Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Hardest Thing to Do {Book Response}

"A miracle alters the normal course of things, turning what comes naturally into something new. In the everyday world, we take a flint and a rag, or take a taper to a candle, and we make a light. We take the light to the hearth and start the fire. When night comes down and we cease to feed it, the flames die away, the embers grow cold, and all that is left is ashes....

"A miracle is not the everyday way of things--light, fire, ashes. A miracle changes everything, challenges the order we know. In a miracle God smiles and says, 'Try this for a change: ashes, fire, light." Inside a soul, when all is ashes--when a brother has become as grubby and unattractive as a bottle in the smoke--the secret fire of the Holy Spirit arises out of the kind desire of God, burning away the dross and the sin,  kindling again the precepts, the statutes, the rule of life. Fire is painful, oh, God, it is painful; there is nothing warm and cozy abotu the mercy of God as it burns away coldness and indifference. But the flowering of the miracle is luminous; there comes light that is evident to everyone who has eyes to see; the inner light of peace betokening the house where Christ lives again: resurrection, I suppose" (Father Theodore in The Hardest Thing to Do, pp.22-23).

Penelope Wilcock's new novel, The Hardest Thing to Do, rejoins the brothers of St. Alcuin's abbey to prayer walk day by day through the transitional season of Lent. This Lent proves unusually hard and unusually transitional as the community learns the ways of their new abbot and he learns to be himself in a new obedience.

Over the course of the book we learn "the hardest thing to do" for a number of the brothers, each in their turn. Some of the things are humorous, some mundane, some substantial and serious. The hardest "hardest thing," however, spans the length of the book and challenges the very soul of the community.

What is that hardest thing? To forgive.

An earlier book in The Hawk and the Dove series described the cruel humiliation of the beloved Father Peregrine at the hands of the prior of another monastery. Brother Tom, Father Peregrine's personal attendant, felt the offense at least as keenly as his abbot and responded with characteristic passion and impetuosity.

The new novel unites Brother Tom with the prior who insulted his beloved (now departed) mentor, but in this meeting the balance of power has reversed and Tom and his brethren are confronted with a choice. Will they nourish resentment and turn away a man in profound need, or will they allow God to transform them for and through the hard thing of forgiveness?

As the narrative unfolds, the reader experiences the contagious, destructive effect of even a single person's choice of resentment and also the taste of resurrection transformation resulting from even one person's openness to forgive. The emotional impact of both did not entirely surprise me, having experienced that in the earlier stories, but the breadth of the change effected did.

One sometimes hears the axiom that resentment is like swallowing poison and expecting someone else to die, but this novel portrays it more like a fire that burns away at offender, offended, and the entire community of which they are a part. Conversely, forgiveness (in Father Theodore's language) is a miracle which brings warmth and light out of death and ashes and enlivens not only forgiver nor merely forgiven but the entire community as well.

Upon reflection, this depiction seems more truthful than the more common and simpler simile. Forgiveness is indeed a corporate discipline, and resentment a communal sin. Both are personal, but neither is private. I have witnessed this but did not understand so well what I was experiencing before I walked with these fictional medieval Benedictines through one Lent of their journey towards Christlikeness.

Other comments on structure, characterization, themes, and style could be made and would perhaps be more germane to a proper review, but today I'm inclined to limit my comments to this response instead. The Hardest Thing to Do is a wise book and one I hope to keep learning from in days to come in my non-fiction relationships.

Considering forgiveness with the community at Ann's...


  1. I still need to read a book by this author! They sound wonderful and full of depth. I often read too much non-fiction, when I think ideas are communicated so much more powerfully through fiction. Enjoyed your thoughts here.

  2. That sounds wonderful! Thank you for such a thoughtful, "heartful" review. I love this:
    "Forgiveness is indeed a corporate discipline, and resentment a communal sin. Both are personal, but neither is private." Wise words, dear! :)

  3. This sounds like a great book, one that I would benefit from too.

    I’ve been struggling this week with forgiving my own sweet husband for attitudes he didn’t even realize he was having (and could it possibly be that I was being super-sensitive??? ha). Forgiving definitely is a hard thing to do.

