In these busy days of heeding the call for post-September eleventh normalcy, contemplating how we live can be an effort. Nearly ten years ago, Patricia Hampl wrote about her search for the contemplative life in the travel memoir, Virgin Time, a series of life stories about excursions in central Italy and northern California, interspersed with childhood memories about growing up in Minnesota and being educated at a Catholic girls school.
The book is in three parts: "Faith," which chronicles the hike a group of people make to Assisi; "Miracles," Hampl's reflections about that trip; and "Silence," which records a pilgrimage to a Sierra retreat and concludes that when travel doesn't work anymore, be still. I was intrigued by the book in 1992, as well as today—not so much for Hampl's calling St. Francis "a nutcase" as in persisting in such a view. That takes gumption from any Catholic girl. Mine is not the only criterion for evaluating the book, since in a recent issue of Poets and Writers, memoirist Vivian Gornick provies more solid standards:
"Life stories as memoirs are neither testament nor fable nor analytical transcription,...with the facts of the life experience but with the meaning the writer connects to those facts."
How well does Hampl measure up to Gornick's test?
In Part One, as Hampl begins the hike to Assisi, another hiker asks her if memoirists write from life experience or the imagination. Nonplused by her own answer—"Both!"—Hampl amplifies: "I wrote about the past because I wanted it to be past, not to recapture it." When the hiker wanted more, Hampl had none to give. Instead, she allowed her questioner to do "the only thing left to do," tell her own "troubled tale to the dark." In other words, writing, like pilgrimaging, is taking the journey on faith.
In Part Two, regarding memory, Hampl says: "Memory had always seemed a series of stories, then bits of consciousness, mental fragments, a mind like a camera admitting light, a reunion, a mysterious web of human relationships, and finally the capacity to endure."
In the final section, recounting a week without speaking, Hampl tells about finding the title for her memoir in a passage from Thomas Merton, which she recalled just as the Summer Solstice came to the Sierra:
"It was the instant before things began...the virgin point between darkness and light, when creation in its innocence asks permission to be once again."
Weeping over this immaculate moment, Hamapl uttered what she says was her first prayer: "I can't help [crying], it's how I am." Prayer leaked out of the silence. Silence sifted things out. It sent Hampl into a hush in which she heard her voice. It demanded that she get in there and live with her experiences and imagination. She ended her pilgrimage when "the days soaked me up like a blotter."
I'd say that Hampl meets Gornick's standards. She does not prove her religious faith, nor meet supernatural beings, nor dissect the events of days, so much as she imbues them with meaning. She fills the pages of her book with silence and so provides readers the stillness for telling their own tales.
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