At the same time, though, I have been doing intense research into the background of my character Liddy, heroine of Sugar Communion. (You can keep up with my reading progress on Goodreads.) As a doctor (or “hen medic” as they were called disparagingly), Liddy is a woman of science. She is a fern instead of a flower, a point of pride for a practical and methodical heroine.
Epidemics in History
The real world intrudes in on my thoughts quite regularly, and I cannot help but see the historical parallels. In the Sugar Sun series, I have spent a lot of time writing about historical epidemics, like the 1902 cholera outbreak in the Philippines. Under the Sugar Sun begins with a scene of ham-handed American attempts to limit the spread of disease. Though cholera is passed by a bacterium not a virus, the type of stay-at-home/shelter-in-place self-quarantine now in place for coronavirus would have worked better for the Filipinos than the activist (and sometimes racist) policies applied by imperialist doctors. None of this is quite #quarantineandchill material, but there is something to be said for finding the happily-ever-after in times like these. Tempting Hymn is the story of a survivor of that epidemic who falls for a nurse. (She is a double heroine—thank you, medical professionals!)
My Quarantine Life
Like everyone else, I think that I will be intensely distracted this spring. So what am I doing to keep busy and sane? I think the big winners of my quarantine life are the pets.
When I walk the dog, I need to be entertained with engaging stories that have nothing to do with pandemic. I’ve always loved true crime, which is how I found the podcast called Criminal. I’ve learned about everything from arson investigations to mine workers’ union violence in 1922. My favorite episode is Mrs. Sherlock Holmes. Check it out!
Sadly, being home was not enough to save our favorite hen, Shaws. She suffered from a vent prolapse and other complications, which is why our TLC was not enough to keep her with us. She was over six years old and had raised two or three batches of chicks to happy adulthood—all on instinct since Shaws herself had been a mail-order hatchery chick.
I am also cooking a lot more right now. As we had done during my sabbatical, we are ordering from Blue Apron. Normally, with school being in session, I would be fed by my school’s dining hall. (And it is really, really good.) But I welcome the chance to cook again. We are doing well with staples like beans and rice on our own, but fresh vegetables and unique ingredients are two of Blue Apron’s strengths. I notice from the menu choices that lots of people go for the beef dishes, causing those to be frequently sold out. But their vegetarian entrees are absolutely delicious and often our favorites, so I recommend them. They do not have enough choice for strict vegetarians, and they certainly aren’t vegan, but if you are looking for variety to your diet, they are a wonderful (though not cheap) choice. (I think that the pandemic has been good for some struggling businesses, like Blue Apron and Instacart. I hope these companies treat their employees well so that this is a rare pandemic win and not another #covidiot corporation tale.)
I am also reaching way, way back in my own timeline to revive an old hobby: cross-stitching. I’ve been thinking about taking it up again for a while because I need something to do with my hands while I am watching television—and too much Twitter is not good for any of us right now. I cross-stitched a lot during faculty meetings back in the day because we were not allowed to have our computers out in the early 2000s. (I get more multi-tasking done these days, but I have to be honest that I listen less.) Already, after just one night of #Netflixandstitch, I am a happier camper. It’s very zen. And I have some plans for a few amusing pillow projects, after I do something for a friend…
[Update: I not only finished the thing for the friend, but I finished something for our guest room!]
Finally, I have enjoyed creating new series promo (because Canva). I found some great paintings by Auguste Toulmouche that are out of copyright. I repurposed them into fun promo (with proper attribution).
Another artist in the same spirit is Vittorio Reggianini. How can you not love these images? They are more Victorian than Edwardian, but that’s okay. I’m all heart-eyes.
Hope you are staying healthy and safe out there. Remember to wash your hands, stay home, and let’s #flattenthecurve.
Calling all Granite Staters! I will be answering questions and selling signed books all over the southern New Hampshire area this holiday season with my partners-in-print, the Weare Area Writers Group:
What I love best about working these fairs is the chance to talk to readers about what stories they love the best. Check out my fellow authors’ books as well on our group’s website. We have something for everyone’s holiday gift list!
I drove two hours to attend Latin Mass and, predictably, understood not a word. The church was not struck by lightning, though, so I am counting it a win.
