Hampl, a poet, professor (English/Univ. of Minnesota), and MacArthur Fellow, peers into her soul and finds the Church. A rambling, radiant travelogue-cum-memoir, a sequel of sorts to the author's acclaimed autobiography, A Romantic Education (1981). Raised by devout Catholic parents, schooled by nuns, Hampl nevertheless finds that ``most of the time I'm so removed from belief I confuse it with having an opinion.'' To resolve this dilemma, she heads to Europe to ``see the old world of Catholicism.'' Most of her time is spent in Assisi, scrambling up holy mountains, kneeling in crypts, sifting her past, recording the chatter of priests, nuns, and other seekers. Just about all of it is passed on to us: encounters with fellow travelers whose passions and prattle fill up too much of the text; superb memories of a Catholic childhood drenched in dogma, instructed by nuns who radiated ``a bracing coolness''; gems of theological insight (``it was integral to the fundamental inspiration of Christianity that Jesus was poor. He was nothing and nobody, and therefore he could be a metaphor from minute one. He was the Word made flesh''); too many passages that sound like warmed-over Annie Dillard (on an airplane, ``wrinkles of terror run over the soles of my feet. My toes curl towards earth''). Over all hovers the kindly presence of St. Francis; beneath all runs the urgency of Hampl's quest, driven by the realization that ``God was not at stake....prayer was the real question.'' A tentative answer comes, oddly, not in Assisi but in a tacked-on visit to a Cistercian monastery in California. Much like a High Mass: rich, beautiful, boring, elevating.
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