I found this epistolary novel through the Christianity Today 2022 book awards, where it received honorable mention for fiction. The glowing reviews on Amazon countered my usual reluctance to order a book sight unseen. As a very casual birdwatcher (and keeper of pigeons), the idea of bird-watching nuns intrigued me. As the author of an unpublished epistolary novel, the format hooked me. And references to coffee, cancer, and marriage reeled me in.
Most significant, though, was the cover copy’s promise to engage with “life’s most piercing, penetrating, unanswerable, tender, humanizing questions.” And the meditations of Sister Athanasius did, indeed, address issues of import to me. For a woman like myself approaching fifty, grappling with questions purpose and vocation is almost axiomatic. The prospect of a nun in her seventies entertaining such concerns struck me as novel.
After all, what could be more worthwhile than devoting one’s life to divine worship and service? But after decades in the convent, Sister A feels she alone among her sisters lacks a clear vocation. In her self-deprecating voice, she offers very human descriptions of her quirky yet earnest co-monastics and their areas of expertise. The correspondence meanders, as letters are wont to do, through contemplations on suffering and hope, accounts of convent life, and the history of Sister A’s calling to it.
Copan delivers only one side of the exchange between the nun and the laywoman, Miriam, who has recently been diagnosed with cancer. The latter is struggling with her marriage and has written to inquire about the life of faith. But ultimately it is the working out of Sister A’s concerns that become the book’s focal point. [Spoiler alert: resolution of internal conflict ahead.] In the end she comes to recognize what I regularly repeat to myself: that “calling” constitutes not just the profession by which we earn a living and gain status in the world, but all the roles we play in the lives of those around us.
As its epistolary form and monastic setting suggest, Little Hours does not offer breathtaking suspense or action packed pages. What it does provide, like monastic life, is companionship for those who desire to orient themselves around things that matter—even in small ways.