Lent is just the right size. Forty days is enough time to get to know the desert and for most of us too little time to be swallowed by it. Guides are always welcome on the sometimes inconvenient, scary and unpredictable journey to resurrection, and I know of no better way to prepare for the human struggle enclosed in the metaphor of the desert than through Willa Cather’s best-known novel, Death Comes for the Archbishop (Vintage Classics, paperback, 297p, $10)originally published in 1927.
What Georgia O’Keefe does on canvas, Willa Cather does on paper: She understands the pace of the desert, its seduction and its unforgiving but quintessentially beautiful landscape. In this book she tells the story of Bishop and later Archbishop Jean Latour, a to-the-manner-born French priest, and his friend and fellow missioner Father Joseph Vaillant. These gracious men faced loneliness, doubts, conflicts with insubordinate priests, and untamed territory as they established the diocese of New Mexico at a time when it took two weeks to travel from Gallup to Santa Fe. It is a story about friendship, heroism, commitment, compassion and extraordinary epic-level faith. Some stories will continue to haunt long after the book goes back on its shelf, and they will serve as generous, stunning and inspiring guides for many readers through LentMagdalena’s bold rescue, the secret of the cave, Eusabio’s tender devotion, to name only a few.
If you think you read this book in high school or college, trust me: It gets better with mileage and the seasoning of years. Hemingway, Faulkner and Fitzgerald all hold honored places in American fiction, but when it comes to the topography of the desert soul, no one surveys it better than Cather.
Of course, as a metaphor the desert takes many forms. One motif popularized recently by Kathleen Norris is the desert-as-monastery, and perhaps it is her success that is responsible for so many new books on monastic spirituality. My choice for the best of the latest crop is Paul Wilkes’s Beyond the Walls: Monastic Wisdom for Everyday Life (Doubleday, 256p, $21).
Wilkes does what many of us would like to door think we would like to donamely, leave our offices, factories and homes and retreat to the imagined (or real) peace and tranquility of an abbey. Wilkes doesn’t have the chunk of time that Henri Nouwen had at Genesee or that Norris had at Collegeville, so he carves out days or weekends as these become available and burrows in at the Trappists’ Mepkin Abbey in South Carolina. His schedule, therefore, allows him to transfer the experience of the monk to the world without delay and with varying degrees (as one might expect) of satisfaction. There is, after all is said and done and Wilkes would be among the first to say ita long trajectory of wisdom associated with a lengthier and more stable formation period. Still, his candor and charming naïveté about being a monk beyond the walls are human, appealing and often amusing.
What impressed me most about Beyond the Walls is that Mepkin has an abbot who is gifted both as a community leader and as a spiritual guide to visitors like Wilkes. Yet such an abbot is not an isolated case, since Norris, Nouwen, Esther de Waal, Dolores Leckey and others tell similar stories. Maybe the testimony of these men and women is a measure of how deeply monastic charisms have been affecting the lives of people who live, work and pray in the world. If so, then the founders, reformers and current leaseholders of the Benedictine and Cistercian traditions have reason to rejoice that their legacies have yielded such an impressive harvest.
Jim Forest provides a third fine choice for Lenten journeying. He travels neither into the real desert nor into its monastic parallel, but rather vertically on The Ladder of the Beatitudes (Orbis, 176p, $13).
The image of the ladder for Forest is not merely a catchy title. He claims that the beatitudes are truly like rungs of a ladder, one leading to the next in steady progression. And his intuition seems well grounded. As for the beatitudes themselves, Forest is not pleased with updated translations that prefer "How happy are" to "Blessed are," and he quotes with some apparent delectation Rabbi Steven Schwarzschild: "Happy’ isn’t good enough. The biblical translator who uses such a word should change jobsmaybe write TV comedies with nice happy endings.... Being blessed’ means you aren’t lost; you’re on the right path the Creator intends you to be on. But what you recognize as a blessing may look like an affliction to an outsider. Exchanging blessed’ for happy’ trivializes the biblical word. You might as well sum up the Bible with a slogan like Have a nice day.’"
Forest is accomplished as a conversational writer, so that in his hands the beatitudes take on new life. He is also an accomplished reader able to weave effortlessly the wisdom of the Desert Mothers and Fathers, Russian Orthodox saints, Homer, William Blake and even that of the neurologist Oliver Sacks into his text. But it is Forest’s uncommon ability to connect the insights of the spiritually rich and famous to our own times and lives that make of this book something beyond the ordinary.
Just in time for Lent is the awesome personal journey of one who survived the desert of death at Auschwitz and lived to tell, and retell, and tell again the story. And the Sea Is Never Full: Memoirs 1969 (Knopf, 384p, $30) is Elie Wiesel’s account of wanderings, wrong turns, changes of direction, separations and reunions as he struggled with despair and emerged at the other side of his desert with hope.
Wiesel, of course, is a powerful writer who pleads for the preservation of memory not only of the Holocaust but also of other hatreds, other exclusions, other human communities targeted by racism, bigotry and intolerance. He is aware of misery on all continents and acts as an advocate for suffering humanity wherever hunger, ignorance, silenced political prisoners and nuclear proliferation challenge peace and human life. He draws attention to the horrors of Cambodia and Bosnia; he defends dissidents in the Soviet Union; and in a moving account, he comes to appreciate as a friend the cardinal archbishop of Paris, Jean-Marie Lustiger, a convert to Roman Catholicism from Judaism.
The turning point in this set of memoirs happened for Wiesel on April 2, 1969, when he married Marion. Convinced up to that point that the world was cruel and indifferent, Wiesel was converted by the power of Marion’s love and the subsequent birth of their son. In the face of tragedy and grotesque terrors, Wiesel refused to give evil the last word. Instead he embraced hope with an inner conviction that life would spring from the ashes.
For Christian Catholics, that’s precisely the hope nestled in Lent.