The Abbey, Jesuit priest James Martin’s fiction debut, is not strictly a conversion story or even a prologue to one. This is the novel’s greatest strength. If nothing else, it deserves credit for being more honest than the common, smarmy man is sad…man finds Jesus…man is happy conversion story that reduces faith to a good mood and Christ to life coach.
Its protagonist, Anne, is by her own admission “not so big on God right now.” Raised Catholic, she drifted away from the church as a young adult. She still grieves for her thirteen-year-old son, hit by a car while biking home from a movie three years ago.
Her tenant, Mark, is a once-promising architect now supporting himself by working as a handyman at a monastery. He is thirty years old, and uncertain of the future.
One day, car trouble forces Anne to ask Mark for a ride. He swings by the monastery on the way home, and Anne remembers the place where her parents spent so much time.
She is skeptical of church, and largely ignorant of it—listening to what she thinks are psalms, she wonders if those are in the Old or New Testament—but she is drawn to an icon of another mourning mother: Mary. And so starts a series of conversations with Father Paul, the abbot.
Paul tells her about God, His mercy, His Love. When Anne complains that she sees God as a judgmental man in the sky, Paul concedes that, yes, the judgment is there, but the love is more important:
“[A]t least as I see it, a God who didn’t judge what we do is a God who doesn’t care how we live. And who would want to believe in a God who doesn’t care how we treat each other? But for me God is much more about mercy and love than about judgment and punishment. We see that over and over in Jesus’ parables.”
Paul’s conversations with Anne, and his reflections as he attends to his labors, are the high point of this novel, but would seem more at home in an essay than a novel.
Martin’s narration is both workaday and needlessly ornate. Note the overloading of adjectives in “The vivid color of the flowers in the bright May sunlight was like a scene from a postcard,” or the redundant third sentence in “The silence enveloped Anne. It was like something she could touch. Like a blanket.” Getting through this brief novel is a bit of a slog.
But while this novel may be inelegant, it’s never unintelligent. Martin (also the editor of the Jesuit magazine America and author of many nonfiction books) never lets us think that faith is easy or quick.
At the end of The Abbey, neither Mark nor Anne has become a Catholic. They have found no road to Damascus, and their problems still exist: Mark is still a handyman, and Anne’s son is still dead. But the possibility of faith has brought a glimmer of hope that wasn’t there before.
The Abbey: A Story of Discovery by James Martin, SJ. Published in October by HarperOne. 212 pages. $24.99