It is my habit to read novels or memoir on Sundays, when I can, and in recent weeks I’ve cherished a book that I could hardly put down. (In fact, I read it throughout the week, when I had work stuff to do, as I was so enthralled with the author’s journey, his writing, his faith and struggle, all so well told.)
The Long Retreat: In Search of a Religious Life (FSG; $25.00) is the wonderfully rendered memoir of a Northeastern Pennsylvania boy who joins the Jesuit order, working for 8 long years in prayer, discernment, service, travel, study, and huge amounts of (hardly realized) self-doubt and the clarification of vocational discernment, to come to that place of needing to finally decide if he would make his final vows to pursue ordination. Andrew Krivak is a very good writer, very aware of his own deepest issues and able to tell of his emotional and spiritual journey without sounding overly pious and certainly never sentimental.
It is a fabulous story, filled with romances (yes), weird colleagues, thoughtful spiritual directors, stirring scenes of social service and college teaching and urban ministry. (His harrowing account of a working with a manipulative, distressed student rivals the scenes of almost being mugged on ghetto streets by a drug dealer/pimp.) He explains much about Catholic monastic life, about orders and vows and praying the Divine Hours which are revealing and demystifing—hearing about brothers arguing about who does the dishes, or being grumpy about another’s annoying habits was refreshing in a way. Mostly, though, it is a long, long journey to figure out what in the hell to do with one’s longings, with certainity and uncertainity, with one’s sense of self and God.
I was drawn in right away even though I couldn’t quite imagine a young teen being given, by his working class mother, Thomas Merton’s classic The Seven Story Mountain. Mr. Krivak is very smart, a bookworm in his youth, eventually attends St. John’s in Annapolis to read Great Books (and spends a semester in their renowned New Mexico campus, allowing for some exploration at a zen center and deeply spiritual Catholic retreat house way out off the grid in the desert.) He learns to sail, works in a boat-building job, all while reading serious poetry, pondering his own contemplative spirituality and coming of age in the head-spinning 80s. His being drawn to the serious life, to Merton-esque faith and social action, his intellectual journey and his sense of being called to a specific vocation as a Jesuit was told with such clarity and in the context of his own unfolding young adult life, that I was telling others how great this book was within the first few chapters.
When he recounts the death of his father, I was hooked, knowing this would be one of those books I count as my own, the author a friend even though we will most likely never meet. And yet, we do meet him in these 300 plus pages, and I was wiping away tears of joy and sadness, too, for his choices, for the complexities of life’s turns and the joys of pursuing God, and the graces of knowing how to be loved. Sitting outside in a cheap plastic chair with a light chasting a shadow on my book late last night, I knew I had to tell you about this wonder memoir. I hope he is working on another…
The Long Retreat gets it name from an experience of long silent retreat every Jesuit novitate makes, (among many others) and it becomes an extended metaphor for the whole book. Even when he’s flashing back to tell of his boyhood–chopping wood with his burly father, or exegeting parts of the detailed Spiritual Excercises of Saint Ignatius, the context is this long retreat, this ongoing intentional plan to see, often in times of silence or counsel with spiritual directors, how our interior lives and our daily living find coherence. From mission work amidst injustice in a village of Haiti to exploring his father’s Eastern European roots during a study trip to Slovakia, from his teaching at LeMoyne College in Syacuse to the ordinary hassles of living in community with other often colorful men with similiar purposes, this spiritual journey is fascinating, helpful, provacative, beautiful. If you read it, you too will, I am sure, long for substance and confidence about your life, for a sense of God’s will, and you will hunger for beauty (and understated by essential part of Krivaks search.) In fact, it may remind you again not only of your own passion for your sense of vocation but of the need to be reflective about your inner life, your fears, doubts, yearnings, choices made or unmade. Andrew Krivak is an honest man and a heck of a narrator. His story is funny at times, ribald and learned and devout. Some of our readers—especially those who read stuff like Taste This Bread,(Sarah Miles) Virgin Time (Patricia Hampl), Here If You Need Me (Kate Braestrup) or the memoirs of Kathleen Norris or the aforementioned Mr. Merton—will want to get their hands on this right away.
Patricia Hample concurs: “This is the best spiritual memoir I’ve read since The Seven Story Mountain––and that was a long time ago.” Novelist Ron Hansen says that it is “not just a fascinating insider’s look at Jesuit formation, but a beautifully written case study in prayerful discernment of one’s proper vocation. Few memoirs of religious life are as wise and revelatory as this.”
I have also started Kathleen Norris’ long-awaited new book, Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and A Writer’s Life (Riverhead; $25.95) a book (she writes early on) which is somewhat a follow-up to her lovely little chapbook The Quoitidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy and “Women’s Work.” (Paulist Press; $6.95.) Acedia is not exactly depression, not laziness (as in the seven deadly sin, sloth.) As she notes early on, it is rather a question of living without the energy to hope, an inability to care. Considerably more gentle and subdued than Krivak (and a bit of different generation) Norris narrates her story of “through the geography of her life as a writer; her marriage and the challenges of commitment in the midst of grave illness.” Her interest in the monastic tradition is evident and her fascination with the the “noonday demon”—and her own youthful melancoly—shapes this book about her recent years, including the tragic death of her husband. Can a lack of joy undermine commitments to work, marriage, friendship, faith, community? I am eager to explore this book more, because, as with The Long Journey, we can escape into a novel-like experience of another’s life, but, as with the best novels, we can find resonance and hope and healing. Thank God for faithful and honest and gifted writers who tell their tales with candor and grace. As the Minneapolis Star Tribune puts it, “Norris is one of those writers who demands to be handed around. You want to share this great discovery, giving her work as a gift—or you simply shove a copy into in the face of a friend, saying, ‘Read this.'”
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