Let’s start at the beginning. People say write what you know, and it is good advice…that I do not follow very often. Okay, well sometimes I do: I’ve written two teacher characters so far. My heroines in past and future books hail from Boston (near where I currently live); Fairmont, West Virginia, where my mother moved in high school and the home of my favorite pepperoni rolls; and Columbus, Ohio, where I grew up. I love inserting sports into my historical novels because I am a football and volleyball coach who grew up playing softball and dated a baseball player in high school. Even the hymns used in my novella are favorites from daily singing at the Episcopal school where I teach.
But I have nothing in common with a Roman Catholic priest in 1900. I have written men before, though not celibate men who spent their entire young adult life in the seminary listening to lectures in Latin. When trying something completely different, research matters. I want to write Andres Gabiana as authentically, respectfully, and convincingly as possible.
Where to start? I read. And I read. And I read. You can follow my progress on Goodreads, if you like. What follows is not going to give you any spoilers about the upcoming novel, Sugar Communion. It is more like a stream-of-consciousness book report (which I would admittedly never accept from my own students). Here goes:
I’ve read twenty-two priest and nun memoirs so far. I’ve read three written by priests who, after struggling with celibacy, rededicated themselves to their vows and remained active priests. I have read three written by children of priests and nuns. I have read one by a man who came close to entering the seminary—he lived with religious orders and went on retreats—but ultimately decided against it. Mostly, though, I have targeted memoirs (fifteen of them) written by Roman Catholic priests who left the Church. And, like most of the other hundred thousand American priests who have left, they did so in order to take part in consensual, adult relationships. I really cannot emphasize these last three words enough: Consensual. Adult. Relationships. If marriage is a sacrament and a human right, and the Church says it is, then these priests left to exercise that right.
Sadly, consensual adult relationships with priests are not the average Bostonian’s first thought, but here’s the problem: the priests who sexually abused children in this diocese hid inside the Church. They did not leave it. And that has cost the bishops: nineteen American dioceses have been bankrupted by $3 billion dollars in court judgments, according to the National Catholic Reporter, and all because the Church refused to listen to victims and victims’ families, and instead reassigned these criminals to new parishes instead of turning them into the authorities. Pedophile priests are a small—and incredibly destructive—fraction of those who have broken their celibacy vows. Celibacy does not cause pedophilia. Institutionally, though, it can create the conditions that allow it to thrive, if the seed is already planted: a flawed selection process for priests, sexually immature men in positions of power, a culture of secrecy and shame around sex, and possibly a celibate’s lack of a parental impulse to protect children.
In order to separate my story as far as I can from this pattern, my heroine is a few years older than my priest (both are in their 30s); she is a professional (medical doctor) in her own right; and she is not a member of his parish. Andres is also a good man and a good priest.
He is a good priest, I swear, even by the teachings of the Church itself. Did you know that throughout the first eleven hundred years of Christian history, the leadership—including popes, bishops, and parish priests—could legally wed and celebrate the faith as married men? (I did not know this, either, not until I read two academic treatments from experts A. W. Richard Sipe and William E. Phipps, which are the basis of most of the historical information to follow.) The Jewish tradition celebrated married love and required it of priests and rabbis. Not only was Jesus a Galilean Jew, but his role could be best described as an early rabbi (teacher and scholar). There is evidence that Jesus himself may have been married (and maybe widowed) by the time of his ministry. We know Peter was married. Paul was widowed. Moreover, in the early Jesus Movement, women played significant roles in ministry, church leadership, and funding.
So where did Catholic clerical celibacy and patriarchy come from? Pre-Christian Greek philosophers like Plato and Aristotle. If you didn’t know, these guys were pretty big misogynists, as were most Athenian men. It is from their teachings that early Christian saints decided that male genitals and the whole of women were created by Satan. A female was a defective male, Saint Thomas Aquinas said, quoting Aristotle.
