Reviewed by Francis Etheredge
Will this book get a hearing? When the volume is turned up, what happens to that ‘still small voice’ of God (1 Kings, 19: 12) which, nevertheless, is striving to be heard? What happens to the gentleness of truth that has its own power of persuasion and passion for life? It is truly outrageous what can happen to a woman. There are unforgettably graphic images of a woman suffering from a crude attempt at an abortion; and, in a sense, these are rightly unforgettable. We do not want our sisters, wives, mothers, daughters, nieces, friends, or indeed any woman to go through this! But why, in view of the graphic nature of what happens to a woman, is there no perception of what is happening to the child? A clump of cells is not a child. From conception, which means a beginning, an embryonic person increasingly makes visible the boy or girl from present from the first instant of fertilization; but then the person goes on unfolding as he or she discovers interests, talents, and ongoing relationships which, already, have spread from the immediate family to doctors and nurses and well-wishers. If the world could see what happens in an abortion would it cry out? In 1948 The Universal Declaration of Human Rights included the right to life - but only Germany has enacted a law embodying this protection in the 1990 “Embryo Protection Act”. Where and when will the gentle truth of conception being an irrevocable beginning get a hearing?
Taking the time to “be with child”
As we will see in this, the third book on pilgrimage, we discover that the whole trilogy is like an expanding universe: the characters travel from a specific starting point and, as a kind of law of love, they are turned inside out; indeed, maybe it is in the nature of a journey into God and His Church that our reason for seeking God turns into a reason to help others. In other words, taking the three books as a whole, there is a wonderful expansion of the central characters who, as they are drawn into the drama of life, engage more and more with the needs of the most vulnerable people that they meet.
Christine Sunderland is sparing when it comes to detailing what suffering people have gone through – but gone through suffering they have and, indeed, are still going through suffering, for it always has aftermath, which is very much a part of the book’s account of what suffering is. So the tragic loss of Madeleine’s daughter and her own inability to conceive a child with Jack is transformed in the course of the trilogy’s exploration of the needs of a wide range of how children can be helped.
On the other hand, she does give us a multifaceted point of view, going from person to person, situation to situation, giving a variety of experiences, opening all the while the hope that help helps what we are going through to go beyond the pain to the purpose which makes the pain blossom. We need the presence of others, just as we need the help of God, to turn us into life when the temptation is all too present to end it.
There is, too, a liturgical structure to the book wherein what we experience turns out to be a lived, liturgical passage through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. This “entering” into the life of Christ is as real for us as it was for Christ; however, just as His suffering took man, male and female, into His heart, so sharing our suffering with Him enables us to take to heart what is happening to others. Indeed, like breathing, unless we pray, our expanding universe is going to contract; but, if we pray, there is the possibility that our expansion, even if it is slowed, will continue.
At the same time, however, as the books progress, we hear the heart-rending stories of a number of people, some of whom hide, as it were, the hurt and suffering they have been through. Others, however, open their hearts and make known what has happened in their lives and, by implication, how God has helped them to love. A Christian monk, in the hope of helping prisoners with whom, briefly, he shares a cell, opens his heart to them and tells of what he went through in his childhood. The whole scene is beautiful, one of many, but this is particularly due to the fact that the two men to whom he speaks, respond so well:
“The burly one laid his thick hand on Cristoforo’s shoulder. The lad tapped the friar’s arm. Cristoforo’s tears fell onto the cement floor [of their cell] as he wept, he sensed he had fallen into a pool of love, a pool that would wash him clean’ (p. 282).
The author, Christine Sunderland, then, expresses both development and imperfections in her central characters, increasing their credibility while, in addition, there are surprising changes of heart and, in a sense, there is no one too rich or too poor to be helped and to be helpful. So we move in a very plausible world even if, sometimes, it seems as if the power of a hardened heart is overwhelming, like a reckless driver racing up onto the pavement and through people’s lives as if indifferent to the possibility of their injury or death, all the while pushing forward a personality that seems to be as psychologically brutal what is both denied and unaddressed is serious. What is more, what takes over is a kind of protective pride – not of people’s vulnerability but of the very image that it is possible to project: the image of being untouched by personal suffering, all the while engaged in a “cause” and a social position that somehow signifies the opposite.
“A time to weep, and a time to laugh” (Ecclesiastes, 3)
At different times, however, the people whose lives we particularly share, albeit for a while, pass through a variety of “moments”, which includes breaking down, where breaking down is more about being remolded than disintegrating. The reader shares this experience, powerfully, being moved to tears; indeed, for some of us, who swore ourselves to silence as we suffered growing up, this is a trembling experience of accepting a vulnerability we once rejected. But maybe this is the point: that we cannot be humanized by what we experience if we do not let it undo the proud demeanor which is really a kind of armor; but what, in the end, are we defending ourselves from – for there is either suffering or suffering! There is the suffering that shuts us off from others, like strangling the desire to say what we are going through or there is the suffering that enables us to share the suffering of others and to “be with them”.
“An inheritance entails history”
Throughout the three novels, there are various accounts of the history of Christianity in each country which serves a variety of functions, rooting the reader in specific sites and their spiritual significance, giving credibility to the title of history professor – but also situating Christianity in its local and global dimensions. At the same time as there is a variety of denominational “passages” that the characters come from and go through, there remains a question in the mind of the reader: Why do the main characters “stop”, as it were, at Anglo-Catholicism when, gradually, they have come upon a Catholic inheritance that yet remains, to a degree, distant and unassimilated? Thus the reader has the impression of an ongoing journey that, in a hidden way, is diverted from reaching its goal. So, in one sense, there could be a late sequel to this trilogy where, both by going back to the origins of Christianity – the central characters would go forward to Rome. Will Christine Sunderland write that sequel or does the reader, from whatever denomination he or she comes, or none, determine that there is a home beyond the guest house, as it were, in the presence of which we constantly live but which, as yet, the threshold is a step too far.
So I hope you begin at the beginning, both with the trilogy on pilgrimage – but also with the recognition of the reality of your own life; and, therefore, I encourage you to identify with one of the main characters and to journey with them moving across, as it were if another character opens up another aspect of your life. But, just as we are dynamic, moving in a variety of directions to go forward, so is God leading a history that is yet to be fully inherited – either here or in eternity.