Beverly Donofrio, the author of RIDING IN CARS WITH BOYS, writes of her personal journey through pain to an acceptance of the struggles met in this life. It all begins when she is in her 50s at her home in a little Mexican town. Having survived the “flower child” existence of her past life and now settled, Donofrio enjoys meeting with friends, sipping margaritas and listening to salsa music. On that fateful night, she is awakened by a rapist in her bed who says, “I’ve got a knife. Don’t scream."
That one instant changes her world viewpoint. Already experiencing a mid-life crisis, the attack magnifies her fragile psyche. On the Internet, she begins to research possibilities for a monastery to visit, meditate and perhaps become a nun. Shattered by the rape experience, she ramps up her search. An avid Roman Catholic, she has allowed her God vision to decline and take a back seat. Her first published book is an irreverent and messy exposé of a loose moral existence. Now she is desperate to re-establish her religious base.
"ASTONISHED is Donofrio’s extremely personal memoir.... But each of us can glean new awareness from the discipline she follows."
Donofrio describes the rape in vivid detail, perhaps to remind herself that the act is real. Denial, acceptance, anger, rage and, later, forgiveness are the pathways she takes in her journey. As a Protestant, this reader could not fully understand the complexities of her faith, but she opens up her soul-search with wrenching details that even an atheist could appreciate. She seeks a deeper relationship with God, one obtained through meditation, solitude, prayer, repetitious observance of ritual, and, finally, a reverence for the monastic life.
Her pilgrimage begins in Snowmass, Colorado, at St. Benedict’s Trappist Monastery. Here, she stocks a tiny cabin with food and supplies for eight days. Her welcoming escort is the monk Micah, who appears dressed as a cowboy, complete with boots. She bites her tongue, not to blurt out the question, “So, how come you’re not in your outfit?”
The ride for groceries is silent. Clearly, she is uncomfortable with a vegetarian monk. However, she has made a Rule of Life to follow on the pilgrimage: meditation three times a day, exercise such as yoga, eat well, don’t get too much sleep. Each day she sets a time for one-on-one talks with Jesus. Along the solitary path, she discovers time-worn quotes from others who have written of meditation and prayer that sustained them. ASTONISHED is filled with quotations, pronouncements of discovered faith, personal growth, and prayerful witness to her situation.
At St. Benedict’s, she realizes that she really wills herself to love Jesus but questions her ability to do so. To welcome such a relationship means she’ll have to admit to it. This is a revelation.
Donofrio’s next stay is at Nada Hermitage in Crestone, Colorado, an 11-hour trip to the adobe structure of Agape. Sister Kay welcomes her here and directs her to a tiny hermitage called Gandhi, a shabby one-room hut that she will call home. A tiny icon of Mary sits in the corner, appearing to understand the plight of human misery. In the Carmelite tradition, Nada is run by monks wearing dark brown scapulars and a small group of Sisters. Her first night here, Donofrio has a nightmare concerning the rape. After screaming awake, she prays for assistance from the Lord and finally drops to sleep. The worship schedule is less frequent at Nada than at St. Benedict’s, and she’s dubious about expectations after Sunday brunch. Sister Kay approaches her and consoles her fears. She’s the first person to ask Donofrio, “How’s your relationship with God?” In the following days, Sister Kay talks with her, aiding her in deepening faith. Here, the guest feels strength and an urge to belong, to become a novice nun.
But Donofrio's pilgrimage continues on to Missouri for communion with an elderly group of Benedictine nuns trying to keep their monastery afloat. In Casita, two weeks before Christmas, she learns about service to humanity from Sister Estrella, who has experience in aiding childbirth. Prayer dominates her daily need to serve and find love through service. Finally, Donofrio travels to the Desert House of Prayer in Tucson, Arizona for her final absolution. Sister Jenny is her confidant in the desert. Here, she learns that she can know but not understand God.
ASTONISHED is an extremely personal memoir. While Donofrio's search for trust through deepened faith will be best absorbed by Catholic readers, each of us can glean new awareness from the discipline she follows. To learn if she becomes a novitiate, one must read her story.
Reviewed by Judy Gigstad on June 21, 2013