Saturday, August 08, 2009

My Review: The Passion of Mary Margaret

About the Book (from Amazon):
Mary-Margaret yearned to dedicate her life to the Lord. Jesus had another idea.

When Mary-Margaret Fischer met Jude Keller, the lighthouse keeper's son, she was studying at a convent school on a small island off Chesapeake Bay. Destined for a life as a religious sister, she nevertheless felt a pull toward Jude--gorgeous, rebellious, promiscuous Jude. But Jude, driven by demons no one really understood, disappeared into Baltimore's seamy red-light district. Mary-Margaret moved on with her life, preparing to serve God with her sisters as a teacher and artist.

Then Jude comes home--but now he's bitter, dissolute, and diseased. And Mary-Margaret receives a divine call that shakes her to the core, a call to give up her dreams for the troubled man who befriended her so long ago. For Jesus' sake, can she forsake the only life she ever wanted for a love that could literally cost her life?

My Review:
When I saw this book on other blogs, I knew I wanted to read it. I acquired my copy the new old-fashioned way: I bought it from Amazon.

First of all, let me say I loved the book. Lisa Samson's writing is extraordinary as far as her use of language and overall writing style. I loved Mary-Margaret and really enjoyed getting to know her through her reflections on her life, because that's how this book is written. This book is a journal written by Mary-Margaret, who was the illegitimate daughter of a woman who died in childbirth. Mary-Margaret is a School Sister of St. Mary. She was born in 1930 and this journal was written in 2000. The book seamlessly joins her recollections of the past with what is happening to her in the 21st century. We learn about her childhood, marriage, religious life and more. If this is typical of Samson's writings, I definitely want to read more.

Now that I've said all that nice stuff, I'll have to say the not-so-nice stuff. As enjoyable as this book was to read, it is filled with errors about Catholicism and the religious life as I understand it to have been in that time period. Some things are small, like Mary-Margaret as a child attending evening mass on Ash Wednesday. At that time, no masses were celebrated after noon. She sat "in the sanctuary". While many Protestant churches call the worship space the sanctuary, in Catholic churches, the sanctuary is the area around the altar and Mary-Margaret most certainly would not have been sitting there.

In the book, Mary-Margaret wants to be a Sister from the time she was a small child. She finishes the convent high school, goes off to college, and, after finishing college, joins the convent. According to my mom, and things I've read, a much more typical path at that time for a girl like that would have been to join the convent right out of high school, and to get her college degree during summers. While she was a novice, Jude came to see her. They went off for coffee and while they are there she calls the convent to tell them she'll be out late. From everything I've ever heard about convents in that age, the chances of that happening would be practically nil, sisters did not go off alone, and a novice's contacts with the outside world were limited. When Mary-Margaret and Jude decide to get married, her first choice for a wedding place was outside; but because that place held bad memories for Jude, they decided on the church instead. The book mentioned that Jude wasn't baptized, so they didn't have a wedding mass. What would have happened in real life in such a situation at that time was what happened to my in-laws; they would have been married in the rectory, not the church. There is no way a good Catholic would have entertained the idea of an outdoor wedding. She and Jude agree to a sexless marriage. That would be an invalid marriage.

She and Jude were at mass in the late 1950's and she mentions Jude getting in the communion line with arms crossed over his chest for a blessing, since he couldn't receive communion. That is a practice that has only taken hold in the last 20 years or so. In the 1950's a lot of Catholics didn't receive communion regularly; staying in one's pew at communion time was not abnormal.

Mary-Margaret is a mystic. She talks to Jesus who appears to her, in a way that she can see Him and hear Him, and even curl up in His arms. She never tells anyone about this and wonders if He appears to others in that way. Mary-Margaret mentions that she knows people would think she was loony if they knew. Some of the great saints (like St. Catherine) were mystics so I won't say that Mary-Margaret couldn't have seen Jesus in that way.