Even worse, once clerical celibacy was required—not until 1139, mind—it inaugurated the most corrupt period in the Church’s history. Marriage was eschewed as foul, while concubinage, pedophilia, and rape were only given mild cautions that were often ignored. Everyday churchgoers needed protection from ravenous clergy that hunted their wives and daughters. Those few priests who wanted to live moral lives by marrying their spouses found themselves excommunicated and their wives enslaved. Schisms and war erupted. It was a nasty time of division and violence, and it was overseen by the men who brought the Church celibacy.
Today Catholic clergy do not even agree upon the definition of celibacy, let alone practice it consistently. At any one time, Sipe says, only about half the clergy in the United States is celibate. What I have learned from the memoirs I have read is that most priests were not given any training at how to be celibate while they were in seminary, other than a few lectures on Eve’s temptations and the corruption of the earthly sphere. They might also be taught the official Catholic teaching on homosexuality as a “disordered” behavior, despite recent studies that have estimated over half of American priests today would identify themselves as gay or bisexual if they were free to do so. The person who first encouraged me to try a Latin Mass is a practicing Catholic who currently lives with his common-law husband, the love of his life, in Arizona. Had this friend been free to be a married gay priest, he would have been one of the very best. Good people of all genders are lost to the priesthood because, for reasons that have nothing to do with their morals and leadership qualities, they are not allowed to apply.
Sexual liaisons are not the only relationships that seminaries restricted, I have learned. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, seminaries did not want their charges to even have close friendships. The instructors monitored who walked with whom between buildings like they were overseeing cotillion dance cards. Nor was a seminarian allowed to remain in close contact with his own family. Trips home—even for weddings and funerals—were very limited. The future priest was the property of the Church and not the other way around. Even after ordination, the vow of celibacy allows this control to continue for a lifetime. Bachelor priests are easier to move without notice, and they have no widows or heirs to claim Church property. Not surprisingly, then, the theme that came out strongest in all the memoirs is loneliness.
By immersing myself in these memoirs, I have been able to live, albeit briefly, in the culture that will shape Andres Gabiana. I took extensive notes, and I even bought a scanner to enter them! Most of what I learned will never make it to the fiction page, but it still helps to set the scene in my head.
Most of the memoirs on my reading list took place during the 1940s-1980s, mostly in the United States and Ireland but also one in rural Brazil. I do not read Spanish or Filipino, which limits my Philippines-based sources. However, many of the orders operating in the Philippines were European-based, and their rules applied internationally. The Church is also a hierarchical organization following its own canons (code of law) applied throughout every diocese.
The Brazilian account exposed one flawed assumption from my previous books. In the provinces of predominantly Catholic countries in the early twentieth century, priests would have been in short supply. No curate would have had the luxury of ministering at one tiny chapel at Hacienda Altarejos full-time. Poor Andres. His job just got a lot harder. You’ll see.
Research itself will only take you so far, though. Some things you have to witness. For example, even if you are Catholic, forget (almost) everything you know about mass. The Latin Rite (pre-1962) is not just in Latin, a language that most laypeople do not understand, but also the priest keeps his back to the congregation the vast majority of the time. Half the time he whispers. The only chance for participation is at communion, which is still not a verbal exchange. I had to see the whole thing in person to understand it, so this Monday morning I went to Latin Mass.
On the face of it, the ritual seems designed to be incomprehensible. I barely saw the Host and never saw the priest consume the sacramental bread and wine. It was like watching a cashier make change from across the room. In a court of law, I could not testify that he actually did it. And, to be honest, that confused me more than the silence. It’s not great showmanship—or is it? Maybe what appeals to people in the service is the mystery: “a religious truth known or understood only by divine revelation.” Awe and enigma have fueled religions from the beginning.
I was most impressed by the server, or altar boy. (It does not have to be a boy, by the way. It can be a layman, a subdeacon, deacon, or another priest. Needless to say, he does have to be a male.) I would say the boy was about the age of my students, going into ninth grade. He had to know more than just when to ring the bell: he had to answer for the congregation since we never spoke. This meant he had to know a lot of Latin, and he had to say it clearly. In fact, I found it easier to understand his elocution than the priest’s because, proudly, he sorta shouted. He did not go to school for eight or twelve years to learn how to manage this mass; he learned his part on his own time. He probably takes Latin at the local Catholic school, but still.
