The Oblate’s Confession
In full compliance with FTC Guidelines, I received this book for free in exchange for a fair and honest review. I was in no way compensated for this post as a reviewer, and the thoughts are my own.
|Publication Date: December 2, 2014 Secant Publishing Formats: eBook, Hardcover
Genre: Historical Fiction
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MY THOUGHTS ABOUT THIS BOOK
As you may have seen in my post on my 2014 favorites, I chose The Oblate’s Confession as my favorite for the category Historical Fiction – in print. But this is not your usual historical novel, and reviewing it is a real challenge. Something in the synopsis really attracted me, and I’m glad I was allowed to be part of the tour to review it. This book is so rich and so spiritually nurturing, I’m really very happy to talk to you about it and have the privilege to interview the author even!
I would put this book in the lineage of St Augustine’s Confessions: yes Augustine was a real person, not a fictional character, but Winwaed seemed so authentic to me that it feels like he must have lived for sure! Winwaed’s confession is a confession in the true sense of the word: he did something wrong and his abbot ordered him to write about the events that led to his sin. But like Augsutine’s, his confession is to be taken in a broader sense, as an old monk he now reminisces on his experience since his very first day at Redestone Abbey. In the course of his memories, you can assess the depth of his spiritual life and practice as well as his relationship with God and his confessio on who God really is. Among many passages on this dimension, there’s a really good one on pp.389-390 on the God of the cloister and the real God.
But the most powerful line is definitely when Winwaed discovers that he is “unalone” (p.397), a word that I received as a gem.
The novel is set in 7th century England, a fascinating period as Benedictine monks have only recently arrived in England (in 597), and there are conflicts between their Roman view and the view of monks who were already in England much earlier than them. There is still also a large mix of paganism and Christian practices. It is also a time with bouts of plague.
At the time, it was not unusual for young children to be donated to a monastery where they were educated and usually remained as monks. Winwaed is one of them, an oblate, as is the technical term. One day, his own father Ceolwulf asks to see him. He tells him about the story of their family, how he came up with receiving this first name, and then asks the boy to pray for Bishop Wilfrid‘s death, in retaliation for things that happened to their family. One great layer of the book is to see him grow as a young boy, with hardly any concern, intent on obeying strictly every rule, and then little by little growing out of innocence and getting caught in guilt and complicated thoughts as he discovers a broader complex world around him. Page 158 has a fascinating passage on how one leaves the world of childhood when one enters the adult world of secrets!
But another important father figure enters his life and helps him cope innerly with all that’s going on, as he is asked to go every week to bring food and supplies to a hermit on a close-by mountain. This offers an extraordinary layer to the book, as you see Winwaed discover the spiritual world, grow in it and experience it in all its power. The old monk introduces him to what we would call today “centering prayer“, a very contemplative way of prayer, where one learns “to be present to God’s presence” (quotation from one of my own spiritual mentors), in silence and peace.
Not unrelated to this practice, the hermit also teaches him (in the monastic way of teaching more through experience than through words) how to notice beauty around him, to observe nature, to read animal tracks –the passages with the young foxes or the view from the crag are so good, I felt I was really there! The book is also rich with all the elements of monastic daily life, including prayer and manual work, silence, sign language, vows, etc.
Let’s come back to the theme of prayer, certainly the most powerful theme treated in the book. There are numerous very inspiring passages on prayer, on prayer and light (p.226) , on the battle against thoughts (p. 184; chapters 21 and 22; also p.237) inevitable to anyone trying to enter the depth of inner prayer.
Chapter 22 when Winwaed finally experiences the power of prayer is quite striking, and is based on not uncommon images of prayer as described by Medieval Church Fathers and Mothers (thinking here about Julian of Norwich for instance, or Gertrude of Helfta). Along these lines, there are also interesting mentions of dreams and visions –Medieval people had a mind definitely much more open, receptive, and attuned to the spiritual world than our modern too busy mind.