You can click here to read a biography of the author, Lisa Samson. She told me in an email that she recently returned to the Catholic church, after having been away for decades. In some ways, that fits in with the story. At her age she wouldn't have remembered the pre-Vatican II days and if she spent a lot of years away from the church, that would explain the mis-use of terminology. Only religion geeks like me, and those much older than us would remember those pre-Vatican II (Vatican II was a church council in the early 1960's which let to changes in lifestyle for religious sisters and to mass in the vernacular, among other things).

Again, though, despite the errors, I recommend the book as a great story of love and redemption.


  1. I had hope when I first read about this one, but I HATE it when an author gets facts like that wrong! No matter what the subject, it is just very sloppy, but when the subject, in this case Catholicism, is central to the book, it is unforgivable.

  2. Thank you for the review. I really appreciate you taking the time. I do hope you don't mind some explanation.

    I ran everything by a religious sister, who read the entire manuscript, and told me there are different paths to becoming a religious unique to various orders. The path Mary-Margaret took is similar to hers.

    Ack. Sorry about that "sanctuary" foul up and evening mass. No excuse there!

    Also, when Mary-Margaret snuck out she was recuperating at the order's mother house. Not a convent, as she was in an order of school sisters. She was not ever a cloistered nun but a religious sister.

    Regarding the wedding, my parents were married at St. Jerome's in Baltimore in 1953 and my mother was protestant. I've got the wedding album to prove it! :-)

    Mary-Margaret agreeing to a sexless marriage was under quite extenuating circumstances, if I might point that out. And she did her best to change that!

    Catholicism as an institution, actually, wasn't central to the piece, Caite, but a setting. Still, I do hope my inaccuracies will not keep anyone from reading about the grace of God and His redeeming love for His children.

    I'm glad you liked the book, overall, and so appreciate the kindness you expressed regarding my writing. And Caite, I do hope forgiveness is something you'll eventually extend to me someday! :-) My audience is primarily protestant and I was hoping to show a more winsome faith than we are thought to have and promote a greater understanding. Unless you were steeped in that world as I was, you cannot possibly understand the misgivings and downright hatred at times of the Catholic Church. I wanted them to realize we have a deep relationship with Jesus too.

    I guess I'll stick to the Post-Vatican II time period from here on out since that is, as you guessed, what I'm most familiar with. But I will stand by this book as a work that shows the great love of God. That is my foremost message as a writer.

    Thanks for letting me explain. God bless! And thanks again for the review!


  3. Lisa, thanks for stopping by. It is always nice to hear from authors. As to your comments, you are right about there being different paths into the sisterhood, even in that time. As far as the motherhouse/convent difference, and the cloister, I wasn't around in those days, and I'm sure your sister consultant would know better than me (and I suppose some literary license could be taken) but my mom, and several books I've read, basically said that sisters, even those who weren't cloistered, always went out in pairs, but I suppose sneaking out to see a man could be an indication of a vocation to marriage. That is another thing I liked about your book--Mary Margaret was called to marriage by Jesus, marriage was a vocation, a calling as blessed by Him as the religious life.

  4. That was a big part of what I was writing about, the vocation of marriage. I didn't realize there was such a thing until a couple of years ago upon reentering the Church and, as a married person with three children, I thought it was wonderful.

  5. This book is moving to the top of my TBR pile.
    I just found out this morning that the author is a personal friend of a Troubadour alum and also a W alum :)

  6. Like Ruth, I too notice errors about Catholic traditions and teachings in books.... I guess it comes from living in the south for many years and even hearing from some (that didn't know I was Catholic) that we were a cult or at best not-Christians.... and unfortunately even Catholic adults don't always know or understand the nuances or vocab of the Faith.....I must admit I made the mistake about the word sanctuary very recently..... I was trying to tell folks that I was raised to not have conversations in the Church (other than the vestibule) but said I was raised to not talk in the sanctuary..... I guess in reality I was taught not to talk in the same room (whatever we call the entire inside of the church (including altar and pews) as the Tabernacle containing the Blessed Sacrament.... now if the Tabernacle is in a separate chapel, then I have no problem talking in the church
    And that was a poorly written sentence in my last comment. I meant the author is a friend of someone that is both a Troubadour and W alum


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