I would like to recommend Sister Mary Baruch, the Early Years, by Jacob Restrick, O.P. The work is the first of a five book series that follows Rebecca Feinstein and the story of her soul, a story that ultimately leads her to the cloister. The main character, whose religious name is Sr. Mary Baruch, was originally invented by the author as a trope in the homilies he would give to Dominican nuns. In fact, he would use “Sr. Mary Baruch” to explain the different foibles of religious life; as a result, she quickly took on a life of her own. She would come to have her own personality, her own faults, failings, and hidden virtues. The book serves as a sort of backstory to her character, as well as an uncommon view of cloistered religious life.
The book begins in the middle of the last century in New York City. At the start, we follow Rebecca growing up in a somewhat secular, Jewish household. The family enjoys good music and theater, and it would be hard to understand the book without some background knowledge of musicals. Both “The Fiddler on the Roof” and “The Sound of Music,” contribute to the plot as the characters age. Music is a constant point of reference for the plot and for Rebecca, and it is through music that she discovers that she has a soul. In both the dramas of Broadway and in the simple ceremonies of her homelife, we see her come to an understanding of interiority and personal depth.
As the plot progresses, Rebecca is slowly and almost accidentally introduced to Catholic life and belief, all of which resonates with and seems to complete her budding religiosity. The beauty of Catholic art and music speaks to her soul, and it is here that we are shown a simple but very profound conversion. This turn begins with a sense of peace, but it eventually becomes a concrete realization when she encounters the Divine Presence in the Tabernacle. It would be too easy to write a clumsy conversion story, but the account we are given is both slow, and subtle. The story has deep friendship and agonizing loss, and these ultimately lead Rebecca to a series of deeper conversions and a vocation that no one could expect.
There are many reasons to read this book, which has been recently republished by TAN Books:
First, it is a very honest story of conversion and vocational discernment, and it would be helpful to anyone thinking about entering the Church or religious life. The nuns are portrayed with both the foibles of their humanity and the grace of their vocation. I have rarely seen a book that does both with deftness. It is also discreetly catechetical, and it would make a good gift for a friend or family member who is nominally Catholic.
Second, it is a marvelous tour of Catholic New York in the 1950s and 1960s, and readers are treated to a panorama of some of the most beautiful churches in the city.
Third, one of the hallmarks of the book, and the thing that makes it stick out in my mind, is how Sr. Mary Baruch’s upbringing was not completely abandoned but, indeed, found its fulfillment in Christ and his Church. Scripture tells us that “salvation comes from the Jews (Jn 4:22),” but “grace and truth came through Jesus Christ (1 Jn 1:17),” and this book is a concrete example of this.
Fourth, the book is honestly entertaining and hard to put down. It has a kind of quiet humor that deals with small and human things, in a way that almost anyone can relate to.
Lastly, and as it was intended, Sister Mary Baruch, the Early Years has some spiritual gems that are worth the read by themselves. These snippets, often in the forum of a journal entry, help to set up the series to be what is was intended to be: an odyssey of grace.
Photo by Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P. (used with permission)