The book is extremely contemplative in its writing, and it is really full of gems. No wonder it received a starred review by Kirkus! If you are curious for a different reading experience, I highly recommend it to you. Plus you will have the added advantage to be introduced to profound wisdom, still very relevant today and more than ever necessary for us to remain sane in our daily whirlwinds.
I would like to address here a few technical aspects:
- page 43: I was surprised to see how the author translated the word gyrovague (monks who spend their entire lives drifting form region to region – RB 1,10): landlopers. I had never read this translation before, but it sounds quite good. And anyway, who would know what a gyrovague is these days?
- The book often mentions sign language, but I did not think it would have been used that early in England, or for that matter on the continent either. A source mentions 996 as the earliest mention of Benedictine sign language there, and specifies that Bede himself must not have known about it.
- Page 270 refers to changes in monastic life. The vows of stability and obedience are mentioned, but nor the vow of conversatio, which is actually of the three the one most related to change. I was surprised not to see it mentioned in that context, it would have fit perfectly.
VERDICT: As a young boy growing up in a Benedictine Abbey in 7th England, Winwaed discovers the powerful world of prayer and the challenges if offers him, when his ideas of fatherhood become conflictual. If you expect to be enriched in your inner being by reading, this historical novel will do it.
WHAT IS IT ABOUT
Set in 7th century England, The Oblate’s Confession tells the story of Winwaed, a boy who – in a practice common at the time – is donated by his father to a local monastery. In a countryside wracked by plague and war, the child comes to serve as a regular messenger between the monastery and a hermit living on a nearby mountain. Missing his father, he finds a surrogate in the hermit, an old man who teaches him woodcraft, the practice of contemplative prayer, and, ultimately, the true meaning of fatherhood. When the boy’s natural father visits the monastery and asks him to pray for the death of his enemy – an enemy who turns out to be the child’s monastic superior – the boy’s life is thrown into turmoil. It is the struggle Winwaed undergoes to answer the questions – Who is my father? Whom am I to obey? – that animates, and finally necessitates, The Oblate’s Confession. While entirely a work of fiction, the novel’s background is historically accurate: all the kings and queens named really lived, all the political divisions and rivalries actually existed, and each of the plagues that visit the author’s imagined monastery did in fact ravage that long-ago world. In the midst of a tale that touches the human in all of us, readers will find themselves treated to a history of the “Dark Ages” unlike anything available today outside of textbooks and original source material.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
William Peak spent ten years researching and writing The Oblate’s Confession, his debut novel. Based upon the work of one of the great (if less well known) figures of Western European history, the Venerable Bede, Peak’s book is meant to reawaken an interest in that lost and mysterious period of time sometimes called “The Dark Ages.” Peak received his baccalaureate degree from Washington & Lee University and his master’s from the creative writing program at Hollins University. He works for the Talbot County Free Library on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Thanks to the column he writes for The Star Democrat about life at the library (archived at http://www.tcfl.org/peak/), Peak is regularly greeted on the streets of Easton: “Hey, library guy!” In his free time he likes to fish and bird and write long love letters to his wife Melissa. For more information please visit William Peak’s website.
HAVE YOU READ THIS BOOK YET? HAVE YOU READ ANY OTHER NURTURING NOVEL? SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS IN A COMMENT PLEASE
AND NOW THE INTERVIEW WITH WILLIAM PEAK
William, thanks so much for taking time to answer my questions. I am totally stunned by the spiritual depth found in your novel. I believe this is the first historical novel I’ve read (and I read a lot of them) with so many extraordinary passages on prayer. So reading your book, I came to the conclusion that you must have been a monk or at least a novice “in your previous life”. At the beginning of the Delmarva Today interview you state actually that you came to discover this dimension while you were sick. Really? Did your sickness lead you to experience the power of prayer in yourself? It’s hard to imagine you could write these things by just getting inspiration in others’ experience and not your own as well.
