The Hour Before Dawn by Penelope Wilcock

Last night I took another trip to the abbey of St. Alcuin, and I encountered tragedy, sin, horror, and of course, grace.

This fifth book in the series about a community of monks in a fourteenth century abbey begins with atrocity. The new abbot of St. Alcuin Abbey, Father John, recieves word that his mother and sister have been the victims of assault, violence, and gang rape by villagers who think they might be witches. Father John can barely assimilate the news that his mother is dead, and his defenseless sister has taken refuge with the Poor Clares in their convent nearby.

The book is about healing: Father John’s sister Madeleine is a healer, before she becomes the wounded sister in need of healing herself. Father John himself has been the infirmarian at St. Alcuin’s before he became abbot. Now, he, too, needs healing. And the new character, Father William de Bulmer, former prior of an Augustinian monastery who entered this series in the previous book, The Hardest Thing To Do, comes into his own. It is Father William who is the sturdy prop that Father leans upon in his suffering and grief.

I like William de Bulmer so much. He is a hard man, without much concept of grace or mercy, except that which he has received from the monks at St. Alcuin’s Abbey. He doesn’t pretend to understand either or to change when change comes hard for him. What he does do is respond to the love and grace that he has been given with loyalty and stalwart support. William reminds me of a friend of mine. She’s a deeply committed, highly intelligent Christian homeschool mother of 10+ children, but all the fluffy emotional stuff that goes along with that role just isn’t there. Not that she doesn’t have or express emotions, but when you ask my friend a question, you get a straight answer—no evasions, no emotional baggage, not much tact. I like that, but it does rather jolt some people’s equilibrium.

I also like the idea presented in the book that William’s response to the anguish Father John is experiencing is silent listening, for the most part. And this listening response is the most helpful thing to bring healing to Father John’s heart. William doesn’t have any answers for the question of why bad things happen to good people, so he doesn’t give any. He speaks when necessary, but mostly he listens and tries to guide Father John to avoid despair. I try too hard to find answers for all the questions people have when they are mourning and dealing with pain.

I highly recommend the Hawk and the Dove trilogy and this new series, set after the events in the first three books of St. Alcuin’s Abbey. Ms. Wilcock, who is an ordained Methodist minister and the mother of five children. She blogs at Kindred of the Quiet Way.

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