Book Review: Wisdom beyond monastery walls
Wisdom beyond monastery walls
The Joy of God: Collected Writings of Sister Mary David, Bloomsbury Continuum, 188pp, £12.99, $18.00 USA
reviewed by Sister Mary Dominic Pitts
To understand this remarkable collection of spiritual writings, one must know something of the writer, Benedictine Sister Mary David Totah. Her spirit is that wonderful paradoxical blend of lighthearted fun with deep spiritual insight. She exemplifies the finest response of human nature to Jesus Christ, the author of Truth.
One key to understanding her joyful spirit is the fact of her growing up in a community of Palestinian Christians in Louisiana, a childhood and young adulthood full of “companionship and fun.” After earning degrees at Loyola in New Orleans and at the University of Virginia, she took an associate professorship at the College of William and Mary, but another vocation had already slipped into her soul. During postgraduate study at Oxford, she had visited the strictly enclosed Benedictine Abbey of St. Cecilia on the Isle of Wight. The future Sister Mary David “knew: here is my future . . . In May 1985 she entered the monastic enclosure, cheerily proclaiming her intention to remain within it ‘for ever’” (xii-xiii).
Not on ourselves
Within ten years Sister Mary David was made novice mistress and remained in that capacity from 1996 until her death in 2017. Therefore, much of the collection in The Joy of God consists of spiritual advice and encouragement given to her novices in the religious life. In light and affectionate language, Sister Mary David assures them that their anxieties and daily struggles are normal “growing pains” that, paradoxically, usually indicate a true vocation. Her advice is imbued with the sense of humor so necessary in community life; she urges her young charges not to take themselves too seriously, not to worry. At times she counsels patience with oneself; at other times, “a bit more humility” (16). In one of her deep insights, Sister writes, “The important thing . . . is that this awareness [of not being holy or pure enough] should make us focus on God, his mercy, his work in us—and not on ourselves . . . We must keep our eyes fixed principally on Jesus and refrain from looking at our imperfections” (109-110).
Although The Joy of God is written for the benefit of religious sisters, its contents nevertheless speak to the hearts of all Christians, for who is not “Called to Joy” and invited to “Journey to Joy,” as the book’s two sections propose? A chapter entitled “Search” ponders the call to a vocation, equally applicable to religious and to laypeople, all of whom, during times of difficulty, must keep in mind their total and irrevocable self-gift. Likewise applicable to every Christian, “Growth” treats of the freedom that comes from spiritual work—the pruning, “sometimes . . . painful,” by the Gardener required after the initial exuberance of entering into religious life or marriage (47).
Our fragile selves
The chapter on “Mercy” was a surprise to this reader, who expected it to be an encouragement to show mercy to the other sisters in the convent. True, this personal virtue is necessary for healthy community life: “Difficult sisters have their part to play in helping us to achieve this” (108). However, the main theme of this chapter is for the reader to accept the mercy that Jesus shows to us on account of our fragile and weak selves in spite of, indeed, because of our limitations and suffering. “God is better served in our weakness and struggle,” Sister writes. “Remember too that many are being helped in ways known to God alone by our difficult fidelity” (107).
This reader was struck by the recurrence of Saint Peter as the central image of many of Sister Mary David’s Scriptural quotations. Almost every chapter includes a reference to him, no two alike. In our “Search,” as we seek to know God’s will for us, she observes that “we cannot fulfill our calling as followers of Jesus without learning to go where we would rather not go” (14). In “Decision,” the question is put to us as well as to Peter: Do you love me more than these? “And from the lips of Peter comes the most beautiful declaration of love . . . ‘Lord, you know everything, you know that I love you.’ And Jesus says to him a second time: ‘Follow me’” (37). In “Endurance,” Sister Mary David recalls that Peter is required to lower his nets more than once before the miraculous catch of fish (85). In “Mercy,” Sister quotes at length an observation by St. Augustine, part of which bears quoting here:
Notice that man Peter, who was the symbolic representative of us all: now he’s trusting, now he’s tottering; one moment he’s acknowledging Christ to be immortal, the next he’s afraid of his dying . . . In that one apostle, that is, in Peter, first and chief in the ranks of the apostles, in whom the Church was symbolized, each kind of member had to be symbolized too, that is to say, the strong and the weak; because without the one or the other, there is no Church. (p. 110)
Patience and perseverance are likewise advised in “Endurance.” Sister Mary David advises a novice, “Make up your mind not to indulge in any more ‘what ifs’; looking ahead in this way is contrary to reason and faith. Endlessly going round in circles . . . is a way of escaping pain. [But] we know from Christ’s Cross this is not the way to handle pain. Suffering can be embraced, transcended, used” (87).
Sister Mary David was to live this spiritual truth that suffering can be used to reach heroic sanctity. In 2012 she was diagnosed with cancer that had advanced far enough to have become inoperable. For the next five years she endured chemotherapy and the increasing weakness that kept her from the services to her community that she had always offered so freely and cheerfully. Nevertheless, in the last chapter of the book the infirmarian describes how Sister Mary David continued to attend Masses and community exercises for many months longer than should have been possible, to the astonishment of her physician.
Confidence in God
One of the final chapters, “Darkness,” is not dated and does not include any specific references to her illness. Yet one senses in this chapter her increasing detachment and her “living from moment to moment”—in short, her reconciliation to the Will of God (133). A final reference to Saint Peter shows her confidence in God, whatever may come: “Peter’s jumping into the water was a great act of trust. Then Jesus gives him a chance to make an even greater act of trust by allowing him to sink. He wants to be able to say to us, ‘How great is your love! How great is your faith!” (125).
The final chapter of the book, “Acceptance with Joy,” comes full circle to the title of the book. It is evidence of the great act of trust that she made when the Lord said to her, “Come!” Like her beloved Saint Peter, Sister Mary David was lifted up by Jesus’ outstretched hand, rewarded by the great faith and love that she had shared with her religious sisters and which now sustained her in turn. Readers of The Joy of God may likewise be edified by the decade of correspondence by a cloistered nun whose wisdom and encouragement reaches so far beyond monastery walls.
Sister Mary Dominic Pitts, O.P., is a Dominican Sister of the Congregation of Saint Cecilia in Nashville, Tennessee.