Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Review: The Oblate's Confession

Book Cover: The Oblate's Confession by William Peak The Oblate's Confession by William Peak
Published December 1, 2014 by Secant Publishing
Source: NetGalley

England, the 7th century. Petty Anglo-Saxon kingdoms make war upon one another and their Celtic neighbors. Christianity is a new force in the land, one whose hold remains tenuous at best. Power shifts back and forth uneasily between two forms of the new faith: a mystical Celtic Catholicism and a newer, more disciplined form of Catholicism emanating from Rome. Pagan rites as yet survive in the surrounding hills and mountains. Plague sweeps across the countryside unpredictably, its path marked by death and destruction.

In keeping with a practice common at the time, an Anglo-Saxon warrior donates his youngest child to the monastery of Redestone, in effect sentencing the boy to spend the rest of his life as a monk. This gift-child, called an oblate, will grow up in the abbey knowing little of his family or the expectations his natural father will someday place upon him, his existence haunted by vague memories of a former life and the questions those memories provoke.

Who is his father, the distant chieftain who sired him or the bishop he prays for daily? And to which father, natural or spiritual, will he owe allegiance when, at length, he is called upon to ally himself with one and destroy the other? These are the dilemmas the child faces. The answers will emerge from the years he spends in spiritual apprenticeship to a hermit who lives on the nearby mountain of Modra nect – and his choices will echo across a lifetime.

My Thoughts

The story in The Oblate's Confession is delivered in first person by Winwæd, an elderly monk, who says, “I write under obedience: Father Abbot has ordered me to give an account of the events that led up to my sin.” And thus his story begins with Winwæd's arrival at a small monastery in Northumbria. He's been delivered to the monastery as a gift from his parents. Such a gift child was referred to as an oblate, and shared the life of the monks.

William Peak has written an exquisitely crafted novel. Although set in a wild and remote area of northern Great Britain and a dark period in medieval history, it shines with the richness of detail in the seemingly unimportant daily activities in the monastery. The pace of the book is slow and thoughtful. So slow that at times I set it aside to read something else and then returned later. But as I got into the story more, I saw that the slowness was deceptive. Like a slow-moving river, there were depths to Winwæd's narrative that needed time to sink in.

The elderly oblate tells of his early years in the monastery, and eventually comes to the great sin which he committed. Along the way, we meet those who played such a prominent part in his life, especially Father Gwynedd, the hermit living on the mountain above the monastery. “Prayer and work, the monk’s simple call; but Gwynedd’s work is his prayer.” Winwæd becomes servant to Father Gwynedd, carrying supplies and prayer requests to the hermit once a week.

It is Father Gwynedd's lessons on contemplative prayer which touched me most. I kept highlighting passages that I wanted to return to later.

When you pray—when you pray as I am teaching you to pray—you must warm the wax of your mind, allow the heat to erase your thoughts, allow it to erase your thoughts one by one. And then you must wait. You must wait quietly, absently, while God writes what He will. And what He wills, of course, is Himself. What you will read, encounter, is God.

The Oblate's Confession was one of the first books which I received from NetGalley. I think one reason why it caught my eye was because I had recently discovered the Brother Cadfael Medieval mysteries and was enjoying reading about this period in English history. While totally different in tone and pace from Brother Cadfael, this book did not disappoint.

When I first finished reading The Oblate's Confession, I felt very confident that a rating of three stars was the right assessment. But as I had time to think more about the book and look back at some notes as I was writing this review, I realized that it was deserving of a stronger endorsement. I'm raising my rating to four stars.


Note that I received a free copy of The Oblate's Confession from the publisher via NetGalley in return for an honest review.

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