A woman tries to exorcise her demons by exploring the ancient roots of her Christian faith in this heartfelt tale of remorse and redemption.
Middle-aged history professor Madeleine Seymour has an outwardly contented life, but she is still haunted, decades after the fact, by the death of her young daughter Mollie, who drowned in a plastic pool when Madeleine was momentarily distracted. Tormented by nightmares of Mollie and an irrational jealousy of other mothers, Madeleine seeks the counsel of her Anglican pastor Father Rinaldi, who sends Madeleine and her husband Jack on a trip to Italy to its Catholic shrines. Following Rinaldi’s itinerary around the country, from mighty St. Peter’s basilica to humbler country churches, they take in Catholicism at its gaudiest, with its miracle stories and relics and incorruptible remains displayed under glass. Along the way, Madeleine muses on the exploits of the saints, from St. Francis of Assisi’s reception of the stigmata, to the 13-year-old virgin martyr St. Agnes’ execution for refusing to marry a pagan, to St. Clare’s success in putting an army of marauding Saracens to flight by holding up the Reserved Sacrament. This might be mere colorful travelogue to another tourist, but Madeleine takes it very seriously. Alarmed at her growing obsession, a skeptical Jack introduces her to a psychiatrist, who turns out to be a shallow, condescending secularist who ridicules Madeleine’s â€œspiritual fantasies.” But as foreign as it is to modern sensibilities, and to her Protestant background, Madeleine finds that Catholic lore speaks to her. With its iconography of blood and sacrifice, its stories of suffering and death transmuted into hope and rebirth, it reveals lessons for coping with her long-festering grief and guilt. Balancing spiritual exaltation with psychological realism, Sunderland’s limpid prose makes Madeleine’s journey both gripping and believable.
A moving study of the healing power of religious devotion.