The following review of Of Bells and Cells by Amanda Evinger appeared in the Summer 2016 issue of The Latin Mass: The Journal of Catholic Culture Culture and Tradition, published by Keep the Faith.
Raising Up Vocations with Of Bells and Cells
I remember when “the day” finally came… I had been waiting two excruciatingly long years to enter the beloved “Carmel,” and it had finally arrived. It was only two years after I left the Calvinist faith of my youth and joined Holy Mother the Church, but I felt as ready as they come. As part of the entrance ritual, I knocked on the door of the Carmel, and the nuns let me in. Stepping into the sacred grounds of the cloister, I was filled with a serenity that is beyond human understanding. They soon walked me to the center of the chapel, where I was to kiss the floor, bloody crucifix in hand. No bones about it—I was aspiring to die a beautiful death to self in the Carmel, and this entrance ritual was there to drive home the message. In the end, my time in the Carmel was short, but it was seasoned with grace, and the rituals I partook of within the cloister walls are still at the heart of my spiritual life today.
In addition to my time in the Carmel, I spent three years living with Mother Teresa’s sisters, and one year with the Contemplative Sisters of St. John. In the end, it was thoroughly discerned that religious life was not my vocation, but I am truly grateful for the years I spent in it. I use the wisdom I gained from it day in and day out as a homeschooling mother of three little ones.
The other day, I received the book Of Bells and Cells by M. Cristina Borges and Michaela Harrison in the mail. When I opened it, I opened a treasure chest of memories from my times in religious life. And the best part of it all was that the book in hand gave me a tangible way to describe these memories to my children. In religious life, Heaven meets earth in a mind-blowing, soul-moving way—but just how do you express that to kids just learning why to pray in the first place? The humdrum of die-hard, continual sacrifice is to be etched into the artwork of our daily lives—as it is so eloquently done so in the priesthood and religious life—but how do you make children who just want to eat marshmallow snowmen get this one? It’s a challenge. That is, unless you have books like Of Bells and Cells around the house for them to graze on.
Personally, I think Of Bells and Cells is something the world of Catholic culture has been yearning for for a long time. In fact, I don’t think there has ever been a children’s book in English that captivates the marvel of religious life with such beauteous illustrations, class and informative charm. As author Cristina Borges comments, “I wanted to write a very systematic text, explaining concepts and terms (a pet peeve of mine is that children are not challenged; they are kept from expanding their little minds through methods that underestimate their capacity …. In times past people in their teens were already studying law). I knew this systematic text would need beautiful illustrations to complement its meaning. It took me 15 years to find the right illustrator, and it was by Providence that I found Michaela, who went well over and above what I asked for, and certainly over what I expected. Deo gratias!”
And the best part of it all is that, as a parent, I will actually be learning something new every time I read it; that is, at least the first 22 times or so, depending on how many times the baby interrupts us. Capturing the essence of the religious life is quite a project for a lay person on the outside looking in, but this book does a stellar job covering the nitty-gritty details of what a religious vocation entails. As someone who spent years in the convent, I can testify to the validity of the descriptions the book highlights.
Impressively, the book even delves into the deeper spiritual aspects of religious life. For example, outlining the gradual steps toward full profession, it explains, “Inwardly, the novice will learn to keep the mind on the things of God, and how to pay attention to what goes on inside his or her heart. The religious must always be watchful against stirrings of pride, disobedience, sloth and other ‘vices,’ and always looking for the opportunity to grow in the reverse ‘virtues,’ especially charity, humility, obedience and diligence.” It goes on to give a clear breakdown of what the vows actually mean, and later clears up the highly misunderstood notions about what religious “do all day,” describing their horarium and varied duties while emphasizing that the important thing is not what they do but what they are.
Towards the end, the book focuses on the priesthood, clarifying that “though many men who are religious are also priests, not all priests are religious.” One of my favorite comments in the book is, “It is beautiful when a priest wears a ‘cassock,’ a long outfit that reaches to the floor, because it reminds us that priests are to be more like strong angels than like men.” And it gives religious and priests the respect so desperately due to them. Regarding priests, the book explains, “The priesthood is a very special state of being. Through the Sacrament of Ordination, God transforms a man into a priest by giving him the power to do certain things for the salvation of souls as if he were Jesus Christ Himself. He does these things in the person of Christ, and because of this he is, as it were, ‘another Christ,’—an alter Christus, as it is said in Latin.”
As a traditionally-minded Roman Catholic, I can’t help but be impressed that Of Bells and Cells also paints the picture of authentic religious orders that hail Tradition, while being faithful to the Magisterium. Outlining their history and touching upon their saintly founders, I appreciate that the book emphasizes the “family” aspect of religious life, describing the various orders, such as the Dominicans, Franciscans and Missionaries of Charity as spiritual families endowed with particular charisms. Drawing attention to this aspect gives a comforting pat to the Italian mama who is sending her beloved daughter to a Dominican cloister… forever. She can kick back, drink some Chardonnay, and rejoice that her kid is going to a loving spiritual family—not just to some eerie “place” that she can’t leave even if she really, really wants to.
And, thankfully, these vignettes on the orders offer details that may be thrilling to a young mind. For example, regarding the Carthusians, the author describes: “Since time immemorial, there have been souls called to live a life apart, alone, concentrating on being always in conversation with God, curbing bad tendencies in their souls, and basically fighting against the devil (sometimes even physically!) and putting demons to flight.”
Furthermore, I applaud the author and illustrator for creating a book for young people that actually has both spirit and substance. Spirit, meaning, it makes you want to pray. Sure, it may not send you into an ecstasy like the Interior Castle of St. Teresa of Avila, but it definitely has a contemplative aura about it. It’s something you’d want to make some tea and read with your children on the feast day of one of your favorite Saints. And substance, meaning, it is a book geared for younger people that doesn’t insult their intelligence. It takes into account their greatness, and their ability to come into touch with what may be a divine call upon their souls.
Vocations, my dear friends, don’t just come out of “thin air.” In God’s infinite wisdom, He allows them to require a free, loving, educated response from a soul. Books like this nourish the intellect with the tools that it needs to make such a response, and spark the soul with a hunger to live a supernatural life, and make the Kingdom of God a reality on earth. As St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta once said, “A vocation is like a little seed—it has to be nourished. You have to keep on looking after it. Vocation cannot be forced. It has to come from above. The person whom Christ has chosen for Himself–she knows.”
Cristina Borges explains that in writing Of Bells and Cells, she had a solid goal. “My hope is that the book will inform people of all ages about this very important and essential aspect of Catholic life, that it will bring people to better understand and appreciate religious life, particularly contemplative life, and thus enrich their lives. And, most importantly, that it will help children (and young people) who have a vocation to religious life, to discern that vocation early and to follow it.”
So, once again, just how do you get a young teenage boy, whose dream is to sit on a beach in Maui, eating Gummy Worms by the pound, wearing Ray Ban sunglasses and admiring the perky, oval shapes of his biceps, to consider a vocation to the priesthood? Easy—slip a copy of Of Bells and Cells in his Christmas stocking before it’s too late!