    Is this a book I could pick up and read as a stand-alone, or do you really need to read the other books first to understand what’s going on?

  4. @Lisa notes... I have *no* idea what you mean about being super-sensitive with your husband and getting piqued about things he didn't even realize he was doing. There must have been at least, oh, 36 days in the first year of our marriage that didn't happen. :)

    Regarding your question, it seemed to me that the author and publisher had deliberately clarified and summarized the background where most essential. The print edition also includes lists of characters and their positions in the community, elements of the daily and yearly liturgical cycle, and technical terms. I found those helpful, but they could be even more so for readers new to the series. On the other hand, the emotional impact may be greater for those who are acquainted with the whole series. Good question!

  5. now i know how Ann (of the Antbed) felt when (if i remember, after a long road trip) she got back to a proper internet connection--what i had in italy did give me access to your blog, but delivered the information at about the same rate as a human sending a version of "Crumbs from His Table" in morse code...

    thanks for the pointer about the novel. i hadn't heard much about Penelope Wilcock's novels, but someone once told me that a non-fiction book she wrote on simplicity is very helpful--do you happen to have read it?

    i agree about forgiveness being exceptionally hard. maybe part of the reason is this: sometimes when we want to lose a vice or some other kind of dysfunctional trait, we can have a certain measure of success changing "from the outside in". for example, i've known people who are mildly agoraphobic. if they haven't gone out for a good while, they find going out ansiogenic. but if they do go out anyway--acting as tho' they weren't frightened of going out--they pretty quickly lose the fear they had, and end up feeling as well as acting the way non-agoraphobic people do (end up being as well as acting non-agoraphobic). by contrast, i'm inclined to think, if we're trying to change from being resentful to being forgiving, we'll have no luck at all with the "outside in" approach. if we go that route, we end up still harboring resentment, and patting ourselves on the back for how well we're behaving towards the person who didn't behave well towards us. to forgive, we have to start by asking--and allowing--God to change our hearts, and heart-change is ever so much harder than change in outward behavior. it's like the difference between (the enchanted) Eustace (in the Voyage of the Dawn Treader) peeling off the outer layers of his dragon skin, and Eustace letting Aslan completely "un-dragon" him. dunno--just a thought...

    hurray for the encouraging prognosis--i'll keep praying... and (belated) happy twelfth anniversary!

  6. Christina, this is such a good portrayal of forgiveness – and how its effects ripple, as on a lake. One of my favorite movies of all time – it's a wonderful life – when Clarence the Angel tells George Bailey that men don't often realize how many lives their lives touch. I guess – in the same way – we don't realize the extent of one simple act of forgiveness. This was awesome – thank you. I walk away better, and humbled, and realizing how important it is to forgive. God bless you Christina, and God bless each and every one of yours.

  7. @chris If it's any consolation, I'm playing catch-up with friends' blog posts and e-mails, too.

    To date, I have not read any of Wilcock's non-fiction work or any of her novels beyond the four in the Hawk and Dove series. If you venture that direction, let us crumbles know what you think.

    On the outside-in, inside-out nature of transformation... a complex question... Even the desire to behave differently is evidence that some internal heart change is occurring, that Aslan has begun to peel at least the first layer of dragon skin off. The key for me is obedience in dependence on Christ. In matters of forgiveness, I can't alter my feelings about the offense or the offender, but I can choose by faith to pray words of blessing upon them and to ask god to change as you describe. For me that has been the "outside" step of obedience that sets me moving on the path. The "inside" parts of forgiveness, namely the accompanying feelings of peace and love, are landmarks on the trail once I start walking in the direction God's Word leads. Even so, I couldn't take or desire to take that step of obedience without the Holy Spirit's work to move me towards desiring to obey and even recognizing that resentment is wrong.

    Perhaps what I'm getting at is a sort of upward spiral of transformation in which God converts and gives a new heart at some fundamental level, after which outside obedience and inside character/emotional change follow and each fuels the other in the journey towards Christlikeness. (Not that it's an uninterrupted spiral...)

    When it all comes down (or up), though, it's all God, all grace.

    Something to think on further in the rest intervals at PT today...


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