"The Hardest Thing to Do" is book four in a most wonderful series. I marvel at the way Penelope has imagined the whole world of St. Alcuin's Abbey, peopling it with fine, deeply human characters and plotting it with startling surprises and satisfying resolutions, and then giving us that world through her novels.
If a monastic community in the 1300s sounds too far removed from your daily life to be remotely relatable, then think again. The men of St. Alcuin's are each distinct unto themselves (and they become more themselves as you meet them in each episode) but they are Everyman too. The essential struggles of being human- choosing and renouncing, becoming and accepting, receiving and losing, growing and remembering- are their struggles, and yours and mine too.
The other thing I really enjoy about this series is their integrity, by which I mean that they have no pretense. They're not a story varnished with "Christianity" so that they can stay within the bounds of "Christian Fiction." Instead, they're the stories of men who've sworn to lay down their very lives for a Risen Christ. The brothers' preferences and attitudes, their time and energy, their animosity and comradeship, their doubts and prayers and work and calling- it finds its grounding in the Gospel.
Because of this, and thanks to the sensitive heart of the author, the character's conversations and meditations (and most of their meditation is really wrestling with God!) show us what they're learning about life and the One who gives it. There's a lot for a thoughtful reader to think about, and it all belongs to the characters of the story. It's not an awkward sermonette from an author, who interrupts the story to deliver a Christian PSA.
Because of this, if a non-religious friend thought the books sounded interesting, I'd loan them in a heartbeat.
If I've piqued your curiosity at all, do yourself the favor and get this series onto your shelf
Plot: It's Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, and the monks of Medieval St. Alcuin's Abbey are going about their daily routines, eagerly awaiting the arrival of their new abbot, John, who was formerly the abbey's infirmarian and had just spent a year at Cambridge preparing to take up the role of abbot. His return was expected any day now and Brother Tom, the abbot's esquire, has been keeping busy getting the abbot's rooms ready for him. On the road, John - still an infirmarian at heart - helps many of the people he meets; one of the men he comes across on his journey is an Augustinian monk from St. Dunstan's Priory which, he is shocked to learn, has recently suffered a catastrophic fire in which many of the monks perished. Troubled by this news, John continues on his journey after helping the man as much as he could. His safe arrival causes relief and joy to fill the abbey, and John begins to settle in his new role as abbot.
When William, the former prior of St. Dunstan's, shows up on the abbey's doorstep a few days later bruised, burnt and hungry, discord and tension spread rapidly among the brothers - fueled by Tom's keen memory of William's cold-hearted cruelty to their former abbot. John, with the burden on responsibility on his shoulders now and being a kindly person, tries his best to keep the peace. But winning forgiveness and a place in the abbey will be a hard battle for William, even with the abbot's goodwill. In fact, it will be the hardest thing he has to do.
Likes/Dislikes: I liked all the characters, how they all interacted with each other and grew in this story. It was amusing to be reading their conversations and find out what each one considers to be the hardest thing they have or had to do. I also especially liked how Tom and William grew throughout the course of the story. It was very interesting to read a book set primarily in a Medieval abbey without having knights, damsels in distress and all the glamorous figures one thinks of from that time period popping in and out of the tale. All in all, a very enjoyable, highly recommended read.
Rating: PG-12 and up for reading level although not necessarily a children's book.
Date Report Written: February 11, 2012.
I received this book free from the publishers. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions expressed in the above review are my own.
This book isn't really my kind of story, but it's an interesting concept, and you might enjoy it. It's the story of a group of monks who live in a monastery and what happens when a fellow monk from another monastery seeks refuge with them. His monastery was burned to the ground under mysterious circumstancesâ€”whether an act of judgment by God or vandalism by vengeful victims. The monks of this monastery were exploiting the people who lived nearby and refusing to offer anyone comfort or care.
The monks of the first monastery are challenged: what is their responsibility toward this errant brother? Justice or grace.
The story takes place over the forty-six days between Ash Wednesday and Easter. There is a chapter for each day which tells one or two significant events that occur. Scattered throughout are profound thoughts on grace, character, forgiveness, and other aspects of Christian living. These were my favorite parts of the book--the stuff I love to underline!
I did have some trouble keeping track of characters, but author Penelope Wilcock has included a list of members of the community of St. Alcuin's Abbey at the beginning of the book. For further reference, there are also a glossary of terms, a typical monastic day's schedule, and a liturgical calendar at the back of the book.
