“My Heart is Full of Love
Even Though Nothing Went As Planned”
A Review of
The Passion of Mary-Margaret
by Lisa Samson
Reviewed by Brittany Sanders
In 2009, amidst a culture dependent on text messages, iPhones and a faster pace of life than ever before, few would consider the lifestyle of a Catholic nun to be more exciting than their own. But in her newest novel, The Passion of Mary-Margaret, Lisa Samson manages to portray a heroine and a story that even the most modern-minded readers will find intriguing and compelling.
From the start, several elements set Samson’s novel apart from (and above) the average piece of Christian fiction. First, there is the non-traditional story structure. Based on the premise of recently discovered memoirs written by the now-deceased religious sister Mary-Margaret, the chapters follow multiple chronologies at once, tracing Mary-Margaret’s life during the time of the writings (at age seventy) while relating the story of her younger years in carefully chosen episodes. This fresh approach provides the double advantage of keeping the reader on his or her toes and avoiding the overused “flashback” technique, which can easily slip from conventional to clichéd. In this way, the plot unfolds not forward, nor backward, but inward, by increasing degrees of clarity. The destination is no secret; it’s the journey that becomes mysterious as readers wonder not “what will happen in the end?” but “how will the end happen?”
Mary-Margaret reveals early on that she has a son, John, but there is no explanation given as to how this religious sister came by her offspring. Left to assume that she will marry, but not yet getting to that point in the story, the reader hangs in an unusual tension—and a unique opportunity for the author to fill in the gaps. Since the heart of the story is the fluctuating romance between Mary-Margaret and her childhood friend, Jude, it is not difficult to guess who John’s father is. But by unfolding the circumstances piece-by-piece while shifting between present and past, Mary-Margaret and Jude’s relationship feels deeper and more meaningful at every turn. To bring them together, the hand of Providence must overcome deeper wounds and darker secrets than anyone would expect. The result is not a surprise ending but a conclusion all the more satisfying for its inevitability. Loose ends are tied up out of impossibly tangled lives, and an elegant and unexpected symmetry appears. This conclusion gives The Passion of Mary-Margaret an old-fashioned, almost classical sense of unity.
In this way, readers learn to view Mary-Margaret’s life story as God views each of theirs, with the beginning known and the end foreseen, while all the muddy details in the middle are lived out day-by-day. No matter how convoluted the picture gets—or how many pieces seem irrevocably mangled, lost, or ruined—the conclusion remains certain because, in a way, it has already come to pass in the mind and will of divine Providence. This perspective gives a unique take on what non-Christians call “destiny,” but with the important distinction that it is not the stars or an impersonal force determining our fate; it is the Maker of the stars, the very personal, intimately involved Creator who knew every day of our lives “before one of them came to be” (Psalm 139:16).
Identity looms large in both Mary-Margaret’s and Jude’s lifelong journeys. Abandoned by their parents in one way or another, they are chased by the past, haunted with its realities and its mysteries. Yet when all the pieces come together, one is left feeling as though things could not have happened any other way. There was a purpose to their pain, a meaning to their suffering that they could not see while they walked through it. But in the end, every sordid secret is redeemed.
Embodying this theme throughout the novel is the literal person of Jesus Christ. To call Mary-Margaret a Christian mystic would be not only an understatement but an egregious misrepresentation. She does not just see and speak to Jesus; she interacts with Him on a profoundly personal level. She hugs Him, laughs with Him, and stares into His eyes, awestruck, even lovestruck, with overflowing affection for her Lord. “I sighed and put my arms back around him. ‘I love you.’ And I laid my head against his chest this time, heard his sacred heart, real flesh and blood, beating in time with the universe, and I heard how much he loved me too” (98).
Far from the spiritual, intangible figure He is often made out to be, Jesus instead becomes a real character, a real person. He is not a figment of Mary-Margaret’s imagination; He is her confidant, her best friend, her fiancée. As she explains over and over again to the skeptical Jude, taking her vows as a religious sister does not mean she foregoes marriage but “gets married to Jesus” instead (87). Jude’s one-word response to this mystical explanation might mirror that of many contemporary Christians: “Semantics.” But as readers will realize after spending some time with Mary-Margaret and her friend Jesus, sometimes what sounds the strangest actually feels very natural.
To communicate the extent of Mary-Margaret’s mystical encounters with Jesus, the author inserts frequent self-doubts—thoughts that amount to “people would have me committed if they knew I was talking to Jesus like this.” But the mystical apparitions of Jesus are presented in such a way that when Mary-Margaret questions her own sanity, the reader is likely to disagree with this self-diagnosis. Still, it would be easy for such a casual Jesus character to feel imaginary, or even sacrilegious. The mystical elements of Mary-Margaret’s relationship with Jesus are only made so accessible (and irresistible) by the author’s talent for making them seem like just another part of the story.
Perhaps there is a new trend in Christian fiction to explore the previously “untouchable” reality of God as a Person. Compare Samson’s work to William P. Young’s The Shack and his imaginative portrayals of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, each with a specific ethnicity, gender, and personality, all for the purpose of moving the reader’s concept of God from “the man upstairs” to a real, living, breathing person. Both novelists are onto something important. Jesus has been described as fully human and fully divine. And if “the Word became flesh” in order to dwell among us, to love us and connect with us in a way that our holy Heavenly Father could not, why don’t we spend more time exploring and expounding on this truth? Why don’t more novels include Jesus as just another character, having conversations, sharing meals, giving hugs, dwelling among His children, just as He did when He walked the roads of ancient Galilee?
As Samson writes in the novel’s opening line, “If I began this tale at the end, you would know my heart is full of love even though nothing went as planned.” Of course, from God’s perspective, everything did go exactly according to plan—the plan of the Creator, not the plans of His creatures. If The Passion of Mary-Margaret has one overriding theme, it is the redemptive power of God’s perfect plan and the reality, as expressed in Romans 8:28, that His grace can convert even the most tragic circumstances into something good.
Brittany Sanders is a free-spirited writer, editor, and poet, freelancing out of Carol Stream, Illinois.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com