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Book Corner August 2006
The Scent of God: A Memoir
by Beryl Singleton Bissell
Publisher: Counterpoint (Perseus Book Group), 2006, Pp. 294
Reviewed by Dr. Susan K. Hedahl
In the last several years a number of former nuns have written books about their days in the convent. Bissell's memoir is by far the best yet. The book's structure is arranged around the "hours," the daily monastic round of prayer still observed in remnant fashion among Protestants. Do you remember all of them? Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce,Sext, None, Vespers, Compline.
A brief lyrical meditation on each of the hours is scattered among the book's chapters. Her opening thoughts on Matins sets the stage for what is to come: "Your role as a cloistered nun is thus defined: you are set apart to render unceasing thanks to the Creator, to become the voice of the Church while the rest of the world sleeps." (3).
For family and financial reasons, the author's parents move to Puerto Rico in the 1950's (the author was born in 1940). The beauty around her sparks her imagination, feminine and religious. She alternates life between Catholic schools in the States and the sensuous beauty of tropical Puerto Rico. As she grows up she is pulled towards the beauty and love of God. At age twelve she feels the impact of a choral recitation at her school of Francis Thompson's Hound of Heaven. "Each time the senior class practiced this poem for their graduation ceremony, Thompson's words shuddered through me: beckoning, terrifying, thrilling. 'Ah, fondest, blindest, weakest,/I am He Whom thou seekest!'" (35)
On October 11, 1957, just after her eighteenth birthday, she enters the Monastery of Saint Claire in Bordentown, New Jersey. Here she revels in the life of a postulant. She also learns anorexic behavior as part of the darker side of the disciplined life. Despite the problems she encounters and the struggles she faces, she notes this in the meditation on Prime. "It is the hour of Prime and you are ready for the new day: the work you will perform, the prayers you will offer, all you will be and do this day cupped in the chalice of this hour." ( 73)
Illness in her family sends her back periodically to help her parents in Puerto Rico and during that time she meets an Italian priest who teaches at the University. This meeting marks the unfolding of a love affair and in turn radial changes in her life, the priest's and her family's. Bissell is forced to completely redefine what love of God and others is about. She is not hesitant to speak candidly, although always poetically, about the role of sexual, sensuous love in her journey.
Currently, Bissell's life has brought her to Minnesota, where she has lived for the last six years writing both as a columnist for the Cook County Herald News and for various journals. More information on her is found at www.berylsingletonbissell.com
Bissell's first book is superlative. This memoir is like holding a prism to the light. All the elements of faith, vocational discernment, sexuality, family, growth and change - both personal and institutional - are lovingly and critically presented in their ambiguity and power. One can only admire an author whose faith is of such a depth that the changes she endures and creates tend always to move in love and towards the source of Love.