“60 Minutes” recently televised a story about the monks of Mt. Athos, Greece, also known as the Holy Mountain, the center of Eastern Christian Orthodox monasticism. Friends who saw the news segment commented,“I want to go there,” and I heard in those words a desire for the kind of peace known to those who pursue the monastic life.

For myself, that desire is the reason I read books about the monastic life, or memoirs about spiritual journeys, such as Kathleen Norris’s The Cloister Walk and Acedia; Nancy Maguire’s An Infinity of Little Hours: Five Young Men and Their Trial of Faith in the Western World’s Most Austere Monastic Order; and Ari L. Goldman’s The Search for God at Harvard.

So here, a few weeks back, I’m writing about Andrew Krivak’s debut novel The Sojourn and learn Krivak once pursued a calling to be a Jesuit priest and wrote a memoir about the journey called A Long Retreat: In Search of a Religious Life. I headed to the library and borrowed it.  The book sat on a chair unopened for so long I had to renew it, too busy with other books to give it time. Until this week, when I read it late into several nights, immersed in Krivak’s story and my own reflective response, similar to that experienced in the other books I mentioned – a removal from and rising above the small (Did I walk the dogs? Pay the bills? Return that phone call?) and into the larger questions of life, as Krivak struggles to know himself.

A small difference with this memoir, compared to the other books:  The author’s moodiness hangs over A Long Retreat, a kind of brooding and frustration over those larger questions, especially over the lack of compact answers to erase his doubt about whether or not to become a Jesuit. But then, Jesuit formation is not an easy path to walk. It involves years of scholarly study, teaching and ministry, which Krivak thoughtfully and vividly illustrates, so we see not only the joy of the formative process, but also its emotional rigors of loneliness and anxiety.

During his eight years of study and work, Krivak lived among the very poor in the Dominican Republic; studied in Russia and Slovakia; served as a chaplain in a hospital ward of HIV/AIDS patients; and instructed university philosophy students, struggling himself with the questions of life purpose he taught in the class. He writes:

“Who are we? What ought we to do with this life? Is there something rather than nothing? And why, in the end, should it even matter? If only those students knew, then, that I was as wracked to find the answers for myself as they were to find the answers for the exam.”

We know from the book’s first page that Krivak does not take final vows, by reference to his wife Amelia, but the ending is still a surprise, as he unravels and deciphers the complex reasons that drove him toward the profession. And yet: “How simple it should have all been. The Spirit calls, the man says yes, and the life that’s lived is a fine one, austere, yet somehow heroic. It has its up and downs, the poignant tests … but anyone in any life could say as much.”

The Sojourn is a literary work of astonishing power and breadth in just under 200 pages. It spans continents (America to the Hapsburg Empire) and centuries (1899 to 1972) and engaged me with its careful and formal narrative voice that speaks with a longing to comprehend past love and loss. 

This primarily is a war story but also a coming of age novel. Jozef Vinich is looking back at his life, from 1972 to a beginning in 1899 when his mother tragically died in a Colorado mining town. His father, Ondrej, in 1901 brings his American-born Jozef back to the old country, where he tends sheep in Austria-Hungary’s Carpathian mountains. There Ondrej raises and educates not only his son Jozef but also the son of a distant cousin, using the disciplined, empowering ways of living and surviving outdoors.

When the boys — close as brothers — join the Austro-Hungarian army in 1916, they are among the elite sharpshooters, chosen not only for their excellent marksmanship but also for their ability to endure hardship. Trained to be invisible and silent, they work together on the southern front, the mountain borderland with Italy. The descriptions of their war missions are thoughtful and precise, but as I tried to visualize their long hikes and Alpine journeys, I wished for a map of Europe during the war for better understanding. The story is too good to be adversely affected by this hiccup, which I remedied with Web searches and also turning to Russell Freedman’s The War to End All Wars on my bookshelf.

The Sojourn is Krivak’s first novel but his second book. In 2008, he published a memoir about his eight years pursuing and then leaving the Jesuit priesthood. It bears mentioning not simply as literary biography for the author, but because Jozef Vinich sees and hears with eyes and ears uniquely attuned to spiritual presence. It is a subtle touch in this impressive novel that inserts itself in moments of thought or dialogue with authorial wisdom and insight. Such as in the moment when Jozef reflects: “Why, then, as I watched with a kind of reverence my brother’s becoming, could I not see the arc of my father’s fall?”

Jozef finds his way home after the war via a prisoner of war camp in Sardinia. He arrives at his Carpathian village only as a byway to America, “the country in which I was born but had never belonged.” The book’s conclusion is one of hope for Jozef, who has journeyed from darkness and fear into his life’s greater meaning and purpose. A sparkling clarity washed over me as I said good-bye to this captivating narrator, and I recognized his redemption.

%d bloggers like this: