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Issue Date:  June 30, 2006

The Scent of God by Beryl Singleton Bissell THE SCENT OF GOD
By Beryl Singleton Bissell
Counterpoint, 294 pages, $24
A memoir of religious life and love


Most biographies and memoirs are written by and about highly visible persons, living and dead, who leave their mark in a grand way; some are written by less renowned poets, mystics and prophets. Memoirist Natalia Rachel Singer describes a hybrid form of memoir “in which a writer presents a life through a lens that reflects both inward and outward. ... The best memoirists allow their life experiences to shed light on a culture, a historical moment, a time, place, a social problem, a political issue that remains timely.”

In The Scent of God, Beryl Singleton Bissell accomplishes all of the above. The culture of the church from 1947 to 1979 provides the setting for the author to reflect on her Catholic experience, from her early schooling to her entrance into the cloistered Poor Clares, and in her change of vocation to spouse and mother. Ms. Bissell vividly portrays the emotional impact of living in a family nearly destroyed by alcoholism and her private war with food in the early years of religious life.

On the surface, Scent tells the story of Sr. Mary Beatrix from New Jersey, who falls in love with an Italian priest, Padre Vittorio, while serving in Puerto Rico in the 1970s. Dedicated to the priesthood, Vittorio has given 30 years to serving others. He loves the church as much as Beryl wants to be loved by him. As their relationship develops, readers get an inside view of monastic life and the state of the church before and after Vatican II.

Beneath the intrigue of such a story, the author explores the how and why of her search for God. Writing to understand both the tragic and blessed events of a life lived with the passion of a mystic, Ms. Bissell exposes the complex emotions of a daughter who longs for her mother’s approval and for her father to stop drinking. She writes of her earliest school years: “In search of security and a safe place to grow, I turned inward, finding within myself the stability I couldn’t seem to find in my family. I didn’t realize it then, but I had already begun my search for God.”

With vivid detail and skillful dialogue, Ms. Bissell reveals a provocative, honest and tender relationship with her mother as the two women struggle for what each most wants: acceptance and love. When young Beryl announces her decision to enter the Poor Clares, it grieves her mother more than it makes her proud.

Bissell writes: “Into every moment of every day I carried my search for God. The certainty that no one would ever love me as God loved me made me strong.” Her strength held until she met Padre Vittorio.

At the heart of her story is Ms. Bissell’s struggle with “losing” her vocation as she and Vittorio meet and depart over a period of years. Their times together, joyful and sometimes tragic, are ironically set in motion by the young nun’s vow of obedience and her parents’ friendship with Padre Vittorio. Begging for guidance, Sr. Mary Beatrix prays: “Show me what you want God. ... You choose. God, of course, did not answer. God doesn’t get involved in matters of free will. It was up to me. God would accept whatever decision I made. God would continue to love me, either way. But would I love myself?”

The strength of Ms. Bissell’s memoir lies in the unflinching examination of her motives for entering and leaving religious life. The “scent of God” and the scent of the church go before, behind and all around Beryl, her family and Vittorio as they live through family tragedies and the sometimes agony of unconditional love. In the author’s words, “Writing a memoir is primarily about healing, it’s the journey of self-discovery that allows you, the writer, to link hands with all those others who have experiences ... joy and sorrow and guilt.” Scent is a compelling and soulful read.

Paula Sullivan is a writer, retreat facilitator and spiritual director in Tulsa, Okla.

National Catholic Reporter, June 30, 2006

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