This summer, I'm crawling through the archives of the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut in the name of historical research. While you're watching seagulls wheel above the waves, I'll be spinning my way through miles of microfilm.
But both pursuits require the same distractions: fiction, and lots of it. By the time I leave the archive at sundown, all I want is something that keeps my interest (even in fiction, my taste turns to religion) without too much work. What follows is my summer reading list of page-turners (mostly) that go down as easily as cold lemonade at a church picnic.After a few afternoons reading illegible, mostly tedious 18th-century Anglican sermons, I took guilty pleasure in the demise of a (fictional) cleric or two in P.D. James' new mystery, "Death in Holy Orders." James does a nice job turning a gimlet eye on life (and, as the title makes clear, death) in a theological college in East Anglia, where James' beloved detective, Adam Dalgliesh, spent summers as a youth. (James fans will recall that Dalgliesh's father was a priest.)James is mostly concerned here with the enigmatic death of an enigmatic priest-in-training. But she also offers sharp insights into the current state of the Church of England. Peevish Archdeacon Cramden is consumed with retooling the church to meet the needs of the modern world. That means Dalgliesh's beloved St. Anselm's, an old-fashioned bastion of intellectual rigor and high-church piety, must be shut down. The students, Cramden insists, need to learn to evangelize a multicultural world more than they need koinic Greek. Little question which James is rooting for: By novel's end, St. Anselm's is no longer with us, but neither is the archdeacon.
From St. Anselm's, it's an easy leap to the Canadian Cistercian monastery portrayed in Remy Rougeau's "All We Know of Heaven." This short, elegant first novel follows Brother Antoine through his early years as a monk, as he wrestles with homosexuality and masturbation, discord between older and younger monks, and with the tedium of working in the monastery kitchen. Rougeau doesn't shock us as much as he might wish, and at times--as when a group of Buddhist contemplatives visit--he manages to make everyone involved naïve and unsympathetic.
Still, there is a quiet beauty in "All We Know of Heaven." Rougeau, a monk himself, lovingly conveys the rhythms of the monastic life. We are left with a quiet awareness that commitment to community, habitual prayer, work that is sometimes interesting but more often drudgery, are indeed all we know of what heaven means.Such glimpses are not restricted to monasteries, as Manil Suri teaches us in "The Death of Vishnu." My one nod to serious literature, Suri's fictional study of the residents of one Bombay apartment building introduces us to a Muslim intellectual who believes Hindu deities are revealing prophecies to him; an alcoholic who may or may not be a god himself; a long-suffering husband who tries to keep his bases covered with weekly rounds to every religious spot in the city, Hindu, Muslim, or Catholic; a middle-aged housewife who wonders where her life went. In this perfectly pitched, many-layered narrative, Suri shows that spiritual sustenance is happening constantly and everywhere, including the neighborhood stoop.