myself Catholic for some time), and was horrified. And my horror has only grown the more I’ve learned about them.

Apparently, sexual sin in Ireland at this time was akin to murder, and even sexual thoughts were enough to condemn a young girl. While some of the women forced into the laundries were prostitutes, others were rape or incest victims; still others were so pretty that they were considered at risk for sexual sin and were locked away on that charge alone. Pregnant women were forced to give their babies up for adoption- there was no other option- and some women were imprisoned in the laundries for life. Those who were allowed out found themselves ill-prepared for life on the outside, with no education, no job skills, and no social skills, since the nuns forbade talking. Many, if not all, left more damaged (physically, sexually, and emotionally) than when they first entered.

When I was twelve, Sinead O’Connor performed on Saturday Night Live and ripped a picture of the Pope at the end of her song, and it was all anyone could talk about at school the next day. She was universally condemned by the elders who surrounded me, but even back then I had questions about her motives. And once I learned that she had spent time in a Magdalene laundry, suddenly, it all made sense.

This book is everything I look for in fiction. It sent me down a path, Googling everything I could find about the laundries. I watched one documentary, Sex in a Cold Climate, and bookmarked another for when I get time, The Forgotten Maggies. I read article after article after article after article, tearing up, shaking with unabashed fury at the injustice of it all, at a Church so quick to condemn women simply for the sake of being female, and at the utterly complicit society who bought into it all. For a work of fiction to do that, to give voice to so many who were silenced for far too long, that’s a powerful thing, and this is absolutely a book that needed to be written.

V.S. Alexander is a pen name of author Michael Meeske; you can visit his webpage here and follow him on Twitter here.