"....few things leave a deeper mark on a reader than the first book that finds its way into [her] heart. Those first images, the echo of words we think we have left behind, accompany us throughout our lives and sculpt a palace in our memories to which, sooner or later - no matter how many books we read, how many worlds we discover or how much we learn or forget - we will return." -Carlos Ruiz Zafon, The Shadow of the Wind

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Long Way Home by Louise Penny is a balm for the soul

Evening on the North Shore by Clarence Gagnon
The Long Way Home (A Chief Inspector Gamache Novel) by Louise Penny is the tenth installment in the series. All of them I have loved (with the possible exception of #9). None of them have I written about, until now.

The reason may have as much to do with laziness as with my feelings about the actual books, or it may be that this one finally unearthed what it is I adore about Ms. Penny's novels.

In the Long Way Home, the author employs repetition of an old spiritual to coax the reader into the book: There is a Balm in Gilead.

There is balm in Gilead,
To make the wounded whole;
There's power enough in heaven,
To cure a sin-sick soul.
At first I thought it just sounded nice. But as the characters in the book repeated it, the deeper meaning began to surface. It felt like a mediation. I noticed that I was unwittingly repeating it throughout the day, and in the quiet moments before sleep. I wasn't sure exactly what it meant, but as the author asked me to explore its meaning vis a vis the characters, and as the story moved onward, I was liking the way it made me feel.

There is a balm in Gilead.

In the book, Ms. Penny talks about how art (mostly paintings - the characters' as well as Clarence Gagnon's, figure prominently is this story - but also sculpture, poetry and song) can convey a feeling. The art itself may be considered good or bad, may be misunderstood or defy understanding, but it is felt.

It finally dawned on me, THAT is why I love the Gamache books. They are good books. I've loved the characters, and the setting of the Quebecois village of Three Pines from the beginning. However, there is also something more, something I couldn't quite put my finger on, that attracted me to the books, seduced me. It grew stronger as I read the series.

The Gamache books subtly transmit feelings. Feelings about creativity, fear, hope, trust, love and redemption. Feelings about life, and something greater than that. I'm still reaching for words to describe it. I may be for quite some time.

There is a balm in Gilead. To make the wounded whole.

While the hymn is Christian in origin, I think it can be viewed through the lens of any religion or philosophy. I viewed it in a yogic way, as a mediation. I've just finished the Long Way Home, so what the mediation means to me will continue to expand. For now, it is a balm for this soul.

There is a balm in Gilead.

Photo credit: Irina

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris held me in thrall

Etna Community Church in Etna, NY 
I'm a quick reader. I can usually get through a book in a few days to a week. The Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris took me well over a month. It wasn't because it was a long book; it was less than 400 pages. It wasn't because I didn't like it, quite the opposite. It was because I was so overwhelmed by its tendency to move me, to leave me deep in thought and to crack my soul wide open, that I could only handle it in little bits. It held me in thrall.

The Cloister walk is full of life-altering ideas. My mind swims with where and how to begin talking about it.

Kathleen Norris, a protestant, became a Benedictine Oblate and spent a year at the monastery. Her thoughts on the Bible, its use of metaphor (and Americans' insistence on ignoring the metaphor and taking it all literally), and the impact of praying and reading the Bible communally forced me to reevaluate my own beliefs. And that was just the first few chapters. The book's effect on me was so immense that in order to get something down, which I feel I must, I need to start somewhere.

So, I'll share a couple of startling revelations:
  • Praying is not about asking for stuff, nor is it necessarily about showing devotion to a thing, person, deity, etc. It is about reaching a meditative state such that I can drop the anger (or fill in your go-to negative emotion here), so I can better serve myself and the universe. I can begin to clear the path that walks me toward my calling, not to fill up my own cup, but to spread peace, joy and love.
  • And, then, on a seemingly unrelated note: Poets may not know what they write. Yeah, go ahead, read that last sentence again. Whaaat? Hold the phone! This not only gives me permission to not understand poetry (I often don't), I would  say it necessarily follows that I don't get it. Furthermore, she says, that poetry is necessary and must be written and read. Whether we understand it or not, the poet and the reader often "know," on some level, its meaning.
While the second bullet may appear a bit out of sync with the rest of the book, Kathleen Norris is a poet by profession. She talks of the Psalms being poetry and having the same effect on the reader/listener/singer/writer.

She frequently quotes Emily Dickinson. My favorite was, "Consider the lilies is the only commandment I ever obeyed." As Ms. Dickinson was surely a pious soul, this is meant to tell us that even those that appear to be without sin are not. They are also not without humor.

Another quote really got me thinking. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus says, "The coming of the kingdom of God cannot be observed, and no one will announce, 'Look, here it is!' or, 'There it is!' For behold, the kingdom of God is within you" (Luke 17:20-21). Akin to what I realized about praying, she drove home the point that knowing God is not about what church we go to (or don't go to), nor how little we sin. Knowing God is about becoming the person we were all created to be - a being full of love for oneself and others. Or, at least striving to become that person.

I don't know about you, but this stuff makes me tired. In a good way. A contented and peaceful way.

Photo credit: pastorbradetna