Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Consolations, by Sally Wolfe

Sexual desire in a monastic environment is especially charged. One or both of the parties may agonize over a passion that must not be fulfilled and yet seems impossible to deny. Consolations, by Sally Wolfe (Luminis, 2014), explores this territory with sensitivity and sympathy: a young nun and a priest find themselves thrust into a passion they never expected. But, while most readers will probably root for the lovers to get together in the end, this is really a book about something deeper than romantic love.

Fiona, a young Canadian from a Scottish protestant background, reads Thomas Merton in her late teens and is enthralled. Is the monastic life right for her as well? She visits the only English speaking female monastery in North America of the same order as Merton's – Cistercian – and decides yes. Her father is appalled: after training his daughter in the virtues of rational thinking, he laments that he has lived to see her become “a bloody papist.” Her mother is also opposed, but her response is more measured:

“I don't think you realize what you're giving up, the love of a man.” She ran her fingers through my short, frizzy hair and looked at me intently.
I stiffened. We had been over this.
“It's a thing to be cherished.”
Of course I'd thought of it, but I did not yet know what it was to have someone hold my body closer than my own skin could hold it.
“It's strange,” I said, knowing that nothing I could say would comfort her. “But it's the thing that concerns me the least.”
“You say that now, but it might not always be that way.” [6]

And, indeed, this exchange from early in the book presages Fiona's decades of inner conflict.

It is 1951 when Fiona, who will become Sister Bridget, defies her parents' wishes and enters the monastery in Vermont – a monastery filled with the variety of personalities one would find in any work or living situation. There is the nun who, convinced that adhering precisely to all the rules is the path to grace, insists that her underlings, including Sister Bridget, do so. There is the practical nun who does not reflect much but competently and uncomplainingly handles every situation. And, luckily for Sister Bridget, there is the abbess, Mother Cecilia, who recognizes Bridget's longing for God and takes her under her wing. Mother Cecelia also understands Bridget's passion for Nathan – Father Woods – and believes Bridget has the strength to overcome it. But Cecilia is a feminist scholar, as it turns out, and when she gets in trouble with the patriarchal Church authorities, it is not at all certain that she is going to survive as abbess. Without Cecilia's strength to rely on, what will Bridget do?

Those with spiritual aspirations are often attracted to those with similar aspirations. So it is with Bridget and Nathan. During one of their rare meetings, Nathan shares his love for a poem by John of the Cross:
In a dark night, kindled in love with yearnings – oh, happy chance! –
I went forth without being observed, my house being now at rest.
By the secret ladder, disguised, without light or guide,
Save that which burned in my heart.
This light guided me more surely than the light of noonday
To the place where he (well I know who!) was awaiting me – [54]

After Nathan recites, Bridget comments: “He opened his eyes and I saw that they were gray” – a statement that epitomizes her conflation of spiritual and carnal love.

The back-and-forth between the two would-be lovers could have been a comedy of errors in another kind of book: she thinks he doesn't want her; he thinks she is over him; she thinks she must be strong; he thinks she isn't interested anymore. But this is only the background against which the deeper question unfolds: can Bridget find a way to reconcile her spiritual and carnal longings?

While the story is told from Bridget's first person point of view, we sometimes get a glimpse of Nathan's struggles as well. For example, he confesses to Bridget that he gave up a university professorship and became cloistered as penance for their illicit encounter. (The reader might wonder whether, in a Catholic context, a priest would give himself penance, rather than have it given to him by his confessor. Perhaps this shows not only Nathan's unwillingness to confide his sin to another but also his irrational thinking on the matter of Bridget.) When Nathan decides to become cloistered, he joins the community at Gethsemani, where Thomas Merton is the star resident. Now he and Bridget are both in Cistercian monastaries – and we know that they will meet again.

Thomas Merton makes a brief appearance in the novel, and if the portrait is at all faithful to the real Merton, it is easy to see how his charisma, no-nonsense rabble-rousing, intelligence, depth of spirit, and plain good will endeared him to so many. Indeed, admiration of Merton is another passion that unites Bridget and Nathan.

Just as the cloistered nuns are allowed no idle speech, so Consolations contains no idle words. Each passage precisely conveys what Bridget is undergoing, whether it be desire to ascend to God, to be held and cherished by another human being, or to find solace in solitude and the natural world. The flashbacks to Bridget's pre-monastery days also lend insight to the struggles she endures. We see her strengths but her doubts as well. The tone is so authentic, in fact, that it is sometimes hard to remember that this is a novel, not a memoir.

Even readers who have never felt the slightest desire to join a religious community can recognize in Bridget the struggles we all face when our desires oppose each other. In this sense, the theme of Consolations is universal.