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Three generations of women shaped by the church

By Christin Lore Weber
Scribner, 249 pages, $23


Elise Pearson was a very soulful child who at age 4 adopted a hollowed cottonwood as a surrogate for her own emotionally remote mother. She had a child’s main line to God through sound, and later through music. For her, it was as if sound were the universal life force itself -- the Godhead’s constant companion. “Earth opened to sound like a lover. Sound entered every cell, vibrating, setting in motion the circle of the world.”

In her first novel after publishing six nonfiction books, Weber poetically weaves a tale of three generations of women whose passions are warped and lives changed by the Catholic church. Elise tries to redeem the pain of her forebears by sacrificing a brilliant music career to become a nun, but, in the end, she realizes that what God wanted all along was their passion, not sacrifice.

Perhaps to show how quirks in a family’s path to the future can dramatically change the destiny of the unborn, the story unfolds with Meghan, Elise’s grandmother. As a young bride, Meghan reveled in the joy of love and marital relations, even though the priest had cautioned her to view it more as a duty than a blissful experience.

When her husband and infant son die in a fire, she blames herself for ignoring the priest’s admonition, and spends the rest of her life in a weird, sexless affair with a priest. After some years of listening to myriad details about her sexual fantasies in confession, the priest becomes her bridegroom of the spirit, so to speak.

Meghan’s daughter, Kate, also was a victim of the priest’s holy advice. When she was a teenager, he placed his hand on hers and advised of the evils of French kissing and the untouchable “mystic rose” between her legs. He then heard her confession of all of her indiscretions with her boyfriend, except the one that led to her church-induced everlasting shame. It was a secret revealed only at the end of the book, but it explains why Kate was such a distant mother to Elise.

Weber, a former nun herself who is now married, hints at first and later says that Elise entered the convent to redeem the pains of the world she saw through her family and return to the mother tree. She had truly been called as a young child, when she had a vision of Jesus and Mary approaching her in the woods, and she never wavered from that call through all the normal temptations of adolescence. It was only a representative of Mother Church herself who could yank the will of God out of Elise.

The person who took it upon herself to mold Elise into Sister Michelle was Mother Thomas Ann, the novice mistress and Elise’s godmother. She had been 30 years at the convent, since she was 16, not because of a calling, but because it seemed the only place to send an abused bride who was beaten on her unconsummated wedding night -- a matter of social convenience.

There, Elise was at the mercy of the merciless, as God was stripped from her at every turn and she had nothing left but insanity. At first, she thought “strict obedience stretched a lifeline across the chasm of hell.” By the end of the story, it seems the lesson was that strict obedience was hell itself. Every God-given thing she had to sacrifice was asked by Thomas Ann, who never had a calling to God and who had the darkest secret of all. The scenario was reminiscent of military brainwashing to break a prisoner of war.

After sacrificing her family, her close friend in the convent and her music, Elise’s thoughts, “it seemed, were dropping one by one into her heart, catching fire, and turning to ash that was blown away by her own breath.”

After several dreadful events involving separation, religious contradiction and suicide, Elise recovered enough to be able to leave the convent in the wake of revelations about Mother Thomas Ann and against the background of Vatican II. She realized she must reclaim her sacrificed music, saying, “I thought God was in the silence between sounds. But God is in the sound itself. ... We look everywhere ... and all along, the beloved we desired was right here, in what we are.”

Candice Sackuvich is a journalist and former NCR staff member who lives in Kansas City, Kan.

National Catholic Reporter, May 12, 2000