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Media Watch: ‘All We Know of Heaven’ makes a great gift — but read it before you
give it away
by Father Tom Caswell, for the Inland Register
(From the Aug. 23, 2001 edition of the Inland Register)
Book Review: All We Know of Heaven, by Rémy Rougeau. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 2001; $23 (hardcover)
Several weeks ago I read an intriguing article in The New York Times about a Benedictine monk in Minnesota who had just written his first novel. Rémy Rougeau tells the story of nine years in the life of the Cistercian Abbey of St. Norbert in Manitoba. I called Kaufers and within days had a copy of Rougeau’s All We Know of Heaven.
All I can say is, a novel on religious themes doesn’t get any better than this. All We Know of Heaven is better than a week’s retreat in grappling with the relationship of human beings seeking to draw closer to God. If you’ve got a priest or Religious woman who’s hard to shop for, All We Know of Heaven is a gift for anyone who has been through a seminary or Religious community formation. It is a gift that will be long remembered. But make sure you read it first.
In 1973, at age 19, Paul Seneschal wants to enter St. Norbert Abbey, near Winnipeg. His French-Canadian parents are very much opposed. After much soul-searching Paul finally finds his way to St. Norbert.
For the next nine years we follow Paul on his journey to be a monk. Along the way we learn what it is like to live in a community of flawed human beings who in their work and prayers try to make contact with a sometimes very distant God.
Paul becomes Brother Antoine. He works in the library; later loves working on the farm with the milk cows; and still later surprises himself with his abilities as cook for all the monks.
Early on, Antoine is uncomfortable about the rule requiring monks to be present in prayer in the room of a dying monk. He prays that Brother Eli die soon. Then Brother Antoine can get back to his chores and out of the room of death.
On his death bed Eli keeps saying “For 62 years....” The monks tell Antoine to go get the abbot out at the milk barn. Antoine returns with the abbot who expects to hear a final statement before death. Eli tells the abbot that for 62 years he has had to put up with this idiot Father Marie-Nizier. Eli asks the abbot to send his nemesis out of his room so he can die in peace.
The abbot sends the priest to his room. But later, after Eli dies, as Antoine enters the room of the dead brother, he finds Father Marie-Nizier at Eli’s bedside, holding his hand. The priest keeps mumbling: “You old fart, you lame old fart.” And young Antoine volunteers to hold towels and assist the priest who dresses the body of Brother Eli.
As the years pass by Brother Antoine makes three-year vows and eventually final vows. One of the most powerful chapters is called “The Baker Monk.” Here, in great poignant detail that is filled with obsession and darkness and some humor, we see Antoine struggle with an awaking sexual feeling as he decides whether he can choose the vows, especially the vow of chastity.
Women will particularly enjoy the story of “Cello.” Antoine is placed in charge of hospitality toward four Tibetan monks visiting the monastery as part of an international interfaith exchange. Antoine reads up extensively on Buddhism. He fears the monks of St. Norbert will come off as second-class citizens next to his image of idealized Eastern monks.
The monks arrive early because two abbeys of nuns have withdrawn from the itinerary because of difficulty in finding sleeping quarters for the male monks outside of their enclosures. The four monks are quickly shown to their rooms in the male enclosure of St. Norbert. The surprise that eventually comes out is that that the key holy person turns out to be a woman. Now new accomadations are sought.
Much of All We Know of Heaven focuses on the unique characters of the monastery. There is a monk who likes to light fires. There is a monk who collects and hides everything that is thrown away. There is a monk who seems to enjoy killing kittens that are on the monastery’s property. But throughout it all, we see Antoine come to see all of his fellow monks as saints.
Rémy Rougeau writes with the wisdom and realism of a monk who has “been there and done that.” In the tradition of the early novels of Graham Greene he writes movingly of all our quests to come to a loving God. Rougeau gives us lots of room for failure and above all, lots of hope. All We Know of Heaven gives any Catholic a great sense of solidarity with other Catholics. In the best sense of the word Rémy Rougeau makes us proud to be Catholics.
Recently a reader of this column stopped me to tell me that he wanted to see the film Memento. However, his wife refused to go with him because in my review of that film I mentioned that when I first saw the film in May, my sister Patty did not like the film (“Media Notebook,” IR 7/5/01). He reported that his wife said, “It must be a guy film.”
On a recent Sunday I saw the new MGM film Legally Blonde, with a fairly large and appreciative audience of men and women. Later, by phone, my sister told me that Legally Blonde is her favorite new film.
Legally Blonde definitely would fall into the classification of a “chick flick.” If you are looking for a summer confection that has lots of laughs and is very enjoyable, put Legally Blonde on your list.
Reese Witherspoon becomes a star in Legally Blonde as she plays the main character Elle Woods, a wealthy, seemingly superficial Beverly Hills woman who heads off to law school at Harvard. She hopes to reignite her relationship with Warner (Mathew Davis) who has dumped her because she does not fit the mold of a proper trophy wife for the politician he hopes to become.
Well, the ditzy Elle plans to show Warner, “Anything you can do in law school, I can do better.”
Upon arrival at Harvard Yard the fashion-accessorized Elle runs into all kinds of snooty and judgmental students. Her first day in class she is the only student without a computer. She writes notes in a heart-shaped notebook with her glittery pen in the class taught by Professor Stromwell (Holland Taylor from the TV series The Practice). Stromwell picks on Elle because she seems to be the only student that hasn’t read the assignment.
Thrown out of class until she has done her assignment, she suffers from a rare, personal, discouraging moment in the film. A generous and caring young lawyer (Luke Wilson) gives Elle some practical advice. The next day, at class with her orange Apple computer, Elle is ready to show what she can really do.
You can’t keep Elle down as she rushes to a salon to have her nails done as therapy, There she meets Paulette (Jennifer Coolidge) who does her nails. Elie enters into a great subplot in which she helps Paulette gain self-esteem and find a new sense of happiness.
Elle is invited to be a law intern for the famous Professor Callahan (Victor Garber). She becomes a key student intern in her legal/intuitive quest to save a health fitness defendant she had once known, now accused of murder. The rest of the film is centered on the courtroom drama of that case.
Sure — at times the plot of Legally Blonde is more than a bit far-fetched. But Reese Wither-spoon is a fantastic comedian and actress who pulls the film off. I first saw Witherspoon in the critics’ favorite, Election, two years ago. She was excellent then, but now it is obvious that at age 25 she has the potential of being one of the great comedians of our time.
Boston, Cambridge, and Harvard have never been more beautifully filmed than in Legally Blonde. A fine supporting cast, a script with lots of laughs, and a vivacious Reese Wither-spoon make Legally Blonde a fun summer movie for both men and women.
Legally Blonde is rated PG-13. There are a few sexual references and some mild profanity.
(Father Caswell is pastor of St. Rose of Lima Parish, Cheney, and Ecumenical Relations Officer for the Diocese of Spokane.)
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