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Virgin Time Summary

(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 that sort of woman.

The walking tour culminates in a rigorous climb to the summit of Subasio, a mountain near Assisi that Saint Francis had climbed. Hampl completes the hike and tour, but she feels that her understanding of spirituality remains incomplete.

In “Miracles,” Hampl spends a few days at the Poor Clare monastery of Santa Chiara. There she meets briefly with a young American nun, Sister Agnes, who has come to Santa Chiara for more intense work with a stronger commitment to ending poverty. Hampl is curious about the sister’s path to contemplation. Before coming to Europe, Sister Agnes was a physician in Detroit, Michigan. She began the process of entering a monastery in Michigan, but backed out. Some years ago, she visited Santa Chiara and unexpectedly decided to pursue taking her vows. Now, Hampl discovers, the young Sister Agnes plans to stay at the cloister of Santa Chiara, simply pursuing prayer and God. As the two women depart, Hampl is surprised to learn that Agnes desperately wants a calligraphy kit, and that, ironically, Agnes’s name before entering the cloister was Patricia. Later, Hampl hears that Agnes has left the Santa Chiara cloisters and returned to Detroit.

Next she meets up with a lively group of nuns and friars who are quick to embrace comparisons to The Canterbury Tales. In contrast with the mostly secular participants who were on vacation on the walking tour, this new group is deeply religious, taking part in the trip as a form of study, contemplation, and reunion. The nuns and friars talk about Saint Francis and Saint Clare as peers who, despite their long-ago deaths, are still part of modern life.

Hampl continues to be intrigued by the decisions and personalities of her traveling companions. Her new roommate, Elsie Pickett, is unhappy with the trip because she thinks...

(The entire section is 1,065 words.)