Let me begin by saying how pleased I am to learn that a former Trappistine found something to admire in Winwæd’s (and my) spiritual journey. Though I have long admired the monastic way and those that follow it, I have never been a monk. Indeed, my wife and I had already been happily married for some time when we discovered our mutual interest in contemplative prayer and, consequently, converted to Roman Catholicism. And though I have now been praying (or trying to pray) contemplatively for decades, I will always consider myself a beginner. I suppose we all are to one degree or another. God starts fresh with us every day. And yes, you are right, my initial interest in contemplative prayer grew out of a chronic illness I suffered as a young man. Eventually I was cured (some would say miraculously), but by then the experience of contemplative prayer had become not just a way to live with pain but a way to live period, full-stop, end-of-sentence.
So did you just read about prayer? Did you also meet some of the mentors of “centering prayer”, because this is really what Winwaed is practicing, isn’t it? Have you had a chance to talk with Thomas Keating? Basil Pennington? Others?
Yes, you are absolutely right, the sort of devotion Winwæd is practicing is what we today would call “centering” or “contemplative” prayer. And in answer to your question, I have read a great deal about prayer. Indeed, it was the writings of Thomas Merton that first introduced me to the concept (the “Fire Watch” section of Merton’s The Sign of Jonas is, in my opinion, one of the finest pieces of writing ever produced in America). And of course I have read Keating and Pennington too, though I have never had the opportunity to meet or talk with them. Others who have influenced my thinking on, and experience of, contemplative prayer would include Brother Lawrence, St. Teresa of Avila, François Fénelon, Henri Nouwen, Carlo Carretto, St. François de Sales, the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing, and the Buddhist contemplatives Thich Nhat Hanh and Shunryu Suzuki.
At the end of the wonderful confession scene, the Act of Contrition you use is in fact the Orthodox Jesus Prayer. You have also incredible passages on the struggle against the thoughts, a theme so recurrent in Orthodox spirituality. So did you also read some Orthodox Fathers as part of your research? Which ones? Or did you meet any?
As is, I guess, obvious, I love to read. It is one of the primary ways I experience life. But I’m afraid I know little of Orthodox spirituality. I would be very interested in (and grateful for) any recommendations you might have for me.
Are you fortunate to have a strong spiritual mentor in your life comparable to the hermit? Or is it simply a fictional imagination of, let’s say, an older Thomas Merton?
I’m afraid there is no Father Gwynedd in my life, though I have, from time to time, had some wonderful spiritual directors. Among these I would list several nuns, several diocesan priests, and any number of monks. But truth be told, most of the teachings that come out of the hermit’s mouth are a product of my own experience of prayer. As I said, I am a rank amateur when it comes to contemplative prayer, but I have been practicing such prayer and thinking about it for a very long time now. The hermit’s personality, on the other hand, is derived for the most part from memories I retain of that most essential and primary of mentors … my own father.
I have read the life of great monastic figures such as Anthony, Pachomius, and Benedict, but I have to admit not Bede’s. What is particular to his life?
The Bede was a remarkable man. An oblate himself (he was donated to the monastery at Monkwearmouth-Jarrow when he was seven and lived there the rest of his long—for the time period—life). Though he lived during the so-called “Dark Ages” and may never have travelled beyond the limited world of his abbey’s lands, Bede was a learned and sophisticated citizen of the world. He spoke at least three languages fluently and wrote countless devotional works and books of history and science. The tide charts he created for the British Isles, the first ever produced, were so accurate the British Navy continued to rely upon them well into the sixteenth century. But what is really so attractive about the man is his humanity and his humility—two traits that shine through his monumental History of the English Church and People. If you haven’t read this book, you should. Very wise, very human. One of the nice things about converting to Roman Catholicism is that, as part of the rite of Christian initiation, converts get to select their own patron saint. I chose St. Bede.
Western monasticism and mysticism is still vibrant today, mostly with Trappist monasteries, as their monks and nuns are usually not involved in exterior charitable activities. Why did you choose as your main hero an oblate in 7th century England and not for instance a contemporary American novice at Gethsemani Abbey (I’m choosing this place as you refer to Thomas Merton in your Acknowledgements)?
