There is something very appealing – as well as intensely satisfying – about a great summer read. For me, it conjures up images of lazy mornings lounging on the deck, coffee in hand, as the sun pours down and delicately kisses my cheeks. Or late nights sitting up in bed, feverishly turning those last pages because I simply can’t wait ‘til morning to find out how it all ends! When it comes to a great book, there is no room for discipline.
For most of us, life is pretty busy, and carving out quiet time to read can at times seem to be something of a rare pleasure. If you’re like me, you want to make the most of it. I want to read things that feed not only my mind, but also my soul. I want to be entertained, but I also want to be challenged. I want something that makes me think, but at the same time I don’t want it to put me to sleep. Looking for a great read? Consider some of the books listed below. And if you don’t find one that interests you, be sure to check out the Recommended Reading link on our Resource Page for more options.
In This House of Brede – Rumer Godden (Fiction)
I don’t read a ton of fiction, but In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden is one of my favourites. The book tells the story of a highly successful professional woman – Philippa Talbot – who leaves behind everything (including the man who loves her) to become a Benedictine nun.
As a convert, I knew very little about religious life before I picked up this novel. I used to think that living behind convent walls was a way to escape the world – that religious houses were blissful, quiet oases of peace and contemplation far removed from the reality of the world. I imagined that cloistered nuns weren’t ‘real’ people like you and me – that because they are insulated from the outside world, their lives are self-centered – that they are only concerned with the mysteries of the interior life. Happily, I could not have been more wrong.
In This House of Brede reveals the unique and important role that religious women (and men) play in the world, a role made possible precisely because they have physically withdrawn from it. I came to see how inextricably all our lives are intertwined – and how involved religious men and women are in all aspects of life.
The story begins in 1954, and the author explores not only the personal journey of Philippa Talbot, but also some of the challenges faced by religious communities in the wake of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). In her gripping account, Godden challenges us to re-frame previously held, stereotypical views as she sensitively explores the lives of the nuns who inhabit this Benedictine house. At the same time, she penetrates deeply into the complex world of religious communities: places of peace, to be sure, but also scenes of intense struggle.
Holy Man: Father Damien of Molokai – Gavan Daws (Biography)
One of my most thrilling – and terrifying – adventures took place a couple of years ago on the island of Molokai, the home of the leper colony where St. Damien lived and died. Mounted on mules, our group gingerly picked our way down the treacherous steep sea cliff that towers 1700 feet over the Kalaupapa leper colony. Stories of cows who lost their footing in the dark (the path wasn’t always as good as it is now) and plunging headlong to their death below only added to my anxiety. How could I be sure my mule was any smarter than a cow? And to make things worse, my stubborn mule consistently – or perhaps I should say, insistently – chose to walk the outside edge of the narrow, tortuous path that winds its way down to the sea. I couldn’t help but wonder if the donkey Our Blessed Mother rode on her way to Bethlehem was that obstinate! Certain that Mary would have compassion on my terror, I incessantly mumbled rosaries as we edged our way down to the beach.
Kalaupapa is a hard place to get to – and for good reason. The settlement was established as a remote place of exile – an isolated colony where those diagnosed with leprosy (also known as Hansen’s Disease) were sent to die. The waters were too dangerous for larger ships to approach, so “people and goods were brought ashore in rowboats, some of which capsized in rough waters.”1
Since the 1860s, at least 8000 people who contracted leprosy – including small children – were forcibly removed from their homes and families and exiled on this tiny, isolated isle. The first inhabitants were left to fend for themselves on the beach; they had to build their own shelters and find their own food. Yet, over time, a small community emerged. Today, although a stigma still surrounds the disease, it is easily treated. As a result, the quarantine was lifted in 1969.
