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Review of Paul Wilkes’ Temptations and Jeanine Hathaway’s Motherhouse

Newsday, February 7, 1993

Temptations, by Paul Wilkes. Random House
Motherhouse, by Jeanine Hathaway. Hyperion

WHILE perhaps not in the midst of a fullblown religious revival, America is certainly experiencing a renewed interest in things spiritual. But like so much else in our culture, the turn to spirituality is long on convenience and short on commitment. Not so for Joseph, the journalist cum spiritual seeker in Paul Wilkes’ gripping novel, “Temptations.” Although comfortably ensconced in New York’s fast-paced literary scene, Joseph finds himself unusually drawn to the subject of his next book: Our Lady of New Citeaux, a Trappist monastery nestled nestled in the mountains of northern Vermont. Joseph, a consummate heathen, describes himself as someone who’s had “spiritual groanings all his life and usually swallowed Tums or Alka-Seltzer, or Chivas Regal on the rocks with a twist and thought he had a cure.” But once at the monastery he begins to seek God in a more authentic way than before and finds that his journalistic talent fails to help him understand “the Marine Corps of Christianity.”

At the monastery he is met by the enigmatic and charismatic Father Columban, New Citeaux’ spiritual director. Although not allowed to stay with the monks at first, Joseph is given use of a nearby hermitage, so that he he can live a life parallel to the Trappists’ – waking at 3 a.m. to pray, keeping a vow of silence. He meets with Columban each week for a spiritual discussion. These are some of the most exciting encounters of the story; it quickly becomes apparent that much more than a deadline is at stake for Joseph.

Here Wilkes – a distinguished journalist whose previous book, “In Mysterious Ways,” was a beautifully observed nonfiction account of the life of a cancer-stricken priest – draws on his considerable knowledge of Catholic theology to fashion a scintillating new hybrid: spiritual quest meets mystery thriller. Will Joseph receive the call and become a Trappist, or will he succumb to the temptations that test him? Do something about your confusion, warns Columban, “or you will die as you have lived – a middling writer”: the spiritual equivalent of being on God’s B-list. But can an ambitious, driven sophisticate attain wholeness in a life whose only requirement is that he not seek it?

A truly devout monk is motivated by faith, not feeling, is drawn to God out of selflessness, not determination or arrogance. With this in mind, Joseph battles valiantly to overcome the hurdles in his way: a captivating woman, a lucrative book contract dangled in front of him by his scheming agent, Mort (“I got three publishers drooling for this one because it’s you,” Mort gushes. “You and God”) and feelings of schmaltzy sentimentality masquerading as true religious faith.

To make matters worse, Joseph meets up with a chilling cast of local characters whom Father Columban has deemed unfit for the Trappist life. One commits suicide, another lives in an insane asylum and a third has turned into a bitter atheist who wages fierce legal battles against the Church. Is this the fate that awaits Joseph if he too falls short?

Joseph’s spiritual struggle is often painful to witness because he experiences it so deeply. At one point in “Temptations,” he quotes from Pascal: “There is in every person the infinite abyss that can only be filled by an infinite and immutable object, that is to say, only by God himself.” Joseph’s unflinching gaze into this abyss makes for gripping reading.

Even as “Temptations” charts one man’s uncertain path to faith, poet Jeanine Hathaway’s first novel, “Motherhouse,” is a spare, eloquent account of a woman’s loss of it. The novel’s central character, also named Jeanine, is an intellectually curious 17-year-old who becomes a nun in the Dominican order right after high school because she wants nothing more than to live the life of Christ’s bride with the passion and steadiness she observes in the nuns around whom she has grown up. Her novice year is spent at the Motherhouse, the Dominicans’ headquarters, where she is initiated into the ranks of “women of the spirit who would change the face of the earth.”

STILL in the throes of adolescent angst, Jeanine makes a tremendous effort to prove that she is fit for a religious life (she even takes the name Mary Kristine to be closer to “spouse” Jesus), but she finds its requirements unnatural and alienating almost from the start. Accused of being a lesbian, she must distance herself from her closest friend (“friendliness was encouraged: friendship was not”) and renounce the very spiritedness that inspired her religious passion. Understandably, she finds these emotional gymnastics distressing and concludes: “Perhaps I’m too proud to understand how proud I am. Mostly what I want to confess is the sin of confusion.”

After leaving the Motherhouse to teach in a Detroit parish, Jeanine’s confusion deepens when her beloved brother dies and her father leaves the family. Her despair grows so great that she enters that most popular form of secular religion – group therapy – and eventually decides to study poetry. “Yes, there probably is a difference between religious and aesthetic experience, but I can’t tell them apart,” she says.

In its very understatedness, “Motherhouse” is a corrective for those spiritual overachievers who pursue their faith with self-righteous zeal. As Jeanine points out, “Even God took time out from being God to become human.”