There are several reasons. (1) I have always been interested in first things. When I began to learn about contemplative prayer, I immediately wanted to learn about its earliest forms of expression. Inevitably, this led me to the desert fathers and early monasticism. (2) Reading about early monasticism led me, in turn, to the Bede and his magisterial history of early England. Holding that book in my hands, I realized I had the makings of a great story (indeed, there is material enough for 10 novels in Bede’s History of the English Church and People). (3) Since I was a child, I have dreamt of time-travel. Having discovered the Bede, I realized I could make my childhood dream come true, that with his guidance I could, through my writing, travel to and inhabit—however vicariously— a time and place entirely different from our own. It is my hope that The Oblate’s Confession will similarly transport its readers. (4) Choosing to write my novel from the point of view of a 7th century oblate instead of a modern Cistercian novice served two purposes: (a) Any novel written in the West about Christianity in the world today must, to one degree or another—if it is to be taken seriously by a predominantly secular audience—engage in apologetics. Apologetics don’t interest me. What does interest me is the notion that there was a time when such a defense of faith was unnecessary, a time when people believed implicitly. In our postmodern world, I wondered what such a world would be like. (b) I was almost as fascinated by the notion that children were once donated at a tender age to monasteries as I was by time travel. I wanted very much to try to imagine what such a child’s experience of life would be. Writing The Oblate’s Confession allowed me to explore both the pre-modern world of unquestioning belief and the life of an oblate dropped unexpectedly into the middle of that world.
Why did you focus your plot on the figure of the father? Do you think this could indeed have been a sensitive issue in the Middle Ages context, especially for oblates?
You know I didn’t set out to write a book about fathers and fatherhood, but once the story and its characters got underway, I found myself being drawn inexorably in that direction. I have no idea whether fatherhood would have been any more important an issue in the Middle Ages than it is today, but I have no doubt that it would have been a sensitive issue for an oblate (just as, I’m sure, it would be a sensitive issue today for the child of a single-parent mother).
Your descriptions of scenery and exterior settings for prayer are so contemplative and alive at the same time, I could feel myself there. Have you been experiencing yourself God’s presence in nature?
My experience of God in nature has always been strong and is matched only by my experience of God in the Blessed Sacrament.
Have you had a dramatic personal experience of the power of prayer, similar to what Winwaed experienced?
You know prayer is, as Father Gwynedd says, a contradictory, paradoxical phenomenon. On the one hand, it can be maddeningly ineffective. If I had a dollar for every time I have prayed for something important—say the health of someone I love—and seen my prayer go unanswered, I would have a lot of dollars. But, on the other hand, even as prayer appears to be an exercise in futility, a nonsensical practice involving nothing more (some would say) than talking to, or meditating upon, thin air, the sense of well-being it gives me—the sense of well-being that fills me up and sends me back into the world charitably inclined toward one and all—cannot be denied. And every now and then, if I am lucky, I do experience a sense of the Transcendent …. Who’s to say what that experience is? Perhaps it is nothing more than a few aberrant neurons connecting and firing in a novel pattern … or, perhaps, it is Communion. Whichever, the experience itself is so gratifying and its effects upon my life (both personally and for those who must live with me) are so unrelentingly positive, I will never give up trying to achieve it.
I love the expression of Winwaed’s sudden realization: “I was unalone”. Did you come up yourself with this wonderful expression, or is it from The Cloud of Unknowing maybe, or from a contemporary author?
Oh Emma, I am so glad you approve of that phrase! If you knew how I agonized over it! The sentence came to me, as much of my writing does, out of the blue, like answered prayer. And it fit, I knew immediately: it was the phrase that conveyed exactly my meaning. But every time I ran Spell-Check on my manuscript, Microsoft’s dictionary went nuts over the word “unalone”—and I am enough of a grammarian to be troubled by that. Normally, I don’t care for made-up words. So it worried me. And now, to have a contemplative of your experience and knowledge not only approve the word but wonder if I borrowed it from a work as revered as The Cloud of Unknowing … well, it doesn’t get any better than that. I thank you.