(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Virgin Time is organized into three sections: “Faith,” “Miracles,” and “Silence.” “Faith” begins as Patricia Hampl flies from the United States to Europe to explore the origins of Catholicism. Although raised Roman Catholic, Hampl has been doubtful and confused about the concept of faith. How does one sustain faith? How does one reconcile childhood rebellion with a current need for spirituality? Hampl is interested in prayer and contemplation, especially as practiced by contemporary nuns. Her friendship with an American nun, Sister Mary Madonna (from the San Damiano Monastery near Hampl’s hometown of St. Paul, Minnesota) provides the springboard for the trip. Hampl recognizes the similarities to a traditional pilgrimage; she will be traveling far to visit holy sites.

She begins her trip literally and figuratively in Italy. Hampl has signed up for an Italian walking tour called The Road to Assisi. The tour is based on the nomadic travels of Saint Francis, a prominent saint. In metaphorical terms, Hampl is mimicking Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (1387-1400), in which an odd assortment of pilgrims make their way to a religious site. After a few days of walking, Hampl realizes that she is more concerned with watching her traveling companions than taking notes about what it is like to traverse the old trails of Catholicism. She becomes wrapped up in their assumptions and personalities.

Her observations of her companions segue into memories of influential people. She categorizes her childhood as one of elitism. Parents and authority figures taught her that Catholics are better than people who belong to other Christian denominations and that they were pre-chosen for positions of divine exultation. Along with elitism came rites and rituals that Catholic children were to perform and respect, yet never question. She recalls that her favorite subject in school was literature, taught with fervor by nuns. Her early education in literature was one of the first areas of friction. While Catholic school was pushing her toward the old-fashioned role of the passive and obedient wife, the heroines in literature were anything but...

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(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Hampl, Patricia. “In Memory of Me.” Interview by Maureen Abood. U.S. Catholic 71, no. 9 (September, 2006): 24-29. Hampl discusses writing, her life, and her views on several Christian topics.

Hampl, Patricia. A Romantic Education. Boston: Houghton, 1981. Hampl visits Prague to learn about communism, religion, and her Czech ancestors. A precursor to the similar discovery narrative of Virgin Time.

McCarthy, Mary. Memories of a Catholic Girlhood. New York: Harcourt, 1957. Recounts McCarthy’s struggles after her parents’ deaths in 1918. Worth comparing with Hampl’s first memoir; also considered a classic of the genre.

Ohlson, Kristin. Stalking the Divine: Contemplating Faith with the Poor Clares. New York: Hyperion, 2003. Ohlson accidentally discovers the Poor Clare nuns engaging in continual prayer in a Cleveland, Ohio, neighborhood. Most of the nuns in Hampl’s book are part of the Poor Clare network.

Spoto, Donald. Reluctant Saint: The Life of Saint Francis of Assisi. New York: Viking Compass, 2002. This historical book includes details about Saint Francis’s method of prayer and contemplation, which are a focus in Hampl’s memoir.