I received a complimentary copy of this book and its three prequels in exchange for my honest review of "The Hardest Thing to Do."
The Hardest Thing to Do by Penelope Wilcock is the long awaited follow up to the Hawk and the Dove trilogy. This book is nearly impossible to classify in a genre. It's not a true mystery, certainly not a romance, and it's not a thriller. Yet this novel is a read with tremendous power. Brother John is becoming Father John and taking over for the beloved Father Peregrine as abbot of St Alcuin's monastery. He is nervous about the new responsibilities, but his burden becomes much heavier when an old enemy, Father William, seeks refuge after his monastery was burned by vengeful villagers in retaliation for the monks ruthless power and money-seeking. Brother Thomas has reason to hate William and stirs up the feelings of the other brothers against the man, until a shocking act changes everything. Wilcock's writing is never sensational or over-the-top. This is a story about men who call themselves Christians trying to deal with the hardest thing Christ asks us to do: forgive and show mercy. How that decision weighs on the various men at St Alcuin's is as the heart of this story, and how they will be changed by their choices. The story has much to say to us today and raises questions that are still not easily answered. I hadn't read the Hawk and the Dove trilogy prior to this, but I will certainly seek them out after reading this thought-provoking story.
Peace, grace, love & mercy or bitterness and anger
August 8, 2011
First of all I want to thank Crossway Books for sending me an advance copy of this book to read and review. I am grateful to them for this and was profoundly blessed by Penelope Wilcock's latest novel.
The Hardest Thing to Do is the fourth book in "The Hawk and the Dove" series. It follows one week after book three has left off. The St. Alcuin monastery is awaiting their new Abbott, Father John who will be replacing the recently departed Abbott Peregrine. So, this is a story of transition. It is a time for the monastery to welcome a new leader, to have some new beginnings, to celebrate the previous ministry of a faithful Abbott and to ask God's blessing on the new ministry of the new Abbott.
St. Alcuin is know for it's grace, mercy and peace that it bestows on any visitor that happens to need a place to stay. It is also a loving community that is faithful to the Lord Jesus Christ and loves the people of the areas surrounding their monastery. It is a vibrant place with a great new group of young men who have entered the monastery and are learning the ways of the Monks.
But not only is this going to be a time of transition for the monastery but it will be a time of learning for them as well. While they have done a great job of growing in Christ they are still needing to learn. This shows itself in that when they hear the news that St. Dunstan's has burned down many of the Monks are grateful that those at this spiteful monastery have died and will cause no more trouble. This takes Abbott John by surprise. They should not be joyful over the death of other Monks or the lost of a monastery. But it is true that that community treated others very poorly and took advantage of the people who lived around the monastery. Also their Abbot Prior William was no friend to Abbott Peregrine and actually abused him verbally on many occasions. So, good riddance to him.
But then the news comes that there is a traveler at their door who is seeking assylum. It turns out to be Abbott William, the man that many at St. Alcuin's dispise. He is seeking refuge in their monastery as no other monastery or community will give him refuge. His hands and arms are badly burned and need tending to and he just needs a quiet place to live.
The turmoil this request will invoke is amazing. Immediately Abbott John finds himself at odds with the majority of Monks in his monastery. He wants to be loving and provide a place for William to heal and to also grow. But the others want nothing to do with him (almost all the others, there are three who agree with John).
This sets up the novel to weave the story of how a group of Monks will have to come to terms with their belief in the Lord Jesus Christ and their belief in grace, mercy, peace and love. How will it be lived out? How will they respond? How will the Lord reach each of them and help them on their journey? Oh, and what will happen with the hated Abbott William?
Wilcock does a wonderful job of weaving the story, building each of the characters and addressing so many of the hurts that many of us carry with us. She will show how forgiveness and love can overcome bitterness and hatred. If you have ever thought of being involved in Peacemaking Ministry this book will give you a great example of what is involved and how it is a difficult ministry but highly rewarding.
I completely enjoyed this book and found myself underlining so many nuggets of truth that I forgot that I was reading a novel and not reading a true story about the loving work of Jesus Christ. I hope that you will enjoy it as much as I did and learn as much as I did about what our response to difficult circumstances ought to me.
Thank you Penelope for this wonderful work of love. Oh, and by the way, there is the most beautiful confession given on page 197. This is what Peacemaker Ministry is all about, one brother confessing his sin to another, receiving forgiveness and then that brother being broken enough to also express his confession to the other and seeking forgiveness. Bitterness is healed and love wins.