I was surprised to find that not everyone left. The colony is still home to 14 people who were banished there in the 1960s, as well as about 40 federal workers and a number of health care workers who care for those who are ill. Yet it is still a place of isolation. “There are no schools, no children, no movie theaters, no sunbathers at the beach, no restaurants or supermarkets. There is no traffic signal for the narrow road that winds through the settlement to the airport that resembles a barn.”2 A barge arrives one day each year (provided the water in the harbour is calm enough) to deliver “a year’s worth of equipment, gasoline, non-perishable food supplies, and personal orders. … Workers unload thousands of tons of freight, while simultaneously piling the barge high with ancient, rusted cars, broken appliances and empty containers to haul away from the settlement.”3
Why did some patients choose to stay behind? For many of them, it’s the only home they have ever known. Some – even though they have been cured – have been so crippled by the disease that it would be difficult (if not impossible) for them to reintegrate into mainstream society. Others have been ostracized by their families; they would have no place to go even if they wanted to leave. One Hawaiian patient wrote, “I remained in Kalaupapa for thirty years. I was finally paroled in 1966. My mother was still alive, so I wrote to her and told her I was finally cured. I could come home. After a long while, her letter came. She said, ‘Don’t come home. You stay at Kalaupapa.’ I wrote her back and said I wanted to just visit, to see the place where I was born. Again, she wrote back. This time she said, ‘No, you stay there.’ You see, my mother had many friends and I think she felt shame before them. I was disfigured, even though I was cured. So, she told me, her daughter, ‘Don’t come home.’ She said, ‘You stay right where you are. Stay there, and leave your bones at Kalaupapa. This place is finally my real home. They take good care of me here.”5
Gavan Daws’ biography, Holy Man: Father Damien of Molokai is unique for several reasons. First of all, Daws is not a Catholic and, as he points out, does not even consider himself a Christian in the strict sense of the word. Unencumbered by any preconceived ideas of how one ought to write about a saint, Daws brings a fresh perspective that is not only objective but also extremely engaging. I have to admit that I have never felt so drawn to a saint! St. Damien is portrayed not as some kind of superhero, but as a completely human and imperfect man – someone who had his rough edges and his struggles, yet remained faithful to his vocation and to God through it all. Daws helped me see that the path to sainthood does not lie in present perfection but in our continued daily struggle – and in our responses to the challenges those struggles present.
In the course of telling St. Damien’s story, Daws provides a fascinating glimpse into the life and society of 19th century Hawaii that illuminates the political and sociological issues that have shaped present day Hawaiian attitudes and culture. Carefully researched and wonderfully written, this is a book you don’t want to miss.
PS – If you’re planning a trip to Hawaii, consider visiting Kalaupapa soon – while it is still a protected community. Don’t be put off by the excessive number of rosaries I prayed while picking my way down the path to the settlement! I’d do it again in a heartbeat. For more information, check out the Kalaupapa Guided Mule Tour online at http://www.muleride.com/. The current rules limit the number of visitors to 100 adults each day; children under the age of 16 are not allowed.
With God in Russia – Walter J. Ciszek, S.J. (Autobiography)
My ancestors were part of the German community who emigrated to Russia in the mid-18th century at the invitation of Tsarina Catherine the Great (1729-1796). She promised the emigrants land to establish farms and gave them political rights that they didn’t enjoy at home. Many years later, with the outbreak of the Russian Revolution in 1917 (and the subsequent establishment of Communism), their lives changed dramatically. My grandmother told us stories of religious persecution: of how they had to hide their precious family Bible in an alcove above the front door for fear of arrest. She talked of soldiers – both “Reds” and “Whites” – who would barge into their house unannounced at any time of the day or night and take whatever they wanted. She spoke of people leaving everything behind – their farms, their homes, and their possessions – as they fled for their lives. My Grandma’s youngest brother, Erik, disappeared – spirited away by soldiers during the night – after he slept under a wagon as their family fled the Revolution; he miraculously turned up alive – married and with a family – in Siberia in the 1970s.
Communism heralded a new era of repression. There were mysterious disappearances in the middle of the night – people taken away and never heard from again. My husband’s grandfather – a schoolteacher – was one of the lucky ones. He was arrested for giving shelter to a man who had come under suspicion; a colleague at work found out about it and reported him. Opa was imprisoned in Moscow for weeks and my husband’s family had no way of knowing if he was dead or alive. Opa was eventually released, but he was never allowed to teach again. He had to work, instead, as a janitor.
