Saturday, April 03, 2010

159 (2010 #24). The Bread of Angels

by Stephanie Saldaña

Subtitled "A Journey to Love and Faith," this memoir covers the author's Fulbright scholar year in Damascus, Syria, studying the prophet Jesus of Islam. A native of San Antonio, Saldaña is 27, a graduate of Harvard Divinity School, and recovering from a heart broken in Cambridge, when she arrives in Damascus in September 2004, speaking very little Arabic. She finds a place to live in the Christian neighborhood of Bab Touma, and a protector of sorts in the elderly Armenian "Baron" that she has coffee with every day.

Saldaña spends her first couple months taking a crash course in Arabic at Damascus University, and exploring the city. By mid-November, feeling lonely and sad from bad memories from the past, she heads north to Deir Mar Musa al-Habashi, the Syrian Catholic Monastery of Saint Moses the Abyssinian. There she plans to undergo a month of silence and do the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola.

On page 101, Saldaña notes that the Exercises "move through four stages: the Fallen World, Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection," and she has divided her book into four parts with the same titles. Her month at the monastery comprises part 2, the Incarnation, at the end of which she thinks she should become a nun at Mar Musa.

Saldaña then undergoes her crucifixion of sorts as she wrestles with this decision. A visit home at Christmas convinces her she wants a family. When she gets back to Damascus, she is very sick, and the political situation becomes more unstable. She pulls out of her depression while studying the Quran in Arabic with a female sheikh, and later teaches English to Muslim women.

All the while she makes more visits to the monastery as she realizes she has fallen in love with Frédéric, a novice monk there. I could really relate to her statement on page 230: "I grew up enough of a Catholic to know a thing or two about the magnetic appeal young men in the clergy can have for young women," remembering a certain Father What-A-Waste when I was in junior high. Frédéric has not yet taken his final vows, and the attraction is mutual. You don't find out until the end of the book what Frédéric decides to do, and there is a hint of what happens next in Saldaña's acknowledgments at the conclusion.

Some reviews have compared this book to Eat Pray Love, but it's SO much better than that self-absorbed piece of fluff. Saldaña's writing is gorgeous and thought-provoking. For instance, I marked this passage on page 112, when Saldaña has been thinking about some of the awful things that have happened to members of her family: "Now I understand that hell is not being banished from God. Hell is the inability to save those you love."

The dust jacket has a gorgeous front cover and spine. My only quibble with the hardcover's design is the font used for the page numbers; it is difficult to tell 1s, 4s, and 7s apart. I would also liked to have seen some of the author's photographs (and those of others) as illustrations in the book, particularly of Mar Musa and its beautiful frescoes. I think they would have further enhanced her lyrical prose.

I'm not much of one for spiritual books, but I highly recommend this one.

© Amanda Pape - 2010

[This book was received through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. This hardbound final edition will be donated to the collection at my university library.]

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