The Scent of God
Being raised Roman Catholic and coming from an extended family with a long tradition of members dedicating their lives to the nun and priesthood, I was anxious to tuck into Beryl Singleton Bissel's memoir. Here was somebody similar yet very different to me: similar in that she was brought up Roman Catholic and educated in their schools, but different in that she came into Catholicism as a result of being the offspring of an English mother who converted; similar in that she never quite fitted four-square into her social milieu as a child and then adolescent, yet different in that, whereas I began to question my faith and the hypocricy of the organized church, she became infatuated to the extent she was convinced she was destined for sainthood and in an effort to secure that prize became a Poor Clare and left society to live a life of prayer and contemplation in a New Jersey monastery.
I was not disappointed, was in fact often riveted by the narrative. In a straight-forward, precise writing style (which I like in both fiction and nonfiction), the author takes us on a unique journey from her first home in New Jersey beside a pretty lake where she experienced the negative effects of a parent who drinks too much to lush and exotic Puerto Rico--she even mentions the blazing flamboyan trees, which held me spellbound on a trip there too--where she doesn't quite fit in at school initially and later experiences her first love affair with a Puerto Rican youth who dies before the book is finished. But Bissell decides her happiness lies in her being close to God and enters the aforementioned Poor Clares, much to the horror of her parents--as does her sister a few years later. Her descriptions of the time spent in the order is one of the book's strongest parts because it gives the reader an exceptionally intimate portrait of the noviate's life and the hardships, solace and humor behind those formidible walls.
But living as a nun was not to be and the author meets and befriends, on a trip home to Puerto Rico to assist with an ailing parent, an older priest. The friendship develops into a love affair. When Bissell decides to leave the Poor Clares--she is resolute and unafraid to show she's redblooded and has desires for this priest. Though not stated, there is a sense that the memoirist feels the clock is ticking and she wants to marry and this leads to an ultimatim being given to Vittorio (who is tormented about quitting his vocation) that he must make up his mind becaused she will not wait for him to make up his mind. A period of indecision on his part follows--there is a funny aside about her first trip with him to Italy where she packs condoms in with her luggage just in case--and they do eventually marry. However, the story does not end there because Vittorio sustains a life-threatening illness, an illness whose knowledge Bissell carries alone in the relationship because the family do not want him to know he is dying.
I am thrilled I discovered this inspiring memoir because it educated me in an aspect of Catholicism I had not known anything about and showed the choices one woman made in her path toward becoming happy and fulfilled.
Thanks for agreeing to appear on my blog and answer my questions, Beryl.
DMN: Writing a memoir is an exceptionally personal process (as I'm discovering myself now that I'm embarking on the journey) and leads to much self analysis. What inspired you to write a memoir about growing up in the States, Puerto Rico and becoming a Poor Clare?
BSB: Overhearing my teenage children, in periods of special angst say that things were going wrong because their mother had been a nun and their father a priest and God had it in for them. I began writing to tell them the story of the love that brought them forth but as I wrote I realized that I, too, was grappling with the same questions. Did God punish us for the choices we make in life, what were the beliefs that led me into the monastery, what was my role in the events that contributed to the unravelling of that vocation. Basically, who is God and who am I.
DMN: Was it difficult to write at any time and, if so, can you give us an example of any difficulties you experienced. Going deeper, getting to the story beneath the story.
BSB: This required the most prolonged examination of conscience I've ever undergone. I thought I'd finished the story when an agent told me it was a great story and I wrote well but I hadn't told the story yet. "You touch on huge issues and then dance away from them into details."
DMN: You write that your parents were not initially pleased that you decided to enter a convent, which I found very interesting because I come from an Irish tradition where it is almost a mark of honor to have a child receive a call to the religious life. Your mother was an English Catholic. Do you think her Englishness and coming from a country which is not particularly interested in organized religion (as judged by low church attendance) made her suspicious of religion to the point she discouraged your vocation?
BSB: My mother was actually a convert who became a Catholic because she wanted a "church wedding." At that time mixed-marriage ceremonies took place in the rectory. She had little grounding in the faith; there had never been a priestly or religious vocation in either family and she wanted me to have the best this world had to offer, including marrying a rich man.
DMN: Why do you think your father was unenthusiastic?
BSB: No religious vocations in the family, even though he'd once considered becoming a priest, and wanting to support my mother. I think it was giving up the college scholarships that troubled him the most. He was proud of my brains and wanted me to excel and a monastery was not a place that would allow me to "shine."
DMN: Have you tried to trace your mother's former boyfriend, the one she went back to England in search of during your girlhood?
BSB: I've been thinking of writing a book based on her life (fiction because there is so much I don't know) but to do so will require going to England and searching out this sort of information.
DMN: What is your relationship toward Roman Catholicism today?
BSB: I am a practicing Catholic but not one the Church would call "devout" because I have serious issues with the Church today. I feel at home in Catholicism but not in the Church -- the liturgy, sacraments, and the legacy of the saints keep me anchored.
DMN: Have you experienced any negativity from people within the church's hierarchy since the book's publication about your decision to leave the church and your courtship (and eventual marriage) to an ex-priest?
BSB: I thought I would but I've had little negativity. My conservative pastor loved it -- bought six more copies and wrote a full page review in the parish newsletter, The National Catholic Reporter gave a glowing review. I have met a few people who told me they are deeply loyal Catholics and found the whole idea scandalous but while reading the book found our story deeply spiritual and moving. Where it has caused heartache has been in my monastery -- especially because I used real names and locations. Had I a chance to do it over again, I'd change those names and the location of the monastery.
DMN: You mention in the book that your brother became a Brother later in life. Do you think he was inspired by your earlier decision to enter the religious life and were you surprised by his decision?
BSB: Greg joined the Third Order Franciscans as a lay-person. He cooked for a friary and was very active in their ministries to the homeless and those dying from AIDS. He'd been an alcoholic and the process of living sober became deeply spiritual (though always remaining outrageous). His wife had divorced him years earlier because of his drinking. When he stopped drinking a few years before his death, his children felt they'd regained their father. I know that Greg asked me for the silver ring I'd been given at my final profession of vows.
DMN: What are you working on now?
BSB: Publicity, publicity, publicity. I've been doing lots of readings and the like
to keep the book before the public's eyes. And I am working on the sequel to the memoir. Right now I'm plowing through 20 or so journals rereading the painful years that followed Vittorio's death through the death of my daughter. Heavy, heavy reading and I want the book to have enough joy and humor to leaven the rest.
DMN: Tell us a bit about your approach to writing.
BSB: I write in order to discover what I think about things. Since joining Gather, my words flow with greater ease . . . I am a fine-tuner of phrases but writing short posts and commenting on other's works has alleviated that need to fix every word. I usually read some poetry, especially Rainer Maria Rilke's Book of Hours, before starting and I say a prayer for the gift of tongues--that people will hear and find what they need in my words.
[technorati: Beryl Singleton Bissell, Memoir, National Catholic Reporter, Poor Clares, Puerto Rico, New Jersey