Sunday, August 07, 2011

The Hardest Thing to Do by Penelope Wilcock

I don’t know why I chose The Hardest Thing to Do by Penelope Wilcock from the June 2011 Early Reviewer’s list on Library Thing.  The book’s arrival in my mailbox was a bit of a shock.

The Hardest Thing to Do is so far from my normal reading patterns that I assumed at first glance that it would be torture for me to read and review it.  How wrong I was.

Even though there is not a single female of note in the book, I found myself drawn into the story to a remarkable degree.

I write women’s history.  What was I doing reading a book with no women and about monks no less so nothing salacious.  Not a single sensual hint throughout and yet the writing and the characters kept my eyes glued to the pages from start to finish.  Luckily for me  The Hardest Thing to Do by Penelope Wilcock is not a long book.  It’s a thin book without noticeable flaw.  May I say congratulations for the outstanding editing?

The Hardest Thing to Do is the fourth book in Penelope Wilcock’s Hawk and Dove series. These books chronicle the events in a Benedictine monastery, and follow the monks who live their during their eventful lives.
In this fourth volume, the titular abbot (called both Peregrine and Columbe, meaning “hawk” and “dove” respectively) has passed away, and the former infirmarian, John, is away finishing the necessary training to become the new abbot, leaving the monastery in the hands of a temporary leader.

The Hardest Thing to Do takes place during Lent and shows the drastic deprivations the monks endure while preparing for the Easter when the gentle quiet of their lives will be interrupted by an influx of visitors, especially patrons upon whom the monks depend for their meager livelihood.

Enter into the tale of self-denial and introspection, a refugee from a burned out Augustinian monastery noted for its gross mistreatment of  the people in their village, [many suspect arson] but also known for having mistreated their now diseased but still much beloved Father Columbe some time in the past.

Into this quagmire of discontent comes the newly minted Benedictine Abbot John, who must decide if this wayward and now homeless monk may find a new home and new brothers in this new abbey after having been turned away by everyone he sought refuse with in his long journey.  But despite the prayerful requirements of this sacred period between Ash Wednesday and Holy Easter, some of the brothers being human hold grudges that supersede not only reason, but also basic compassion.

The characters talk of other characters in a way that feels realistic, but also gives you a glimpse of the character behind that name. William, Their uninvited Augustinian guest holds and entirely different memory his encounter with Columbe and can’t understand why the Benedictines consider it so terrible they would hold such grudges against him. To him the encounter had been a friendly debate to make a point to a third party.  Rather than seeing their point of view that he had humiliated their beloved abbot, he considered Columbe the winner of the debate and was himself quite fond of the old abbot for having bested him. Overall, The Hardest Thing to Do was to put aside rash judgements and learn to forgive; to be more Christ like in their inner lives.

Not being a Catholic myself, I can’t critique The Hardest Thing to Do from a sectarian perspective but I found many of the monks sorely lacking in Christian charity although the book was enjoyable and as mentioned earlier virtual;ly free of errors which I as a novelist consider to be a remarkable accomplishment.

The Hardest Thing to Do provides an interesting look into monastic life and may prove useful to someone looking for a relatively inoffensive read.

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