Reviewed by Chris Hoskins | June 13, 2016
At twenty years old I found myself seated at the back of a Roman Catholic cathedral in Mexico feeling confused and amazed. I had just experienced something that felt like God’s tangible presence, but my rational mind was suspicion of religion, and my past hurt meant I was too conflicted to even consider such a thought. Yet the experience placed me on a path to reconnect with my childhood faith and continue a journey to discover God’s movement within my memories, pain, and prayer.
The Abbey is Jesuit priest James Martin’s fictional depiction of similar experiences. At first I was wary about picking up a Christian fiction book. Sometimes titles in the genre seem too put together, too nice and tidy and conclusive. But in this case, my concerns were quickly dissolved.
In the book Martin draws on years of pastoral and editorial experience creating characters who are flawed and hurt, confused and weary—just like most readers. Anne is a grieving single mother who is unsure how to cope with the loss of her only son. Mark is a young frustrated carpenter whose life seems off-kilter and directionless. And Father Paul is an abbot who wonders if ministry outside of the monastery might have suited him better. They join together in a beautiful story that explores senses and memory, as well as the themes of being lost and found.
Throughout the book Martin provides a sort of pastoral care, not simply in the fictional world but to the reader as well. His story normalizes the complexities of grief. Those grieving often find themselves wondering what to feel, how long such feelings “should” last, and what others would think if they knew we were still grieving. Martin eases into these preoccupations as well as the forgotten or unfilled expectations we have for our life with wit and compassion.
At the heart of the story Anne finds it difficult to explain what is happening within her. She is grieving, she has a burgeoning spiritual curiosity and an undeniable link to an image of a grieving Mary, and she also struggles with her occasional guilt-ridden judgment of religious life. She finds her new spiritual experiences both comforting and unsettling, a mystery of memory and God’s silent yet tangible presence in her life. More than a story about a grieving mother, this is a story about common human experience.
Above all, I was drawn by the themes of friendship and listening in this book, about places and spaces we make for one another. It is about God’s hospitality through human hospitality. I couldn’t help but wonder what would bring an outsider to our worshiping community or the sacred spaces we occupy? Are our doors even open to a pas-serby? If you are grieving or walking alongside someone grieving, this book will remind you that you are not alone. If you want to revisit your spiritual journey, don’t hesitate to let Martin’s characters accompany you and sit in the calm abbey of the imagination.