March 25, 1967Mary Clare O'Brian is the heroine in this middle grade novel set in Littleburg, Wisconsin, in the late 1960s. Throughout the book, Mary Clare writes the Reverend Mother asking questions, questions, and more questions. Questions about the civil rights movement, questions about the war in Vietnam, questions about the protesters, questions about the feminists or the women's liberation movement, questions about birth control, questions about Vatican II, questions about the faith, etc. Some of the questions are theoretical; some are practical. Many are personal and reveal how this sixth grader--soon to be seventh grader--is dealing with all the changes in her life. Her mom and dad are fighting all the time. Her dad can get very angry at times--and hard to deal with. And her mom? Well, her mom is not the same since her latest pregnancy. She's miserable. She's always reading Betty Friedan's Feminine Mystique and either crying or getting angry. And her brothers and sisters, well, they prove that you cannot go a day without sinning.
Dear Reverend Mother,
My name is Mary Clare O'Brian. I am in sixth grade and I am writing because I want to become a Good Shepherd nun. I like the Good Shepherd runs best because you work with unwed mothers and their babies. I love little babies.
I have lots of experience with kids. God gives my family a new one every year even though we have more than we can handle now. Everyone says that I am very mature for my age because of how well I take care of my little brothers and sisters. Also I'm a good leader. The nuns at school can be really strict and when I'm in charge of the little kids at home, I have to be strict lots of times.
I saw The Sound of Music where the Mother Superior helped Julie Andrews face her problems. I could do that. Everybody tells me their problems, and I'm good at solutions.
At the start of the novel, Mary Clare knows one thing for sure. She is destined to be a saint. And since the first step to being recognized as a saint is to be a nun, she's decided that will be her holy vocation. She's even decided that she'd love to become a nun after completing eighth grade. She reckons that will be soon enough. (She wants to become a nun before she starts liking boys.)
But Mary Clare is going to try her best right now to be a saint. She sees it clearly in her mind. Has a list of do's and don'ts. Knows exactly what she needs to do to earn her sainthood. But no matter how hard she tries, she can't go a day without sinning. (She's very precise about it. Keeps a tally of everything.)
If you take theology out of the evaluation, if you think of it merely as a book written about the late 1960s, this turbulent, anxious time when there were more questions than answers and many things seemed to be turned upside down, then Saint Training is an interesting and entertaining read.
In other words, the problems I had with Saint Training are all theological. I was disappointed with Saint Training, if I'm being honest. I expected better theology from Zondervan. I really did. I think if it had been published by any other publisher--any secular publisher--I would not have had such high expectations. I would have been happy with what the novel was and not felt as frustrated with what it was not.
Mary Clare believes in works salvation--that is that doing good works gets you into heaven. If you don't do enough good deeds on earth, well, you spend some time in purgatory. Mary Clare believes in sin, and believes in hell. But sadly, she doesn't know that no one can earn their way into heaven. That there was ever only ONE person who was perfect. That it is the sufficiency of Christ in both cleansing us from OUR sins and clothing us with HIS righteousness that makes heaven a reality for believers. We need both. We desperately need both. It's not enough to believe that Jesus died for the world, to save the world from sin, if you don't take that necessary next step. Without Christ's righteousness covering us, clothing us, without his righteousness being counted as my righteousness, then it's incomplete. It's not Christ's death on the cross + my righteousness = ticket to heaven.
I'm not blaming Mary Clare. I'm not. She just didn't know about grace. She tried her best to be righteous. She did. She prayed to the Virgin Mary regularly. She closeted herself with her glow-in-the-dark saints. She spent time looking at her collection of angels. She cherished her First Confession booklet. She confessed her sins weekly and kept a careful tally of it all so she could do penance for everything. She tried to witness to her protestant friends to show them the true faith. She gets an A for effort, for straining to reach that level of perfection, that level of righteousness. But. It's just not enough. It could never be enough. I wanted to reach out to Mary Clare. I wanted to tell her about grace. I wanted to tell her to trust in Christ for it all. That God declares us righteous because of His Son.
I'm not sure I should be taking my fiction so seriously.
© Becky Laney of Operation Actually Read Bible