How My Friendship With a Trappist Monk Taught Me to Trust and Embrace Life
by Colette Lafia (Sorin Books, 2015)
Friendship Becomes Invitation to Surrender
by Kimberley A. Fonner
In this story, the author faces a turning point as she reaches the end of a particular path that has meant almost everything to her for many years. That end came about involuntarily, and without the result that had long been her heart’s desire. She emerged from the disappointment wiped out, empty, angry, grieving, and lost.
Colette Lafia is easily relatable as she confronts her new reality, one that she did not want. We’ve all seen such dark times and bitter disappointments, when things in our lives do not go as we think they should. Those rough spots in life are part of being human, inevitably, and inescapably.
Ms. Lafia writes with real honesty about the resistance and clinging that were active within her as she worked to move toward acceptance of her undesired reality. She knew that how she dealt with the disappointment and lost hope would make or break the rest of her life. She knew she had to find a way past her feelings and attachments to a place of peace.
She found the courage to take the first step toward acceptance by simply naming the truth out loud to herself and others, helping it become more real to her consciousness. Of course, it wasn’t easy. “Now my life feels a little strange to me, somewhat unfamiliar, even confusing,” she writes.
As she began to work toward acceptance, Ms. Lafia met Brother René at a retreat at the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky. Brother René was just then celebrating his fiftieth anniversary of monastic profession. He was also part of the monastery’s hospitality team, meeting Ms. Lafia early during the retreat week and sharing with her generously his compassion, wisdom, and faith.
From that retreat grew a friendship that lasted nine years, sustained by an open dialogue through correspondence as well as another visit two years before Brother René’s death. The fruit of that friendship for Ms. Lafia was a way into acceptance of her life as it truly is, without judgment, with peace, and through a deeper relationship with God.
“Surrender is an invitation to find contentment and peace, today and tomorrow, to open ourselves to trust life beyond the limitations that our fears, our expectations, and our disappointments impose on it,” she writes.
The book includes excerpts of the letters the two traded back and forth, woven throughout the narrative of the author’s story, with Brother René frequently reminding her that, because she seeks God in her struggle to surrender, she will necessarily find love at its core: “Always remember that you surrendered to the One who loves you, with an infinite love, full of Fire. How could you not trust such a one? Don’t hesitate. Don’t feel alone.”
Ms. Lafia turned to painting, writing, and prayer to bring herself, daily, in line with her intention to surrender. In particular, she writes,“Prayer gave me sustenance along the way, nurtured my connection with the Divine, and became my anchor in the moving waters of my experience.” That makes a great deal of sense when we consider prayer as the most direct and personal way of deepening our relationship with God. The closer that relationship, the easier it is to trust, and therefore to surrender, our lives into God’s loving care.
Kimberley A. Fonner, O.C.T., is the assistant director of the Transfiguration Spirituality Center in Glendale, Ohio.
Street Shadows: A Memoir of Race, Rebellion, and Redemption
by Jerald Walker (University of Nebraska Press, 2010)
Choices, Determination and Overcoming Odds
by Alexander Martin
Issues of race, class, and privilege pervade every aspect of society and largely shape who we are, but are rarely mentioned in polite conversation. When those of privilege are made to confront these issues, it’s often done with reluctance, hushed voices, and glances over shoulders. The most striking thing about Street Shadows: A Memoir of Race, Rebellion, and Redemption is the openness, honesty, and vulnerability Jerald Walker employs in the telling of his own story. He directly confronts our societal taboos in a way that is not intended to be confrontational or inflammatory, but in a way that humanizes our cultural sins and reflects the realities and challenges of growing up as a black kid in the bleakness of Chicago’s South Side.
Mr. Walker’s story continues into adulthood and is shaped by the rejection of the “thug life” he embraced as a teenager and his ultimate pursuit of a middle-class life and the “American Dream.” His story is one of cultural racism and classism, but is primarily told from a perspective of personal choices, determination, and overcoming the feelings of helplessness that could have easily been embraced.
Mr. Walker, now an associate professor at Boston’s Emerson College, primarily teaches creative writing and non-fiction and claims his principle teaching theme is to write with complete, unambiguous clarity. This is reflected in his own work, but is less notable than his mastery of rhythm and language that draws readers into the story he paints.
Street Shadows’ short chapters alternate between Mr. Walker’s young adulthood and early memories, which gradually merge as the book progresses. Its format, as a collection of vignettes that together form a cohesive story, make starting and stopping convenient – but you won’t want to. Mr. Walker’s story of struggle, identity, and overcoming odds is captivating.
In what is perhaps the most beautiful chapter of the book, titled “When Love Speaks,” Mr. Walker recounts a redemptive moment when, following a long string of bad decisions, he is shown a beautiful act of trust and kindness by a complete stranger. He writes, “And even I, who knew so little about love in those days, knew all there was to know about it then.” While not an overtly Christian book, Street Shadows tells the Christian story, a story of sin and rebellion followed by resurrection and redemption.
Alexander Martin is an associate priest of St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church in Anderson Township, Ohio.