remy rougeau:
 all we know of heaven (houghton mifflin)
I can see it now…sitting on the porch of an old farmhouse surrounded by a beautiful bucolic setting with not a care in the world. It’s not unusual to dream about leaving our busy world behind and living in a peaceful place. But it is typically a short-term sentiment that soon passes without us taking steps to exclude ourselves from the world on a long-term basis. That is one of the reasons that I found All We Know of Heaven so fascinating.

As the story begins, Paul Seneschal is a young man struggling for direction and purpose in life. Through an unusual set of events he gradually comes to believe that he has finally found his life’s work with an order of monks behind the walls of the St. Norbert Abbey in rural Manitoba. Paul obtains permission from the Abbot to join the brotherhood and immerses himself in the centuries-old culture built on silence, prayer, and hard work. However, in a very short time his goal to obtain peace is derailed as he finds his brothers constantly defying his preconceived notions of service and holiness. Little does he realize these situations are just the beginning of disappointments and wonders along his journey to his place in the World.

All We Know of Heaven continues from Paul’s initial decision to become part of the St. Norbert Abbey through many unique experiences of truly becoming part of his community. During this process he constantly struggles with many aspects of the order including poverty, chastity, obedience and the important life decisions each entails. Applying these tenets are not made easier by the human failings of his fellow monks that run the gamut from the French-Canadian brother that physically attacks anyone not speaking French to the brother that enjoyed fire to the point of burning down half the abbey.

Paul’s passage from dissatisfaction to serenity is a wonderful journey and one from which many lessons can be learned. I found myself delighting in the revelations revealed in the simple pleasures encountered throughout his life within the abbey. His gradual realization of the joy and rewards of hard work in the name of our Creator was very moving. In addition, Paul’s story is a strong reminder to enjoy your community of family and friends and focus on the blessings of what you have rather than the things you lack.

By viewing my life under the microscope of Paul’s experiences, I have found myself worrying less and enjoying more my own place in life. I suppose you could say it helped me find a tiny piece of heaven on earth.

Charlie Bradshaw
In Rémy Rougeau’s semi-autobiographical first novel, we get a rare glimpse into the monastic life of a Cistercian brotherhood in Manitoba, through the eyes of the main character, Antoine. The book centers around his life’s journey – from undecided 19-year old college student whose outspoken mother can’t understand why he wants to throw his life and her grandchildren away, to novice reluctantly surrendering his hair and given name, to mature brother more at peace.

Don’t expect a ‘superhero of the faith’ – he describes many human struggles, from doubting his calling, to disinterest in the six daily prayers, to an entire chapter on his struggle with sexuality (note there are no women in a monastery). In short, in seeking enlightenment, Antoine wrestles with temptation like anyone else.

Along the way we meet many interesting characters. Just one of those is an older brother whose usefulness has passed him by and on the edge of senility turns to pyromania (at the peril of everyone). We meet a gossiping gatekeeper that serves as the monastery’s public relations director, and a rambunctious young novice that makes his last mistake of antagonizing one of the bulls. The highly respected Abbott is the spiritual leader, and the only one that is allowed to have a radio.

The monastery is a working farm, with dairy cows to milk, pigs to feed, corn to grow, and cheese to make. There is a vow of silence, so the brothers communicate most of the time using very limited sign language. Life is not easy – a common dormitory, prayers at three in the morning, cold toast for breakfast and oatmeal for dinner, and hard work all day. It’s not a life for everyone, and it’s interesting to observe how Antoine really is suited to it.

All We Know of Heaven gives us access to a secretive order of life that most will never experience. It is evident that the author’s plainer language has been ‘spruced up’ in parts by editors (they should have left it alone), but overall it is an enjoyable journey inside another world.

Jonathan Byler

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