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Santa Cruz writer’s long spiritual journey leads her to her first novel ‘Consolations’

By Wallace Baine, Santa Cruz Sentinel

Sally Wolfe’s long journey to the publication of her novel “Consolations” began 20 years ago when she was browsing in a used bookstore in San Jose where she worked in the high-tech industry. It was there that she found an old beat-up copy of Thomas Merton’s landmark autobiography “Seven Story Mountain,” first published in 1948.

The book sparked something for Wolfe, which, to her surprise, eventually led her to quit her job, immerse herself in Merton, visit monasteries all over the West and, in fact, formally apply to become a nun herself. And, in time, that journey led her to explore fiction as the best way to make sense of her experience of finding – to use Merton’s language – the “still point” within her soul.

Wolfe comes to Bookshop Santa Cruz on Tuesday, Sept. 16 to discuss the path to “Consolations” (Luminis Books). The novel is centered on the “divided heart” of the nun’s experience. It’s the story of a young novice named Fiona who gives up a promising career in academia to become a nun and what happens when she instead falls in love with a charismatic Jesuit professor of theology.

Fiona, like Wolfe herself, was inspired by the writings and teachings of Merton, a poet and essayist who became a Trappist monk in the early 1940s. “Seven Storey Mountain” and Merton’s many other books eventually established him as one of the world’s most prominent Catholic social activists and thinkers, and was one of the 20th century’s leading figures in the Catholic Church’s reaching out to Asian spirituality.

“The initial thing that you feel from his writing is that he cuts through everything,” said Wolfe, who voraciously read Merton’s books and listened to his recorded talks and lectures. “He’s a poet, so it’s not just what he says, but how he says it. But more than anything, it’s the story that he tells about his life. This isn’t some guy just saying nice words. You’re engaged with what he has done with his life. It’s his own exciting story about how he came to know his own soul and how it turned his life upside down.”

At the time she found Merton’s book in that San Jose bookstore, Wolfe was still far from a newcomer to Catholic faith. In fact, as a child, she had grown up in a convent boarding school, raised by nuns, which considers a positive experience in her life. She was already familiar with Merton and the outsized influence he exerted in the lives of many Catholics.

But at midlife, reading Merton had drawn her back to the world of monastic contemplation. After her grown son left home, she quit her job, sold everything and began a systematic series of long visits with monasteries throughout the West, staying for weeks at a time. She heard the stories of nuns and the decisions they made that brought them to a life serving Christ. She explored her own questioning spirit.

Guided by the example of Merton – who died in 1968 – she soon found herself at Santa Rita Abbey, a Trappist facility in southern Arizona, invited by a sympathetic Mother Superior. “She said, ‘you’re welcome to come here and explore this thing that’s calling you,'” said Wolfe, “and you could just feel the spirit of (Merton’s) work alive there, and that’s what got me.”

Her experience at Santa Rita convinced her to formally apply to the convent to become a Trappistine nun. She was accepted and entered the convent as a novice.

“I entered into the Order,” she said, “but I did not stay. As soon as I had done it, I realized that it was not going to work for me.”

It was both her quest to find the essence of Merton’s teachings and her realization that the nun’s life was not for her that finally led Wolfe to write “Consolations,” several years later.

The setting of a fictional tale was, it turns out, the ideal medium for her to sort out and process what she had gone through in her quest. Finishing the book, and closing the chapter of her life with the Trappist Order, was an emotionally and spiritually cleansing experience, she said.

“It was kind of a creative satisfaction I don’t think I’ll ever have again. It was a pinnacle experience for me.”

 

Wolfe finds the ‘stillpoint’ through writing

By Christa Martin, Santa Cruz Sentinel, 1/20/14

A while back, I was plugging along in a local writers’ group composed of women who gathered once a month to share, critique, and edit each other’s prose. The group petered out but the work these women were crafting didn’t. In our company was local freelance wordsmith, Sally Wolfe, who, in the fall of 2014, will have her first novel, “Consolations,” published by Luminis Books.

The tale follows the lead character Fiona Ingram who joins a monastery and has an intimate relationship with a priest there. The story came to Wolfe after she spent time living in a monastery and studying the work of Thomas Merton whom she calls a “mystic and a maverick.”

“He was friends with Zen monks and Sufi masters, and spent time with the Dalai Lama,” she explains. “He transcended the trappings of a Catholic monk. He taught that there was a silent, deep place in each person’s soul, which he called the ‘stillpoint,’ a place completely untouched and transcendent that we could actually live from, rather than the personality. He made me want to find that place more than anything. The way he has influenced me was that I learned to love the solitude of my own soul, which has supported me in writing and going through hard times.”

Wolfe spent four years writing this book. “I had to learn how to create a story and learn narrative structure, which is really hard; it’s nothing like writing a press release or home page,” she says of her regular day job penning commercial copy for freelance clients. “When I finished ‘Consolations,’ it was like I had swam across the Atlantic. I felt purged and cleansed and felt a sense of completion that I had told the story and said what I wanted to say. That was the best feeling of all.”

Learn more about Sally Wolfe’s work with authors at contentbysallywolfe.com.

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  1. Diane Bayless says:

    Loved your book Consolations. Please let me know of any new books. Thank you.

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