I do not think Roman Catholicism would not have survived as the largest denomination of Christianity these past fifty years if it had stayed so inscrutable, but the Latin Rite does have its attractions—especially for the priest, I imagine. He is also more remote, powerful, and enigmatic. This had to be, at least partly, the draw of a vocation. As all the memoirs made clear, the whole family took on an elevated status in the parish once they had a son in the seminary. (I do not know if this last part is still true because traditional geographic parishes are breaking down in favor of “personal parishes,” or parishes based on nationality, language, or other specializations. The church I went to was a personal parish centered around the Latin Rite, for example.)
I never spoke to the priest about any of my reactions. I never spoke to him at all. He did not seem particularly stern or unapproachable—he was younger than me, probably in his late 20s or early 30s, and he sported a well-trimmed beard. I did not talk to him because he wasn’t standing at the back of the Church shaking hands as people left. Maybe he greets the parish after High Mass on Sundays? I will go sometime to find out, but I am still not sure what I would ask him. I could ask why he chose to be a part of a religious order dedicated to the Latin Rite, the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, but that seems like more than a two-minute conversation.
There’s one place for sure that the mass-goer can talk to the priest: in confession before the service begins. In the memoirs I read, though, most priests disliked confession. It is not the voyeuristic extravaganza you might expect. It’s everyday stuff at best (cursing, gossip, impure thoughts); and it’s troubling at worst (domestic violence) without clear ways to intercede and provide help without violating the seal. Crime dramas centered around confessed murders rarely happen, despite each priest hearing dozens if not hundreds of confessions a week for their entire careers. (Not that anyone wants a murderer confessing to them, of course.) Still, I have a lot of ideas for interesting conversations in the confessional.
Actually, one theme that came from both the academic books and the memoirs is that confession can mire a priest in the muddy sludge of the material world—lust, greed, corruption—for which the seminary’s tight rules do not prepare him. Often he is ordained before he truly understands what he is agreeing to. He goes from not talking about sex at all to parishioners asking questions about sex (e.g. “Is oral sex with my husband a sin?”). At the time that celibacy became a discipline in the Roman Catholic Church, most priests would have lived about ten to fifteen years total after their ordination. Now they live fifty or more. Statistically, the hardest year for priests is the thirteenth anniversary of their ordination, and by this point many priests have reached a crisis.
In the time that Andres will be a priest, it was almost impossible to leave the clerical office. Though it is easier now to be laicized, or “reduced” to the non-clerical state, it can still take years, or even decades, because the Church is very good at burying paperwork. Meanwhile, they are told to stay far, far away from their old dioceses and all their old friends, some of whom have cut them off anyway. Loneliness can beget more loneliness. And despite what you read in the press, there is no such thing as an ex-priest in the Roman Catholic Church. A priest is a priest forever, even if no longer able to receive confessions, which is done on behalf of the bishop. A laicized priest can still administer some sacraments, like the Eucharist and Extreme Unction, but he can no longer serve as deacon (the position he had before ordination). In other words, their status is…complicated.
Let me thank all the priests (and children of priests) who wrote their memoirs. They have been willing to share their most personal thoughts with me, a stranger. It has been a summer of learning. If you have comments on this book report, please join my Facebook group, History Ever After, and post them there. The real test, dear reader, will be writing Sugar Communion, and there my work is just beginning.
It is appropriate to the history of this real hotel that the prequel novella centered in it, Hotel Oriente, be shuttered for a spell. In 1904 the Insular government bought the Hotel de Oriente and turned it into the headquarters of the Philippine Constabulary, the American Circulating Library, the Official Gazette, and the Commercial Museum. It would remain closed to voyagers until the building was destroyed in World War Two.
Unlike the real hotel, though, I will re-open my fictional doors in the near future—maybe after a brief renovation. Moss and Della’s story will not be lost to the world. Until then, you should begin the series where it is meant to be begun: with Under the Sugar Sun. Thank you for your patience!
P.S. Currently paperback copies of Hotel Oriente are selling on Amazon for $869.56, which has to be a money-laundering operation. If you want to spend that much money on a copy, I could hand-copy it like a medieval scribe for you. (No, just kidding. I won’t. But still, that’s ridiculous.)