Sunday, March 29, 2015
The Long Fall
No 3 in "The Hawk & The Dove" series
By Penelope Wilcock
Published by Lion, March 2015
This review has been a long time in coming because of the very nature of this quite remarkable book. This is one continuous narrative rather than a collection of short stories as the previous volumes were, and considering it is a slim volume of 224 pages, it packs a devastatingly powerful emotional and spiritual punch.When I first read it, I was rendered speechless, quite literally, and rather unnerved; I have had to read it through a second time, much more slowly, and ponder and pray over what I have read and how it has affected me.
"The Long Fall" is the third in the wonderful "The Hawk & The Dove" series. Life at the monastery continues in its predictable routine, following the seasons of the year and the liturgical pattern of the Church until Abbot Peregrine is stricken down by a severe stroke. His faithful cell attendant, our dear Brother Tom, is utterly devastated, grief-stricken and has no idea how to cope with the abbot's physical incapacity or his own sadness and feeling of inadequacy. He begs to be allowed to do farm work instead and labours like a man possessed in his attempt to blot out what has happened, until the Infirmarians, Brothers John and Michael, take him aside and open his eyes to what is going on and what he needs to be doing to support and help Peregrine.
How do we cope with an unexpected and profound change in our intellectual or physical abilities, whether as the persons affected, those caring for us physically, or those who are closest to us? Denial, stunned shock, rage, depression, avoidance, bargaining, understanding and finally acceptance are stages that both Abbot Peregrine and Brother Tom have to work through before they are reconciled and together, with the help of the Infirmary staff and Brother Theodore, they all work to restore the Abbot to meaningful speech and movement. Can we or should we expect, hope or ask for death? Should we ever ask another to help put an end to our suffering, no matter how great or whatever the circumstances? Why do we suffer and what is its purpose? These are all things the Abbot and Tom discuss before Peregrine is stricken down once more and dies.
The spiritual, mental, physical and emotional effects of suffering, dying, death and grief are covered incredibly well in a short narrative and this has to be the best depiction of the classic Elisabeth Kubler-Ross academic pathway of the stages of grief ever to be portrayed in a novel, let alone in one which manages to be a remarkable, touching and eye-opening book.
Penelope Wilcock's background as a hospice chaplain shines through in her compassionate and tender look at something most of us try to avoid thinking about. Being encouraged to examine our own beliefs and to study those of our individual religious traditions regarding these topics is important in an increasingly unchurched society where religious beliefs in the value and nature of suffering are often not understood or even acknowledged; although I may not entirely agree with everything said, this is one of the most thought-provoking, beautiful, heartbreaking yet uplifting and important books I have read, and I have learned so much from it.
Not only has Brother Tom been enlightened and supported by the end of the book; the reader has too. Thank you, Penelope, for writing this story. It cannot have been easy to do so.