There were many victims who were unwillingly (and unjustly) caught up in events beyond their control. Even so, nothing could have prepared me for the heroic story of the Jesuit priest, Fr. Walter Ciszek. Although he knew about the dangers that might lie ahead, he courageously and willingly obeyed God’s call to go to Russia as a missionary. Falsely imprisoned as an American spy, he spent 23 years in Siberian prison camps. He said Mass in secret, always fearing for his life; he heard the confessions of even those who could have betrayed him; and he gave spiritual help to many who would have had a lot to gain had they exposed him. He shared the life and sufferings of his fellow prisoners, and in doing so he gave them light, hope, strength, and courage.
Fr. Ciszek’s story, which began in 1939, came to an end in 1963 when two Russian agents were sent back to the Soviet Union in exchange for two Americans: a 24-year-old American Fulbright student who had been arrested for spying two years previously, and a gray-haired man in his fifties – Fr. Walter Ciszek. To say that Fr. Ciszek’s return was a surprise would be an understatement. The Jesuits had long given up hope that he was still alive and had sent out an official death notice 16 years earlier – in 1947. Fr. Ciszek’s incredible story – his extraordinary faith in the face of unbelievable hardships and his unwavering commitment to his priestly vows and vocation – will both astound and inspire you.
Blood Brothers – Elias Chacour, with David Hazard (Autobiography)
It can be difficult to understand the complexities of the ongoing struggles between the State of Israel and Palestine. This personal account by Archbishop Elias Chacour, winner of the Niwano Peace Award and a three-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee (1986, 1989, and 1994), opened up a whole new perspective for me.
I first read Blood Brothers shortly before leaving on pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 2008. I was astounded to discover how many of my perceptions of the Middle East had been shaped by media reports. His story forced me to re-examine many of my previously held (and unquestioned) beliefs.
Chacour describes himself as a “Palestinian-Arab-Christian-Israeli,” and his story is as compelling as it is thought provoking. Elias (who was born in in 1939) was just a young boy living in a small Palestinian village in Galilee when Jewish soldiers and refugees first began arriving in Palestine after the end of World War II (in 1948). Although the villagers initially welcomed the soldiers, treating them as honoured guests, they soon found themselves forced out of their houses – refugees in a land they had once called home. As we all know, there were those who responded with hatred and violence, but Archbishop Chacour chose a different path.
Chacour’s message is at once unexpected and inspiring. As he discussed his story with author, David Hazard, the question at the forefront of his mind was this: “Can you help me to say that the persecution and sterotyping of Jews is as much an insult to God as the persecution of Palestinians? I wish to disarm my Jewish brother so he can read in my eyes the words, ‘I love you.’ I have beautiful dreams for Palestinian and Jewish children together.”6
Archbishop Chacour has been an untiring advocate for peace and justice throughout the Middle East. It is, perhaps, telling that in 2001 he was proclaimed Man of the Year – in Israel. His is a story that reveals a side of the conflict that has often been ignored; it is a story that needs to be told.
- Sharon van der Sloot
1 Meera Senthilingam, “Taken from their families: the dark history of Hawaii’s leprosy colony,” CNN, 9 September 2015; available from http://www.cnn.com/2015/09/09/health/leprosy-kalaupapa-hawaii/; Internet; accessed 2 May 2016.
2 Bootie Cosgrove-Mather, “Last Days of a Leper Colony,” CBS News, March 22, 2003; available from http://www.cbsnews.com/news/last-days-of-a-leper-colony/; Internet; accessed 2 May 2016. There are, however, 3 churches.
3 Catherine Cluett, “Kalaupapa Barge Day,” The Molokai Dispatch [online newspaper], July 17, 2013; available from https://themolokaidispatch.com/kalaupapa-barge-day/; Internet; accessed 2 May 2016. Cargo planes bring in fresh produce 3 to 4 times a week; the settlement’s gas is rationed at 7 gallons per person per week.
4 As of May, 2015, 16 patients between the ages of 73 and 92 were still living at the colony; 6 still live sequestered. From Alia Wong, “When the Last Patient Dies,” The Atlantic; available from http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/05/when-the-last-patient-dies/394163/; Internet; accessed 29 April 2016.
5 “In Their Own Words,” Kalaupapa National Park Service; available from https://www.nps.gov/kala/learn/historyculture/words.htm; Internet; accessed 2 May 2016.
6 Elias Chacour, with David Hazard, Blood Brothers (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Chosen Books, 1984, 2003; fifth printing, 2007), 15.